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17th December 2011
Guest Article: Writing Alan Wake
by Mikko Rautalahti

Jaden: I discovered the "Ask Remedy" thread at the Alan Wake forums and a specific answer caught my eye. I love the Alan Wake script and so it was interesting to see one of the writers for the game talk about how the Alan Wake story was created. I thought it was a pretty cool insight into the game so I asked Mikko if I could repost it here, and he agreed. The reply was in response to Helspont at the forums who asked if companies accepted video game scripts. The only changes I've made to the reply was the addition of the images.

Mikko: Now, I'm going to be blunt right off the bat: if you have a story and a script for a game and you're trying to get somebody to pick it up, it's very unlikely to happen -- so unlikely that, in fact, that the only reason I'm not calling it impossible is because I have an aversion to putting things in absolute terms like that. I'm sorry, but honestly, that's just how it is. There may be people out there thinking that they want to make a game but they just don't have a good story for it, but they are very few and far in between. You might find somebody who has a story idea and they need somebody to actually flesh it out, but that's the best you can realistically hope for; it's not like the movie business, where scripts are in great demand, and they get bought all the time. (Far more of them get bought than filmed, but the demand is constant.) You kind of need to be in from the ground floor when people are talking about what kind of a game they want to make, and that's not an easy spot to get into if you're not already working in the industry.

For us (and other companies may and do work differently), we start with a concept, and that involves story elements, absolutely, but we also need to know that it'll make a good game. So for example, with Alan Wake, you can bet that at the time the idea of a writer fighting darkness with light was brought up, the kind of gameplay that might involve was also on the table already. There are certain things that we know from the get-go -- for example, we make third person games, and that immediately has an impact on how we work.

When we're working on the story stuff, other people are already working on other things, so there's constant interaction -- if they come up with game mechanics that don't seem to fit the story, we bring that up, and if the story stuff doesn't seem produce useful or fun game mechanics, they bring that up. There are also technological aspects to this -- for example, if it had turned out for whatever reason that we couldn't get the lighting effects we wanted, Alan Wake might not have happened at all, because light is so integral to the core concept!

So it really is a cooperative endeavor. We start by figuring things out in very broad strokes, and the details can change a great deal at this stage. The thing is, you don't really know if an idea works until you try it out to at least some extent and figure out what it really means in practice, so you often have to change your mind. For example, at one point Alice Wake had died in a car accident before the events in the game, and that was changed for a number of reasons, but especially because it was felt that if she was dead, it was very hard to find opportunities for her to become an actual character in the story, somebody Wake could love. We wanted to establish her as a presence in his life before things started happening, so we changed that. Things like that happen all the time. At the same time, the story is also influenced by the developing game design. They are two aspects of the whole that need to support each other.

I write, sure, but I would say that overall, I only spend maybe 20-25% of my time actually writing. The rest of the time is spent in meetings -- which sounds kind of horrible when you look at it like that. But that's the job. The writing is obviously important, but it's essentially useless if I don't know what others are doing, and if they don't know what I'm doing. I don't work in a vacuum; a lot of my job is just talking to people. On a good day, I can spend the whole day in meetings and feel like I got a lot done -- not because my own work progressed, necessarily, but because I figured out how to get that work done, or helped others do their work. (I also have a lot to do with things like the characters' voices and the audio side of things in general, and localization often needs some support from me, etc. -- I'm pretty busy. So at least at Remedy, the writer tends to be extremely involved with the production.)

So, in answer to your question, I do get involved in the gameplay, often very much so -- the scenes that involve NPC interaction tend to be especially important for storytelling purposes, so those take up a lot of my time. But it's a two-way street; often I have something written that doesn't make for good gameplay, and I have to change it. The more back and forth like that there is, the better the end result generally is. Obviously, there are things that we can't change -- for example, if you look at Alan Wake, we have the New York flashback sequences, and if our gameplay designers had come to me and said that we need to have some combat in there, I would've had to say no, that's not going to happen. On the other hand, if I go to the gameplay designers and say that hey, I just wrote this sequence where Wake goes blind and the player mustn't see anything either, they're going to tell me to write something they can actually make work. (Note that this doesn't mean that a brand new feature couldn't be created because of story demands, but that's not something you just drop in somebody's lap.)

Our level designers and environment artists are super cool people, and they often find ways of telling the story better, or new ways of accentuating a story point, which is awesome, and that wouldn't happen if we didn't spend time talking about this. That's the difference between trying to tell a story as well as you can and simply throwing it at the player between action sequences, cut'n'paste style. And I am not exaggerating at all when I say that they're the ones who make the stories come alive -- sure, I think we write good stuff, but they're the ones who implement it. Invariably, the closer we work together, the better the end result is.

The actual script is definitely written with gameplay in mind -- if it wasn't, it wouldn't be very useful, and it would end up being changed by necessity. But again, it's a two-way street: for example, the stage fight in Alan Wake was something we came up during the writing process, and it ended up being one of the coolest moments of the game for a lot of people. (It's also a great example of how important the gameplay design work is -- in the script, that entire scene is fairly short, consisting mostly of Wake and Barry's banter. When you actually play it and get the light show, the music, the big Taken waves, it feels undeniably epic, and that wasn't something we could just write. There was a lot of creativity there that had absolutely nothing to do with writing, and I think it effectively illustrates the difference between having an idea and actually making it work. Writing absolutely didn't do the heavy lifting in that scene!) On the other hand, the nightmare sequence in the very beginning of Alan Wake was very much dictated by gameplay requirements, because we had the whole tutorial thing to take care of. We must've rewritten the details of that scene a dozen times as the gameplay changed.

It's also worth noting that what I've outlined above tends to be true for us, but it doesn't necessarily apply to every game studio out there. We take story very seriously, it's one of the things that Remedy is known for, but some companies take a different approach -- it's not at all unheard of for a company to simply hire a freelance writer who produces a script, and doesn't actually get very involved in the production itself, if at all. It generally doesn't lead to a very story-driven experience, but it can still result in a kick-ass game.

Let me tell you another thing that people typically don't realize: storytelling is expensive, and by that I mean it takes a lot of time from a lot of people. For example, the diner scene in the beginning of Alan Wake seems pretty simple -- you walk through the area, people talk to you, you can play the jukebox and people react to it, etc. But it's actually a very complex scene, because of the way the characters' dialogue is triggered. All of it is custom stuff, and that takes a lot of time to get right, but the end result feels very immersive and atmospheric. It's difficult, and there's no way it could have been accomplished if there hadn't been such a close relationship between gameplay design and writing.

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This article was taken with permission from the Official Alan Wake forums, in the "Ask Remedy" thread. A big thank you to Mikko for letting me to copy it here, it was really interesting to hear about the creation of the Alan Wake story :)


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