Interview - Simon Wasselin : lead narrative designer sur Alan Wake 2

Simon Wasselin : lead narrative designer on Alan Wake 2

After a 13-year wait, Alan Wake 2 finally saw the light of day last October. Finnish studio Remedy took the time needed to create a unique work of art. So it was with great pleasure that we spent an hour talking to Simon Wasselin, the lead narrative designer on the game. We went back over his career and explored the creation of the game, focusing in particular on the narrative elements. This interview is also available as a podcast here (in french):

Hello Simon, and thank you for accepting our invitation. Can you briefly introduce yourself for listeners who might not know you?

I’m Simon Wasselin, currently lead narrative designer on Alan Wake 2 at Remedy Entertainment in Finland. I have almost sixteen years’ experience in the video game industry. I started at Quantic Dream in 2008 as a Game Builder, the equivalent of a Level Designer. I spent two years working on the Move edition of Heavy Rain before moving into game design on Beyond: Two Souls. My role as lead game designer came with the development of Detroit: Become Human. At the end of this project, I felt the desire to discover new horizons, which led me to Remedy, recommended by a friend. There, I worked as senior game designer on the CrossfireX franchise, an Asian multiplayer game for which Remedy develops single-player campaigns. I spent over a year on the second campaign, focusing on characters, cameras and weapon mechanics, aspects very different from my previous experiences at Quantic.

Then Sam Lake, creative director of Alan Wake 2, asked me to join the team as lead narrative designer. They were impressed by my background in narrative-based games and wanted me to bring my knowledge to this new opus.

Your studies in game design led you to work for a time at Quantic Dream as game designer on several of the studio’s games. Can you take us back on those 10 years as a game designer?

After highschool, I enrolled at Supinfogames, now Rubika, a game design and project management school. At the time, the curriculum focused exclusively on game design and production programming. When I left school, I was looking for an internship and had the opportunity to join Quantic Dream, which was recruiting junior profiles. The Game Builder’s job, which was quite similar to game design in the way it conceived the game and its experience, focused more on the technical aspects. To put it simply, imagine opening a level created by an artist and adding triggers, such as dialogues or cinematics, to guide the player.

At Quantic, this task was very sequential, involving the integration of interactions, animations and cameras into the game to ensure a logical flow. Over time, either because the missions were less complex, or because I became faster, I had the opportunity to assist my colleagues and have a global vision of the game. There were about ten of us in the Game Builder team at the time, and I often helped out the others. This experience gave me a transversal view of the production, and I even lent a hand to the design team, which at the time consisted of just two or three people. Over the years, I gradually moved into the Game Design department. After discussions with my superiors, I officially switched to this department, continuing my work at Quantic until the end of my contract.

How did the switch to becoming a narrative designer come about? Was it because of the opportunity to work at Remedy?

From a game designer’s position, I moved into a role more focused on narrative design. Initially recruited to focus on character and weapon design, an aspect little explored at Quantic Dream, the challenge was captivating. Working on CrossfireX was a refreshing change, especially being responsible for the second campaign, rebuilt on a new engine. My work began by analyzing the previous version, including the original designer’s vision, in order to reinterpret it in the new version, while adding my own sensibility. My previous experience at Quantic helped me in this transition to become junior game designer.

Alan Wake's traumas are at the heart of this new tale
Alan Wake’s traumas are at the heart of this new tale

At the same time, I also helped with the narrative design aspect. Initially, there wasn’t really a dedicated team on this project. So I contributed to the technical aspects and integration, sharing my previous experience while exploring new ways of approaching these elements at Remedy.

Let’s focus now on your current position ! You’re the lead narrative designer on Alan Wake 2, one of our favorites of the year. The atmosphere is incredible, and the art direction sets the tone throughout the game. Without going back over the game’s entire production, can you tell us about your early days on the game? What was the pitch you and your team were given?

