Alan Wake is a best-selling writer with a problem: He's got severe writer's block.
Wake is the titular character in the game Alan Wake, an Xbox 360-only game from Finnish developer Remedy, and as if sharing empathy with Wake, I spent hours staring at my computer monitor and my interview notes from talking to Remedy’s managing director Matias Myllyrinne, trying to craft these very opening paragraphs.
However, it’s particularly bad for Wake: he hasn't managed to write anything in more than two years, so in an effort to reignite his creative juices, his wife, Alice, takes him to the small American town of Bright Falls, a sleepy town that has a dark secret.
When Alice mysteriously disappears, Wake finds himself trapped in a nightmare where his latest work - a thriller he can't remember writing - starts coming to life, page by page.
Gamers first caught glimpses of Alan Wake at E3 in 2005. Fast forward five years and the game is almost finished. Having spent so much time working on one project, is Alan Wake a labour of love for Remedy?
``It is,” says Myllyrinne. “The creative process is not painless or simple, but ultimately something compelled us to create what we did and make it the way we did. The attention to detail and love that went into the game shows in the end result. We needed to get this right and we didn't want to become a game factory - but I hope we've done one or two things that will push the envelope (in the industry).''
``We wanted a compelling psychological thriller that will touch people and their emotions. We want to get into people's heads.''
The Alan Wake of 2010 is far removed from the Alan Wake of 2005, where it was initially revealed as an open-world game. Over the course of development it has transformed into a more tightly scripted experience, although the option to explore is still there. The change was for the better, says Myllyrinne.
``Being open world we weren't able to control the roller coaster ride, so we decided that we had to control the timing of the thriller. We lost about six months, but there were a lot of benefits in doing so: We could create dramatic tension and make sure that it was night, and that it was raining, and that Alan's wife is screaming in the background. We can control where things are coming from.
`` Sometimes you have to change direction, change tack, but the overall vision very much remains the same.''
Alan Wake plays out as if it is a TV series, with sections broken down into episodes, each new episode beginning with a ``Previously on Alan Wake ...'' and Wake relies on a trusty torch as a crucial aid in his fight against the dark forces that have taken over Bright Falls.
``We decided early on to use the TV series template because of the pacing and story telling mechanics that television gets right. You can do different story arcs, drama, action sequences, close on thriller, have a season finale and build up again.
``The first episode, which we've been showing off, lasts about 90 minutes (there will be six episodes in the game) and there is a tonne of exploration, but that's not forced on people.
``If someone wants to grab the flashlight and play it as an action game, they can, but if someone wants to wander about and explore, turning on radios, watching the TV, reading the manuscript pages, revealing more about the character, then they can. That's the benefit of doing it how we have.''
The game uses light as a combat tool in the classic battle of light against dark, and Wake must fight off the game’s demons using his trusty torch, as well as generators, flares, and spotlights that he finds throughout the forests and environments he has to traverse.
Myllyrinne says that story was important, and Alan Wake has parallels to TV shows such as Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure - with a hint of novelist Stephen King thrown in for good measure – and is set in an all-American small town that is picture perfect but has some “deep dark secrets”.
``We wanted to create a thriller, which is very different from a horror, and we decided early on what Alan Wake was not: it's not about blood, it's not about gore, it's not about monsters. We weren't interested in cheap scares.''
Myllyrinne sees Wake as a character that gamers will relate to.
“We wanted to build a real person who is more than a cardboard cutout. Wake has issues with his marriage and this is his last chance to keep things together. And he has writer’s block. It’s that Alan Wake is not picture perfect that makes him engaging. He’s not your typical hero.
“I would have had a hard time waking up every day and creating a space marine or a ninja – that’s not something that we get kicks out of.”