Control Game Director Mikael Kasurinen Talks Twin Peaks, Tarkovsky and Reinventing Telekinesis

Editor’s note: Here’s an unpublished interview I found on an old Google Drive (how apt!) with Control Game Director Mikael Kasurinen, conducted during Gamescom 2018. I had just seen a hands-off preview of the game before we spoke. Thanks to Emma Withington for setting it up. 

JO: In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about the open-ended structure of Control, can you talk about what that will involve. Can you get lost inside The Oldest House?

MK: Yes, absolutely, getting lost is great! That’s the world that we want to create, it’s kind of inviting you to do that exploration. Everything that you see has meaning and has a reason to exist. Structurally that’s very different to games that we’ve done before, and that was a very deliberate choice. We wanted to go ‘world-first’.

It’s all about the world, an interesting and compelling place that you want to be in, and it inspires awe in the sense that it’s fascinating and beautiful but terrifying and dangerous. It has that unsettling unpredictability about it. You have to survive here but investigating and exploring it is the core of the game.

JO: The main thing I took away from that is that it’s very… you know Twin Peaks, I feel it’s very inspired by Twin Peaks, right?

MK: Which season?

JO: The Return, maybe? All of it kind of, but there was that bit with the overlay of the face? You know. Like the idea of a bureau and a service weapon and an agent. Lots of recurring motifs of Americana. I’ve not seen many games that drink from the well of David Lynch so it was really awesome to see that. Could you say it was an influence?

MK: Absolutely, I mean in many ways I think Control is an ultimate Remedy game because it’s core idea is to be able to encapsulate concepts and things that we’ve dealt with in the past. Like if you take Alan Wake you can see the Stephen King and Twin Peaks influence. This idyllic town and so on.

Here, especially when you look at Twin Peaks Season 3 which is part of our overall inspiration of “The New Weird”, you know. We have influences like Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey and the classic novel Roadside Picnic or Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

They are dealing with things beyond human comprehension, the surreal, utterly alien, but also at the same time captivating, and you kind of yearn to find out more.

JO: That’s exactly how I felt at the end of the demo!

MK: That’s exactly what we’re going for! Twin Peaks Season 3 primarily, got to be one of the most mind-blowing things I’ve ever seen.

JO: Scarred me for life!

MK: (laughter) Yeah, what David Lynch has been doing, it’s a huge part of our inspiration.

JO: And what’s the key thing you draw from that?

MK: Whilst I don’t think anyone can really say how David Lynch works, it is about embracing a certain kind of… it’s really hard to explain but you need to find a balance between establishing the strange but there needs to be an element that needs to be relatable. There’s a sense of a connection. You don’t want to be on-the-nose. It’s something we’ve struggled with, as we don’t want to be like, random, you know

I would say a key part of our thinking is that we’re excited by contrast. The mundane meets the strange. We have this very bureaucratic organization in the game, doing research, everyday work using science to understand the supernatural. It’s a mundane environment that lies with the strange.

JO: My favourite scenes from the Control demo were where I couldn’t comprehend what was going on. I don’t think a lot of games lean into that freedom, that surreal absurd side. It’s awesome to see Remedy do that.

MK: I think a huge part of that is also that, we set out to do very specific with Quantum Break. We wanted to go as far as possible with cinematic storytelling. Using different mediums to tell a story.

Yet with Control, we have a creative freedom where we can go all the way. We don’t have to compromise. We’re not looking at this game as something that is necessarily for everybody, and accepting that on our side has been a huge thing. We want to create an experience that is captivating and mysterious. For some people, it might be hard to get into, but that’s ok!

JO: I believe that you have this creative freedom now because of Remedy’s storied reputation of creating unique narrative games. Story-led, single protagonist driven stuff. What do you think it is about Remedy Games that purvey that sense of melancholy. Alan Wake has it, Max Payne has it. What is it about Remedy and the way you operate that creates this?

MK: I think it’s a desire to find a human element in the world of games. Human elements are something you rarely see in your everyday show and so on. When you look at True Detective, they find elements in life that are subtle and complicated and maybe sometimes bizarre, and that’s what we strive to find, and it feels real because it’s something that you don’t expect.

