At PAX West 2019, the RE:BIND team sat down in person with Brooke Maggs of the Remedy Team to chat about the inspirations and stories behind their newest game, CONTROL. We’re thrilled to have had the opportunity to sit down with her and talk about her experiences coming into the project and hashing out the finer details of what makes Remedy’s narrative style so refreshing.
The transcript of our interview follows below.
REBIND: Welcome, Introduce yourself!
Brooke: Hello! My name is Brooke Maggs and I’m a narrative designer on CONTROL. So my handiwork, specifically I worked on the the motel sequences, and I worked on the side missions from a narrative design perspective. So when I joined Remedy in October last year I was put on side missions to sort of keep an eye on them in terms of writing and all the other disciplines that go around them, anything like level design, VFX, environment art, animation. So for example we’d all sit in a room and look at a side mission together and play through it, of course in a rough state, and then we’d create a list of animations that we need for Jessie. For example we need her to turn off something or open a door, or we need an animation for opening a door, a sound for opening a door.. we need lighting for the door [laughs] as crazy as that sounds there’s a lot of detail that goes into that- we need the writer to write a line where Jessie says something about the door.
REBIND: It’s all about the continuity, which is incredibly difficult.
Brooke: Especially in a world that’s really weird and complex, so we built the world first, and our world designer is an ex-architect by trade. So this whole building is a world, so we were thinking about anything from what the technology looks like in the bureau (why would [there be] an older style of technology and not a newer style) to what each sector of the bureau looks like, that they all have a clear look and style so you know you’re in a different area of the building. But also from a writing perspective what is the day to day of people in the bureau, and that’s what the documents capture as well.
REBIND: That’s something we noticed right away, and what pulled us in. It’s something we’ve appreciated in Remedy’s past work as well. CONTROL is a game that has had so much time to cook that all the small finite details of the world, the daily slice of life, is very present and clear. You can spend so much time outside of combat running through the game just looking at this. Thinking specifically about the synchronicity lab, there’s so much density of information in that space and a little bit of interactivity too that’s wonderful.
Brooke: We had a discussion about the synchronicity lab and what it was about synchronicity they’re studying, how are they studying (there were so many different concepts like the luck department), about what cool things could happen in the luck department. Actually the level owner for research, she’s so talented because she she just she makes up puzzles that suit things, she had like a synchronicity puzzle. There’s [even] an environment secret in the luck department.
REBIND: We had a feeling about that. We could definitely tell and that’s the thing that gets us about watching CONTROL, it feels like you can really spend years in this game finding all the little details, so it’s great to have some knowledge that there’s something there.
Brooke: A lot of that comes from the detail everyone on the team puts into their work. I was just talking to someone before in an interview saying because everyone is focused on their discipline they can’t have the entire narrative world in their head, that’s our job. So a lot of my my job at the height of production, I wasn’t really at my desk, I was walking between rooms saying, “Hi, hey, how’s your day going,” then a conversation would open up around their work. So, for example, Ann-Lynn, one of our environment artists would say, “Hey, actually I think you could help me with something, so I’m doing trench’s office today and I just want to know what kind of things he would have on his desk,” and I’m like, that is a REALLY great question. She’s like, “You know, I’ve read his bio, and I know a bit about him, but I was wondering if Narrative had any requests for what we could do with his desk.” So then I’d go back to Narrative, and we’d talk about it, we look some things up online and find some references, and then get back to her.
REBIND: Like how many cigarettes can a person smoke before they die? [laughs]
Brooke: Yeah, exactly. Like would he have a picture of his family on his desk? He doesn’t really talk about that much but it’s kind of important. What does his desk look like? And then also with environment art too sometimes there are things that don’t match the character in the room, so Narrative makes the request to have those things removed. We’re like, “Actually, I don’t think he would have this there, or this item,” and that’s something that happens consistently over years of development as we play-through and play-through, yknow, put into JIRA anything from ‘Please remove the XYZ from the room’ etc.
REBIND: I think what we love hearing about this is that the structure of the Bureau in the game is almost very reflective of the thought process that went into it. The way you’re describing these departments and how people there have this rather nonchalant way of dealing with these abstract concepts at a high level of detail, that’s Remedy all over, that’s the vibe we’ve gotten.
Brooke: Yeah, that’s true, and also that has a lot to do with Sam Lake’s very strong literary inspirations we’ve had for the projects. We’ve had a list of references for anything from Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer- that was a big inspiration, House Of Leaves, X-Files, Twin Peaks, and, for our game director, Tarkovsky’s the STALKER movie was another inspiration.
