November 25, 2010

Q&A – Remedy Talks Alan Wake

Filed under: Features — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 1:32 pm

Alan Wake
On my list of most significant games of 2010, it shouldn’t surprise regular readers and sugarfiends if I give a nod to Alan Wake – though even after reviewing the game and two installments of DLC, I still feel as if I haven’t captured the essence of the “why” behind that. Remedy’s work with Wake has left a lingering impression on me, a game I’m certain to remember for many years to come, which increasingly seems like one of the most significant accomplishments a videogame can achieve.

Despite my trouble of always putting exact words to that experience, I did cobble together some questions about the game and specifically about the DLC chapters that followed, which Remedy writer Mikko Rautalahti was good enough to take the time to answer.

Catch it after the break.

Alan Wake
Gamesugar: I’ll walk a fine line here trying not to ruin any story surprises for those that haven’t completed them yet, but I wanted to ask about the direction of the DLC, because the two chapters focus intently on the internal, on exploring Wake’s rational and unconscious mind as well as his memories.

That proposition is always going to lean toward the strange, which for a videogame seems to present the challenge of creating a naturally loose and surreal environment that still keeps a focus that moves the player forward. With that in mind, I wanted to ask how you approached the design for both of these additional chapters?

Mikko Rautalahti: We talked about that quite a bit. Without getting too spoilerish here, both The Signal and The Writer are set in the Dark Place, and it’s a pretty weird environment. It’s very dynamic, constantly in flux, and it can be shaped by creative forces – that is to say, thoughts, imagination and dreams. It’s a little like being in a dream; things tend to feel a little loose. Another thing that we knew we wanted to include was water. The deep, dark waters of Cauldron Lake are linked to the Dark Place in the Alan Wake mythology, so we wanted there to be a lingering sensation of being underwater. You can see that particularly well in our color palette.

All of this had a big influence on our level design. First of all, it had to feel a little different from the main game. We didn’t make any huge changes there, but it enabled us to do things we couldn’t do in Alan Wake itself. We have our share of fantastic elements there, but we do try to maintain a certain illusion of realism there – it’s very much grounded in the real world. In the Dark Place, that no longer applies, so we pull tricks like have the player walk through a doorway, and when he turns back to look at it, there’s just a smooth wall. Or he enters a building, and when he comes back out, the view outside is different. Locations are connected in weird, unnatural ways. Sometimes, we mess with the sense of scale. As things progress, they get more and more surreal.

Doing tricks like that isn’t a great technical feat, really. The big challenge is in making the gameplay experience feel natural: you go too far with these things, and people just get confused. And to make things more complicated, you probably want them to feel a little bit confused – after all, it’s supposed to be a surreal, dreamlike experience. But you don’t want to annoy them, and you definitely don’t want them to start thinking that you’re just trotting out one random thing after another. There needs to be a sense of progression, something that ties the experience together. That was a big priority for us. It mostly comes down to just really studying the flow of your gameplay and identifying things that feel jarring. That’s easy to say, but often hard to see when you’re so close to the thing you’re working on, so it’s unlikely to happen by itself. You have to make it a point to pay a lot of attention to that.

Alan Wake
Gamesugar: The two DLC chapters also explore the wordplay from the end of the retail release, that bit of semiotics that has Alan shining light on words to produce the physical object represented by said word. Of course Wake is a writer, so words and language become important symbols, but aside from a game like Scribblenauts, Alan Wake feels like the first videogame to really explore the significance of words beyond using them as visual dressing. It’s also something I’m obsessed with on a personal level, so I may be blowing it out of proportion, but do you feel like you’ve tapped into something unique there that deserves more exploration in the medium?

Mikko Rautalahti: First of all, since you brought up Scribblenauts, let me say that I’m really impressed by the way it plays around with words and makes it look simple. They’re doing some really, really clever things. It helps that they’re operating in 2D, of course! And yes, I definitely think there’s more that could be done with this kind of wordplay. We had a lot more ideas about it than we actually ended up implementing, simply because we were working under certain limitations – the most important one being that the DLC was produced fairly quickly. We only started working on it when Alan Wake’s content was already complete and we’d pretty much handed it off to Microsoft. It’s not too hard to tell that we simply had more time to work on the second DLC episode, The Writer – we took the idea a little further in that one, and of course the environments in The Writer are a lot more complex and striking as well.

Words and their relationships fascinate me as well. Communication is as much about context as it is about the words we choose to use, and the idea of turning abstract concepts into reality is rich – I think you could mine it for a long time and keep coming up with new cool gameplay ideas, one after another.

But once you go conceptual like that, you are kind of opening a can of worms. There’s a bit of a contradiction at work here – I mean, if you have a word floating out there, it’s pretty cool, because it’s not just a word; it’s really all the things it could mean or imply. There’s a lot of potential in it, waiting to be unleashed. It works the imagination. But things like that are challenging in video games, because – emergent gameplay notwithstanding – that word’s going to be limited by what the designers can do. So there can be a kind of a conflict between expectation and what can be realistically implemented. The whole thing can very easily snowball into something unmanageable.

