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Alan Wake 2 Is What You Get When Remedy Believes In Itself

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We went hands-on with Alan Wake 2 to see how Remedy is taking its brand of weird to the survival-horror genre.

When we last spoke to Sam Lake about the long and winding road to getting Alan Wake 2 made, he said, "What we have now as Alan Wake 2--I'm so happy it's this version. I'm so happy we did not get the opportunity to go with the earlier ones because I'm still very excited about this creation and what we are doing with it." While I never doubted the authenticity of the sentiment, it wasn't until I played it myself that I really understood what Lake meant.

I played close to two hours of Alan Wake 2, and, in numerous respects, it was impressive. Lake's quote specifically referenced the shift to survival horror and, based on limited slices of the game, it's already clear that was the right call. There are core mechanics carried over from the first Alan Wake that just make so much more sense in this Resident Evil 4-inspired survival-horror mold. The gameplay systems now feel like a vital part of a cohesive whole, as opposed to a fun gimmick with limited mileage layered on top of a thriller-themed action game.

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As a longtime fan of the studio, however, the most exciting thing for me wasn't how good it felt to burn away the shrouds of darkness enveloping enemies before firing gunshots. Nor was it investigating an environment and piecing clues together to open up a lock. Or even soaking up the unsettling atmosphere of the Dark Place, a surreal alternate dimension that now serves as Wake's prison. What really stuck with me was the pervasive sense of confidence in the execution of ideas, stylistic choices, and decidedly Remedy flourishes. Making Alan Wake 2 a survival-horror game may have been the big breakthrough for Remedy, but it feels like its greatest triumphs could only have come after the games the studio created since Alan's first visit to Bright Falls.

The first section I played was dedicated to Saga Anderson, an FBI agent who arrives in Bright Falls to investigate a series of ritualistic killings. Her journey has taken her to Watery, a small town a few miles southwest of Bright Falls, where she's trying to track down the "Clicker"--more on that later. Watery is a decidedly grey and drab place, made all the more gloomy by a thick blanket of fog, dockworkers commiserating about their lot in life, and the telltale signs of a recent flood. Almost every building blends together, with dingy trailers and knackered equipment scattered about. Even the fallen leaves of autumn have had their golden hues drained of them. It's a little depressing. And certainly not the kind of place you'd want to vacation.

And yet, those who played Control may remember a postcard depicting everyone's favorite supernatural janitor at a vacation home in Watery. Following the muffled sounds of singing, I ventured into a nearby building, and, sure enough, there he was. Standing on the stage, a microphone held close, was Ahti pouring his heart and soul into a rousing performance. And this is one of the first places where Remedy's self-assuredness came through to me. The team is no stranger to using licensed music, having included the music of David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Roy Orbison, and other recognizable names in the first game. But here, it was an original song sung entirely in Finnish.

Maybe it was the warm glow of the stage light, the gentle swaying of Watery denizens as they listened intently, or the bass-heavy singing voice, but I found myself spellbound for the entire four-minute performance. This might not sound terribly exciting, but to me, it felt like a clear and confident statement of identity, and a willingness to lean into what makes Remedy unique as a studio and the texture they can bring to their worlds just by embracing who they are and where they're from.

"That has been, to me, just kind of a wonderful experience … and I feel really, really proud about it," Lake told me in a new interview. "That's one thing, being a Fin and growing up in Finland and always looking into American popular culture as a big inspiration--UK as well for sure, for Tolkien, which was huge to me. But always not being that excited about the Finnish stuff.

"And for sure, it's partly growing older and suddenly realizing that I am quite proud of our culture and also realizing that that's a unique asset for us, that it's not well-known, and it's exotic as hell from a global perspective. And why not just proudly [embrace it]."

The threads that tie Alan Wake 2 back to Control are numerous, and the impact of that game, the way it presented itself, and how it was received were perhaps more profound than most realized. For us, Ahti was a fascinating figure in a game world that was littered with weird and imaginative concepts--maybe even the connective tissue between some of Remedy's worlds, to a degree. But for Remedy, he was an affirmation that the world is ready for Lake and the team to look closer to home for inspiration.

"Ahti was kind of a big step forward--coming up with the character and his love for Finnish tango and all of that [being] so positively received. I have never heard a single negative word about Ahti. People love [him] and [actor] Martti Suosalo went on to win a BAFTA for the best supporting role for Ahti. So that, to me, was kind of confirmation that we can do plenty more. And in this, well, you've seen glimpses of it. There is plenty more."

The glimpses I got were easily the most memorable parts of the experience, and to recount them would take away the enjoyment you may get from experiencing them, so I won't. But they went a long way in creating a distinct atmosphere that, while obviously drawing inspiration from other media, only served as a canvas for Remedy's own Finnish flourishes. Things like Ahti, the personalities and demeanor of various people in the town, adverts you'll see as you pass by a TV, and a few other interesting references, are the patina of the smalltown weirdness of David Lynch and the cultish murder mystery of David Fincher.

