America’s Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but there’s also something hauntingly mysterious about those dark woods and forested valleys. This landscape inspired David Lynch and Mark Frost when they created supernatural soap opera Twin Peaks, and ultimately Finnish horror game Alan Wake, which turns ten years old today.
Remedy’s love of Lynch has been apparent since the Address Unknown theme park in Max Payne 2, and its latest game, Control, has similar echoes. But Alan Wake is its most overt homage to his work. Like Twin Peaks, the game uses a place of stunning natural beauty to tell a grim, twisted horror story, and it’s this contrast that makes Bright Falls such an evocative setting.
You arrive by ferry, in a disarmingly peaceful introduction to the small town and its picturesque surroundings. The fir trees and foggy mountain peaks are realistic enough, but Remedy’s take on the geography is exaggerated. It’s almost a caricature of the region: what you imagine it looks like, rather than the reality. The valleys are a little too deep, the mountains a little too steep.
Alan Wake began life as an open world game, and there are still traces of it. The tallest mountain in the region can be seen from most places, which helps you keep track of where Wake’s journey is taking him. Brief driving sections let you travel long distances, giving you a limited taste of what the game could’ve been like had Remedy stuck to its original vision. Access the game’s built-in free camera, pull back, and you’ll see that the whole world is always there, but that you’re confined to a relatively small corner of it.
Wake’s travels take him to the Oh Deer Diner, a homage to Twin Peaks’ Double R, and Cauldron Lake, which is based on Oregon’s dramatic Crater Lake. Other landmarks include the historic Bright Falls Coal Mine, the Sparkling River Estates Trailer Park (most likely inspired by Twin Peaks’ equally rundown Fat Trout Trailer Park), and the Bright Falls Dam. It’s a quintessential slice of rural Americana, albeit one haunted by shadowy, murderous ghosts.
Remedy is based in Finland, but the team spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest, taking reference photos and getting a feel for the geography and climate. “We drove about 2,000 miles around it for a period of almost two weeks,” says Saku Lehtinen, art director. “We went to places like Astoria, a very typical Pacific Northwestern coastal town. We went to North Bend, where Twin Peaks was filmed, which is just outside of Seattle. The story in Alan Wake has fantastic elements, but it has to be rooted in reality.”
“It’s a naturally exciting setting,” says writer Mikko Rautalahti. “It’s also something you don’t see in games a lot. We wanted wide open spaces instead of corridors and underground complexes. The nature there is beautiful and rich, but it’s also perfect for a horror game. Take those deep, dark woods, add something weird and horrible lurking there, and you’re all set.”
Remedy even went as far as using NASA star maps to make sure Bright Falls’s night sky was accurate. Night is a big part of Alan Wake, and you spend much of the game traipsing through foggy, moonlit forests.
Remedy’s proprietary Alan Wake Engine is, even now, stunning to look at. The way the pale moonlight shines through the swirling mist is really atmospheric. The weather effects are superb, with trees swaying in the wind and forks of jagged lightning lighting up the sky. Creating their own bespoke tech delayed the game for several years, but the results are still spectacular.
Returning to Alan Wake today, the combat is a little repetitive and it often feels stiflingly linear. But the quality of its setting makes it worth returning to. The Pacific Northwest is a place we rarely get to visit in videogames, and Remedy captured its essence perfectly here.