Remedy Entertainment’s latest title, Control, is a game that is centered around the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), a secret U.S. government agency tasked with containing and studying phenomena which violate the laws of reality.
During PAX West 2019, OnlySP had the opportunity to sit down with Brooke Maggs, the narrative designer for Control, to gather insight on her experience during the game’s development.
OnlySP: You’ve worked on other games such as Florence, The Gardens Between, and Paperbark. Can you describe how your previous experiences prepared you to work on Control?
Maggs: So my previous experiences on these games have been in a narrative design role, but they were also games that had little text or speech with them. So moving to Control was really interesting because it’s a larger narrative team and obviously we have a budget for actors and voices and all kinds of things like that. However, my experience working with those games with such a constrained budget for narrative meant that I had already worked with other teams and other disciplines to tell the story.
I was used to the script not being the main way we tell the story, which meant that I was able to pull together a bunch of groups of people to help design the narrative around side missions, for example, and talk about how can work more of the story in the environment and into the way players interact with the story. For example, in the motel sequences, there are those ritual-like puzzles that I helped to narrative design, that go from anything like the sound design, to the puzzle design, to the lighting. My background gave me more vocabulary in other disciplines to tell a story, and also an understanding of scriptwriting and narrative objects, which we did in Control, which I learned more about at Remedy. I’ve been there for about a year now and working on Control has been incredible.
OnlySP: So it looks like you started off on smaller indie teams, and Control seems like the first AAA game that you’ve worked on. Can you discuss how different it is going from working on smaller indie teams to working with Remedy, one of the strongest narrative-focused development companies in the world?
Maggs: It’s different because we have more budget and scope, which meant I learned about working with actors and what actors can bring to a character. For example, we had ideas about who Jesse, Emily, and Helen were, but when our voice director came in and worked with the characters’ backgrounds, and then seeing how many different ways there is for an actor to say a line that can make such a difference to the character, that was super interesting.
It was also really interesting to see how much writing goes into a game that, of course, I hadn’t seen before on smaller games. Not only for script during the main mission, but side missions, for the narrative objects, for the audio logs, for the video. Seeing how we organized the production for the darling videos, for example—all of that is live, so we had sets built, we had to make sure that all the details were correct, we had to have a way to track all the narrative items. So all of this stuff was super interesting to see how narrative and world can be built at a large scale, and I’ve learned so much.
OnlySP: And going off that, I read one of your articles on Medium where you mentioned that for The Gardens Between, you were the only writer on the team and responsible for the entire narrative. How is that different compared to being on a team with other writers like Sam Lake, Anna Megill, and Clay Murphy?
Maggs: It was awesome, actually, because it was so nice to not be the only narrative person. It meant that I got to learn more from Sam and Clay on how they approach story, being both writers. I’m a writer myself, but I’m a narrative designer for games, which means that I don’t do a lot of the writing, but I do a lot of the play experience of the game. We spent many workshops deciding what to name everything in the Bureau and what to name the crafting materials. I really learned about being clear and specific, with everything having a purpose. And also, I learned about communicating the narrative with other members of the team, and I also realized that to write for a game, the writers very much have to be in the heads of the characters. I realized that one of my strengths is being able to imagine myself in the heads of the players.
I was often walking around the studio a lot more than being at my desk, and talking to other teams and keeping them up to date with changes in the narrative, and giving them ideas for what to put in; for example, Trench’s office—talking to environment artists about that, talking through those objects. Working with a whole narrative team was awesome, because we got to bounce around ideas about what we could do with the story—I hadn’t had that sounding board before—but we also got to reflect on books and other game stories that we love and talk about what we wanted to do with the story together, so that was awesome.
OnlySP: With a game like Control, which is much more action-based than what you’ve worked on in the past, did the action-adventure game genre that Control is in present any unique challenges for you narrative-wise?
Maggs: Yes, it did! It was challenging because, for example, there are areas in the Bureau where we have combat encounters. If there are combat encounters in that area, then ideally we don’t have too many narrative objects lying around because of the launch ability and because everything is physical and reactive. We didn’t want players to miss an audio log because they threw it across the room and destroyed it, or something like that. [laughs] So we really had to think about where to place those and how to pace that.
Also, the reality of action games is that you are shooting a lot of people, and so the framing of that is interesting, especially because we wanted to make sure early on that players knew the Jesse was shooting were not saveable. We wanted to avoid that ludonarrative dissonance that Jesse is a good person, so why is she going through all these people? So that was interesting. But also the complexity of the gunplay and abilities was really cool to see. It’s cool to actually unveil more about a character as they get stronger, so that’s a metaphor I haven’t worked with before.
In Florence or in The Gardens Between, it’s calm puzzle solving; it’s based on observation. The whole game mechanic is completely different, whereas, in Control, the mechanic is using your supernatural abilities and guns to confront an otherworldly force. That puts the player in a different mode, I think, and so we had to find times when they’re ready for narrative and when they have to be on for gameplay.
