The making of Alan Wake

The untold evolution of Remedy's big budget thriller

Two years ago, one of the 360’s most hotly anticipated exclusives began to drift into myth territory. Gears of Wars came and went, Halos came and went, Project Gothams came and went, and Alan Wake stayed… silent. Until, ultimately, many believed the psychological horror was just vaporware and empty promises. However, over in Finland, Remedy’s ambitious project was just starting to come together – and it was changing all the time.

In Remedy’s eyes, the only myth concerned with Alan Wake was talk about delays and inordinate development times. As writer Mikko Rautalahti explains, Remedy Entertainment isn’t a studio equipped to churn out titles year after year. “It sounds like a really long development time when you look at the years but that’s not really a great way to measure the amount of work involved. It really comes down to man hours. We’re a very small development studio by modern standards. There are studios that put out a game every two years, but they typically have at least two or three times as many people on staff as we do.”

Remedy isn’t just any old small outfit - it’s one that creates its own tech. “When we revealed Alan Wake in 2005,” begins art director Saku Lehtinen, “it was clearly in the preproduction phase and the technology was very much in the works. We continued refining everything around 2006-2008, and during this time we also explored and changed many fundamentals of the game. After taking out the time spent on preproduction and tools development, the actual game’s production time was not that exceptional in terms of overall time: a bit over two years.”

Above: One issue Remedy could have done without was the need to recast Alice relatively late in the day. “The problem with our original Alice was essentially a combination of some bad timing and bad communication,” says Rautalahti. “It took us a good while to find a new Alice we liked, somebody who looked attractive and strong, but who wasn’t a plastic Hollywood type, because it was important for us that Alice seemed like somebody who could exist in the real world. We absolutely did not want the videogame stereotype with the catsuit and the cleavage”

Although Remedy stresses the project didn’t overrun its planned production window, there’s one factor which undoubtedly contributed to a chunk of that time: the abandoned sandbox roots. For years we all believed Alan Wake was a cross between Silent Hill and Grand Theft Auto, but in reality the open world was dropped long ago.

“It really came down to the storytelling,” says Rautalahti, dispelling any thoughts of technology troubles. “We make story-driven action games here at Remedy. And yeah, at one point, it was also supposed to be an open world game, with the free roaming, sandbox, and whatever other buzzwords you would care to throw in. That was certainly the trend at the time, and we began experimenting with it.

“Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for us. From a narrative point of view, it’s a very, very challenging game type, especially for a thriller. If you look at what we do in Alan Wake with the environment, the atmosphere and the music, try to imagine that in an open world setting – let’s say you’re going to that meeting with the bad guy at Lovers’ Peak. The soundtrack fires up, the fog starts to roll across the hills, there’s something rustling in the undergrowth. But then the player decides that what he really wants to do right now is some logging missions. So what do we do? Do we stop building the atmosphere and reset the environment? I mean, we can do that. It’s not difficult from a technical standpoint, but the atmosphere just isn’t gonna survive that. We learned that the hard way.”

Above: The Taken went through changes as their nature was worked out thematically and gameplay-wise

Even though you never have the opportunity to explore it freely, the open world still exists in the background. “We still have a continuous area of about 10x10 kilometers that is outlined to various levels of detail and follows the original philosophy of a condensed Pacific Northwest experience,” confesses Lehtinen. A sandbox future is definitely within Remedy’s grasp, but whether or not it happens depends on the plot.

“If it ever puts the story integrity into jeopardy, I do not see us doing the open world quite the way that people are accustomed to. However, creating smaller sandbox-styled sections in our own way to designated areas that stay within the boundaries of the story is not off the table.”

The sandbox world wasn’t the only feature that didn’t make it onto the retail disc. Every scene and element in Alan Wake needed to justify the time investment in order to make it happen – a practice no different from production in any other title – and as you’d expect, not everything made it. Bickering Sheriff Deputies Mulligan and Thornton – two team favorites – suffered that fate, although echoes of their existence live on in the police radio transmissions. “We like those guys, we’d really like to do more with them sometime,” Rautalahti says.

Above: Motion capture brings Alan to life

An entire dream sequence was chopped from Alan’s missing time in the trailer park as well. “Wake went from one disturbing scene to another, typically seeing and hearing things that stemmed from his own insecurities and fears – he saw Sheriff Breaker and Agent Nightingale plotting against him, and both Doc and Dr. Hartman diagnosing him as an insomniac alcoholic who exists in a state of perpetual denial and delusions. It was a very fun sequence, but it was also a lot of work, and it wasn’t doing our pacing any favors.”

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