Alan Wake 2 and Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 may not have much in common on the surface. One is a dark mystery thriller with a story that unfolds alongside its protagonists minds, while the other is a fast-paced and exhilarating action game about bright and colourful superheroes.
Looking a little deeper reveals several solid similarities though. Developed by Remedy Entertainment and Insomniac Games respectively, Alan Wake 2 and Spider-Man 2 are both narrative-driven adventures, both feature dual protagonists, and both build off stories told previously.
IGN invited Remedy creative director Sam Lake and Insomniac narrative director John McAdam to chat about designing these games, from early development decisions, to dealing with the media, handling complicated narratives, and much more.
John McAdam, Senior Narrative Director, Insomniac Games: Hi, I am John McAdam. I’m senior narrative director at Insomniac Games.
Sam Lake, Creative Director, Remedy: And I’m Sam Lake, the creative director of Remedy.
John McAdam: Let’s talk about Alan Wake 2 and Spider-Man 2.
Sam Lake: Yes. Congrats on shipping, okay?
John McAdam: Congrats to you as well. Yeah, you know what I like is that I think now, the marketing lead times are shorter. It used to be we would announce a game two years out and then we’d talk about it for a long time. I think it’s a little less now. I think there’s so many more games out there.
Sam Lake: Sure.
John McAdam: You know?
Sam Lake: And it’s better that way also the game is more in a form you are actually making.
John McAdam: Yeah, exactly.
Sam Lake: When it used to be like Max Payne or the original Alan Wake, we were already doing a lot of press while we were still figuring it out, or then you end up switching the direction. And then it ends up being: “We said this, but sorry.”
John McAdam: Yeah, I know. How many E3s have you had where you’ve shown something that is not going to be in the game and you’re like, “Okay, well, that’s not going to work.”
Sam Lake: It’s more condensed, but it’s more intense. But also, the closer you get to the end and the more you have done the introductions, the more fun it is to talk about it. Because earlier on it’s like, “It’s these three things, and we are not talking about these things.” Then you are always like, “Okay, yep,” and needing to watch what you say more. But at this point when it’s already out and you can talk about everything related to it. It’s more fun also if you talk about it that way.
John McAdam: I agree. Are you at the point now where you can do spoiler interviews?
Sam Lake: Yes, some. Still being mindful it’s only a month, so knowing that there are probably plenty of people who want to play who have not played, and I would hate to spoil some things. Although these days if you are online, if you’re reading everything, it will be spoiled day one. You need to be careful, but at the same time, ultimately it’s everybody’s own responsibility not to look if you don’t want to be spoiled.
John McAdam: Yeah. When you were doing your marketing, did you have a say in, “Hey, we’re going to put this narrative out there about what the game is because I want to set some expectations for the player that we might twist and turn,” so basically doing storytelling in the media? Did you guys do any of that?
Sam Lake: Yeah. We spend quite a bit of time discussing, “How do we go into this?” There are so many different aspects in a big game. What do we want to start with? And kind of planning the campaign and planning the beats on showing this and focusing on this.
John McAdam: Yeah, we did a lot of that too. We knew that one of the big questions for us was going to be, who is Venom, right?
Sam Lake: Yeah, for sure.
John McAdam: And there was a lot of fans online were like, “Oh, it’s got to be this person,” so we were aware that that was going to be a narrative that I think people wanted to talk about. So with a lot of our trailers, we played into that. We didn’t want to reveal too much, but we wanted to tease it enough so that people could get a sense for who it might be, which is always fun.
Sam Lake: Which is the mystery and speculation and all of that, that’s so valuable and so much appreciated, the passion of the fans keeping the discussion going, and making sure that you are helping with that.
John McAdam: Let me ask you a question about mystery, mystery versus suspense: how do you define that with your storytelling style?
Sam Lake: It is a great question because it is really important. I love mystery. When I am a fan of something or engaged about something. I love that there is room for mystery, and that’s a big reason because it excites me when I’m watching or playing or anything, I want that to be a part of the story and narrative in the games that I’m making. I feel that it’s the balance of giving answers so that everybody’s on board, but also posing enough questions. And even when giving answers, leaving room for interpretation, having blanks in there and making it fragmented so that you are actively engaged in piecing the whole thing together.
And also on the level that you are… Even if we know, because it’s really important for us to know the answers. It can’t be like, “Whatever,” but there is a huge element of trust that you need to build and establish because if the gamers are not trusting you that there is an answer and it’s not like it’s going to build into something that falls apart or… That said, I feel you don’t ever need to give a full, conclusive one truth.
