How Remedy's Control Will Trust Players To Figure Out Its Unreal Story
What if David Lynch directed Die Hard?
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Remedy's Entertainment's Control is a noticeable change of pace from the studio's past work. Known for story-driven third-person shooters like Max Payne and Alan Wake, Control takes a more high-concept and nonlinear approach, reframing Remedy's particular storytelling chops into the framework of a Metroidvania-style game. On the surface, Control seems like the most unusual game to come from the studio. It actively moves away from the somewhat grounded settings from their past, channeling the principles of the new weird literary genre, blending aspects of avant-garde sci-fi and fantasy with a story that is intentionally challenging to unravel.
However, diving into Control and experiencing its bizarre story makes for a surprisingly alluring adventure. It intentionally keeps you in a state of confusion, but for good reason. This conceit of simultaneously unraveling Control's complex story while exploring a massive, interconnected, brutalist labyrinth at your leisure was an opportunity that was too good to pass up for Remedy. During E3 2019, we spent time playing the game ahead of its August 27 release and spoke with narrative designer Brooke Maggs and game director Mikael Kasurinen about the making of the game, and how it changed their approach to understanding storytelling in games.
For more on Remedy Entertainment's Control, check out our hands-on impressions of the game from E3 2019.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
What I found interesting about Control is that it's so different from other Remedy games. For one, the world design does away with the linear style and goes for the Metroidvania setup.
Mikael Kasurinen: Yeah, we really had to stop and think about how to actually construct this world. When you look at our past games, they were mostly very linear, cinematic experiences. You go from one point to another point and that's it, that's the only way you travel through the world. Now we have to think in a more three-dimensional sense. You can come from anywhere and go anywhere, and so there's a lot of layers and layers of exploration and quests on top of each other. So we can't think of the environment as a linear path anymore. All of that affected the way we handled level design and art, and also the metrics of the world itself. There were clearly things we had to let go of regarding storytelling [from past games] that we just simply couldn't do in this kind of environment anymore.
Brooke Maggs: Also, from a range of different perspectives, navigation is important and we needed to have the science of it all present and explained. For example, in the linear experience, you only go through the level once and then not go there again. From a storytelling point of view, we don't necessarily know if a player might have completed a certain side mission and therefore knows something about a character, for example. Therefore, we have to be careful about when this side mission opens up, what you might have uncovered about the world already, so as not to spoil it for the side mission, but also keep them interesting as well.
This game seems to be intentionally placing you in a state of confusion. There's a lot of strange stuff happening, and though Jesse tries to rationalize things, it's clear she's just as in the dark as we are. Was that intentional given how bizarre and unusual the story is?
Kasurinen: Absolutely. We do spend a lot of time making sure that the player can understand what's going on, and know what's at stake. It was important for us that we were kind of accepting the idea that we were doing this strange experience for Control. Let's just throw the player together with Jesse into the middle of that experience and just start to make things happen right away, and not worry too much if things might initially seem a bit strange and weird, and trust that people will go through it. And then, piece by piece, they will start to see a larger picture of what is going on. That's why it was important for us that Jesse is an outsider of this world when we start off, so she's there together with the player as they enter this world.
Maggs: It's also an aspect of the "new weird" genre of fiction. It combines science fiction and fantasy elements, and with Control, we've grounded it in the modern world. So, with the Bureau of Control [the organization that Jesse works for], you're trying to understand these mysteries and then it's sort of questionable as to whether your theories are correct. The game is not intentionally confusing; it's intentionally mysterious and unsettling. So, the best way that we dealt with that is by having the main character not quite understand either, and therefore it's okay if the player doesn't completely know everything at that point.
I actually really appreciate how weird the game can get. Even though I felt somewhat lost during some points, I couldn't help but admire what was going in the story and all the different characters that were just rolling with it.
Kasurinen: A huge part of that is that we want to make a game where we trust the players--that they are ready to take the time to invest themselves into this world, participate, find out. If they're unsure about something, all the information is there; but you need to go and get it yourself. We want to avoid hand-holding. We want to avoid spoon-feeding, but we also want to make all of the info available to you. If you take the time, you can learn a lot.
Maggs: I think games--some at least--trust the player to make the connections. We're always trying to find a story that makes sense for us. If we pose the right elements in a game, players are always going to be like, "I'm trying to figure out what's going on. I'm trying to understand. I need to figure out where I'm going." All of those things are a positive sign of wanting to know, and I think that makes for good storytelling.
I could see some parallels with Alan Wake, in the sense that there's a lot of room for interpretation. Is the intent there to spur a similar kind of discourse online for Control?
Kasurinen: Absolutely. I love it when the community comes together on a game and tries to speculate to create theories of what actually happens, or they open up an aspect of the game that nobody even realizes. That's definitely a goal for us, that we want to create a mysterious, compelling world. There's a lot of things that are left for interpretation. We've thought it through and there's an internal logic present, but we've chosen a very explicit way in how to express it all to the player.
