On our recent visit to Remedy's HQ in Helsinki, we grabbed a quick chat with Sam Lake – the writer and creative director behind Alan Wake, and the face of the legendary Max Payne. Read on to hear the man's thoughts on delays, TV's influence on the new game, and the risks taken by Heavy Rain.
Q: This game has been in development for roughly five years. Has the game changed much during that time?
Sam Lake: Yeah, naturally. The high-level vision of the game has pretty much remained the same from the beginning. We wanted a main character who was an everyman. We knew that we were making an action game, but we didn't want to make an action hero – we wanted an everyman who has to grow into the role of an action hero. Also with our previous games, with Max Payne 1 and Max Payne 2, we had been using voice-over narration as a storytelling tool, and we knew we wanted to do something with that in our next game as well, but wanted to do certain things differently. We decided that we wanted a natural storyteller as the main character, and that's where we got the idea of using a writer and his writings coming through. He's a natural storyteller in the game, and it's his story. So those ideas were there very early on, and we also knew that we wanted to make a thriller as opposed to a horror game. When you talk about horror in relation to video games, it's very common for people to think about blood and gore and monsters, and we wanted to do something more stylised than that, something that involves a mystery and building the atmosphere, things like that. So we felt that a thriller would be an excellent way to go. We also knew that we wanted a small-town setting, an all-American idyllic small town, a slightly quirky feel and dark things hiding underneath. Those were the ideas that came aboard very early on.
The story itself, the actual plotline, has moved around and evolved along the way. Certain characters have been there from the beginning but their role has shifted to fit the final game. Also, from the gameplay side, early on we were prototyping different things. We knew we wanted to use light and darkness as main gameplay elements but we were testing different things out. [There were] more roaming, open concepts early on, and with those quite quickly we came to the conclusion that... since we wanted to do a thriller, and we wanted to make a good thriller with a tightly-paced plotline, we saw that we would have to make too many compromises in too many areas to get these two ideas together.
Q: Was the dark and light something you had on board from the beginning, or was it the case that tech changes over the last four years allowed you to say, actually we can do this now – we have the right shaders and so forth.
SL: We wanted that to be part of the game, and naturally along the way we have been prototyping different ways of doing it until we settled with the final concept of dark presence taking over...
Q: And when was that?
SL: Well... I'd say a couple of years ago. So there were different prototypes along the way, and there was polishing of the ideas until we found a good match and good fit that we were happy with.
Q: Five years is a long development period, even by video game standards.. Was it inevitable that the project would take this long, and do you feel frustrated when this, rather than the game itself becomes the focus of media attention?
SL: I think that it's a compliment really, because to me it means that people are looking forward to actually getting to play it. We are eager to get it out there as well, of course. No, it wasn't something that from the early days, when we were starting the project, we weren't thinking, "In five years time it's got to be done". We were in a happy position where we could begin by prototyping different ideas, see where we would be going and what fits and what works and what doesn't. Many developers are not able to do that – they really need to get it done very fast. So it was a good thing, but the project hasn't been the straightest journey from the beginning to the end. There has been shifting around along the way, developing certain prototypes quite far and then deciding, no we are not happy with this, this is not what Alan Wake needs to be, and then shifting to a new direction. All of that takes time. But that said, we are a relatively small team when you look at other developers working on games of similar scope, and we do our own technology and engine and tools, so it takes time.
Q: Were you ever concerned that the delay could impact on the way the game is received? Is that something that ever keeps you up at night?
SL: Not really. There are many games out there that, from the perspective of gamers who are eager to get their hands on them, are delayed – even if that's not really the case. With us, for example, we had never announced the date it would be out. Of course, those dates somehow appear from somewhere, and then the feeling is that the game has been delayed. But I don't think that when the game is then out there, and people get their hands on it, that people really look back and think about how long it took. They're just playing the game and deciding whether they like it or not.