And even inside the fiction, there can be conflicting views, especially if it’s a character’s interpretation, like you will never need to fully go, “Well, really, it’s about this,” because we are in the point of view of the character and characters. So, it’s just leaving that somebody might be fully committed that this is the truth, but leaving enough room for interpretation that somebody goes like, “I don’t think so. I think it’s this,” and somebody else comes in and says, “No, but maybe you missed this bit,” and having people engaged and thinking about it. That’s such a crucial thing that people can play the game through, and they’re still thinking about it.
John McAdam: Well, I think for me, what Alan Wake did really well was it could have been confusing. There was a lot of things going on, but the gameplay when you were in Saga’s mind space with putting the stuff on the wall, the way that was written was beautiful, because you would basically repeat the things that were happening. And I’m sure you did that on purpose, which was, again, really great because it helped me understand what was going on. When I switched back to gameplay, I was like, “Oh, okay, so that’s who that is. That’s where they’re going. I get it. I’m up on it,” and if I ever got confused, I would go back to the mind place and I would look at things and figure it out. I think for Spider-Man, for us, I think we tend more toward the suspense and I think it’s a genre thing.
Sam Lake: Yes, it is.
John McAdam: Yeah, it’s a big time genre thing. I think our audience for the superhero stuff, they want to be with the characters. They don’t want to be ahead of the characters. I guess with suspense you can be ahead of the characters a little bit, but we want to know everything that’s going on. And then, when we put them in these really dramatic situations, we don’t know…
Sam Lake: Yeah, the trail of it.
John McAdam: Yeah, we don’t know what’s going to happen. And I think that’s what folks with the superhero stories, with Spider-Man particularly, I think they liked that. We did a lot of UX testing, usability testing, and we would always bring people in and we would ask them after every mission, “Do you know who this character is? Do you know why they’re doing what they’re doing? What do you think is going to happen next?”
We always ask these questions and whenever they were too confused, we’d be like, “Okay, we screwed up. We’ve got to go back and we got to fix some things,” and it was really important. I think people underestimate how hard comprehension is in a game because people will go off and play at their own pace, do things at their own pace, and it’s so easy to stop and come back a week later. Yeah, it’s really hard
So, comprehension was the one thing I remember saying to all the writers around alpha, I was like, “Our goal is not perfection. We’re not going to get a perfect story here. Comprehension is our goal. If the players can understand who these characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then we succeeded. We will polish that once we get comprehension.”
Sam Lake: Yeah, it is, and if you think about writing for different mediums, I feel that that’s actually one clear thing that is unique to video games compared to other mediums, because the player is driving it and pacing it in some ways, and pacing their own engagement.
John McAdam: Yeah. We consume it in a completely different way.
Sam Lake: Yes, and it’s hard to predict where everybody is, and just making sure that the key points of information are there, and repeat it in a ways that doesn’t feel like it’s being repeated to you if you are already knowing it, but still repeat it to you.
John McAdam: And there’s an art to that. With TV series, you’ll watch a lot of TV series and especially those that are on Netflix or whatever, if it’s a series, on the next episode they’ll play a recap of the one before, right?
We don’t do that in games. If you go away and go do your dishes or come back like weeks later or whatever, maybe you had a lot of dishes, and you come back, we don’t play a previously on. We could, I guess, if we detected you were away for this amount of time, we could do it, but I guess we allow the player to get back into the story the way they want to get back into it. But there’s problems with that. It’s hard.
Sam Lake: And it’s quite a lot of work. Way back when, Alan Wake 1, we actually had previously on, because it was very TV episode-like but it was also very linear, so it was easy to do a previously on on an episodic basis. Here, with two characters in two worlds, you can progress as you choose, and a lot more complexity, it would be a huge effort to actually create a dynamic, smooth, previously on experience out of it. And we did consider and ultimately said that, “Yeah, we have other methods like the plot board, and the case board on both characters to help you with it.”
John McAdam: Speaking of complexity, when you start out in pre-production on a story, what is one of the first things that you do to kind of get a sense for the story from beginning to end? How do you approach that?
Sam Lake: There is work before getting to that, which usually is then just figuring out the genre of the game, who the character is, the main character, the setting, all of these things that are needed for team communication and understanding what are we starting to make and then getting to the story. I don’t know, I am pretty basic and old-fashioned. I love working on a big whiteboard. And what I did for this and what I did for control, is that I have three helper structures: the three act structure, the hero’s journey, five or seven stages of grief. I just mapped them all on the top of the whiteboard, and they are not any kind of a straight jacket. They are just for me, when I feel that I am now slightly lost or not getting the right kinds of ideas, I can always glance up and check that, “Okay, yeah. Something like this,” so it’s just a helper.
