Sam Lake grins as I set up my dictaphone in the basement lounge of Remedy's Helsinki offices. He knows what my first question's going to be before the interview starts.
Alan Wake, Remedy's forthcoming psychological thriller and Lake's latest game, has taken the better part of six years to come to fruition. That's a long time in any entertainment industry, but in video games it feels like a small age.
But even though Remedy's head writer looks a little nervous today, he's confident that the quality of his company's newest IP will go a long way - as well he should be, as you will know if you've read our hands-on elsewhere today.
Eurogamer: So, Mr Lake, Alan Wake has taken six years. That's a pretty long time in video games.
Sam Lake: [Laughs] I know.
Eurogamer: What's taken so long?
Sam Lake: Well, first there's our size. Based on industry standards, when you look at other developers working on games of a similar scope, we are a very small team. We have around 45 people here these days, and we've grown quite a lot during the project - we were around 30 when we started.
We develop our own technology for the game - the engine, our own tools - and of course this is a completely new franchise so all the characters and the story have been grown from scratch. So you've got a lot of different game aspects that need to be developed in tandem, that are happening at the same time. With a team as small as ours, it takes time.
When we started the project, we were in a very fortunate position in that we were able to take our time and prototype different things. We had the kind of high-level vision of what we wanted Alan Wake to be, but from the gameplay side we were trying out a lot of different things in order to get the right balance and combination of elements to fit the game with that vision. There were several elements that we took quite far before we stopped and decided that, no, these didn't fit into our game.
The early period of finding that balance... Well, let's just say it took some time!
Eurogamer: And research? On our studio tour we were shown your gigantic DVD library and book collection. Those films alone would've probably logged some serious time.
Sam Lake: Well, we look for sources of inspiration in pop culture in general. It's very important for us that, when it comes to storytelling, we don't look into other video games. We'd rather look into other mediums - movies, television series and books - for sources of inspiration.
We want something that hasn't really been seen in video games before but is still familiar to many people and would resonate with them. Drawing from those sources, we then create our own game.
Eurogamer: Remedy's games on the whole tend to be very character and plot-driven pieces. How intertwined is the writing with gameplay in terms of the development?
Sam Lake: The two inform each other as they grow. There's a lot of open dialogue - as there has to be - between the departments. We tend to start with the story and then do a breakdown of different locations and events. For the actual gameplay, we do prototyping and then allow a progression - things that work well will naturally cut back and affect the story. That is, the story needs to explain or inform or give a decent framework for the gameplay mechanics.
So the two processes affect each other. However, the writing process - at least here at Remedy - is what kicks the project off and it informs the game right the way through until the end. It's there from the high-level outset and informs every detail of the game. There's two writers on the project now - luckily I'm no longer having to do it all alone [laughs].
As the gameplay scenes are shifting around, you'll need extra lines of dialogue for other characters and for the main protagonist. You need to make sure everything makes sense and you need to provide enough clues for the player. There's a high level of polishing that carries on right the way through the process.
Eurogamer: So what were the key ingredients for the game's original 'high-level vision'?
Sam Lake: There are a ton of different elements in that. During the time when we were working on the Max Payne games, I wrote a movie script called 'Undertow' and quite a few different elements from that made their way into Alan Wake. Basically, I stole from myself. Undertow was a thriller about a burned-out character who goes on vacation in a cabin by a lake and strange things start happening. That was the start of it.
We knew also we wanted to make a thriller rather than a horror game. All too often in video games, horror just means blood and gore and monsters. Even if there are many elements in Alan Wake that you would call horror if you saw them pop up in a movie, we feel that 'thriller' is a much better definition for what we're doing.
Very early on in the project, when we were sorting out our main vision, we knew that we wanted the game to centre around an everyman. We didn't want an action hero, rather we wanted someone to grow into the role of a hero.
Also, with the Max Payne games, we had been using voice-over narration as a storytelling tool. We knew we wanted that for Alan Wake as well, but we wanted a different angle. So we decided that the best fit for that would be to make the lead character a storyteller - a writer - and then the natural extension of that was that Wake's writings became part of the plot-line.
Eurogamer: Wake obviously shares a lot in common with you, being a writer. Did you put a lot of yourself into that character? Are any of his personality traits that you share?
Sam Lake: Well I think that in general - well, at least it's true for me - you tend to put something of yourself into the story as a whole. Not necessarily in any character, you understand. But you've got your own way of looking at the world, and that naturally will affect how you craft a story.
Certainly, there are pieces of me like that - although we're talking about fiction here - and there are small details in there. There are small glimpses into Alan Wake's childhood, for example, which are based on my own childhood memories, but these are very minor things.
If you look at Max Payne, for example, there are moments when mobsters or henchmen are having funny conversations before the action starts. Some of those conversations are office talk you hear while the game is being made and you go "oh, yeah, that's funny" and suddenly you're writing them into the game.
Eurogamer: Alan Wake feels like he's a very well-rounded and well-drawn character...
Sam Lake: That's really great to hear. That has been our goal from the start. We wanted to create a protagonist who felt like a real person - someone who has a background, who has problems and who has strengths and weaknesses. Someone who has a human touch. You very very rarely in video games - epecially in action games - have main characters who have this. Alan's got problems - his marriage, his work - and all of this lends him depth.
It's also very important to make sure that the main character and the player are completely in synch. Early on, we want the player to be slightly disorientated, like Alan - there is definitely a learning curve for the gameplay, but also for the plot. The entire experience should go forward from there.
Eurogamer: You've spent a lot of time with Alan Wake over the last few years.
Sam Lake: [Laughs] Oh yes, you could say that!
Eurogamer: Do you want a break from him now? Or do you want to take him in a new direction?
Sam Lake: Oh definitely looking forward to doing more with him. From the very beginning, we planned to do more with Alan Wake than just this one game. Whether that means taking him into new mediums or into a new game remains to be seen. With the TV series as a model for the structure of the game, we kind of had plans to take things forward from there.
Of course, a lot depends on how people react to the game and whether they want to see more of Alan Wake. That being said, we feel that the game needs to reach a conclusion. The player needs to achieve the goals he's been challenged with and Alan needs to reach the end of his journey. At the same time we need to open doors to a larger story beyond this one. There are many plot elements that open up possibilities for further opportunities and story strands in this game. We'll just have to see how it does.
Alan Wake is due out for Xbox 360 on 21st May. Check out our hands-on preview elsewhere on the site.