Alan Wake Preview and Interview
Post by ChadDrake @ 06:06pm 23/04/10 | Comments
AusGamers was recently invited out to Microsoft HQ in Sydney, where we went hands-on with Alan Wake, and also had time with Remedy's Matias Myllyrinne to talk about the art of crafting a thriller in videogame form. Read on for more...
Alan Wake has been on my radar for quite a while now. From the references to David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and Stephen King, alongside the several trailers detailing the basic premise, I have been looking forward to getting my hands on a playable version and seeing just how it'll all unfold. After battling the forces of darkness in the complete first episode at a gamers day out at Microsoft, Sydney, and chatting with Finnish developer, Remedy Studios' Managing Director, Matias Myllyrinne, Alan Wake has most definitely met my expectations.
The game follows our titled protagonist, Mr Alan Wake, a successful writer with a shadow over his creativity of late. Unable to write anything for several years now, he finds himself in the North West American town of Bright Falls on a holiday with his wife. After she goes missing, however, a nightmare unfolds as Wake slowly discovers pages of a novel he hasn't even written yet revolving around a darkness that has taken over the town and the people around him.
This interplay between light and dark is the main element of gameplay. Armed with a torch (note to Energizer: promoting your products in a game where batteries deplete so quickly does not bode well) and whatever weapons he may acquire, Alan must unravel the story as he attempts to stay alive in this town filled with interesting and quirky characters. Both animate and inanimate objects can be taken over by the darkness, meaning you can never let your guard down. To take out an enemy you must first remove their darkness using your torch, flares, flash grenades and existing light sources thus rendering them vulnerable to attacks. The controls feel responsive and after some cleverly disguised tutorials forming part of the story you'll be targeting accurately in third-person to take out the darkness infested nasties.
The game environment is quite rich with many interactive elements and character interactions that serve to build up the lore and intrigue early on. Stumble upon a television and turn it on and you'll find a tasty little homage to The Twilight Zone featuring an entire episode of this fictional show. The game is linear, but at no time really feels forced. It needs direction as the story unfolds strategically, and generates genuine interest in the exploits of Mr Wake.
This feels as it is described, a thriller. A wonderful presentation in the form of a television series, with an opening, an ending, and as Matias describes in the following interview a "coming next episode..." style sequence. It's a presentation unseen in a game and works. When we say TV series, don't think of Lost, or Heroes, it deliberately retains the episodic style of early 90s television, whilst pertaining a timeless essence.
Read on for some more insights from Matias Myllyrinne:
AusGamers: The interplay between light and darkness is obviously an integral part of the story. How difficult was it to implement these elements into the gameplay and game mechanics?
Matias Myllyrinne: It was really hard to nail down. We had the concept of fight with light. That was very early on, then how do you hit the road running? Having something as simple as possible but still functional and fun - something that's easy to learn but really hard to master. Just, like, having the opportunity to get rid of the crosshair was a big thing that we wanted to do. [You play] a writer, if you can break away from having a crosshair on the screen it's a bonus.
AusGamers: It creates a more immersive feel? A bit more realistic?
Matias: Yeah, and having a flashlight cone as a targeting and aiming mechanism was really what we wanted to have as well. Then the deep desire to have something that was easy to grasp; with Max Payne we played around with the concept of time and slo-mo. We thought that light and darkness are also constants that we understand intuitively. So there isn't such a huge leap to understand 'this is a light source, that can be helpful to me' or 'that's a dark place, that's probably dangerous. Oh my god! Do I need to cross that dark force or barrier?'. Those are very primal things. They come to us from many places, whether it's religion or mythology, it's about light being a saviour or 'safe-haven' if you will. I think light's much older than that - it's something that's baked into our DNA, you know, our forefathers lurking somewhere in the woods hear an animal in the dark and that instantly goes into our DNA. It's hardwired.
AusGamers: Like primordial thoughts?
Matias: Yeah, we wanted to have that feeling from the get go. But finalising it, locking it down and being able to reiterate and polish it and get it to where we are took us a long time to nail down and be so simple and intuitive. I'm very happy with the way it ended up.
AusGamers: You are utilising the Havok Physics engine, to what extent did you use this in relation to hit points on the enemies?
