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Sleep Talking: Alan Wake Interview

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Earlier this week I spoke with Oskari Häkkinen, head of franchise development at Remedy, about the PC release of Alan Wake. We talked about the importance of PC gaming to the Remedy team, drawing inspiration from popular culture and whether Alan’s further adventures will be following close behind.

RPS: Hello! It’s been a long time coming, but now that Alan Wake is arriving on PC, it’s good to see all the details on customisation options and control support. How important was it to get the basics right after all this time?

Häkkinen: For Remedy as a team, it was extremely important. Looking back at our heritage from Death Rally, Max Payne 1, Max Payne 2, PC gaming is, of course, an important part of that. For Alan Wake, I think, we haven’t been too shy about saying it’s something that we’ve always wanted to do. Alan Wake was originally announced as a PC and 360 title. And then somewhere along the road, the stars became unaligned and it became a 360 exclusive.

It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, we’ve always wanted to put the PC version out there and as soon as we got the blessing from Microsoft to start developing that, we put a lot of time and effort into doing justice to the PC version.

RPS: Does coming back to PC feel like coming home?

Häkkinen: That’s something that we came up with at the office. Thinking, how do we talk about this to other people, and we had discussions about talking from our heart about how we feel. Cutting the PC version was like cutting off one of your children. We’re really proud of how Alan Wake has done but it just feels more complete now that we’ve done the PC version.

RPS: You say Microsoft’s ‘blessing’ and now that the blessing is in place, will we see more Remedy and Alan Wake on PC in the future?

Häkkinen: That’s a good question. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is now coming out, also next week, on the 22nd.

RPS: That’s XBLA only though.

Häkkinen: So far it’s exclusive but based on everything I just said about how much PC gaming means to us, you can be guaranteed that we would put as much effort into bringing…well, you can read between the lines.

RPS: Is there any difficulty with the time that’s passed, that you feel the mystery of the game may have evaporated somewhat? That people maybe have a better idea of what Alan Wake is and that lessens the thrill?

Häkkinen: This is a story-driven experience, but it’s just like movies you haven’t seen in a way. There are movies out there that are two years, three years old, stuff that I haven’t seen, and people will say to me, “you need to see this!”. I still pop the DVD in there and watch it.

This is entertainment, it’s interactive entertainment. Someone can tell you how it is, but experiencing it for yourself is very different. It can be difficult, if we worry about the spread of information too much we get a stomach ulcer.

RPS: I guess with the spread of information being so rapid, those concerns are as true two or three hours after release as two or three years.

Häkkinen: People do playthroughs and putting them onto Youtube and so forth. Those kind of things are out there already. Those people who want to sit down and watch a playthrough for twelve or thirteen hours, OK, that’s how they want to experience the game.

Alan Wake has become a cult classic. People have universally enjoyed the story and it’s been critically acclaimed for that. As a cult classic, PC gamers now get a chance to experience that for themselves.

RPS: In terms of control, you’re still supporting joypad but you’re putting in full mouse and keyboard support. Has that led to any tweaks in difficulty, in terms of aiming, or anything along those lines? Or is it an exact transposition?

Häkkinen: It’s just as important how it feels and plays as how it looks. As PC gamers at heart, we put a hell of a lot of effort into getting it right, into getting the mouse and keyboard configurations right, and into actually allowing them to be reconfigured to a user’s preferences. But, yeah, there are a lot of tweaks, in terms of getting the camera right. There’s a lot of emphasis on that. It’s not simple but we’ve done a good job. I don’t know if you’ve played it yourself with mouse and keyboard?

RPS: No, only the original version.

Häkkinen: It’s had a good reception in all the testing we’ve done and now that we’ve put a few builds out there and asked people to test them, we’ve had a good response on the controls.

RPS: The engine still looks impressive on 360, but do you feel that the PC can push the tech you have far enough to look new today? Was there restraint involved in the 360 visuals?

Häkkinen: It looks absolutely phenomenal. When you’re developing on the 360, you’re developing within hardware parameters, so when we open them up, we already see very beautiful visuals. Then we’ve gone back into the game and changed up a lot of the textures, upgraded them, because of course with the graphical configurations, some things start to look a little fuzzy.

It’s a bit like playing with eyeglasses on, the PC version, you think that it used to look fine but actually you had blurry vision the whole time. The engine still does a really good job and with all the settings maxed up, it looks fantastic. We’ve got stereoscopic 3D as well. It’s a niche thing but it looks cool on that.

