Volume: 33 Issue: 2 (Feb. 2010)
A Nightmare, Wide-Awake
By: Martin McEachern
|Five years in the making, epic Thriller Alan Wake transports players into the mind of a tormented writer seeking the truth of his noir novel come to life.
Best-selling novelist Alan Wake has lost his gift. The creative well has run dry, and he’s had nary an idea in more than two years. Desperate to stoke her husband’s waning imagination, Alan’s wife brings him to Bright Falls, Washington, an idyllic small town nestled in the rugged landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Here, the coniferous forests are shrouded in a thick, ghostly mist, and icy cool lakes shimmer in the low winter light. The eerie world of Bright Falls recalls that of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or any of Stephen King’s creepy Maine settings. Steeped in this small-town atmosphere—at once overly friendly, prosaic, and menacing—Alan’s imagination begins to flow again, pouring out a manuscript for a thriller, seemingly in his sleep.
The creative drought is over.
And that’s just when the nightmare begins.
First, Alan’s wife disappears without a trace; then, his life begins to imitate his art. Every time he awakes, he finds the pages of his manuscript have disappeared, grown, or changed—endlessly ridden with edits he can’t remember making. Even worse, the scenes on the page have a habit of coming true, with him as the protagonist and his wife cast in the role of a character named Alice. As he finds and analyzes the lost pages, he begins to suspect she has been kidnapped and his manuscript is the ransom the kidnappers want. Alan struggles to find her, but to do so, he must first find the missing pages. As he locates each page, he reads the scenes back to himself?…?just as they suddenly, mysteriously, begin to come true.
Alan goes to a remote cabin to rendezvous with a local sheriff named Rusty, who says he has found some of the missing pages. Heading down the path to the cabin, Alan finds a page of his manuscript in the back of a jeep. He reads the page in voice-over: “He screamed, ‘They’re here!’ and then he pulled the trigger.” Just then, the lights along the path blow out, and a scream emanates from the cabin. There, Alan finds a trail of blood leading to Rusty’s bullet-ridden body, crumpled against the wall.
This is the kind of fusion between fiction and reality that confronts Alan at every turn. He’s chased by police helicopters through the forest, nearly bulldozed through a gas station by a front-end loader, and confronted by residents who are strangely aware of his writing, even spouting his dialog—word for word—until he is afraid to go to sleep, lest the story take another turn for the worse. It does. Switching genres from thriller to horror, wherein creatures called “dark forces” possess the locals. They begin to stalk him during the night and can only be repelled by light. He wonders, Are they the kidnappers?
As the writer desperately scours the pages for what happens next—to direct the plot before it spirals out of his control—Alan’s story, his life, and his wife’s fate intertwine until he is lost in a psychological maze, a twilight state between dream, fiction, and reality, as complex and riveting as anything you’d find in Lost or Twin Peaks. Did he write the pages? Is his wife kidnapped or dead? Is he mad? As he wrestles with these questions, Alan’s neurotic and shifty-eyed literary agent, Barry Wheeler, questions his sanity.
Labor of Love
So goes the plot of Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake, an exclusive Xbox 360 title that was five years in the making and is now one of the most novel and highly anticipated titles of 2010. In era dominated by body-count shoot-’em-ups like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which has already surpassed the $1 billion mark, Alan Wake is a bold strike at the heart of that violent trend, with a deeply literary plot, mind-bending mystery, heart-pounding suspense, a polished cinematic production, and a protagonist who fights with his wits and a flashlight instead of an M16.
The game followed a five-year, tumultuous road to release, caused mainly by the challenges of organically interweaving the endlessly corkscrewing plot twists into the gameplay and cinematics. In fact, the game has been in development for so long that, in the early drafts of the script, Alan’s wife was actually his girlfriend. Remedy likes to joke that during the five years, the couple had time to get engaged and married.
