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In ‘Alan Wake 2,’ Sam Lake Will Lead You Deeper into the Woods

As a child in Finland, Sam Lake spent his summers in water as much as on dry land, by virtue of his family’s annual trips to a lakeside cabin outside his hometown, Helsinki. He would often stand poised on a wooden pier that extended over a body of pristine water, his back arched into his shoulders, arms pointed forward, ready to dive. But the tranquility of these aquatic sojourns was tinged with dread, even for an accomplished athlete like Lake, who represented his local swim team. Finnish water is not bright, crystalline blue but deep and impenetrably dark, a surface that’s practically impossible to see beneath. Lake often felt a compulsion to puncture this water, or “black mirror,” as he calls it, and immerse himself in its inky, fathomless depths.

The video games that Lake has either written or directed at Remedy Entertainment over the past 27 years conjure a similar foreboding through spaces that threaten to swallow the player whole. In 2016’s Quantum Break, you navigate a university town that fractures like glass as the very fabric of time is disrupted; in 2019’s Control, a towering brutalist building traps a young woman in a shifting, supernatural panopticon (one that seems to be constructed from a strange liquid substance as much as from actual bricks and mortar). Alan Wake, published in 2010, and its newly arrived, long-awaited sequel, Alan Wake 2, meanwhile, hem the player into confined forests where pines sway with an unrelenting, paranormal menace. Players explore these vividly realized worlds while engaging in altogether baser pleasures: namely, letting loose a hail of bullets and leaving a plume of atomized debris in some of the medium’s most refined gunplay. Remedy’s games have long sought to bridge the gap between genre craftsmanship and high art, and Lake’s writing embodies this daring, high-wire approach: pulpy, allegorical, poetic, and infused with a streak of absurdist humor that, at times, threatens to derail the entire experience.

Lake, who was born Sami Järvi in 1970 (järvi means “lake” in Finnish), describes Alan Wake 2 (published by Fortnite maker Epic Games) as a “dream project,” one he has agitated to make ever since the original was released for the Xbox 360 13 years ago. Microsoft initially passed on a sequel to the cult favorite in favor of something new (this became Quantum Break), and then a second pitch eventually turned into Control. “It’s been such a long time coming that I felt a kind of fever throwing myself into it,” he says via a video call from Remedy’s office in Espoo, a picturesque city that sits next to Helsinki on the southern coast of Finland. Lake says that everything he was “burning” to do with the game he has done: “It’s been quite an effort,” he stresses. “But I honestly feel, sitting here, that I can say: I have given it my everything.”

When we spoke in late September, Lake was deep in the final production push, playing Alan Wake 2 at every opportunity, making last-minute tweaks, and ensuring that the finishing touches being put on the game, like custom music, were up to scratch. He describes his work on the game as a kind of “creative chaos,” primarily because of the many hats he’s worn: writer, codirector, even actor (Lake is a recurring presence in Remedy’s games, this time playing FBI agent Alex Casey). Still, he hoped to take a breather the weekend after our conversation and venture into the countryside to do some foraging. “It’s a very good year for mushrooms,” he says.

Alan Wake 2 has taken four years to complete, and it’s notable for being neither an open-world behemoth nor an always-online, live-service game. Like its predecessor, it’s a committedly linear single-player experience set in an oppressively hostile yet oftentimes strikingly beautiful version of the Pacific Northwest whose cold yellow sun evokes the perpetual twilight of the Northern Hemisphere’s far reaches. You play as two characters: Alan Wake, a writer of Stephen King–esque thrillers and the protagonist of the first game, and Saga Anderson, an FBI agent who has been sent to this usually bucolic pocket of the United States to investigate a spate of ritualistic murders.

