TA Catches Up With Remedy's Mikko Rautalahti

By Mark Delaney, 2 years ago
Back in 2012, during the run-up to Alan Wake's American Nightmare, Remedy's story team manager Mikko Rautalahti stopped by the TrueAchievements digital office to talk about video games as a storytelling vehicle. We caught up with Mikko recently to pick up that conversation three years later to see what has changed in the medium since then. He was understandably tight-lipped about Remedy's next project, Quantum Break -- they've got a big Gamescom show coming up -- but we also spoke at length about the studio itself amid its 20th anniversary, as well as the legacy and hopeful future of Alan Wake.


Thanks for coming back to talk, Mikko. Last time we had you here we never got to hear your origin story with Remedy. Tell us how you got started with the studio. Since then, how has the studio changed and what has remained the same?

I started working at Remedy in early 2008. I came in around the time we were nailing down what Alan Wake would actually end up being. Early on, we were still bouncing around a lot of story ideas that we ultimately abandoned, many of which were fundamentally very different from what we ended up going with. So it was a pretty good time for me to come in, as a writer; I got in on the ground floor for the game we actually ended up making. I actually started off in a freelance contractor capacity, and as the project progressed, it was obvious that it was a good fit, and I turned into an actual employee. It’s been quite a ride!

Remedy has changed a great deal since those days. We’re much bigger now than we were at the time, for one thing; we just have a lot more talent in the house now, and thus the level of quality we can achieve is so much higher. Which is a good thing, since Quantum Break is a much bigger project than anything we’ve done before, and the expectations and the level of ambition for it – both internally and externally – are on a whole another level. It’s fair to say that the pressure is much higher than on Alan Wake; it’s the inevitable result of having a bigger ship to steer.

At the same time, we’re still very much trying to make something that feels like a Remedy game – something with cool action gameplay, featuring interesting characters, something that has character. That hasn’t changed. I hope we’re getting better at it, game by game.

Quantum Break will be shown at Microsoft's Gamescom conference this August.Quantum Break will be shown at Microsoft's Gamescom conference this August.

Quantum Break will be Remedy's fifth console release in 21 years when it hits stores next year. We see a lot of studios debuting games every year or two. What are the advantages to pacing out a body of work the way Remedy has. What are the disadvantages?

I like to think we’re taking a quality over quantity approach to game development. We’ve worked on new IP more often than not, and creating that from scratch takes a long time. A good example of that was the original Max Payne – that game took five years to make, and it changed quite a bit during development. But the sequel, despite being a far more sophisticated game in many ways, only took two years. At that point Remedy already knew what worked and what didn’t, what the tone was, what were the targets that needed hitting. Alan Wake was a new IP, and nailing that down took a long time. Quantum Break’s another new one, and we’ve tried a lot of different things with it. It’s a very iterative process, and you keep testing every new idea to see how it works. You learn a lot that way, both about making games in general, and the game under development in particular. Even if it takes time.

We’ve built a lot of our own technology over the years, going from Max Payne to Alan Wake to Quantum Break. We’re calling it the Northlight Engine now, but you can sort of trace its genealogy – and certainly its philosophy – all the way to the original Max Payne.

There seem to so many passionate fans for Alan Wake. How has the transition been for Remedy as you all step out of the shadow of Alan's tweed jacket to introduce a new IP?

It’s been interesting, possibly in the “may you live in interesting times” sense. The biggest change going from Alan Wake to Quantum Break has probably been just sheer growth. We can do a lot more than we could before, and I think you can see that in the material we’ve released this far. At the same time staying organized is a challenge, there’s just a lot more people you need to coordinate. We can get much more work done than before, but you have to approach internal communication differently. The days when everybody in the team could get in the same meeting room and just have a discussion about something are gone. We do still have those discussions, and we work hard to find ways to ensure everybody’s voice is heard, but our sheer numbers have an impact on how that happens.

When we last spoke we discussed the state of video games as a storytelling vehicle. You said the standards are "improving fast but the average is still pretty low". What improvements and quality stories have you seen since then?

A lot has happened since 2012; storytelling has really improved and we’ve seen some real gems over the past few years. A game like The Last of Us is an obvious highlight; it’s a mature game that really tells a story, and puts it on the forefront – but at the same time, they also have very compelling gameplay. It’s a real masterpiece, and you can tell that Naughty Dog makes storytelling a priority.