“Actually, the setting and plotline about a writer whose work starts to come true is still very close to the original concept conceived way back in 2005,” says Saku Lehtinen, art director for the Finnish game developer. “But with a game, the basic concept and story is just a story point. It has to be, because story inspires gameplay elements, and the gameplay often reflects back to the story. Since Alan Wake is a psychological action thriller, where night and dark are about danger and fear, light and darkness become key gameplay elements.”
In Alan Wake, the player fights with light. “The darkness protects [the locals] that it possesses,” explains Lehtinen. “They cannot be harmed with conventional methods [like guns] before the protecting dark presence has been destroyed with light. Light is a great gameplay element: It’s visible and familiar, yet you can achieve both awesome visual effects and gameplay with items like searchlights, flashlights, handheld flares, and flare guns.”
Film and TV Influences
Like Lost or Twin Peaks, the game is designed to be the first season of a TV series, wherein each level is a new episode, with their own objectives and three-act structure. But the roots of inspiration go far beyond television, tapping into the literature of Stephen King, Paul Auster, Bret Easton Ellis, and Dennis Lehane, particularly Shutter Island. The opening scene, featuring Alan’s wife driving him up a sinuous mountain road, recalls The Shining, while Alan’s struggles with his failing memory and the ghost of his missing wife are reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Memento.
Much like a movie, Alan’s narration accompanies most of the game, as moody, orchestrated strings brood in the background. Through its eerie, heavily backlit, and mist-laden photography, the camera work employs slow, creepy tracking shots and often assumes the predatorial POV of an attacker (think Jaws). Working almost exclusively in Autodesk’s 3ds Max, the team found that it was not easy to interject these cinematic camera techniques—borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and David Lynch—into a video game. In one scene, for example, when Alan races up a mountain through a thick stand of trees and frantically tries to start an elevator at the edge of cliff as the dark forces close in behind him, the camera assumes the predatorial POV of the antagonists, much like you’d see in a horror movie.
Alan Wake’s plot fuses fiction and reality, as the main character finds himself living the nightmarish story of his new novel. Remedy Entertainment borrowed camera techniques, set dressing, and sounds from the film world to build up tension and suspense in the game.
“Although these alternating POV shots are key devices for building up suspense in a thriller, you need to be extremely careful whenever you do this,” warns Lehtinen. “It cannot feel like a random interruption; rather, it should flow fluidly and enhance the immersion and intrigue, and not disrupt the gameplay experience.”
Sometimes scenes cut to slow motion, to enhance the reveal of a threat, like the dark forces or the police helicopter. “One key element is to interweave the camera and slow-motion pans into the combat itself, when the player has a near-miss moment, for instance,” explains Lehtinen. In fact, Alan Wake uses a wide range of shots: camera moves from first to third person, to a variety of reveal cameras, cinematic shots, player-triggered look-at cameras, and POV shots—and utilizes the full cinematic range in the cut-scenes.
“The key thing to remember is that games are an interactive medium, and the use of the camera must respect this,” Lehtinen cautions. “The player must feel in control and comfortable, so all the camera pans and action feel intuitive and fair. Taking the controls from the player should be done in a way that feels rewarding and comfortable. When a camera flows effortlessly between all these situations and the player can still focus on the action, drama, and emotion, you have done a good job.”
As Alan’s flashlight beam slices through the night, the blackened silhouettes of people and trees loom ghostly against the movie-blue darkness and mist of the forest. The game also employs a real-time weather and day-and-night cycle to heighten the drama of a scene, using rain and fog to infuse the photography with a sense of dread and foreboding.
With its dramatic use of noir lighting and shadow, setting, and weather, Alan Wake relies heavily on the lighting conventions of the horror and thriller genre. Even though the game has its roots in realistic environments, Remedy has chosen to use movie realism. Aside from the practical lighting in the scene—that is, natural light from the sun, moon, lamps, and so forth—the team used additional lights to make the characters pop against the background. Sometimes they would even use a light to underline an important location.