Maggs: Yeah--what to show, what to conceal, and what to reveal over time. We would love it if people would spend time trying to put together pieces of the lore in the world. We've got documents, we've got audio logs, we've got videos. We've thought through it a lot. Because it's a brand new IP, we've built it from the ground up from world design perspective, narrative perspective. We've put a lot of effort into thinking about what these forces are and what they're doing.
I feel the best way I would describe this game to someone--in terms of visuals and pacing--is if it were the movie Die Hard, but directed by David Lynch. This game has a dream-like cadence to it, and it's all set within this building that's always changing as the action keeps going.
Kasurinen: Well, regarding the visual style, we wanted to avoid cliches. Like this is not the average fantasy game that you've seen already a hundred times. We could easily go on and add a bunch of things, but we choose not to. We stuck to a minimalistic style for [for narrative and gameplay], but the elements that are there are strong. And with that you have the brutalist architecture--very specific style--and the lighting style, which gives a very graphic look to it. We layer on top of that the supernatural phenomena, and it's not something that is necessarily a thing in itself, but it's something that warps the reality around Jesse.
Maggs: That stark, brutalist look speaks to the bureaucracy of the building, but it provides a lot of grounding for the weird things as well. The architecture is very sharp. The lighting also communicates about the enemies, like the red lighting as well. The colors throughout the building are different per sector. So, all of that is very purposeful. We have very talented artists and visual directors and world director who put a lot of thought into guiding the visual style of control.
I especially like how present the main character is throughout the story, which is in keeping with the Remedy style of storytelling. Jesse's voice-over seems especially poignant as well, and there seems to be some interesting going on with the visual effects during her internal monologues.
Maggs: Yes, I'm glad you picked up on that. First of all, because Jesse, you know, lost her brother to a supernatural event in her past, she's been trying to figure this out for a long time. So she's become a very closed-off character. It can be hard to characterize and let the player in on the main character's internal feelings. This technique was really helpful for that as a narrative device, but let's say there's more to it than what we're revealing right now. There's a very clear purpose and intention for it.
Kasurinen: With every Remedy game, we explore different ways to tell stories. All the way back to Max Payne, we've got this narration in Alan Wake, and in Quantum Break as well. In this game, it's important for us that we have a way to hear Jesse's internalized thoughts as they are happening in the moment, because we want it to feel like the player is there with her, so it's not something that has already happened. That's also a very deliberate choice from us.
I brought up David Lynch earlier, but this really does have a lot of his style, as do other Remedy games. Could you speak a little bit about how his style, and also the new weird fiction, also ties into that?
Kasurinen: Well, new weird is all about humanity and encountering things that are beyond comprehension. The characters still try to figure it out, or they have another goal in their life that they're trying to achieve, and then this new setting around them is perplexing and strange. That felt like a great foundation for Control. That's the kind of world that we want to create. But as far as David Lynch goes, obviously we deal with things that's really hard to understand at times, but there's always a layer of familiarity. Like for Twin Peaks for instance, there's kind of a dream logic throughout. You can sense what is going on, but you're not 100% sure. There's a relatable layer to it, like interesting characters that you want to talk with, that you want to interact with them. So we wanted to have that same thing, like relatable characters and so on, but then there are strange phenomena around it.
There are other sources of inspiration as well, like the Southern Reach trilogy. The first book was called Annihilation, which was recently turned into a movie as well. The initial trilogy is fantastic, so that was a big inspiration for us. Then there are lots of others as well, like going back to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the ending, where this protagonist encounters basically alien life, but it's a really perplexing, strange moment. Then there's obviously the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky from the '70s, that was wonderful as well.
Control does a lot of new things for Remedy, but it still feels very much in that particular style. Is there anything about the game that sticks out to you the most as something special?
Kasurinen: What I'm personally excited about it that it's a new type of a game from Remedy. But our heritage is in there--all the things we've done in the last 20 years, going all the way back to Max Payne to Quantum Break. I think in a way, Control is a culmination point of all of these different things that we've done, and we haven't done this type of structure before. What I also like a lot from the storytelling perspective is that we have actors coming back from previous games, Max Payne's voice actor James McCaffery, Matthew Porretta who was the voice of Alan Wake, and then, of course, Courtney Hope, who was Beth Wilder in Quantum Break. So we have a lot of this kind of heritage and DNA that we've taken and used in this world, but we're applying it to this new type of direction. We did this in roughly three years, and something really clicked quite well with Control, so that's what I'm really proud of.
Maggs: I'm really proud of how our studio has pulled together a brand new IP that does a lot of new things. These conversation moments, side missions, the ability to go back through the world and explore--this is all new for Remedy and I'm really proud of all of it. I'm also proud that we've told a story with an active female protagonist. In fact, there are multiple important female characters in the world of Control, which I really love. It was one of the things that drew me to the project originally. I'm really proud of all of those things, really.