Good storytelling is always a huge challenge; it isn’t very easy under the best of circumstances, and it’s especially hard in a “triple-A” environment, where everything is so time-consuming and the standards and expectations are very high. Story moments – whether they’re in cinematics or in gameplay – tend to all be custom work, so you need custom animation, custom cameras, actor performances, custom lighting, etc. That takes a lot of work, a lot of iteration, so it’s a big commitment for the team. But that’s where memorable moments come from, too.

An added challenge is that scenes that involve basic combat gameplay are easy to read even when they are unfinished, so people understand them and have confidence in them. Scenes that are based on emotion, atmosphere and nuances don’t typically work at all in their early incarnations; a lot of polish has to go in for them to work. That means people might not see their worth and actual impact right away, so you have to defend those scenes – and the stories associated with them – in a way that isn’t a concern with more action-oriented scenes. Storytelling is tricky, and you can’t do it well without a studio-wide commitment to it.

Five years later, fans still want more Wake. So does Remedy.Five years later, fans still want more Wake. So does Remedy.

You're a big fan of indie gaming. What is it you admire about that approach to development and what are some of your favorites?

Yeah, I love indie games! It’s one of those tradeoffs where you don’t have as much in the way of resources, but you do have a lot less interference and creative freedom. A lot more experimentation happens in that space, and the results are often fascinating, even if they are kind of rough around the edges.

As for favorites, that could be a long list, but I’ll try to pick a few – there’s a lot of titles I really adore, games that stick with me in a way a lot of big games don’t. Something like The Stanley Parable, for example; that’s a great, very cleverly game that really takes advantage of established video game conventions and turns them on their head. Or Gone Home, which is touching and relevant and significant; it’s actually got something to say, and it says it elegantly. Or Papers Please, which just puts in an untenable moral position and doesn’t offer you an out. I like that sort of thing.

Remedy's debut game, 1996's Death Rally, was recently remade for iOS. You guys also released a made-for-mobile strategy game, Agents of Storm, just last fall. Do you see mobile gaming as the future, a fad, or will consoles and mobile continue to coexist?

People love to get so alarmist about this kind of thing – you know, “OH NO, THIS WILL BE THE END OF CONSOLE GAMING.” That’s ridiculous. It’s just a question of demand, different games for different spaces; what I want to play while commuting might not be what I want to play at home – although the lines between those are blurring. Something like Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a good example of that.

But I think there’s always going to be a market for games that really engage you, with characters you like, and moments that stick with you. People want to have cool experiences, and while many mobile games are great for passing time, they might not be experiences you want to share with a friend, or have an animated conversation about. I think we want our water cooler moments. Not all mobile games are built with that in mind.

Alan Wake just recently celebrated its five year anniversary. Many people look back on it fondly and consider it a cult classic. When Remedy looks back on Alan Wake, what do they see?

Well, personally, I’m really proud of that game and the team that made it. It’s not perfect, but we wanted to build an atmosphere and a mood, and a game with character, and I think we really succeeded in those things. It stands out from the crowd.

Character, I think, is something this industry is always kind of struggling with. The creative process is often so difficult and expensive that you tend to gravitate towards safety. People are averse to risk. That’s understandable, but with safety often comes blandness. Alan Wake isn’t bland, not as a character and not as a game. I’m happy about that. There’s a lot we could do with that in the future, and I hope we get the chance.

 Setting and atmosphere were main characters in <i>Alan Wake</i>. Setting and atmosphere were main characters in Alan Wake.

Lastly, because this is an Achievement-hunting community, tell us what you consider to be your best achievement at Remedy, either personally or as a team?

Oh, geez, save the hardest one for last, why don’t you? The thing about Finns is, we’re kind of bad at talking about our achievements. I could come up with a miracle solution to climate change that would fix everything once and for all, and I’d probably be all “ohhh, I guess that’s kinda okay.”

It’s hard to nail down one thing, but here’s something that I’m really happy about: what we’re doing now, what we can accomplish with our technology, skill and dedication, is something we couldn’t really even dream of working on Alan Wake. We have come such a long way, and I don’t mean that just in terms of what we can put on the screen, but also in terms of how we work. There’s room for improvement, but we’ve learned a lot – and we keep learning. I like that. That feels good to me.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.