Fri, Feb 19, 2010 | 16:14 GMT
Interview: Alan Wake’s Häkkinen on surrealism, DLC, Max Payne and more
There can be few unreleased games as enigmatic as Alan Wake. The Remedy thriller, announced in 2005 for both 360 and PC, has gone in a matter of weeks from being almost entirely under wraps to a 360 exclusive, a May release, an episodic adventure in an untraditional gaming sense, a project inspired by Twin Peaks and as having “seasons” with planned DLC. It’s all go for Alan and the gang.
Following a blocked writer on a mission to save his wife in the Pacific Northwest, the game is finally gearing up for what looks to be a sizeable launch for Microsoft. We were lucky enough to grab some time in London this week with Oskari Häkkinen, head of franchise at Remedy. Hit the link.
VG247: I’m going to get this out of the way quickly.
Oskari Häkkinen: Sure.
What’s taken so long?
Oskari Häkkinen: Well, this has been a long process, obviously. It’s taken about five years. We’re a very small studio of about 50 people, so a lot smaller than most. It’s been a labour of love, and we’ve built all of the tools and technology from the ground up ourselves. When we came up with the concept of Alan Wake, we felt that we were on to something that was going to be compelling and good, and we checked out there to see if there were any engines that could do the kind of work that we needed it to do, from the light and dark perspective, and there was nothing.
So, we set out to bring our own tools and make the engine ourselves. We did a lot of research. We were out in the Pacific Northwest, and we drove over 3,000 miles and took over 60,000 photos. We even had people camping out in the middle of the forest and recording the ambient sounds to get the authenticity. We made all the bio-types ourselves, from the ground up.
We want to push the envelope with story-telling, and getting that right takes time. You can only be as good as your last game, and we want the Remedy brand to be a seal of quality. If we’re going to suck at this, we don’t have a future.
You’ve confirmed now that the game’s going to have an episodic format, and you’ve clearly been inspired by shows like Twin Peaks, and so forth.
When in the process did you decide that this was the right way to go?
Oskari Häkkinen: Quite early on in the development process we realized that a TV-style structure works really well for a thriller. I can’t tell you how long the game is – you’ll be satisfied and it’s comparable to other games out there on the market today – but if you think about a movie that’s two hours long, then it’s fine for it to have a story arc like this [makes shape of a single arc]. If you have the same set-up for a game with the same story arc, at one point you peak, and it’s hard to keep peaking and peaking and peaking. The player gets immune to the things that are happening. When we have a TV series-style structure, we have many story arcs, and within those arcs we can peak at one point, we can end on a cliffhanger, and the next episode, for instance, can start in a very serene day-time setting where it’s more about NPC interaction and learning the motives of the other characters around Wake himself. This foreshadows things happening in the night, which is more action-oriented.
You can tap into those emotions over and over again, and in different ways. It’s much harder if you just have a straight, long arc.
So, at the beginning of the code I just played, it says “Episode 1.”
Oskari Häkkinen: Right.
Is the code on the disc people are going to buy Episode 1?
Oskari Häkkinen: I can’t tell you how many episodes, as I’m getting evil looks from over there [motions to PR]. We will have numerous episodes, and it’s structured like episodes, so what you’ve just played is Episode 1.
But I mean, on the actual retail disc, there’s going to be a string of episodes?
Oskari Häkkinen: Right. Absolutely. You’ll go into the menu and you’ll have a selection of episodes there, and they need to be played in order. This is a story-driven experience. It’ll be like Season 1 of a TV series. You wouldn’t want to watch episode three before you’ve seen one and two.
Are further episodes going to be DLC- or disc-based?
Oskari Häkkinen: You want to think of this as Season 1, so to speak, of a TV series. This will have a satisfactory and conclusive ending, but we will leave doors open, just as they do in Lost or 24, where they have a satisfactory ending to the season but they leave some doors open for the larger story. Just the same here. We’ll have the satisfactory and conclusive ending, and should this be successful then we will do Season 2.
We are doing DLC. You should think of the DLC as more of a bridge between Season 1 and Season 2. Specials, if you like. So, like Friends has a Christmas special, and the Easter special, so to speak.
Early on in the code I just played there are some surreal elements that feel very “Twin Peaks”. You have a voice in the sky, and so on. How do you think the general audience is going to take to that style of surrealism?