I joined the Alan Wake 2 project 3 years ago. At that time, the concept was already well defined, with the main characters established, notably Alan Wake from the first opus, while the character of Saga offered more creative freedom. We had solid elements for Saga in the concept, but some aspects were still vague. During the first year, with a core team of level designers, game designers, narrative designers and directors, including Sam Lake for creative direction, we worked on a prototype level, called Proof of Concept. This phase involved concretely defining the game on one specific mission, the means of creating tension and interactivity, thus shaping the final design of Alan Wake 2.

Initial discussions focused on the character of Saga, an FBI agent, and the possibility of making this dimension playable in a survival horror context, a direction clearly established for the game from the outset. This orientation offered a slower pace of play, conducive to a complex narrative. Our ambition was to tell a story with multiple layers, a deep plot that would captivate players.

Our major challenge was to hold players’ attention with moments of calm, to create narrative tension even in peaceful situations, a crucial aspect for this kind of game. We explored different mechanics, including investigation with the clue wall puzzle, to embody this detective fantasy, as well as Saga’s concept of strong intuition, which translates into supernatural interactions, such as questioning dead people. Since the beginning, a strong image was present in our minds: Saga facing Nightingale’s corpse, engaged in a conversation, reflecting the desire to interact with the dead. This vision was fundamental to the construction of Alan Wake 2‘s narrative experience.

The game’s narration also relies heavily on the use of Saga and Alan’s voice-overs throughout. How did you set up these internal dialogues to guide the characters without giving them all the keys to understanding?

The first Alan Wake was inspired by Stephen King, and since we’re making a sequel, we had to take that inspiration back to remain consistent on Alan Wake 2. The idea was to keep this characteristic narration, close to Wake’s literary style in his writings, offering a specific immersion. Alan’s narration injected key information, both for understanding the story and guiding the player through the gameplay, while remaining consistent with the game’s universe.

In Alan Wake 2, we continued with Alan’s narration. For Saga, the character was different. She was more involved in her own adventure, without Alan’s presence as narrator except for the manuscript pages found in the game. We then introduced the “case board” as a means of reflection. This shows her cerebral approach to analyzing events, allowing her to think out loud in her head, a kind of internal monologue. The board reflected his questioning and triggered her thinking. It was our way of making her internal dialogues clearer for the players.

Saga Anderson's mind place
Saga Anderson’s mind place

Saga is a character who takes time to think, articulating her thoughts as she moves through the story. The “case board” plays an important role, engaging the player to interact, while Saga delivers narrative elements and thoughts. This approach enabled us to link the narrative to the player’s actions, rather than presenting it passively as in a simple monologue. My philosophy in narrative design involves placing dialogues and narrative elements behind interactions. I believe that information sought through interaction is better remembered than that imposed passively. Of course, in practice, compromises sometimes have to be made to progress the plot, but my aim is always to give priority to interactions to enhance immersion and memorization of narrative elements.

In Alan Wake 2, story, narrative and gameplay are intertwined all the time. Without spoiling too much, it’s all about cycles and loops, with dialogues guiding us through our adventure. How did you work on the game’s dialogue system?

Right from the start of the design, we worked on the game’s flow, creating a natural progression where each action unlocks something else, as if we were pulling a thread to see where it leads. This involved a lot of testing and brainstorming to find the right balance between too many steps and not enough. We spent months or even two years working on this balance, aware of the time and narrative constraints we had to work within to bring our vision to fruition. Finding this balance was a complex challenge. We had to juggle a number of different elements: the cost of dialogue, involving the recording of actors and the installation of cameras and visual effects, as well as the variations in cost between standard dialogue and that requiring facial and body animation. All this impacts on deadlines and the team’s workload.

Video games are a constant mix between financial constraints, team resources and creative aspirations. It’s a delicate balance between what you want to achieve and what you can actually accomplish within the limits set. One of the new approaches to this project was early testing, even at a simple game level. These tests influenced significant changes in the “case board” system, enabling us to refine the final version. Without this playtesting phase, the game would have been very different.

Regarding Alan, we’re at the heart of the franchise’s story: the creator against his creation. In this aspect of gameplay and storytelling, we have to uncover clues to unlock new investigative scenes, and also rely on the pages of manuscripts written by Alan Wake to move forward and find leads. How did you go about writing these pages and Alan’s “investigation” section?

