Interview: Matias Myllyrinne on breathing life into Alan Wake

Founded in 1995, Remedy Entertainment is set to celebrate its 15th anniversary this year, along with the launch of its fourth game, Alan Wake. In contrast with many of the industry's studios, which are comfortable with putting out a new game every two years (if not more frequently), this Finnish game developer can't be rushed to completion. "Remedy is not a game factory," its website tells those looking for employment.

The company's managing director, Matias Myllyrinne, wouldn't have it any other way. "You know, this is a labor of love, at least for us," he told Joystiq during an interview at the Game Developers Conference, held last month in San Francisco. After we discussed the game's technology, its cinematic aspirations and its carefully picked cast of actors, it became evident that Alan Wake -- despite lacking "buckets and buckets of blood" -- has a heart, transplanted from the people who made it. "It's almost like you need to see it through, for your own kind of well-being as a creative team," Myllyrinne said.

Also, there definitely won't be an Alan Wake musical, so forget about it.


Joystiq: What kind of emotion do you feel now that you're reaching the end of such a long process? It's been a part of your life for ...

Matias Myllyrinne: A very long time. You know, they're the self-evident ones of joy, relief, excitement, but I think first and foremost it's just very excited to be able to share this, finally, with the world. Because, like you said, it's been a very long journey and just being able to share it with people and to have them play it and enjoy it. That's one thing. And then, on the second hand, of course there's ... you know, butterflies in your stomach, because we went all out on this one. We didn't hold any punches, we really bet the farm, so, you know, I'm really hoping that people like it and buy it. [laughs] That'll really define what we're able to do next.

This is perhaps an unusually long development cycle, but there's certainly a trend in the industry for quite lengthy, very intense periods of creation. Do you think this is a problem? Requiring people to devote so much of time to finish one product?

You know, this is a labor of love, at least for us. I mean, we built the concept and we had a vision of what we wanted to do, and this one's very much a team effort. You're compelled internally -- at least, we were compelled internally -- to do this and to see it through. So it's not like it was forced upon us. It's almost like you need to see it through, for your own kind of well-being as a creative team. And I'm happy we took this journey, but as you say, they're very long and being able to just to meet your own expectations of what we're supposed to be able to share with people and what we're supposed to be able to create. Meeting that potential is sometimes ... I think we're our own worst critics, sometimes pretty unforgiving to ourselves. I think sometimes we should just put things into perspective.

It's still entertainment, it's art or entertainment and, you know, the world doesn't revolve around an individual project. But, for us, we've poured our sweat and hard-earned money and blood into something that we think is awesome. But, you know, I think you're right, in many respects it would be really cool to ... you know sometimes I really envy the guys that do the shorter projects and the smaller projects, and sometimes I think they envy us because we have so much time and so many resources at our disposal. Where, on the other hand, it would be nice to do something on a shorter scale. Sometimes. I think that's more of a personal thing, you know, the grass is always greener on the other side. I'm really digging the fact that we're doing large, movie-like games and now, with downloadable content that we're going to do later this year, those will be shorter projects. It'll be fun to do.

About how long do you think you'll keep doing those? When are you going to cut yourself off and move on to the next thing?

I think it'll depend a lot on the audience, but certainly we want to -- if we're successful -- we want to do a large "Season 2," if you will, at some point. Right now, I'm not allowed to say what we're doing exactly this year. But we're going to have more than one episode come out this year.

Theoretically, should you get to the structure of seasons, would that always be building upon the original game? Or would there be a point where it switched over to another game or another story entirely?

Yeah, yeah, I think there's loads of options there. The imagination is the only thing that sets your limits to what you want to be doing, but right now we've kind of kept our eye on the ball and kept on working and building and building Alan Wake. And I think it's premature for us to look further right now. It's taken every bit of focus to build this, and certainly once we're out there and we get the reactions from the gamers and, you know, have a few weeks off -- then I think it's time to take a breather and kind of figure out what the next steps will be.


Do you view DLC as an important part of keeping a product alive in the minds of people? In the hardcore audience in particular, you have people spending years and years working on a product, it comes out, and it's voraciously consumed on day one.

Yeah, yeah. I think doing DLC just to do DLC doesn't make any sense, at least for me as a gamer or as somebody who works in the industry. I think DLC needs to be something where you do it for the right reasons, like if you have something more to say or something cool to expand on or similar to that. There are examples of really cool DLC, and then there are examples of DLC where I'm not sure I understand why it was done in the first place. So, hopefully with Alan Wake, he will reach his goal and the gamer will be able to fulfill his mission and feel a satisfactory ending, but clearly we've tried to build something larger. And with something larger like that -- this is "season one" if you will -- we open doors to the larger fiction, and that will allow us to, with downloadable content, my gut feeling is to continue the fiction and serve as a bridge between seasons. It's almost like a special of Galactica after the seasons with special features. So, it's something like that.

During the development of Alan Wake, have there been any points where you cut things away, like deleted scenes? Things that just didn't work in the story?