Matias: Where we ended up, I mean we iterated quite a bit with that. The shadows cover the enemy's body's equally. You need to get rid of the shadows, and then they disappear from the entire body. As opposed to earlier prototypes where you could just remove the shadow from specific parts of the body. But that became really complex. So once you get rid of the shadows, we do have different hit points, that's where we landed. We do have different damage factors for the head vs the body, but it's not something we accentuate or build up. Once again we went for simplicity so the legs are kind of pretty much the same as the body.
AusGamers: Was the lengthy development time a result of developing a new game engine that could function correctly utilising light and dark. Was that why you needed to develop your own engine?
Matias: Yes. Everything is built from scratch, so that took a long time. Simply building the tools to create the world took a huge amount of time. So maybe two or three years of just building the ability to build the game, which sounds kind of insane, but that's because we couldn't find anything that would do what we wanted it to do in terms of light and dark and the specific north/west kind of feel. Secondly, getting the pacing right for the story and the gameplay took time. Then we made a mistake with going into sandbox design. We walked away from that. That was a good six months of work that we had to flush down the toilet. Even with so much scrapped it left us with a lot of useful things. So now we have a brilliant streaming level of detail and stuff like that. You know, it's not exactly the most efficient way of doing things, the level of detail in the world and the amount of things that go in there is just perplexing. Alan Wake took us about three times longer to make than Max Payne 2 and in terms of man-power, Wake is, like, eight times larger. You need more outside parties working with you and you need a larger internal production management and design capacity. We aren't a massive company. We are relatively small with about 50 people - double that of our team for Max Payne and its sequel. We could've come out with something earlier that would have been just 'ok'. But you don't really get that many second chances, so if it doesn't interest the audience and it's not something that lives up to your own ambitions or quality standards, then you shouldn't put it out.
AusGamers: Several names have been bantered about such as the obvious in Stephen King and David lynch. Were there any other artists that you drew strong influences from?
Matias: Yep! Alfred Hitchcock. Definite nods to the master. There's a few works of his, The Birds is one. There're some books that have been influential for Sam Lake (Alan Wake's writer). There's a book called House of Leaves he drew inspiration from. The Shining is something we drew upon, of course, specifically the Hedge Maze; we have that setting in the game. For the all American small town of Bright Falls of course Sam went with Twin Peaks but it's familiar to many other TV series as well, even as far as Northern Exposure. There're a lot of similar tonalities of M. Night Shyamalan, too. Then on the flip side of the coin, there's the action sequences, cinematic action bits are much more based on blockbuster TV or film production values. With Max Payne we had that classic private eye, film noir theme melding with Hong Kong action and this time around we wanted to take the blockbuster action sequences and combine that with classic thriller themes and hopefully build it into something of our own. That's one of the reasons we wanted to build a thriller, not a horror game. We had a long conversation about this in the beginning – what's a thriller vs what is horror?
AusGamers: There's a plethora of horror titles in the videogame medium, but thriller hasn't really been pulled off before...
Matias:... yeah, I like horror films and I like horror games, but sometimes you get into un-intentional humour with buckets and buckets of blood. That kind of goes with the territory, whereas a thriller is more in the headspace, it's more about intrigue. This is unprintable, but... it's more of a mind-fuck (laughs).
AusGamers: (Laughs) We can still print that... So I'm guessing that was part of your decision stray away from too much blood or gore in the game?
Matias: We didn't want to detract from what we think is the essence. I think that otherwise, if you put that layer of blood and gore there then it draws away from the experience. For example, the sequence at the very beginning where the first main boss gets taken over by the darkness, we could have made it a very gory sequence, but we decided to show a bit of the violence then use some good audio to complete the image. Less can be more in a thriller - let the player imagine. That character is actually modelled off our Microsoft Business manager Brandon Morse.
AusGamers: Everything in game tends to have an early 90s television vibe, was that a conscious effort to focus on that sort of era?
