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Remedy’s ‘Control’ Ending, Explained

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“Maybe I’ll never understand. Maybe I don’t need to.” – Jesse Faden

SPOILER ALERT. This article deals with the ending of Remedy’s ‘Control,’ and contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS. If you haven’t played the game yet, check out our review, and decide if the title is for you.

We know why you’re here. No, it’s not supernatural skill, because we feel exactly the same. You probably just finished Remedy’s newest title Control and were like, “Whoa, what was that? Did I just see what I thought I saw?”

Currently, Remedy’s Control is tearing up the review charts, and is being praised for its unique story, visceral gameplay, and worldbuilding skill, amounting to a memorable release that establishes Remedy as one of the premier action/adventure developers in the industry. That being said, the ending has been met with mixed reviews by some, and confused looks by all. Whether viewed positively or negatively, the ending is — without a doubt — an incredibly convoluted and important part of the narrative. So, let’s go slowly:

Break It Down and Save the World

In search of the paranormal slide projector and her brother, Dylan, Jesse ventures into the Dimensional Research sector of the Oldest House. Wading through a reddish desert sand, she climbs the stairs to find a large projection room where she sees an “echo” image of  five pillars surrounded by amber sand — evidence that the object of power was once used in the room to contact what is believed to be Polaris, the dimensional being traveling in Jesse’s mind. Once inside the lab, Jesse finally stumbles upon Dr. Darling’s best kept secret: that Polaris is being kept prisoner in dimensional research, and is called Hedron by the staff.

With this reveal, the underlying backstory of Control comes into greater focus. The HRAs — or Hedron Resonance Amplifiers — that allowed some of the FBC staff to escape possession by the Hiss channels are really devices that channel the energy of Hedron to keep away the demons from other dimensions. Hinted at for a majority of the game, Jesse’s immunity to the Hiss comes from the fact the Polaris lives within her, protecting her psyche from their penetrating effects.

Control Ending

Described as a living being with a geometric shape, Hedron is supposedly kept prisoner in a large, egg-shaped orb in the next chamber, and is protected by a giant HRA. To get in, Jesse rips the shield down and bursts into the room, exposing Hedron’s cell to the evil of the Hiss. After fighting her way to the center of the chamber, the cell is ripped open to reveal…nothing.

At this point, Hiss chanting begins, and the screen is awash with red. Jesse is shown to be fighting against the Hiss, and is in pain. She succumbs to the force, and becomes a part of their hive mind, chanting the “you are a worm through time.”

At this point, the credits for Control roll, implying that the game has ended and Jesse’s battle has been lost. After about fifteen seconds, the text begins to fragment and distort, transforming into the Hiss chant that has dominated the game and tortured Jesse. The screen fades to white, then to black.

Control then continues, as Jesse awakens in business clothes on the executive level of the Oldest House, which is shown to be functioning as if the Hiss never invaded. She is tasked with menial office work, like making copies, delivering letters, and cleaning up coffee cups, all while being verbally abused by side characters from earlier in the game. She delivers mail to Director Trench’s office, and has a vision of herself in the director’s chair, with Dylan killing her using the Service Weapon. She says “this isn’t me, I’m not me. Why can’t I feel you?” as she calls out to Polaris.

She is then transported again to the same part of the executive level of the Oldest House, and is tasked with the same office work. Jesse goes back to Trench’s office and finds him lost in thought, rambling about the dangers of Hedron, and that the Hiss will save them. He says that he has a special slide for the Projector that first exposed him to the possession of the Hiss. In a flashback, he is shown turning the projector on and then being shot by Dylan, who is subsequently seen sitting in the director chair.

Control Ending

Jesse is now once again transported to the floor of the Oldest House, which has gotten redder and more ominous. She makes her way to Trench’s office, and finds the Director chanting the Hiss’ speech, bathed in red light. She shoots Trench, and takes his chair, saying “I am the Director.” She receives a call from Dr. Darling that tells her to go to his office to find the endgame.

Inside, Jesse finds a pullcord to the Oceanview Motel, and uses a key to open a new hallway door. Inside, she find Polaris, embodied by Jesse’s form. Polaris tells her to “Grow brighter. Around one constant, they revolve.” Jesse concludes that Hedron put Polaris in her head, or that Polaris was triggered by the dimensional being. She says, “Maybe I’ll never understand. Maybe I don’t need to.”

Jesse makes her way to the Nostalgia department to confront Dylan, who is seen after she uses the slide projector. She fights her way to Dylan, and cleanses him of the Hiss. Dylan then lapses into a coma, and Jesse is shown taking up the mantle of Director of the Oldest House. She ends by announcing that she is working with Polaris to continue fighting the Hiss to clean up the Department of Control.

