For the past 24 years, Sam Lake has been the creative director at Remedy Entertainment, writing the stories that have become the heart of games such as Death Rally, Max Payne, Alan Wake, Quantum Break, and most recently Control.
He got his start in scriptwriting after his friend Petri Järvilehto, a founder of Remedy, needed a story to go with the racing game Death Rally. With the 2001 shooter game Max Payne, he wrote the script, which turned out to be about four times as long as a lot of movie scripts. But since Remedy had no budget to hire actors, he also served as the face model for the main character (Updated 12/9/19: James McCaffrey did the voice acting).
Lake became the creative director in 2010, and Lake has given Remedy a consistent creative vision, something that has distinguished it from many other game studios. At the same time, he is heartened to see storytelling become the backbone of so many games, from the Uncharted series to The Last of Us. His stories often explore transmedia, like mixing television-like episodes, characters with broken families, time travel, and the surrealism of blending fiction with nonfiction. Remedy’s Control is up for a number of awards at this year’s The Game Awards, including Game of the Year.
Over the years, Remedy has moved from Microsoft exclusive to cross-platform game publisher, but Lake is one of its bedrocks. Now he is working on a story-based version of Crossfire and another new project. I caught up with Lake at the Press Start event in Helsinki, ahead of the Slush conference.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I always wonder whether writers have gotten their fair due with games. It’s almost always one writer. You have all these artists and all these programmers, and then there’s one writer. The weight on that person, what that person has to achieve….
Sam Lake: It’s a strange, I feel — especially going back to Max Payne. I don’t think that anybody really saw how it would be perceived, how much of it would be tied to the character and the narrative and the story in it. It was kind of like I was given relatively free rein because the focus was on development in other areas. It’s interesting from that angle, that in some ways, back then, it felt like there was even more liberty.
When it becomes more purposeful and there’s more focus on it, when people are commenting on it a lot — Quantum Break being the prime example of that kind of a larger focus on the story and storytelling — those, in my experience, are the two extremes, as far as I’ve experienced them. You can also, by seemingly having more focus and more resources and more budget, in some ways end up losing something. Some sort of freshness and edge, those liberties that flying under the radar gives you.
GamesBeat: There’s an interesting value created by these writers’ rooms. Jon Goldman from Skybound, the big investor, he pointed to Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead team. He originates it, but then all these others take over and take it in other directions, like all the writers on Star Wars. It’s interesting how a lot of value gets created in that writers’ room. Quantum Break was an example. Where’s the value of this thing? It’s in this small room. The question, I guess, is whether you think that’s come into its own. Has it hit its potential, or is it just barely hitting?
Lake: I think that there is always a tug of war, a struggle. That’s a natural part of any teamwork. People have different points of view, and in many ways, nobody is wrong. They just have a different focus. I’ve seen, through the years, that the importance of writing, or the resources involved in that — inside the team they’re put into question. Which obviously irritates you when it’s happening, but at the same time, often it leads to forcing you to push back and innovate and find other means of working that in, which is then a blessing in disguise.
More and more I’ve come to think of it from the perspective of — you dream of this writer’s paradise where everyone sees that you’re the man and this is the important stuff you’re creating here. You have all the resources that you need. But as I said on stage, more and more I feel like that’s an awful trap. It will be better if you have limitations, if people are questioning you. “We shouldn’t focus on this so much.” You have that — if nobody is telling you that this doesn’t work, or there’s something wrong with it — you look for trends. If everyone says something is wrong, then there’s probably something wrong.
The worst possible curse, I feel, is that you end up being put on a pedestal. You’re the genius. You create brilliant stuff. Go and create it! Then the only thing that will come out of that is something horrible.
GamesBeat: I think about Red Dead 2. I don’t know if you could blame the writers for some of it, but did we really need a story that goes on for 30 missions after the main character dies? Do we need five missions about building a house, these very mundane things? There’s that bloat in the entire production.