Matias: We wanted to have a feel that is kind of timeless. For example, some of the music choices, let's say Roy Orbison, I mean he was just as timely five years ago as he will be five years from now. It stops us from being tied to a certain fad. We wanted it to be kind of like present day, but if anything lean slightly backwards in time, but keep it a little ambiguous. The Twin Peaks reference for example, a lot of the clothing and hairstyles the cast wore were alluding to the 50s. So it was already old when it came out in 1990. It's because of this amalgamation I think it stood the test of time fairly well. Hopefully that kind of thing will last. Essentially an undefined present day is kind of the vibe we went for, that and the whole 'Americana' feeling, if you will; a certain style for the gas stations and the way that locals dress and how the diner looks - we wanted to tip our hats to that kind of feel.
AusGamers: So why the TV episodic style presentation and not a full length feature film presentation?
Matias: The game is much longer than our previous work so this game takes me about three times longer than Max Payne 2 to play. We felt that stretching a movie over that length of time gets a bit thin. But now we can do the episode mark; each episode usually ending on a cliffhanger, but starting with something more tranquil. You know, talking, exploring or learning more background information - interacting with the other cast, then having a more intense action sequence pertaining a build-up. Then having a cliffhanger with a hopefully satisfactory ending where the player gets some closure. We really began developing this premise when we caught onto the DVD boxset boom and we were all watching TV series, partly because the states are a season ahead of us.
It was a really convenient consumption pattern for 'entertainment' - I'd watch two episodes with my better half, then some of our guys would binge and watch half a season in a night and come to work with sacks under their eyes, you know, like mole people. I think it felt like a natural fit for the game, it allows you to utilise certain story-telling tools and mechanics that are familiar to people, that they can grasp. So you do the 'previously on...' and that works and then you end the episode on a song that's been played somewhere earlier on in the level and you kind of come back to it. It just felt like a nice touch to kind of sit back and reflect. Then if you pick it up later on, you have that refresher coming up sooner or later with that next episode starting: 'previously on the last episode...' Some games are more story-heavy and if you're playing them in shorter increments I personally get lost as to where I was. This rectified that.
AusGamers: Considering it's written as a television series format, has it been written with future story lines prepared, like a second season of sorts?
Matias: We have this, well it's not so formal, but a story bible of sorts. Without giving away too much, it contains info on what happened, what's transpired in prior decades, what's happening now and what the fiction would entail as the next move. I mean, we wanted to build this into a much larger thing...
AusGamers: Like a lore?
Matias: Yeah. But obviously whether we get to do that will be determined by the audience. You know, how much they like it on launch day and how commercially successful it is. Because it takes us much longer to create a game than to make a follow-up, I mean Max Payne, was four and a half years, but Max Payne 2 took us 18 months, so yes, you can do a sequel that does the first justice (I mean they were reviewed equally so I'm basing my opinion on that), in a shorter time span, say 18 or 24 months. That's a long time away so you need a different kind of closure than you would need for a movie. It's not kind of bang, bang, bang, bang. But then again, even the first Star Wars movies - the three first ones that came out - the first was in 1979, then Return of the Jedi was, like, 85-84, so I mean it was still a fair amount of time.
AusGamers: Is it difficult to keep the storyline of a game like this, where storyline is integral to the game, under wraps and not have any leaks. Any fake trailers?
Matias: You know, I wish we had more time or better methods of controlling leaks. The best thing you can do is hope that people will act responsibly and respect the audience. Personally I was really disappointed to find that in the last few days we had the first 10 minutes of the game recorded and released to the net and then the next 10 minutes. I think that's poor judgement. I mean if you were a film reviewer and your journalistic method would be to release poorly captured footage of a film with a shaky cam onto the net...
AusGamers: Well it can destroy the initial experience and wonderment...
Matias: True, I'm hoping and I'm pleading for people to be respective of the audience. Unfortunately there is very little that we can actually do as a small company in Finland. I mean we can certainly ask them to pull it down and get people to be respectful of spoilers, but these things are so much larger now. Once it's out there you can never get it back. Then it becomes a responsibility of the audience - how much do you want to know about certain things to the detriment of your interactive experience? That being said, we have done a load of trailers because it's been a long developing process but it's something that won't spoil the experience. Rather, it just gives you a glimpse of its tone. Not everybody's heard of Alan Wake and hopefully we have utilised a way to reach those people to let them know that this is something they might be interested in.