Over five years in the making, Alan Wake's development cycle has been protracted to say the least. But now the wait is almost at an end as the game's release is almost upon us.
To celebrate, we caught up with Remedy's Oskari Hakkinen to chat about the upcoming game, it's 'psychological action thriller' remit and why it took so damn long to finish.
Strategy Informer: Was there a particular novel that influenced Alan Wake and did you always have an idea of the type of atmosphere that you wanted to capture?
Oskari Hakkinen: There are obviously a lot of pop culture influences in Alan Wake and we take a lot of influences – not so much from other videogames - but from other aspects of popular culture. From books, graphic novels, movies and from TV series. Lost was an inspiration for us, not so much from a plot perspective, but what Lost does in a really cool way is a thriller in a TV-style format, and they also use pop culture references as well. But Lost in that respect, and obviously we tip our hat to some of the greats like Hitchcock with The Birds. You'll have seen the birds attacking in the demo you played. Some of the things you'll see... We have a hedge maze in the game. That's obviously from The Shining. There's certainly - in some respects - echoes of Twin Peaks. It's set in the Pacific Northwest, where we did a lot of specific on-site research. We travelled around about 3000 miles throughout that and the Oregon area, Seattle area, Crater Lake. The Cauldron Lake in our game is vital like in the Pacific Northwest.
We took over 60,000 research photos and we had people in there... We wanted to get this level of authenticity and when you're building a thriller, what you want is to have everything feel very realistic and authentic, and then you can add that layer of supernatural on top of it. Without that base layer of authenticity, it's hard to layer the supernatural elements on top. So, we did a lot of research. We had people camping out in the woods in the Pacific Northwest just recording ambient sounds, so Microsoft love us and they're in Seattle, so we did have moments during the development where we had to report to Microsoft Game Studios and say, “can you go camping and record us some owls? And what's the weather like there?” And they know, when we ask them what the weather is like, that something is gonna come up. If we're wondering if it's windy, then okay, we're going camping.
Strategy Informer: What was the most important thing that you wanted to nail down from a gameplay perspective for Alan Wake?
Oskari Hakkinen: Well this is a Remedy game, so you know some of our previous work and we do have some of that cinematic, movie-like action. In the Max Payne games we had bullet-time and we pushed the envelope with that, so we wanted to keep some of that heritage. With bullet-time we were doing some of that cinematic action, so we wanted to keep that sort of element because we realised we're on a winner with that one, but we wanted to move onto something else. So what we've done is kind of evolve those ideas into a thriller, and made them work in a thriller. Now there's no bullet-time, per se in Alan Wake, but there is slow-motion and use of cameras. In a thriller, you have for instance that moment of the hunter and the hunted. When you saw the birds attacking Alan in the demo, we pulled the camera back to accentuate that moment and it gives you a bit more reaction time, because you can see the birds coming into you but you also get that enhanced thriller moment. So, we wanted to evolve use of cameras, use of cinematic moments and apply it to something that's a completely different concept, but keeping an identity as a Remedy game.
Strategy Informer: Can you tell us more about the production of the game and the reasons behind the delays?
Oskari Hakkinen: This has been a labour of love and it's been a long, long process. I mean we've been in development now for five years. We're a relatively small team – we're about 50 people, which is small for a studio and we were in a fortunate position after Max Payne and we had the time to really sit down and think about what we wanted to do with our next project. So, we took a lot of time just getting the concepts right and the kind of ideas we wanted to bring to the table. And then after that we realised we wanted that level of authenticity that I've talked about. We did a lot of research as well and prototyping, and Remedy's thing is always the character driven story experience, so I'd say writing the story, building that character – there's been a lot of escalation there from the character side as well. I mean three years ago, Alice and Wake were engaged and during that time, they've had time to get married. But yeah, just getting that level of authenticity there from an environment, and I think the environments look great now.
But the characters are more than just cardboard cut-outs. In a thriller, you need to have sympathy for the characters and that's why we have different types of characters from comic relief to characters in the town that have different motives as to why they're there. As I say, that makes them more than cardboard cut-outs and gives them personalities. We've gone quite far on Alan Wake himself, giving him a real personality, so in the game there are actually TV screens, which is exploration content that the player can choose to watch. We have live actors on those TV screens, and one of those is the live actor who we modelled Alan Wake after, and there's a talk show in there - like a Jay Leno talk show – from a few years ago for Alan, when times were a lot happier, he could write and he was very successful and his books were doing well. So, we put real depth into our characters and that takes a long time as well. Hopefully when people play the game, they'll see the level of detail we've gone for in Alan Wake, and see the reason why it's taken five years. You're only as good as your last game, and we were in the fortunate position where we didn't need to get a game concept half done and then just release it. We wanted to see it through to the end and now we're really confident showing off the game.
Strategy Informer: Alan Wake, as we all know, is an 'psychological action thriller'. Was it tough striking the right balance between action and psychological horror?
Oskari Hakkinen: Yeah, this is a story-driven experience, but at the same time a lot of people buy a Remedy game for the action, because we always have a unique action element there. Everybody that plays the game is gonna get into the story, but those who want to get more of the story have the option give to them. We have manuscript pages and TVs and radios in the game that give you a lot of extra story content, so there's a hell of a lot of story there that's optional. Then from an action perspective, they'll get a little bit of the story so they can just get on with enjoying the action, but then even the action is tied tightly into the story. One of the great tools we've got is Wake's own inner monologue, so he doubts himself and ponders what's going on, and what that can do for us is seamlessly join the story to the action. After an intense action scene, Wake might say to himself that he still has a feeling of doubt, and that's just a great way for us to merge the action sequences with the story.
Strategy Informer: Are there any moral decisions or branching story paths in Alan Wake?
Oskari Hakkinen: There's a lot of exploration stuff that I've already talked about and with that, the player can choose how they want to pace the game, but we consider ourselves storytellers in a way, so if you think about back in the day, you'd all be sat around a campfire and you had somebody who was great at telling a story, and they'd tell that one great story. Well, our campfire is the Xbox, so we just want to tell that one story, so there are no deviations from the plot. The story will stay the same and there's no branching narrative either - it's tightly paced and very smart, but there's a lot more to learn if you want to learn it.