“Because the camera follows Alan’s subjective point of view, we can take these liberties, and if the player enjoys it more, that is all the reason we need,” says Lehtinen. “It’s important that the lighting feels dramatic and works on a narrative level, which is far more important in a story-driven experience than accuracy or hyper-realism.”
Of course, hyper-realism would be an impossibility for a game that is primarily played in the dark of night. After all, the player wouldn’t be able to see anything. “Light is a combat tool and a safe haven in the night; it also reveals things as they truly are and offers clues for the player. So a light source is a key functional aspect as well as a symbolic and mythological pillar,” says Lehtinen. Total darkness obviously does not lend itself to action gameplay; you need to be able to navigate, flee, and fight, just as you need to be able to see something during the night scenes of a film. The team found that the best way to forge the illusion of night often was to combine classic movie “night blue” lighting with fog and other effects, which yielded a world of thrilling shadows, shapes, and silhouettes.
The light-based gameplay not only made real-time day and night cycles important, but also real-time dynamic HDR lighting that could simulate complex environmental effects, such as sunsets, twilight, morning mist, and so forth. Thick, flowing clouds ride on dynamic wind patterns, which send the low-lying fog scattering through the trees, filtering the moonlight into a deep shade of blue that glistens off the hard-packed snow. “It was crucial to show a high dynamic range in the lighting,” says Lehtinen. “And all of it needed to work seamlessly within our dynamic environments, which can go from day to night, switching from clear, night skies to foggy and stormy conditions, where clouds dash across the sky, in time-lapse style, and the foliage sways violently.”
To accomplish this, the Remedy crew, working in Max, began with the goal of achieving fully dynamic HDR lighting throughout the entire game. This was so challenging that they went through numerous failed experiments in the process of perfecting the engine’s lighting. Initially, the team had a forward renderer that combined up to four lights per affected surface to one pass, but in the end, the only thing that gave them the performance with the number of lights they wanted was deferred lighting.
In order to achieve that dark, ominous, moody atmospheric lighting, the engine had to be completely dynamic and adjustable. Essentially, every rendering parameter could be changed on the fly, from the color values of the sun, to the amount of clouds, fogginess, and so forth. On top of that is a flexible post-processing pipeline, which draws inspiration from contemporary effects used in movies and TV. From auto-exposure and bloom, to tone map operations, everything could be changed in real time. “These effects really make or break the picture, so much so that turning tone mapping and bloom off would make the graphics feel flat in comparison,” Lehtinen says.
Because all the parameters are exposed and adjustable in every gameplay situation, the lights can be toggled on or off, and the settings blended smoothly from one to another, making it possible for the artists to get that thriller mood, or change the feel of the situation when story or gameplay needed it.
|The amount of pages keeps growing each night. There are also new edits on the old pages. They keep getting more aggressive. The story is rewriting itself. The protagonist is now my namesake, and his wife is called Alice. The most worrying aspect: The genre seems to be shifting. It’s turning into a horror story. I can no longer be certain whether the hero can succeed or even survive. Apart from jumbled fragments of bad dreams and an oppressive feeling, I can remember nothing of the process when I wake up. But this morning, a breakthrough! When I came to my senses, I could smell her perfume on my shirt. I am close. I know it. I must push on.
The photography also makes full use of ominous, diffuse lighting, to separate the background into layers that gradually reduce the player’s visibility and depth of field, thereby creating a greater sense of mystery about what’s just beyond view—an effect often seen in Spielberg movies. “We always wanted to capture the feeling of a large world, and have up to 10 km of view distance,” says Lehtinen. To get this to look realistic required many layers of effects and techniques building on top of each other, just like in movies. A key element in those layers is a real-time, atmospheric scatter simulation based on a physically correct model. This makes the atmosphere glow around the sun, for example. The night sky is an extension of the same system, with the addition of the moon and stars, using real constellations, of course.
To create those layers of visibility, the artists used fog particles at nighttime, with
z-fading to prevent clipping against the background, as well as post-processing effects, like screen-space ambient occlusion, which make objects blend into the overall image as they would in real life. The crew also used some post-processing and composition effects in the cinematics, to tell the story better and to draw the viewer’s attention toward the desired part of the screen.
