Control might be the best looking video game I have ever played on my computer. The brutalist architecture as a static setting, coupled with the movement of combat, produces a spectacle that few other shooting games can match. Like a museum exhibit gone wrong. The analog equipment in “The Oldest House,” the cubicles, the computers running a local network, the binders, the spooled film ready to project, and all the papers promising possibly decades of information on the paranormal, are all set to fly in the most hectic fights. Were the game coupled with what Remedy used to provide — a gritty noir story of a down-and-out cop looking for the wrong combination of justice and revenge — I would have told you that Control could have been the best game of the generation. Unfortunately I cannot.
Thanks to Epic Games, I was able to play Control for free. I do not want to discredit this context, because a free game should always be a delight. Had I played the game after having paid money, I might have had a disproportionately higher or lower respect for the experience, either as a justification or as an attack, respectively. But because of this free introduction, I started out loving Control. I read every collectible and spent an inordinate amount of time scrutinizing every PSA poster on the wall, tried to solve various whiteboard markings on stands scattered throughout. I even zoomed in as best I could on binders littered on tables. Like a spy in a John le Carré novel, I paid attention to all the boring details, because that is what I felt the game was insisting I do. But ultimately, its own incredible atmosphere would be its downfall.
Something had clearly gone wrong at the Federal Bureau of Control. A lockdown was in place, and the lobby was deserted. When I set off the metal detector, no agent offered to search me. And when I walked into the office of Director Trench to find he had committed suicide, it was clear that all sense of the titular word had been lost.
Like Dead Space and Bioshock before it, a space gone bad is always preferable for a video game. Unlike those games, I started wishing that I had been a character during the stable portion of the FBC’s operation, rather than sent to pick up the pieces. The stories of the agents that I collected presented a world much more granular, specific, and articulate, than the soon-to-be generic spaces Jesse sees in Control. One of the trade offs of choosing a bureaucratic office like The Oldest House is that, though it’s easier to render the same exploding objects when they are all the same copies of one another, exploring it outside of combat saps the world of its charm. The game, of course, throws many exquisite spaces that mix up the standard exploratory routine. And each location feels thematically different. But the way those worlds are filled invite more thought for what came before, rather than how it feels now. No one wishes in Dead Space that the creepy blood messages and lit candles were not there. Instead of fighting the Hiss in the same room for the third time, with all the objects strangely reset, I wanted to be in that space as an introductory employee, making coffee and running copies.
My mind, as a result, ran wild with speculation. At one point, Jesse implies that “you” had led her to the facility, as well as to various places in the FBC, suggesting some hand running her consciousness. She calls this being Polaris. I had assumed that Remedy had gone metatextual, hinting that Jesse’s Polaris was in fact you, the player, and that we were about to tap into a world that realized it was connected to a real one that played it. Or, I thought, that it seemed so obvious that Dylan, Jesse’s brother, either did not exist, or was the same person as Jesse. Which is one of several possibilities that Dylan hints at. The FBC, similar perhaps to Shutter Island, would go along with Jesse’s perspective in the hope that she would snap out of her psychosis. And I secretly wondered whether Control was promised to be a live-service single player game. Jesse at one point seems inordinately happy exploring the FBC for an indefinite amount of time. And Dylan hints towards this direction again, suggesting he had a dream about a game that, though being boring, could be played in this way. A constantly shifting world with downloadable content that could change up The Oldest House, thus lending itself to the lore it painstakingly builds.
People who have played the game know that none of this is true. Control seems more interested in asking questions than providing answers. And, conceptually, I have always been on board with that philosophy. But the more I played, the more I felt that the questions asked were the wrong ones, and the answers fell short of the promises of the visual aesthetic.