RPS: Not every game would benefit particularly from a graphical boost. Do you think that the importance of light, and therefore lighting, makes a visual overhaul more important for Alan?

Häkkinen: Well, it’s even more realistic now. I’ve not had the pleasure of playing through the PC version from start to finish, but I have been testing it quite a fair bit. With the lighting playing such an important part in the story, in the combat mechanics, getting that crystallised fidelity in the lighting and the darkness, the Pacific Northwest looks gorgeous.

RPS: The DLC is included, isn’t it?

Häkkinen: Every version that we’re releasing has the DLC bundled.

RPS: So it’s the full story. So far.

Häkkinen: Yeah.

RPS: And there’s a digital release which includes the DLC too, but you’re also bringing back the boxed collector’s edition? Did you always want to make sure there was a PC retail version, with all the fancy extras?

Häkkinen: The 16th is the Steam version, with two versions, a standard with the game and DLC and a collector’s edition with the game, DLC, Alan Wake files, original score and the developer commentary that can be switched on in-game.

And then we’re doing a retail version with Nordic games which is coming out March 2nd. There are two versions again, the basic version, or better-than-basic version, with the game, DLC, cinematic score, sticker pack, double-sided poster, some postcards and a limited collector’s edition, with the Alan Wake files book, developer diaries and commentary.

RPS: How long has the PC version been in development?

Häkkinen: I’d say about four, five months? It’s about five months of development.

RPS: And that was happening alongside American Nightmare?

Häkkinen: Actually, we used a company, another gaming company in Finland for the port. We’re a relatively small team of about 60 people, so we’re kind of stretched to the max. But the producer is from our side and or management were taking care, working with Nitro Games.

RPS: A non-Alan question if I may. Have you had a chance to look at Max Payne 3?

Häkkinen: We have actually! We’ve been consulting Rockstar. I don’t want to make that sound more elaborate than it is. Don’t take anything away from them, they are the guys who’ve done all the heavy lifting, but they came to us and asked us to look at the game and provide feedback. We’ve been honoured to tell them how we feel about Max. It looks phenomenal and it’s a really great continuation to the franchise.

RPS: How does it feel when you create a franchise – and I guess I can call Alan Wake a franchise – but when you have something that you’ve created, how does it feel once it’s out in the world and people have their own interpretations and now even their own commercial take on the characters?

Häkkinen: Do you mean with Max Payne or Alan Wake?

RPS: In general.

Häkkinen: We are very close to the characters and with Max Payne, we had no idea that we were creating something that would become so big. It was just a case of coming up with an idea that we thought was cool and running with that. We didn’t have a clue how it would be perceived and didn’t see anything that was coming. Going out to E3 and having people tapping you on the shoulder and saying: “You guys don’t realise what you’ve done, you’ve done something great for videogaming.”

The guys who made Max Payne were just like, “wow, people like us!” And it’s still very much like that. We make a game, make it as good as we can. All we want to do is develop a creative entity and we hope that people enjoy it.

We do look at every piece of reception out there, everything that people are saying about it and then we react to it. So with American Nightmare, believe it or not we read our emails, and people have asked for more action and more escalation among enemy types. That’s what we’re bringing to them with American Nightmare.

RPS: One of the things that surprised me with Alan Wake was that I’d heard there were Twin Peaks’ connections and all sorts of different reference points, but when I sat down to play it, it very much has its own character. Alan is an unusual protagonist, so it doesn’t feel like homage of one thing but perhaps many things?

Häkkinen: We haven’t been trying to hide all the inspirations, we’re very open about it. That’s our thing. We look to popular culture in the form of movies, TV series, books and graphic novels. We take lots of those things and we tip our hat to them, but we create our own thing from them. We borrow from it but we don’t copy from it. We take inspiration and we’re open about that.

So like you said, for Alan Wake we have: Twin Peaks, Stephen King, Lost, Hitchcock, various other things, House of Leaves, different books, Paul Auster. But when you play it, it doesn’t feel like any one of those, they’re just inspirations.

At the end of the day we hope that we borrow from that pool of entertainment and then contribute back into it and then hopefully people can become inspired by what we do.

RPS: It’s how entertainment usually works, taking and giving back. Becoming part of the culture that it borrowed from.

Häkkinen: Sure. For us, it goes back to people asking us how we feel about bullet time being used in many games these days and we say: “imitation is the best form of flattery”.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Alan Wake is out later today on Steam and the retail version releases March 2nd.

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