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Finnish Experiments, American Nightmare

Remedy's managing director Matias Myllyrinne talks about bouncing back from the surprise slump of the original Alan Wake with American Nightmare -- an Xbox Live Arcade title with shifts in tone designed to win an audience unconvinced by the original.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

January 30, 2012

15 Min Read

The original Alan Wake is held up as an example in this generation of a game with a tremendous amount of pre-release hype but disappointing sales. You could probably call it a cult classic, all the same. With the original being a high-budget packaged game, it is something of a surprise that Xbox Live Arcade is seeing the series continued in the form of the digitally-distributed Alan Wake's American Nightmare.

On the other hand, given the amount of effort that the developer, Remedy Entertainment -- based in Espoo, Finland -- put into developing the original game, its universe, lead character, and story, it's not so surprising that the team would want to further explore that world.

In this interview, Remedy's managing director Matias Myllyrinne discusses the creative process that lead to American Nightmare, why the studio decided to tackle the Xbox Live Arcade space, how the game differs in tone and intent from the original, and how he hopes to capture more fans this time around thanks to that shift.

When demoing this game, you've said it "challenges conventions of what makes an Xbox Live Arcade title." Can you qualify that for me?

Matias Myllyrinne: Yeah, absolutely. So personally, and obviously as a team, we love a lot of the titles that we can play on XBLA, like Limbo and Super Meat Boy, and those games are something that we enjoy tremendously.

On the other hand, we felt that in terms of story-driven arcade adventure, there really isn't something like that just in terms the scope and the vibe that we have in American Nightmare, and hopefully that pushes the envelope slightly forward.

It's something that we tried to do with a lot of our games. So even thinking back to Max Payne, we wanted to push the shooter action genre with something new. We brought in slow motion.

Earlier in 2011, we worked with a smaller studio to bring Death Rally back -- our first game -- to iPhone and iPad, and I think there wasn't exactly anything like that on that platform either.

With the original Alan Wake, I hope we tried to push some of the storytelling and bring in an episodic TV series structure. And I know others have also given that a go, but we felt that bringing our story pacing and the thrill ride ... I think it's our thing.

And with American Nightmare now on XBLA, it's a combination of the arcade action that folks expect from XBLA -- it's instant pick up and play fun -- but it also brings in this exaggerated pulp action-adventure with a twisted story that folks expect from us. And I don't think there's anything quite like it on XBLA, which can either be a great thing or [laughs] ... maybe there's a good reason why it doesn't exist. Obviously the audience will be the judge of that, but we're pretty stoked about it.

Primarily, you mean, it's a bigger game?

MM: In many ways it's a bigger game than a lot of the games out there. And bigger isn't always necessarily better, but I think it's something that we would've wanted to play... If you want an action-adventure game you don't necessarily want to have a 10 hour experience; you can also have something more condensed, and enjoy that. So I think we wanted to bring that. We wanted to bring something that gets you straight into the essence of the experience much more quickly, so that's what we wanted to do.

There are games like Section 8 and Hydrophobia. So there have been some things that have been done, like that, but maybe not with a big property.

MM: Yeah.

With your third-person narrator that you have now, I feel like there's a different kind of connection that you have with the hero. How do you feel about the way that the player connects with this person when the narration structure changes?

MM: The narration structure obviously has an impact on how the player perceives the situation, how he perceives the character. So, obviously, in the original Alan Wake we had the TV series "Night Springs," which had a kind of Twilight Zone feel to it. According to our backstory Wake had written these episodes earlier in his career.

And this is an episode of Night Springs written by Alan Wake, starring Alan Wake, so kind of a fiction-within-fiction model. And with the Night Springs narrator, it doesn't directly identify with the player's motives or his aspirations; he can actually be just as an outside commentator on the situation.

But you also have a bigger, different perspective on the situation; you might interpret differently -- the player might. I think it gives us some more leeway to explain the situation, because we're dealing now with almost like an objective narrator instead of a subjective narrator. But I think it works for the context.

I noticed you're also using it to highlight objectives. "This is why he's here in this area."

MM: Yeah, and, "This is why he needs to accomplish this," as opposed to, "Why am I here and what do I need to do?"

Do you feel like the player will have as much connection to Alan Wake as a result? When he's being talked about, it's like he's now a third-person protagonist instead of a first-person one.