On to Speculation

Now, despite Control’s ending being spelled out, the ambiguity and depth of Sam Lake’s writing leaves an incredibly large amount of plot up to speculation and guess. Sure, a large number of clues are buried deep within the game’s enormous amount of lore pieces, but even with these details there is still a lot that is open for interpretation. What follows is my best guess about what Control’s ending means.

Hedron and the Hiss

It’s no surprise that Hedron and the Hiss are two most important plot elements in Remedy’s Control. Described as inter-dimensional beings that were accessed through the altered slide projector, these two forces battle for control over the Oldest House. Hedron, in the vaguest sense, embodies the light and hope in the world, while the Hiss exemplify darkness and slavery. Together, they form a yin/yang relationship that aligns with the good and evil dichotomy seen in a number of narratives throughout history.

This balance-of-opposites relationship is symbolized by both of the beings through their representations in Control’s ending. Hedron, named because of its shape, is shown only in Jesse’s psyche as a geometric, angular creature — almost like a strand of DNA. The Hiss, in contrast, are shown as flowing and shapeless, like a smearing of blood on a glass tile. Polaris, a representation of Hedron, is light, flowing, and angelic, while the Hiss are crimson-colored, quick, and oozing.

The Struggle for the Director’s Chair

In this dimensional struggle between literal good and evil, Jesse and Dylan are the symbolic representations of their respective force. Jesse, literally in tune with Hedron through her Polaris connection, is the representation of the forces of light in the narrative. On the other hand, Dylan is the physical embodiment of the Hiss throughout the narrative, and is used interchangeably in cutscenes to represent the force. For both of these characters, the Director’s chair and role symbolizes the control that each of these characters want; taking the chair means possessing the inter-dimensional realm of the Oldest House.

In the cutscene that shows Trench’s suicide and Dylan holding the Service Weapon, Dylan represents the Hiss’ power within Jesse and the Director’s mind. While Dylan is shown pulling the trigger to kill Trench, it is literally the power of the Hiss possession within the Director that make him end his life. Similarly, Jesse is shown with a gun to her head and Dylan holding the gun interchangeably, implying that the Hiss were going to have Jesse end herself as well. Dylan was not the killer — it was the power of the Hiss that forced them to commit action outside of their control.

Ahti The Janitor

One of the best mysteries of Control’s ending has to do with Ahti, the janitor for the Oldest House. An interesting and well-written character, many speculate that he is a physical embodiment of the Oldest House, or some sort of a ghost that haunts its halls, but he is really another inter-dimensional force — similarly to Hedron and the Hiss — that balances the scales of the universe to ensure that everything is harmonious. There is even the possibility that Ahti is connected to Polaris in some way, as he appears to have the ability to read Jesse’s mind. This detail comes from Trench’s dialogue during Control’s ending that appears to reference Ahti: “there was this man. Sometimes he was a plumber…unclogging the drain — because there was a big fish stuck there, a big fish — but sometimes he was an old god, you see, and he had put the fish there to keep the waste, there was rising waste, from leaking out. So, he was conflicted.”

It seems very likely that Ahti is the old god mentioned in the Director’s ramblings, balancing the order of the universe in order to keep everything working smoothly. Working like an all-knowing diety, Ahti orders and aligns the dimensional forces that are fighting for control of the world, both helping things flow while clogging things up in order to prevent the spread of unbalanced evil, all while allowing both sides to struggle against each other to create harmony. In this balancing act, he is shown to be conflicted and unsure of his role, growing tired with the struggle to maintain the delicate balancing act, and seeking a way out.

As for his long-awaited vacation, Control’s ending is significantly more vague. It could be that Ahti is done ordering the universe and ready to give up his overseeing role, receding into the darkness and leaving Jesse and her connection with Polaris to handle the world. If he is somehow connected to Polaris, it would also explain why he chose her as assistant in taking care of the Oldest House, eventually giving her the role once she was trained enough.

The Poster

The poster is one of the most frequently reoccurring motifs in Control, being constantly referenced from the beginning to the end. An overt reference to the film The Shawshank Redemption, the poster symbolizes the veil of normalcy that covers the opening of paranormal horrors that lie beneath. In the film, the poster covered a hole dug by one of the prisoners that was used to escape to freedom, and the game adopts a similar view. In Control, the poster represents the perceivable reality that takes place in everyday life, and it is this reality that covers the darker secrets of the universe. These mysteries are exposed and released once the poster is removed, affecting anyone and reshaping their view on the nature of reality and existence.

The Motel

The Oceanview Motel is an incredibly interesting concept within Control, and although it doesn’t factor much into ending, it still plays a small part. It is described as a meeting place for dimensions that is connected to the Oldest House; there are other doors within the Motel that can’t be opened, presumably linked to other paranormal places within the world, but no one from the Department of Control has ever walked through them. It is implied that Ahti spends time there, namely due to his janitor closet, and Polaris is accessed through a door at the end.