We want to find that rawness in humans, and in Control, even what the bureau does, you could easily see it as an evil thing that uses dangerous powers, but its way more complicated, there are human stories behind that. We want to show these weird stories, and that’s what makes it human.

Another favourite example I draw from is No Country For Old Men, which deals with a certain aspect in life where you’ve had it, you can’t take it anymore and you choose to walk away and leave that world behind. It’s a human thing we see very rarely, the in-between.

JO: Specifically with the open-ended situation. How are you going to pack in the same narrative punch with the Metroidvania-style setup? Are there any new features you’re packing in to create story where in other Metroidvania-evocative games that doesn’t exist?

MK: Ok, this is a tricky question and I want to answer it carefully. So in our previous games, there’s this mentality we often have where you understand what’s happening and why. And you can take all of that and internalize and have a full understand whats going on.

That’s great, but at the same time, it required us to think about the story in a really linear way. This kind of structure that we have in Control we obviously have to look at it in a different way. We want to retain that sense of depth and richness of the world but we have to express it in a different way. It needs to be handled through a different way of thinking.

We need to be a bit more restrained, a bit more subdued and rely on subtext, and through that, we invite the player to pay attention, investigate themselves and find out.

We’re not spoon-feeding or hand-holding anymore. You have an overall understanding of who you are, what’s at stake, but how you go about it? That’s on you, and you need to figure it out and pay attention. To fully understand the entire world, you have to go off the beaten path.

You can run through the campaign if you want to, but I don’t recommend that. You’ll find secrets and stories we want to tell through the environment. It will paint an interesting and complex picture of the Bureau.

JO: In regards to the story and particularly the Federal Bureau of Control, could you talk about the state of the in-world society that has led to this kind of organization?

MK: So in all of our games we’ve always had the same strand, we always we want to establish a relatable world, but we add something supernatural or strange to it. Even with Max Payne, it’s a relatable world, but we told it via film noir so it has this strange feeling to it. With Quantum Break, you could say we chose to be a bit more mainstream with these elements.

With the Federal Bureau of Control, we still have the relatable world but it was so important to us that the Bureau feels like your everyday US agency. You could hear that name in real life and think it’s something to do with infrastructure.

That was so important to us to make it feel real, we spent a long time designing the logo, focusing on its clunkiness and ugliness, the procedures and bureaucracy, it’s all injected into this world so it would be like a real bureau

That’s what I think makes this whole thing work, the conflict of the mundane and the strange. What they’re doing if you scratch the surface is weird but it’s an everyday agency with real people and real jobs.

JO: It captures that vibe of like going to pick up a drivers license or to a council building to pick up a form, but you notice something strange in the corner and you’re like “hmm what’s that?” right?

MK: Yeah, like there’s a building shifting or something odd is happening but surrounding it is this bureaucracy that obscures that.

JO: Was there like an internal prototype where you created something and you were like *click* Control?

MK: So after Quantum Break, it was important to me that where we go next has to be world-oriented, and I’d always been captivated by Telekinesis. It’s something that’s interesting, that I want to explore further. That was the basis of the first prototypes we made.

There are previous games that have done telekinesis, Psi-Ops, Jedi Knight, but they handle it in a kind of, you know, Gamistic way. There are only certain objects that you can pick up, you know which ones you can grab, and the world feels like a stage that has been set up for your abilities.

I wanted to break that thinking, and the world revolves around the idea, you know, Control, controlling the environment. Everything is destructible, you can use any object you want, gather objects to shield yourself. Every door is real, nothing is a backdrop and all is connected and thought-through.

That was the basis of the core idea. Another thing that I thought was important was to focus on the questions of the player. It’s not about looking at the environment like should I use the chair or the table, that’s a meaningless choice, the bigger question is ‘do you want to attack that enemy’

So we worked on our algorithm so that the selection of the object is not really important, what is important is what you choose to do and at what cadence and pace. So we built a system to allow players to make decisions like this in a snap second, and that is the basis for the combat experience.

It’s fast-moving, fluid, and physics-based, you might use TK or use your transforming service weapon, and the enemies can do that too, destructing parts of the environment, using the sandbox. This is an action game at the end of the day, it’s about conflict, though there are puzzles and intrigue and mystery, so we had to make that bit right.

Thanks to Mikael for such an insightful interview! Sorry it took so long to uncover this Altered Item…

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