Alan Wake's emergence from darkness to cult status

"Oh, God. You're killing me," Remedy Entertainment's Oskari Hakkinen groaned when I pressed him for details on PC plans for Alan Wake's American Nightmare. "I've got nothing to announce at this point," he moans softly into his headset. After a moment of silence I burst into laughter and he quickly joins me.

As Head of Franchise Development, Oskari -- or Ozz, as he asks people to call him -- would certainly know Remedy's plan for Alan Wake's XBLA title coming to PC. But American Nightmare wasn't the basis for my call to the Finnish developer. It was Alan Wake's original tale I wanted to discuss, a game many skimmed past due to what many in the industry infuriatingly refer to as an "embarrassment of riches."

On the same day Alan Wake's long development process met its ultimate ship goal, it was greeted by a host of quality competition. The adrenaline-fueled Split/Second landed on shelves. The Prince of Persia returned to his roots in The Forgotten Sands.

Red Dead Redemption happened.

May 18, 2010 was meant to be the culmination of years of development from the team that bred Max Payne. It was years in the waiting for fans of the studio. After countless delays, shifts in direction, and platform changes, Alan Wake was removed from its impending vaporware status and added to Microsoft's exclusive roster.

Initial sales seemed to have written off the novelist's story of fighting darkness with light. Pushing a mere 145,000 units in its first week versus Red Dead Redemption's 1.51 million, it seemed that Remedy's novel idea was in trouble.

"Alan Wake has been good to us, financially. Good enough that we can continue to do the job that we love doing, which is make video games," Hakkinen clarifies. He tells me that he doesn't know why that date in the middle of May became such a popular one for publishers, and the team at Remedy had no idea that one of those competing products would be "a freight train coming right at you."

"It's nice to look at it now and hear people talking about Alan Wake as a cult classic in a way."

This ideal of a cult classic game makes sense for Alan Wake. With inspiration pulled directly from other forms of media, including the classic but quickly canceled television series Twin Peaks, it was almost destined that Remedy's new release would be given such a distinction.

"When Max Payne was made, Sam really wasn't thinking about a franchise. He wasn't thinking about a game much further than the first one and he ended up killing off most of the characters."

- Oskari Hakkinen

It was television that helped shape what Alan Wake would become. It was around the time that Lost hit the airwaves that Remedy realized its design for Alan Wake was flawed.

Originally it was designed as an open-world title, Remedy has said on multiple occasions. Eventually, the team realized that crafting a thriller in which control is taken out of the hands of a narrator -- in this case, the developers themselves -- altered the mood of the game.

"You had players turning up to a love scene in a monster truck; that doesn't work," he points out. This isn't the first time I've heard Remedy use this specific example.

What Lost and other shows of the time proved to Remedy was that it's possible, in a game, to tell a story that mimics the emotional resonance of a roller coaster. A roller coaster is thrilling, yet its track is constant. It has the ability to maintain its sense of fear. That's what Alan Wake would have to become.

Placing Alan Wake on a track -- essentially shifting it from open-world to linear -- allowed Remedy to tell a story exactly how it wanted to. It allowed the team to control audio cues, weather and atmosphere shifts, and more without having to rely on a player's focus. It also removed the ability for the game to submerge itself into unintentionally funny waters.

A monster truck at a love scene, for example.

It was another element from television that helped shape Alan's future; in fact, the very nature of network television itself: episodic.

"I'm sure you've binged through a box set of great TV before," Hakkinen says. It's easy to stay up until six in the morning consuming content, forgetting our real world responsibilities. Work, school, life? Inconsequential when mysteries are revealed, or love is about to blossom on the small screen.

"You couldn't go to sleep because you had to see the next episode." That theme is the basis of Alan Wake's story, and it works wonderfully. In each of Alan Wake's six chapters, players are given a complete story. Each, narratively, could stand on their own as a separate piece of a complete experience. An episode in a box set, for example. This translated to the presentation, which introduces each chapter as a new episode of Wake's story.

Alan continues his adventure in the aforementioned Xbox Live Arcade title American Nightmare. This is how things worked out for Remedy, but it wasn't meant to happen this way.

Remedy Entertainment creative director Sam Lake didn't think of Alan Wake as one game -- he envisioned a franchise. This was new territory for the designer.

"When Max Payne was made, Sam really wasn't thinking about a franchise. He wasn't thinking about a game much further than the first one and he ended up killing off most of the characters," Hakkinen explains. Remedy had no idea whether Max Payne would strike a chord with players. It was an immense success, which put Lake in an odd position: plot a sequel to a title with a laundry list of felled, memorable characters. Things would be different for Alan Wake.

American Nightmare is deemed more spin-off than sequel by the team at Remedy, though the game does answer some lingering questions posed by Alan Wake's haunting final moments.

After years of waiting, PC gamers have finally been given a chance to visit the fictional, possessed town of Bright Falls, the setting for Alan Wake's story. The PC version was always something Remedy wanted to do, Hakkinen tells me. After getting Microsoft's "blessing," Remedy set off to bring the game to PC, hiring Finnish developer Nitro Games to port the title.

"It's part of our heritage," he tells me, listing Remedy's PC catalog. Within 48 hours of releasing the game on PC, Remedy recouped costs associated with its development.

Bringing the game to PC took about five months, Hakkinen says, with a team of about eight. Some allowances were made, however. The PC version uses the Xbox 360 cutscenes, rather than recreated ones specific for the platform. This was due to time and resource constraints, Hakkinen explains. Regardless, Alan Wake on PC looks gorgeous.

Alan Wake is a rarity in this industry. Few titles push through a rocky development, contend with high-profile foes, and survive to tell a new tale. It is a cult hit, and we're all waiting for the next chapter.