While the Motel is definitely a concrete place on earth, it does not adhere to the common laws of reality, making it some sort of liminal space between realities and dimensions. In Control, it seems to exist as a paranormal hub between worlds, bringing people from all kinds of places and realities to one unified location.

While these are speculations about Control’s ending and lore, there are likely plenty that we have missed. What do you think about our ideas? What did we miss? What are your speculations about Control? Leave a comment below!

Ty is here to talk gaming and chew bubblegum, but he's all out of gum. Writer and host of the Stadia Wave Podcast, he is an Animal Crossing Fanatic, a Mario Kart legend, and a sore loser at Smash. Add him on Switch @Creepshow101, PSN/Live at Grimelife13, or Stadia at Grimelife and play!

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Jc413

    September 8, 2019 at 9:46 pm

    Woah, I didn’t think of this. Good stuff

  2. John R

    September 28, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    Good analysis. I’m sure that some of the other motel doors will open in the inevitable DLC expansion packs

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club have also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for a built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produce hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode like I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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Games

Interview with John Staats, First-Level Designer for ‘World of Warcraft’

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with John Staats, first-level designer for the launch version of World of Warcraft.

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The first iteration of World of Warcraft, often called “Vanilla WoW,” has a strong pull of nostalgia for many fans. From inspiring countless other MMOs, to imbuing an entire generation of players with memories that they will never forget, to inspiring Blizzard to re-release it earlier this year, Vanilla’s footprint is undeniable.

Recently, I had the chance to talk to John Staats, a first-level designer on World of Warcraft‘s initial launch, to discuss his recent book, The Wow Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development, which chronicles his own personal experience with developing WoW‘s initial release.

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In a lot of ways, The WoW Diary reminds me of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. Both books address the challenges of game development, including the incredible amount of hours that game developers work and the dreaded “crunch” when a project has to be delivered on time. Your section on how your colleagues described their work on StarCraft was particularly interesting. What do you think is the public’s biggest misconception about how developers work?

The biggest misconception is how expensive developers are! Most publishers and studio heads are always portrayed as the bad guys, but the truth is there’s so much risk in game development, it’s just insane. If a company is upfront about long hours, then I see no problem with longer hours to some point. Unfortunately, the law isn’t so flexible. After WoW shipped, we dropped to capped 40-hour weeks (mandatory) and it sucked. Everything was so schedule-conscious that we stopped experimenting.

Studios are all different. Some people asked if unions were the answer, and they might help in some cases, but they would make other situations worse. There would certainly be fewer games out there without crunches. I dunno. I’m from Akron, Ohio. I’m just happy to have worked in the entertainment industry!

As a developer, even at somewhere like Blizzard, fan feedback seems like it’s able to affect team morale. In the book, you mention a few cases of this. What was it like to work under the pressure of fan expectations?

World of Warcraft feedback wasn’t nearly as bad as Warcraft III, because the company was too quick to promote their first 3D title. Making a 3D game has such a sharp, painful learning curve that engine re-writes caused long delays. The fans were unfamiliar with the long waits associated in making 3D games, so they were especially angry.

The class designers definitely had it bad on World of Warcraft. People never post when they’re happy, the forums are usually very negative. And there’s strange “voodoo” where people report glitches or errors that aren’t really there. There’s a LOT of voodoo reports that designers need to verify, and that eats up their schedule.

Kevin Jordan once joked that he was going to claim to be a character artist at the launch party signing table, just to avoid being drawn into discussions about rogues versus shaman duels. For the most part, WoW was so much better looking, better playing, better running than the competition, we had it easy. Still, we put pressure on ourselves: for the most part, the fans were pretty cool.

World of Warcraft

You state in the book that you got your start in modding computer games on the PC. Did you have any prior experience with other game systems, or was your only experience with the PC?

PC only. I was actually a Macintosh user exclusively because I was in advertising in NYC. I bought my first PC in the mid-1990s. As a Mac person, there weren’t many games available (thank you, Steve Jobs), so I only played a few titles on my roommate’s machines. They always had to kick me off whenever they came home.  When I got my own, I relentlessly played FPS and strategy games.

One of the more interesting comments that you make in the book, and one that I was curious about while reading, was the following: “Writing stories is so easy it seems nearly half the people in the industry want to do it[…] it’s unreasonable to expect players to follow a storyline, detailed or subtle.” Do you think games are ever capable of delivering complex and subtle stories, or is it beyond the medium’s scope?

I honestly doubt stories will become more subtle for most genres. Most games pull the player’s attention to non-story elements like socialization, user interface, goals, and combat tactics. Looking for things is rarely fun. It’s just too hard to expect the average player to follow nuanced stories… and you never want to risk players becoming confused with your plot.