In an interesting wrinkle, everyone in Watery was very well-acquainted with Saga, as if they had a long history together. However, Saga didn't seem to know them as well as they knew her. This created an interesting narrative dynamic where a backstory for the character could be presented to me through the eyes of others. Later on, it worked its way into gameplay, too, as I was able to get to different parts of Watery by playing along and acting like I knew everyone and was just popping home to my trailer to grab some things. To do so, however, I'd have to grab the spare set of keys to the trailer from Coffee World, which is exactly what it sounds like: a coffee-themed amusement park.

The trip there took me through the twisting trails of Watery's woods, and at night no less. At this point, explaining the whole over-the-shoulder survival-horror combat feels unnecessary, so suffice it to say that Alan Wake 2 sticks very close to that blueprint. The basics are solid, with movement that feels weighty and gunplay that has a satisfying punch to it. It's a familiar format that feels like it has been executed well, but what elevates it and gives it a little more of that Remedy flavor is the interaction between Saga's flashlight and the darkness that covers the Taken. As in the first game, enemies effectively have a shield around them that soaks up damage. This can be dissipated by focusing light on the enemy for a few seconds, causing it to sizzle and then erupt, knocking the enemy off balance and making them vulnerable.

Again, it is essentially the same idea repurposed from the original Alan Wake, but placed within the dynamics of a survival-horror game, it contributes to a gameplay experience that is more strategic, methodical, and often terrifying. Enemy encounters are measured, with fewer enemies that pose more of a risk, instead of waves of easy to dispatch grunts. I thought of the light much like I did Resident Evil 4's shots to the knee, which would stagger enemies that were bearing down on me. I used the flashlight to slow enemy advancement since they would recoil and squirm when bathed in light. At the same time, the dark woods played host to some nail-biting skirmishes that felt like desperate, hard-fought victories instead of heroic assaults. With some sneaky enemy placement and Taken that dash about quickly, the flashlight became essential to crowd control to ensure I wasn't overwhelmed. Throw in the stress of knowing bullets and items are in short supply, and it comes together as a potent mix of the first Alan Wake's most interesting ideas and tried-and-true survival-horror gameplay.

Much of the remainder of Saga's mission was spent in the midst of vaguely threatening fairground rides and an atmosphere that felt heavy and unnerving, as I imagine it would be if I were wandering around a dirty and deserted monument to a small-town community's love of coffee. I didn't see any kids knocking about, so I have a lot of questions about the target demographic of the place, but I'll save that for when the game is out. And when trying to connect the pieces of the puzzle together, I was able to seamlessly and instantly enter Saga's Mind Place, a space where she is able to parse clues and information, create profiles, and connect the dots.

This is an element of the game that Lake describes as a "quite indie" take on bringing narrative and gameplay closer together, and I'm inclined to agree. Placing pieces of evidence or information correctly on a board to draw the connections felt tactile in the way quickly shuffling through and producing documents in Papers, Please was. And the filling-in-the-gaps to push the investigation forward and make breakthroughs reminded me of The Case of the Golden Idol in many ways.

"Bits and pieces led us to survival horror as a starting point on combat, but that was one aspect of it, [along with] limited inventory and how we approach this. But I did have, from the very beginning, a big, big ambition [for] interactive storytelling this time, for real, and how we go deeper into it." Lake explained.

"For me, the really, really important part was two narratives, side-by-side, and you are free to go forward with each, so what does this mean for story structure because they are connected, but there can be no wrong way of approaching it. But then the other part was, 'Now the pacing is slower and we have more room, how do we marry gameplay with story and make you engage with the story?' [It] was Saga's investigation and Wake's plot board, and actually being kind of a writer in a supernatural environment."

Where Saga's Mind Place serves as a representation of her capabilities as a detective and an opportunity for players to actively participate in investigating, Alan has the same in his writer's room, except his board is tied to an ever-unfolding, malleable plot within the Dark Place. Alan is both the author and subject of the story, which affords him the ability to write and rewrite the fabric of reality in his twisted world.

As effectively as Remedy established Saga's weird, small-town murder mystery vibe, much of what I saw was grounded in reality. Towards the end of her section, I started to notice very strange happenings, alluding to an eventual tonal shift where her ordinary world might become something closer to Alan's less-than-ordinary ones. But the Dark Place was a full-throated expression of everything Remedy does well with creating a memorable sense of place, taking your expectations for it and distorting them in unexpected ways to ensure you never quite have stable footing. The Dark Place looks like New York, but a hellish version of it. Or a more hellish version, I guess.