I mean, we've cut a lot of things. There's the old saying, it's not done when you stop adding, it's done when you stop cutting, when the purity and essence is there. Certainly, we have this big chunk of material, it's almost like a sculpture, and then you chip away. You know when you're done, when you've reached the point. So, I think that's very much what we've done with Alan Wake, but I don't think that we should be using the material that we've cut from the game itself to work for DLC. I don't think that's the way to go. Once again, you get back to: it needs to make sense, it needs to be something worthwhile. Why work on something that is secondary in some way? I'm still waiting for ... Buffy had the musical, one episode was a musical. And you can do something wacky like that ...

[opens mouth]

We're not doing a musical, just to be clear.

No musical.

But you can do something off the beaten track with downloadable content. Just something cool that, maybe, you want to do. But we'll see.

With the game being such a story-driven experience and the genre being very dependent on surprises and plot twists, how do you manage to keep those secret developments under wraps? It's a world where everyone's on Twitter and things get leaked and emails get sent ...

Yeah, yeah. Well, I do what I can and Remedy does what we possibly can to protect the audience from spoilers. But, you know, it's a big world out there and not everybody's responsible. That's one of the things that annoy me as a gamer and annoy me as somebody who speaks for a creative team. You want people to experience a lot of the story and a lot of the twists firsthand. So, it's not so much if an individual or a journalist paints with a broad brush -- you get a vibe for it -- and people get what they need. They understand what the game's about, they understand what the fiction's about, but you don't need to reveal the twists to add value. Actually, I think you're detracting from the people who read your reports or material or previews, or whatever. But I think most of the folks that we've worked with are really good, they're responsible and they value their own readership and their own audience so much that they don't want to shortchange them out of an experience.

Right. And the classic example, of course, is Metal Gear Solid 2, which had a different main character.

Yeah!

I often wonder if we could have kept a secret like that today, with blogs and the ability to spread information so quickly.

Yeah, and I have to confess, I'm checking Twitter out all the time, I'm addicted to my phone and Googling stuff. But on the other hand, at least for myself, at some point I stop when I realize it's going into "spoiler alert mode" but, you know, without the spoiler alerts. And Lost for me is an example. I think I watched Season 4 -- because the Americans are ahead of us -- and what I try to do is take the DVD box set with me when we have vacation time. When the kids go to bed I'll watch with my wife, and it'll kind of like a communal thing that we do, but we might go through a season on holiday and that's kind of our thing as opposed to watching it from broadcast TV. Lost is something that, you know, all your friends are in the bar and you go, "Nah uh, I'm not at that yet." And everybody shuts up because they get it and I think, at least for me, my American friends have been very good at not spoiling it for me.


If I look at the movie Avatar, the performance capture and the 3D rendering based on that, there seem to be several similarities between it and the performance capture used to create the cutscenes in Alan Wake. Do you see a clear divergence there? When is Hollywood going to go one way and gaming another?

I think, in broader strokes, we're seeing a lot of the techniques that have been deployed in film being adapted to games, if we talk about technology or methodologies. It's not that many years ago that it would have been unheard of to do. For example, we used facial motion capture, then you do stunts and the larger cutscenes in a separate motion capture. Then we have our own motion capture in a studio downstairs in our building, where we do a lot of quick iteration and some of the loops for running, walking and so forth, stuff like that. There are a lot of things that we're doing, borrowing from film, and maybe, you know, we're a few years behind in what we can run real-time, in terms of graphics or stuff like that. But on the other hand, there are some great looking games out there. It's not that long ago that films didn't look as good. So, a lot of those techniques come to us. Already, our guys have taken part in Siggraph, for example, for a long time and a lot of that information is actually shared from film to games and vice versa.

Have you played Heavy Rain yet?

No! I actually haven't, I just crashed the Sony room for lunch just today. Heavy Rain was running over there, but I think that seems like a game that I want to play in a quiet space, by myself, as opposed to an area where a lot of people are walking back and forth. But yeah, I'll be giving it a go once we get Wake out and we're done. So, definitely.

With that game in particular, there were some complaints about the acting. It's strange that we're at the point where the technology is fine and people are believing in the characters on screen ...

Yeah ...

But the actors -- the organic parts -- are letting us down. How much care have you taken in picking the right actors and looking for believable performances?

We're lucky to work with Navid Khonsari at iNk Stories. He worked with us on Max Payne and Max Payne 2 and did a lot of work for Rockstar back with GTA and so forth. He's our voice-over director in New York. Some roles were easier to cast, and others were very difficult. I think Alice, Wake's wife, was a really difficult one to find the right person for. We wanted a strong, independent woman, but we also wanted her to be feminine and somebody you could really relate to, because a lot our story revolves around their relationship, and that chemistry needs to work. So, we ended up spending a lot of time in the New York studio and getting those performances right. Of course, with a great director it's easier to get those performances right. For a story, for a thriller, you need to have that emotional impact, you need to have well-delivered lines. We wanted the no-name kind of ... Matthew Porretta is a wonderful guy, but it's not like we cast Keanu Reeves as Alan Wake.