While the night in Bright Falls is submersed in an eerie blue, the day is suffused in a pallid, ashen grey. Remedy wanted to capture a gloom in the daylight so it would look like a different style of night, thus giving the player little shelter from the lurking menaces of the dark. Lehtinen says this complex lighting owes a lot to the engine’s ability to do screen-space ambient occlusion in real time.
The game’s showpiece environmental effect is a real-time tornado that blazes a path of destruction right toward Alan, sending a storm of debris—even a car—crashing down over him. “The tornado is a combination of real-time physics, whereby we apply tornado-like force to dynamic objects in the game world. This is where the Havok physics engine can really flex its muscles,” says Lehtinen. “On top of that, we added multiple particle emitters and effects to create the visual chaos of flying debris and wreckage. Naturally, it’s the physical objects that are captured by the tornado and sent into a violent spin that really sell the final effect.”
A dynamic game engine and a flexible post-processing pipeline enabled the artists to change and adjust the light settings for every scene.
Of all the effects in the game, Lehtinen’s favorite is the strange, rippling, watery appearance the dark forces assume as they emerge in the night. “It’s eerie and a bit out of this world. The goal was to make the already gloomy forest reflect Alan’s subjective perception of the Dark Presence closing in,” he says. “It was actually one of the hardest creative problems and required a lot of experimentation to get the style we wanted. The effect needed to be dynamic so it would convey the intentions and mood of the ‘taken’ [locals].” The end result features a mixture of a large number of particles and animated post-process warping and blurring. Making these effects seem like an extension of Alan’s psychological realm—tethering them there lest they slip into fantasy or sci-fi territory—yet still powerful and visually intriguing was a constant challenge, Lehtinen adds.
Meanwhile, when the so-called dark forces explode, their bodies obliterate through Remedy’s in-house particle-effects system, the same one integral to achieving the slow-motion chaos within the Max Payne games. However, for Alan Wake, the system was extended and rewritten to take advantage of vertex and pixel shaders.
From the outset, Remedy intended Bright Falls to feature a massive re-creation of an underdeveloped, unspoiled tract of the Pacific Northwest in a 10-square-kilometer space, complete with accurate re-creations of the forests, lakes, store-lined streets, diners, bridges, lighthouses, mountain lifts, and little log cabins one might find there.
“We did extensive on-site location scouting around the Pacific Northwest,” says Lehtinen. “Bright Falls and the surrounding areas are a distilled Pacific Northwest experience in many ways. We took all the interesting places we found and brought them closer to one another.” During these trips, the Remedy artists took more than 40,000 digital photographs and hours of video. The Finnish crew had two objectives for this prodigious research. The first was to clearly understand the mood and atmosphere of the environment they had to re-create and build upon. The second was to gather photographic references for building textures. For the source material used in generating the game’s textures, Remedy not only scouted Washington state, but also ventured into Oregon and farther north into Canada.
Remedy’s mandate of building a large, realistic outdoor location, with deep, panoramic views and complex dynamic lighting made the process of rendering massive swaths of coniferous forests in real time a nightmare. To tackle the problem, the team built a custom landscape texturing and foliage system that is procedural but “in an artist-controlled way,” according to Lehtinen. Under the system, the artists build a small piece of landscape—say, 128 by 128 meters—that works as a template for defining texturing, fine-grained geometric detail, and foliage. What types of foliage appear, and their density and placement, depend on the definitions in the template, or what the group calls a “biotype.”
The in-game character animation cycles and those used in the cinematics were motion-captured with a Vicon system and tweaked within 3ds Max. Less precise gameplay actions were keyframed.
“These templates can be mapped over large areas of terrain and blended automatically together to produce landscapes that are unique but procedural. After all that base work, the artists can go in and add new trees or even insert individual blades of grass. “Artists modeled all the natural environments with the biotype system, which is an integral part of our world editor tool, WED,” says Lehtinen. “While using the biotype system to re-create this massive treescape, we referenced topographical maps, measurement data, and detailed images of foliage, such as ferns and other trees.”
