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Sam Lake on Alan Wake 2’s long journey into reality

Something any writer will tell you is that few things are as malignant as an idea. Once you discover a story rattling around in the dark corners of your head, it spreads and grows and seeps into every thought until you have to excise it. It’s a gnawing sensation of a hostile concept that won’t stop eating at you until you get it out of your head, onto paper, and into reality. It’s why I woke up at 3 a.m. to rewrite this intro and why Remedy has been trying to make Alan Wake 2 for 13 years.

The first Alan Wake was in development for seven years, from 2003 (right after the release of The Fall of Max Payne) until 2010. The Remedy team have been uncharacteristically (for the video game industry) open about that game’s troubled production and moreover, how that development hell influenced the story of Alan himself. The first game is about a man with writer’s block, who can’t figure out how to move on from the story of the hardboiled detective that he built his career on, and the story of Remedy’s work on Alan Wake is of a team trying to figure out where to go next without its own hardboiled detective.

Alan Wake went through several iterations and Remedy even showed large portions of the game, which, at the time, leaned into survival elements and had a day-night cycle, as an open-world game. That open design however couldn’t tell the right story. After three years in development, the company’s Creative Director Sam Lake and a small team spent several months rediscovering what Alan Wake was. It turns out it was a linear Stephan King-inspired tale of Lychian surrealism and third-person shooting, and it took another four years to see the light of day.

Alan finally completed his new manuscript and a new reality as the first game closes, in doing so, he traps himself in The Dark Place. Alan festered and grew in Remedy’s collective consciousness for 13 years. The team released two DLCs, created a standalone expansion, started a failed multimedia universe in Quantum Break, built a new universe with Control and connected it to Alan Wake in that time, and now, they’re days away from finally excising the thought they couldn’t escape for over a decade.

In the game’s universe, Alan has spent his last 13 years also trying to create his own future, to escape into reality. Speaking to Shacknews and at a panel at EGX in London a few weeks before the release of Alan Wake 2, Sam Lake admits, “I have to pinch myself now that we are here.”

After 28 years at the Finnish company Lake has become the face of Remedy for many. After all, he’s the one on stage at press conferences, he was the original face model of Max Payne back when “we didn’t know better”, and now he performs the motion capture for Alex Casey in Alan Wake 2. He is an integral part of the company and a well-known character in the games industry, and his speaking skills and stylish flair endear him to fans. However, Remedy is a big team, at least 360 people strong, that is working on multiple projects – including Alan Wake 2, remakes of Max Payne and Max Payne 2, and a multiplayer shooter set in the Remedy-connected universe. So as the lead writer, face of the company and creative director, just want role does he play? And is it as prominent as all the stage appearances might have you believe?

“I think making video games is very much a team effort, in all areas, and I feel that Finnish culture is very flat,” Lake says. Unlike the tortured lone auteur of Alan, Lake works with a team where, “it’s not like there is somebody at the top… it’s a conversation, and discussion, and a back and forth.” All of the studio’s games up to this point have started out with a small team, and Lake, designing the world and characters before the project becomes a broader collaborative effort. However, he admits that may be somewhat more protective of Alan Wake in particular.

Despite taking a step back during the tail end of Control to start work on the wider Remedy universe, he couldn’t do the same for Wake. “Alan Wake 2 is somehow so perfect for me,” he says. “Through all the struggle of getting [Alan Wake 2] even started I felt that, ‘No, if anything I want to be more hands-on and more focused on more areas than ever before.’” He even jokes that he may have been “mostly absent when it comes to being the company creative director” because “I feel that I have given my everything [to Alan Wake 2].”

With Lake as the lead writer Remedy games have always been a smorgasbord of pop culture inspirations. Lake describes his career as being like a “kid in a candy store”, constantly asking, “what could we tackle now?” Max Payne is a noir thriller, Alan Wake is a Steven King-esque supernatural horror. Quantum Break is a time-travel action romp, Control is an internet conspiracy theory fueled by Metroidvania. Now, Alan Wake 2 looks to be a more Lynchian-style horror mystery. Add into all this a connected universe, countless easter eggs and references and similar characters from IP the studio may no longer own and Remedy has its own mythology spanning decades.