The whole city is abandoned, making Alan the only presence wandering its eerie streets. It's hard to describe the feeling of the Dark Place without actually playing the game and getting a feel for it yourself, but there's a foreboding quality to it that is delivered through the way it's lit and the details in how it's constructed. Areas of it have a wave-like effect in the air distorting the neon signs of theaters and diners, creating a surreal, dream-like atmosphere. The place is dense with signs of life, as if just moments ago it was bustling with activity but everyone vanished between your blinks--Leftovers-style. It's the same kind of ordinary becoming extraordinary that slowly transformed a fairly standard-looking office building into the Oldest House, a labyrinth that defies space and time, and is filled with baffling things like a fridge that'll kill you the instant you look away from it.

The Dark Place feels like it is hiding all manner of tricks and traps in dark alleys and around suspicious buildings. One such place is the Oceanview Hotel--not that motel from Control, but no less strange and, who knows, maybe that motel and even stranger. I walked through the entrance and up a very small staircase and into a connecting hallway towards a door that would presumably take me to the reception area. Except, when I walked through it, I was back at the door I had used to enter the room I was now standing in. This is just one instance of Remedy springing its own brand of topsy-turvy weirdness on you, among many that I want to preserve the magic of.

Deeper into the mission, I was in the hotel--clearly evoking The Shining--and couldn't help but think of Control the entire time. The key mechanic for Alan Wake's parts of the game revolves around the Angel Lamp--which might be connected to the Clicker that Saga is looking for--and its ability to capture and hold light. Areas of the world around me could be changed by discharging the light held in the lamp. This can be something small, like opening a blocked passage on the streets of the city to something bigger like opening up entire new areas of the Hotel. While not quite as disorientating, I often felt like I was trapped in the Ashtray Maze from Control, running around and not completely sure if I was in a new hallway or if a trick was being played on me. Along the way I encountered echoes, which manifest in the world as a pocket of light and a pocket of darkness. These little puzzles are all about perspective, so I had to move Alan to find a viewpoint that would superimpose them. When successful, I was rewarded with little bits of story about a character or an event that would help detail more of what was going on.

These are another example of the developer leveraging previous experience to make Alan Wake 2 more visually interesting and Remedy-like. The echoes are live-action scenes that are layered on top of the game world, but also occupy a physical space within it; they pulse in and out in sync with the voice of whatever character is the subject of the memory, which in most cases was Alex Casey, the character played by Sam Lake and voiced by James McCaffrey--both parts of Max Payne, the character that put Remedy on the map. While these were instances of the studio flirting with live-action, there was also one moment that fully embraced Remedy's obsession with integrating real-life actors and environments into its virtual ones. I stumbled into a room and watched an entirely live-action scene that Lake presented as being comedic, but felt like an uncomfortable fever dream.

"I love having these different elements in it," he said. "I really strongly believe that [with] a game that is a world and you spend a lot of time there, I feel we have a lot of room for different tonal things. And out of that mix, I feel that a certain kind of magic forms. That has always, at least in my mind, been part of the Remedy's unique approach.

"If we think about survival-horror as an example, there are plenty of examples where it starts out really scary and dark, and that's the note it keeps on having all the way to the end. And that's the only note it has. To me, just coming from the original Alan Wake, and going back to the inspirations behind it, it always felt that we have these different sides to it, and now, even more purposefully, we don't want it to be all-out horror.

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"We want to take you out of that horror, make you laugh, make you kind of love the characters because of how crazy and goofy they are. But then when these characters suddenly are drawn into the horror or suddenly shift, [it becomes], 'I don't like this person anymore, even though he made me laugh before.' I think that we have much more emotion going on and much more motive going on. I'm trusting that it all comes together and doesn't fall apart in different aspects."

Maybe it's reading too much into it, but "trusting" in the ideas to come together is a big deal for a studio that has built its reputation on doing unproven, weird things and hoping they work. It's not a leap of faith anymore; it's more of a calculation, and one made based on years of experimenting and learning from the successes and failures that come with that. Even at the preview stage, Alan Wake 2 feels like a game from a team that has a much stronger grasp of its own identity and isn't shy about showing it off, and that's incredibly exciting. Whether it's being smart enough to take ideas from Alan Wake and reinterpret them for survival-horror, leaning into the weirdness of Control, or having the confidence to return to the fully live-action sequences of Quantum Break, Alan Wake 2 is poised to be the most Remedy game Remedy has ever made. And it's definitely one that the studio could only have made now.

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Tamoor Hussain

Tamoor Hussain is the Managing Editor of GameSpot. He has been covering the video game industry for a really long time, having worked in news, features, reviews, video, and more. He loves Bloodborne and other From Software titles, is partial to the stealth genre, and can hold his own in fighting games too. Fear the Old Blood.

Alan Wake II

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