TA Interview with Remedy's Mikko Rautalahti

By Mark Delaney, 6 years ago
One of the biggest, most exciting XBLA titles to come out this year, or any year for that matter, is Remedy's Alan Wake's American Nightmare. Recently, I was fortunate enough to chat with the series' Senior Writer, Mikko "Mikki" Rautalahti, about the upcoming follow-up to 2010's critical hit, Alan Wake. All of the weird moments, fun Night Springs episodes, and those confusing plot twists — he had his hands all over those. Read on to hear his thoughts on the franchise so far and what's in store for the future, and keep reading to see how you could win a download code for American Nightmare!

N0T PENNYS B0AT: Mikko, for starters, I have to thank you for taking even just a brief moment out of your surely hectic schedule this week to chat with us here on TA. In my time writing for this site, I've noticed a strong following of Wake faithful, and no one is a bigger fan than me, so this is really a tremendous privilege to have you here with us.

We've detailed previously how the idea for American Nightmare's horde-like "Fight Til Dawn" mode spawned out an inner-office scoring competition using an early build of the game. From there, the story goes that you all sort of agreed that the concept was perfect for Xbox LIVE Arcade, but since you guys are so story-focused, you couldn't go ahead without a narrative too. How did you guys decide where to take the story next — both literally, as it has moved to Arizona now, and from a storytelling perspective? The game is considered a minor detour, but still canonical to the events of the first game, right? 

Mikko Rautalahti: It’s canonical, yeah; we didn’t want to do an “imaginary story” or something. This is something that takes place after the events in the original Alan Wake game and the two DLC specials we did. It took quite a bit of discussion to figure out how to approach this.

We wanted to do something that could be a standalone experience, since we knew it would be an XBLA game and we wanted it to be something that everybody could approach easily. Specifically, we didn’t want it to be something where in order to understand what’s going on, you have to sit through a long and complicated recap of what happened before. “Hey, we have a great game for you, but before you can understand any of it, we need to explain something pretty complicated to you!” That just didn’t seem like fun at all. On the other hand, it was very important to us that the fans of the original game find it to be recognizably Alan Wake.

So our solution was to shift the genre a little and go for a more pulp-oriented approach. That way we could do things like have the Night Springs narrator narrate the game instead of Wake, which gives us a little different perspective on the events – and as a bonus, it instantly establishes that we’re going for something a little different here. Of course, as the main character, Wake still has a very strong presence in the game – just about everything about this new adventure is very personal for him. He’s not an empty vessel. But you can tell that the genre has shifted, and since this is Alan Wake, that’s not just a stylistic choice, it has a direct impact on the events.

That felt very appropriate. The original Alan Wake was always very much a genre game, because it was intended to be a thriller. That was the way we approached it – I know people think of it as a horror game, and I can understand why, but that’s not how we thought about it when we made it. It was a thriller. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is a pulp-themed B-movie, it’s got a kind of a grindhouse aesthetic.

NPB: On the subject of story, you guys often cite mystery-laden TV shows like Twin Peaks and LOST as your primary inspirations for creating the world of Alan Wake. A complaint some viewers had of these programs, and others like them, were that the writers were making it all up as they went along. While this isn't necessarily always a bad thing, there does exist the potential to negatively affect the continuity of your story if you don't really know where it's all going. With that said, how much of the story do you and your team have mapped out for the future of the franchise? 

MR: Twin Peaks was a big influence on Alan Wake, absolutely, although it probably influenced us more with its atmosphere, setting and themes than its storytelling. Lost, by comparison, was very much a storytelling inspiration for us – that thing with a cast of fascinating characters engaged in a tense mystery that unfolds slowly, you can see a lot of that in Alan Wake. I know what you mean about complaints, the way people talk about Lost now, but we obviously didn’t know that it would turn out as it did. When you look at the timeline, Alan Wake came out just before they aired the last two episodes, and game development schedules being what they are, well... I guess you could say that we were primarily influenced by the narrative Lost had – and what it promised and implied – in its first seasons, that idea of an intriguing, serialized, smart TV show that had extended character and story arcs. It wasn’t the only show like that, of course!

