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An Interview With Sam Lake About Alan Wake's 10-Year Anniversary And What Comes Next For Control

by Andrew Reiner on May 14, 2020 at 09:00 AM

Sam Lake is the writer behind most of Remedy Entertainment's story driven adventures. Not only did he pen the words that brought Max Payne to life, he's also the face of the character. Lake then helped create the stories for Alan Wake, Quantum Break, and Control. He's one of video games' great storytellers, giving us a wide variety of experiences to explore.

Of all of the stories he's written, Alan Wake is probably the one that is talked about most. Stephen King and Twin Peaks are often brought up when describing Alan Wake's weird dream-like narrative. It's open for interpretation and debate, and its mystery has turned it into one of gaming's most beloved cult classics. Today, Alan Wake turns 10 years old, and fans want more of it.

I recently talked to Lake about the creation of Alan Wake and what he thinks of it now, 10 years later. He also gives a small tease of what we can expect next from Control.

Take me back to day one of you dreaming up Alan Wake. What was the first thing that entered your mind?
Sam Lake: It would be fun to say that I just planned the whole thing like that, but all of these stories and characters and worlds have many beginnings. They come from many different sources and find their way to form something. Coming out of Max Payne 2 and starting to think about the next Remedy project, it ended up being a long time of exploration. We spent over a year concepting different ideas before we landed on Alan Wake. There were multiple different game ideas we explored. I would say that out of those, bit by bit, pieces remained on the table. It was kind of a pendulum swing in some ways. After we had spent seven-plus years on Max Payne, it felt like it was time for something different.

What were some of those other ideas that were left behind?
The first concept we were exploring was actually a fantasy game with a lot of humor in it – quite a bit different than hard-boiled noir. That [game's] engine work and tools started on ideas of light and dark, day and night. As you may know, early on in Alan Wake, we were aiming to create a free-roaming, open-world game, and that was already on the table with the first concept.

Sam Lake

I have to know about the humor in the fantasy game.
It was very Terry Pratchett inspired, tonally. We decided we were not going in that direction after exploring it for a while. There were other concepts, too. There was a zombie-apocalypse game that was kind of a road trip from East Coast to West Coast. And there was another idea with a small town.  Although that concept ended up being different than Alan Wake, the small-town idea was something that remained on the table. So we had day and night, light and dark, a small-town setting, and pieces like that – even if the concept we were working on didn’t feel quite right, some elements of it remained. And then we kind of formed Alan Wake, the Twin Peaks inspiration, the Pacific Northwest small town, and also Alan Wake as a writer.

Because of this 10-year anniversary, I’ve been looking at the old documentation and digging that up. These elements were on the table in 2005. Max Payne 2 shipped in late 2003, and then there was a year of exploring, but in early 2005 we had a concept called Alan Wake. We had the writer, Bright Falls as an idyllic, quirky small town, and light and dark as an idea for combat that we viewed as layered. Light was an enabling thing; it weakens the enemy, and then you can use conventional weapons against it. That was there already at that point, but also what we had back then was a free-roaming open world and dynamic day and night cycles.

Early concept art.

At that point, Alan Wake was the focus. How did it all come together?
Looking back with some distance you can see that there is no thinking of how all of these different elements would click together. They were just a level of ambition by a lot of ambitious people. We had a bit of a candy-store feeling after Max Payne, that now everybody gets their wish and let’s just divide it up. That was the road to Alan Wake.

There were certain elements, like I had gone through theater academia in Finland to study screenwriting between Max Payne 1 and 2, and I had written, among other things, one film screenplay in Finnish. It was a horror film. I was drawing from my childhood summer experiences for the setting, but also there were elements like this witch character inspired by the Slavic folklore Baba Yaga. Of course in Alan Wake we have Barbara Jagger, and there were these Swedes, the crazy Anderson brothers, who think they are Viking gods, and there was also the idea of this old light switch that kind of is a tool against the horrors called “The Clicker,” which is an actual childhood toy of mine. I was fascinated by all kinds of junk, and I didn’t necessarily understand what the purpose of something was, but I took them and played around with them. That’s where The Clicker idea came from. I ended up stealing from my own screenplay.

It sounds like you really Frankensteined this thing from a lot of ideas.
That, to me, feels like a natural creative process. I feel that’s how these things are born, at least for me. [laughs]

You said you had the name Alan Wake early on. Is that an idea you knew you wanted out of the gate or did you have other working titles for the game and for the character?
I think there was exploration, but with Alan Wake, we landed quite fast with that name. Obviously, there is the “a” in “awake,” and in some ways in that concept, there was a bit more thematical things dealing with dreams that faded more into the background, and the writing and creative process of it was a bigger element. That’s where Alan Wake’s name comes from. Max Payne is kind of the model there that defined the name of the main character that can serve as the name of the game as well.

