The other day, the official Twitter account for Alan Wake 2 tweeted, “You must write to escape…” and I felt my blood run cold. As a writer who knows the agony of writer’s block—the fear of looking inside myself and having to face all the doubts and insecurities lurking in my dark places as I struggle to put words on the page—the plight of Alan Wake has lingered with me for 13 years. Back in 2010, Remedy Entertainment’s prickly writer was one of the most unconventional heroes ever to star in his own mainstream action game.
Thankfully, the game was strange enough to match, denying players a conventional, feel-good ending in favor of a haunting ambiguity that saw Wake’s struggle only grow deeper and more mysterious. Now, a sequel is days away, one that promises to plunge us into Alan’s frayed and desperate mind. I recently got the chance to check out a few sections of the game, which only left me with more questions (and more excitement) about the ambitious sequel. Thankfully, Remedy creative director Sam Lake was on hand to answer some of them.
With Alan Wake 2’s release so imminent, I won’t discuss the narrative details of what I played, though I’m not sure I could if I tried. After all, the original game famously starts with a Stephen King quote asserting that explanations are “antithetical to the poetry of fear.” Like its predecessor, Alan Wake 2 seems to know that sometimes a narrative can take on far more meaning for us when it defies easy understanding and challenges us to interpret it for ourselves.
After the sequel hits me with a few mind-blowing surprises, I tell Sam Lake that I’m already looking forward to the YouTube videos we’re sure to see emerge with elaborate fan theories and interpretations of Alan Wake 2’s narrative layers and details. A mischievous smile graces the face that famously served as the original mug for Max Payne. “I love that,” he says, already sounding excited at the prospect. “In many ways, I feel that there is so much to unpack here, I’m expecting people to go down that rabbit hole and spend a couple of years there.”
Check Out Alan Wake II: Xbox
The shift into full-blown horror
I don’t doubt it. Without going into specifics, even my brief time with Alan Wake 2 repeatedly astounded me–with its stunningly atmospheric visuals and intense combat, yes, but mostly with the ambition of its narrative structure. Even an hour with the game–not its opening hour, but a few sections that happen later on–was enough for me to tell that it represents a seismic shift from the original, a straight action game in which the horror themes were kept at a remove by the safety of conventional action game design. Here, the terror is in your face, and all bets are off about where any of this might lead. I asked Lake about the decision to shift the series into all-out horror.
“There were multiple reasons,” he told me.”The first game, being an action game, had a lot of combat, but we got criticism that it’s very samey through the whole thing, and we wanted to react to that. There was also the fact that it had horror elements, but it was a teen-rated experience which confused a lot of people on what to expect. We wanted to be very clear what to expect with this game.”
He also stressed that the shift to horror doesn’t just allow the gameplay to go to darker, scarier places, but allows the story more room to breathe. “We have less combat, but it’s more intense, it’s more brutal. There is a strategic element with inventory and resource management, more build-up into each event. But there’s also a slowing down of the pacing that gave us a perfect opportunity to lean more heavily into interactive storytelling. There is room for gameplay systems about the story and discovering the story and piecing together the story. And overall, there’s just more room for atmosphere and building story.”
My time with the game bears this out. I see a number of moments that I just want to linger in and absorb, listening to every word characters say and puzzling over what they might mean. At one point, while playing as Saga Anderson, an FBI profiler who visits the Pacific Northwest setting of the first game to investigate a series of murders, I come across a character who will be familiar to Remedy fans, and he’s singing a song. It kills me that I don’t have time to stand and watch.
I also get a little taste of Saga’s profiling ability, what Lake described as a gameplay system that is entirely about the story, engaging you in the process of discovering it and piecing it together. It has you pinning clues onto a board, making a chart that breaks down the crimes you’re investigating, and I appreciate that this is something you actively do, not just something that happens automatically in the story while you’re just left to shoot bad guys.
A nightmare New York
While Saga’s surrounded by the gorgeous trees and cool mountain air of Bright Falls, Washington, Alan Wake seems to be trapped in a nightmare version of New York City, a grimy, grungy incarnation of the city that you now mostly glimpse in movies from the ‘70s. New York looms large in Remedy’s output. In Max Payne, it’s a crime-infested, noirish metropolis. In Control, it’s home to the otherworldly Oldest House. A few flashback scenes in the original Alan Wake take place here as well, with Alan’s well-lit apartment in the heart of the big city providing stark contrast to the natural beauty and eerie mystery of Bright Falls. I ask Lake why the city keeps resurfacing in his work.
“Being a Finn and having grown up in Finland,” he says, “but consuming endless amounts of American popular culture, to me New York has always played a role in film as this kind of crime-ridden, mystical, archetypal urban nightmare in a way.” It makes sense, then, that Lake cites Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as an influence on Alan Wake 2’s surreal version of the city, one where the wet asphalt streets reflect the neon above.
