What are the Best Remedy Games?
Looking back, the 90s were really something. The monumental collapse of the USSR was primed to radically alter the course of history for the foreseeable future, the synth and glam-rock of the 80s was giving way to a new wave of grunge and whatever Dave Matthews is, and Uncle Jesse’s mullet was invading American households every evening on ABC. Timeless classics like Jurassic Park, GoodFellas, and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation were taking moviegoers by storm, and denim was way too “in” for its own good. In terms of video games, we saw what could be argued as the veritable golden age of gaming. Doom, Chrono Trigger, Fallout 2, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half Life; more smash hits than we knew what to do with. With such a boom of ingenuity and creativity for such a young industry, it was all too easy to get lost in the crowd; a familiar story for a small team of up-and-coming developers based out of Finland.
Helmed by a crew of young and ambitious game designers, Remedy Entertainment was about to throw their hat in the ring with a smash-em-up racing game titled Death Rally. Even with a somewhat thin “plot”, Remedy found themselves in need of a writer to punch up their debut title’s in-game dialogue and text prompts. Petri Järvilehto, one of Remedy’s early members, reached out to one of his friends outside the studio for help; a young writer and literature student by the name of Sami Antero Järvi, known most prominently by his professional moniker of Sam Lake. His impact on Death Rally may seem small in retrospect, but Sam Lake’s arrival at Remedy would set in motion a bizarre and fascinating legacy over the course of the next 26 years. Listed officially as Remedy’s “Creative Director”, Sam Lake has remained at the forefront of the studio’s major projects all the way back to the original Max Payne and as recent as Control. His impact may not be as immediately apparent as someone like Hideo Kojima or Hidetaka Miyazaki, but that impact is no less significant in terms of what Sam and Remedy have been able to accomplish over the course of their diverse catalog.
With so many ideas in the mix, some are bound to click more than others. There’s a great deal to admire about all of Remedy’s titles, but they are not without their quirks and idiosyncrasies. With no shortage of creative aspiration, let’s take a look at Remedy’s greatest hits under mastermind Sam Lake.
5. Quantum Break (2016)
Even though it lands at the bottom of our list, don’t let that serve as an indictment of Quantum Break; there’s still a good deal to appreciate here. Published by Xbox Game Studios and developed alongside a live-action show of the same name, Quantum Break was Remedy’s attempt to bridge two types of narrative storytelling into a singular experience. The approach was certainly bold and more than a little unorthodox, though the results proved to be… a mixed bag. As their own separate entities, the game and the show work well enough, but the marriage of the two feels strained. The game itself has Sam Lakes’ fingerprints all over it; solid third-person action gameplay, a mind-bending premise, esoteric homages to previous Remedy titles, pages upon pages of collectible documents filled with backstory and fun flavor text; all of the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from the Remedy crew. The show, on the other hand, takes a much more traditional approach to telling its story. It’s the sort of production you would expect to see from any number of police procedurals airing on TNT; the dialogue is blander, the action sequences are over-edited, and the narrative itself feels entirely detached from the game at times due to the wildly different writing styles. The show feels distinctly not-Remedy, and the two frequently butt heads as they switch on-and-off over the course of the narrative.
Interestingly enough, it seems there was a bit of a divide when it came to the writing crews for the two projects. Sam Lake has spoken before about Microsoft being adamant that the live-action segment should have a writing crew with familiarity in television, and that he was not personally part of the team that wrote for the show. Evidently, Sam Lake’s distinct presence is abundantly clear in the game sections, and his absence is just as prominent in the show. The most obvious example of this division can be seen in Courtney Hope’s character, Beth Wilder. Beth is far and away the strongest character in Quantum Break, and she exists almost exclusively in the game portions of the experience. She’s a character that undergoes a major arc, she experiences hardships that change her, yet she holds firm to what she believes even as her life unravels. Beth Wilder represents some of the best character work Sam Lake and Remedy have ever accomplished, and she’s a shining example of what makes that team so special. It’s unfortunate that such an accomplishment of character writing is somewhat undercut by the inconsistency inherent to having two different writing teams tackling a singular focused story, but that’s part of what makes Quantum Break a fascinating experiment. It took a risk; it tried something new and unprecedented and experienced the bumps and bruises that come with that.
At the end of the day, the gameplay itself is exciting and well-crafted, providing an excellent demonstration of Remedy’s new in-house Northlight Engine. In retrospect, many of the features in Quantum Break feel like a prototype for what would be refined and perfected down the road in Control, and experiencing the whole production simply for innovation’s sake never once feels like a wasted effort.
