Alan Wake 2: The art of horror

Colin Campbell, Friday, October 20th, 2023 12:29 pm

GameDaily spoke to Alan Wake 2 game director Kyle Rowley, and principle narrative designer
Molly Maloney about how they go about creating fear in their players.

GameDaily: Alan Wake 2 seeks to frighten and creep out its players. How do you go about achieving that goal?

Kyle Rowley: We wanted to figure out what kind of horror experience we wanted to make, based on Alan Wake as an established franchise, and the things that we did in the first game. Early on, we wanted to identify ourselves as more of a psychological horror game. We wanted to focus on the anticipation of the threat, rather than jumpscares – the sense of dread that you get while exploring the environments. Utilizing atmosphere and music to create emotional responses.

We have two different playable characters so we wanted to differentiate those stories – one is weighted more toward paranoia, and one is stepping into a world of supernatural horror that is completely unfamiliar to the character.

Molly Maloney: Remedy has its own house style which is very weird and strange and is based on a real sense of atmosphere. So psychological horror made a lot of sense for us. It’s about putting the player off kilter. Teasing and letting players wonder about what’s going on is always very important. What do we tell them? How much do we tell them? And when do we tell them?

The same things that make a great mystery also make great horror – revealing without explaining, and so letting the player explore their own mind. The player’s interpretation is often more scary than the actual explanation although – spoiler alert – the actual explanation is really creepy!

GameDaily: You make use of some jumpscares in the game. How do you make them work?

Kyle Rowley: Well, you can just make everything really loud; and we looked at blowing people’s eardrums out. But we know that if you get the player engaged or focused on something in the world – a puzzle or environmental storytelling -then they’re very susceptible to being suddenly scared.

It’s important that we don’t repeatedly hit you with the same type of jumpscare. We try to vary. Are the scares visual, or are they audible, or are they both? It’s about finding a balance, and definitely not repeating ourselves. We’re trying to keep those kinds of things down to a minimum. Using time and space to build up tension and anticipation for something, and then utilizing a release valve. But you can’t do it all the time, otherwise, players just become numb to it all.

Molly Maloney: One of the great things about video games is the expectation of training mechanics. Players are learning and gaining experience which builds an expectation to how something is going to play out. And then we can work with that behavior and subvert the norms – I don’t want to give too much away, but using the way games work, specifically, can be powerful.

GameDaily: What is it about games that makes them so much more scary than film or books?\

Kyle Rowley: You get a level of immersion that’s unique to actually playing, as opposed to watching a movie or a TV show. When I play games, the fact that I have control is the thing that makes me feel the most scared. I feel like I’m vulnerable.

Cinematics can be scary, but they are nowhere near as effective as when I have control, and I feel like I can make mistakes – I can get caught, killed or captured or whatever it is. That level of interactivity drives the emotion and the fear factor.

Molly Maloney: If I’m watching a horror movie, I can leave and go to another room or I can shut my eyes until the scary part is done. I can skip the chapter in the book and maybe look up a synopsis. But a game does not move forward without you. If you want to move forward, you have to be the one to do it. And you’re on your own. I think that’s genuinely terrifying.

GameDaily: One of the disadvantages of games is the problem of repetition. The player must defeat the monster, but after the tenth engagement, the monster ceases to be so scary. How do you work with this problem?

Kyle Rowley: I want the player to be almost on the edge of death for a lot of the game, but not necessarily dying. Because as soon as you die and you’re replaying a sequence, especially in a horror game, then the unexpected is now expected, and that removes a lot of the fear. We don’t really want the player to be dying six times in one sequence, because then it becomes more difficult to build horror. Players become numb to it.

Molly Maloney: Tension is built in a variety of ways. But repetition is not usually one of them, unless you’re using it in a specific and clever way. When the players see something coming, they become bored.

GameDaily: Game players are exposed to a lot of monsters, and they can start to feel a bit samey. How do you avoid this problem?

Kyle Rowley: There are all kinds of monsters, and it’s a challenge. But it can help if you find a way to utilize interesting thematic elements to make them more interesting. One of the visual themes that we use is dark water, and reflections and broken imagery.

Not just in enemy design, but also in cinematography and world-building. As I said, this game is based on the stories of two characters so the whole concept of duality and mirrors can also be used in reflections and water. If we begin there, then we can use those thematic ideas in enemy design. It’s a lot better than plucking out a random monster and giving it six limbs or whatever. The monsters need to be aligned with the overarching themes and tonality of the story.

Molly Maloney: We are very story focused. Narrative design is a huge part of how we approach story, and when you have a well defined story, then you give yourself a lot to work with when it comes to creating, say, unique creature design.

It also depends on great collaboration between departments, which can bring about a lot of originality. There’s really nothing new under the sun, but together you can work out how these creatures or monsters work with and for the story you’re trying to tell. The biggest question usually is – do they feel right for this story?

Alan Wake 2 will be released on October 27. You can find out more here.

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.