Making Alan Wake a flawed character
At one point, I guide Alan to pick up a ringing payphone, and he promptly swears at the person on the other end who seems to be playing mind games with him. I’m relieved to see Alan lose his temper, because while I’m excited for all the surprises Alan Wake 2 may have in store, there’s one thing I don’t want to see change from the first game: the fact that Alan can sometimes be kind of a jerk. Like many writers, he’s both arrogant and insecure. It makes him feel authentic and three-dimensional, and it’s crucial to his being such a memorable protagonist. I ask Sam Lake if he encountered any resistance, when making the original Alan Wake, to having the character be believably moody and sometimes downright rude.
“Yeah,” he says, “it was a struggle, especially back then. There was a lot of back and forth. We really felt that we wanted to create a flawed character, and there were other aspects to it as well. Like, even the concept back then for an action game to have a main character who is not a professional action hero but also a human being. There was a lot of worry back then that, ‘Well, you know, he needs to be really likable, so that the player wants to play him.’”
Lake said that, games being what they were in 2010, he feels they pushed Alan’s complexity and occasional unlikability about as far as they could, though he noted that it’s not at all uncommon to see films and novels that focus on characters far more off-putting than this stuffy writer. He went on to suggest that we may see Alan pushed further in the sequel. “[He’s] been trapped in this place for 13 years now, in a nightmare. I feel that there is an opportunity to find him more kind of raw and [for us to] just kind of peel away those layers to get into the pain points in his mind.”
New live-action ambitions
One way Alan Wake 2 is striving to pull us more deeply into its characters is through extensive use of live action, which I get a little taste of when my play as Alan shifts almost seamlessly into a fully acted scene. Of course, Remedy’s been incorporating live action into its games to varying degrees for a long time, from the Night Springs vignettes in Alan Wake to the full-blown TV episodes of Quantum Break. And yet what I see here feels qualitatively different, more smooth and organic in the way the live action emerges from the gameplay. I ask Lake if Alan Wake 2 feels like a step beyond what they’ve done with live action in the past.
“Yes,” he says, “very much so. That’s been the ambition. We started experimenting with integrating it more in Control and learned by doing that,” saying the shoots they did for the 2019 hit taught them a good deal about nuts-and-bolts elements of filmmaking, like how to use lighting effectively. And in Alan Wake 2, he says, it’s much more of a focus. “Because the Dark Place is a dream reality and such a layered kind of an experience, we felt that we could now put live action on the critical path, so that you are actually triggering it and Alan Wake kind of slips into a different layer of reality.”
Facing the fear
If it works as well within the full game as I feel it does in this controlled demo setting, I sense it could make players feel like the game and their experience of it are slipping between different layers of reality as well. The original Alan Wake delved into fears that I think many creative people understand—fear of failure, fear of losing whatever gift you may think you have, fear of abandoning the safe and familiar and trying something new. But Alan Wake 2 clearly aims to supercharge all that fear, which largely lingered in the shadows of the original game. So before my time with Sam Lake is up, there’s one last thing I have to ask him: As a writer and creator himself, does he experience those fears as well? Does he ever wake up in a cold sweat, terrified that Alan Wake 2 will come out and be a complete failure?
“Well,” he says, “certainly at this stage, now almost done after such a long, long road, there is nervousness, of course, like, ‘How will people see this and take this?’” But, he said, Remedy’s experiences with other games gave the team the confidence to take the risks they’re taking here. “With Control especially, we just wanted to be as weird as we felt excites us. And we felt that we pushed it quite far. And there was nervousness about how it would be received. But it was received really, really positively. It gave us confidence that modern audiences are ready for more complex, layered storytelling, more interactive storytelling in the sense that we don’t have to hold everybody’s hand and feed everything to them. There can be a lot of fragments of it to be pieced together.”
Still, he’s not immune, even now, to fears surfacing from deep in his subconscious. “What usually happens to me after a long project,” he admits, “is I will start having nightmares that it’s not done, and we are still in the middle of it. Like, you know, ‘We’re missing an ending. I don’t know what the ending is supposed to be!’” Here, he sees a parallel between him and Alan. “He’s been stuck for 13 years. He’s been trying to write the perfect story that would change reality and allow him to escape, and for 13 years he has failed.”
At this, Kyle Rowley, game director at Remedy for Alan Wake 2, pipes up. “Sam has been trying to write his way out by getting Alan Wake 2 done.” It strikes me then how personal a lot of this must be for Lake. Remedy had tremendous success with the Max Payne games, then shifted gears with Alan Wake. Alan Wake is a crime writer who killed off his own Max Payne-like hero, Alex Casey, and then found himself struggling as he sought to venture into new creative territory. And in Alan Wake 2, who plays an FBI agent who is coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) also named Alex Casey? Why, Sam Lake, of course. Meanwhile, a lake, Cauldron Lake, plays a major role in the plot of Alan Wake, and I suspect will return in Alan Wake 2. And speaking of lakes, Sam Lake’s actual Finnish last name of Järvi also means “lake.”
Alan Wake tells us that “it’s not a lake, it’s an ocean,” and we can all plumb its depths when Alan Wake 2 comes out on October 27.
Check Out Alan Wake II: Xbox