MM: Yes, yes. And I think there is a different accentuation there; I'm hoping that people will associate with Wake and his character. But also because there is a more pulpy vibe to the whole experience, this kind of narration and this kind of storytelling is very much in the vein of the supernatural and sci-fi pulp fiction movie classics. So we feel that's the tone to go for, and obviously with the TV series framing of the entire story, it makes sense.

Yeah, it is a very convenient framing device, for sure. What made you decide to put the live action portions in? Because live action is notoriously difficult to make not campy, and believable.

MM: Yes, yes. I think the live action that I've enjoyed -- probably like Command & Conquer had great live action; that was just so tongue-in-cheek that it worked. But it's also been done unsuccessfully. But I think for us, the Night Springs TV episodes in the original game were live action, so when you used the TV, you had these live actors there. It just felt natural to continue with that.

And because we have the actor for Alan Wake -- Ilkka Villi -- we just felt that it would be awesome to have him do the acting for [Wake's look-alike and "evil charicature"] Mr. Scratch, as Mr. Scratch is leaving these taunting video messages. I think he's unnervingly likeable, and those are maybe more difficult things to nail down in a different format, and that was a convenient way of doing it. I think the big thing is, "How do you stylize the live action?"

To make it fit in.

MM: Yeah, and how does it not become disconnected from the experience? A lot of that obviously comes with the fact that we're using in-game TVs, and we have the opportunity to use different techniques to make sure that it's filtered properly and flows into into the mood.

I noticed you put fake scan lines on there.

MM: Yeah. We wanted to make it feel like maybe a '50s, '60s TV show kind of filter on top of that, even though he's using a handycam or something like that there. So it felt like a risk, but I think it's one that worked out. We'll see.

The live action stuff is camp. The game has got levity in it, but it's also trying to go for a darker tone, and so there's a little bit of a disconnect for me there. Is that something you want?

MM: Looking at American Nightmare, we wanted a different tone. Even though some of the subject matter is disturbing, scary, and it can feel quite intense, we also wanted not to take ourselves too seriously. I mean, if the tagline is more like "the nail gun is mightier than the sword," then I think that sets the tone for a lot of the things we're doing with American Nightmare. And we wanted to have that kind of vibe for this, and the live action was a great fit with that.

I've never gotten to talk with you about this game, period, before. The decision to make, when you're walking, the flashlight point static -- it's obviously so that it can be a targeting reticle, but it also looks a little weird with his animation, because his hand is moving.

MM: It does. It does. We tried different approaches to that, but we felt that we wanted to have playability and intuitiveness go over realism, and I think that's where we err when we need to make those choices. So, for example, we'll tailor the environments, we'll tailor some of the physics to be more fun to play and more responsive, or we'll tailor, like in this case, how the flashlight behaves to be more gameplay friendly, as opposed to realistic.

So for example, the flashlight is actually wildly exaggerated. When we had the first iteration of the flashlight, it was modeled accurately: how far the beam goes, and how it behaves. And that wasn't really fun in gameplay, so we took this almost like an X-Files flashlight, which is almost like car lights, or something, and it just feels better and plays better, so that's what we went with.

And the same thing, for example, even with the original Max Payne game, when we were showing slow motion for bullets and stuff like that. I think the bullets were traveling at something like 60 miles an hour, but they just looked a lot better in the confined spaces. That actually gave you more gameplay, because if they go at real bullet speeds you don't really see much. [laughs]

So I think that's our design philosophy; we'll go for [gameplay over realism]. On the other hand, we wanted to get rid of, for example, an aiming cursor on the screen, because we felt that would've broken the fiction too much. So we found the flashlight to be a convenient surrogate for that.

And how much did you tweak the animation on the arm to normalize that?

MM: I think there's quite a bit of detail and work that goes into that. I don't even know all the kinds of various iterations, but I know we played around a lot with how the camera and the flashlight behave together, and how you see it. I'd call it almost like a rubber band effect. There is a slight lag in the camera towards the flashlight, so it's not always permanently in sync, because that would've felt too mechanistic.

But on the other hand, we felt that we wanted to have almost like a feeling of a virtual cameraman. So if you do sprint, the camera does fall back slightly and wobbles a little, and then when you stop, the camera catches up. So I think we've become accustomed to that. Ever since, like, NYPD Blue was showing on TV, people have become accustomed to that virtual cameraman, or a handycam effect. But obviously you can't wobble too much, because it hurts the gameplay, and it's also disorienting.

It's interesting that camera is still a wild frontier where you can still try new things. I think what you guys have done is definitely a good way to go, but it's also crazy that after all these years of 3D games, we still don't have something to point to and say, "This is how we should do it for sure."