OnlySP: In Remedy’s previous games, such as Alan Wake and Quantum Break, they were much more linear. With Control, though, the game is more open and presents the opportunity for things like side quests, which include additional information about the story and characters. How do you balance between giving the player enough of the story to keep them interested, while at the same time providing compelling side quest content to get them interested in doing them?
Maggs: We haven’t done side quests or conversations with characters before. Because the way Control plays is totally different—it’s a Metroidvania open-ended world—we had to make sure that players, for example, didn’t discover things in a side mission that spoiled the story; because they could potentially do the Shield side mission early on or they could go back and do it much later in the narrative. So making sure there wasn’t anything that spoiled the story was a challenge.
I think, too, the challenge is that we want players to explore but then also wanted them to have more control [laughs] of the story. We wanted players this time to be able to decide if they wanted to pursue more of the story content, and also wanted to encourage discussion of the story outside of the game. While it can be a little bit hard to know that players might miss some of the side narrative content, they might rediscover that. They can even, perhaps, access it once the game is finished; they can go back and explore and find them. There was more to keep track of.
Quantum Break was very linear: combat encounter, story, combat encounter, story. We knew where the camera would be, we knew where the player would be. But now we don’t always know, and so everyone’s play experience can be slightly different depending on how they build the story around the main missions themselves, which I think is really cool. A lot of people have been really praising that part of Control: that they have more ability to delve deeper if they want to. They can ask characters more about who they are, and what they do.
That was another challenge because we are a new IP, and we’re building this world with a lot of concepts like the Astral Plane, Objects of Power, Altered Items, the Hotline. Players might get a bit overwhelmed initially about what are all these things and how are they working. We wanted to pace that information in the main story but also build it out in the larger narrative objects, whereas if you have a more linear game, you have to make sure those concepts are definitely hit on because there may not be an opportunity to go back and ask about them again. So there’s a lot going on there.
OnlySP: So one of the things that stood out to me about Control was that it had a female protagonist. On your website, you mentioned that you also write feminist short stories. I was just curious if you can discuss whether you’ve brought your background and feminist sensibilities into Control?
Maggs: I would have loved to, but unfortunately, I didn’t do much of the writing for her. However, I have to say that Remedy was very keen to have a female protagonist. Our history is largely white male protagonists and they were very much of the opinion that it was about time. That was really encouraging to me, and one of the reasons why I joined Remedy to work on Control. I have to say that, from a feminist sensibility standpoint, Sinikka [Annala], the other narrative designer, and I, had discussions with Clay and Sam about how to represent Jesse and we certainly gave feedback from a female perspective on her, and also on the other female characters.
I love that Jesse is the active female protagonist but she’s also not the only woman in the world. I think sometimes we play games and we’re like “this is great, there’s a main female character” and then the world around her is still largely male; whereas Jesse has Emily Pope to talk to and Helen Marshall, we even meet another character, [Dr.] Underhill in the research sector who is very much doing her own thing quite confidently. It’s cool to see there’s more than one woman in the Bureau. Also, the Oldest House and the Bureau of Control, we’ve made quite clear, have largely been operated by men for a very long time.
The point of Jesse being a woman, being from the outside—right from her costume, to how she approaches the unexplained—is contradictory to the Bureau. Everyone is in business wear, and Jesse is in a leather jacket and jeans, and coming in and shaking things up. So that’s a cool feminist sensibility that underlies that as well that I really encouraged.
OnlySP: You mentioned that some games, such as Firewatch and Journey, are examples of games with great stories. Can I ask you what are some of the games that inspire you the most?
Maggs: Recently I’ve been blown away by Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I think [Ninja Theory] do such incredible things with the story. They do an overlay of live-action, as we’ve done, and Senua as a character is super interesting. I think the amount of time that we get to spend with her is really well done. Right from the game mechanics, you really feel like things are at stake when you play as her. I think it even works so well that there aren’t heaps of characters, really.
I think Control would be a completely different game if we just spend that amount of time with Jesse, for example. I think the characterization in [Hellblade] is incredible. More recently I also played a small indie title called Virginia, which was really interesting with the way the game used camera angles to jump-cut into different parts of the story. You’ve put me on the spot a little bit! They’re the two main ones at the moment that I’ve enjoyed.
OnlySP: And lastly, I want to ask, we’ve already had DLC confirmed for Control. From a narrative standpoint, can you tell us what can we expect from the DLC?
Maggs: I can’t tell you too much, I’m afraid! [laughs] Let’s just say we’re going to address some of the loose ends that we left at the end. It’s not going to be a complete cliffhanger with absolutely no answers. We’ve definitely hinted at things that we’re going to tackle in the next two expansions. I can’t wait for players to play them!