Lake: I don’t know the specifics. Obviously from the business side there’s a desire for more value for money, a longer-lasting experience. That can also be set upon the writing room, that it needs to last longer, so make it last longer. How do you approach that? Do you just stretch everything and keep it going? It’s an interesting challenge. It goes hand in hand with the creative process, but then certain parameters being dictated — in Control, part of what we wanted early on was we needed to figure out a way to make a longer experience than just a 10-hour linear thing, and once you play through there’s no reason to go back at all. We needed to start taking steps into figuring it out.
GamesBeat: There’s a very efficient use of the same space, like the DLC in Alan Wake. One of them had you doubling back over the same territory.
Lake: Yeah, American Nightmare, with the time loop. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s an interesting challenge to figure out — okay, these are the map parameters. How do we find an interesting narrative that works with that?
At Remedy we make action games. I’ve had this conversation both inside and outside, several times. Shouldn’t you just tell the story you want to tell? But it feels insane to me to start thinking — why would I want to use the parameters of an action game to tell a story that’s not suited or fitting into the action game framework? For me the starting point is, what is the conflict? Who is the enemy? Let’s do a story around this.
If it needs to be longer, how do we come up with a structure that supports a longer experience? I’m surprised that I’ve seen it noted — very few times, which makes me happy, because that was our struggle — but for the main campaign in Control, if you think about where it ends, even though it’s supposed to feel that Jesse goes through this monumental journey, pretty much everything is as it was in the beginning. She’s the director. All the characters and all the forces that we set up in the world are still in the world.
The mandate, essentially, was that — what if the player doesn’t play all the side missions as they’re introduced, but wants to play them after the campaign? And so from a pure drama perspective, it feels like, well, it would be nice to do really big twists and significant changes in the characters and the world, but then the side missions, as they’re scripted, either we’d need to do the same version of the side missions in the middle of the game as in the end of the game — there are interesting parameters, where we need to do a satisfying character arc and monumental revelations, but still, at the end of it, it’s kind of sneakily the same situation. From a writing perspective, it presents interesting challenges. Figuring out a way of doing an interesting story with that conclusion.
GamesBeat: I took it from your Q&A there that maybe it was surprising to you that someone could have a writing career in games. This job didn’t exist a few decades ago.
Lake: No, I didn’t know. I’m not sure how much it did exist back in 1995. But it goes to the whole industry. How many people in 1995 were full-time working on games? Certainly there were game studios in existence, but for many of the kids who ended up at Remedy, it was this ultimate dream. And I guess it still is in some ways, but it’s a lot more professional. The bar for getting in the industry is much higher. Back then it was just, “Wow, that’s cool, let’s do this,” and you learned along the way.
For Max Payne — Death Rally did really well. It was a hit within that space. But for Max Payne, when we started making it I don’t think anybody knew what kind of an effort it would be, how many years we would be working on it. I’m sure there would have been people saying, “No thanks,” if we had known. As somebody who had ambitions to be a writer, I didn’t — there were years along the way where I saw it as a temporary stop on my way to something else. Yet here we are.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that writing and narrative differentiated Remedy at the time. This thing that didn’t exist became a reason the company is still around many years later.
Lake: Certainly there had been story-driven games, starting with the text adventures. Those were only the story. But what we happened to create in some way was an action game with a story. That was pretty unique at that point, when Max Payne came out. It resonated with people. Here we are, still going back and having elements of that, at least, although we try to evolve with the times.
GamesBeat: I watched the talk by Amy Hennig. She referenced some of the interesting literary Easter eggs she throws into her stories from time to time. It’s funny that you both use chalkboards. There was a chalkboard in Uncharted with a message about Nathan written in Greek, a hero’s journey sort of thing, and you had the one in Quantum Break.
Lake: And a few in Control as well, scattered around the world.
GamesBeat: What it made me think of was T. S. Eliot and “The Waste Land,” where he throws all these things into the poem that add layers of meaning to it. You have the literal level, but also these meta-levels of what it’s about. If you look up what he’s referencing you realize that he’s talking about something different that relates to different concepts about the death of civilization. It feels a bit like the modern version of that are these Easter eggs in a game.