I was at the E3 where Alan Wake debuted. It was in a small room that was packed with people. You stood behind us and narrated the demo. That's when Alan Wake was still open-world, right? I remember being impressed by the technology that allowed logs to roll down a hill.
Yes, and back then we didn't even have a publisher. Remedy was in a secure situation after the IP deal of Max Payne, and we just wanted to create the concept and push it further. We created the demo, and with E3 in 2005, we wanted to publicly show what we had. We were feeling good about it, and also felt we could get some interest and hype going. That would put us in a better negotiation situation with the publishers.

An image of Remedy location scouting for Alan Wake

When did you land the publishing deal with Microsoft?
Relatively quick. Within that year. It's been a while, so I don't know the exact timeline of events. We were already in discussions with publishers starting at GDC in 2005. That was ongoing, and we ultimately felt that Microsoft was the best partner for us and for that game. That was moving forward.

When did you start honing it into the direction of not being an open world?
It was a rather long and winding pre-production period for Alan Wake. We were prototyping and exploring relatively wildly and widely on different things, and honestly also being lost with it along the way. The decision, which was ultimately a very painful one to make, was that we sat down and realized we needed to focus the project.

That was in 2008. From 2005 and that first demo to 2008, was the period of obviously building important content, like the world and locations and all kinds of things. The part that was tied to free-roaming the open world and dynamic day and night light cycles was something that we were trying different things with, but we struggled to find a combination of things that would work. This also went to the core gameplay like the enemies and how exactly you're fighting them. We were trying all kinds of things. For the open world, the original concept had these ideas from the story side that there is this small town, and it would have lots of life and personalities and some humor in it. Going into the process of completely figuring out the direction of the game, it started leaning toward strategical survival.

Did you have survival-based gameplay prototyped?
When you say "night is coming" and night brings trouble, it starts to mean the player wants to prepare for nightfall. We had elements where you are driving around in this open-world looking for a generator, looking for portable light sources, looking for gasoline for the generator, and then you are setting up a camp and preparing for the nightfall. Also, with the NPCs, we found ourselves in a situation wondering, "Does it make sense to have NPCs around?"

There was a version of the story trying to support all of these different things. We had one where the volcano on the corner of the lake is erupting and the whole area has been evacuated. There was also a supernatural, post-apocalyptic version where Alan Wake wakes up in the cabin and the darkness has already taken over the world. We only had seven survivors in Bright Falls who boarded themselves up in their houses and they have generators and lights going. We started to lose that idea that I thought was very valuable where we have this normal world and that quirkiness there, and then we have night time coming and the horrors and nightmares. We were going back and forth trying different things and ended up deciding, "No." This was a really painful and scary decision to make since we already announced it was an open world. We had to tell ourselves "No, we aren't making that" first, and then the same thing publicly: "We are sorry, but we have shifted direction."

A lot of that work ended up staying in the game though, right?
It was a long journey, but I think ultimately looking back at what the game ended up being, I think there are wonderful things that came from that period. We built the map, we built the world, and even though the end result is linear, the world is big. You can see it and sense it, even though we are altering the time of day for each level, the sun is still in the correct position. It gives you this feeling that you don't even actively notice, but it feels like a connected, real world. All of the exploration around the story also made it feel more thoughtful and deeper. If it had been just one thing, straight from beginning to end, I don't think there would have been so much thinking around these themes along the way. They are all there in some form.

At the point when you made the painful decision to switch direction, did it just click in place? That was what two years from release?
Yes, that was 2008. We ended up with the leads in the theme. We went through every aspect of the design and made decisions on how we would do it. Out of those decisions, further design work was needed to figure out the enemies, how they were taken over by darkness, and how exactly does the flashlight work. Again, we were drawing from elements that were already there for the story. Certainly, there were bits and pieces written along the way, but this is where it really was the version that we were going to go with.

Is that when you figured out it would be split into six episodes, like a TV show?
Yes, sure, but from the beginning of the 2005 version, I had the idea that this should be structured like a season of a television show. That was an idea that kind of came to me during Max Payne that was modeled like a movie. I started thinking for a longer experience like a game, a season of a TV show would be a much better structure. That was there through the whole thing. Dividing it into actual episodes with the final story, that came in 2008.