To me, there is a distinct problem with narrative feedback in Control. In combat, this is not the case. Launching objects, and seeing them collide with Hiss, is so satisfying that, even after a dozen hours in, I giggle a little with a kind of boyish glee. Like when you would make rube goldberg contraptions as a child. No, I am talking about the story and its feedback. Exactly 0% of Jesse’s internal dialogue phrases were of the kind that, I felt, improved the story. In fact, many of the responses seemed designed to curtail further exploration of a phrase or concept. Sometimes Jesse would spoil the fun of having to solve something for myself. Like the straight angles of the architecture, any hang up was smoothed over. In contrast, many of my attempts, as I mentioned earlier, to understand the world through its environment felt sterile. Compare this to, say, Bioshock, where astute explorers can find posters with the phrase, “Who is Atlas?” thus inviting doubt for our mystery quest giver. In Outer Wilds, paying attention to the environment is the only tool for progression, to such an extent that whole planets cannot be explored without the right knowledge.
There are those who might respond, “ Control is not trying to be one of the best puzzle games of all time. It’s trying to be an action-adventure third-person shooter.” In that regard, Control ‘s story feels awkwardly attached and deceptively simple. Each area is padded with minutiae that may feel, to Remedy, like they are exploring a world, but there is little that we take with us with each side gig. Jesse enters the FBC to find Dylan, things go bad, and she is somehow made Director in order to get the organization back on track. She will restore a powerplant before it overloads, investigate a research facility, and attempt contact with her brother in the Panopticon. Each moment feels threadbare, as does the moments in between. Where Max Payne would have offered thoughtful asides, Jesse’s feel like quips.
Bioshock is an obvious comparison for its “gone bad” approach and for its action gameplay, so it is easy to use as a comparison. And one of the obvious missing elements in Control is the lack of attention to characters to help anchor the world. Rapture has the surgeon Steinmam, the artist Sander Cohen, and the scientists Suchong and Tenenbaum. Each character describes the promise of Rapture as well as reveals its social cost. In a totally free society, the moral foundations are not symmetrical and agreed upon by all citizens. What is beauty? What is art? Without constraints, without limits, and the world falls to atomized pieces. Perhaps beauty involves death. Perhaps art involves destruction.
Besides a janitor in Control, no such character brings the paranormal to life. Even Dylan, who as a character arrives too little too late, spouts such gobbledygook, that it lacks any impact. Say what you want about the insanity of the character of Bioshock, but their madness is a hyperrationality. Meaning that it is an ideology taken to extremes. In Control, no such ideologies exist. Not even for Darling, the FBC’s closest chance for a cornerstone character. A piece of art, especially one as interactive as a video game, cannot depict insanity, for the good reason that true insanity is necessarily artless. What games really must depict is radicalization. And, true to its title, Control features characters too good at their job. They’re composed, their clothing pressed and starched, and they are knowledgeable about their work. Much like a Christopher Nolan movie, each person feels hypervigilant about their purpose and their work. Wouldn’t it have been better for not just the world to have cracked, but the people inside? After decades solving the paranormal, it would have made sense for the various entities in The Oldest House to develop different philosophies about their subject-matter. Those who have succumbed to the Hiss are nonverbal. So those theories, those ideas, go unsaid. Sure, they might appear in collectibles. But all that tells me is that I would rather read this story in a book than play it in a game.
I have been playing Remedy games since the first Max Payne. And the further along we have gone, the more it seems like the story for these games gets shoved to the periphery. After decades, it’s clear that I am simultaneously ecstatic to participate in their approach to combat, but I am wary of how they dedicate themselves to a story. Control is a showpiece, but it is not a thinkpiece. No one doubts the validity of the world on display. Its artistic merits, in scale and in quality, are unmatched, like I said at the beginning of this post. The technical feats of some of the sound design, particularly with the garbled and foggy voices of the Board, or the Hotline mechanic to Trench, or the slip of languages of the Janitor, all combine to create this bizarre experience. But that disappointment in the core elements of story and character ultimately makes the dichotomy more tragic. Instead, Control is a request to let go of the fiction.