Remedy’s Sam Lake on creating the terrifying world of Control
Control is a frightening, murky, brilliant piece of game making. It’s ostensibly Christopher Nolan’s Psychonauts. A shadowy government agency – the Federal Bureau of Control – is under lockdown, a woman named Jesse is there looking for her brother, Dylan. The wheels fall off fast, and things get metaphysical in a big way.
It’s magical, it’s muddy, it’s massive.
Remedy has done this before. Not this, specifically, but more so than most other game companies, Remedy has a voice. A tone. And that’s something you really see shine through in one other medium: cinema.
But how the hell do they do it?
Make games that are so cinematic? Remedy is like the Bureau, in a way. An ever-shifting byzantine building crammed with arcane lore and unbelievable unknowables.
Tired of guessing, of inferring, of trying to figure out how they do what they do, I chatted with Sam Lake, Creative Director at Remedy Entertainment, asking him about the highly cinematic nature of their games.
Do they start from narrative and work from there, or do they come up with a unique gameplay mechanic and structure and work backwards, finding a story that fits?
‘It’s always a back and forth iteration between the story and the gameplay’, Sam told me. ‘but with Control we very consciously took a slightly different approach than before when starting to create the concept together with the game’s director, Mikael Kasurinen.
‘We wanted to create a less linear, more long-lasting experience, and also take the idea of superpowers a lot further than we had in Quantum Break. More emphasis on gameplay in general.
‘For me as a storyteller that felt like a thrilling challenge. I always feel that restrictions of any kind lead you to be more creative than you would be without any restrictions. We had to find a genre for the story that could support and enhance and elevate all the crazy gameplay ideas that would be coming our way.
‘That’s, in part, where the focus on weird came from.
The other part of it was just our shared love for the weird and strange in fiction in general. A story and world and lore that would support crazy ideas. More focus on gameplay also meant I had to be more economical and focused with the storytelling in some ways. A lot of the strong, hallucinatory, fever-dream stylisation came from that, making every beat count.’
Control truly does share something with its infamous predecessor, Alan Wake, the game that seemed to ask: what if Stephen King was Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper?
Alan Wake came out in the mid-2000s, gave birth to a feverish following, and we’ve been waiting for a proper sequel ever since. But what gave Alan Wake it’s unique mouthfeel was exactly what Sam mentioned – its focus on weird.
The world of Alan Wake is full of those strange ideas – magical, nightmarish objects that impose their will on the world around them, a thrumming dark undercurrent just below the surface of normalcy, and a hero who staggers in to try and make sense of it all. Could Control be set in that same weird space? Could Remedy be stealth-building a shared universe, where Alan Wake, and maybe even Quantum Break, co-exist?
“Stealth-building” is a great word. I love it. But thinking about it, if I were to answer “yes, you caught us”, we wouldn’t be stealth-building anything anymore.
And if I said “no, that’s nonsense” you couldn’t trust me, well, because of the whole stealth-building aspect.’Sam Lake
At the time of asking these questions, I was only halfway into the game, something Sam seemed to pick up on pretty quick. ‘So…’, he added. ‘I assume you haven’t found anything like the examples you list above in the game… so far? Maybe you just have to keep playing to be sure.
‘On Quantum Break, I have to disappoint you though. The IP’s owned by Microsoft Studios, so it’s out of the question. In any case, I’m glad that Control feels like a Remedy game to you.’
Remedy also does something else that filmmakers tend to do: assemble a crew of regulars. In the case of Alan Wake and Control, and even Max Payne, Remedy has done it with cast members. Control features Matthew Porretta (the voice of Alan Wake) as Dr Casper Darling, James McCaffrey (Max Payne himself) as Director Trench, and Quantum Break’s Courtney Hope as the hero of the piece, Jesse Faden.
This dynamic isn’t lost on Sam Lake, either. ‘I love the idea of an All-Star Remedy cast’, he said. ‘When you find someone who you trust and know will do a great job, someone with a lot of talent, you want to collaborate with them again. For the role of Jesse, I immediately had Courtney in mind. She was brilliant as Beth in Quantum Break, and I knew that she’d do a great job as our first playable female protagonist.
‘Trench was Jim for me from the beginning. I could hear Trench in my head in his voice. And I wanted Matt on board as well, so I created Dr Darling with him in mind.’
But what of the bureau itself?
Alan Wake is set in the town of Bright Falls but is (for the most part) somewhat linear. Control is Remedy’s first open-world game… well, it’s really more of a ‘Vania game, a Souls-ish puzzle box world that unlocks in increments to finally present part of the whole.
‘In Control we wanted to create a large, deep world for the player to explore, and more freedom to explore it than in our previous more linear experiences’, Lake told me. ‘All in all, we wanted to less hand-holding from our part. We wanted the drop the players into this mysterious, dangerous world, and discover its secrets as they went.
‘I love mysteries. I love the sense of discovery. I love postmodern writing where you have to piece things together. Less of the story given to you on the critical path, and a lot more hidden in the world in fragments to be chased after and found and pieced together, to formulate your own theory of what’s going on, with some details left open for interpretation, all of which felt very fitting for this world.’
It’s a huge world, too. And without giving anything away, Sam is right: you do have to piece things together. And it’s the kind of game that rewards investment, rewards engagement, rewards obsession.
And are they stealth-building a shared universe, where Jesse Faden could work with Alan Wake, maybe pull him out of his purgatory?
You’ll have to play to find out.
Sam Lake, however, is doing what good storytellers do. As Alan Wake said when quoting Stephen King, “there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.”
Thanks to Sam Lake for his time.
Control is available now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.