Alan Wake is a psychological thriller, but I also appreciate the amount of heart you had put into this game and the mystery that unfolds with Alan's relationships. Can you talk about building Alan as a character?
To me, from the very beginning, one of the fundamental ideas I wanted for the character was, "Yes, this is an action game, but let's have not him be a professional action hero." That was a big element of it. Coming out of Max Payne, he's obviously at home with the action. That's his profession as a cop. I wanted to try something different, and get a bit more human with Alan. I wanted him to be deeper and less perfect. Certainly, I thought it was a nice thing to have a storyteller as the main character. In some ways I feel the whole thing was fueled by our struggles at Remedy. This game is kind of a metaphor for making a work of art. Alan struggles with his stories. We felt very at home with this character.

You say Alan isn't a typical action hero. Obviously, for a writer he dodges pretty well, but did you have physical limitations on what he couldn't do action-wise?
That was part of the exploration. He gets winded running around the forest. We wanted these small elements to not be in the way of the action experience, but remind you that he isn't a perfect master when it comes to action. He is afraid and you feel he's in a tight spot. He's no superhero. Of course, the other aspect of the story that is present is his fiction is coming true and he's able to affect things through the fiction. These things can also help him and give him the possibility to overcome.

I love how the story is told through characters conversing, notes you find, and also through one thing you do more than any other developer: live-action footage. How did the decision to focus on that kind of storytelling come to be?
The roots of it go back to Max Payne. There, I already started thinking as we create games in a present-day world, to make it deeper and more believable, these other mediums have to present within it. For me, I like storytelling that is layered, and in some ways fragmented, but comes together from different pieces. In Max Payne, there were a couple of televisions with in-game TV content, and then in Max Payne 2, it took on a life of its own, and I wrote like 60 different TV shows, all in different genres.

That was an important idea to me that they would all be this twisted mirror to the main story. My idea with Max Payne was it's told so much through that character and he's the filter of the story, that we're not really seeing it as he sees it. Then the idea is, are the TV shows in this world actually this much an echo of what is going on, or is he so much wrapped in his own thing that he hears it and sees it everywhere? That was the idea. I wanted to keep it going in Alan Wake, but find in more opportunities to bring in other mediums. The technology improved so much during Alan Wake's development that we could actually have videos in the in-game TVs. That was not possible with Max Payne. They were just still images with voice over. We suddenly could do video. Immediately my feeling was, "Let's do live-action."

We came up with the idea of Night Springs, which is kind of inspired by The Twilight Zone, and each episode would somehow deal with themes and ideas that we are circling around in the main story. There are also these clips that are supernatural things we were calling "writer in the cabin," which kind of show us the one week of missing time when Alan is writing the manuscript. We see glimpses of that one week in these in-game, live-action TV shows. We even had prequel live-action webisodes that came out as part of the marketing campaign. Going forward into Alan Wake: American Nightmare, there we did cinematic cutscenes as live-action. [You] know where we went next with Quantum Break – a full-on, crazy TV show. We scaled back for Control, but still I feel my interest with live-action is it is something we should continue exploring and finding new ways of using it. We did it as blended footage over gameplay in Control. You could see the previous director appearing almost as a ghost to you. That was all live-action.

The game was received fairly well critically and became a cult classic with fans. Looking back 10 years now, how do you think it turned out?
You know, because of the struggles along the way, but also as objectively as one can look at something that we have made, I am really proud of it. I think it turned out really well. In some ways, him being a writer trying out things that are not obvious, and trying to create a deeper world and narrative for it, Alan Wake has a special place in my heart. In a strange way, it does seem to have staying power kind. It's not that the excitement of people who played Alan Wake and enjoyed it has grown more quiet through the years, quite the contrary. It seems like it keeps growing every year.

Now that Control is out, we didn't want to make big noise about this before its release, but I wanted to build the idea of a connected universe for Remedy in the background. If you play Control and explore, you'll find things that show Alan Wake and Control exist in the same world. What's more, it becomes clear that the Federal Bureau of Control that deals with these unexplainable things has been looking into what happened in Alan Wake.

They have actual research and documentation around it. For fans from back in the day who didn't quite understand what was going on in Alan Wake, like Max Payne, the story was very much one man's experience or journey. Some things are not explained further than he sees them. Now we have this Bureau that deals with these things and applies science and research to them. We have this opportunity of looking back at what happened in Alan Wake and how does the Bureau see it. Well, there was this otherworldly event that took place in Bright Falls and they suddenly have this terminology. We have people that say, "I loved Alan Wake but I didn't quite understand what happened, and now I played Control and I understand what happened in Alan Wake!" That's been really fun and a nice opportunity.

Will that be told further in AWE, the next DLC for Control?
We have that coming later this year, and yes, we've been hinting at it, but not spelling it out. I can say that you will find out more about the Bureau's research on what happened in Alan Wake and where they are with it today. It's kind of nice with this being Alan Wake's 10-year anniversary that we have an opportunity to have more Alan Wake-related content for the fans.

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