John McAdam: I’m exactly the same. I’m a structure nerd, so I love having that at the start. I do the same thing: when we were in the office, we had a room with a huge whiteboard, it was a whiteboard wall, and at the beginning of Spider-Man 2…
Sam Lake: Crazy wall.
John McAdam: Crazy wall, yeah. At the beginning of Spider-Man 2, we had the whole story written out on the wall, eventually went to index cards that we put up there, but it’s good to start with the marker because it’s easy to erase and do different things. But then you start, and I think getting that… When you know how you’re going to end, that’s the hardest part, getting a good ending. But then for me, I like to go back once the ending is there air and get a sense for, “Okay, what is the pacing of this experience?”, and I think another thing that maybe not a lot of people think about when they think about game writing is we also talk a lot about the gameplay. We talk a lot about, ” What is the player experience?”
Sam Lake: I mean, it’s back and forth. It’s a conversation. It’s very much all the different aspects of it. And then, unfortunately, I guess some production realities, and they just need to be taken into account and worked into it. So, there is an added complication on top of just purely being in that writer’s paradise of thinking about cool story stuff. But yeah, and these days it ends up being kind of multiple layers. Like In Alan Wake 2, there was this whole thing for Saga, this whole thing for Alan Wake, certain elements that are kind of the third layer that is the connection points planned into it. And that’s an intense phase that does take a lot of time. That, to me, then leads into first a synopsis, but I’m not satisfied. It doesn’t have enough detail. And I then tend to write a proper treatment that can be anything from 30 pages to 50 pages on the detail level of what is actually going on and happening.
John McAdam: You’re speaking my language because that’s exactly what I like. I like to do a detailed treatment. At some point after we look at the structure and we have the team look at the… We call it the macro. We have the team look at, “Okay, this is how many missions we’re planning to have. These are all the locations. These are all the characters,” so we know kind of the scope of the experience. Then, in the treatment, what I like to do is I like to say, “Okay, cinematic. This is going to be a cutscene that we know is going to happen. When that one ends, the transition from that cut scene into gameplay is going to be like this.
And then the gameplay, I want to describe the gameplay, what the gameplay is going to be. And then, describe how we get into the next cinematic. Because I think there’s a big difference between what the story is and how we tell the story. I think the treatment, at least for me, helps with, okay, how do we tell this story? And invariably, for me, when I do a treatment, the cinematic team will look at it and they’ll say, “Wow, that’s a lot of cinematics.”
Sam Lake: Yep, I’ve heard that quite a few times.
John McAdam: And then, we do the process of like, “Okay, how do we get ourselves into budget? How do we make the same story, but maybe in a different way?” And I think that’s another big difference between games as a medium and other mediums is as we’re making it, we’re making so many changes based on talking with people on the team, and new ideas that come up. I think one of the things I’ve learned to embrace as I’ve gotten older is it’s okay if we change things, because if we’re changing it, we’re changing it for a good reason.
Sam Lake: Yeah, and it can come from any direction, really. It could be a gameplay reason. It could be just a scope reason. Even if you are trying to stay on top of understanding the limitations on different departments and scope, it’s pretty impossible. Because things are changing as your engine changes and tools change and just everything is moving so fast. That then there are all the experts that you are relying on, and if they come back and say, “We can’t do this,” and then there is…
John McAdam: And then, you ask three more times, “Can we do it? Are you sure we can’t do it?”
Sam Lake: But this is more important than these things.
John McAdam: And then, you start bartering like, “Okay, we’ll cut this, but if we can keep this.”
Sam Lake: Yeah, exactly. But I have learned that kind of the mental place where you need to be… Well, first of all, you need to bear the fact that things are not locked. And for some people, it’s harder and a lot more stressful. But I always say, “Okay, we need to change this and we like this, but let’s take this as an opportunity to make this better.” And usually, that’s the way it can go, that you need to actually change it or even make it smaller. But if you are looking at it from the perspective of this is an opportunity, now we are changing something and these things were already nagging to us in some way, even though we were saying that it goes… Now, we can open these things around this up as well because it needs to change. And maybe there’s an opportunity to tell the story better or find a new angle into it.