REBIND: That makes a lot of sense. We actually wanted to ask if you guys were influenced by the SCP Project.
Brooke: Funnily enough, no, we’ve had a lot of reflection on that. I think, personally, CONTROL has managed to touch on the zeitgeist of weird narrative organizations, secrets behind secrets.
REBIND: Right, there’s that undercurrent in the noosphere, that thing everything is aware of in the back of their subconscious- you can tap into those themes.
Brooke: It’s sort of in the water, isn’t it? I wonder too if it’s because maybe audiences are… we can be a bit more complex in the stories we can tell or the the worlds we present, because people are, I don’t know, consuming more stories or after more in their story? Or because we’re consuming multiple TV series, a story can be this long instead of two hours.
REBIND: That’s something we really appreciated with CONTROL, we go around and pick up every single document and pour over it- we don’t really do that as much with every other game, but we’re desperate to know everything that’s going on in this world. What we’ve noticed is that a lot of games have this need to justify everything they do in the world, but CONTROL feels like this world that just exists.
Brooke: We really had to fight that, it’s really interesting that you say that. Our game Director Mikael, was very clear about saying we don’t have to explain everything to the player.
REBIND: Many games feel the need to be explicit. CONTROL expresses this in every detail, right down to the character dialogue and the way that Jessie doesn’t justify herself- she just is. There’s no hour spent with her freaking out about the gun, which is so refreshing, especially for a female character.
Brooke: It’s interesting you say that too, because we’ve had questions about people going, “Jessie seems really well adapted to all of this, wouldn’t she be freaking out a little bit more?” And we had conversations about that too, we didn’t want to spend all that time with her going, “Oh! That’s Weird!” “*Gasps* That’s Weird!” because we also wanted it to be clear that she’s experienced the strange before. No one believed her, and now she’s in a place where everyone deals with the unexplained on a day to day basis, which is that idea of peeking behind the poster. Like this whole world exists beyond the poster that she kind of knew existed.
REBIND: Anyone who has ‘seen some shit’, as it were, that’s how they act. They’re very much so approaching these situations going, “OK, let’s just address the thing,” and that’s why her character is so resonant. But it takes a lot of guts behind the scenes to make that creative decision.
Brooke: It does, and in development I mean that can be a bit anxiety inducing, right? Because everyone- there’s over a hundred people that work on the game, so everyone has varying ideas of what is too much information and not enough information, or how much we should explain and how much we shouldn’t explain, and ‘let’s dial the explanation back here.’ Conversely, sometimes I said, “I think we need to explain this more, because this is not making sense and we need to at least have some good user experience, lead you through this world and make sure there’s enough narrative scaffolding for people to build an idea of what’s happening in the world,” which I think is where Emily Pope comes in.
REBIND: You have all these nice side characters that serve as anchors for the rest of the world, because they’re involved in it and they’ve been doing it for a while now, it’s all old hat. One thing we found fascinating- and I don’t know how much of a hand you had in this, but the Hotline as a way to serve narrative exposition and walking through the world you get these video overlays, Trench talking about things, but it’s all cut up and not fully presented. But if you pull back into the menu and go to the Hotline, you get the full version of what it is he’s saying, and it’s really interesting to see exposition not shoved in the player’s face and have it more-so reserved for when the player wants to get to it. What kind of conversations did you have around the hotline itself?
Brooke: Multiple different ones. The Hotline is a cool way to give players more information, to characterize Trench even though he’s dead, but also to… I guess there’s a bit of a design problem with [wanting] the narrative / monologue to be this long, but if the player is in world and we actually play it for that amount of time, it’s annoying. And so we’re like, “Okay, let’s dial that back,” and Sam’s idea was to have these little bits come through so that you know that you can refer to the Hotline if you needed more information, and I think that worked really well.
REBIND: Nesting that sort of narrative exposition in something that is again, optional, feels like it places confidence in the player too.
Brooke: Yeah, yeah.
REBIND: You know what you want, you know what you’re looking for, and you’ll come find it. On the player’s side of things, for us, that makes us feel really considered in the process.
Brooke: I mean, one more thing that I would add to that is that, one thing that’s a major important point for me is that we have to know the exposition. I think it’s important that we, as a narrative team, know the answers, but then we decide how we tell the story. Knowing the story and telling the story are different things, the way that you tell can really change the way someone receives the story. The story could be exactly the same, but the way that you tell the story can be different.
