Sam Lake has been writing stories for Remedy Entertainment’s games for 21 years. He started with the graphic novel tale of Max Payne, and went on to write Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, and Alan Wake. He became creative director on Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, and he did the same on Microsoft’s exclusive video game, Quantum Break.
Lake has given Remedy a consistent creative vision, something that few other companies can boast. His stories often explore transmedia, mixing television-like episodes, characters with broken families, the surrealism of blending fiction and nonfiction, and themes that have to do with stopping or turning back time.
But Remedy has undergone changes. With Quantum Break, Remedy and Microsoft created both a video game and a series of live-action videos, one that had the hero’s perspective and the other from the villain’s point of view. It was a hugely ambitious title, but it didn’t sell as well as Microsoft had hoped, and the software giant decided to exit the television show business.
Remedy has a new CEO, and it is publicly traded. The company has moved away from exclusives for Microsoft’s consoles, and it is now working on two different games. One of them is the single-player story for SmileGate’s shooter Crossfire 2, and the other is a mysterious project code-named P7.
But Lake is as ambitious as ever, and he believes that leveling up story is the way that video games will become as true an art form as books and movies. I interviewed him about these topics at Gamelab, the gaming event in Barcelona, Spain, last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Just before this, you and I were bemoaning the fact that we don’t have as much time to finish games anymore. A lot of gamers are in that situation, where they never get to finish the stories you guys work so hard on. Do you have a thought on that at the outset? You work so hard on stories these days, making them longer and more complex, and people don’t find time to finish them.
Sam Lake: It’s an interesting situation. It’s wonderful that there are so many really high quality story experiences, story games out there these days. We have to find more time to create them, which was maybe part of what went into the themes of Quantum Break. Thinking about that frustration, where we’re always running out of time.
GamesBeat: What are your influences as a writer? What inspires you?
Lake: I suppose it’s many different mediums — books, TV. TV inspired me a lot. We have a lot of high quality shows now. Once again, almost too many to keep up with. A lot of the story’s direction comes from reading books and watching TV. Obviously life and so on. [laughs] I could give a long list of writers, authors. Danielewski’s House of Leaves has been one of the most important writings to me, because there’s a circular game in it. It shows what’s possible, in a way, and that’s very stimulating and exciting. Very much at the moment enjoying the new episodes of Twin Peaks. I’m really glad to be on that ride, seeing what David Lynch and Mark Frost are coming up with. Games, obviously, as well. I think that a lot of interesting stuff is happening in the indie game scene, experiments with storytelling.
GamesBeat: When you look at the state of storytelling now in the game business — I see a lot of open worlds with directed stories within those worlds. Bringing up time again, I played Shadow of Mordor. It took me about 80 hours to finish that game, and they’re coming up with Shadow of War now, where they say it’ll be an order of magnitude bigger. Maybe it’ll take me 800 hours to finish. It’s good and bad, I guess, but what’s your own take on where storytelling is across the whole industry?
Lake: I’m very happy and also inspired by the quality of game storytelling these days. It’s been a long journey, going back to Max Payne, when it felt that no one was really even attempting to do a story in a more action-oriented game. Certainly there were games with interesting storytelling, but more of an action game, no one was doing that. It was venturing into the unknown, trying to do that with Max Payne. Comparing that today with so many really high quality stories being told in games, and in many different ways as well — I mean, we have more linear experiences, and more open-ended, open world experiences that take a different approach to storytelling, but the story is still a very important component in those. It’s wonderful.
GamesBeat: With Max Payne you had very severe restrictions on what you could tell. You didn’t even have the ability to use cinematics in a big way with an in-game engine. You used comic-book frames. What was that like?
Lake: Back then it wasn’t obvious at all to even try to tell a deeper, more complex story within the framework of an action game. We had to go in there and invent it through this, which was obviously both challenging and very exciting. Max Payne being kind of this hard-boiled story, one aspect of it was the narration by the character, which is a method used in hard-boiled crime fiction, novels, and obviously in film noir movies. Knowing that tonally, that would be very fitting, bringing that into the video game context made a lot of sense. That opened up the internal world of the character and brought that into the frame. As you pointed out, looking at very crude cutscenes at the time, what the possibilities might be there — it didn’t really lend itself to doing a complex, deeper story. So we had to look for another method, and that led to looking into other mediums. I’m a big fan of comic books to this day. It felt like a really good way of bringing more storytelling in there. That’s been a kind of design philosophy, if you will, for me through all these years. It feels like there are very few rules when it comes to games and the elements you can put into a game. It keeps evolving and changing, which means it’s always exciting. I’ve been actively looking into other mediums, other things we can bring into the game framework, and do something new with those things. In Max Payne it was the comic book. In Alan Wake it was the book. In Quantum Break it was the live action TV show.
