Alan Wake 2 takes GTA 5’s character switching to a weird new place

From its off-the-books detectives to its time-hopping plots, Remedy Entertainment has a storied history of breaking the rules. With Alan Wake 2, the upcoming survival-horror game featuring two protagonists and an unusual dual narrative, creative director Sam Lake and his team wanted to keep the tradition going. And it’s proven to be a tricky process.

“We’re getting out of our comfort zone in so many ways,” Lake says, sitting in a New York coffee shop while rain batters the windows. The night before, he sat down with horror director Mike Flanagan at Tribeca Festival 2023 to talk about the nerve-wracking process of writing a horror story in which the player has so much control. “I’ve been breathless along the way. I think there was this pent-up drive to just push everything forward. With the depth and layers of the story — just how it’s constructed, and how big it is…” Lake pantomimes swimming. “I feel as if my feet have not been touching the bottom.”

It’s been 13 years — both in the real world, and that of Alan Wake — since the first game ended with the titular novelist trapped in the Dark Place, an ethereal, never-ending nightmarescape of time loops and malevolent enemies. Not wanting players to have to “do homework” before playing the sequel, Lake and game director Kyle Rowley settled on the idea of a two-protagonist cast early on. As an FBI agent sent to investigate disturbances in the Pacific Northwest, Saga Anderson is the ideal stand-in for newcomers and veterans alike — she has just as many questions about the world (and the ways in which it’s changed) as players will. Based on what we saw of her half of the story at Summer Game Fest last week, we’re already strongly reminded of Resident Evil 4 and True Detective season 1, in which law enforcement also investigated occult killings in rural areas.

Alan Wake investigates an urban NYC stretch of The Dark Place in Alan Wake 2, in which he’s been trapped since the end of the first game Image: Remedy Entertainment/Epic Games Publishing

The other side of Alan Wake 2’s narrative coin, in which players explore, and try to escape, the Dark Place as the tortured novelist, takes the form of a foreboding, surreal New York. Lake told Flanagan that Taxi Driver served as a major influence on Wake’s sinister journey. “The neon-y, borderline gothic vibes” of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece capture the urban isolation that Wake, as a New Yorker himself, drew upon in his in-universe crime novels. “I inhaled American pop culture as a kid, and New York was the beating heart of it.”

We’ve seen games with multiple playable characters before, though. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty threw audiences for a loop all the way back in 2001 when it introduced Raiden after only two hours in Solid Snake’s shoes. The original Assassin’s Creed kept its present-day chapters and second protagonist a secret right up until launch day. Grand Theft Auto 5 all but exploded the idea of multiple playable characters in 2013, allowing players to jump between Michael, Franklin, and Trevor at will; crucially, though, they needed to progress the men’s individual storylines to concurrent “plot gates” before proceeding.

Alan Wake 2 is an attempt at something different: a dual story in which the player can not only jump between the characters on a whim, but also see one character’s tale through almost until the end — without switching back to the other at all.

“Once you unlock both characters, you don’t have to go back to the other until very late in the game, if you don’t want to,” Lake says. “In any game, you put the pacing largely in the hands of the player. [With Alan Wake 2], we wanted to go way further. You are free to choose, once we open it up, which side of the story you pursue, and how far. They are connected. There’s a lot of foreshadowing, a lot of mirroring between each other. They are kind of floating side by side.”

Saga Anderson consults her evidence wall in her “Mind Place” in Alan Wake 2 Image: Remedy Entertainment/Epic Games Publishing

Lake says that players can even abandon investigations and missions halfway through if they’re stuck, and come back to find things right where they left them, hours later. In the vein of several recent role-playing games, Anderson, as the “brilliant criminal profiler,” has access to a metaphorical “Mind Place.” This takes the form of a room, complete with clues, photos, leads, and red string, which players can enter whenever they want. It’s best to do it when the FBI agent is in a safe environment, though — time will progress normally outside of the Mind Place, meaning that nearby enemies are free to do as they please.

“Sometimes you see some sort of a vision in one character’s playthrough, and you’ll have absolutely no idea what it means,” Lake says, shaking his head and raising his hands. “Then you play the game again, and you hop between the characters more frequently, or stick to one character for longer periods, and that same vision makes a little more sense. As players, and as humans, really, we’re always trying to find meaning. And we’re trying to invoke that idea here. It’s our longest game ever, and I’m sure players will make connections between Saga and Alan that we haven’t even fully considered. It’s exciting.”