Remedy’s thriller Alan Wake has always been built around atmosphere, initially aping the cool, detached creepiness of the American Northwest. For the latest episode of the tale, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, the eponymous author finds himself in the American Southwest battling his alter-ego Mr. Scratch. In addition to Twilight Zone-style narration, the ambience of this addition was worth further enquiry.
We asked writer Mikko Rautalahti about his obsession with the American West, the influence of writers like Denis Johnson, and what exactly makes a scene scary.
What is your fascination with the West?
Well, what’s not to like? It’s one of those mythical things that have more to do with the atmosphere and the imagery than the actual geography or culture. Once you have the good guy facing off against the bad guys in the desert, you’re already knee-deep in it mythology, even if you’re not really making a Western, per se. I think Alan Wake, in particular, it’s always been very much about Americana as a franchise the kind of America that doesn’t really exist outside fiction.
In the original game, we had that very intentional Twin Peaks atmosphere that idyllic small town surrounded by amazing natural environments. For Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, we wanted to get away from that, try something completely different, but it was still important that we come up with something that feels extremely American and iconic. The West just fits that bill.
We did think about numerous other settings as well before settling on that we thought about doing something in the bayous of Louisiana, for example, an area that certainly has an iconic quality of its own! There were many other ideas as well; there’s no shortage of great American environments. But we soon settled on Arizona. At the risk of making the process sound more banal than it really was, in the end, I think we just wanted to try it without the trees for a change…
The atmosphere evokes American writers like Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson for its dusty demeanor. Have you read their works and was this intentional?
Sure, I love McCarthy (his “simpler” approach to punctuation notwithstanding; that’s something I still have a very conflicting feelings about), but I have to say that if anything like that was an influence, it wasn’t conscious. I can see why you’d think that; that’s definitely the kind of country we’ve set the game in, but we’re really going for a very different tone. In a lot of ways, this is pure pulp fiction, an extrapolation of what we did with the Night Springs TV shows in the original Alan Wake which was, of course, very heavily inspired by The Twilight Zone.
It was important for us to make it clear to the player right from the get-go that we’re not quite in the same headspace as before. There were a number of reasons for that for one thing, we wanted to make sure that people didn’t think that this was a direct continuation of the original game. Obviously, if you’ve played Alan Wake, you’ll pick up on any number of details, but we wanted this to be something that didn’t need something else to prop it up, both in terms of the story and the style. Using such a different and distinctive narrative voice literally is a very efficient way of establishing that right away.
Being a Finnish studio, what is it about the nature of the States that’s captivating?
Well, there are some obvious answers to this: what’s commonplace for an American is at least somewhat exotic to us. And like most people who make games on a scope like this, we recognize that our primary audience is in the United States. That’s just a question of numbers. To put this in perspective, Finland has a population of less than six million people; it’s impossible to make a game like this for the local market. In the end, it’s just so much easier to convince people that the game is cool when there’s something they recognize about it a game set in Helsinki would take a lot more explaining. You say “Washington woods” or “Arizona desert,” everybody gets it.
I’ll admit that it’s a little weird to be in that position, sometimes, but it’s also interesting to have that slightly different perspective on things. The majority of us aren’t Americans, so what comes out of that process is something that’s recognizable to Americans, but still a little different. The United States is pretty exciting. Just the sheer size and number of cultures in there is fascinating I mean, we talk about “American culture,” but hell, just look at New York and Alabama, they’re like almost like different countries in themselves. You don’t even need to get the least bit political about it, there’s just this amazing range of people, literature, customs, cuisine, music, all of that, in a single country. And yet it’s all recognizably American, for better or worse.
And I’m not saying there’s nothing to criticize there, obviously, but there’s also a lot of fascinating stuff. We kind of tend to focus on the latter. A lot of what we do is very deeply steeped in the fun and cool parts of American culture; that’s what we’re building on in Alan Wake’s American Nightmare American pulp fiction, the grindhouse aesthetic, all of that. When Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino did Grindhouse, it failed miserably in Europe. I know it wasn’t a big success in the States, either, but at least there was definitely an audience for it. On this side of the pond, people looked at it and just blinked slowly. There was just no frame of reference for it. We don’t push it quite that far (and the game’s primary frame of reference is different anyway, simply by virtue of being a video game), but we do intentionally get into the same uniquely American territory. Stylistically, the game wouldn’t really work otherwise.
What makes an environment haunting? There seems be something about the empty of the West and the hollows of the Northwest that make for the right ambience.
This is a very hard question to answer, but yeah, you’re right they are settings that really lend themselves to that kind of ambience, and we do take advantage of that. That said, I think it’s worth pointing out that we’ve never called Alan Wake a horror game, though. We do put in scary moments every once in a while, but for us, it’s more about constantly paying attention to the atmosphere than trying to scare somebody.
On practical terms, that means we spend enormous amounts of time just getting the atmospheric settings right. Our technology is very good for that we have a great degree of control over illumination, weather effects and whatnot, so we have a wide range of tools at our disposal, and we layer in a lot of stuff for every scene we have colors, lighting effects, ambient audio, music, particle effects like fog and whatnot. We tweak these settings constantly, in ways that are often very subtle, and we keep working on them throughout the process. It’s not something we just do once at the end of the process or something, it’s something our environment artists are constantly aware of. And because we can change things on the fly during the game, we can have the environment become gradually more oppressive as the player progresses, or make certain locations seem more intense than others. Most people don’t even really notice it when we adjust things like that, but the effects can be pretty dramatic.
So, with all that, I’m pretty sure we can make almost any environment feel haunting or scary, although obviously some environments are more conducive to that than others the dark woods, for example, definitely touch some kind of a primal nerve in a lot of people. The desert has a different tone to it there’s something about that desolation also works very well. But in the end, what makes an environment haunting? Hard work and smart design decisions, more than anything else. It’s not the place, it’s the presentation.