Remedy Entertainment is one of the very few entities in video game history who can claim to have had as much of an impact on the action genre scene, and cinematic storytelling, as id Software had on first-person arena shooters. When programmers were wrestling with limited resources, up hours and hours in front of computer screens trying to eek out as much performance as possible from antiquated hardware — they were the Bill Gates and Paul Allens of the video game world long before there was a one to speak of. The industry was in its infancy and these people were carving out the very foundation of computer graphics for their own purposes — prior to off-the-shelf engines being so ubiquitous and widespread as they are now, these guys had to handcraft numerous aspects of their earlier efforts. It wasn’t just about making a demo whose only challenge of running on new hardware is reckoning with improved instruction sets, architectural discrepancies, iterating on technology they couldn’t originally afford the resources to improve upon, or even justify operation cost for the current team with their current means to do much of anything without financial backing — it was about pioneering a new artform on the rise, an industry in a state of boom, and capitalizing on the growing interest from media companies in video games as a medium to tell compelling stories, and be an entertainment product of as much vigor as other audiovisual mediums — like the already established cinema, in the form of televised serial content, or feature films. It’s as if John Carmack -whose reputation precedes him- took a step back to not maybe think about the most graphic ways to riddle a monster with holes, and rather focus on the more practical, long-term, sustainable applications of using computer graphics to create and embellish these new experiences. Future Crew, as corny as it sounds, fit the spirit of late 80s, late 90s blunt camp and silliness. Little did they know, that name held a much more literal interpretation as time went on, and focus shifted.
Max Payne, or Sam Lake in a leather jacket
I’d been always part of the minority to never have played the first Max Payne games, only the Rockstar entry. I’d see a copy of both games for the PC and the PlayStation 2 sitting idly at my local game shop shelves. They picked up dust, a lot of it — and it didn’t seem like anyone was paying attention. I too was a little bit disillusioned by the fact it followed a conventional pattern of cover art stereotypes I’ve been all accustomed to in the early 2000s and even to some extent until this day, but I never bothered to pick it up. If I do now, I feel like I’ll never be able to appreciate it — but gladly, this is the internet, and I can live vicariously through people’s experiences.
Max Payne may have had a more reserved, lesser pronounced on pop culture outside its target demographic, but it did a lot to add to the genre of action games early on. In a world where crime dramas were starting to pick up steam with the inception of many genre-defying franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Mafia, and story-focused war epics like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor — Max Payne had a tall order in front to differentiate itself from the pack. It had for all intents and purposes, to invent its own “gimmick”, from which there was no escape in the early 2000s — and as far as gameplay quirks go, bullet time™ is hard to beat.
Just think about it. Computational power for the era didn’t allow for much flexibility in the way of physics, and coding for the AI, and the player to properly account for the increased reaction time offered by a jolt of slow-motion isn’t always the most intuitive thing to nail down. However, the bullet time mechanic introduced in Max Payne and later iterated on by Remedy and Rockstar for the purposes of Alan Wake, Quantum Break, and Max Payne 3 respectively, it was clear at that point that this wasn’t going to be a passing trend — bullet time was here to stay, and indeed, it went on to be an integral game mechanic for both third-person, and first-person action games. Just remember the epic sequences where you’d barge on an organized militia through a door or a window in a Call of Duty game, were in huge part facilitated by the strides Remedy has made to legitimize this gameplay mechanic, and making efficient use of it.
The series was also iconic for its extensive use of comic books, as stand-in for cutscenes — both to cut cost, and increase immersion. Game developers’ most accomplished skill has always historically been their ability to engineer around technological challenges. The fact Max Payne was able to run at all, even permitted by its relative lack of current visual bells and whistles, and its focus on linear storytelling, was a miracle. To see it come to life in such a unique and never-tried-before fashion was not only a testimony to Remedy’s creativity, but also their clairvoyance in regards to making sure their product is least to depreciate.
It was one of the very first attempts at creating a truly story-focused narrative. And on a scale of a Draymond Green missed dunk, to a Michael Jordan legs-pulled-back tongue-out dunk, Max Payne is a Shaquille O’Neal backboard breaker. The Metacritic average is a hard metric to argue against. When your game garners as good of a critical reception as it did, you know not only the very people who’re to inform gamers on their decision to buy the game like it, but the very people you’re selling it to will do too. It might not have aged just as well as some of their later titles did, but Max Payne, if anything achieved a cult status not by banking its success on perfect timing or usurping the spoils from other entertainment products — it just proved that people would latch onto it and accept it as is; the marvelous cult classic creation of a talented team of artists, writers and programmers. Which is a common trait for all Remedy projects from that point on.