REBIND: It’s all about context, right.
Brooke: It’s all about context. And so what I would say is, what is the purpose of the gold people in the astral plane, for example. And they were like, “I don’t think we need to explain that,” and I’m like, “No, we don’t need to explain it, but we need to know.”
REBIND: ‘We’ need to have a frame of context, controlling the perspective for the player.
Brooke: And from a creator point of view, you have to know what you’re doing, but you don’t have to explain everything to the, yknow, the person person that you’re telling it to, the player. So I think that’s an interesting difference that I would draw, sometimes we would say, “But it doesn’t matter because it’s weird, and we don’t need an explanation,” and I’m like, “Yes, we do, we need to know, but we don’t have to tell the player,” and they’re like, “Ahhh, yeah, okay okay.” So then the reason that you don’t need to tell the player but you need to know is because that consistency comes through underneath the subtext anyway, and sometimes you can tell if someone’s just put some weird stuff in the game and they don’t know why it’s there.
REBIND: I think that’s why there’s a distinction to be made between CONTROL and something like the SCP Project, because there’s so many people loosely associated and there’s no cohesive project, you get that problem of people throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. Whereas it works in CONTROL because of the fact that you can tell there’s that behind the scenes consistency, everything’s a part of a greater world that’s paying attention to its positional awareness.
So, you also did narrative work on Florence.
Brooke: I did!
REBIND: What was it like coming from that into this?
Brooke: Super interesting! A lot of my background is in consulting on narrative and working with smaller projects [like] that and The Gardens Between, and I knew that basically I wanted to level up my career, and have more to do with a larger game’s narrative. I actually got a grant from Film Victoria, a Women in Game’s grant designed to advance the career of women in games, and I used that to go to Remedy initially… well I reached out to a bunch of studios, and they said, ‘Yes, come!’ and I did and I saw how much there is to learn, like things that you don’t learn on Florence or The Gardens Between is casting sheets, working with actors, recording dialogue, cost and budget around the amount of lines that we can have in a game, localization, subtitling, writing narrative documents, keeping track of narrative documents, putting them in the world. Anything from the spreadsheet about what all the narrative documents will cover, then what documents have been written, then what documents have been recorded, then what documents have been put in the world.
I was constantly astounded by the small incremental work that actually went into creating a narrative object and putting it into the game, it was insane. I can also see why Mountains went with a very considered, small 2D experience that [uses] mechanics to tell the story as opposed to a full scale voice acting production, right? I guess what I’m saying is that I had more appreciation for the scale of narrative. And then what you can do that’s cheaper to tell stories and more effective, but I also learned about other disciplines. For example, Remedy has a room of people that do lighting, like that’s all they do, they do lighting. I’m like, we have four, five, to ten people working on Florence, five to ten people who do lighting as a job- as a five days a week job, it was really cool! I got to work with the sound designers, and like […] OK, this is interesting, if we changed a character’s shoes, the sound team has to change all the sounds for that character when they walk on different surfaces.
And then my job now entails creating a list of animations for the animation team to be mocapped in our studio downstairs and cleaned up. Y’know, it’s, yeah, it’s significant. I’ve learned so much in the last twelve months.
REBIND: That’s amazing. Remedy is probably one of the better places we can think of to pick up those skills, because it seems like they’re pretty good about giving you the tools, resources, organizational structure you need. Remedy takes their time.
Brooke: To an extent you can shape the role that you want to have, so for example, I said I’m interested in the side missions in the motels, can I take them on? and they’re like, “Yep, go for it,” and I’m like OK, so if you can work on what you’re passionate about, that works really well.
REBIND: Can you talk a little more about what you did with the motel sequences?
Brooke: So the motel sequences are interesting because they’re a design solution, which is: “How do we move the player from one part of the Oldest House to another because it’s big,” but also it was an idea that came from our world director, thinking about transient spaces, and he pitched it as a motel that, that’s got that transient Americana vibe to it. And so then these were created in the game, and then because more production was happening they had sort of been a little forgotten, they were still there, but there was more that was intended to be done with them. And I said, “Hey, I’ve noticed that someone’s not looking at these, can I look at them?” and then I went and spoke to Sam, and Stewart, and Mikael, the game director, got their creative vision for it, created a powerpoint presentation that said, “This is the the thing, the mood the creative director and game director want, here are some references,” then I spoke to each level designer, because they’re in different parts of the game, about what kind of puzzle we could put in there. I pitched them ideas for puzzles, not… particularly great ones but y’know they got better over time.
