Remedy Entertainment Is a AAA Game Studio With Indie Spirit

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Photo: Remedy Entertainment

Remedy Entertainment employs over 360 people. The company has been published by the biggest powerbrokers in the video-game industry, happily taking checks from Rockstar, Microsoft, and Epic. It’s still headquartered in its native Finland (a town called Espoo, adjacent to Helsinki, right along the Baltic Sea), but in 2021, Tencent, the Chinese mega-conglomerate, became an official Remedy partner, purchasing a 5 percent chunk (673,274 shares) of the business. Further expansion is on the docket; Remedy is looking to open a new office in Sweden, and it is reportedly taking a dive into the verboten waters of live-service multiplayer on an upcoming project.

In other words, Remedy Entertainment is, indisputably, a triple-A video-game studio. Its size and the pedigree of its corporate alliances are comparable with Infinity Ward and Treyarch — shops that are tasked with cranking out a brand new Call of Duty game each year. And yet, over the course of three decades filled with success and schmoozing, Remedy has never conformed to the market realities of the games business. The titles that bear their imprint are experimental, idiosyncratic, proudly auteur-ish, and deeply strange. They take nods from crime fiction, noir films, and speculative cosmic horror. Remedy has never supplied a microtransaction storefront; until very recently, they hadn’t even made a first-person shooter. Instead, the company has built a one-of-a-kind portfolio. Some Remedy games are exhilarating, others are a mess, but it’s always clear that the company is swinging for the fences with a remarkable clarity of vision — and a renegade moxie — you’d expect from the dinkiest indie developers, rather than a studio wreathed with investor capital.

Alan Wake 2 comes out on October 27, and Remedy has once again convinced a much richer partner — Epic Games, a publisher that is still extracting a motherlode of Fortnite money — to foot the bill. The first game in the series was an ode to pulpy, paranormal thrillers; our hero, Alan Wake (yes, that is “A. Wake”), is a Stephen King facsimile who has decamped to an uncanny arcadian town in Washington where the eldritch forces of his horror stories have come to life. Wake is a dweebish writer at heart, so he fends off the demons with a flashlight in a narrative told through network-serial-sized installments. (It’s not all bad for Wake. After all, the longer his madness stews, the closer he comes to uncorking his writer’s block; a bargain any writer would take.) The sequel, in classic Remedy fashion, ditches those precepts for a hardboiled detective story — complete with a Beautiful Mind–style pinboard — where an FBI agent, named Saga Anderson, attempts to decode the mysterious disappearance of the namesake author, ten years later. It’s yet another beguiling Remedy puzzle box, and it left me with only one burning question to ask the studio’s longtime creative director, Sam Lake: How on Earth has his team been allowed to be this weird, at this scale, for this long?

“I love science fiction, I love horror, and I love postmodern literature with lots of meta layers and complexities. So I’m sure a lot of the blame falls on me,” he said, during a recent Zoom call. “We’re in a position to come up with a very specific core idea with our games, and I’m sure if the task at hand didn’t involve using all of those esoteric components, that might be exciting in its own way. But I’ve been fortunate to set a goal, from the outset of development, using all of the things I love.”

In that sense, Remedy hasn’t changed since 1995, when a small group of amateur programmers gathered in the basement belonging to the parents of founding member Samuli Syvähuoko, and decided to call themselves a studio. Remedy functioned more like a collective in those early days; the team would break bread in their domestic command post and work on a gaggle of projects with varying levels of seriousness. The first one to make it out the door was a gristly, post-apocalyptic car-combat slobberknocker called Death Rally. The game fit perfectly within the Über-macho gestalt of the mid-’90s gaming culture, to the point of earning a publishing deal with 3D Realms, progenitors of the iconically boorish Duke Nukem series.

But it was 2001’s Max Payne that gave the public its initial glimpse of the Remedy Method. In many ways, Max Payne has lots in common with its contemporaries Doom and Unreal. It’s about as hackneyed as a noir can get; there’s a murdered wife, a toxic street drug, an undercover cop, and a New York City lacquered with gratuitous urban blight. But Max Payne also possesses a stylishness — and a profound inner sorrow — that those games’ garish vengeance-porn could never articulate. The streets are empty — void of anything but neon signs and a relentless, sleety snow. Payne’s dialogue is reserved for interstitial cutscenes, told through comic-book panels, where he offers whiskeyed bon mots on whatever is crossing his mind; the seizing physical impact of an overdose, the inevitable coming of Ragnarok, the bottomless tragedy of the life he’s been given. “I’ve been living on an endless supply of week-old donuts, I can’t remember the last time I saw the sun,” muses Payne, in block text, over a sickly nocturnal New York panorama. Remedy was aiming for art, and they came surprisingly close.