As in every other Remedy title (barring the studio’s 1996 debut, the vehicular-combat game Death Rally), the camera is slung behind the back of a character clasping a gun (or flashlight, in the cases of Alan Wake and its sequel). But Alan Wake 2 isn’t an action-thriller like the studio’s prior releases (which hewed closely to the formula laid out by Remedy’s second game, Max Payne, in 2001). Alan Wake 2 is survival horror, the studio’s inaugural effort in the genre. Rather than riffing on the time-bending high jinks of The Matrix, à la Max Payne, Lake and his codirector, Kyle Rowley, have looked to Resident Evil games, seeking to inspire terror through newly claustrophobic encounters, a deeper sense of vulnerability, and violent acts rendered with stomach-churning photorealism.

The game’s structure mimics the glassy body of water in Lake’s memories of his childhood. Above, Anderson and the events playing out in a world similar to our own. Below, Wake, who has been trapped in a surreal, metaphysical location called the Dark Place for more than a decade. You’re able to freely switch between these two characters at the game’s equivalent of Resident Evil’s safe rooms, exploring one or the other’s story to whatever extent you wish (perhaps even leaving Anderson or Wake to languish in their respective realities). Together, they embody a duality—one of the game’s big themes, says Lake. The solid, stable world of Anderson’s adventure, the submerged dream logic of Wake’s: light accompanied by dark.

Lake’s mother harbored artistic ambitions while working as a secretary at the University of Helsinki; his father was a computer programmer. As a child, he was an avid reader (his “fondest form of entertainment”), drawn especially to the fantasy worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien, which in turn led him to the Icelandic sagas. As a teen, he read the English-language version of Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara with a dictionary nearby to help him translate unfamiliar words, but this proved to be a laborious process. He gave up the dictionary, and so “if there were some words I didn’t understand, I just let my imagination fill that in.” By the time Lake was studying English language and literature at the University of Helsinki in the mid-1990s, he was writing fiction for his friends’ Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. “That’s a wonderful way to start as a writer,” he says. “You have a captive audience.”

In college, Lake studied postmodern literature, falling in love with Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novella, The Crying of Lot 49, which centers on a conspiracy involving a centuries-old feud between two mail distribution companies. He recalls one seminar discussing the work: “There were a number of students in the class who absolutely hated it because they couldn’t quite figure it out,” he says. “They felt that it was rubbish, pointless because of that, protesting rather loudly: ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’” He enjoyed the moment not because he got the story and was able to lord his intellect over his classmates. Rather, he reveled in the sense of the unknown that Pynchon inspired in him. “The whole book is a kind of reverse detective story where the main character comes to [the events] naively and then starts to chase down its mystery,” he says. “When we come to the end, there are no clear answers. If anything, we know less because we understand more.” The feeling The Crying of Lot 49 left Lake with was a “haunting”—he couldn’t “let it go.”

The games that Lake has written and overseen as creative director have increasingly left their own trail of metatextual breadcrumbs, which have led players not out of the woods but deeper into them. Alan Wake features a handful of stray manuscript pages read not by Wake’s voice actor, Mathew Porretta, but by Payne’s James McCaffrey, the hard-boiled words appearing to reference the studio’s earlier noir shooter. A live-action trailer for a fictional film called Return appears at the start of Quantum Break, showing two FBI agents (one played by Lake) searching for an unnamed writer who bears a striking, bearded resemblance to Wake’s performance actor, Ilkka Villi. During Control, it becomes increasingly clear that it and Alan Wake share a universe, with the writer appearing in the hallucinations of Control’s protagonist Jesse Faden before making a more concrete arrival in Control’s expansion, AWE (“altered world event,” according to Remedy’s idiosyncratic lore). Lake admits that such winking postmodern flourishes started as little more than a “joke,” though they have steadily grown into something “much more.” It’s all starting to resemble the “super-allusion”-filled shared universe that Stephen King—whose words open the original Alan Wake and whom Lake is an avowed fan of—has been crafting for decades.

