Sam Lake, gaming’s genre-bending auteur, on breaking reality

Sam Lake, gaming’s genre-bending auteur, on breaking reality

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When Sam Lake writes a video game, he is most interested in asking questions. So I thought it appropriate that my first question to him was one he shouldn’t be able to answer: Is perception reality?

The 53-year-old Finnish director and game creator built a career on making games that question the nature of reality, most notably this year’s “Alan Wake 2” by his studio Remedy Entertainment. The game’s protagonist, a novelist named Alan Wake, haplessly discovers that his writing comes true. Loved ones who were alive are suddenly remembered as long dead. Unfamiliar faces find you familiar. The game makes it impossible to determine which character and story beats are real.

The metatextual joke, of course, is that it’s all fake, because it’s a video game. But for Lake, whose birth name is Sami Antero Järvi (Järvi means Lake), the mysterious nature of reality is serious business. He answered my question with another question.

“Yes and no. There is no one truth in many things. We shape our reality with our perception, but is there even a right, one image?” Lake said. “Questions are more important, I feel, than answers.” This is how he approaches creating stories.

“We should never end up in a situation where everything is wrapped up and there are definite, one true answer,” Lake said. “That’s not interesting. That’s not engaging. That’s not exciting. … Of course it’s a balancing act. There needs to be a map that gives you enough so you build around your theories. But I think you are only engaged as long as you have questions remaining.”

It’s an award-winning philosophy. “Alan Wake 2” just received the Game Awards trophies for best game direction, narrative and art direction. Video games are almost always the product of many people, but Lake — whose education is in literature, not game development — stands out because of an unmistakable, distinctive approach to direction and writing. His work demonstrates an obsession with other media formats like live-action filmmaking and prime time TV, often carrying echoes of exported American pop culture. “Max Payne,” released in 2001, put Lake and Remedy Entertainment on the map, with action gameplay inspired by “The Matrix” and John Woo films; its writing evoked noir detective stories.

End of carousel

But starting with the first Alan Wake game in 2010, Lake’s obsession turned inward. The first game examined the role of archetypes in various cultures, how so many stories often travel similar paths. In 2019, Lake’s last game “Control” addressed this concept directly by name-dropping Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and his theory of the collective unconscious. Jung posits that certain ideas, knowledge and imagery are shared among all humans in a shared genetic well of information, borne of ancestral, ancient experience. It’s about the commonality of heroes, gods and creation myths.

The most enduring image of “Control” was its setting: an exceptionally named government building called the Oldest House, a shape-shifting slab of liminal, impossible space behind its Brutalist walls. Inside, the Federal Bureau of Control, an agency dedicated to studying paranormal activity, neatly categorizes various objects of supernatural power across miles and miles of filing cabinets in sterile office spaces. “Control” is a story about humanity’s instinct to put names to unknown things and categorize intangible dreams and concepts. It is the bureaucratization of beliefs, of turning dreams into departments.

“I think we are prisoners of these ideas, and we have such a strong desire to find the answers and make up the answers. We are very, very eager to create rules and laws and define things,” Lake said. “In fiction and in art, it’s important to try to break out of that. It might be that we are incapable of fully doing that, but the pursuit is important.”

This perspective separates Lake from his creation, Wake. In the games, Wake repeats a mantra in his writing approach: The story must stay true to the genre. He repeats it so often and with such conviction, it’s hard to think he’s wrong, especially as the player controlling Wake. But Lake believes Wake is wrong.

“I feel like Alan Wake’s view in this is quite limited, and that’s one of the interesting flaws in our character,” Lake said. “If you play ‘Alan Wake 2,’ most certainly you will see that when it comes to story and storytelling, it’s not bound by one genre.”

Lake’s confidence was boosted by the success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the 2022 film that won over crowds despite its absurdist approach. “We were already really far into making this, but it gave me confidence into understanding that what we’re doing here, we are doing these things at the right time.”

Lake’s eyes twinkle when he talks about creating postmodern art. Smiles crack easy for him, softening a face that was once famous as the leathery, tight-as-a-fist mug of the depressed and dour Max Payne. It’s a common sight for his colleagues at Remedy Entertainment.

“Sam’s excitement is infectious,” said Molly Maloney, principal narrative designer at Remedy. “You’ll be talking out a scene when suddenly this smile will come across his face, and you know he’s about to drop some brilliant, impossible idea. And because he’s one of the nicest people you’ll meet, you know you’re going to move mountains to make it happen.”

One such moment occurred during the development of “Alan Wake 2,” when Lake insisted that the game contain a musical theatrical performance. That scene, now being celebrated as one of gaming’s best 15 minute sequences in years, was a logistical challenge on top of shooting fake TV commercials, staging a fake late night talk show, and scripting a fake art house cinema horror film. “Alan Wake 2” is a multimedia experience because our world is a multimedia experience.

“You were asking if perception is reality,” Lake said. “If we map out how our daily lives are, we can see how present all of these different mediums are to us, how we experience our day, and what we focus on, they are all present, every day. It’s honest to try to include them into our virtual world … with as much ambition as they are present in our lives and our world. And it’s a very hard task to accomplish.”

Lake conducted this interview in a tailor-fit suit on the evening before the Game Awards, the industry’s ceremony most recently watched by an estimated 118 million online viewers. Lake, known as one of gaming’s best-dressed gentlemen, was coming sartorially correct for the Finnish Consulate General in Los Angeles to celebrate the country’s Independence Day.

Remedy’s games are increasingly leaning into the studio’s Finnish heritage, something that fills Lake with immense pride. He feasted on American idols, but Lake now finds himself a cultural dignitary and representative of his home country. This moment was a long time coming as he faced many questions from fellow Nordic folks about the medium’s legitimacy as a global cultural force.

Despite his interest in other mediums, Lake’s focus and faith stays with games. He’s never been bored, “not a day, not for a second” in his last 28 years of making games.

“I love film, music, reading books, and there are thrilling inspirational things happening, but I feel there are bigger leaps happening within games,” Lake said. “With Alan Wake especially, I have discovered that I can tap into these other mediums and they can be seen as elements inside games, not as a separate medium. All of these mediums can combine to create something new and exciting, something more than the sum of its parts.”

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