Inside the Mind of the Incredible Sam Lake

A walk through Sam Lake’s most defining moments.

Few in the gaming industry deserve veteran status quite like Sam Lake does. The pantheon of greats usually runs through the most obvious names–Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto, John Carmack, Marc Laidlaw, Warren Spector; but no one really talks about Sam Lake in the same capacity. The genre-defining contributions Lake made to the medium are often trivialized since Remedy never quite broke into ubiquity. But it is in that obscurity of Sam Lake’s creative output, that much of his genius can be gleamed. Lake paved the way for narrative-focused game design with his work on the original Max Payne, and it continues to be as important of a characteristic to his signature work, as is its farther-reaching impact on the gaming industry.

IGN’s Ryan McCaffrey recently sat down with Sam Lake as part of the IGN Unfiltered series to talk about what led him on a path to become the lead creative voice of Remedy. Sam Lake’s story is fascinating, and it helps put into proper context how a man from Finland, once-aimless about where to channel his creativity, now ranks comfortably amongst the most competent game writers of recent times.

A childhood of curiosity

McCaffrey started out his interview in the best way possible, asking if Sam Lake had intended to become a writer at all. “I liked making up stories. I liked to pretend, like all kids do,” Lake answered, referencing an all-too-familiar feeling of bursting out with creativity at our earliest lucid memories. He then recounts the very first time he became infatuated with creative writing, opening the earliest doors for him to venture into what later became more than a curiosity — a passion. “There was a time, I’d say around 12, after I found Lord of the Rings — I fell in love with that.” Sam Lake went on to describe how he passionately sought out the Nordic poems that inspired Tolkien’s lore, with his earliest recollection of a dream job being that of a mythology professor.

But it wasn’t only his love for the pure textual richness that was Tolkien’s cult franchise that motivated Sam Lake to set on a path to inspire some of the finest pieces of storytelling in video games–he’s also been a gamer himself, far earlier than most are today in fact. With how barren the presentation was for text-based adventure games and the earliest attempts at graphically-simplistic visual RPGs — like Ultima — Sam Lake found himself naturally gravitating to the more polished aspects of the experience–the story. If the visual tools for telling a compelling story were limited at the time, simplistic presentation meant that players were more intently focused on the content of the story, prompting the most curious to comb over its every detail. “In some ways, I kinda feel that, [with] the graphics being so simple, [it] stimulated your imagination; and you were making things up on your own at the same time.”

Growing up in Finland, Sam Lake lacked a crucial advantage in his formative years that his colleagues in the United States took for granted–speaking English natively. “As a kid growing up, obviously, English is not my native language,” Lake pointed out, adding that one of the reasons he’s been able to level the playing field is by leveraging a strong motivation to learn. There’s undoubtedly a lot you can do with Finnish, and with localization efforts being outsourced to specialized studios now, having to learn the language isn’t much of a concern anymore–though in a field as Anglocentric as video games are, it was an imperative for Sam Lake to master the tongue so he can convey his thoughts forth most-clearly. Lake reminisced about the first time he started devouring written English literature as he was still struggling to understand it all:

Somewhere before high school, I just stumbled upon a bookstore in Helsinki. [I ventured] into the section of English paperbacks–fantasy books. And that was like–I remember this moment of almost, this angel choir sound coming, and having been in the library and finding Lord of the Rings, there were the classics that were translated into English […] But then suddenly, there were rows and rows of paperbacks with interesting fantasy covers, and I just picked a thick one and started going through that with the dictionary.

The same library held a section for translated comic books, which pushed Lake to import comics from the United States, getting his first exposure to comic book storytelling–something that would later inform Sam Lake’s decision to do away with expensive cutscenes and adopt a comic book-style narrative interjections for Max Payne.

Elsewhere, leisure turned into passion, and Sam Lake was just yet another entry in a long line of writers who carried over their skills from writing tabletop roleplaying campaigns, into entertainment produce. Sam’s relationship with his game crew formed the bedrock for his debut at Remedy. “A childhood friend — Petri Järvilehto — who was part of our tabletop roleplaying crew, he was also in the demo scene […] He was one of the founding members of Remedy,” Sam told McCaffrey. Remedy Entertainment was a different beast from what it is today–being part of the demo scene, the ultimate challenge was how best to showcase a machine’s technical capabilities through resource-taxing graphical demos. It required a very different skillset from writing–if anything, programming demos and writing narratives were as far removed from each other as they could ever possibly be.