4. Max Payne (2001)
With Death Rally comfortably in the rear-view mirror, it was time for Sam Lake and the gang to tackle their first big project together. Remedy knew they wanted to make an action game, but they wanted something that would make them stand out in the crowd from both a mechanical and storytelling perspective. As far as gameplay went, the decision was made to make cinematic “bullet-time” a central focus of the combat, and Sam Lake decided that the best vessel for that hook would be a hard-boiled detective-noir story filled to the brim with every homage and intentional cliche he could muster. The finished product was a tightly designed third-person shooter that would go on to revolutionize its genre; it could be argued as to whether or not Remedy actually invented the slow-motion bullet-time we see in abundance today, but Max Payne undeniably popularized it. Throw into that mix Max Payne’s inspired level design and overall decent gunplay (especially for the time), and Remedy had themselves the makings of a cult classic on their hands.
As for the story itself, it feels like what it is: a young and passionate Sam Lake taking his first swing at something he’d never tried before. While it might be overly critical to say Max Payne is undisciplined, it certainly comes across as a little too unrestrained. Obviously, Sam Lake and his crew drew inspiration for Max Payne from all kinds of media and pop culture that they’re deeply passionate about. Jam-packed with cheeky references and some not-so-subtle winks to the audience, Max Payne can occasionally feel at odds with itself. Is it a hard-boiled detective story about the tragic death of a man’s wife and infant daughter, or is it a self-referential and irreverent celebration of its pop-culture influences?
Well, it’s both, sort of. One minute, Max’s inner monologue is waxing poetic about the dark spiral his life is in following the brutal murder of his family, and the next moment, a group of thugs around the corner are reenacting what might as well be a Three Stooges bit and making John Woo references. The grim tone of the overarching story also isn’t helped by Max Payne’s player model (see above), which certainly feels like a decision made for a more comedic approach. Admittedly, Sam Lake’s now-famous Max Payne face is delightful and wonderfully iconic, but it also serves to confuse the tone as he mourns over the corpse of his daughter with that comically smug grin on his face. Remedy threw everything and the kitchen sink into Max Payne; all of these different elements of things they clearly love are tossed into the pot, regardless of how well they gel as a whole, and there’s certainly a great deal of charm to that. Sure, it may send the dark tone into a free-fall at times, but it has that genuine Sam Lake sincerity that, for whatever reason, makes it work more often than it has any right to. Seeing that kind of creative passion made manifest is infectious, and Max Payne remains an enjoyable romp through Remedy’s earliest ambitions.
3. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003)
If Remedy’s original Max Payne had some bumps to iron out, their follow-up just two years later did exactly that. Released in October of 2003, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is almost everything you could ask for out of a sequel. It refines what works in the original, trims what doesn’t, and never loses the identity that made Max Payne so special, to begin with. Granted, Max Payne 2 had the benefit of starting with a solid foundation while its predecessor was conceived from scratch, but that shouldn’t detract from just how much the game gets right. While the original Max Payne is probably the more courageous game, Max Payne 2 is definitely the better game. The fluidity of the gunplay is improved, the juxtaposing tones are blended more naturally and aren’t quite as jarring, and Sam Lake’s writing overall seems more comfortable and sure-footed.
In a somewhat bitter-sweet twist of fate, Remedy’s decision to sell the Max Payne intellectual property in its entirety to Rockstar was made before production had kicked off on Max Payne 2. With the understanding that any future Max Payne titles would be out of Remedy’s hands, Sam Lake knew that Max Payne 2 would be his swan song for these characters, and that tinge of sentimentality goes a long way in contextualizing a lot of the decisions made from a writing perspective. Sam has since reflected on the game’s production, stating that he knew that this was his farewell to that world and its characters, and that “there was plenty of time to go through that emotional journey.” That sense of finality and closure is palpable by the time the credits roll on Max Payne 2; Sam Lake’s grandiose farewell to his beloved creation serves as a wonderful bookend to that chapter of Remedy’s story. After 7 years of working on the Max Payne saga, they were ready to move on, and little did they know how bright their future would come to be.
2. Alan Wake (2010)
Do you like Stephen King? Do you like Twin Peaks? Well, Sam Lake does. After seven long years, Remedy stepped forward into the new generation of gaming with 2010’s Alan Wake. If there was ever any doubt as to Alan Wake’s creative influences, the first ten seconds of the game give a pretty definitive answer. As we hit “New Game” and the opening cinematic loads in, our titular character begins reciting a Stephen King quote even before we’ve fully faded up from black; King’s name is literally the first word of spoken dialogue we hear as an audience. To say Alan Wake wears its influences on its sleeve would be a drastic understatement; the game is practically basking in them.
