One of the most eye-catching games to emerge over E3 was undoubtedly Alan Wake (preview), a game that Finnish developer Remedy dubs "a psychological action thriller". Taking its cue from Stephen King novels and the kind of scary small town Americana that David Lynch explored so memorably in Twin Peaks, it's a free roaming action adventure that the makers of Max Payne are pitching as "truly next generation".
Players take on the role of tortured horror writer Alan Wake, who decides to up sticks and relocate to Bright Falls, Washington after his wife and muse goes missing. Plagued with nightmares, he suffers writer's block and seeks help at the local clinic, only to discover that the woman working there bears an uncanny resemblance to his missing partner.
Then Wake's nightmares intensify as the sun goes down. Hooded men dressed in black begin following him for real - the same men that stalk his dreams, and suddenly he's forced to fight back using light as a weapon in a game that promises to utilise environmental factors in new and innovative ways.
But that's just the background. Remedy is keeping many of the surprises well and truly under wraps for the time being, and if you read between the lines of the extensive interview below, with lead writer Sam Lake and lead game designer Petri Järvilehto, you might just discover one or two new bits of information for yourself, including which platforms it's coming out on, why they stopped working on Max Payne , how they feel about digital distributions and much more.
Eurogamer: First of all, why did you decide to move onto a new character for your latest game? Did you feel it was time to move on, or were there other reasons behind that?
Petri Järvilehto: We had already decided to start working with something else during the production of Max Payne 2. Max Payne was a fantastic property to work with, but after seven years of Payne it's quite refreshing to get started on something completely new.
Eurogamer: When did you start work on Alan Wake?
Petri Järvilehto: Alan Wake is a concept that we've been working with for over a year now. Once Max Payne 2 shipped we spent a little while recovering from the crunch, and then started working on different concepts trying to find the concept that would excite us and that we could be passionate about. And after several drafts we found something that we really liked... and that concept was Alan Wake.
Eurogamer: Has the jump to next generation development been easier or harder than you expected, and in what way?
Petri Järvilehto: It's been pretty much what we expected. Having so much more computing power at your disposal makes a huge difference. One of the key things with the next gen is that the demands on content creation have grown so much bigger, and just building the right tools for that take a while.
Eurogamer: Have you had to make many compromises over your original design? If so why?
Petri Järvilehto: Not really. I mean game development is always a matter of compromise. You try to find the best places to put your effort and you can never do everything that you'd really want to have in a game, but still... with this coming generation there's so much more computing power, memory and so on, that we don't really need to compromise that much.
Eurogamer: You've mentioned Alan Wake is a character "straight out of a Stephen King novel". Indeed, an author plagued by nightmares, suffering from writer's block and his wife is possibly dead sound just like "Bag of Bones" to us: coincidence? You also mentioned Twin Peaks as an influence - is it just the creepy small town setting you've borrowed, or the general atmosphere too?
Sam Lake: Yes, Stephen King is certainly one source of inspiration for us. I haven't read Bag of Bones myself, so I cannot really comment on that, but using a writer whose life turns nightmarish as a main character is something that King has successfully done in several of his books.
The most obvious Twin Peaks related things are naturally the location and the setting, the small town of Bright Falls in the state of Washington. As a TV series it really was the first to focus on a quirky and creepy small town setting. That kind of a setting has since been used in many other shows, but it's still something that hasn't really been seen in games. Atmosphere is a very important part of any thriller, and David Lynch is brilliant when it comes to that, so any lessons we can learn from him for this game will be a big bonus.
Eurogamer: Will Alan Wake be as "balls-out" combat/action heavy as Max Payne, or is it a little more cerebral this time with more emphasis on the atmosphere-building adventure/puzzling/exploration elements in there as well? Is there more of a survival horror (a la Silent Hill) feel to it?
Petri Järvilehto: Intense cinematic action is something that we love to do, and Alan Wake features tense combat gameplay as well, but all things considered the game has a lot more emphasis on adventure and exploration that what Max Payne did.
