Alan Wake: Hair-raising his game

By Matt Greenop

Hot new Xbox release Alan Wake has raised the bar for interactive thrills. Its developer Matias Myllyrine talks to Matt Greenop.

Gamemaker Matias Myllyrine says Alan Wake has a smart story that gives reason to its frights. Photo / Supplied
Gamemaker Matias Myllyrine says Alan Wake has a smart story that gives reason to its frights. Photo / Supplied

We've all seen the movies - hapless Americans stuck in log cabins in the middle of Deliverance country, zombie-like Cletuses lurking in the shadows, dramatic music, shocking shots and ultimately a nasty violent death.

But a new take on this style of high-suspense scaremonger has just hit game store shelves - a truly frightening psychological thriller for Xbox 360 called Alan Wake.

It takes the old slasher formula and builds on it with a quirky combination of fluid gameplay, detailed storytelling and a whole new flavour of fear, presented in TV-style episodes.

The complex story sees famous writer Alan Wake, who is suffering from a nasty two-year mental block, taken on vacation to picturesque Bright Falls by his wife Alice.

Her cunning plan to get him in front of a typewriter falls to bits early in the game when she disappears, and Wake is left trapped in a bizarre nightmare.

Think Twin Peaks meets the Twilight Zone.

"His search for Alice turns up these pages of a thriller novel that he doesn't remember writing," explains Matias Myllyrine, managing director of game producer Remedy, "a thriller that is coming true".

"This dark presence is woken up in the small town of Bright Falls and it's taking over everything - pushing Alan to the very brink of sanity in the search to find his love and his fight to unravel this mystery. It's what we hope is the first psychological action thriller in games."

Scaring game geeks is nothing new, but Remedy's approach is different to the standard of using gore and nasty weapons to frighten players. As Myllyrine puts it "combining the mind of a psychological thriller with the body of a cinematic action film".

In the search for Alice and a bit of sanity, light becomes the players' friend, with flashlights and flares used with weapons to kill the enemy - possessed townsfolk called the Taken.

Much of the game takes place in the dark forest, with music, cleverly chilling surround audio and light effects forming a fearsome combo - far more thriller than predictable horror.

"We won't do any cheap scares," says Myllyrine, "there needs to be a smart story to give a reason behind all these scares. You want suspense, twists and cliffhangers. You need peaceful pacing and need to build up that vibe before you escalate the action and the scares to a cliffhanger. You know that a scary sound in a dark forest causes a reaction in all of us - that's just the way we're built."

Alan Wake could have easily become a very different game - and a less effective one - with the original plan being a huge, open-world experience.

"To be honest, we had design flaws in the original concept - we tried to build this sandbox gameplay, where you can freely go where you want, and to match that with a thriller - and it really wasn't working. We had to walk away from that - but it cost us a tonne of money and six months work. It was hard, but I'm glad we did it."

It's storytelling and unusual use of light that makes the difference, with respected writer Sam Lake powering the plot.

Lake, legend has it, spent time alone in a cabin writing the story - this is true, but it was on the Finnish seaside, rather than in a frightening forest.

Myllyrine jokes that the reason Alan Wake took five years from its initial announcement to release was that Lake had writer's block.

"From the very first concept, the pillars of Alan Wake were there - a writer as the main character, a natural storyteller - we wanted to have that narrator in the background to deliver the story and to move it forward.

What makes Alan Wake more than just hide-under-the-couch frights is the whole complicated package.

"For me it's the emotional impact that I get. You have a scene of awesome natural beauty on screen ... the lake, some mountains in the background and then you have these terrible or tragic events that have happened.

"There's something sad and beautiful at the same time and you have a tingle down your spine. I love the action - the hand flare and the flare gun are awesome fun, but what I'll remember going forward, maybe when we look back at this in a decade or so, will be that sense of sad beauty that moved me."

LOWDOWN

What: Alan Wake, the acclaimed Xbox creepfest
Where and when: Out now

- NZ Herald

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