Screenshot of Alan Wake 2

Creating Alan Wake 2: Sam Lake talks dark urban dreamscapes, player choice, and more

By Shannon Liao, Contributor
Alan Wake 2 is almost upon us, and just in time for the spooky season. From Remedy Entertainment, the sequel continues the story begun in Alan Wake (and nodded to in Control) and stars two playable protagonists—the titular Alan Wake and FBI agent Saga Anderson.

To understand more about Alan Wake 2’s worldbuilding, it’s worth taking a look at the central figure of New York City.
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“I grew up being dipped in this magic cauldron of American popular culture,” Remedy creative director Sam Lake told American filmmaker Mike Flanagan at a Tribeca Film Festival panel in New York earlier this year.

Days later, I sat down for an interview with Lake and he elaborated. “When I wrote Max Payne a long time ago, I had never visited New York. That to me was this mystical, archetypal, urban dream. Through the years, now having visited multiple times, I still feel more inspired by pop culture than the real, actual city. Somehow to me, New York just is the city.”

The New York City shown in Alan Wake 2 is far different from the real city we’re speaking in. It’s a dark, twisted version known as the Dark Place where players will have to fight monsters and collect clues. Alan Wake has been trapped in the Dark Place since the events of the first game, stuck in a nightmare for the last 13 years.
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Lake is a big fan of film noir, including classic Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, which he also drew upon for the New York look. “We are drawing a lot of inspiration from stylized arthouse horror. Harsh lighting and colored lights to symbolize the supernatural, and of course, darkness as the other side of the coin, like the duality you mentioned, is very much a big part of this,” he said while on the panel with Flanagan. “This is also, graphics-wise, our most ambitious game so far. I’m not a technical person but I’ve been told that when you look at the screen, there is ten times as much detail and things happening.”

Lake says that horror games are slower paced than action games, and that the survival horror genre of Alan Wake lends itself to better storytelling than the faster-paced scenes of action games like Control. (That didn’t stop Control from being a 2019 Game of the Year contender, and its floating, creepy monsters, telekinesis, and unnerving setting left players mesmerized and longing for a sequel.)

“What happens with an action game and storytelling is that you are always struggling to find room for the story. And because it's an interactive story, it needs to go hand in hand. There needs to be this kind of collaboration between story and gameplay,” said Lake.
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“The ambition with Alan Wake from the beginning was that we would continue to push the ambition of the story itself to have more layers and a deeper story experience,” Lake continued. “That does take room and bandwidth and tools for storytelling. Usually [in Alan Wake 2] the character is not running or flying as they were in Control, and that immediately gives you more room.”

The story is structured to have cliffhangers and twists—but also to show two entirely different perspectives. Players will experience Alan Wake 2 from both Alan and Saga’s viewpoints, and each will provide insight into the larger story.

“Say you saw a certain event first while playing Saga, a certain vision—it gave you an impression of something foreshadowed. Then you experience it on Wake’s side, and now it clicks into place,” Lake explained.
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Due to Alan Wake 2’s dual-character story structure and the player’s ability to switch back and forth between Alan and Saga, the team at Remedy lost the ability to serve a singular sharp narrative with cliffhangers timed exactly as planned. “You lose control of the pacing in the grand scheme of things…because they are there side by side, and the player can proceed as they see fit,” Lake said. One cliffhanger on Alan Wake’s side of the story, for instance, can be missed entirely if players are with Saga during a crucial moment, Lake explained.

“I was very keen on trying something new. And yes, when it comes to twists and cliffhangers, you are giving away part of your toolset,” Lake said. “But I just felt that player agency in a video game—and just giving the player the power to have this choice—is just so powerful.”

So instead of controlling exactly when characters get to see certain twists, and from whose perspective they see it, Remedy left these decisions up to the player. Think of it like an episode of Game of Thrones where you can click into any of the characters at any time.
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In some ways, these artistic themes go hand in hand with what Alan Wake is about. Alan Wake himself is a writer obsessively working on crafting the perfect story so that he can escape the Dark Place.

Flanagan said on the panel that one of the moments that gave him chills was at the very end of Alan Wake, when the game described the mind like an ocean.

“It’s not only a profound thing to say about the multitudes that we all contain, especially to those of us who, either by choice or by circumstance, are forced to confront our own darkness and try to figure out where the limits of those depths are,” said Flanagan, “but now I feel you are proving that point because you keep showing us more of the ocean, as you’ve expanded this universe. It is deeper, darker, it is bigger—and the Dark Place in particular, whatever limits we might have imagined for it in the first game, or in subsequent games, we’re going to understand more and less of it, this time, as we go through.”

Lake replied that Alan Wake is not just a psychological horror story but also a mystery “with a lot of layers.” The character of Alan Wake used to write crime fiction in New York. In making the game, Lake helped craft a video game world where players have to connect the dots.
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Saga has her version of a "memory palace," a concept popularized by shows like Sherlock and Hannibal. Saga’s side of the Alan Wake 2 story involves investigating a series of ritualistic murders, finding and collecting clues that are built out in her mind place. There’s a case board on the wall where clues are placed and connected by an iconic red string. Saga can also profile and question witnesses and victims.

“There is no wrong way to play this, which took a lot of thinking of how to make sure a lot of these stories are connected,” Lake said. “There is a dream-like layer where they see visions of each other, and there are echoes between the stories. They mirror each other. But the player is free to go their own way, even at the beginning.”

You can read how Alan Wake and Control connect narratively in our recent feature on the topic—and remember you can pick up Alan Wake 2 on the Epic Games Store.