Published May 22, 2010The Pacific Northwest is spooky. I say that not just because I grew up there, just slightly north of the Zero Avenue border, back when Clifford Olson was killing kids and I wasn't allowed into the woods without adult supervision but would go foraging in the forest anyway, braving the visceral fright for a snack of wild salmonberries. The west coast border region encompassing southern BC and northern Washington State has become synonymous with the scary, strange and surreal. Cheaper production costs in the greater Vancouver area have made it the location for most modern sci-fi, fantasy and horror television, including The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, The 4400 and Supernatural.
Those shows helped cement the area's iconic atmospherics, which first began with Twin Peaks. Alongside Stephen King, whose It miniseries also filmed in BC, David Lynch's legendary small-town serial provided the biggest inspiration ― aesthetically, structurally and supernaturally ― to the psychological thriller game Alan Wake.
"Hopefully, we've done justice to the Pacific Northwest," says Oskari Häkkinen, head of franchise development at Remedy, the Finnish gaming house behind the Max Payne series. He notes they traversed 3,000 miles, took 60,000 research photos, taped forest sounds and made the flora, fauna and even constellations accurate to the area. "In a thriller you have to have your roots grounded in reality before you can add the layer or supernatural," Häkkinen says. "Once you have your roots grounded in reality, then we can scare the shit out of you."
Indeed, the realism does increase the fright factor exponentially as you wander about the backwoods, flashlight in hand, as horrors descend upon you. Alan Wake's story revolves around the titular horror novelist who travels to the seemingly idyllic small town of Bright Falls, Washington, in hopes of getting past a longstanding case of writer's block. But when Wake's wife goes inexplicably missing, and he loses a week of time, his life suddenly turns into a nightmare. Making matters worse is that he keeps finding pages of a manuscript that he recognizes as his own but doesn't remember writing ― and which is coming true, word by frightening word. And the shadowy townsfolk called the Taken keep trying to kill him.
As a primarily story-driven game, the creators faced the usual challenges inherent to plotting a videogame versus non-interactive media. "We spent a lot of time prototyping and thought up gameplay mechanics like choosing a writer as a protagonist. He's a natural storyteller and having his inner monologue to narrate, along with the manuscript pages, is a great in-game mechanic that allows us to tell the story."
This Xbox 360 exclusive may be arriving hot on the heels of the similarly scary PS3 game Heavy Rain, but it's also six years in the making and doesn't similarly try to reinvent gaming. "This is a videogame and we have our roots grounded in cinematic action. It's fast-paced and you will have to learn the controls but at the same time we're pushing the envelope of storytelling in videogames."
Initially, it was planned to be a sandbox game, which was the big trend at the time. "But when you're looking for a love scene and somebody turns up in a monster truck, you realize you're not quite setting up the drama you were hoping for. So we went for a more linear experience." They tossed about six months work out the window, but kept the open-world technology to build the environmental structure and keep the paths relatively long and wide "so it doesn't feel like you're being pulled by a string."
Story-wise, it's not exactly peak-era Twin Peaks despite Remedy's ambitions ― Wake might be a best-selling novelist, but his writing rarely transcends pulp ― however Lynch's influence goes beyond the geographic locale, supernatural killer and small-town setting (complete with quirky, Log Lady-like residents).
The game itself is structured like TV, complete with recaps, and this episodic approach to storytelling allows them to fracture the narrative, jump around the timeline and keep the pacing thrillingly tight. (It also enables them to make stand-alone add-on episodes.) "Think of this as season one of a TV series, if you like. You will definitely have a satisfactory ending ― we're not going to leave you on a cliffhanger ― but just like in TV we leave a few doors open for the bigger story." Hopefully, it won't take another half-decade before Remedy brings us back to Alan Wake's Pacific Northwest woods.