As it stands, Alan Wake and Control are the only Remedy franchises confirmed to be part of what the studio is calling the Remedy Connected Universe—think less the broad popcorn appeal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and more an eerie, Easter egg–filled matryoshka doll of virtual worlds within worlds as dreamed up by A24. If there is a defining trait of this universe, it’s a sense of creepy unease: “doubles, doppelgängers, twisted mirror images,” says Lake. This feeling is reinforced by Remedy’s increasingly avant-garde approach to environment design, in which in-game locales twist and reconfigure themselves like a series of endlessly ramifying labyrinths. In Alan Wake 2, the labyrinth manifests most intensely in the Overlap, where realities bleed into and are layered atop one another. As she’s trekking about the Pacific Northwest wilderness, it’s as if Anderson is having the worst mushroom trip of her life.

Lake has a knack for posing questions in a tantalizing manner and leaving just enough space within his fiction for them to stoke the imagination. It’s this aspect of Lake’s work that Ville Sorsa, principal audio designer at Remedy, has long admired: “elaborate, seemingly complex stories” filled with details to “discover and speculate on.”

That said, it’s easy to feel cynical about the Remedy Connected Universe in light of Marvel’s creatively and commercially exhaustive approach to shared fiction. On one level, the Finnish studio’s efforts can be construed as a ploy to keep players hooked on its games via an IV drip of insular references. Lake himself has the exuberant and enthusiastic air of a fan, and so he perhaps knows as well as anyone what such an audience craves. His TikTok account almost exclusively shows him drinking coffee, both a reference to Alan Wake 2 (see its opening credits sequence) and an extended ode to Twin Peaks, one of his favorite TV shows (the levels of homage also run many layers deep).

On another level, it’s practically a miracle that the Remedy Connected Universe exists at all in light of the past decade’s upheaval for independent studios of the Finnish outfit’s size (some 360 people). Remedy has had to contend with the declining stock of “one-and-done” single-player titles (its bread and butter), the resultant industry-wide pivot to live-service titles, and the increasingly rapacious acquisitional moves of major platform holders and publishers looking to bolster their own fortunes. Amid it all, the studio had to regain the publishing rights for Alan Wake from its initial publisher, Microsoft.

“Six years ago, if we were talking about the Remedy universe, we’d be like, ‘Who fucking cares? There’s not going to be a Remedy Universe because the studio’s going to be closed,’” Rob Zacny, former senior editor at Vice Media’s gaming vertical, Waypoint, and cofounder of Remap, tells me over a video call. But Zacny remembers playing Control and seeing the Alan Wake references for the first time: “I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re still doing stuff with that universe. It’s still something they want to explore.’” Yes, Zacny admits, it can feel “indulgent,” but its very being is cause for celebration. “I think, when you have your entire universe put on ice for a decade, and you’re wandering the deserts of what the independent studio landscape became in the 2010s, you get to send yourself some flowers,” he says.

The original Alan Wake was the product of a torturous six-year production. It started life in 2004 as an open-world adventure inspired by Grand Theft Auto before eventually transforming into a linear, level-based third-person shooter in the vein of Max Payne. This tension is palpable in a game that’s frequently panoramic in scope before zooming in to lead the player down an altogether more confined garden path. The pacing is unsatisfying, at least in the first half, but the game’s unrealized open-world ambitions also yielded its central mechanic: light as a weapon and a place of safety, stemming from the day-night cycle the team developed. Rather than burying the agonizing development process in his mind and the vaults of Remedy’s Espoo headquarters, Lake incorporated it into the game’s narrative. Alan Wake’s back half plays out as an extended, warts-and-all analogy for its real-life creation.

In one standout sequence, Wake finds himself in an asylum, essentially being gaslit into thinking he’s experiencing hallucinations. He meets two geriatric rock stars and a painter who are being treated for work-related problems and encouraged to create as part of their therapy. At one point, the leader of the institution, Dr. Emil Hartman, suggests that what these patients really need is a producer. It’s a freaky, meta, and utterly disconcerting set piece and, Zacny opines, an example of the way Remedy’s “self-referentialism” can lead to “transcendent moments.”