Alan Wake as a proof of concept for what’s to come
Spoilers ahead for Alan Wake.
I remember watching Alan Wake being demoed on the stage of the Intel Developer Forum to showcase the power of Core 2 Quad processors, specifically on the task of dynamic lighting. The intricacies would be lengthy to get into but at the time, much of what the GPU currently does, hasn’t be offloaded to it yet, and it certainly wasn’t a remote possibility with the developer tools available, so it was really cool to see lamps being knocked down back and forth to properly cast shadows on proximate objects without the performance taking a massive dip. Alan Wake if you also remember, was at the time an open-world game, before it was spun into the masterful storytelling experience Remedy proved to always handle with such delicacy and elegance.
I played Alan Wake on the Xbox 360. I had owned one shortly after it came out, and I remember a while back even before its projected release date, that it would come out on the PC too. Plans change, roadmaps constantly evolve, and the game eventually made its way onto the platform, but for a while, it was a console-only ordeal. That though didn’t prevent it being quite the mind-numbingly bonkers experience to behold.
Alan Wake for me represents the ultimate struggle of a creator; a writer especially. When you strive to create, your work is present along, and oftentimes, it consumes you whole until it shoots you out the rear end. That’s what the game exuded of. A sensation that Alan Wake didn’t only literally write the most ludicrous ways he and his comrades could be killed, but see through to its end a beautiful conclusion. One that simultaneously ends the story, and concludes the chapter of creative self-absorption. Which as most writers will realize, is often the one that isn’t written, but is last to would have been.
I remember distinctly cherishing those very brief moments of levity and serenity in Alan Wake. As I traversed along from one safe harbor to the next, realizing it would only see its end be consumed by darkness; that tone of visual nothingness wasn’t the only thing at presence, it also projected an aura of unsettlement. That those very short moments where you get to take a break, and whisk your hand away from the temptation of coming back, it only reels you in closer, closer, and closer until you barely realize the monsters you so run away from, were the very ones created by your own obsession. A plight of the common man most apparent in their ways to deal with the unknown, where the narrative current may steer, and where the trappings of blissful solitude may contain. This journey, lonely as it is, keeps you company with endeavors of wanting to save oneself, but also, ever so slightly tempted to be drawn inside by the darkness; stay in its womb for as long as it takes to come out on the other end a new baby born, from fetus, to man, and back to being a fetus, once again but a kid to Erebus you became. Now, there’s no less of any blind dedication you wouldn’t have. The rite of passage, isn’t as ritual, it becomes material. You can touch it, feel it, reap its rewards, and laud its appraisal.
Alan Wake is the tale of a creative soul within Remedy that was just aching for that moment to be found. It may strike you of strangeness that I did not yet talk about the vibrating monsters, people, objects, the mechanics of aiming a lamp, depleting energy, then finishing off; the open-world retro-fitted to a linear more streamlined experience — but this is the least interesting stuff to talk about. No matter how much effort is put in, by everyone from coding, to management, it’d only be the murmurings of an old dying man. What wakes Alan from his dream, is the end. The moment the controller is put down. The moment your virtual reward for finishing the story shows up. That’s when the story of development, to end user is to be sealed. And that’s when Alan can finally rest peacefully, dining on the cliffedge of mountainous greenery, to brag about how many times he’d been sunk into the forgetful edge of utmost black waters.
I treasure my time with this game deeply. I only played it once on the console, got it on the PC once again but never opened it since. The story for me has happened once, and it shall reside in the back of my head for as long as I live. I might be tempted to come back and rekindle my love for this incredible of a journey, but as it foretold, it may be of best interest to me to experience it the same way I did with anything else in my life. My delivery, my childhood, my teenage years, my early adulthood, and now my quarter-life stage. Each with a discernible point of entry, and another of exit, from which I may never come back; as abruptly sent from the edge of a cliff as Alan was.
Bucking the trend of sci-fi inspired narratives with Quantum Break
Spoilers ahead for Quantum Break.
Quantum Break tells a different story. One that is characterized by misunderstanding, but also, an absolute triumph in the art of true choice-based storytelling.