REBIND (Catherine): You’re responsible for the upside down room I had to deal with! [laughs]
Brooke: Yes! Yeah! Haha, I’m responsible for that!
And that was really funny too, because where do we put the key? Because the key has to consistently be on the desk, but then y’know sometimes the key would be moved, and I would message the level designer and say we have to be consistent, let’s put the key back on the desk. And they’re like, “Cool, but I thought we could put it here…” and I’m like nooo, let’s move it back. And then I worked with the sound designer on what it sounds like when you pick up the key, and what it sounds like when you tune all the radios in together. Basically what I did- I was the narrative connective tissue that brought everyone together to set the tone, then kept track of them. Each week I’d download a build, play the motels, then go talk to people about what needed to change, what needed to go in, what to fix, what’s broken.
REBIND: You have this fantastic interdisciplinary, interdepartmental role. It’s nice to see it appreciated, a lot of companies just say ‘you wear many hats’ and they don’t always give you a specific role for that.
Brooke: Although I have to say not every narrative designer at Remedy does exactly the same thing. So for example, Sinikka has a very good attention to detail and she even does some of the editing to the scripts.
REBIND: Going back to inspirations for a bit, how much JG Ballard is in the game?
Brooke: Oh, interesting, not much actually. That wasn’t talked about as a reference, but I totally see the reference. It might’ve been, I definitely think Sam has read JG Ballard, but I’m not sure.
REBIND: There’s definitely a lot of moments in CONTROL that pull us back to moments in High Rise. The visual overlap and narrative overlap, Ballard does this very- the dialogue with Jessie has this very Ballardian pacing and cadence, it’s slightly off and stilted. And the internal monologues, and how everyone is very much so cooperating and has their own objectives and personal goals, but not necessarily in a way that is antagonistic to each other, more like people bumping into each other in a dark room.
Brooke: Right! Interesting, that’s a cool description- it didn’t come up, but I wouldn’t doubt that Sam has taken some inspiration from all of those. It is part of his style, when I was first reading the scripts, I felt it was even a bit Hardboiled in a way. The way that Jessie talks, the cutoff sentences, stuff like that.
REBIND: Do you know how much narrative has changed over the course of the game’s development?
Brooke: It’s hard for me to say because I came in the last year, so a lot of it had been nailed down in terms of what the summaries of all the missions were. It’s hard to say, the general structure and idea for the story didn’t change really. But there might have been some scenes that were in one place but had to be moved to another, or things like that. I can’t think of anything specifically. The world was definitely being built before the scripts were being written, because that was very instrumental in the building of the world.
REBIND: It’s one of those game ideas where you get a picture in your head and then you chase that mind painting.
REBIND: Who was responsible for- we talked about the synchronicity dept, the luck labs, things like that… CONTROL touches on a lot of esoteric, fringe science, the occult. What kind of people were involved in terms of researching those things? Because a lot of those are clearly well researched. Where does that all come together?
Brooke: I think that was a large part of what the narrative team did, I mean, we went and saw movies together and sort of talked about them, or we researched different books or read the same books, but also there was an inspiration channel in our slack where everyone kind of posts things that have to do with weird things happening in the world or news articles coming out that have come out that are really odd.
REBIND: What was interesting to us was this sort of clinical vernacular employed in a lot of places, that’s what kind of caught our attention after the synchronicity lab. There’s an enemy encounter where he’s a doctorate in… Parakinesethesology..?
Brooke: That was a lot of the writers and the narrative team, Ben… Clay, and Angel, Sinikka, Anna, they had a lot to do with that. I wasn’t a part of that earlier world creation, department stuff, a lot of that was already there, but that was interesting coming onboard to, because I was like, “So… Parakinesthesology… like what is that?” and I had to like, learn a lot of the stuff that had been created, it was interesting.
REBIND: Normally when people want to approach the occult, fringe sciences- they have a tendency to portray it as ‘Here’s the wacky mad doctor, here to do his thing!’ This is so much more serious, regimented, yet aloof and lackadaisical at times- Dr. Darling really represents that aloofness. It must have been fun to come in and see that established.
