Alan Wake 2 is a complicated narrative that we have come to expect from Sam Lake, the creative director at Remedy Entertainment, and his fellow writers at the Helsinki game studio. The story is so deeply woven that it’s easy to understand why 13 years have passed between Alan Wake and its sequel.
The original game is one of my favorite games of all time. I gave it a score of 98 out of 100 and it made me think about how video games have crossed the line into an art form. And 13 years later, the art form is going stronger than ever.
The new game is coming out on October 27 on the PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. I saw some of the gameplay during Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, at an offsite spooky theater. There, Lake, a writer whose maniacal dedication helped make this game happen, talked about where this tale of an insane writer who was writing things that came true in his own horror game.
Lake said that Alan Wake 2 inspirations included many detective and horror tales. They include films and TV shows like True Detective, Silence of the Lambs, David Lynch works like Twin Peaks, the Cohen brothers like Fargo, Seven, Taxi Driver, Inception, Memento, Fight Club. For games, the inspirations included Inscryption, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and more. And then there are books like the works of Stephen King.
The game is split into two halves. In one, you play as Saga Anderson, an FBI agent, who is solving the mystery of a writer whose horror fiction is coming true in the form of murders in the real world of Saga. Alan Wake, the titular writer, is stuck in the other half of the world. He’s trying to escape from a maze of his own making. Wake is caught in a crime-ridden and grimy New York City, where the graffiti in the wall is tailored to send messages to Wake. There are shadows in the game. Some come after you and some don’t. That makes you paranoid about every shadow that you see.
And after Gamescom, I got to play the game myself. Remedy showed me two levels, one dubbed The Local Girl where I played as Saga. And then I played one called Room 665, where I played as Wake. You can see excerpts of the levels in the videos embedded in this story. The Remedy folks patiently waited as I died and replayed and died again.
And then after I played, I talked to Sam Lake. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Where would you level set us for what we should expect from Alan Wake 2? Do we have to remember everything from 13 years ago?
Sam Lake: No. That was very much clearly our starting point on the philosophy. Yes, it’s called Alan Wake 2, but the original game came out 13 years ago. What’s more, this is a Remedy connected universe experience, so it’s in the same world as Control. We are very excited about that potential and the ideas, but at the same time, we feel very strongly – every game is an entity of its own. It needs to be approachable on its own. There is no required homework. You can go into Alan Wake 2 without playing any previous Remedy games.
For our returning fans, once you crack the surface and get deeper and start exploring, there are a lot of discoveries, a lot of threads that connect to the previous games. But that’s not the critical path. That’s not required for your understanding. That’s also a big reason why we now, with our two playable characters, have a new hero character coming in, Saga Anderson, who has no previous experience of any of the supernatural horror in Alan Wake’s world.
She takes us into this story. We start playing as Saga. She’s an FBI agent. She comes to this small town to investigate these ritual murders, what feels like a serial killer. Which, as a setup – FBI investigating serial killings in a sleepy idyllic small town – is a very recognizable thing in popular culture. Everyone can understand that as a starting point and get with that. It starts to get crazier in our way, but Saga is learning, and the player is learning with her. We start the game with her, and only after playing a couple of missions do we open up the Alan Wake side of the experience.
Beyond that, you’re free to jump between them and follow either as you choose. In a true interactive narrative way, you choose the pacing. However, you want to jump between them, or even play close to the end with one–at the very end we take it back together in a more linear fashion, but along the way you are free.
GamesBeat: So an Alan Wake amount of control, but not necessarily Quantum Break.
Lake: No. Quantum Break is Microsoft’s IP. We created that new IP for them. That was the deal. No Quantum Break, no Max Payne. Max Payne is owned by Rockstar as well.
GamesBeat: There were one or two things in Quantum Break–wasn’t there a chalkboard with Alan Wake stuff written all over it?
Lake: Sure. We had a deal. It was more of an Easter egg. They had published Alan Wake, obviously. We could put our stuff in and they didn’t mind. And Night Springs was part of Alan Wake. Night Springs was introduced as part of the original Alan Wake.
GamesBeat: It got kind of blurry for me. I played them all, but–
Lake: For sure. That’s our thinking. Even players who might have played the original Alan Wake don’t necessarily remember everything. We make sure that–obviously this is the fifth mission. With Saga it’s already the third mission. We’re only just now trying out the hands-on. But early on we take you through steps and tutorials.
GamesBeat: And Quantum Break was about time travel. This is more dimension-hopping, I guess?
Lake: You can see it that way, switching between Saga and Wake, because Wake is trapped, and has been trapped since the first game, in the nightmare dimension of the Dark Place. His name for the place is the Dark Place. We’re jumping to a different dimension when playing him. But this is very much supernatural horror. There’s a particular lore tied to the Dark Place, that its energies can cause works of art like Alan Wake’s writing to alter reality near the lake.