For example, we toyed around with the idea of there being sentences Wake could form by using various words and those having a very tangible impact on the environment, but it just got way too complex… not least because of the localization issues that are always going to be associated with something like that – different languages have different syntaxes, and even things like the number of words involved can change. It also wasn’t obvious how it should be done so it would be fun to play… or that players would get it, even! We just didn’t have the time to really get into it, so we settled for something simpler that we knew would work and concentrated on making it atmospheric and fun. I think it worked out very well in the end, but it could absolutely be taken further. We’ve been trying out a bunch of more advanced ideas related to that since then. I can’t go into details, but I think it’s got legs.

Alan Wake
Gamesugar: Now that you’re getting the chance to see how episodic content is digested by gamers, has the view of digitally distributed episodes evolved at Remedy? I recall at one time there was talk of an entire second season for Alan Wake being distributed this way, and without digging at you for sequel gossip, I’m interested in your take on that delivery system now?

Mikko Rautalahti: It’s definitely something we’ve thought about, of course; I think it’s something that most people in this industry talk about quite a bit, these days. It’s just one of those things people can’t afford to ignore regardless of whether they’re doing anything like that themselves. We’ll have Alan Wake on Xbox LIVE’s Games on Demand on November 23, but of course that’s not the same thing as actually doing an entire “season” worth of new stuff like that. I’m not sure if our views about it have really changed all that much, though; it’s an intriguing idea, but to actually do it would depend on an amazing number of different things. I don’t really want to start speculating about it.

Gamesugar: I also wanted to ask about the challenge of balancing narrative flow and game difficulty, the push and pull between trying to keep the story moving players along, while offering conflicts that involve players without overwhelming them or making them feel as if they’ve hit a wall that may cause them to stop playing. The Signal for instance seems to come across with a more aggressive set of scenarios than are found in The Writer.

Mikko Rautalahti: Well, we wanted The Signal to be more difficult than the main game. In retrospect, we probably went a little too far with that. On the other hand, I don’t think it was so difficult that it made people give up on it.

But to take a little broader view of this, I think it can be difficult to tell stories in video games. There are all these conventions – you are expected to have a certain amount of combat, a certain minimum number of gameplay hours, etc. These conventions aren’t really engineered with storytelling in mind. So a lot of the time, you end up kind of glossing over some of the details in your head – I mean, if you’re playing the lone hero, in terms of the story, does that guy really rack up a four-digit body count? Does he really get repeatedly shot with high-caliber weapons and mysteriously heal himself? And if you really get stuck at a difficult part, does that really mean that the hero also spent an hour just running around in frustration and then quit. Probably not, you know?

I think most gamers have this internal thing where we quietly acknowledge that disconnect between the story and the gameplay content. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, either – plenty of very smart and well-designed games depend on that. But it can sometimes be difficult, and it’s something developers should try to bear in mind. You need to keep sucking the player into the story, because chances are the gameplay is going to be pulling them out of it, at least some of the time.

Alan Wake
Gamesugar: We’ve seen a big open world game go bust this year with the release of APB, so I’m tempted to ask if you feel extra content about the decision to reign in the wider sandbox ideas that originally accompanied Alan Wake’s development.

But I really would like to capture a sense of that decision to create a more focused game, of how a developer weighs the results of an experiment with both the desires of gamers and the needs of the studio. It increasingly seems like a quest to make the greatest videogame in history misses opportunities to create genuinely great gaming experiences, and since I feel like you waded through those waters to do just that, I’d kick myself if I didn’t ask for your thoughts here.

Mikko Rautalahti: Honestly, I’ve never really thought of it in those terms, and I really don’t think being an open world game was a major factor in that particular case. I don’t know too much about the details, so I can’t really comment on it beyond that.

As for our game, we’re still happy with the decision to not use an open world in Alan Wake. I’ve often said that if there’s one thing I regret about experimenting with an open world, it’s the fact that we ever talked about it in public – it was a great thing to try, and we learned a great deal about it both in terms of our technology and our design. It was very useful to us. It taught us that if our goal was to make a tightly paced and atmospheric thriller game, an open world would make that very difficult, and we changed our design accordingly.

Now, obviously, we didn’t take that step lightly, but it’s what we needed to do. It wasn’t very dramatic, really; I think most games go through phases like that where the design changes quite a bit. Game development is an iterative process where things are constantly improving and evolving. Change is good; it’d be the height of arrogance to assume that your first idea is best.

Unfortunately, we talked about it before we nailed the design down. That really was a mistake, because gamers understandably had a very different view of the entire situation. They kind of built this imaginary Alan Wake in their heads. I know there are people who really think that game – or some variation thereof – existed, that we just took this big great sprawling open world game and crammed it into this single player experience, but it wasn’t like that. There was never an open world Alan Wake – I mean, sure, we had the technology, we had a lot of the game world in place, absolutely, but there’s so much more to actually making a game than that. It’s a little like saying that if you have 85 acres of land, you have Disneyland, but there’s a massive step between owning the land and actually opening a theme park on it.

It was very important to us that people playing Alan Wake feel like they’re playing something that isn’t just another iteration of something else, and maintaining that atmosphere was a key thing. We wanted the game to be its own thing, and we made our choices based on that.

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