Max Payne would go on to sell five million copies — more than enough to bankroll a new IP — which would plunge Remedy into the wilderness. Lake told me that the development of Alan Wake was the hardest thing the studio has ever done. “It was much more of a struggle compared to Max Payne, when coming up with the story and concept,” he said. “Max Payne was like an album that breaks through and becomes super successful, and you think you have the experience, you think you have the knowhow going forward. But then you become lost with the follow-up.”

There is likely a timeline somewhere in the multiverse where Remedy marinated in the world of Max Payne indefinitely; churning out more stories of resplendent grimness — of Matrix trench coats and sanctified firearm worship — for decades. A video game about a horror author — in a Twin Peaks–flecked Cascadian township — is the sort of pivot that only made sense within the inner crucibles of Remedy. The company spent five years attempting to consummate their vision, which rendered Alan Wake into a decidedly meta product. Here is a video game company in artistic agony, attempting to articulate the story of a fiction writer in artistic agony.

“When we finally got there with Alan Wake, it felt very personal,” added Lake. “The fact that the creative process is such a core theme of the game made it special.”

That’s the thing I find most profound about the Remedy brand. Lake is right: Alan Wake is extremely personal, in the sense that it’s a composite of all of his favorite fetishes and aesthetic baubles — a metatextual journey to the depths of both creator and character, tiled with references to Lovecraft, King, Kubrick, and Hitchcock. Remedy’s 2019 opus Control went even further down the rabbit hole, encompassing a huge mythology of supernatural intrigue, striking an esoteric balance between the comic and the darkly bureaucratic, with a nauseating Lynchian dread pulsing just below the surface. But again, Lake directs hundreds of people at the company; most of them haven’t internalized his exact strata of influences. A whole lot of manpower is required to create the video games of Remedy’s scale. How does the entire staff stay in lockstep on an idea so precise? After all, it only takes one inauthentic element to shatter the whole façade.

“It’s really hard. It’s a lot of work. It took most of Control’s production time to communicate the vision. It was just me saying, ‘Yes, we want it to be weird, but not that kind of weird, or this kind of weird,’” said Lake. “It was even harder with Alan Wake 2, because of COVID. There was just a disconnect with remote work, and I think we only got back on track when we were able to come back to the office and communicate face to face. That was when we could bounce around ideas fluently in the same space.”

Lake said that Epic has been a willing partner on Alan Wake 2. Remedy is one of the first clients the company has taken on with its nascent publishing arm, which means that Lake is toiling under a surprisingly small team of higher-ups. (“We’ve been very free to do what we want,” he said. “We get feedback, but it’s feedback on the original vision we pitched them.”) Still, as it currently stands, Alan Wake 2 will mark the end of their collaboration. Remedy signed on with Epic to publish a remaster of the original (released in 2021) and its sequel. Going forward, the company will once again be courting a variety of moneyed benefactors to fund their next endeavor into the unknown. It’s a proposition that grows more daunting by the year. The video game industry has become incredibly polarized. Last year, it was reported that Electronic Arts derives 29 percent of its total business — $1.62 billion per year — just from the lootboxes it sells for its sports games. (In comparison, last year’s auteur-y Game of the Year favorite, God of War Ragnarok, moved about 11 million copies.) There is no way Remedy could ever keep up with those numbers while maintaining its own principles. Instead, they’re left to hope that the public’s eternal desire for the strange, the bizarre, and the transcendentally off-kilter will go unrequited without them. That’s the pitch Remedy has brought to every publisher. So far, it’s working out.

“The budgets for making games are getting higher and higher. With the modern fidelity of graphics, the amount of work that goes into building just one room is wild. Creating the same-size game that we used to is now more expensive, and at the same time, games are only getting bigger,” said Lake. “That’s one thing that makes me firmly believe that we’re doing the right thing at Remedy. We need to take risks. We need to be bold. If we make games that stand out. That’s how we can get attention.”

Lake told me he’s excited to have some time to himself now that Alan Wake 2 is finally out the door. There’s a backlog of fiction he intends to tear through, the bones of which will surely manifest in the Remedy projects on the far horizon. Infinite Jest, he said, is near the top of the list.

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