GamesBeat: Are there more things to remember from Control that have been woven in here?
Lake: No, but this is a crossover. We wanted to make this a crossover experience in the sense that the Federal Bureau of Control, as this kind of shady agency in the world, does play a role in the story. They come in and are a part of the story. But that doesn’t mean that you need to know anything beyond that about them.
GamesBeat: All the other pop culture references – you went through a long list before – something like Twin Peaks, FBI investigations, that helps people recognize what kind of world they might be in.
Lake: Yeah, yeah. As always, we’re excited by pop culture and many stories in many mediums. We use it as inspiration. It’s not even–we make our own story, but having an FBI investigation, having murders and supernatural weirdness involved in that, obviously we’ve all seen that kind of story. This is our take on that kind of story.
GamesBeat: Do you feel that the gameplay and the story are something familiar to the players here? You want to combine interesting shooting mechanics with something complicated on the story front that’s going to cause you to not just run and gun, but solve all these puzzles and think about what’s going on?
Lake: Certainly, I felt strongly coming to this that I wanted to put a lot of ambition into interactive storytelling. I wanted to bring elements of story and story experience close to the actual gameplay. If we go all the way back to the original Alan Wake, there was a strong story component, but that didn’t really come into gameplay at all. It wasn’t really an adventure. Mostly you ran around with a flashlight and a gun and fought the enemies.
One aspect of it–we did get criticism that the combat was quite repetitive, and you did a lot of it. Coming into this, we wanted to solve that. Then the other aspect was the ambition of storytelling, trying to bring it closer to gameplay. These were the two design things that we set out to solve.
Thinking about action adventure and the nature of the story, the supernatural elements, and the writer as the playable character, it always felt like he’s not really an action hero. How can we address that? And then we started thinking, well, what game genre would fit that premise? We came to survival horror. The pacing is slower. Less combat. Whenever it is combat, it’s pretty brutal and tense. We can foreshadow it and build up the atmosphere, which has always been part of Remedy games. That’s something we know how to do and want to keep on doing.
And then having more aspects put into the combat experience. In your Resident Evil games or other survival horror games, resource management is a big thing. Strategic elements based on that. That got us to–okay, we have less combat, and more variety in combat overall.
GamesBeat: I noticed that the dodging was not something I was used to. You have to mix that up.
Lake: As I said, we have tutorials well before this far into the experience for everything, to ease you into it. But then also, now that we have less combat, there’s room for other aspects. Then we started thinking about how we can have an element of story as part of the gameplay. That’s partly investigative work on Saga’s part, finding clues, placing them on the board, doing profiling, unlocking further things. Then, on Alan Wake’s side, the idea very much was, well, he’s still a writer. Fiction can change reality in the Dark Place. How do we make that part of the gameplay? It wasn’t really part of the gameplay, even if his writing featured heavily in the first story.
That made us think about game mechanics for the player–you come upon a place. This is an interesting place for him. He could do something with his story here. On the case board you’ll get a scene, a location, and then he sees these visions of inspiration that are often about his fictional detective character, Alex Casey, that he used to write many books about. Now he’s getting some ideas. These visions are ideas for him. Oh, there’s something here. Then you can go to the case board and place these ideas into any scene you’ve already unlocked. It always changes reality around it one way or the other. You’re trying to figure out the method to proceed deeper into the Dark Place and get closer to your escape.
GamesBeat: Was there something meta about putting your own face into the story?
Lake: There’s quite a lot of meta in this, for sure. In the first Alan Wake game, we already established that he has written these crime stories with Alex Casey. To me, more than anything, that was kind of a metaphor for Remedy and Remedy’s process. We created Max Payne and that was a big success. Now we wanted to find something else to do. There is this twisted reflection of that as a metaphor. Alan Wake has had a ton of success writing these crime thrillers, but now he wants to move on and ends up in this dead end. He can’t write anymore. He’s losing grip on reality. That was a nice kind of meta-play.
Now we come back to it 13 years later and it felt like, okay, if we have this idea of fiction coming true, what would the Dark Place look like? Well, Alan Wake himself comes from New York. He used to write stories set in New York for years. It steals from his mind. It felt like an exciting idea. Let’s go all the way to Taxi Driver with as grimy, crime-ridden, and dark a twisted version of New York as we can. Then we were thinking, well, this character, his fictional detective, could he be haunting this place in a way, this vision?
