In the world of Alan Wake, light becomes your chief weapon against the evils of the night. Outside the video game, it ensures your demise. Blame it on the glare!
At New York City's Epic Games office one morning in early October, a demo of this year's Alan Wake II (out Friday) is being set up. The sneak preview of the highly anticipated horror sequel to the 2010 cult hit focuses on F.B.I. Agent Saga Anderson (Melanie Liburd), a noted criminal profiler who arrives in the rural mountain town of Bright Falls, Wash., the vacation spot where the titular Alan Wake, a famous crime novelist, disappeared one fateful night. Saga is investigating a series of ritualistic murders that leads her down a dark path through the woods, where she's set upon by the Taken, beings that have been taken over by the malevolent entity known as the Dark Presence, which lingers in the town.
You need to expose your attackers to your flashlight in order to make them vulnerable enough to wound, but it's a difficult level to beat when the morning sunshine keeps flooding in from the window shades, causing glare to cloud your view of the screen. Sam Lake, the Finnish game writer and creative director of developer Remedy Entertainment, is determined to rectify the situation. With Alan Wake II director Kyle Rowley, he hoists one of two blue couches on top of the office heating unit so it blocks out the window. Despite the anxiety spread across the faces of the publicists watching this happen, he's intent to provide press with the full experience of the game. It perhaps has something to do with the fact that he's spent the last 13 or so years developing what would become the game that plays on the screen before us.
Remedy Entertainment Alan Wake is trapped in the Dark Place, which channels a noir New York City from his novels
Lake considers Alan Wake II to be a culmination of everything he's done before, not just Alan Wake, but other games like 2016's Quantum Break and 2019's Control. "It's a combination of all those learnings from that, plus all the cool stuff that's coming on TV," he says. "Everything came together at the right time for us."
It really does feel like a horror concoction that began brewing with Alan Wake in 2010. That first game, which only became more popular with age, introduced the main character as a Stephen King-esque novelist from New York City who rose to prominence by publishing a series of Alex Casey crime novels. While in Bright Falls, he's faced with the Dark Presence, which starts bringing the killer characters of a new novel he can't remember writing to life. By the end of the game, Alan sacrifices himself to save his wife, landing in an alternate dimension called the Dark Place, where art (specifically Alan's writing) can manipulate reality. At the start of Alan Wake II, he'll have been there, trying to write a new novel that will allow him to escape for the past 13 years.
Lake likes to joke that he, too, has been in his own proverbial Dark Place for more than a decade, trying to figure out how to shape a sequel story. A pop culture junkie, he's been sopping up all of his favorite stories for inspiration. "There was a renaissance in horror, not just in games with the Resident Evil remakes, but with Hereditary and [director] Ari Aster movies," Rowley says. "So, I thought it was a really good time to approach this type of project."
Remedy Entertainment Alan Wake enters Room 665 at the Oceanview Hotel in 'Alan Wake II'
Alan Wake II is a story of duality. There's the real world and the twisted reality of the Dark Place, there are dark doppelgängers, and there are two playable protagonists: Saga and Alan. "The whole crime investigation on Saga's side draws from the first season of True Detective, Twin Peaks, obviously Silence of the Lambs with a female FBI agent coming to investigate creepy murders," Lake explains. For Alan's arc, he leaned more into Taxi Driver. The Dark Place is now pulling from the settings of the novelist's Alex Casey books to conjure a neon-lit noir-style New York City. Lake notes, "A lot of stylized art house horror films were the inspiration for the visuals."
For a game that pulls so much from film and television, it's funny to think Alan Wake is going to be adapted into a live-action series at AMC. There's not much of an update on that front, given the Hollywood writer and actor strikes. "It's been a long, long road. Unfortunately, I don't have anything at the moment to add to the news, but definitely we have a lot of interest in that. Right now we're focusing on the game part."
In that spirit, Lake's work on the previous Remedy games couldn't be ignored either for Alan Wake II. Quantum Break, starring Shawn Ashmore as time-manipulator Jack Joyce, notably shifted between gaming animation and live-action sequences in a similar manner now used for the Alan Wake sequel. Quantum Break wasn't the first time a Remedy game used live action, but Lake points it out because he feels they could've gone further with those elements. "The production realities back then made it clunky and difficult," he admits. "I think we got to an all right point in the end and I feel proud about that."
Remedy Entertainment F.B.I. Agent Saga Anderson explores Bright Falls in 'Alan Wake II'
A separate level in the Alan Wake II press demo features a level wherein Alan, inside the Manhattan-set Dark Place, enters Room 665 (a recurring number across the previous Remedy games) in the Oceanview Hotel. The trippy sequence sees the animation transition into a live-action performance from actor Ilkka Villi, the Finnish actor who provides the likeness for Alan Wake, while American actor Matthew Porretta voices Alan. "This is interactive storytelling where you're watching a movie and you can actually be a part of it," Villi remarks.
"It just felt like an opportunity because it's such a dreamlike experience," Lake says of the live-action component. "In a way, he's transported into another layer of reality, and he takes a moment to adjust to understand that."
The presence of Ashmore himself further solidifies the Quantum Break influence. The actor returns for a new role in Alan Wake II, Sheriff Tim Breaker. Fans of these games have found the fun in what has become known as the Remedy Connected Universe as they try to decipher which games exist in the same universe as each other. Lake previously told EW that Quantum Break is not part of those plans, but Control certainly is. The 2019 game introduced the Federal Bureau of Control, a government agency that investigates paranormal situations. Courtney Hope played Jesse Faden, the agency's new Director who uses an array of telekinetic abilities to fight her way through their headquarters, which has been invaded by an entity called the Hiss.
Remedy Entertainment Saga faces the Taken in Bright Falls in 'Alan Wake II'
Control expanded upon the mythology that began in Alan Wake and featured the return of Villi and Porretta in the role of Alan. An early idea was to introduce the Federal Bureau of Control in a formal Alan Wake sequel, but, Lake explains, "We came to the conclusion that it was quite action-y and there were superhero-type of powers there. We felt that this ultimately doesn't quite feel like Alan Wake. How about we just take these elements and create a new IP around it?"
Alan Wake II now expands upon the mythology of Control. Actress Janina Gavankar (True Blood, The Morning Show) portrays FBC Agent Kiran Estevez, first referenced in Control, while Lake also mentions the Oceanview Motel, a cross-dimensional weigh station that served as a prominent setting in the previous game. "Now suddenly we have this full Chelsea hotel type of a place in New York called Oceanview Hotel. Is there a connection between these places? There is a lot of that kind of content in there."
In some ways, Alan Wake II is a culmination of Lake himself. Both Villi and Porretta agree there are many parallels between the titular protagonist and the game's creator. "Sam is Alan as well, profoundly," Villi says. "We get a lot from him just spending time with him. It's not too far from who he is."
Then there's the fact that Lake literally puts himself in the game. As the Dark Place brings aspects of Alan's Alex Casey novels to life, Lake appears in the role of Alex Casey himself, seen in the demo attacking Alan in a dark alley. "Maybe it's part of this pent-up creative frustration of having tried to make this game happen for so long," Lake responds. "I just felt that this was an all-in project. Everything I can do, I want to do." Though Lake clarifies for the record, "I'm not a professional actor," Rowley is quick to chime in, "No, he is a professional actor."
Sign up for Entertainment Weekly's free daily newsletter to get breaking TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.