Next year Mr. Scratch is coming for you.
Fueled by a mélange of urban legend horror, Twilight Zone story and Quentin Tarantino pacing, in some ways Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is everything that 2010’s Alan Wake wasn’t.
I sat down with developers Remedy last week to talk about the upcoming download-only title and what they hope it delivers when it hits the Xbox 360 early next year.
The game started, they said, as a reexamination of some of Alan Wake’s failings. The original Alan Wake delivered a powerfully gripping story and, with few exceptions, memorably characters. But some found the game’s over-reliance on dark wooded settings and lack of enemy diversity disappointing.
So Remedy began experimenting. It started with a set of virtual killing fields. Gothic, eery settings in which the developers dropped new enemy creations and tested out running from and fighting them.
At some point those in-studio tests starting getting competitive. People working at the studio brought in a whiteboard and wrote up their best “scores.” They tried to outdo one another. At some point, they realised they had created a game.
In Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, that game became something they call Fight Till Dawn, an arcade mode reminiscent of things like Survival or Horde mode but set in a cemetery, ghost town, caves, an old trailer park and an oil field.
Players start armed with a flash light and a handgun and have to run around the massive maps looking for new weapons, more ammo and the occasional, healing lamp post. The object is to last till the sun rises. The many, varied enemies come in waves walking from the shadows, slowly, quietly surrounding you as you desperately fight and flee to survive.
Excited with the prospect of releasing the mode as a standalone experience, the team decided they had a “really cool” Xbox arcade game on their hands, Oskari Hakkinen, head of franchise development, told me.
“Then (writer) Sam (Lake) came in and said ‘Maybe we should add a story to this.’,” Hakkinen said.
And so the single-player survival mode had a five hour stand-alone story added to it and Alan Wake’s American Nightmare was born.
The backstory for American Nightmare pulls players away from the original Alan Wake story and its haunting ending. Instead, this story takes place outside of that fiction in a way. In it you still play as Alan Wake, but an Alan Wake who has somehow become trapped in another story of his creation, one written for the game’s fictional Twilight Zone-like television show Night Springs.
Somehow the darkness that terrorized Alan Wake in the first game has coalesced into an Alan Wake doppelganger: Mr. Scratch.
“Scratch is darkness shaped in Wake’s image,” Hakkinen said. “He’s an urban legend come real. A bogey man. If you repeat his name too many times you invoke him. He’s a supernatural serial killer on his way to do horrible things to Wake’s wife. Wake is trying to stop him.”
I had a bit of time to play through sections of the game in our meeting. It felt very reminiscent of the original Alan Wake, leaning heavily on the things that worked in Wake while working to correct some of that game’s missteps.
The basic controls are still based on the idea of fighting with light. Wake still finds himself armed with a flashlight that needs batteries to keep working. He still has to use light to tear the protective shadows away from his enemies before killing them, but now there are some other clever additions.
Gone is Wake as a narrator to his own story, replaced by someone who sounds a bit like The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling. Gone too is the over reliance on wooded settings, replaced by Night Springs, a small Arizona town. The game also includes new sorts of weapons like a nailgun and a slow-to-load crossbow that doesn’t need light to weaken and kill an enemy.
The biggest change, though, comes with the game’s new enemies. I don’t know how many new sorts of enemies exist in the game, but the two I saw were imaginative new takes on the dark.
One lumbering enemy splits in two every time you try to weaken him with a flashlight. Each time he splits he grows smaller, and faster. The idea is to force the player to decide if they want to battle one massive enemy or many smaller ones. And to punish them for accidental use of that light beam.
Another enemy springs at you from the dark, jumping away from your shots and light. Make contact with either gun or flashlight beam and he bursts into a murder of crows, soaring away and then coming back to ground to reform.
What I played of the game seemed to be very narrative driven, not just a revisit of the elements of the game wrapped around a light story. This seems to be another, fully-realized tale starring Wake.
Players will be asked to find the lost pages of a manuscript and then reenact them to help break free of the world and save Wake’s wife. Throughout the story, players will also be treated to live-action segments broadcasted on the television sets found in the town. In the one I saw, a crazed Alan Wake double, Mr. Scratch, rambles about fame and fear while a hooded figure tied to a chair squirms in the background.
Mr. Scratch, I was told, was created by drawing from popular culture to create a sort of serial killer archetype.
While this game will be an entirely stand-alone experience, one that can be played without having played the original Alan Wake, the Remedy folks promise that those who have played the original will likely get more out of the experience.
And don’t worry, Remedy CEO Matias Myllyrinne tells me that the studio still isn’t done with Alan Wake.
“We are certainly not done with Wake’s story or fiction,” he said. “For this we wanted to have something that anyone can step into and enjoy and still take the fiction forward. This is a perfect season special.”
Where the original Wake was maybe two-thirds story and one-third action, this is meant to be the opposite. From what I played of it, and it’s exciting arcade mode, it looks like they’ve nailed the ratio.
Make sure to click through the images above to get to the game’s new trailer.