John McAdam: I think you’re touching on something that is sort of a soft skill, which is talking to people on the team and helping everyone understand what it is we’re trying to make. And I think that’s something that is super important. We have our creative director, Bryan Intihar, he’s really good at it. The key is, I think, explaining the why. When the team understands why you want to change something, then they’re more likely to A, get on board, but B, once they understand why you’re changing it, they’ll have a better view of what the project is, so they’ll understand the direction a lot more.
But those are always difficult conversations, because like you said, people are always asking, “When are we locking? When are we locking?” And I feel bad every time when we’ve locked and it’s like, “Actually, I know that thing is locked, but we kind of need to change this thing. Is it okay if we unlock that?” And I just see people deflate. On Spider-Man 2, I told you we did a lot of usability testing. We brought a lot of people and we had various endings. We had a few different endings throughout, which is always dangerous, but whatever. And by having a different ending, I don’t mean the whole ending change. It’s like there’s a few things at the end that were tweaked. And so, pretty late in production around alpha, actually, we had a narrative consultant, Kim Belair, who’s really good.
Sam Lake: She worked with us as well.
John McAdam: Did she?
Sam Lake: Yeah.
John McAdam: She’s amazing, isn’t she? Anyway, so she played through the alpha build and she said, “Are you sure you want this thing to happen? Because it kind of feels like the same thing as the last game.” And we were like, “Yeah, she’s right.” And then, she pitched an idea, that I promptly stole and we put into the game. And for me, it was one of those moments where a lot of things kind of clicked into place for the story. And I don’t think that the younger me would have been able to do that, the one with the big ego and who didn’t listen to… I think it’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is it’s really important to listen to the audience and the people around you, not all the time.
Sam Lake: No, it’s an interesting instinctive balancing act. For it to go through and not fall apart, you still need to make sure that it stays together. And some ideas, even though you can see the excitement and coolness, you can see, no, it goes against this. And even if it would be lovely as an individual idea… You do need to always go through that process of thinking, “Can I make this work?”
John McAdam: Yeah, and one of the things I say is, “What is the story telling us? What does the story want this to be?” And if you look back on the story and you see that everything leads naturally to this outcome, then you’re like, “Well, that’s kind of what it has to be.” And luckily, Kim was able to find a way to do the third door, what’s behind the third door? Which is great.
Sam Lake: Yeah, I mean, for us, thinking about changes along the way, I love using live action elements in the game and we were definitely doing that. And working on it, but then at the same time, we were doing quite a bit of game cinematics. And we were struggling with just the scope of it. But everybody were really, really excited about the live action. So, there was a certain point of time where I said, “Hold on, let’s think this through. And maybe we could actually still, on some of the cinematic content, do a pivot because this is working really, really nicely and we have a problem here. And just embrace the dreaminess of it and bring more of this.”
Which it was really kind of driven from the worry on the scope side and struggling with it. And maybe that would never… That’s the beauty of it. Because of a problem, you are forced to think of a solution. And if you would not have these limitations or obstacles, you would never necessarily consider something that feels a bit crazy. But then when you do, it’s suddenly like, oh my God, this is so much better and now it works. So, that, as a concrete thing, it’s partly as kind of us struggling with certain bits of producing enough scope, pivoting into that and having more of it. And now, looking back, it was great. Yeah.
John McAdam: So, we both shipped a game this year. Have you been playing any other games?
Sam Lake: Very little.
John McAdam: Me too. It’s really hard. It’s really hard. But when we would bring people in for usability testing, there would be a questionnaire and they would all have to answer questions. And one of the questions that they answered was, how many gaming hours do they have per week? And I remember seeing that some of the folks that came in had over 40 hours of gaming time a week. And I was like, “That sounds amazing.” But it’s so hard when you’re making a game and trying to have a life to also make time for playing other games.
Sam Lake: I’m still, having shipped it now, a month ago, and not quite covered to normal level, I’m still in the fantasy of I have this amazing backlog of all kinds of cool film, books, games, and I’m going to do all of that. And probably, the reality is I won’t have time to do all of that anyway. But still in that kind of like, “Yeah, now there is time for all kinds of things.”
John McAdam: I’ve been reading a lot more books, which is interesting because I like to read before I go to bed, and I don’t know why I wasn’t doing that when we were making the game. I think it’s just maybe-
Sam Lake: It’s bandwidth.
John McAdam: Is it bandwidth?
Sam Lake: Maybe it’s bandwidth. I haven’t even bounced back. I love reading and it’s very, very important to me. I haven’t gotten back to it. Maybe it’s just sleeping too little and trying it, and then falling asleep. And next evening going like, “I don’t even remember where I left off,” and doing it again and then giving up. And really, really, that’s one thing that I’m looking forward to, rediscovering the joy of reading.
