The making of Alan Wake

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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  • AlSwearengenHatesCocksuckers - August 16, 2010 2:10 p.m.

    I'm with you Gremlin, I beat the game in one day and was completely underwhelmed by the entire thing. Shine light, shoot, run through woods, shine light, shoot, qte, shine light, etc.. The story was decent, but I'm not a big fan of Stephen King type stories anyway, so I wouldn't be a good judge of it. As a GAME however, it was horrendous.
  • GREmLiN324 - August 16, 2010 1:20 p.m.

    Can someone please explain why anyone liked this game? it is basically 4 hours of running around in the same woods fighting the same enemys over and over and over. the story didnt feel like anything new, and why on earth would i want to pay for a few more hours of the same schlock? dont get me wrong, i was looking forward to this game, but it really did not live up to expectations.
  • FrozenImplosion - August 16, 2010 2:38 a.m.

    Amazing game, and made even more amazing by an experience I had this summer. My family and I went on a trip after I had finished Alan Wake on normal,and finished episode 1 in nightmare mode. We went from the east coast, all the way around the borders of America and one of our stops was Crater Lake in Oregon. Crater Lake I believe was the inspiration for Cauldron Lake, as well as Diver's Isle being the AW equivalent of Wizard Island in Crater Lake. With this theory, I posted on GameFAQS and found out from a poster that they had based Alan Wake's setting of the Northern Pacific region. The whole thing just made me really appreciate the level of detail going into level and environment design.
  • Redeater - August 16, 2010 1:17 a.m.

    @CH3BURASHKA Don't forget about the different paths with choice trees!!
  • BertTheTurtle - August 16, 2010 12:26 a.m.

    This is one of the best games I have ever played. Only real complaint is the T-rating. I would think that getting run over by a combine harvester or getting chainsawed would do more than just hurt a little. Still, one of my favorites.
  • CH3BURASHKA - August 15, 2010 11:51 p.m.

    I can't wait for Alan Wake 2. I think then an open world will be appropriate, and that will be uber cool. Also, the multiplayer will be fantastic.
  • Uru - August 15, 2010 11:47 p.m.

    I agree with ventanger, Max Payne 2 was fantastic. The acting and humor were stiff and forced in Alan Wake.
  • meh - August 15, 2010 8:17 p.m.

    I really like articles like these. Its really cool to know what is going through the developers' heads when they made the game. You guys should try to get more of these.
  • ventanger - August 15, 2010 8:11 p.m.

    As far as Remedy goes, I preferred Max Payne 2
  • Redeater - August 15, 2010 7:42 p.m.

    @Mattdawarrior wow really? Decent game but the story telling was subpar. Listen to talkradar for a hilarious take on the "story".
  • n00b - August 15, 2010 7:11 p.m.

    i really enjoyed this game definitely recommend to anyone interested
  • Mattdawarrior - August 15, 2010 6:49 p.m.

    Indeed, the best story telling in a game, ever.
  • BigWillis - August 15, 2010 5:43 p.m.

    Absolutely amazing game.