In writing Alan’s manuscript pages, we adopted an approach based on narrative and gameplay needs. Initially, we identified the pages needed to move the game forward, detailing the actions the player must take. These serve as the basis for the game’s progression. In addition to these essential pages, we had a series of other pages that complemented the game’s universe. These were intended to explore narrative elements or introduce subjects that could not be addressed directly in the dialogues. These pages represented crucial information that had no place in the game’s classic interactions.

An integral part of this approach was the use of the pages to shape the enemies’ dialogues, which were taken directly from Alan’s writings. It was a way for us to show the story’s influence on them, justifying their repeating these specific phrases. However, for Alan’s book Initiation, we didn’t write specific pages. The idea was that at the beginning, during this phase, Alan was writing the manuscript, so in this phase, the player experiences what Alan is doing while he’s writing. Even at the end of the game, the final manuscript is not presented under the title “Initiation” or anything like that, as this remains an aspect of the writing process not made explicit in the game.

We’ve focused on the investigation and dialogue aspects of the game, but the narrative design doesn’t end there. Alan Wake 2 is a game rich in references, influences and, above all, details. You can feel Remedy’s confidence in letting the camera roam freely, and the player will find information in every nook and cranny of the game. I’m thinking specifically of Wake’s nightmarish New York, which is a kind of testament to the vanity of capitalism. There’s a lot of graffiti addressed to Alan Wake, posters that further undermine the story. Can you tell us more about the creation of all these elements and how they fit into the main narrative?

The world-building in Alan Wake 2 was a meticulous process, based on the understanding that the Dark Place is a reflection of Alan’s subconscious. This was established early on in the design process. A case in point is the subway level, where we had to recreate typical New York subway signs and text while avoiding copyright issues. To this end, we took the opportunity to insert messages that spoke directly to Alan, integrating these texts into the game. As for graffiti, we knew it was essential to bring the city to life. Team members created several tags themselves, and then our team turned to artists specialized in street art to create these works. They created authentic graffiti, photographing them to capture the actual texture and nuances of the paint. They also created the Nursery Rhymes using chalk on the Remedy’s parking lot. This artisanal approach added an authentic dimension to the game.

The graffiti contains many messages and immerses us in the atmosphere of New York.
The graffiti contains many messages and immerses us in the atmosphere of New York.

When it comes to the narrative details scattered throughout the game, such as handwritten diaries or handwritten notes, we also took the time to add a realistic touch. These elements were hand-written by our in-house teams, with particular attention paid to different handwriting to create a variety of visual identities. This is part of what we call “sublimated reality”, where the aim is to stay close to reality while maintaining an artistic aesthetic, thus facilitating legibility for the player. Everything in the game, be it handwriting, drawings, graffiti or even children’s sketches, has been created with a detailed approach. For example, some of the drawings were done in pencil, some by Sam himself or by a dedicated artist.

As we said, the concept of the loop, of the cycle, is at the heart of the story. It’s a concept that’s close to what other works are doing with shared universes / multiverse, such as Everything Everywhere All at Once, with a specific focus on regret. Alan Wake is filled with doubts, remorse and regret throughout the game, and this is reflected in a number of ways in the gameplay and narrative. How did you work with the character’s psychology to bring it out in his environment?

The central theme of closure and guilt runs deep in Alan Wake 2. Alan, tormented by his mistakes, is faced with inner dilemmas. In the first game, his choices led to difficult consequences, such as saving someone at the cost of personal sacrifice, leaving him trapped in a strange world for 13 years. This sense of guilt is an essential part of his narrative.

Unlike Saga, who is physically confronted with threats, Alan is more influenced by psychology. He finds himself in an environment where the line between reality and illusion is blurred. The enemies he faces are not always what they seem, representing more his own inner anxieties than tangible threats. This play on the confusion between what is real and what is not reflects his struggle with constant guilt and doubt. Alan is forced to write to escape this state, convinced that writing about dramatic or horrific events stimulates the environment that holds him back. This internal fight, where he must harm others to free himself, is a component we wanted players to feel, an immersion in the character’s torments. For me, Alan’s experience was driven more by a very specific vision from the outset. Sam Lake had a clear vision of what he wanted, and our job was to materialize it. This gave us less creative leeway than on other projects, but it allowed us to focus our efforts on realizing that specific vision.