John McAdam: What are some of your favorite genres?
Sam Lake: Well, I love mystery. I love postmodern stuff that is a bit of a game-like in the sense of building something that you are kind of like… I get really excited, honestly, in everything when I feel that maybe I’m not quite smart enough to understand what’s going on, and that really kind of sparks my interest and gets me going. And now I want to… And even, I feel really satisfied often if I don’t have the answers at the end. That, to me, is like, “Yeah, I can keep on thinking about it.” And that, to me, say in film is something that I love with somebody like say David Lynch, because it’s not meant to be understood exactly. There is that dream-like feel to it. And still feeling safe that it is as it’s supposed to be and it’s not random in any way. And there is really, really clear thought behind it. But I’m not meant to have a crystal clear answer in a way.
John McAdam: I’m a huge Stanley Kubrick fan. And that’s what I love about a lot of his movies is that they make you feel something.
Sam Lake: Yes, the emotion.
John McAdam: Yeah, but he does it through images and through sound. And there’s a way that sometimes film can do that and just make you something that you didn’t know was there. Eyes Wide Shut is one of those movies that some people don’t like, but I love that movie because it’s so unique. And just the feelings that you get as you’re watching this crazy night. I don’t know. It’d make a great video game for a very small number of people. Can you imagine if Kubrick was a game maker, there would not be a big audience.
Sam Lake: But it would take a long time because it would be perfect before… Which is hard. But in experiences and in fiction as well, not quite knowing, I mean that to people like us working on story a lot, when it’s very formulaic, it’s kind of boring because you can see where it’s going to go. And I like to be surprised. I like to be there and I have no idea what’s going to happen now. That’s a wonderful, thrilling feeling. The great feeling these days with a lot of content and streaming media and all is that there are a lot of opportunities where it’s quite ambitious and things like, this is new, this is thrilling, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. When it’s a mix of new things, like Everything Everywhere All at Once…
John McAdam: Which I still haven’t seen, and I need to see it.
Sam Lake: Very much recommended. It blew my mind. It was so fresh. It felt like, well, this is today now, and this is like, it’s wonderful, it’s thrilling and it’s really surprising, and yet it has the emotion and it has the heart and all.
John McAdam: I think surprise is one of those things that is the most important thing we can do for our audience, is to get people having unexpected things.
Sam Lake: Yep. And that can go to mystery or it can go to suspense.
John McAdam: And I just read a book that is not a mystery at all. It’s by Jonathan Franzen, it’s called Crossroads, and it’s more of a family melodrama kind of thing. But I was so engrossed in it because I had no idea what was going to happen, and I was watching these characters do these things that were, I was like, “Oh, wow.” And each chapter, each thing that each one of the characters did was surprising, and I just could not stop.
Sam Lake: But that’s something that sometimes happens when you are writing a story as well, and drafting out the story. I mean, it’s interesting to me, because this is so much a teamwork and team effort making a video game, you need to kind of communicate the theme relatively early on what the story is.
But at least to me, when we go to a deeper, more detailed layer, writing the actual screenplay, even if you have it mapped out, there are surprises. Like when you start writing an actual scene in the screenplay format, you go like, “Wow actually, this is what the character would do here.” And what we were saying on the treatment level wasn’t quite like it was an idea, but now… And sometimes they are even not contradictory. You can still kind of get to this more or less the same outcome, but how you get there, because what the characters end up like, no, no, this would be the line.
John McAdam: You know why I think that happens is because when we’re looking at the macro or the treatment or whatever, we’re not really in the moment with the character.
Sam Lake: Yes, exactly.
John McAdam: And when we sit down and we look at a screenplay and we start writing the scene, that’s where the work of writing is. Because we’re taking our mind, we’re taking everything, our body, everything, and we’re putting it somewhere else and we’re acting, essentially.
I said this recently, I was doing some press with two of our actors, Yuri Lowenthal and Laura Bailey, and I was saying, you know what you guys do isn’t that different than what I do, I just do it alone in a dark room. But we have to put ourselves in the shoes of other characters and feel their emotions, think about what they’re doing. And you’re right, there’s discoveries that happen when you’re in the middle of a scene, you’re like, this is not how that scene would go.
Sam Lake: If there was a camera while you are writing, people will look at it and go like, “This guy is insane.” Because you are like…
John McAdam: Do you ever laugh to yourself when you have a… Yeah.
