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.
Q: Let's talk about the story. Why Alan Wake? - and don't say "Awake"! And please don't say that the plot is going to just be that he's been asleep. Why a hero called Alan, and where do you draw inspiration from when it comes to your story?
SL: With the Max Payne games, we felt that what we do with a Remedy game is a story-driven experience, but also a very character-centric thing. There's a main character, and everything really revolves around him, so it made sense to name the game after the protagonist. And when you have a character who has a name, but you also have a game and you need to have a good name for the game, you need to combine these things - and that naturally limits, or at least directs, the way you name the character. And with Alan Wake, I have to say "Awake" because that's part of the naming of the game, it relates. I said that we wanted an everyman at the same time, and we didn't want to name him so that he sounds like an action hero. We wanted a normal, real person.
Q: But is he actually a normal person? He's quite famous, and famous people live in the public eye...
SL: Well, when I say "a real person" I mean a character who is deeper than characters normally are in action games. And that's what we set out to do, to build Alan Wake into a character who has a background, who has flaws and problems in his life, and he is normal in that sense. That was our goal from the very beginning, to not make him perfect, and not just one-sided.
Q: What's your opinion on the issue of balancing story and gameplay? Heavy Rain is an example of a game which arguably places the former ahead of the latter, and it's been met with scepticism from some corners as a direct result. what's your feeling on that balance?
SL: I definitely feel that there needs to be a balance between the two. You can go either way, and you can have an action game with no story at all, really; I don't think that with action games you can do it the other way around. But the balance is very important, and for the story we are looking for inspiration in pop culture in general, other mediums than video games - movies and TV series and books. We wanted to make a character, and we also wanted to make a story that would be interesting to hardcore gamers but also people who wouldn't normally be playing an action game. That was a very important thing for us, but at the same time there needs to be gameplay and there needs to be depth in gameplay and escalation, and it needs to be interesting for people who play action games. So you need to have both, and it's not easy to keep that balance. It's very easy to go too far into either direction, and it changes along the scope of the game. In the beginning the situation and the balance is different from at the end, because the gameplay and action escalation needs to be there.
Q: Do you think there's a risk then that if you favour story too heavily, that can hurt a game? That it can almost stop it from being a video game?
SL: I don't know. I find it very, very interesting to see how they have done it and I look forward to checking it out, so saying anything beyond that is speculation. But naturally it might work so that you are drawing in a new audience, which is a very, very good thing, but there is always the risk that you are alienating some of the gamers who are used to a certain structure in a game.
Q: Is there anything in the game that you'd like to have continued, a story arc you'd like to have carried on, that you've not been able to? Something that might form the pretence of the next game, or even DLC? Or is the story very linear?
SL: It is a linear story, but there are a lot of optional things for the player to discover, almost like doing research into the background of different things - like a side plot. That's all up to the player. Everyone will get the important skeleton of the thriller, but when it comes to the extra content... In a game like this you need to keep the pace up, and that also means that it's a good idea to leave a lot of the story content optional. For the players who are really interested they can go deeper and discover these things, but for those who are not so interested they can just go on with a flashlight and gun and have a good time.
Q: Does Alan reach a conclusion at the end of the game? Do we see him resolve the issues at hand, or is that going to be left for an expansion?
SL: We are using TV as a model for storytelling...
Q: So a cliff-hanger then?
SL: Well, not so much. I think that a good television series reaches a conclusion but leaves a door open to further things at the same time. So it was very important that the player can reach his goal, and Alan Wake gets to a kind of conclusion, but at the same time we open the door to something larger. From the very beginning we have intended Alan Wake to go on beyond this first game, so this is the first step, in a way.
Q: There have been a lot of comparisons between Alan Wake and contemporary TV shows, and you've said that the game will reach a strong conclusion. If you take a show like 24, each season is very much a self-contained story, to the extent that you could probably watch season 2 or 3 without watching the first one. With a show like Lost, you reach a conclusion at the end of a season, but the start of the next season will very much be a continuation from that point. Without giving away too many spoilers, will Alan Wake be closer to Lost or to 24?
SL: Well, I have to say that we are big fans of Lost, just in the way that it's very good thriller storytelling in a TV series format. They pace the thing very well, and at the end of the episode there's always a cliff-hanger - it's very good in that sense. That being said, it's somewhere in between. The storyline will reach a conclusion, it will open doors to something bigger at the same time, and we believe that even if the sequel very much continues the story, it still needs to stand on its own feet and be enjoyable for people who haven't seen the first part.
Alan Wake is due for release exclusively on Xbox 360 on May 21.