GamesBeat: Alan Wake’s style was very episodic, too, like a TV show.
Lake: Yes, from a pacing and structure perspective that was something I started thinking about already when working on Max Payne 2. For the Max Payne games the model was essentially a movie screenplay, that three-act structure. But around that time I realized that more and more, I was enjoying — back then it was the beginning of season packs of TV series on DVD, where you could watch multiple episodes in a row. I started to realize that that structure could work well for game. I wanted to bring that into the mix with Alan Wake and Quantum Break as well.
GamesBeat: This word “transmedia” is probably not more than a decade old, but you’ve been doing these things for two decades now. Combining comic books, say, with a game is transmedia. How did you start thinking about that, and what do you think of where transmedia is now?
Lake: Yes, we have been doing that, but — to me, in some ways, it’s an essential part of the Remedy game formula, bringing together different media and experimenting with that side of things. I think it fits really well. Games tend to be a very large. A big part of telling a story in a game is building a world that the player can explore and immerse themselves into. Remedy games have always been set in the present day, and in what I call the real world, although we do bring in genre and we’ll continue to do that. But that gives you a starting point where think about how all these different mediums are present in our everyday lives. It makes sense to have them present in the game world to make it more real.
I mentioned some examples of postmodern writing, which tends to be fragmented by its nature. You’re piecing things together. That, to me, for our games and for the different mediums in there, is an opportunity. In the first Max Payne we had televisions in the game world with miniature TV shows. We went a lot further with that in Max Payne 2, creating multiple shows from different genres running through the game with their own story arcs. Each of them was slightly tongue in cheek, exaggerated, because they’re so small you have to make an impact that way.
But at the same time, I always felt that — because we had such a strong main character, the whole experience is his version of events. Max Payne tells the story, narrates it. To me, that always means you’re not actually playing how it really happened. You’re playing how Max tells you how it went. All of those TV shows, all that transmedia material, seems to be commenting on his journey and his character. Is that really what’s happening, or just Max’s perception? Once again, that’s layered storytelling.
GamesBeat: So as a writer you insert that meta-message into the game through, not just the main story, but these other methods.
Lake: Right. That’s the richness and the exciting opportunity, always, in game storytelling. You create a world and there are different layers of storytelling, different methods and different mediums in it. All of these fragments build the experience. All of them are important in some way. But once again, the player is an active part of it. Sometimes you miss one thing or focus more on another thing and it tweaks your perception of the overall story.
GamesBeat: You’re a writer, and Remedy is full of game developers who aren’t writers. Do you ever have conversations within the company with people who want to know why you have to have this much of a story component to it?
Lake: It’s true, especially going back to Max Payne. I was the only writer in the company. We were a much smaller team back then, obviously. But bit by it — with Alan Wake, we had two writers, me and Mikko Rautalahti. With Quantum Break I stepped into the creative director role and then we had two pretty full-time writers working on the project. Now we actually have people with the title of narrative designer. More and more these days we have people dedicated to storytelling in the experience, which you need in a bigger team.
It’s interesting. Obviously there are many ambitious, talented people with different points of view. Making games is very much a team effort. People tend to come around the table with different perspectives into what should be there and what’s important. Out of that conversation and incubation, the actual experience is born. It’s a good thing, an interesting and stimulating thing. Even after 21 years you keep learning something new from those different points of view.
My ambition — I’m still a story guy, even in the creative director role. I want to create a story from there. I always try to accommodate the needs of—okay, if we need a mini-game, let’s do that. But then you have the extra process of trying to figure out where it fits in the fiction. Can we include it in the fiction and give a story-related reason for it being here? At the same time as it serves the gameplay, how can it serve the story as well?
GamesBeat: When you start on a story, do you begin with a character or a world and pull the story out of it? How does a story happen?