Meanwhile, artists modeled the buildings and streets to be rigorously authentic to the architecture and geography of the locations they scouted. They constructed most of the man-made structures from scratch using 3ds Max, but for other homogeneous fixtures, such as the rental cabins and trailer-park trailers, they took a modular approach. To place these objects, both man-made and natural, into the environment, artists worked in WED, which acts as the hub for most of the assets and scripts. “In WED, artists can place objects, such as cars, signposts, fences, bundles of logs; create particles and sounds; and test and script various game events. The game world is a huge shared database, which artists can access simultaneously with WYSIWYG style in WED,” explains Lehtinen. “Only the character animation and in-game logics are best tested within the game engine; everything else can be done in WED.”
The accuracy goes beyond the landscape, however, to the soundscape of the game, as well. “When we were out in Washington, we actually had a person camp out for a few days and record ambient noise with wind, owls, and such, to get the real sound of the environments,” Lehtinen points out.
Cauldron Lake Cabin
In a pivotal plot turn, Alan is sent to a mountainside cabin on Cauldron Lake to rendezvous with Rusty, the local sheriff, who believes he has found some of the missing pages. Taking a key from a gas station employee, he heads up to the Cauldron Lake Lodge, which overlooks the beautiful, titular lake. Crafted in 3ds Max by a senior environment artist, the old, clapboard lodge, with its wood paneling and crackling, redbrick fireplace, is a source of enormous pride for the Remedy crew. “While the lodge wasn’t necessarily the hardest set to model, it required a significant amount of work to get the feel and detail right; that’s because the lake is a pivotal story location,” says Lehtinen. “The relation of all the sets to the lake bears crucially on the story.”
The lake is inspired by Crater Lake in Oregon, which the artists visited on their field trip. The lodge, meanwhile, is a re-creation of the Crater Lake Lodge in Crater Lake National Park, but also borrows from the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Another pivotal location inspired from reality is the dam near the end of the game, inspired by Diablo Dam at North Cascades, not so far from Seattle. “By starting from reality, I think we managed to capture the same overwhelming sense of grandness you feel at the real location,” says Lehtinen.
As a unique performance- and character-driven game, filled with scenes that unfold with taut, carefully directed camera work, stage movement, and cinematic pacing, Alan Wake placed enormous demands on the casting department, character modelers, texturers, animators, and motion-capture artists. The face, obviously, is the primary means of emotional communication in cinematic storytelling, and Remedy’s artists took enormous pains to model and map each of the main characters, especially Alan, Alice, and the manic Barry, with enough detail to achieve the most nuanced of emotions. The extreme facial detail, in the eyes and the skin grain, for example, also helped accentuate the macabre, chiaroscuro lighting and shadow falling across their faces.
|Rusty’s screams were still ringing in my ears. The tree stump the grove got its name from looked like a severed leg of a monstrous bird. I prayed that the gun would make a difference. Every time I moved the flashlight, I was afraid of the horrors it might reveal. Suddenly a ragged arrow glowed in the light. I followed it.
Artists based the main character models on the faces of actual people, sometimes using one actor with the right appearance for the model, and another with the right acting chops for the mocapped performances. To model the characters, the artists used 3ds Max, sculpting each mesh with a modest 13,000 triangles—1.2 million polygons for the high-res versions—while leaving most of the detail to the normal maps. “On top of the regular texture maps, we support normal mapping, specular maps, and detail textures. We also have subsurface scattering for the skin, which produced the lifelike flesh tones,” says Lehtinen. “We also decided to go with character models that are not fully physically-based, which gave the artists more control and options to fine-tune their appearance.” The team worked with a stylist to design the character wardrobe and makeup, and aside from the usual conversion to textures, very few modifications were made after the photography.
