Alan Wake’s Lead Writer Sam Lake on the Game’s Inspirations and the Value of Ambiguous Endings

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If you thought Twilight made the Pacific Northwest look scary, wait until you play Alan Wake, Remedy Entertainment's new five-years-in-the-making psychological thriller, out this week for Xbox 360. In the game, you play the titular character, a Stephen King–resembling horror author who takes a trip to fictional Bright Falls, Washington, in an attempt to ease his writers' block. But when his wife goes missing under creepy circumstances, Wake, armed primarily with a flashlight, sets out to find her in a town under the influence of a dark supernatural presence. Over six missions, each broken up like a TV episode ("Last time on Alan Wake ... ," each begins), the game tips its hat to King, David Lynch, The Twilight Zone, and Lost. We spoke with Remedy's lead writer, Sam Lake.

Alan Wake was in the works for five years. How much of that was writing?
We start to work on the technology and the tools we use to build the game at the same time, but really the story is very much the first thing. There will be early drafts of the synopsis, and then while we are prototyping different gaming elements, we go back to the story all the time. We go back and forth; it's a continuous dialogue. The writing goes on until the very end. A week before the final version, we have a final voice-over recording and we always write new dialogue lines. It’s really the whole project over five years.

The game was originally conceived as an open-world, Grand Theft Auto–style game, but the final product is more linear. How much rewriting was required when the change happened?
It was quite early on in the project when we were prototyping different gameplay elements, and the sandbox concept and sandbox ideas were among those. We did take that quite far and naturally there was an effect on the story. With those, we knew that we wanted to do a story and a character-centric game, and with the sandbox prototype we were constantly running into situations where we had to do compromises, either with the gameplay or with the story, and in the end we decided that it wasn't worth it — the sandbox element would not fit into the vision that we had for what Alan Wake should be.

Can you give me an example of a compromise you had to make because of the gameplay?
No, not really. Nothing comes to mind. I think that as we go on with the project, the focus and the research gets stronger, and all of the team members are working in sync with each other. That kind of material that you had to leave behind or cut off usually happens early on in the project, when you are still looking at what the focus really should be about, and the closer and closer that you come to the end, the more you know what it should be, and you have tested different things, and you know what works and what doesn’t work. So many of those things happened early on, a couple of years back, and I have nothing in my mind that I would feel sad about today, because I am very happy with the way that the game has finally ended up being.

The game all takes place in Washington, but your team is based in Finland. Did you have to go visit?
Our graphic artists took their cameras and went to Washington for a couple of extended trips and came back with a huge amount of research material, something like 60,000 photographs and hours and hours of video. They went through different small towns in the area, places where Twin Peaks was shot, and Northern Exposure was shot, and Crater Lake and the exterior shots of The Shining were filmed. Things like that.

You mentioned Twin Peaks. The game opens with a Stephen King quote, and there are obvious nods to the Twilight Zone. Apart from the obvious, what else inspired this game? Is there anything that people might be surprised by?
Lost is one thing. We’re big fans of Lost here, and they do sort of thriller painting in a TV series, and they do it very well. That is something we wanted to achieve in the painting of our game as well. There are several novels to me as a writer that were important. In Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions there is a writer character who has had a midlife crisis, and there is Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, where Bret Easton Ellis develops the character as a kind of a troubled character who’s losing his grip of reality. And then there is a very nice postmodern thriller called House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, which I liked a lot, and kind of the creepy atmosphere that happens in that book was very much in my mind when I was thinking about Alan Wake.

You mentioned Lost. Without spoiling too much, we can probably say that Alan Wake's ending leaves a lot open to interpretation. So I take it you won't be disappointed if Lost's ending is an ambiguous one?
I think that you need enough, but preferably not too much. I think after years and years of following something, each and every one of us have created a picture in our heads of what Lost is about. And if you have a very concrete or definite ending, I think for many people it might be a letdown. If you come up with something really brilliant, then fine. But more likely, the case is that it’s something that many people will find disappointing. And because of that, I think you need to answer enough things but leave something for interpretation and then people can make up their own minds of what it means, and likely they’ll be more satisfied with something like that.

With Alan Wake’s ending, I felt that it needs to be emotionally satisfying and fitting to the story, and because it is a psychological thriller, it needs to be somewhat subjective and dreamlike. There needs to be a dreamlike quality to it. But at the same time, I do feel that there is enough concrete things happening for it to feel satisfying and feel that the player and Alan Wake have reached a certain goal and leave these things open for interpretation. I believe that the most wonderful thing is that it makes people think and speculate and wonder what it is, and also it means that the ending will stay with them for longer than something that is very neat and ties up all the loose ends. Of course, we are kind of thinking of doing more Alan Wake and time will tell about possible sequels, but that will be the time when you find out our interpretation of the ending or how the story will go on.

Remedy's Max Payne was modeled on you. How much of Alan Wake is based on you?
Not very much, luckily. It’s somewhat of a troubled character. There is a writer side, and I do feel that on some level you can look at Alan Wake as a metaphor for a long and difficult writing process. We share the same profession, and it is something that I’m familiar with and can easily use as part of a story. When it comes to what kind of a person Alan Wake is or his relationship or things like that, they are purely fiction. There is one small detail, the toy from childhood, the clicker — the light switch. I did have a toy like that when I was a child. Of course, it had a Finnish name, but the meaning is the same. But that is something I ended up using as an element in this story.

The game was in development for five years. Are you thinking that far ahead now? Is there something that you’re excited to do in 2015 that you couldn’t do on the current generation game consoles?
There are really two things that I feel are very exciting and will open up new possibilities. One thing is that it takes a lot of work and a lot of effort to do small things, small human things. Subtle facial expressions, emotional details when it comes to facial-motion capture. Or just having a character pick up a small object from the table or something like that — things that we take for granted in live-action movies. So for the next project already, or the one after that, we can do a lot more or a lot more reality things. From a writer’s perspective, I do feel that the most important part of any story is really human interaction, and human emotions, and that’s really exciting. The other thing, from Microsoft's perspective, working with them in Project Natal of course. This new thing with Natal, getting rid of the controller altogether and having players move in front of the screen and talk to the game and getting a response — from a developer's perspective, that’s a very exciting thing, and new possibilities in how to build stories for the games.

We will have to wait until the sequel for your interpretation of what the game's ending means? There are downloadable episodes coming soon — those won't clear it up?
Well, the downloadable ones will take the story forward, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can tell you this much: The downloadable content does take place after the events of the game and the first pack will be called "The Signal." We really see the downloadable content as a special feature in the series, something that a TV show might do in the summer, for example, in between two seasons. Something that builds a bridge from one season to the next, or in our case, from the first game to the potential sequel. But of course it’s too early to really talk about sequels. The success of the first game will determine that. If the players really like Alan Wake and want more, then we do have plans in place and we do know where we want to take the story, and we would be very happy and excited to do more Alan Wake.

One last thing: What's the deal with all the coffee thermoses lying everywhere in the game? I kept picking them up, but I still don't know why. What was up with those?
[Laughs.] It’s really just tipping our hats to Twin Peaks, where they do drink a lot of coffee all the time and talk about it. We also love our coffee here. Nothing more really. I do think you get an achievement if you collect enough of them, but really, no deeper story meaning with that.