In terms of sci-fi, you’d be hard-pressed to find a much more engaging and absolutely enthralling joy of a ride than this game. It tackles the essence of what makes science fiction so interesting, and imbues it with this “Remedy” touch that just allows it to come alive and feel unlike any other game I, or probably any of you have played prior.
What strikes a deep emotional chord with me is how Jack Joyce’s arc was handled throughout. If you don’t look close enough, you might write it off as your conventional run-of-the-mill disposable solo of an adventure but Quantum Break transcends that, figuratively and literally.
There are two components of media in which the text is portrayed. There are the interactive video game sections, and then there’s the live-action component. Both empower each other to heighten the presentation and they feed from, and into, to each other’s weaknesses and strengths. So what can be considered somewhat of a lesser effective mode of storytelling -traditionally- such as offering interactibility and freedom of traversal, now suddenly has a live-action show to embolden the points it’s trying to make. Watching the show isn’t imperative to understanding the story since the two intermix and interact with each other very frequently; but they equally make the existence of both as mutually justified.
I can’t speak with an air of confidence about the development cycle of Quantum Break since I wasn’t part of the production and for that matter never worked at Remedy, but I can speak as a player, and as someone who enjoyed the output since the Microsoft Studios escapades, that the game isn’t a worse game due to its reception, nor does it tell a less compelling story merely mirroring the one that media with its often superficial outlook on thematic significance in interactive storytelling. That isn’t to say your Kotaku’s, Polygon’s, IGN’s and Eurogamer’s didn’t write aptfully about the game, they all did. I read the reviews and scoured the internet looking for both the most lauding, and the least complimentary of reviews, and I found that none quite resonated with how I perceived the game to be.
Quantum Break didn’t just feed into my vice of shooting bad guys with guns and punching the antagonist so hard that time-space literally freezes over them — it also taught me there are multiple different ways you can convey your point across, without centering the emphasis of the story on combat and gameplay.
First of all, and perhaps most of all, Quantum Break is not-so-subtly about rebelling against capitalism.
Paul Serene magnificently played by the esteemed “Aidan Gillen” got to travel back in time, while having a strong recollection of market data, was able to use that and siphon it to his own advantage so that he would later on create Monarch Solutions — the corporation soon in charge of taking down Jack Joyce after a miniscule black hole is erected in a deep laboratory tucked away at the fringes of fictional Riverport University where students are protesting their ever-so-increasingly faint right to study in peace while influence of Monarch grows stronger each day goes by. The growth of the company not only was predicated on unlawful behavior in what basically amounts to a glorified version of insider trading, but its most nefarious goals are put to an end when Jack Joyce, the one-man-army decides to take things into his own hand, and struggles in a journey to take back what would see to the impending catastrophe’s end — the countermeasure, and defeat Paul in the process. Quantum Break, is a tale of many things, but most of all, it’s one that pits the interest of the very few — in fact, the sole lone justiceman, against the needs of the many; outlined most cunningly by the deceitfully bright, but secretly harmful strategy of banking the world’s survival on an underground bunker Paul did not understandably disclose to the public — due to fear of retaliation.
Time is manipulated, that’s the perception the player has. But time has been manipulated all along.
Whereas games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim might garner criticism for thrusting the player into the narrative on a transport device where people just keep talking awkwardly to each other until a dragon comes roaring by, spitting fire out of their damn mouths, wreaking havoc and destruction while the player wonders what the hell is going on. Skyrim, incidentally, doesn’t begin its narrative when the player sets foot atop a carriage, there’s an entire power vacuum left for you to figure out how to fill. Quantum Break on the other hand, introduces the story as if it just started, it however then reveals to the player that it was an ongoing battle for years and years — not only that, but you get to watch it all again, almost from a spectator’s point-of-view, better informed. William Joyce’s existence while it might seem somewhat heavy-handed, is an incredibly clever way of explaining the complex circular story dynamic at hand. When the story approaches its end, William makes a poignant point about Jack having had to witness his presumed death, so that “destiny” may proceed as it was always poised to. Jack couldn’t have steered the story, despite the many choices Paul Serene made, to end any other way. Time, always catches up to itself, and will do anything it can to string the logic of however extravagant and seemingly consequential events, to seem like they had absolutely no influence on the story. The subversion of expectation in regards to influence and effect is so awe-inspiring the words fail me to properly describe it.
