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Video Games as Thrill-Art: Behind the Scenes of Alan Wake

Remedy, the creators of Alan Wake, channeled Stephen King and David Lynch to create its latest thriller. Managing director Matias Myllyrinne spoke with Fast Company about the inspiration for the game, the eclectic soundtrack, and how games ARE art.

Alan Wake

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Kevin Ohannessian: How did Alan Wake come together?

Matias Myllyrinne: We wanted to establish what we feel is the first real thriller in games. We thought that horror has been done quite a bit in games–and that’s usually monsters and blood and gore–but we wanted to go into thriller aspects and build something that is more about intrigue and messing with the audience’s mind. We had three things from the very beginning that we wanted to do, pillars throughout this long process. The first one was establishing a strong central character. We wanted him to be a writer. A writer is a natural storyteller and it’s very much Alan talking about his own story. From the very beginning he starts to narrate, “My name is Alan Wake. I am a writer.” The second thing was the theme of light and darkness, not only in the fiction, but also carrying on to the gameplay mechanics. And the third thing we wanted was this setting of an all-American small town. Our town of Bright Falls has echoes of Twin Peaks. We wanted a familiar setting, but something that hasn’t been done to death in games. Those three things were what inspired us in the beginning and have carried us through to the very end.

You start with a Stephen King quote and other writers are referenced in the game: H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, J.R.R. Tolkien.

For whatever reason, a lot of games shy away from tying into the real world and only stick to the virtual. We wanted to have those references to the world in which the audience inhabits. It’s about playing with that line of subjective and objective reality, what’s true and what’s not. What’s in your head and what is really happening? We wanted to tip our hats to some writers, Mr. King of course, being a master of the genre. I think we also do that with Alfred Hitchcock, with the birds; the scene with the hedge maze just outside of the lodge, that’s inspired by The Shining; and the fisherman in the yellow jacket, that’s I Know What You Did Last Summer. We certainly point to Twin Peaks, with the diner as the first set piece. I think we wanted to acknowledge a lot of the inspiration behind the game.

And then there are the Twilight Zone-esque “Night Springs” shorts throughout the game.

We have grown up on Twin Peaks, Twilight Zone. And some of the current stuff inspired us, like Lost–but maybe it’s more in terms of pacing of a thriller: how they start off each episode, have that strong, tightly paced story in each episode, and how it ties into the whole. We are mass consumers of popular culture. We usually look more for inspiration outside of games, than within them. And try to build that into something of our own, but something that is familiar to the audiences: themes and motifs they can relate to, but hopefully something that hasn’t been done in games before.

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Is that the reason why you adopted a TV structure and other movie motifs? There is the voice-over narration, and there is a slight blur that feels like film.

We wanted that bit of motion blur and post-processing effect that is like a film grain, those are some of the techniques we used. Just the way the camera behaves, it’s almost like we wanted a virtual camera man. If you really start to sprint fast, it’s like your camera man gets left behind ever so slightly until he catches up to you. We wanted that vibe that someone is filming you with a handheld camera.

In terms of the TV series pacing, we felt that it’s a perfect match for a game. A game is a much longer experience than a film. Previously, with Max Payne, we used the film template, and kind of stretched the film-style of storytelling over a game. And with Alan Wake we knew we were going to build something much larger, and just extending a film-type of storytelling structure over such a long period, it becomes a bit diluted. What we wanted to do was use the TV series format as story arcs.

In each episode, you should have a bit of foreshadowing, introducing environments and some other characters, and you build up towards the action, and leave it with a cliffhanger. The whole season–this is season 1–escalates towards what should be a satisfactory ending and closure. I think TV is a good template for games, and two, I think it is a great way for an audience to experience a game. You get those reminders, ‘”Previously on…” We find many of us now have to play in shorter segments, because life is fairly busy.

You all did an interesting thing with the player finding manuscript pages forecasting what is coming up, describing a future scene. What is the reason behind that?

In Max Payne we combined two different elements: the film noir, private eye narration, and story, with Hong Kong action and slow motion action. With Alan Wake we wanted to continue on that path. Some gamers want to get into action and don’t want to delve too deeply into the story; so if someone wants to grab a flashlight and grab a gun, and go play it as an action game, they should have that opportunity. If others want to get more immersed into the story, a lot of the storytelling should be optional and triggered by the player’s own choice and action. The manuscript pages felt like a natural way to give gamers an option to explore more backstory and to get more about the world and what’s happening around him or her.

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Alan Wake

There is this theme put forth in the game of Writers as god-like creators.