As for Alan Wake’s larger story, we haven’t mapped every single detail out – that’d be stupid, to be honest, because these things evolve during development anyway – but we do have a very good idea of where the story should go next. Some of those elements show up in Alan Wake’s American Nightmare; for example, the whole thing with Mr. Scratch. As you know, that’s something we set up in the original game, so of course that was a part of the big plan.

It is very important to us that the Alan Wake universe is consistent, and that it all makes sense to us, that it follows a certain logic. We may not want to explain all of it to the player – a certain degree of weirdness and mystery is a big part of the concept of the franchise, I think – but we do have to know it ourselves. And of course, we could always change our minds and decide to go in a completely different direction with the character if we come up with something really cool! That happens. But those changes also have to fit in with what’s happened before. I tend to obsess a lot about that sort of thing myself. I think it’s important that people can trust the fiction, for lack of a better way to put it. It may trick you, but it shouldn’t cheat by ignoring itself.

NPB: Moving the Alan Wake franchise to XBLA was an odd but potentially rewarding decision. The developers get to handle things in smaller doses than a retail game would allow, the consumer gets a more manageable price tag. When it's done right, everybody wins — in the case of American Nightmare especially, as the game's technology looks to have even improved on the original retail game. Do you think we will begin to see more games like American Nightmare -- that for all intents and purposes are fully-fledged games that could sit on a shelf alongside Call of Duty and other retail games -- come to the download market, especially as the console generation is nearing its final stretch? Perhaps more importantly, could you see yourselves doing more Alan Wake games through XBLA for 360, or have we seen the last of Alan and the Taken until the next generation?

MR: We’ve definitely improved not just the technology, but also our internal processes – you know, you learn something from every project. It can be very enlightening to create something that may have a smaller scope, but where you still have the quality bar set very high. It was a very good experience for us, I think.

I really can’t discuss our future projects, so I won’t even get into that, but speaking about this in general terms, yes, absolutely, I think the future’s digital. I wouldn’t want to put a time frame on that as such, and I do realize that there are still technological issues that may affect this, but year by year, we’re seeing more and more quality games that are being made primarily for the digital market. It’s just the way the technology is evolving.

That said, I think it’s very important to realize that this is not really about games, it’s about entertainment and media in general. You can see it everywhere. Look at services like Netflix – they’re getting to be pretty ubiquitous. They’re not available in everywhere, but they are spreading fast. How many people are still renting movies from actual stores today? How many are going to be doing that five years from now? I listen to a lot of music, and I pay for it, but I don’t buy that many CDs anymore. I don’t think the amount of money I’m spending on music has changed, but I do have less new plastic showing up in my house. And I love my Kindle, although I’m still buying physical books too, and I don’t think that’ll ever stop.

I don’t know how it’s going to play out exactly. There’s a learning process, but the various entertainment industries are pretty far into it already. I think the trend is obvious.

NPB: While American Nightmare does promise to be more action-oriented than its predecessor, the foundation of the series is clearly its strong story and writing. Little by little, each generation of gaming sees a more committed approach to writing an entertaining story, where as before, gameplay was almost the lone factor in a game's development, and a good story was considered a bonus. As one of the head writers for a story-driven game, what are your thoughts on how video game story writing is evolving? Do you have any favorite stories in video games?

MR: At the end of the day, I’m not sure if we have more action in American Nightmare’s story mode – that’s a really hard thing to quantify, and anyway, you certainly shot a lot of Taken in the original Alan Wake. We absolutely have better action. It’s more varied, more exciting, more surprising, more fun. But story’s always a very important element for us. Of course, outside the story mode you have the Fight Til Dawn mode, and that is pure action, it gets really hectic. There’s something about facing overwhelming odds and surviving by the skin of your teeth, just counting down the seconds until the sun comes up, and I think we really got the balance right with that one. At the end of the day, Remedy makes story-driven action games, and both elements of that concept are extremely important to the overall experience.