Remedy cast 24 actors and models for the game. The crew eschewed 3D scanners in favor of extremely thorough 360-degree photographs of their face and body, and detail shots of the clothing and their wrinkling patterns. While the photographic reference is crucial, Lehtinen says, “solid and efficient face and body topology is still very much manual labor. A 3D scan could have been helpful in capturing details for the normal maps; however, in our case, it didn’t feel necessary.” Using Autodesk’s Mudbox, artists painted the normal maps manually based on the reference photos. They were also able to improve the hair rendering significantly using some alpha-textured polygon patches of hair. Meanwhile, the animation on the hair and cloth, particularly Alan’s coat, was simulated in-game by the Havok engine.
Alice proved the hardest character to realize on screen, equally due to her appearance, spirit, and performance. “She wasn’t a technical challenge,” says Lehtinen, “but we had to recast her close to completion. Finding just the right girl took many casting rounds because we lost many of the ladies who were ‘locked and certain’ because of some contractual or other unforeseen problem. We wanted a girl who was blond and beautiful—an approachable way—and also intelligent. She had to be believable, feminine, but still a strong, independent New Yorker who could not only seem like a successful, professional photographer, but very much Alan’s inspiration and muse.”
Moreover, in order to streamline the facial mocapping process, Remedy hoped to find a woman who not only possessed the right look, but the acting chops to perform the scenes as well. Unfortunately, that proved difficult. “We ended up casting a separate actress for all her mocap and another person for her appearance. For Alan, however, we got lucky: a Finnish professional actor was able to provide both.”
Watching Alan flee through the forest, traverse the rocky terrain, and cross rickety rope bridges, players are struck immediately by the incredible fluidity of the movement. The characters’ bodies comprise a fairly simple 28-bone setup, along with the 17 bones in the hand, and 64 in the face. Alan’s jacket is a separate layer consisting of 24 bones that are partially physics simulated.
Remedy captured most of the character animation cycles and performances in its in-house mocap facility, which employs 10 Vicon cameras, editing the bulk of the mocap data in Autodesk’s MotionBuilder, before importing it into 3ds Max for fine-tuning. The artists used Remedy’s in-house facilities primarily for quickies, if they needed to proto something or add animations fast and on the fly. They also turned to a few partners, including Imagination Studios, which did a few big in-game animation capture sessions. In addition, Perspective mocapped all the cinematics, using Vicon cameras to capture the actors’ faces, driving the 64 facial bones in the face to reflect the subtleties in their acting. Meanwhile, OC3 Entertainment’s FaceFX handled the in-game duty.
Remedy visited the Pacific Northwest to collect ideas and textures for the Alan Wake sets, including the lake, cabin, and general landscape. A custom foliage system procedurally grew the trees.
“At least 90 percent of the in-game body movement is mocapped or based on mocap,” says Lehtinen. “We used keyframing mostly for gameplay-related actions, like re-loading a gun, which, for gameplay reasons, has to be more like a gesture rather than accurate movement.” In addition, the actions of the dark forces were too physically demanding to be mocapped, so animators keyframed their movements, usually exaggerating videotaped references to achieve a sense of heightened realism. They also used keyframing to create some subsets of the mocapped animations, like when Alan talks on a mobile phone.
All told, the game features 1200 in-game animations, 350 of which are for Alan alone. “The hardest thing is to get all the animations to work together in a believable way,” says Lehtinen. “For this to happen, all the poses and transitions have to match. While generic in-game blends sometime do the trick, we often use a lot of small transition animations to smooth the blending between states.”
The real problem with creating fluid, believable transitions in in-game movements, explains Lehtinen, is synchronizing the player’s desire to jump, for example, not only with the movement of the gamepad stick, but with the anticipatory movement that often leads up to jumping. “When a real person jumps, he actually prepares for his jump well ahead of time before the action,” Lehtinen notes. “In a video game, the player wants the character to jump immediately when he presses the button; you can add a bit of delay to the jump to allow the animator to add some anticipation to the movement, but it needs fine-tuning to get it right. Indeed, it is a very delicate task preserving the response of moving the stick on the gamepad while still maintaining a good-looking animation.”