Lake: I agree. I think that is what it is. A big part, for me, was that I just liked — studying literature at university, I really fell in love with postmodern writing. It feels almost, to me, like a genre that’s created to be analyzed and mined for these meanings and hidden things. It almost feels like it’s a game between the writer and the reader, or whoever is creating an essay with a theory about it.
That was really fresh in my mind when I came to work in games, working on Max Payne. We’re creating a world with many layers to it, and many opportunities, echoes of the story. Putting in the Norse mythology, because I felt like Max Payne, the hero, is on this mythical journey. There are reflections of these myths of gods and monsters, even though it’s in contemporary New York. And then in Max Payne 2 we had these in-game TV shows in wildly different genres, but all of it is a commentary on the central story in some twisted way. And of course, on the meta-level — the meta-level was very present in Max Payne, with the drug trip where he realizes that he’s in a graphic novel, that he’s in a game. Playing a game inside a game with the game narrative.
That hasn’t gone away. I felt that in Control we came back to that, and I was really energized and excited that we could do all of these things in different mediums. Using music and songs to provide commentary in a very Easter egg way. Even having that Finnish tango, with the lyrics in Finnish, but the lyrics are all about the connected Remedy universe. There are lines about Alan Wake, and even echoes of Quantum Break and Max Payne thrown in. A lot of that is present there.
And then the fake credits, obviously. We’re not the first to do that, but — that came from a very interesting place. I was doing, early on, presentations about the story for the team. Always, when I came to the turning point between acts two and three, I said, “And then the Hiss invades Jesse’s mind. Game over.” Everybody would say, “What?” But no, just kidding, and then we’re in her dream. That kind of note ended up turning into these fake credits, because that’s what we came up with in the presentation.
Similar things are happening in TV shows these days. There are lots of Easter eggs in many of the more ambitious narratives.
GamesBeat: There’s a kind of self-awareness that goes on.
Lake: Exactly. Look at Westworld. It’s full of these clues for the community to talk about. “Did you see that can that fell on the ground in this scene? The style looks older than the one in this other scene. That must mean that this scene we saw here happened earlier than the other one.” Everyone is doing detective work, pausing and searching.
This kind of thing has been there for a long time, but — I think of it like, the novel has been with us a long time, and it’s a very sophisticated art form that’s evolved a long way. I feel like with TV shows, and with video games, we’re kind of catching up. We’re getting to the point of having that kind of depth in there.
GamesBeat: Do you have a favorite scene that reflects good writing in any of your games, or somewhere else?
Lake: That’s a tough question. Really tough question.
GamesBeat: I can give an example. What I liked about The Last of Us was that they go through this beginning, where the 15-year-old girl dies, and then because you see that happen, you understand Joel’s relationship with Ellie throughout the game, and why he makes the decision he makes at the end of the game. The beginning and the end are bookends that go together.
Lake: That is good writing, I agree. What’s more, it’s a really fine example of taking an idea that is good writing on the level of a story, but finding an interactive way to deliver it that’s fitting to a game, a strong way that resonates for whoever is playing.
I don’t know. I think that it can exist on many levels. This might be dodging the question in some way, but what excites me in some way is personally finding ways of bringing in different methods and using them in a balanced way to create something whole. That’s what I’m looking into a lot. What was really interesting to me as an idea for Control — we were taking the genre of the “new weird,” this literary genre, which takes this approach that we’re dealing with things we don’t understand fully. It can’t be explained satisfactorily and handed to you like, “Here’s the answer and this is what it’s all about.”
Balancing that, you still have a very strong idea yourself that it’s about these things. But then having that constraint of never spelling things out. Walking that tightrope so everybody has enough to piece together and form a theory, but not so much that we take away the opportunity to do that and just hand the explanation to you. That, in some ways, excites me in the genre of new weird, reading these stories. I find my interest sparked when something is well-made and it feels to me like I’m not quite smart enough to understand everything.
