Having never played a Remedy game before (I know, I know), I didn’t really know what to expect from Control. The impression I got from pre-release marketing was another entry in the game industry’s endless list of third-person cover shooters, except maybe with a slightly more intelligent story than your run of the mill crouch ‘n’ fire shooting gallery.
I certainly wasn’t expecting the surreal, trippy game that Control really is. With clear influences from David Lynch and House of Leaves, this is a game that’s about trying to make sense of the nonsensical, and slowly unravelling the web of an increasingly bizarre story as you piece together what exactly the top-secret Federal Bureau of Control really is.
It’s the sort of game where one Jesse Faden can seemingly walk in off the street—despite the FBC’s headquarters being supernaturally protected from prying eyes—be guided to the Director’s office by the shifting walls of a building that defies the laws of physics, find the former Director dead on the floor, pick up the convulsing, deformed gun he seemingly killed himself with, and then suddenly become the new director because the gun chose her. (It didn’t just choose her on a whim; it transported her to the Astral Dimension and challenged her to escape, success at which granted her directorship and failure at which would have given her death.)
It’s the sort of game where you navigate a huge, abstract office building with posters on the wall advising staff on what to do if the room they’re in starts to suddenly change shape, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. It’s the sort of game where having to flick a light switch three times to get transported to a mysterious hotel, in which you need to solve a simple escape room puzzle, giving you the key to another light switch to flick three times is just a normal way of navigating the building.
It’s this juxtaposition of the outlandish and the mundane that makes Control so fascinating. In the day to day, the Federal Bureau of Control is just another bureaucratic organisation, and you can see this in the (deliberate) lifelessness of much the decor: drab grey walls abound in the office areas; the in-house power plant is pure industrial functionality; the medical wing is sterile and demuhanising. But then odd little anachronisms, like the ever-present pneumatic mail tubes and CRT TVs, give the facility an odd disjointed feeling. Physical anomalies, like a records room with filing cabinets stacked a good hundred meters high or a room that twists around like a screw, add to that disjointed feeling to create a constant sense of unease.
More than just set dressing, this surreal quality is at the heart of the story that Control tells. Like any work of paranormal fiction, Control wants to challenge the idea that the world is as we see it, and it does so through a tale that sees Jesse wrapped up in the increasingly strange mysteries surrounding the FBC.
When she first arrives, the building is in total lockdown. (How did she get in?) Some sort of paranormal phenomena has leaked into the Oldest House—as the FBC’s headquarters is known—corrupting almost everyone inside and turning them into zombie-like killing machines. Armed with the gun that made her Director, Jesse’s first goal is to try help the survivors to… well, keep surviving until they can figure out what’s causing “The Hiss” to attack.
On one level, this is an obvious conceit to set up the gunplay at the heart of Control‘s more action-oriented moments. But on another, it plays off the tired old video game trope of a generic “infection” turning people into things to kill, taking said trope in a surreal direction. This is especially apparent towards the end of the game, when you start to finally understand what The Hiss really is and how it works.
Jesse has another, more personal goal, too: to find her brother, Dylan, who was taken by the FBC when they were kids. Needless to say, this goes from being a simple source of character motivation at first to something much more than that—and without saying too much, suffice to say that everything keeps coming back to questioning what we “know” to be the limits of our physical universe.
While it’s a fascinating story overall that delivers brilliantly on the surreal setup, I have one major bone to pick: the ending. Without going into details (for obvious reasons), there’s a lot of late game build-up before a very sudden, very abrupt ending. I’m all for games that don’t feel the need to tie up every last loose end, but Control‘s issue isn’t so much about things not getting wrapped up so much as just it feeling like it was cut short—like when a TV show suddenly gets canned and the writers have to scramble to pull together a finale. I don’t know if the plan is to provide a more satisfying conclusion when the inevitable DLC drops, but either way, the story in Control as it ships just feels incomplete. It’s a disappointing end to an otherwise engrossing adventure.
Though it’s much more story-heavy than your typical shooter, gunplay still sits at the heart of Control. Paranormal trappings notwithstanding, you’re mostly still playing with the archetypal shooter weapons (a pistol, an automatic rifle, a shotgun, a sniper rifle) and against archetypal shooter enemies. However, what sets Control apart from most other third-person shooters is an emphasis on mobility instead of just crouching behind cover forever.
Most cover is very destructible, leaving you vulnerable before long, and enemies are generally good at flanking and forcing you out. But the biggest catalyst for mobility is Control‘s health system: instead of regenerating health, enemies drop health-restoring crystals when they die. Trying to wage a battle of attrition is a losing game, especially when attacks hurt as much as they do in Control. If you want to not die, you have to constantly be on the move to pick up those crystals—which, given they drop at the spot where you kill a foe, are almost always going to be in places you aren’t.
The other unique touch to Control‘s gunplay is Jesse’s supernatural prowess. As you work through the story and sidequests, you gain helpful new abilities that let you launch objects at enemies, form debris into a shield in front of you, mind-control low-health foes, and even levitate. All of these feed into the basic shooter loops in interesting ways: a shield is temporary cover when there otherwise wouldn’t be any; thrown objects are good for dismantling enemy shields or continuing your barrage while your gun reloads itself; and so on.
Control also shows welcome restraint when it comes to enemy encounters. For the most part, it’s quite content to let you go for long stretches without pulling a trigger as you explore the Oldest House in search of its many secrets, and using scripted enemy encounters as a way of controlling the narrative pace more than forcing in extraneous “gameplay”. This becomes less true when you step away from the main story progression, though; if you feel like backtracking in search of secrets, or pursuing side quests, you can expect a lot more sudden Hiss appearances to get in the way. They’re more of a mild nuisance more than anything, but given how big a role exploration plays in Control—and how much stuff there is to find—they’re a nuisance nonetheless.
But mildly annoying enemy encounters outside the flow of the main story are hardly a reason to avoid Control. Remedy is a developer known for making games that go beyond being just another shooter, and Control is proof of that. This is a tale of surreal paranormal science fiction that’s not to be missed.