You use the phrase “computer games” throughout the book instead of the more commonly used “games.” Was there a semantic reason for this?

Ranchers and farmers are in the agricultural industry, they have a completely different set of concerns.

There’s a huge difference in developing computer games versus console games. It’s so much easier to make games for a console. They’re far more predictable, and optimized for specific types of games. Developers are influenced by all kinds of games; pen-and-paper RPGs, tabletop board games, card games, handheld devices… and all of them are very different to produce. I didn’t want to lump everything into the “games industry.”

You mention early on that you’ve suffered “a neurological problem in [your] hands that hinders [you] from using a computer for significant lengths of time.” Given the increasingly interconnected nature of modern society and how much time you spent on computers during your career in the games industry, how hard was it to adjust?

I played FPS games before I became a level designer. I played up to 14-16 hours a day when I had the time. That’s without stopping, BTW. I would eat leftovers between matches. I was nuts.

John Staats World of Warcraft

Blizzard and Nintendo have always seemed like analogous companies to the outside public. Both spend large amounts of time and money crafting games that have long-standing appeal and excellent quality. Both don’t worry about winning the public relations war and, instead, depend on the endemic quality of their games to do the talking for them. Did anyone ever make that comparison inside of Blizzard?

It was a very conscious effort to avoid distractions. There’s so much temptation for some people to jump into every conversation, there was a company-wide mandate to keep your mouth shut. We had Bill Roper for our spokesperson, and if the public thought he personally made all our games, that was fine with the developers (he wasn’t even a dev!). This lets every member of the company, as a whole, take credit for the collective products. Other industry developers will weigh in on every conversation, and journalists will seek out the same developers for opinions. On top of the risk of crossing wires with the company’s official opinion, so much exposure could create jealousy.

At one point in the book, you mention that an acquaintance of yours, Scott Hartin, had worked making console games in Japan and hated it. Was this a common complaint among those who had worked in Japan?

He’s the only person I know who’s worked there, and it was something he said in passing. I thought it such an interested idea, that different cultures tend to work in different ways. Who knows? Perhaps it might have just been the studio he was in, that made them work that way.  

Ragnaros and the Molten Core raid have emerged as a large part of the lore surrounding the vanilla release of World of Warcraft. It’s also something that you mention receiving compliments from fans about. What part of Molten Core are you the most proud of?

I’m proud that we ninja’d it into the shipping game without the producers having it on our to-do list! It was a passion project Jeff Kaplan rallied people around. I’m glad he did. We were working on so many bugs after we shipped, there’s no telling how long it would have taken to update the live servers with a content update like MC.

As a historian, having an oral history of one of gaming’s largest and most influential games is an incredible resource. In the beginning of the book, you say that you struggled with compiling your development diary because, to a large degree, you were afraid of underrepresenting some of your hardest co-workers. In the end, why do you think more oral histories, such as your book, aren’t published?

I can absolutely tell you it’s because the author needs to take notes. I can’t do a sequel to The WoW Diary because I stopped taking notes after we shipped. There’s just no way, I’d get everything wrong, or release a bland, broad-strokes version of how things went down. That’s where my book stands out, the details make the story vivid.

 

World of Warcraft

Blizzard released WoW Classic back in August. What are your thoughts on it?

I’m surprised they did. No one has ever done something like this before. Redoing someone else’s work doesn’t sound like a fun project for developers, who are in nature, creative people. It just isn’t fun to walk in someone else’s footsteps. I’m also keenly interested to see how it plays out. Do they relaunch expansions? Does it affect the retail version? I honestly don’t know, but my popcorn is ready!

Blizzard has been criticized recently for their communication with players. How different does it feel when you are on the corporate side of that relationship?

No one is criticized when your games stink. LOL! Seriously though, complaints never stop, so it’s never a big deal. Whether it’s about lawsuits or controversy, Blizzard usually takes the high road, and disengages from distractions; it lets them focus on what they want to be known for… making good games. I’m glad to see they’re still doing this.

Final question. As something of a hardware nerd, I’ve got to ask, how did developers handle the rapidly progressing technology of the late 90s and early 2000s, when Moore’s Law was in full effect? 

Blizzard games sell well because they target low-end systems. Most studios weren’t, and aren’t, smart enough to realize this. Most studios want to be the first kid on the block to have a shiny new feature. While the industry chased after expensive features that narrowed their audience to customers who had top-end computers, the savvy companies focused on the low-end machines. To answer your question, Blizzard avoided the Moore’s Law trap.

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A big thank you to John Laats for agreeing to be interviewed and providing us with a review copy of his book. If you’re interesting in learning more about John Laats, his work, you can find him at his website.

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