As for video game writing and storytelling in general, I think the standards of video game writing are improving fast, but the average is still pretty low. I do think there are a lot of really well-written games out there, though, what with great companies like Valve and Bioware, among many others. That said, I think it’s a mistake – and a very common mistake at that – to think of it in terms of “story” and “gameplay,” as if they were two separate things. It happens a lot, and that’s why so many games seem to have this problem that you’re either experiencing gameplay, or you’re experiencing story. The classic example is that there’s twenty minutes of action, with maybe a little bit of dialogue thrown in for player guidance, and then you get a cutscene, and then there’s another twenty minutes of action. So you’re kind of switching between these two modes, but there’s not a lot of actual storytelling going on in the overall experience. I think that’s getting to be less common, but you still run into that a lot.

What we try to do is make the story as much a part of the action as possible, so you’re constantly doing something that’s directly related to the story, the characters and dialogue constantly reinforcing that feeling of being in the flow. I think this sort of thing is what good games generally try to do, to varying degrees. Not that you necessarily need a story to make a great game – hell, I still love to play Tetris, you know? There’s a kind of perfection in that. But I don’t have a single memorable Tetris moment I could share with you, whereas there are moments in other games that I’ve discussed endlessly with my friends – you know, “would you kindly,” or blowing up the town of Megaton, or realizing that Zia’s song isn’t just background music, she’s actually singing right there. I want experiences like that, things that affect me. I think a lot of gamers do.

Once more, Mikko, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to chat with us here on TrueAchievements. I can safely say I speak for all of us here when I wish you and the rest of the folks at "Finland's Finest" good luck with American Nightmare and all of your future projects! 

Now, about that giveaway.

I know a lot of us here on TA have been impatiently waiting for American Nightmare's release since its reveal back in December. Here's your chance to win a download code for this week's newest addition to XBLA. Below you'll find a trivia contest with 10 Alan Wake-themed questions, along with the official rules of the giveaway. If you struggle with our other competitions to come up with creative answers or you feel your entry is buried among the other hundreds, this is the competition for you. All of the answers can be found online, for those of you without a copy of Alan Wake.

Rules and Regulations
- This competition is unavailable to TA Staff members
- One entry per person; multiple entries from the same community member will be disregarded
- Send entries via PM to Matrarch
- Spelling and grammar don't count, but it needs to be clear you knew the answer
- Please do not post your answers in this or any other public thread — PM only
- The winner will be announced in a separate article
- The winner will be contacted via PM with the download code
- In the event that multiple people share the high score, the tie will be broken using random.org
- All decisions are final
- Entries close at 7PM EST on Tuesday, February 28th

1. The story of Alan Wake takes place in present day, but the calendar inside the Bird Leg Cabin would have you believe otherwise. What year is printed on that calendar?

2. The name Barbara Jagger is a reference to an old Russian folk tale about a witch named Baba Yaga, but the residents of Bright Falls have a different name for their Barbara, according to the landlord of the trailer park. What is the nickname?

3. The character of Alan Wake is voiced by an American actor and modeled after a Finnish actor. What are their names, and name one other acting credit each of them have in their careers.

4. The music of the in-game band The Old Gods of Asgard is performed by a real-life band. Which band is it, and name their first studio album.

5. Who wrote The Alan Wake Files and how does he meet his demise in Alan Wake?

6. Dr. Emil Hartman wrote a book which is featured rather prominently in the game. What is the name of the book?

7. Bright Falls resident Pat Maine hosts a popular nighttime radio talk show. What is the name of the station he broadcasts from?

8. Throughout the game, Special Agent Nightingale sarcastically refers to Alan by using names of many different authors, but which does he call him first?

9. Bright Falls is proud to celebrate Deerfest annually, but mocks a rival town for celebrating a similar festival, as we hear on the radio at one point in the game. What is the name of that rival town and their festival?

10. During one flashback sequence, we get to watch Alan appear on a late night talk show to promote his newest book, and he also discusses some of his bad press. Who is the other guest of the show while Alan is there?

Good luck to everyone who enters!
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.