Choice-based games are as old as video games are. RPGs pioneered this space for a long time, and allowed the player to engage in their own adventure by the decisions in speech, and action that they make. Companies like Telltale Games (RIP) made it their entire wholesale to make experiences that’d alter, and carry over based on what the player does. It is an absolute marvel that something the player started years and years ago will still have long-lasting consequences on the game that they’re playing now. But that’s all that it was, an industry current a few smart people were able to predict, a lot of developers enacted upon, but only the minority quite grasped at the fact it only meant to serve a narrative end, not only its own existence.
Remedy Entertainment never promised the players that the -final- perceived outcome would be any different. Just that their choices would have consequences on the narrative being told, and indeed they did.
If Paul is to be merciful, and reigns in his influence on Riverport, it would seem to the public like Jack Joyce is an evil version of Quicksilver. He uses his time-manipulation power to mow down Monarch’s private military, seemingly to serve his own selfish ends. But if Paul were to be ruthless, Jack’s outlook on the company, while somewhat ill-informed — but certainly motivated, puts him in a position where he’s ratifying the people’s needs and wants. People grew tired of Monarch’s invisible hands meddling in their everyday affairs. Jack -Ice Man in a past life- stumbled upon a musk-scented well set of powers spawned right out of an X-Men comic book; and would use his newly learned abilities to take on the proverbial, and literal monarchs of society.
When you wield such power to prevent the “End of Time”, you’ve practically cemented yourself as a deity. Acting on that power with responsibility becomes of utmost necessity, but the context Monarch Solutions lives in does so little in keeping its power in check. When members of the American Congress understand so little about what entails a big tech company, it’s completely within the realm of expectation to believe lawmakers are equally as lax and forgiving of a company which has the literal continuance of the universe grabbed by the balls.
Understanding that, is key to fully comprehending Quantum Break. Monarch Solutions isn’t just Jack’s enemy. If his crusade were to fail, the whole world would have been far worse off. You’re not chasing after Paul Serene, you’re not being steer-tracked by one character after the other, you’re saving the world. And when the story takes shape in a doomsday scenario, it starts to take on a whole new life. One that might not be all that intuitive to pick up on, but one that definitely does lots to enhance the feel, and the experience of the game. There’s a more visceral, and lively reaction to the game’s happenings and stakes when the player starts to realize they’re much bigger than what the world lets in on.
While the ideological and personal battle Jack Joyce wages against Paul Serene and his lackeys is just as important as the subtext of the story, the themes it explores are some of the most fascinating in video game history, like ever. It’s in my own experience, ever so slightly followed by Watch_Dogs 2’s not-so-vague nod to Anarchism. When a game manages to keep itself in touch with the world’s happenings, even years after it comes out, it dons the definition of topical and it takes on a much grander, more solidified, artistic status. The gunplay, the time manipulation, the incredibly well motion-captured scenes, and the masterful graphical, physical, audible and character animation boons Northlight permits are only second to the game’s ability to resonate. As a story of anti-capitalist strife led by the common man, it really, really shines.
Taking back control from major publishers
What Control shapes up to be, is both an anatomical examination of Remedy’s future as a company, away from Microsoft’s publishing deals and a meta-textual retelling of its own real story, and the fake-pretend on the script pages. A company that is finally able to assert control of its own destiny. A transition away from the increasingly-stale format of a straight white protagonist, to a self-made strong, and quite honestly refreshingly modern female protagonist, played by the incredibly talented Courtney Hope. It’s cool to harken back to medieval times and revise the legacy of the way women were treated back then, even in historical/medieval fantasy. But what I think could incur more impact in our current context, is see a strong female character take things into her own hands, in the here and now.
The hope is the story resonates as it did with me, and the solid fanbase Remedy has garnered over the years, as it will with the general public. Being kept out of the critical appraisal loop can be demoralizing to a lot of developers, and we know #MakingGamesIsHard — not everyone goes into it hell-bent on upsetting The Game Awards and snatching a win in every single category possible; but to me, and to a lot of Remedy fans, these games mean a whole lot more than a dozen hours spent in front of a screen reeling the trigger, or mashing buttons. Those games have meaning, and whatever that may be for each of us, it’s one I’ll personally treasure until I hit the death bed.
The excitement can be barely contained for what comes next. Here’s hoping it delivers.