A lot of the things we looked at were like Dorian Gray, Art reflected in reality. It’s something that appealed to Sam [Lake, the game’s Lead Writer], and maybe it is an empowerment thing–(laughs). I can certainly see analogies there: The setup we have is a writer at Remedy, who is writing about a writer, who is writing about a writer–things don’t get much more meta than that. It certainly has the theme of writers having writer’s block, and us having a prolonged project. It’s funny how reality and fiction kind of intertwine sometimes. Whatever the creator effort, the creative team behind it, obviously, it is a reflection of them and their work.

The game’s song selection in the soundtrack was atypical. What shaped that?

It’s more of a gut instinct and taste issue, than a cold and calculated thing. If you look at someone like David Bowie or Roy Orbison, they are not tied to a certain fad or point in time. They were relevant 5 years ago, they are relevant today, and hopefully they’ll be relevant 5 years from now. Whereas if you tie yourself to the latest pop song, it may be something that doesn’t have staying power or can’t last. We wanted something fairly timeless, that has stood the test of time. It starts with a high concept, even: Thrillers have always been relevant. A lot of the black and white Alfred Hitchcock films, the early work he did, a lot of those aired when we were kids. Thrillers were relevant in the ’30s and the ’40s and the ’50s. Each decade has had its defining thriller, whether it’s Basic Instinct or whatever, it has something that lasts and speaks to the audience.

If anything, Alan Wake’s world leans slightly backwards. It’s current day, but we wanted a timeless feel. If you look at Twin Peaks which aired from ’89 to ’91, something like that, if you look at the way they dress, the hairstyles, and the setting, it leans quite a lot to the ’50s and ’60s. Twin Peaks stands the test of time quite well, where as if you compare it to Dallas or soap operas from that time frame, they haven’t stood the test of time that well because they were suspended in that one moment. But hopefully in terms of taste and style, we have something that is more timeless than tied to a specific moment.

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[SPOILER WARNING] The end of the game, while finishing certain plot lines, doesn’t really give the player a sense of closure. There is downloadable content coming and talk of a sequel, but was there more to having such an open ending?

The first lines of the game are, “The unanswered mystery is the one that stays with us the longest.” We wanted to have enough definitive things happen there, for example, Alice being saved. On the other hand, we didn’t want to cross every T and dot every I. That’s the kind of thing where you’re able to tap into the imagination of the audience. There are certain films that have left you on that note: yes you have closure, but not every thread is closed, but you have things that are left up to you how to choose, how do you think it ended, or what this particular thing meant. For me, Memento was a film I wanted to watch again. Same with Fight Club and Sixth Sense; films where once you know the overall mystery is you want to see it from the perspective of having full knowledge. Those are interesting pieces of fiction.

In the psychiatric clinic, you meet an inmate named Emerson. The doctor says, “He works on video games; It’s trash of course, but it does require some small creative effort.” Your take on the Games-Are-Art debate?

That was something we wanted to leave in there, something that Sam wrote. My personal vibe is that games, like any creative effort, can be entertainment or they can be art. For me, art is really in the eye of the beholder. Art is art if you think it is art. I think it’s funny when there are people who say that games cannot be art because of whatever. Of course they can be art. We create beautiful landscapes, we provoke emotions within the audience. I think it’s really cool that we have games that tap into our competitive side and our social side, but also games that can evoke fear, adrenaline, maybe a sense of loss, a sense of intrigue, and to be able to create a bit of a mindfuck as well. Those are the best kind of books to read, those are the most interesting movies to see, where you are actually touched in some way. You have that scene in the game with the lake and the mountains in the background and trees swaying in the wind, and the cello starts to pick up and the violins are coming in and the soundtrack starts to build up; You have this beautiful scene, but you have this unresolved tension between the horrifying and dramatic events taking place. You get that tingle down your spine or down your neck.

What are your final thoughts on creating Alan Wake?

We’ve bet the farm on this, and I think it shows. We didn’t pull any punches in terms of effort. Maybe a few weeks from now we will be much wiser, seeing how much the audience responds to it. So far we have been very grateful for the warm reception that we’ve had. The proof will be when the game is out there for the gamers. From our perspective, we took some risks and hopefully it’s not just a game. One of my pet peeves is the kind of checkbox marketing, where if you turn a game box around, on the back of the box you see, “16 different levels, 8 different guns, 4 different vehicles.” You go, “That’s not a description of what I am playing.” Imagine if we sold movies that way, “It contains 67 minutes of footage, with 17 actors.” I think it’s just silly.

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Alan Wake

About the author

His work has also been published by Kill Screen, Tom's Guide, Tech Times, MTV Geek, GameSpot, Gamasutra, Laptop Mag, Co.Create, and Co.Labs. Focusing on the creativity and business of gaming, he is always up for a good interview or an intriguing feature.

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