Sam Lake: Realizing that I was like, this is an angry… Yeah. It’s very deep on the… You need to find the emotion on..
John McAdam: Do you think that’s a skill that we learn over time and get better at? Because I feel like similar to actors, when actors have to go on set and all these people are looking at them, they have to let down their guard, they have to open their hearts. And that’s a skill that I think really good actors, they’re good at it. Do you think writers also get better over time?
Sam Lake: Yeah, I do think so. And I’ve always felt that there is this kind of connection between writing and acting. And this time around, like doing Alex Casey…
John McAdam: Yeah, good job, by the way.
Sam Lake: Well, thank you. I was feeling like a total amateur, but blessed because wonderful actors that I got to work with, and a lot of learnings for writing as well, I felt.
John McAdam: Like what?
Sam Lake: Like having to be there, having to do it like… Just carrying an emotion, an arc in a sea, and realizing, yeah, this is really hard for an actor, and maybe I should be more aware of that when I’m writing a scene. So felt that by having to do that, I was learning about directing and I was learning about writing, and that to me was the biggest takeaway out of it. Really, really wonderful lessons on being able to look at it now from a slightly different perspective as well.
Also, just understanding the technical side of it, the whole motion capture. And then James McCaffrey, wonderful James McCaffrey, with his wonderful voice being the voice of Alex Casey, and me then being in a performance capture booth lip-syncing to his delivery, and needing to act it out. And just the complexity, still the complexity of the technical side of an active performance that kind of make it harder for them. Being very aware of all of those steps, having to go through them does help. Just understanding for directing and writing it.
John McAdam: Yeah, I would think I would be a terrible actor, but I do think that being able to let your emotional guard down, it’s kind of weird that we do that for a living, and we have… Our work is supposed to be a professional environment, but a lot of times with our writing team, I’ll get really personal and I’ll say, look, we’re not going to be able to get the emotions that we need unless you dig into yourself and try to find the hard, juicy…
Sam Lake: Yeah, I feel that when you are in the process of it, it’s relatively safe being alone in a room and going through that. Where the hard part comes is you are exposing that material to other people for comments and criticism that… Because it is your emotion on the page, and that’s why it’s hard, but doing it alone in a room while writing, that feels like it’s a safe place, nobody’s seeing you, there is no camera, you just kind of like…
John McAdam: That’s why… I’ve gotten better over time with the whole feedback thing. I think maybe I’ve been beaten into submission. I don’t know what it is.
Sam Lake: Well, you tend to grow a thick hide and be able to look for, there are individual opinions and then there are trends of feedback. And now two people said the same thing in different words, there is something here that needs to be figured out.
John McAdam: And it’s often the note behind the note, you know? They’ll say they don’t like this thing, but it’s not really about that thing. It’s because…
Sam Lake: Yeah, and often there comes a solution from them, and very rarely that’s the solution, but you need to just kind of think through it and find what’s the problem, actually.
John McAdam: Yeah, that’s really great. When we were polishing Spider-Man, all the writers would play the game together.
Sam Lake: It’s so important.
John McAdam: And we would make sure everybody speaks up when something bumps them. When we’re in the middle of a play session, if there’s a line of dialogue or even a shot on a cinematic that doesn’t seem right to them, they need to speak up and say, “Okay, that bumped me because X, Y, Z.” And it makes it so much better when you have a team of folks that do open themselves up to each other. But it’s also weird that you… I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but having a second family that you’re really close emotionally with, because that’s the job. You have to be emotionally close to these people. And I think it’s one of those human skills that is not natural. We’re not meant to do that unless it’s with our family, and we get to know them and live with them and that kind of thing. So I don’t know, I guess I’m pontificating on this strangeness of doing what we do for a living.
Sam Lake: And very often the very human natural response when you are being criticized is to go on defense, and then you are kind of shut down and locked down and, no, no, no, no. I’m stubbornly holding on, which doesn’t help. But that’s the part where you need to learn to…
John McAdam: You start to feel that emotion and then you’re like, what’s the goal here? The goal is to, I say put things on the shelf, which may not be true anymore. Maybe we don’t put a lot of things on the shelf as much as we used to, put things in the download queue, I don’t know. But our goal is to have a great game at the end of the day. And I think when we as creatives are able to suppress that initial emotion to push back, the thing at the end of the line will get better.
I think it’s a tough balance on a big game where there’s a lot of folks on the team that each have their individual job, and they need to get that individual job done, and they need to be able to be creative in that individual job.