Lake: It’s a process. Going back to that initial idea — it could be any of those things. Quite often they can be long processes. Speaking as a professional idea guy, this might sound bad, but ideas are cheap. They’re not necessarily worth anything on their own. It’s how you refine that idea and get the team excited about it and then doing the hard work of getting it realized. You’ll never run out of ideas. They just keep popping up.
A few of our games have been around a long time. With Alan Wake, I can trace it back to an in-game TV show from Max Payne, Address Unknown. There were some themes there that I felt like I wanted to explore, and they appeared more fleshed out in Alan Wake. Early in Alan Wake we had this science or quantum physics-themed episode or location in there that we ended up cutting away quite early on. That found a small new home in an episode of Night’s Prince, the in-game television show in Alan Wake. From that idea, I wrote down a high level description of a game idea and named it “Quantum.” That, of course, ended up growing into Quantum Break.
People have ideas at the table for a game, and sometimes you have to say, “Well, there’s too much of this already,” or “This doesn’t really fit in.” But I try to console people that even if we leave it out here and now, we might find a much better home for it later on. It can grow into something much more interesting.
GamesBeat: When people talk about leveling up games, they usually mean technology — Quake to Quake II, or eventually adding internet multiplayer. But you’ve also leveled up your storytelling. I’m curious about how you do that — the progression from, say, Max Payne to Max Payne 2 to Alan Wake. Looking back, how are those stories evolving and improving on their predecessors?
Lake: I think part of it is just the ambition, wanting to do better and find better ways. If we look at Max Payne and Alan Wake especially, they’re very character-centric stories. A big part of that storytelling — if you look at the characters, it’s their inner struggle, their flaws and pain points inside them. Then the question is, how do we bring this internal world into the concrete external world of an action game? It goes into the narration in Max Payne, Max’s point of view on the story. Even the little TV series inside the game talk about these things.
This layering of elements — with Max Payne 2 we started mixing up those layers and finding interesting ways. We had the TV show Address Unknown, and then as a level we had the fun house based on that TV series. It becomes an actual location in the game. The same thing happened with Captain Baseball Bat Boy, this cartoon in Max’s world. We discover that one of the mobsters in Max’s world, this comical character, is a big fan of the cartoon and cosplays as the character. Mixing up those layers felt like an interesting step.
If you look at Alan Wake, we make the internal turn into the external in a supernatural way. Alan’s inner demons, what he expresses in his writing, actually turn into reality. It’s a very direct way of bringing the internal world into the action. That felt like an interesting step forward in exploring the character-centric approach. Quantum Break was slightly different from that perspective. We wanted to bring the show in, and we wanted to use a bit more of an ensemble cast, rather than doing something so focused on a single character. There are lots of learnings from previous games in there regarding our main character, though, Jack Joyce.
GamesBeat: Quantum Break was very complex. I imagine if you had a chronology of things that happen in the game — you have a lot of flashbacks, which are great for making a narrative point, but then the entire game is a sort of flashback. I thought it was cool that you were able to go to a place and see what transpired in time at that place. Mixing gameplay and story at the same time — it feels like you have to come up with methods like that to make this whole thing work.
Lake: That was a clear goal for me in Quantum Break. And maybe that was taking a step back and looking at not just the story, but the whole — finding a story and building a fiction in a world with rules that would be able to have everything inside it, all the aspects of gameplay and everything else included in this time travel, time superhero fiction. The story aspect of it wouldn’t just involve the story, but the gameplay as well.
GamesBeat: If you look back in hindsight, people had mixed reactions to some of your games, like Quantum Break and Alan Wake. I loved these games — I thought they were very nuanced, very complex — but there are players who felt that the gameplay needed to catch up with the story. What was your own view on these games, looking back, and why they weren’t so universally appreciated?
Lake: We can always look back and try to learn and push ourselves. Having a strong story component to begin with — not all games need a strong story. You have different audiences with different preferences in games, and that’s great. It gives a richness to gaming. There’s interaction between different game genres and innovation flows through all of that.
I suppose, like any creative person, you hope that as many people as possible like your creation. But it’s also always much better to have people love it or hate it rather than not have any opinion and forget about it a day later. If there’s a strong response, that’s always mission accomplished.
GamesBeat: Quantum Break had its TV show built right into it, and that show changed based on what you did in the game. It seemed like a perfect game for what Microsoft envisioned at the time with its TV studios. But then there were all these changes at Microsoft, where they began with your game in a period when they wanted to do more TV shows, and then by the time the game came out they decided to exit that effort. I wonder if changes at Microsoft also affected Quantum Break.