Thank goodness.

[laughs] Yeah, well. We wanted to build Wake as the character and Matthew does a wonderful job with the voice, but it's not like Kiefer Sutherland or Keanu Reeves is this somebody, because they bring their own persona into the equation. And these days other games go into another direction, but it's wonderful that we have that choice. Games are so large that you can actually do that.

When Alan Wake was in its earlier phases, it had a heavier element of open-world gameplay, there was more exploration. That got squeezed into a more linear form. What do you think are the advantages of linearity as opposed to open-world design?

It was a difficult decision to walk away from the sandbox, but it was absolutely the right choice. I mean, we had it working, there's nothing stopping us from doing it, other than -- it just didn't gel right. We didn't like what we had. It was okay, but it wasn't great, so we walked away from that. I think the biggest issue with combining a thriller with a sandbox is, for a thriller, you want a heart-pounding thrill ride. You want to control the pacing. You want to have foreshadowing. You show the knife on the table, the camera pans away, the knife's gone. You know, that kind of Alfred Hitchcock thriller moment. And really delivering that in a sandbox just wasn't working. It's a much more tightly paced story where we're controlling the tempo of things, but it's not a linear tube by any means. I think if we look back at the Max Payne games, you know, you're essentially going from room to room, maybe a corridor to a large room. But this time around, we have the Pacific Northwest there, but it is a linear story and there is a path or paths to follow.

It was recently made known that Alan Wake was rated "T for Teen," which I think came as a surprise to some people. Considering the genre, why did you shoot for "T" as opposed to something more violent?

Well, we didn't really shoot for a particular rating, or at least I didn't guide us to a particular rating.

Not intentionally.

Yeah, not intentionally. But even from the very get-go, we wanted to do stylistic action and kind of stylistic scares where it's more about intrigue than it is about going into buckets and buckets of blood.

Right.

And, you know, having bigger monsters with tentacles and stuff is not where we wanted to go stylistically. Even if you look back at the Max Payne games, there was nothing really stopping us. We could have shot somebody's legs off if we wanted to, but we didn't want to go for that approach. We wanted more of a Hong Kong style action for that. With Alan Wake, we wanted the style to feel like it's a blockbuster movie. You know, it flows nicely, there are camera pans and there's slow-motion when appropriate. There are different movie techniques in there, but we didn't want, well, buckets and buckets of blood. It almost has like a "B"-class connotation to it, kind of unintentional humor, and we didn't want to go there.


What kind of balance are we looking at between combat and exploration?

The core mechanics very much revolve around action and combat. That's one key element there. Exploration -- there's a lot to explore. A lot of the exploration is optional, if you will. We didn't want to force people to explore the world. There are a lot of action gamers out there who will want to grab the gun and grab the flashlight, and go face the opposition and try to beat them down or to escape and survive. Whereas, I think, there are other kinds of gamers who like to explore more and to get really deeply immersed in the fiction. And for those guys and girls, we've build a lot of detail into the world. The radio shows are there, they'll tell you backstory, you can use the TV, and they'll expand on the fiction. You'll see an old talk show with Alan Wake in a kind of Jay Leno-esque scenario, back to happier days. And you use it and there are live-action actors there, that's something that we did. There are loads of things like that. There's a ton of manuscript pages that you find and that foreshadow the events that happen in a clever way. Once again, no spoilers, but you don't know necessarily what that page means until you get to that scenario. So, there are a lot things there and maybe the balance will depend on how you play it.

Myself, when you're playing through for a longer time -- I've played it a few times -- and once you get into that mode, because you know what the exploration content is, you're less likely to play it as more of an action game. But my first playthroughs were me enjoying the vistas and finding things and getting more resources and stuff like that.

Since it's so dependent on the way a person is supposed to play and trying to direct a specific horror experience, is there a "wrong" way to play Alan Wake? Are you worried about people not taking it seriously?

No, no, no. I think people have paid their hard-earned money to play it and they should be able to have fun the way they want to have fun. You know, at worst, games feel like a second job. "What do you want me to do next? Fill in this tax form?" [laughs] So, I think we very much wanted to get away from "unfun" things in games. There are plenty of examples, empty level key hunts, the kinds of things that nag everybody as a gamer and are put in there for some historic reason.

So, since you mentioned it earlier, I suppose you're going to be scouring reviews and Twitter once the game comes out.

Oh yeah. I'm totally addicted. I have my Google Alerts looking out for stuff, and actively look at what people are saying. I'd love to say that we're unaffected by what people say, but of course we're very much affected by what people say, and how they perceive the game and whether they're enjoying it. That's been a big thing for us since there are a lot of extremely dedicated fans of the game, who walked with us for a very long time and shared that journey. I think, hopefully, we'll give them something that's been worth the wait and the anticipation.

You'll just have to watch out for the spoilers online. Be careful!

Yeah. [laughs]
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This article was originally published on Joystiq.