And there’s going to be a lot of people, if you want to make a change to act three, there’s going to be a lot of people that are going to say, that’s not a good idea because X, Y, and Z. How do you deal with that kind of stress and pressure, because you’re the creative director and the lead writer? That’s a big job.
Sam Lake: I feel, just from the role perspective, and this was asked from me, why are you not just doing it on your own? I would be dead. To me, it’s really, really important to find the right people to collaborate with, and it’s so valuable. I like co-directing this with Kyle Rowley and really with Janne Pulkkinen, who is our art director, because the stylization was such an important thing that we were kind of a trio working closely together, but then also writing the story with Tyler Burton Smith, and writing the screenplay with Clay Murphy and all the Cinematics and live action. We had Live action director, Ansi Maatta collaborating with them. So finding the right partners, and then you have this kind of a balance, and it’s a shared thing, and everybody can… That helps in itself. When you are kind of finding yourself struggling or locked, there is always another person to kind of pick it up and carry it.
John McAdam: Yeah. We had a team that our project manager, she coined it VASE, V-A-S-E, which is, I think it’s Vision and Strategy, Execution. I don’t know. It wasn’t a great name, but what was great about it is that we would have a director from every department be in the meeting, and we would meet very often, several times a week, and we would get together and any problems that came up we would talk about with the team, and it was a team of really creative, great people who would always help each other out.
Sam Lake: And sometimes it’s only to vent.
John McAdam: Yes, we did plenty of that.
Sam Lake: But that’s an important part of it, being able to do that and not just kind of like.
John McAdam: Yeah. And I think it’s important to have a group of people who can then be on the same page. Because there’s so many people that it takes to make a big game like these two games, that getting everybody on the same page, it can’t be one person’s job, right?
So having that group that meets regularly and talks about things and solves problems, and when there’s a change, we all talk about what the change is going to be, and then communicating that out to the team, I feel like that on Spider-Man II, that was one of the biggest learnings for me. I think this is the first time we’ve really sort of, I don’t know, institutionalized that group where we would meet so often. I’m never making agame another way again. We’re always going to have that base team.
Sam Lake: Which is a great feeling of finding something in the process that this works. Now this works and now this feels right, and finding those steps is a really yeah, important thing. How did you feel about having two main characters? Because we both have that and kind of just the idea of having two hero characters and two protagonists and two playable characters. Because they are there individually but because they make the story together, they are also there is this funny thing that it’s almost like the dynamic between the characters and how they live in this world and affect each other that is as important as those characters on their role.
John McAdam: Yeah. It was a lot of learning for me with dual protagonists because when we were at that macro stage, right? I was like, okay, I know that this is going to be… I said from the beginning, “This is going to be a Venom story.” We want to do Insomniac’s version of a Venom story, right? So, Venom was really the character that was going to weave in and out of all the other characters in the story and affect them, the symbiote early on and then Venom later on but it’s really the same character. And so, when we started doing that it felt like, okay, maybe having this dual protagonists with Venom being the main thing, my head was exploding, right? There was just too much going on.
And not until some of the other writers, Lauren Mee in particular, what she did is she took Miles’ character and she was like, all right, I’m going to have his arc with Martin Li be its own thing and I’m going to take some time to map that out and make sure that it’s really great. And then, we’re going to kind of put that back into the story. And I think having her spend that time making that arc its own thing, helped us to have it not just feel like Miles was not participating in the story because it’s Peter who succumbs.
But in the macro stage, it was always that Miles and Pete and MJ are going to come back together late in the story, right? But it was the early stuff that was difficult. And then being able to switch at any point when you’re in the open world. Wow, that’s really tough. That but also so freeing for the player. And that’s why I think we did it because the players love to be able to do that and play who they want to play as.
Sam Lake: But it was really, really interesting from the perspective as well, because especially with suspense, which also obviously part of Alan Wake, your instinct as a storytelling is when you are saying that, okay, I have two tracks here, so I lead the character into a cliffhanger and that’s the point to switch. And suddenly giving player that freedom, you go like, okay, I don’t have this tool in my toolbox anymore. For sure you do, but it’s on a single track, you can have a twist and then aftermath and going forward, but not between them. And it takes a different kind of an approach. But in a very similar way, it’s interesting to talk about this because I’m a lot of echoes between them. I felt I had a really clear picture about Alan Wake’s arc and where he’s and Saga being a new character for us. That to me felt like, okay, there are some elements, but this is a lot of thinking needs to be done.