Lake: Yeah, it did affect things in many ways. After Alan Wake, we went to them and pitched our thinking at the time about what Alan Wake 2 could be. At that point they weren’t interested in doing exactly that. They wanted to have something new. Also, they were essentially looking for us to create a new IP for them. Quantum Break is owned by Microsoft, obviously.
Part of that pitch for Alan Wake 2, though — I already had a live action show as part of that idea. That part they really liked, and they asked us to retain it in this new thing that was named Quantum at the time and then became Quantum Break. The fact that they were excited about live action and looking into it got the show made.
Because of their interest in live action early on, what they envisioned the show to be and what they wanted it to be was that it would also work as a stand-alone thing, without the game. You could just watch the show and enjoy the show. That was their starting point for it. We had this ongoing debate for a while. They felt it needed a separate set of characters so you didn’t necessarily need to play the game. Even though it would be technically tied and in the same locations, this fictional university town, they wanted it to be its own arc.
I always came back and said — I felt that for us to do something new, something no one had done, we should keep the game and the show closer together. We should have the same characters and locations. The logical thing would be that in the game you played as the hero, and then the show, in a very modern TV tradition, would be about the bad guys. In modern TV we have so many interesting, exciting, completely flawed characters that we follow. It felt like a natural idea.
Then it was a process of many years of having these talks and slowly being able to track the show in that direction. I felt like that we got quite far and did some very interesting, exciting things. We got to build locations based on our virtual locations and have the characters criss-cross. We even had certain scenes that we saw both from the show perspective and the game perspective. Obviously the crunchy content was a big part of it.
But I felt like it was very late in the game before we actually started to shoot the show. That made the production of the show quite a bit more challenging, having that overlap. Making games is a very iterative process and we tend to change things along the way, whereas the natural process of creating a show is that you iterate a lot, but only on the screenplay level. Then you lock it and shoot it and change very little afterward. It was interesting. I learned a lot going through this process.
GamesBeat: Did you come out of it still believing that having the one ending was the right way to go?
Lake: That was a design idea from very early on, that there is a spine for this story with one beginning and one ending, but the crunch is the story of how you get from here to there and determine the fates of the individual characters along the way. We still wanted to have one linear story.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about the projects you have underway at Remedy?
Lake: The company has been growing bigger, and for the first time we’re working on two games at the same time. That’s been in discussions for quite a while, but close to the end of Quantum Break we managed to take that step. We’re working with a Korean publisher, SmileGate. They have this huge multiplayer online shooter game called CrossFire, and they’re creating a sequel to that, CrossFire 2. They wanted us to create a story version of that – essentially a single-player campaign mode for their game that would explore the world and characters they have in more detail, fleshing out those details.
GamesBeat: That’s an extreme move, going from no story at all to a Remedy story.
Lake: You might say that. [laughs] But it felt like a good fit, like something interesting. It presented an opportunity to learn a lot from how they look at things, being part of this big experience with the story. Then we have another project, our own new thing. That’s to be published by 505 Games. We haven’t said a lot about that yet. The codename on the project is B7, so we haven’t even talked about a name. But that’s more about taking what we’ve learned from everything before and looking for new ways of pushing these things forward.
GamesBeat: This is the one everybody assumes is Alan Wake 2.
Lake: Right. [laughs] It’s not. It’s worth saying that aloud. This is a brand new thing. It’s not Alan Wake 2. Should I repeat that one more time? That being said, I haven’t lost hope when it comes to making more Alan Wake at some point. I’m still actively thinking about those opportunities as well.
GamesBeat: What do you feel about transmedia after a couple of decades of doing this?
Lake: There are many signs of these different media coming together, and separating again, and then coming together again in different, surprising ways. That still interests me a lot. I want to explore those possibilities, keep exploring them. Both the traditional idea of transmedia — taking a game concept or character or story and seeing if you can do spin-offs or extensions outside games — but then also very much looking for new ways of bringing other media into the game experience. I think it’s essential as well as exciting.
Like anything else, you can do it in an interesting way, or in a way that really doesn’t bring anything very new to it. Even that can work out nicely if you have talented people catching it and making their own interesting spin out of it. But either way we’ll keep exploring it in the future.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.