A lot of modern entertainment struggles to balance this sort of storytelling. Studios announce movies years in advance only for world circumstances to change, audiences to grow tired of superhero movies, a pandemic hits, or planning for the long term distracts from making good art in the moment. So for Lake, it’s about finding a balance between an overarching universe and contained satisfying narratives. “The fact that it took so long for us to get back to Alan Wake, even forgetting [the] Remedy Connected Universe when thinking about Alan Wake, it felt that even if this is a sequel, it needs to be standalone and self-contained,” he says. After all, not everyone will be willing to go back and play a decade-old game, even if it has been remastered.

This balancing act only gets more difficult when you remember this game is meant to be a mystery. So the team had to figure out how to surprise players who might have played every Remedy game, and those whose first is Alan Wake 2. Lake says that this complex problem was fixed by the game’s second protagonist, Saga Anderson. “She has not experienced any supernatural [events] in her life before this,” Lake says. “So she comes in, as you would expect in a pop culture [murder mystery] as an FBI agent coming to investigate ritualistic serial killings.” In a way, Saga and Alan represent the two different kinds of players: Alan is acutely aware of how wild Remedy’s Universe can be and Saga is straight off the set of a true crime drama blissfully unaware of the supernatural threat.

The weirdness and wildness is something that makes Remedy games special. Much like Twin Peaks, Alan Wake’s Bright Falls is inhabited not just by death and dark secrets, but a lot of comical weirdos and colourful characters. Something Lake thinks makes the games so enticing for international audiences is Remedy’s Finnish culture. Lake explains that the heavy metal of the Finnish band Poets of the Fall transcending reality as the Old Gods of Asgard or Ahti, the Finnish janitor being found at the bottom of the oldest house can seem, “unique and exotic… for a global audience.”

Ahti – Contol’s sometimes Janitor, sometimes supernatural being of unknown power and influence – was a particular breakthrough for the studio. Lake remembers how well the character, played by Finnish actor Marti Suosalo was received, “[he] won a BAFTA for the role, and he didn’t even know what a BAFTA was.” The studio had always collaborated with local talent, including Finnish actor Ilkka Villi who lends his likeness to the titular troubled scribe, but Ahti caused something to click for Lake and the team’s head.

Thomas Puha, Remedy’s director of communications, said the team put a lot of Finnish culture in Alan Wake 2, and that was on purpose. “I felt that for Alan Wake 2 we can do plenty more,” Lake says and “If nobody comes in and tells me, ‘Sam, this is probably enough’ I think there will be more in the next one.” This too is a balance for the team, Lake talks about how many Finnish people consume a lot of American pop culture and how that shaded the games they create, but he also says, “maybe it’s growing older and getting more nostalgic about what’s back at home.”

“When we were close to finishing Alan Wake [1], we had ideas in place for Alan Wake 2 and Alan Wake 3” says Sam Lake. Those games never came to be, but after 13 years Lake says none of that work went to waste “Even if this Alan Wake 2 is very different from that Alan Wake 2 there were crucial learning through the years with our other games.” And now, a few days before release those ideas can finally enter reality.

Ultimately that is the big impression you are left when talking about Alan Wake 2: it’s a balancing act. For years Remedy, as one of the last major independent studios, has had to juggle funding, work-for-hire projects, and publishers, all while Alan waited in The Dark Place. Now after the success of Control, it feels like the studio finally has the cache to return to this character and focus on a new balancing act, one where a dark homicide investigation sits on one end and oddball locals singing karaoke in the afternoon occupy the other. One where a tightly wound isolated rural mystery can be unravelled while a growing universe can expand beyond the supernatural for years to come. One where Hollywood A-lists share the screen with Finnish character actors and a Finnish game developer. One where light and dark struggle to win an eternal war – and all from an idea Remedy couldn’t shake.

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