A JOURNEY THROUGH THE NEW ALAN WAKE
This past weekend, we sat down with Matthias Myllyrinne and Oskari Hakkinen of Remedy Entertainment to get a first-hand look at the recently-announced Alan Wake's American Nightmare. We got a look at the new story section, as well as some great hands-on time with the "Arcade Action," which is sure to be a very different experience for fans of Alan Wake, but one that is very exciting, and an absolute blast to play.
The new story featured in American Nightmare is one that showcases the clever tactics of Remedy's writing staff. Fans of Alan Wake should be familiar with Night Springs, the Twilight Zone-esque TV show scattered around the original game. Well it seems that before Alan was a thriller writer of rockstar status, he penned a few episodes of the sci-fi serial. American Nightmare gets very interesting when we learn that we're actually playing through one of those very episodes of Night Springs.
The use of the show tells us that this story is very central to the established lore of the franchise, while the atmosphere and gameplay are steps away from it's familiar grounds. American Nightmare will use a hub structure, and players will retrace the same paths several times throughout the story. In addition, there are some new enemy types that are as terrifying as they are crafty, and some new weapons, like the crossbow, that will get players to switch up their play styles and tactics. In addition, players returning from Alan Wake will be glad to know that Mr. Scratch is back in a huge way, as he will be the antagonist of American Nightmare.
The other major pillar of Alan Wake's American Nightmare is the aforementioned "Arcade Action," which will see players fighting off waves of enemies until the sun rises. By this point, all is well in whatever creepy town Alan probably shouldn't have visited in the first place. But this isn't Horde Mode, and Remedy has put together a single-player arcade experience that is fast, hectic, and genuinely frightening.
That's right, "Arcade Action" is single-player, and that may be the best thing for it. It's a very engrossing, exciting mode to play, and it's balanced very well. This is a much faster Alan Wake experience, sure to entice new players who weren't sold on the first game. At the same time, it retains the core concepts that fans of Alan Wake connected with, so returning players should feel right at home here. Read on for our interview with the developers.
Brian Conlon (COMPLEX MAGAZINE): Will Alan Wake’s American Nightmare focus on “Alan the writer”, and have a very literary approach, like the first game did?
Matthias Myllyrinne (REMEDY): I think that for American Nightmare, to get into the stylization of the TV series, Night Springs, we’re using a different narrator, so we have the iconic Night Springs narrator, so Alan Wake is not the storyteller here. There’s a departure from the first game, but obviously Alan Wake is the central character here and his journey is obviously the thing we’re focusing on. So in that respect, it’s very much focused on Wake himself.
Oskari Hakkinen (REMEDY): And we do have manuscript pages. We do have story. But the whole setup is like a Night Springs episode.
We do have manuscript pages. We do have story. But the whole setup is like a Night Springs episode.
Right, it’s more the TV show, whereas the last game was more about the books.
Mathias: I think that’s a good analogy. If you look at the previous game, the manuscript pages sort of unfold the story as well. Here, we have the manuscript pages, but maybe in a slightly different pacing, in a slightly different format for gamers.
Were there ever any ideas you tried out in Alan Wake that were extremely different than what we have now?
Os: Well I think it’s worth telling how this all got started. After we launched Alan Wake, the story, the cinematic action, the core combat, the character and a lot of the settings were universally praised. Believe it or not, we do look at the feedback that our fans give us through our Facebook pages and e-mails and so forth. One of the things that came up with Alan Wake was that people wanted to see a bit more escalation in the threat, in the enemies, and perhaps in the types of weapons as well.
Core combat mechanic was great, but they wanted to see more escalation. So we started looking at it like, “Well, what could we do?” Alan Wake is a franchise that’s very close to our hearts, so we just took it all the way to the extreme, and kind of made these white, boxed, arcade action maps, where we threw in lots of crazy weapons and lots of crazy enemies. And in the office, the developers, all of us were playing against each other. I’m coming in in the morning, ramping up a high score, and just going to the whiteboard to write up my high score.
Matthias: Not a proper leaderboard or anything, just using the whiteboard in the coffee area or something.
Os: Mathias comes in for his lunch and goes “fuck, Oz has got that.” So he’ll have to get a better, wipe it off and put his high score up. And that’s how it got started really, not really with the intention to start doing arcade action, but to kind of test how far we could take the action. Now, as it stands, we realized just from the whiteboard, how our developers, who are gamers love it. We’re like, “this is a great fit for Xbox Live Arcade.” But Remedy, we’re a storytelling studio.
Then, there’s the guys who tell stories, like Sam [Lake, writer of Alan Wake and American Nightmares] who’s like “this is fine, but we have to tell stories after all, and we have a bit of that. And when Sam had the logic and fiction mapped out, he felt this was a perfect place for Night Springs, and to use that Twilight Zone setup to introduce these crazy new weapons and enemies, that’s kind of how it got started, and yes there were ideas there that didn’t get used as well, simply because the main target was to have a lot of new weapons.