MM: Yeah, and I think it depends so much on the environments of each individual game. I wish you could just have a "this is the best-in-class camera, let's now implement it." But, for example, when we were doing the original Alan Wake, and you have a lot of pine trees around you, one of the big issues is to make sure that the camera doesn't collide with tons of branches. And that's maybe a very different challenge if you have an urban environment, and very clear geometry, and then your challenges are different from that.

And it's kind of neat that now we're to the point where the games choose what stylistically and artistically fits this game. So you basically have a director of photography for your game, in a way.

MM: Yeah, very true. And I think it's cool that we also have -- because the productions are larger -- dedicated people who a large part of their job is to focus on one particular area. And whether it's lighting, or camera, or directing cinematics, or things like that, I think those are very cool things to have, which we obviously didn't have, even a few years back.

Back to animation, how difficult is it to contextualize the dodges? Because enemies are attacking horizontally or vertically, you've got to make sure that Wake is dodging in an intelligent way.

MM: Those are things that you first build a general idea, and a plan of what you want to implement, and you have it planned out on paper. But, ultimately, it just comes down to tweaking, and testing, and just iterating. I don't know anybody who can really just do that on paper and go, "This is the way we're going to do it."

Games, first and foremost, they're interactive entertainment. Going back to the blindingly obvious -- games are interactive. How they feel, and how they flow, and how they react is at least as important as what you're showing, what you're telling people. And it's about the interaction from the gamer to the game, and then responses back.

And if it doesn't feel good, and if the camera and the character don't behave in the way that you intend them to behave, then it's instantly unfun, no matter how good the story, and how good the looks are.

And I think that's the biggest difference between passive media, where you're just watching and taking it all in. Sometimes you need to make compromises, and decide what you are going to accentuate. But I think it's something that should be seriously considered, because it's not a CG movie.

There's always going to be edge cases that are going to break the immersion a little bit -- "Oh, that guy just dodged in the wrong direction" or "I expect to be able to do this, but I can't do it."

MM: It comes down to a level of simulation as well, and kind of how far you want to take that. But as long as it's consistent, I think that's the big thing. If your level of abstraction is very high, then you can get away with much less. But the closer you are getting to real, and fidelity, then people expect to be able to open drawers, and closets, and everything. Which isn't necessarily fun -- you don't open every drawer in every office. [laughs]

There is the other problem. The first time I played Shenmue on Dreamcast it's like, "Okay, I can open drawers. Why?"

MM: Yeah. [laughs]

"Now I feel like I have to open every drawer!" And game players have a real tendency to be like, "If there's something I can do, I have to do it." Not everyone feels like that, but there's the core that will ruin games for themselves that way.

MM: I think a good game that pulled it off very nicely was L.A. Noire. You had a huge world, and you were clearly interacting with smaller objects and doing things there, but at least the visual language, for me, was very clear on what is interact-able.

Going along those lines, you were talking about the environment being more destructible, and dynamic, and things like that. Actually, it looked like you were really just using planned areas of destruction to keep the player on a linear path.

MM: Yeah, there's a lot of that. And then also where enemies come from, and having that destructible -- whether they break a door with an axe and come through that and so forth. But I think it's more about how the player perceives it, and how it feels, than genuinely having destructibility as a gameplay element, as you would in Battlefield, for example, where it makes perfect sense.

So the PC version is still happening?

MM: Yeah.

Why did it take so long between the 360 version and the PC version?

MM: That's a very good question. What I can say is that we did take it as soon as we could to the PC, and the stars weren't aligned when we were shipping for the 360, but we're happy to be bringing it over to the PC early this year. We've had a ton of feedback from people asking for it, and clearly we have our roots in PC development -- with Death Rally, Max Payne, Max Payne 2 on PC. And then all the fan reactions, all the mail, all the Facebook sites, all the community sites. And we do actually listen to the folks. So we're stoked to be able to bring it out now.

On a similar tangent, a lot of the feedback we got for American Nightmare, feedback that we've implemented, was that folks really liked the original Alan Wake for the story and the setting. But there was a lot of feedback on the combat -- they wanted more combat variety, and that's something that we started to address with these test levels and sandboxes with different enemies. And it kind of all grew from there, for this title.

Why are you now able to release Alan Wake on PC with the same timing as American Nightmare?

MM: Microsoft have been kind enough to give us the freedom to take it to PC, and we're really thankful for their support.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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