The game’s setting, Bright Falls, is about as Twin Peaks as you can get before you have to start paying royalties, and the bizarre cast of characters that inhabits the town just screams “David Lynch.” Fortunately, under Sam Lake’s creative direction, the melding of the King and Lynch aspects works incredibly well, giving Alan Wake a distinct and memorable sense of atmosphere. Remedy also made an intentional decision following the Max Payne games to have their main character not be a typical action hero archetype, hence Alan Wake’s profession as a writer (another favorite trope of Stephen King). Of course, Alan being a writer also plays a huge factor in the game’s narrative, but it also serves to ground the gameplay in a heightened sense of practicality; we’re not a time-bending John Woo supercop like Max, we’re a writer with a horribly inefficient flashlight and a penchant for discarded coffee thermoses. It’s more of an “ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances” story, and that kind of approach lends itself perfectly to the more horror-oriented themes of the game.
From a gameplay perspective, Alan Wake presents an interesting dichotomy. The combat mechanic of using the flashlight to burn away the darkness before you can harm enemies is both unique and thematically relevant; the overarching story is about light overcoming darkness (often literally), and having that reflected in the mechanics of gameplay is solid storytelling that makes use of the medium it is being told in. On the other hand, the game runs out of tricks well before its ultimate conclusion, and even the unique nature of the combat can’t save it from becoming repetitive after a while. It’s not quite enough to spoil the experience, but Alan Wake does feel about 2-4 hours longer than the limited combat mechanics are able to support, and the later encounters can certainly be a slog as larger groups of enemies become more frequent. It’s an excellent idea for a 6-8 hour game that’s stuck in the body of a 10+ hour game, but the creativity of the storytelling and the overall solid foundation of the combat keep Alan Wake from buckling under the weight of its faults.
1. Control (2019)
In many ways, 2019’s Control stands out as the definitive Remedy title. It represents a culmination of the strongest aspects from their previous titles packaged in a singular powerhouse of Remedy’s best ideas. The focus on flashy, cinematic action sequences from Max Payne, the refinement of the groundwork laid by Quantum Break in the Northlight engine as well as bringing back the game’s standout performer in Cortney Hope, and the Lovecraftian world design of the strange and para natural lurking beneath the mundanity of everyday life from Alan Wake. If you’ll excuse the dramatic flair, Control may very well be Remedy’s magnum opus; everything that came before has been building to it, and they seem to have stuck the landing.
On the narrative side of affairs, it’s clear Sam Lake and his crew had a blast crafting Control’s world and lore. Collectible documents and audio logs paint a wild and strange picture of a para natural world run amok, and the few survivors we come across are as odd and interesting as we’ve come to expect from Remedy. Chronicling the escapades of Dr. Casper Darling is an obvious highlight, and the enigmatic Director Trench provides an appropriate amount of intrigue inherent to such an unusual setting. Unfortunately, the main narrative of Control can not help but be dwarfed by the extensive world around it. Amidst all the secrets and mysteries surrounding the Oldest House, the story of Jesse’s search for her brother can sometimes seem a little undercooked. As a main character, Jesse is likable enough, but a great deal of Dylan’s character is left pretty nebulous. His condition makes him difficult to judge as a person and having such little context as to who he was before the events of the game leave us with a character that feels largely undefined. Normally, that wouldn’t be too much of an issue, but Dylan is the central thrust of the narrative, resulting in a game whose main storyline is also its least interesting one. Luckily, the world around that narrative is so thoroughly developed that simply spending time in the Oldest House feels like its own reward. Digging through documents and audio logs has never felt so fulfilling, and it’s a testament to Sam Lake and the writing team that reading is the most exciting part of a game this well-designed.
While Control bears many of Remedy’s signature hallmarks, the size and scope of its level design are unlike anything the company has attempted before. All of Remedy’s games up to this point have been largely linear experiences; you start a level, proceed down a corridor-like central path, and continue on to the next level to repeat the process. This linear model may have been straightforward and efficient for what those earlier titles asked of their gameplay, but Remedy’s sights were set decidedly higher this time around. Drawing heavily from the Metroidvania genre with a splash of Dark Souls, the twisting architecture of the Oldest House provides ample opportunity for exploration and discovery. In terms of an open-world experience, there are certainly larger sandboxes out there, but few feel as tightly focused as Control. Much akin to something like Symphony of the Night, there are all kinds of areas to meticulously comb over for hidden secrets as your repertoire of powers continues to expand. New abilities open access to new locations, and each location brings its own set of new challenges and discoveries. It’s not revolutionary game design, but the execution of its Metroidvania philosophy is near flawless, and it stands as a shining example of the absolute best the genre has to offer.
Despite their shortcomings and missteps, Remedy has always been defined by a passion to try new things. With each new title, they are pushing their boundaries and exploring new ways to tell stories, and that kind of ambition is remarkably admirable. Their voice is wholly unique in a field that can often feel saturated with copycats and trend-chasers; they swing for the fences at every turn, and they deserve to be celebrated. Sam Lake and his crew make the gaming world a more interesting place, and the profound impact of their contributions can’t be cherished enough. Whatever the future may hold for Remedy, wherever this journey takes them, we know one thing for certain: For better or worse, it’s gonna be weird.