Brooke: It was one of the reasons why I joined, like, when I was working there for four weeks as an artist in residence. They showed me the pitch for the game, and I actually got to sit with the writers getting onboarded essentially on the project, Sam and Anna would pitch and talk about the game. It was really cool to hear all the questions that writers have who have worked on big games before, like that was really cool. “How many minutes of cinematics do we have?” “How many lines are we expecting in total for the game?” “How many missions do we think there might be?” All of that was really interesting. A part of that was a pitch from Sam about the story and a pitch from Mikael about the game in general, and, actually, the game director did a creative presentation of the game showing the direction of the key pillars of the game and all of that has remained the same pretty much. That was a solid vision from him that worked really well.
REBIND: That pitching process must have been intensive, CONTROL is very much so a quine- it’s very self-encompassing… like, how do you-
Brooke: How do you pitch it! [laughs] How do you explain this… It’s not easy!
REBIND: You could elevator pitch it, but it would have to be an infinite hypercube, right?
Brooke: Yeah, It’s tricky! I certainly think there might have been times on the project where like, I’m not sure what we’re making. But then it came together really well, I mean… I think it’s also interesting that like I said, people who directly interact with the narrative for their job on a day-to-day over the course of three years- of course the story shifts a little bit, or we have to move things.
REBIND: Which can have cascading ramifications.
Brooke: Yeah, with the story, with the world, clarifying what black rock is, what it does, what should be in a safe room what should not be in a safe room, what safe rooms are used for. These environment and concept artists are very detail oriented- like our concept artist Leo went to every room in the game and said, “Move this, this doesn’t work, this is visually not working,” concept art, screenshot, feedback, remove this, this is a chair from research [that] should not be in the maintenance sector. Very, very detailed.
Our world director would create visual design documents about what lines should be on the floor in the maintenance sector, all that kind of stuff.
REBIND: I saw the other day that Ewan Wilson had made a twitter thread on the chairs in the game, and somebody had found the actual 1960s design of the chairs in the executive branch. My favorite part of this was that the person was like, ‘They really know their chairs!’
Brooke: Do you have the thread? Can you send that to me? The environment artists love that.
REBIND: That’s what happens when you do things like hiring actual architects- those people are VERY intentional in their design choices.
Brooke: They are! And I think that speaks to Remedy as a company where everyone is really into their job and really respects what they do. Yeah, I think there’s a lot of love in the studio for the things we create.
REBIND: We could tell that even when we went back and looked at the Alan Wake behind the scene video interviews included in the game. Just watching each individual staff profile you can see how casually confident they are in it, they just want to talk about the finite details and take you into the weeds, it’s not this big spectacle.
Brooke: I also love that my day-to-day involves having a meeting about ‘Astral planes!’ [laughs]
Brooke: Let’s have a meeting about, I dunno, Underhill! or let’s have a meeting about Emily pope, Or let’s have a meeting about…
REBIND: Extremely jealous of you being in the position to have meetings like that.
Brooke: I do pinch myself sometimes, I have to say.
REBIND: The understanding and the weird goes beyond ghosts and dimension hopping things like that, it even goes into Memetics and normal cognitive hazards we deal with every day, and the strange aspects of how you deal with something like an egregore. That speaks to us.
Brooke: Thank you!
REBIND: The hotel parts were definitely our favorite part of the game. It’s the subdued stuff that jumped out at us, and that part had a lot of nuance
Brooke: One of the things I pushed for that was Jessie not having abilities in the motel. That was a little bit contentious because we shouldn’t take things away from the player- and I said, seriously, I think it will add to the tone because it’s transient.
REBIND: It makes the motel almost feel sinister in a way, or as if it has something like a mind of its own. You can hear these people on the outside, “Oh I think this place is closed, let’s find somewhere else,” or there was one part where there was a pool of blood under the door and a man screaming inside. I think it was Emily Pope in the game that says early on, “It’s weird outside, it’s not as good as life in here.” Even though it’s in such a weird, byzantine place, that moment in the hotel kind of makes you feel like a normal person in a disconcerting way that book ends [Emily Pope’s] statement. That wraps up our questions, thank you!
Brooke: Thank you!
CONTROL is easily, in the opinion of RE:BIND, one of the most important games of the decade, if not ever. If you haven’t made the time to play it yet, you absolutely should. We’re so grateful to Remedy and to Brooke Maggs for putting together a wonderful game with such incredible people. Sam Lake and his team continue to make some of the most cutting edge narratives in games, and we can’t wait to see what they come up with next over the years
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.