To help Alan gain a foothold or handhold on his environment as he navigates his way across precarious bridges, strides across a forest floor strewn with rubble, logs, and bracken, or scales the rocky mountainside, Remedy built a custom layer of tools on top of Havok physics, to help constrain the character’s hands and
feet to the surfaces.
Modelers took great care in creating the characters, making sure their faces are detailed to where the smallest bit of emotion can be detected.
Best of Both Worlds
Indeed, in an era when game development seems focused on abandoning its roots in cinematic storytelling, like crutches it needs to lose before standing on its own feet, Remedy is not so quick to see the two mediums diverge. Perhaps they can co-exist, and gaming can be stronger for it. “To deliver that thriller experience, we
can use a cinematic or add emotional punctuation to a cliffhanger moment with a procedural camera. Also, as Alan is the writer, his narrator’s monologue of the manuscript pages that foreshadow the terrible events that seem to be coming true can also tell the story,” contends Lehtinen. “We can incorporate non-playable character interaction, and even sudden and brief flashbacks of the previous forgotten events during Alan’s seizures. All of this we can do, and have the emotions of the gameplay intensified for it. This is interactive entertainment and storytelling at its best.”
|I became increasingly afraid to go to sleep. I was convinced that I would wake up changed, darkness having seeped in through the cracks in the floor, crawled up to my bed, and made its way inside, through a nostril or an ear. I barricaded the door of the cabin. I kept the lights on at all times. I taped a note on the door (I had forgotten so many things already): ‘Don’t go out.’
Whether the two mediums will eventually diverge into their own separate entertainment species, never to mate again, is a question only the future can answer. Right now, however, Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake certainly represents the best of both worlds.
Do, Don’t Show
In the cinematic that unfolds as the main character Alan drives up the mountain road to Cauldron Lake cabin, he recounts, in voice-over, reaching a point in the novel where he picks up a hitchhiker, who kills him. It’s at this point that he finds himself actually picking up a hitchhiker, who has the uncanny ability to read his mind and finish his thoughts. As Alan struggles to make sense of the coincidence, he stops at the scene of an accident located around a blind turn. Getting out, he finds a body lying face down in a pool of blood, seemingly dead. Turning the body over, the face of a woman is partially revealed. His wife?
Before he can answer the question, a truck comes barreling around the blind turn, striking his car with the hitchhiker inside. Then he passes out. Waking up, he finds a flashlight in his hand. Panicking, he dashes across a rope bridge and, stopping halfway, hears a voice calling his name from behind. The POV switches to the hitchhiker coming toward him. And then back to Alan. All this action is heavily directed, framed with close-ups, gentle push-ins, slow motion, and insert shots that grip you with suspense.
Enfolding cinematic action into the gameplay without undermining the interactivity is always difficult but has become Remedy’s specialty since Max Payne. If the philosophy by which the film world lives has always been “show, don’t tell,” then, according to art director Saku Lehtinen, that by which the gaming world lives is, “let the player do, don’t show.” Indeed, Remedy is keenly aware that the key reversals in a game’s story are meant to be played, not watched. However, Lehtinen says, “cinematics, in themselves, are not good or bad; rather, how you use them will define the result. There are many emotions one can convey with gameplay, but some challenging and key story bits are best delivered with cut-scenes to make sure the player hears and sees everything necessary.”
When cinematics are used incorrectly, Lehtinen continues, “they become merely a device for moving the player in time or location, with typically poor acting or writing. Yes, long cut-scenes can feel disturbing and interrupt the flow of the gameplay, especially if the transition from ‘active’ game medium to ‘passive’ cinematic is done badly. That’s why we paid special attention to these transitions, so that the cut-scenes serve to deepen the emotional impact of the game, complementing the in-game storytelling and action. That being said, of course, the priority is always ‘rather than tell, show, and rather than show, let the player do.’” –Martin McEachern
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