Matthias: You get into a stage where, you want them to be distinctive and different. For example, the grenadier is a good ranged enemy, but as opposed to having something that duplicates that functionality and tactic, we didn’t want to have those overlapping. We took the one weapon we liked from the ranged enemies.
The Angry Birds was something we wanted, to have bird enemies morph into an enemy, but when you shined the light on it, he became a swarm of birds again. That was just something that came out of looking at swarm behavior, and just felt kind of fresh. And it also serves a gameplay purpose, not so much on it’s own. It is dangerous, but when you place it with other kinds of enemies in a combat arena, it’s much more effective.
Os: Like the Splitter, it offers variation, but also brings in gameplay tactics as well. So many people playing it don’t expect that. They shine the light and are like, “oh fuck, he split!” Or they use the flare, and he splits again, and it’s like “oh shit!” And like the crossbow, which you wielded very, very well.
There’s tons of stuff, but it’s about mixing and matching the stuff that makes it a good package.
Again, we’re offering this gameplay variation there, where you don’t need to use the flashlight, there’s a weapon out there that can pierce the darkness. There’s tons of stuff, but it’s about mixing and matching the stuff, more matching the stuff, that makes it a good package.
You mentioned that there’s a lot of fan feedback that led you to take a “more action” approach to what you’re doing, but being more of a storytelling studio, what kind of challenges did you face taking in the fan feedback, but not sacrificing a good story? It seems to me that using Night Springs is a really good way to put the story right in there, but I’d love to know if you guys faced challenges leading up to that.
Os: I think we should take two or three steps back, and talk a little about Max [Payne] and what that was.
Matthias: I think, personally, what we’ve always tried to do is push the envelope a little further. Not just for ourselves, but for the craft and for entertainment. And so with Max Payne, we took the third-person shooter, added slow motion, and tried to innovate a little bit in that space. With Wake, we kind of wanted to build this TV series-like pacing, and take the characters into more subtleties, more areas of gray. They’re all kind of, “Am I bad? Am I good?”
We wanted to make a thriller. Earlier this year, we worked with Mountain Sheep and Cornfox & Brothers, bringing Death Rally to the iPad and iPhone, and we hadn’t really seen that kind of game for that platform, and it was kind of new for that platform. And we’ve been updating that; I think just recently, we had an update for that. But always trying to do something different, just like baby steps into expanding whatever it is that we’re doing as a game development community.
For Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, we certainly wanted to bring in something that for XBLA, spans the storytelling scope a little bit and challenges some of the conventions. I mean, I love my Super Meat Boy’s and I love my Limbo’s, but on the other hand, I’d like to play something like Alan Wake’s American Nightmare on XBLA, and that’s kind of just kind of expanding it a little.
That was one of things we wanted to do, but before we started looking at this, is was very important for the content to reflect the medium, so everybody kind of expects when you play an XBLA game that you can pick up a controller and have fun.
And that’s one of the things, I think, in a larger triple-A game, and we do love our large games, it’s sort of our bread-and-butter. In those, you have a longer arc to introduce things and people kind of expect to get into it, and build up to certain things. You can teach people the skills and rules of the world, whereas I think you need to do that at a much more rapid pace for XBLA.
I think the biggest challenge, from a storytelling point of view was balancing, making sure that anybody could get in and understand, to make sure the story stands on it’s own two feet and makes sense. But for the fans of Alan Wake, it needs to take the story further and expand it, because that’s what they loved and they expect that. I think we’ve pulled it off, mainly because of Sam’s and Mikko’s [Rautalahti] clever writing.
You can actually have it both ways, and that was tricky because if you delve into things that wouldn’t open up to them [a new player], then it becomes insular and not inclusive, and we wanted it to be a very inclusive thing, so it should be stand-alone in the truest sense, but still take the fiction forward. There’s a paradox there, but I think we pulled it off.
We wanted it to be a very inclusive thing, so it should be stand-alone in the truest sense, but still take the fiction forward.
Once again, going from what you were saying, with the decision to do this on XBLA instead of doing another disc-based, $60-$80 game, you said you wanted to do this more short-form, but did American Nightmare ever have a life as a bigger kind of experience?
Os: American Nightmare started as this kind of arcade action mode and we wanted to bring it to XBLA and just thought that many other studios would just put the arcade mode out there, and that would be the XBLA thing.
Matthias: But it’s not in our DNA to do that.
Os: Yeah, story is a part of what we do, and we wanted to expand the fiction. It all kind of ballooned, and snowballed from there, and that’s what we’re sitting on. But again, Alan Wake is really close to our hearts, and we want to expand the fiction even further, but right now, we’re focused on this smaller package of it...