Eurogamer: We saw quite a bit of driving around in the technology presentation for Alan Wake - is that a core part of the gameplay, or just a means of getting from A to B?
Petri Järvilehto: Driving is an integral part of the game.
Eurogamer: How challenging was it to introduce vehicle gameplay into Alan Wake, and does Alan drive many vehicles over the course of the game? Care to reveal any?
Petri Järvilehto: It's been fun. We never got around to introducing driving mechanics to Max Payne, so getting finally to work with vehicles is very cool, and the game will feature a variety of different vehicles that the player can use. Havok has been really good to work with in this regard as well, and we got the vehicles up and running very rapidly.
Eurogamer: You made a big deal out of the dynamic weather and lighting in the game - we saw that lighting has a big impact on the gameplay, but didn't really see whether the weather effects would be more than cosmetic. Can you shed some light on how the changing weather will impact upon the gameplay?
Petri Järvilehto: The changes in the weather affect everything on global scale. Visibility changes, audio cues will behave differently, driving dynamics change and so on. Pretty much what you'd expect to happen in the real world as well.
The dynamic nature of the environment is something that we use to create drama as well... for example, when you start a mission branch, it's a nice peaceful morning, and as you keep completing missions a storm begins to rise and that continues and gets worse and worse when you progress through the sub-mission tree.
With a world this dynamic, even the same location can feel radically different depending on the time of day and the weather.
Eurogamer: Voiceover and script work was a key component of the Max Payne experience. Is there just as heavy an emphasis on these areas this time, and have you hired any big names to assist you this time around?
Petri Järvilehto: Definitely. High quality voice-overs make a huge difference in the players' experience. We won't name any names yet though.
Sam Lake: Story and dialogue are important parts of Alan Wake, just as much, if not even more than they were in Max Payne.
Eurogamer: From what we know about the game it will be quite non-linear. Does it have a sandbox structure that people will be familiar with, or are you going for a different approach?
Sam Lake: We're going for a combination of player freedom and story progression. Since we're focused on integrating a good story into the game, it will require a new approach to the game's structure as well. It will be challenging, but it is a challenge we gladly welcome.
Eurogamer: Describe a typical mission in Alan Wake. From what we saw at E3 it was still hard to tell exactly what kind of game it is.
Petri Järvilehto: We won't spill all the beans just yet. Part of it is that we want to hold things back so people will have new things to discover on the game, part of it is that we're still iterating things and finding the best solutions for some of the problems.
Eurogamer: Will the combat be purely about gunplay, or are there hand-to-hand elements in there too?
Petri Järvilehto: The combat is not purely about gunplay. The use of light plays an important role in the combat, and different light sources provide new gameplay angles there.
Eurogamer: Tell us more about these hooded men that stalk Alan? Who are they, and how does Alan fight them off?
Sam Lake: These figures first appear in Wake's dreams, and then they start slipping to the real world as well, or so it seems to Wake at least. They are connected to him and his past in many ways. I'm tempted to say a lot more, but I think that this is an area we'll save for later.
Eurogamer: Do you just play as Alan, or do you have any allies you can call upon for assistance and play as? Who are the key characters in Bright Falls?
Sam Lake: This too is something we still want to keep under wraps. We want everyone to get familiar with Alan Wake himself before we start introducing the supporting cast. Our small town setting and the fact that we are using TV-series as our story template might give you some hints of things to come though.
Eurogamer: So far you've admitted the game will be PC and Next Gen consoles. Can you be more specific? Are you likely to be on more than one next gen machine, or could the game eventually be exclusive to one console?
Petri Järvilehto: We're looking at Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC SKU's.
Eurogamer: Any clues as to when it will ship? When are you hoping it will come out?
Petri Järvilehto: We haven't announced anything yet [smiles].
Eurogamer: What sort of recommended system specs are you targeting for PC?