We already established in the first Alan Wake that you find pages of his writing on Alex Casey. We brought in James McCaffrey to read those pages so we got that voice into it. The final missing piece, to me, felt like, well, I could pose as Casey. Tonally in Casey there are similar sources of inspiration for me that I was tapping into–I’ve always loved film noir, and I love more recent crime fiction. Tapping into that and putting that in certainly brings us another meta-layer.
GamesBeat: It does seem scarier than before. You walk through not knowing what’s going to happen, and then you’re more fearful, I think.
Lake: It is darker. It is a horror experience. In some ways, how we look at it–on Saga’s side it’s more supernatural horror, because the darkness is there and taking over people. On Alan Wake’s side, because of how the Dark Place affects him, it’s stealing from his mind and manifesting it. But in that process he’s also forgetting things. He’s confused. He’s trying to piece it together and understand and remember. It’s more psychological horror. Although both types of horror are present on both sides, whenever we were thinking about what we would do in the Dark Place, it was always how we could push it more to the psychological side, and then more to the supernatural side in Saga’s story. That’s what we went with.
GamesBeat: Did you feel like this whole path of 13 years was directed and leading here, or did you ever feel lost along the way?
Lake: I was certainly feeling an amount of desperation at certain points along the way. We always created the concept. Immediately after the first game, and then after Quantum Break–before Control, we actually first made an Alan Wake 2 concept. It’s been living with me all this time, with different, very strongly different takes on it, depending on where we were in our journey as a company and what made sense at the time.
As an example, only in this final concept of it did we go with the survival horror genre. But generally, we could not have done this game without all of the previous games. This takes quite a lot of learning from Control on world-building, on hub design, on less linear structure. We could not have made this before Control.
GamesBeat: I didn’t feel a sense of an open world here.
Lake: No, it’s a hub structure. In the Pacific Northwest there are three hub areas. We’re using the car to travel between the hubs. Then you’re free. It’s not linear. You get to explore. This time around you get to explore Bright Falls. You go around the small town. Certainly, there are multiple missions on the critical path taking you across the hubs in certain ways. But you’re also free to explore. The idea is that in the Pacific Northwest there’s been a lot of rain this fall. The game is set in September of 2023, almost now, because in the first game we established the annual date for Deerfest, and Deerfest is about to happen in Bright Falls within this game. But there’s been a lot of flooding, and it’s tied to the supernatural darkness. As you clear certain areas the flooding recedes you get more areas to explore. Whereas in the Dark Place, we only have one hub, but it’s very big. As you go in further, we’re opening up new areas within the hub to explore.
GamesBeat: When people think of Remedy, I guess, they need to expect a very complicated story. It’s going to different places and times.
Lake: And two characters. I’m sure that people who have experienced previous Remedy games will see that this is a Remedy game. It’s a balancing act on the story side to make it understandable and approachable, and yet make sure there are layers and meta-narrative and tonally different things as well. For sure, what you were playing felt scary, but there’s quite a lot of humor in it as well. Which is important to us, that it doesn’t end up being monotone scary throughout the whole thing. In Washington State there are daytime scenes as well. You get to explore the small town where they’re preparing for the annual festival. The larger than life quirky locals and all that, it’s present in this game as well.
GamesBeat: I felt like Control was a lot like that as well. You had just wacky crazy things in there.
Lake: For sure. There’s definitely plenty of that in Alan Wake 2 as well.
GamesBeat: What’s your hope for how people are going to react to this?
Lake: Always, as a disclaimer, it’s not quite done. We’re very close, but it’s always this mad rush to the finish line. There’s plenty of polish work and fixing problems. Hopefully we’ll get past that critical line in all of that. But I do hope that people will be excited about this in the sense that I do think we’ve been quite bold in many things. Creating an experience that I don’t think–this is very much its own thing. I hope that people will feel that they have not experienced something like this before. Hopefully they like it for that. The mix of different tones, the experimental nature of the interactive storytelling, with two very much connected threads through this, but you can still choose your own pacing. Hopefully it will resonate with people.
GamesBeat: Do you think people will recognize a lot of things from the universe?
Lake: That’s part of the fun. The universe-related things are definitely, in my mind, more than just Easter eggs. They’re components here to be discovered. For fans of Control, they’ll discover new things they didn’t know before. For fans of the original Alan Wake, there are many characters you’ll meet 13 years later. Things have changed, but there are many characters in the key cast who are returning from earlier. Hopefully it will deliver on those aspects.
I do feel excited and proud about what we’ve achieved. I’d be surprised if fans of our previous games won’t be thrilled when they start opening it up and digging deep and discovering all the things we’ve put in here. I hope that for some people, who’ve not played Remedy games, if they come to this and experience it and end up liking it, it would motivate them to go and check out Alan Wake Remastered or Control afterward, to understand some of the things they’ve pieced together along the way.
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