Matthias: But when we look at doing larger games, you know, we’re a fairly small studio, very small by today’s landscape. What we try to do is, we take our time to build those and there’s a lot of pre-production, a lot of prototyping, building technology and stuff like that. I mean, if you want to have a seal of quality, it’ll take time to do that.
But we have this opportunity now where we have this base technology and decided what elements we’re going to improve from Alan Wake to this. You see improvements to AI, enemies, user interface, and various color palettes and stuff like that. And we can build off that fairly rapidly, while other people are working on larger leaps forward, with motion capture and stuff like that.
Was there any kind of ridiculous stuff you had in there, or wanted in there at one point that ended up being a bit too much?
If it doesn’t feel distinctive to the franchise or distinctive to us, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it.
Matthias: I think that we had some enemies that we felt were already done a bit too much, that although we thought they were fun, we felt they were too much an iteration of someone else’s tentacle monster.
You know, that’s not really our thing, and even though it could’ve been fun, we thought we should do something of our own. We thought we could do it in another way, as opposed to feeling too close to other games. I think that’s one of the things that we’ve always come to monitor. If it doesn’t feel distinctive to the franchise or distinctive to us, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it, because it’s not like we need a re-iteration of everything that’s been done before.
One of the other things that I thought was really interesting about the story mode, with Night Springs. Call it experimental, but it’s definitely a little unusual is the approach that you’re taking to telling the story. It seems that it will demand a real focus when you start to chew through all of it. What kind of risks did you guys take from a storytelling standpoint?
Matthias: Well, I think one thing is just the sheer amount of story for an XBLA title. That’s one thing. I don’t think we need to preach things too much for our audience or dumb things down, so I think they’ll get some of the subtleties of when we’re being tongue-in-cheek and when we’re not. How do you tell this kind of dramatic story with self-awareness?
I think that’s something that we see as a risk. I mean, there kind of easier ways to go down a story thread, to tell a story. Whether it’s one that’s blatantly humorous or one that’s blatantly serious about it, and I think that because we do change the tone a little bit…
Os: It changes quite a lot. Alan Wake was kind of a linear, tightly paced thriller that kept you on the edge of your toes, building this kind of episodic structure. After Max Payne, Sam was telling everyone that there must be a better way of telling stories in video games that used the same sort of approach as movies, with a story arc that won’t get diluted.
You know, a movie will only last for one and a half, two hours, so you’ve done you’re three acts and everyone’s happy. But if you do your three acts in ten to fifteen hours, people aren’t happy. They aren’t happy because you’ve gone and, it becomes diluted. You see it in many video games, where they forget about story for a big part of it. They introduce to it, and forget about it, and re-introduce you to it and forget about it. And that’s not what we wanted to do. And especially with a thriller, what you want to do is be continuously having that build-up, but if you do that over a ten to fifteen hour period, it just becomes diluted and you don’t want that.
So using an episodic, TV-style structure was kind of brilliant, because each one has it’s own story arc. You end on a cliffhanger, and when the next episode starts, you’re reminded of it, and then that has it’s own story arc. So that was the type of pace for a thriller that we want to continue as well. But with this, this is made for the medium. We have an arcade mode; we have a story mode down.
We’ve implemented a hub approach to level design, so the players themselves decide their own pacing, they decide how much of the story they want to take on, and what they’re interested in. They can choose to do tasks in order, and we’ve put tons of set-pieces in there and stuff for each of the kind of events, so you’ll get the feeling that this is very much Alan Wake, but it’s not gonna be from the pacing. It’s gonna be more from the kind of stuff that’s happening and the things that are true to the fiction but it’s not from the thriller pacing.
This is very much Alan Wake, but it’s not gonna be from the pacing.
Matthias: And something that I saw as a risk was using live-action [in a Mr. Scratch cutscene], because there’s a potential stigma that comes with that. I think the last ones to really pull that off was Command & Conquer, just because it was so tongue-in-cheek. I think for us, we wanted to have live-action, because the TV series in the original game was live action that used actors, and if this is an episode of Night Springs, then it makes sense to bring in live action framing.
And to have Mr. Scratch appear, we really wanted to have great acting. And since we do have a real actor who plays Alan Wake, it just made sense to bring him here to American Nightmare. I think the trick was getting the stylization down so it does look like an old TV that you’re looking at, as opposed to being a kind of modern take. I think we pulled that off, but it wasn’t something I was certain about until we saw it in the game. Whenever you’re breaking the medium, it can get dangerous.
We concluded our interview, and we were left with this: Alan Wake is a great title for returning fans, but it will be sure to bring in new players, who will hopefully feel compelled to pick up Wake's previous game. Alan Wake's American Nightmare has a huge amount of content for an XBLA game, and that's exactly where it should be.
It has the "Arcade Action," which resembles the quick-play that we expect from the marketplace, yet it has another engrossing story mode that the XBLA should have more of. That said, let's hope that Remedy Entertainment kicks off a new trend here.