The start of an adventure

Early Remedy personnel — including Petri — called upon Sam’s help to write menu text for their debut game, Death Rally. Lake took on the challenge, filling double-duty as he studied English language and literature at the University of Helsinki. But Sam not only ended up writing the menu text, but he also called to attention negative space at the bottom that he wanted to fill with story, and he was surprisingly met with approval. That was Sam Lake’s first exposure to writing proper story for a commercial entertainment product. His skills would only grow more competent further along Max Payne’s development process, where he saw an opportunity to enroll in the Theater Academy of Finland to learn screenwriting, and it was through gigs of script doctoring and recurrent submissions to his professors that his tact for effective storytelling was starting to take form.

That tact, is something Sam Lake would go on to channel into Remedy’s first earnest attempt at a fully-fledged gaming experience–Max Payne. As he tells the story of Remedy’s humble beginnings, echoes of similar circumstances can be seen in Id Software’s history, or even earlier Valve. No one was really getting paid at the time–everything was being treated as a passion project, as Remedy’s early team kept mashing away at keyboards in their garage, in the hopes of making up their losses at some point or another.

The earliest concept for Max Payne was a prototype named “Dark Justice”, where unlike the finished product, it was supposed to take place in a dystopian near-future. At the time, Sam Lake wasn’t concepting it, but when he entered the fold, he proposed the idea to dial back on the fantasy elements and turn the would-be Max Payne into a grounded present-day story. The script for Max Payne came from a film noir-dashed roleplaying campaign concept Sam Lake started working on, but never quite finished. As the project progressed, Sam’s friend Petri brought in the idea of slow-motion à la John Woo Hong Kong action movies. Novel as the idea was, it was the stepping stone for Max Payne’s bullet-time mechanic, inspiring many games after it — including some of Remedy’s own — to adopt it as integral to their gameplay.

Sam Lake was also a product of his time, as were Remedy’s founding members. Back in the mid-90s when they were starting out, the mold for the modern film noir genre was slowly taking shape. Lake called out movies like Usual Suspects, Fight Club, Seven and Lost Highway as major sources of creative inspiration for what Max Payne turned out to be. Sam also recalled his transition from studying genre fiction, into postmodern literature while Max Payne was being made, and how that instigated within him the adoption of an analytical mindset when examining text. “It’s a literary genre that’s made, for analyzing. […] Investing into it and gaining more out of it [by doing so].”

Parting with Max Payne, Sam Lake’s baby child, wasn’t an easy task. Remedy Entertainment had sealed a deal to fully sell the rights to Rockstar on the condition that they make the second game, with Rockstar publishing it. The game was made, and so Max Payne officially became Rockstar’s. But as Sam put it, the team had been working on Max Payne for seven years, and they wanted to move on and make something new. McCaffrey looking confused, asked Sam if it was hard for him to abandon the franchise after turning it into a commercial and critical success. Sam’s answer was clear-cut–he wasn’t willing to gamble Remedy’s financial security on the dream of wanting to see Max’s journey through. It ultimately made creative sense for him, and financial sense for Remedy to part ways with the franchise on the best of terms.

Chasing new ambitions with Microsoft

McCaffrey then switched gears to talking about Alan Wake — arguably the better-known game of Remedy’s latter catalog. “It was a long process — much longer than we could have imagined,” Sam reflected on the game’s unusually-long pre-production phase. The ideas workshopped back then were reminiscent of industry trends of the era–a fantasy game being the main idea floated, with the explosive popularity of games like World of Warcraft lingering behind. But Sam Lake’s longtime buddy Petri Järvilehto ended up abandoning the idea, and moving onto what would become the final form of Alan Wake. McCaffrey cleverly slid in a factoid about Sam posting a picture of himself online going into a cabin in the woods when writing the story in the context of Alan Wake being potentially autobiographical, to which Sam Lake sharply responded that it’s “as autobiographical as anything you write.” If Alan Wake was as much about the existential dread of coming up with the perfect story, uncovering more of yourself than you thought you knew as you went along, Sam Lake perfectly understood its larger implication about the relationship between a writer and their words. Whether a writer exert much of an ownership over their words is debatable, but it’s undeniable they were borne out of circumstances, both external and internal, uniquely specific to their conceiver.