Petri Järvilehto: The final hardware specs are not locked down, but suffice to say that the PC version will require a high-end PC.
Eurogamer: Is the Alan Wake tech an all-new engine or an evolution of previous tech?
Petri Järvilehto: It's a completely new engine. When Max Payne 2 was completed, we re-evaluated all of our existing technology, as well as other engines out there. After long consideration, we thought that the only way to create something special and to build a game where the tech is completely supporting the gameplay would be to write our own new engine and tools.
Eurogamer: What new tricks is the engine capable of that prompts you to talk of it as "truly next gen"?
Petri Järvilehto: You did see the game running, right? [Smiles] By far the biggest element in my opinion is how everything is so dynamic. Lighting is no longer static, objects in the world are dynamic and react to changes in the simulation. Effectively, we are building a massive world simulation with unprecedented depth.
Having said that, the visuals do make a huge difference as well. There is simply no way that something like this could run on a 32MB PlayStation 2. It would be just as impossible to reach this level of versatile environments and visual fidelity with a 64MB Xbox 1.
There's a huge amount of extreme visual technology constantly taking place on-screen... atmospheric scattering, fully volumetric shadows, high dynamic rendering, ambient occlusion, bloom, depth of field, normal mapping and loads of different pixel-shader effects that all work in harmony to create the dynamic and versatile visuals.
Eurogamer: Has Remedy considered adopting a Steam-style digital distribution model to pipe the Alan Wake game direct to the gamer on PC, or are you going for the normal boxed model? Do you think digital distribution is the way forward for independent developers such as Remedy to maintain creative control?
Petri Järvilehto: That's something we're looking into. However, as of now, I don't think that digital distribution-only would be an option yet. We do want to offer a good boxed copy with manuals and all that as well.
Eurogamer: Controversy has raged recently over whether the Killzone 2 and MotorStorm PS3 videos shown off at E3 were real time gameplay videos or just over-ambitious renders. What's your opinion on the PS3 tech demos and gameplay videos? Are PS3 games really going to look that good?
Petri Järvilehto: I think both consoles will have great looking games. Xbox 360 is initially easier to approach and harness all of the power of the system whereas and PS3 has more theoretical power that won't be as easily utilized by the developers.
Eurogamer: Are you working on a Xbox 360 version? How are you finding working on the new Xbox platform? Have you even been given a PS3 dev kit as yet?
Petri Järvilehto: We're targeting both next gen consoles, and we do have a good relationship with both hardware manufacturers. However, due to NDAs I can't comment in any further detail.
Eurogamer: Will this once again be a single-player experience? Any reason for not adding online elements?
Petri Järvilehto: Yes, we believe that by focusing completely on the single-player experience we can deliver a better game. We'd much rather give the players a great single-player game, than a mediocre single and multiplayer game.
Eurogamer: We noticed that 3D Realms isn't involved this time. Just how much input did they have last time out, and will they be missed in any way?
Petri Järvilehto: Working with 3D Realms was a great experience and we learned a lot from them, especially during the first Max Payne game, but it's time for us to stand on our own now.
Eurogamer: How much publisher interest have you had so far, and when do you expect to announce a publishing partner?
Petri Järvilehto: After the huge success of the Max Payne games, we've had a lot of publisher interest. We've been talking with the key players, but we'll lock down the right partner once the time is right for that. Since we're in a strong financial position we do not have to rush madly into a deal or anything like that.
Eurogamer: What kind of publisher are you looking for? Do you want total creative control? Is this a reaction to being compromised in the past?
Petri Järvilehto: First of all, working with Rockstar on our previous games has been fantastic and we have a lot of respect for them and their production team. With Max Payne games, I think they gave us almost complete creative control.
As for now, we're looking for the best possible match that will help us to create a strong new franchise.
For more on Alan Wake, check out our preview last week which revealed the first in-depth details of Remedy's latest project.