I know that for some people that’s a total turn-off. But for me it’s interesting. Sometimes it’s even like — that draws me toward David Lynch, his work. It’s very dreamlike. When I watch the latest season of Twin Peaks, say, I feel happy watching it. I feel like I’m in safe hands. It’s hard to understand, and yet it feels right. It feels like there is a meaning. Nothing breaks that in any way. It’s very well-made.
I almost come to a point where I don’t even need to figure out the exact meaning. I have this safe feeling. Life confuses us, confuses me, many times. There aren’t always ready right answers in life. I feel that in art, you don’t need everything spelled out to you, as long as it’s well-made. The badly-made version is that it pulls you out of it and you start to doubt that it means anything. There are enough mistakes that it doesn’t add up. Then it collapses and it’s ruined. It’s a careful balancing act. That’s very much what we were trying to do in Control, to create a feeling like that.
GamesBeat: I remember someone, I think it was Thomas, talking about Quantum Break and the chronology that the writers had to keep track of. It took multiple writers to figure out whether everything was in the right place or whether it contradicted itself.
Lake: Time travel is tricky that way. Time travel is definitely something that — there’s something in it that, by its very nature, goes against our thinking. And yes, in the writing room, even when we were quite far along, there were days where somebody suddenly realized that we had a huge plot hold. Everybody would look at it and say, “How did we miss that?” And then suddenly we all see it. We’d have to piece it back together and change multiple things to fix it. In the end, I think we got to a point where it does work.
GamesBeat: Did you have a favorite Easter egg in any of your games?
Lake: I like Easter eggs in general. In my head, all of these different things that we have worked on are, on some mystical level, connected. I like these echoes of different ideas in there. I like placing them in there. But of the recent ones, I did enjoy — we had the Viking mythology in Max Payne already. Looking at it globally, it’s kind of close to home, but it’s not. It’s not Finnish culture. It’s Nordic.
Now, in Control, I finally decided — maybe it’s my age as well, feeling more nostalgic about your roots. I decided that we could intentionally put some Finnish things in there. It fits, because it’s exotic and it’s strange for most of the people looking at it. The whole character of Ahti, yearning for summer vacation in his cabin, and the idea of — Finland has a surprisingly vibrant tango scene, which you’d never imagine, people up north having these passionate tango competitions every year. The heavy metal music, that’s obviously a Nordic thing once again, with Old Gods of Asgard, but the tango as well.
I had the idea to create a very traditional Finnish tango song and wrote Finnish lyrics for it. Petri Alanko has been our composer for many projects now, and he composed an awesome, very traditional Finnish tango track. The actor for Ahti, Martti Suosalo, who is a really brilliant Finnish actor — he’s been in the lead role in many Finnish movies, he’s done theater, he’s done musicals — we had him sing it. That’s him singing the tango.
GamesBeat: I don’t know if any of your experience coincided with Amy’s, where she said that sometimes the artists or the programmers didn’t understand what an Easter egg was, and they’d just change it. She’d have to tell them, “No, no, the name of the boat has to be these exact words.”
Lake: It does happen. It’s natural that it happens, because — this was an interesting challenge, especially for Control. Having an idea of meaning, but not spelling it out — there was a lot of desire at work, people wanting to spell these things out. There was a feeling that it needed to be spelled out. There’s that balancing act, where people want to explain things. What if somebody doesn’t understand that? We need to explain it some more.
I think it’s part of the teamwork. Being in control and directing, but also being fine with the fact that all kinds of things will be at work. Maybe it makes it more real, like the real world, because you’re not in control of reality. There are all kinds of inputs coming in. People want to put a lot of stuff in. There are things in our games that even I’ve discovered by accident. Hey, who did this thing here? Somebody wanted to put their own little Easter egg in there. It’s part of the fun. But yes, if somebody changes something that breaks something, that does happen. It’s just a matter of communication.