Alan Wake 2’s development has been fraught and intense, but Control’s director, Mikael Kasurinen, says Lake “always had his eyes on the prize.” According to Kasurinen, “a new sense of creative confidence was born” at Remedy because of Control’s critical and commercial success, which naturally fed into Alan Wake 2. Indeed, Lake himself says the game arrives with its original concept remarkably intact. “There hasn’t been a Remedy game before that has actually retained its original vision as closely as this one. I felt confident that this is how the game should be,” he continues. It’s also notable for being the studio’s first sequel in 20 years, albeit with a “creative ambition” that exceeds that of its other titles, says Lake.

From what I’ve played of the game, there’s a strong case that it’s the weirdest triple-A blockbuster ever made, stranger even than Hideo Kojima’s most perplexing (and arguably best) works, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Death Stranding. The sections in which you play as Wake in the nightmarish Dark Place are delightfully confounding, presenting an extraordinarily rendered New York as a grimy fantasia of fiction, memory, and reality. The third-person action is tense and challenging, while the game’s horror shocks are paired with cerebral, surprisingly robust detective gameplay. The game’s investigations evoke not only Lake’s university days hunting down clues in postmodern literature (House of Leaves is another favorite) but also, more concretely, 2011’s L.A. Noire (and, at times, a sillier, more fantastical take on David Fincher’s police procedurals). The live-action elements (screens within screens, fictions within fictions) that have become Lake’s artistic calling card and leitmotif have never been more seamlessly integrated; the awkward game-television hybrid of the intermittently compelling Quantum Break feels like a distant memory.

Yet a nagging suspicion persists that Remedy’s games remain a case of flashy stylistic tics over substance—that beyond the undeniably thrilling moment-to-moment experience of playing them and interrogating the reams of metatextual questions they pose, these games lack a little weight. This is perhaps the fundamental critique leveled at postmodernism: that the movement’s works exude a kind of flatness and depthlessness—a superficiality. To quote Lake’s own self-reflexive fiction: “What lies beneath the surface?”

I mention the fact that in many Remedy games, protagonists find themselves trapped by abstract forces: time itself in Quantum Break, fiction in Alan Wake, the invisible hand of bureaucracy in Control. Does this speak to any of Lake’s own latent anxieties? “Maybe it’s more a fascination with the mystery of the unknown,” he muses while stressing, on the contrary, that his own “stable, normal life” contains little of the trauma his protagonists have experienced. The unifying element that Lake chooses to focus on in his work is the idea of truth—more specifically, the idea of a “single truth.” He refers to the conversation we’re having, which each of us will remember differently (although only one account is being published). “Still we want to say, ‘This is the truth, and this is what I believe in,’” Lake says. “Part of the struggle of our hero characters is this comfort being ripped apart and taken away. They find themselves in this reality that they didn’t think was possible, and they have to deal with it, piece it back together, find a new identity, beliefs—a new reality, in a way.”

Alan Wake 2 has two protagonists and thus two different perspectives. Wake looks up toward the “black mirror”; Anderson peers down into it. Regardless of their respective viewpoints and their takes on precisely what is real or not, both are forced to adapt to new circumstances, be they straightforwardly material or bizarrely metaphysical. When you first encounter Wake, he is bewildered by his new surroundings, as if awoken from a trance—a man at sea.

Lake has also felt the ground shift beneath his feet at various points in his life. Plunging back into his childhood, he recalls his father reading bedtime stories to him at home in suburban Helsinki. “I can still think back and see the jungle and the great apes,” he says of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan stories. Another selection was Arabian Nights, the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales that deal with challenging, decidedly grown-up themes. “Those times when something is too much, too strong, or slightly too scary, it does something to your imagination,” he says. “It kind of pushes it forward in an interesting way—makes you think and feel differently.” At their core, Lake’s video games inspire a similar uncanny emotion: the strange, not wholly unpleasant sensation of feeling “overwhelmed” by forces, and stories, far beyond our means of comprehension.

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