And that to me felt like bringing in Tyler to collaborate with me on writing the story that was, I remember early on when we were work shopping it, I just had a lot of questions like Saga arrives, and then the situation is something like this, but we need to think about, we need to figure this out. And even going to screenplay then with Clay, a lot of thinking still went on. How do we bring this? We want to bring them back together and how are we solving that? So yeah, it’s kind of the separate arcs, but then always needing, that’s the kind of multiple layers of it. You have the arcs, but then you need to think about the whole.
John McAdam: Yeah, and an additional challenge we had is that we have an open world, right? Where you can switch between Miles and Pete. And so, it’s a strength and a challenge because the strength is, what we really want to say with this game is that you can be both Spider-Man, the city needs both Spider-mans, right? So, we had some side content that was Miles only was Pete only, and we wanted you to get a sense for, okay, when you’re playing as Miles, the city is a little bit different. The people know you differently, whatever. But it’s so hard to get deep into that without getting linear, right? But I think that that’s what players want. They want that freedom to be able to be who they want to be, but they also want that cinematic story.
Sam Lake: Exactly. You need both. But I think that a mark of a successful project is also that you feel afterwards that a lot of learnings, which keeps it interesting and exciting.
John McAdam: It does. And it makes me scared to keep making more games because we got to learn new things each time. But I think that’s another thing that’s interesting about what we do is when we start a new game, we have to ask ourselves what are we innovating? What are we changing and getting better from the last thing that we did? We can’t just make another story and ship the same kind of stuff that we did before. We got to innovate not only in the gameplay, but also in the way that we tell the story.
Sam Lake: Yeah. And hopefully not in everything at the same time. Yeah, well it starts there, right? You start, “Oh yeah, we’re going to change this. We’re going to change that.”
John McAdam: But that’s another thing that we share is that we were both sequels in a franchise, right?
Sam Lake: Yeah, that’s true.
John McAdam: So, we built on from there were roots, right? That we could draw from.
Sam Lake: That are very important because the audience, all the gamers are very invested also. You need to open it up for new audience, but at the same time, you need to make sure that those who have committed already and are really, really wanting it to go on, you need to make sure that it does.
John McAdam: And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges we have when we’re making a Spider-Man game, is that Spider-Man is a character that’s in so many mediums, right? And there are fans in every medium who are diehard fans, and we’re going to disappoint them no matter what we do, right? But what we need to do is we need to say, okay, we’re going to make Insomniac’s version of this story. And we’re going to do the best that we can and make sure that within itself, it’s a great story.
And hopefully the audience who doesn’t like the choices that we made with their favorite character, will still understand that it’s a good story. But yeah, I also think that having the roots in a previous game helps with a lot of the creative discussions because you’re like, okay, we did it this way in the last game. We could probably do it the same way this game, but what if we tweak it? What if we do this? But your game was, there was a lot of time between the two. And if I look at the amount of just the things that are changed, there’s a lot of change in there. Did you guys start with thinking that a lot of the stuff was going to be changed, or did that evolve over time?
Sam Lake: Obviously it was a lot of years and there were moments of coming back to Alan Wake and thinking about the sequel. It just never, like the time wasn’t right. But finally coming here, I do feel that more than any game that we have done in the Remedy history, when we built the vision for this, the final game is by far the closest to the initial vision. Because in many of the game projects, we have changed very critical big things along the way. But here we had the beginning vision and the end game. There were, of course, okay, this mission goes away and things like that, but certain key things in it are in the final game.
John McAdam: Why do you think that happened this time?
Sam Lake: I think partly because there was such a long time and kind of in the subconscious mind thinking about it and already kind of building certain things.
John McAdam: So, you had a 10-year production?
Sam Lake: Yeah. But it felt different somehow, more kind of confident. And maybe there was also like, now we finally can do it, now we’ll go all in.
John McAdam: Well, and technology, right? One of the things that we couldn’t do in the first Spider-Man game was cut across the city seamlessly…
Sam Lake: Or for us to go into mine place or go in the writer’s room.
John McAdam: Right. And now we can do a cut from one end of Manhattan to over into Queens.
Sam Lake: It’s always started the technology suddenly giving you new opportunities, and then it changes things.
John McAdam: Yeah. Yeah. It’s cool. Sam, that was amazing. That was really fun.
Sam Lake: A pleasure. I want to keep going but I guess we are out of time.
John McAdam: Yeah, yeah. But let’s do it again.
Sam Lake: Yeah. Thank you, IGN.
Ryan Dinsdale is an IGN freelance reporter. He’ll talk about The Witcher all day.