Oskari Häkkinen: Yeah, it’s interesting to see, and there’s been a lot of interest surrounding the game. At E3 last May, we were somewhat dubious to show off a game we’d been quiet about for such a long time, and frankly, we didn’t want to show something off before it was in a state where we wanted to show it off. But it’s been taken very well, and we’ve been humbled by the reception everywhere that we’ve shown the game. At X10 last week the reception was awesome, and here, from what I understand so far, it’s been resonating well with people.
Right now, we’re just really excited to have people play it and give their opinions on it. It’s a more cerebral story we’re going for, and hopefully that’s going to be something people are waiting for.
At X10 there were some Remedy quotes explaining away the PC version saying the game was best played on the sofa, that it was best played in that style of set-up. Surely the real reason behind binning the PC SKU was a Microsoft corporate decision?
Oskari Häkkinen: Saying that Alan Wake is best played of a sofa with 5.1 surround and a big TV screen, I think is more of a preference than anything else. We’re not going out there to say that PC gamers can’t enjoy it from their own PC set-up. We’re certainly not saying that. We have a strong heritage in PC gaming as well. But, frankly, we’re a small studio. We’re 50 people, and being a small studio, it makes a lot more sense for us to focus on one platform. Currently we’re fully focused on the Xbox version, and [as for] what the future holds, we haven’t got anything to announce, and we haven’t thought that far right now. We’re fully crunching towards the Xbox 360 version.
Going forward, do you think there’s a chance you’d consider a PC version?
Oskari Häkkinen: I think that’s a decision to sit down [and make] with our publisher… and see where the title goes.
Alright. Back to the game itself. Alan’s wife, Alice: how big a role does she play in the plot?
Oskari Häkkinen: Alice is the reason why Wake is going through trying to unravel this mystery. She’s the driving force behind going through the adventure he’s going through, trying to unravel the mystery and ultimately save his wife. Her role is huge from a motivational perspective.
She appears in it, right?
Oskari Häkkinen: Yeah. They arrive at Bright Falls together. How the story plays out – I don’t want any spoilers – but she certainly has a big role.
As far as the actual structure of the game, there was talk at X10 last week of Wake being a sandbox structure. That was clearly binned in favour of a narrative structure. There seems to be a resurgence of narrative gaming at the moment, following a big push towards the end of the last generation towards sandbox gaming.
Oskari Häkkinen: Right.
Do you feel that? Do you feel things are swinging back toward narrative structures in general?
Oskari Häkkinen: You know, I hope so, and I hope Wake will stand on its own two feet and people will respect the angle that we’ve taken here. As you said, there was a push towards everything having to be sandbox and big, and I think we got caught in that trap as well, and thought we’d do an open world. What a Remedy game is all about is a story-driven, single-player, character-centric game, and we realized quite early on in the development process that it wasn’t working for us. And even though the norm back then was to develop big worlds, we wanted to push the envelope with story-telling, we went back to a linear storyline.
Having said that, it’s paid off really well for us, actually, because we built open world technology, and that’s allowed us to make the path relatively wide and relatively long for the player, so the player can make their own decisions instead of being pulled by a string. If the player sees a light in the forest, he can choose whether or not he wants to walk there or take a car. It allows us to put a lot of exploration content in there as well.
It’s a thriller, so we want to control the pacing, but at the same time we offer a lot of story angles there, and deeper fiction for the player to explore. So we’ve kind of gone half way, but just be clear: this is not a sandbox game. But the technology has allowed us to do a lot of things. Like, we can foreshadow or foresee something that happens in the future. Because you can see out into the world, there might be relevant things from locations in the world. If you’re standing on a cliff edge and you look out, and you see something like a TV mast, or something familiar, and there might be a relevance to what you’re playing later on.
What else is going on at Remedy at the moment? Obviously, Max Payne’s gone to Rockstar now; would you like to revisit Max at any point?
Oskari Häkkinen: Max was a long process for us obviously as well. We sold the IP to Rockstar who are now doing their interpretation of Max Payne. I haven’t seen it. I mean, I’ve seen the screenshots, and you know what? Rockstar don’t make bad games. Rockstar make awesome games, and, rightly so, they’re going to make their own interpretation of Max Payne and it’s not going to be a Remedy game. But it’ll be awesome, because it’s going to be Rockstar. Just from the screenshots, it’s got Rockstar written all over it. I’m sure it’s going to rock. It’ll be interesting to play it and see their interpretation.
And that’s what they should do. Sam Lake is the brainchild behind the Remedy version, so Rockstar should make their own interpretation of that.