Alan Wake 2 is a game that oozes love for its influences, without ever going into outright homage. To name but a few, we’re thinking of David Lynch and especially Twin Peaks, True Detective, Seven, but also modern folk horror works such as Hereditary or Midsommar, right up to the atmosphere of Fargo. How did you decide on your influences with the studio, and how did this translate into the narrative?

In the Alan Wake 2 design process, our inspirations were not strict models to be followed, but rather references that served as a common language within the team. We approached concepts and character relationships using examples such as Fargo or True Detective to establish points of comparison. These references served as guideposts for defining tone and atmosphere, without being immutable models. The major inspiration behind our work came from our immediate needs for the game. Sam Lake and Clay Murphy thought about what would work best for the writing, while the cinematography team considered the specific needs for the scenes. Everyone contributed in their own way, but it was never a question of reproducing specific works.

The relationship between Casey and Saga is the result of the digestion of many influences.
The relationship between Casey and Saga is the result of the digestion of many influences.

We had this idea of a small American town, inspired by references like Twin Peaks or Fargo, but we’re not trying to recreate those worlds exactly. Our aim was rather to let the game dictate its own needs. This is a delicate process, as you need to be sufficiently prepared beforehand, while being able to adjust and adapt along the way to match the desired experience. One of the major difficulties was synchronizing the written story with its execution in the game. Sometimes, even an excellent story on paper may not work as well once integrated into the gameplay. This prompted us to repeatedly re-evaluate the distribution of information to the player to ensure that the story unfolded in a coherent and engaging way.

What was it like working with your team? You had 6 people with you, how were your days spent and how was the work and creation divided between you?

We had a team of 6 people with 3 person dedicated to narrative scripting. We also had a technical member responsible for the systems enabling this integration. Another person focused on how to prepare the live recording sequences, while a full-time member was mainly concerned with quality control, a crucial element in the game’s development.

Integrating dialogue involved much more than simply placing it in the environment. It required careful management of timing and possible player interactions. For example, if a character was moving from one place to another while chatting, the conversation had to flow smoothly, even if the player was walking, stopping or running. In addition to dialogue, we had other narrative elements to integrate, such as dioramas. These elements, like the examination of Nightingale’s body, were essential to the player’s narrative experience. These include visual elements, videos or radios scattered throughout the setting, providing additional narrative elements, enriching the overall story of the game.

And how did you interact with other departments during production? Was there a particular team you worked with the most?

With the writing team, we worked intensively, sharing a room for smoother, more efficient communication. Audio was another key team, not least to ensure that dialogue blended harmoniously into the soundscape without dominating other aspects. Our interaction with the cinematography team was also crucial in integrating dialogue into the sequences and environment, ensuring a variety of storytelling.

Cinematography and FMV are perfectly integrated into Alan Wake 2's gameplay
Cinematography and FMV are perfectly integrated into Alan Wake 2‘s gameplay

We also worked a lot with the art team, especially on items and props. We worked hand in hand with them to integrate elements such as letters, diaries, posters, etc. into the game in a way that was consistent with the story. There was also strong collaboration with the UI team to ensure that the information displayed on screen was correct and well synchronized with the user experience. However, these collaborations were not without their challenges. There were technical constraints, such as the accessibility and visibility of on-screen elements, as well as adjustments to improve loading times and make the experience smoother for players.

Now that the game is out, and we hope it will have the success we think it deserves, what are the next steps for you?

In the very short term, we’re continuing to work on Alan Wake 2. We’ve released a few patches and we’re going to continue. Personally, I will stop being on the Alan Wake 2 team in a few months. I’m discussing what the next steps will be. So for the moment, I’m discussing my options with Remedy for my next project.

Once again, we’d like to thank Simon for his availability and Remedy for trusting us!

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