Alan Wake is an interesting snapshot in Remedy’s existence and Sam Lake’s career as a writer. It was Remedy’s first effort to create a console-seller for Microsoft, and while it did well in the long run both on Xbox 360 and PC as it was later released on Steam, the critical acclaim the game had initially garnered didn’t reflect immediately on Remedy’s balance sheet. “Even coming to terms with that, took years for me” Sam told McCaffrey about the emotional turmoil following the game’s release. It was hard for Remedy to reckon with the game’s timid welcome, but as Alan Wake’s fandom grew, people were wondering whether Sam Lake had gotten over the urge to make another one; to which when McCaffrey inquired about it, Sam replied with reserved enthusiasm: “No. I want to make it. […] It needs to be done right, if it’s ever done.”

McCaffrey then moved on to briefly talk about what is arguably Sam’s least-prideful work–Quantum Break. Sam Lake said that in original discussions to pitch Alan Wake’s sequel to Microsoft, the game had included a live-action component–Microsoft held on to that idea, and demanded that a new IP be shaped around it. Quantum Break would be that game. But Sam Lake had only worked on half of what it would become, with Microsoft insisting on an LA-based writing team with a background in television to handle the live-action component instead. Sam didn’t completely dislike the arrangement, but he wouldn’t have done it “the same way again” if given the opportunity, as there were apparently a lot of collaboration issues between the television show writing team, and the core Remedy staff who had wildly different visions for the finished product. This, and other instances of Microsoft meddling with Remedy’s creative vision meant that the two eventually drifted apart, and Sam Lake’s Remedy eventually sought out independence for themselves and their creative endeavors.

What the future holds

Control isn’t only an apt metaphor to describe where Remedy is at as a studio and where Sam Lake is at with his creative mindset–it is also an admission that in trying to appease the bottom-line of Rockstar and Microsoft before, Remedy had sacrificed a small little piece of what made it unique. When concepting the game with Mikael Kasurinen, Sam Lake had decided that they would not “hold any stops” nor “second guess” about “Will the gamers get this?”, sticking with as an authentic brand of weird as they felt personally excited about. After long conversations with interested partners following the release of Quantum Break, what would’ve been the sequel to Alan Wake just eventually turned into Control, and it would be the first since Remedy broke out of Microsoft’s publishing contract.

Sam Lake confessed that his love for the genre of the new weird, and his co-conceptor Mikaela’s infatuation with Dark Souls, were the main creative conduits for Control. “I get huge kicks [out of it] in all mediums of entertainment. Like postmodernist writing, or today’s TV shows–if you can call them TV shows anymore. Ambitious challenging stuff like Legion, the show [by] Noah Hawley, Mr. Robot and the new Twin Peaks of course!” Sam tells McCaffrey as he glees with excitement. What Control shapes up to be, looking at the trailers, is very much a reflection of the sensibilities that Sam Lake mentioned, with that magic “Remedy touch” that uniquely defined their own spin on action games throughout the years.

For his 50th birthday next March, McCaffrey asked Sam Lake if he was planning anything special: “I don’t–There is nothing. But it’s kind of a scary thing. I’m [still] trying to come to terms with that”. And as the interview approached its end, Lake closed it out with an interesting observation about game development:

The thing about making games, what’s great about it — even in the same company — Remedy has been evolving through the years, and games are evolving. It’s so interesting that every new game is also venturing into the unknown. In the sense that, new technology, new opportunities — we don’t know how much [time] this is gonna take, and what this is gonna cost, and it’s always like doing something — at least parts of it, are something that no one has done before. So it’s prototyping, that keeps it fresh–that keeps it interesting and exciting for progress.

Sam’s made it no secret that making games is hard. In an era where game development has been marred in controversy around crunch, where players swamp the social feeds of developers out of ignorance rather than genuine concern, and where Gamergate hijacked the conversation around gaming and turned it into a zero sum toxic game of blame-assignment, it really is quite refreshing to see an icon in the gaming industry speak in honest terms about the hard nature of the job they’ve been doing. Sam spent almost half of his life working in the gaming industry, and he’s weathered its every phase and trend–there are very few others you can say the same thing about.

As Control inches closer to release, no one really knows what the future holds for Sam Lake, or Remedy Entertainment for that matter. The game could resonate with audiences immediately like Max Payne before it did; it could fall on deaf ears only to skyrocket in popularity years on like Alan Wake; or it may be met with a collective shrug like Quantum Break. But one thing is for sure–as Sam Lake and the team at Remedy retained greater control over Control, (pun very much intended) there’s very little excuse for them to not deliver. Sam has hope that players will have as much fun piecing together the pieces of the puzzle as he did dispersing them, and with him and his team being the ones in the driving seat finally, Control would hopefully come out of the other end triumphant.