I should make it clear up front that this isn’t one of my long-form reviews that analyzes the entire plot of a game. This is just a short (by the standards of this site) and spoiler-free review. It’s just three entries long, and you can read all of them without worrying that I’m going to reveal any of the game’s big mysteries or plot-points. These articles will actually reveal less about the story than the trailer.
Over the years I’ve found quite a few games where I was into the gameplay but didn’t like the story. So it’s really surprising when I run into a game that reverses this. Control’s world constantly fascinated me and the story had me hooked from the first few minutes. That’s good, because if I didn’t love the world so much then I never would have put up with this combat.
Let’s start with the good stuff.
The Premise, and Why I Love it
Previously I said I loved the “story” of Control, but I think it would be more correct to say that I love the worldbuilding and the overall mood and style of the game. The stuff that hooked me wasn’t so much the central plot itself, but the gradual reveal of this strange world and all its eccentricities.
The characters and their stories are fine, but this isn’t really about them. You’re not going to have any intense melodrama or gut-punch character moments like Life is Strange, Walking Dead Season 1 or Last of Us. The story is mostly a framework to keep you moving forward in anticipation of the next reveal. It works, but the world is the real star of this show.
Take the premise and vibe of your typical Cthulhu story where Old Gods and Unknowable Powers are always trying to creep into our reality and wipe us out / devour us / drive us mad / annihilate our plane of existence. Humanity is hilariously outmatched, always confronting powers and forces beyond their comprehension, and always just barely hanging on. Now take that familiar setting, rip it out of its Victorian framing, and place it in the modern day. There’s a government agency in charge of keeping a lid on this sort of thing. It’s part Men in Black, part X-Files, with maybe a dash of the BPRD from HellboyI’ve also been told it borrows heavily from SCP Foundation, but I wasn’t familiar with that work until after I’d played the game.. The Federal Bureau of Control is an ultra-clandestine organization that operates out of a supernaturally obscured building that you can only find if you’re already looking for it.
You play as Jesse Faden, a civilian who visits the FBC for reasons of her own, but finds herself roped into solving a large-scale breach. Agents have been possessed by some mysterious force called the Hiss, and Jesse’s (initially unexplained) super powers grant her some kind of immunity.
The world is packed with details. The bureau has a history that goes back decades, which makes the world feel genuine and lived-in. A great deal of thought was put into how the world works, how the various supernatural events manifest, how society deals with them, and how the people within the bureau react to their outlandish jobs. One of my favorite bits was finding and reading the many case reports scattered around the gameworld that hint at all these other cool adventures and interesting agents of the past. You get the sense that Jesse’s story, while larger scale than many, isn’t the first adventure to happen inside this building and this is just one of many stories you could tell in this world.
One of my favorite details is that modern computers and smart devices act as magnets for paranormal forces, which means nothing modern is allowed inside the building. So this modern-day government building has this strange timeless quality to it due to the mismash of technologies it employs from different eras.
Above I downplayed the importance of the characters, but I want to stop and draw attention to the one standout in the cast. Dr. Casper Darling is the head researcher at the FBC. His scenes take the form of live-action videos you find scattered around the gameworld. Watching the videos, I couldn’t escape the notion that Dr. Darling was having almost as much fun as the actor who portrayed him. Darling is made of pure charisma and all of his scenes are charming. Most of the laughs in the game are thanks to his antics.
Also by the Author
Control was written by Sam Lake. His style is incredibly distinct. He likes worldbuilding, he likes dark moody stories, and he loves creating fictional media to go in his world. He doesn’t just imagine TV shows and radio programs that exist within his world, he likes to actually produce example episodes for the player to encounter. All of his games mix in some form of live-action images or footage.
Lake wrote the first two Max Payne games. The first is a classic. I know I liked the second entry in the series, but I don’t remember it vividly as the first. Next Lake wrote the Stephen King / Twin Peaks mixtape Alan Wake, and that’s where I kind of turned on him. Alan Wake drove me absolutely crazy. I went in expecting the game to live up to the spooky subject matter suggested by its premise and world, but instead I found it plodding, self-indulgent, tonally confused, and way too proud of its many references and influences.
Lake’s next project was Quantum Break, which I skipped. It was a cross-media project and the gameplay stopped at points to switch to live-action television episodes. That’s an interesting experiment, but it really didn’t sound like something I’d dig.
So I was curious going into Control if we were going to get something brilliant like Max Payne, or something off-kilter like Alan Wake. As it turns out, we got a little of both and it seems to be a pretty good mix. This isn’t a return to the overblown action Noir of Max Payne, but the supernatural stuff allows for some pretty wild visuals and ideas. Control feels like another swing at some of the spooky ideas Lake was messing with in Alan Wake. Except this time he nailed the tone and created a world I really wanted to explore. You can see the similarities between the two worksThe events of Alan Wake are even explicitly referenced in Control, with a single found-item bureau report briefly discussing his adventure., with their references to spooky stories, paranormal shenanigans, and overnight talk radio. But when compared to Alan Wake, the world of Control seems like a much better canvas for the types of games developer Remedy likes to make.
I can get behind a paranormal agent running around a haunted building and getting into gunfights with possessed security guards, but the idea of Joe Novelist running around the woods gunning down haunted rednecks was just too goofy for me. It’s like watching author Stephen King get in a movie shootout. The inherent absurdity overpowers any intended spookiness on the part of the author. I thought Alan Wake (the character) was a dick. I’m pretty sure that was intentional – which means that part of the story was working as intended – but it means I never really cared about his absurd redneck hunting expeditions. For contrast, I think Control‘s protagonist Jesse Faden is a lot more relatable. She’s not as instantly lovable as undercover narcotics officer Max Payne the self-narrating murder mope, but I cared enough about her to see the story through.
Still, playing Control sort of gave me a glimpse of what Lake was probably trying to do with Alan Wake. It doesn’t make me want to play Alan Wake again, but I do retroactively have more respect for the game.
The Oldest House
The world of Control is wonderfully realized. Offices are brimming with detail and authenticity. It doesn’t pester me with the constant fake and video gamey feel I get from shooters set in modern settings. You don’t walk into a room and see a bunch of overturned vending machines and nondescript boxes arranged for a standard cover-shooter encounter.
I’m a sucker for games that make allowances for the needs of gameplay in their story, and Control does a lot of that sort of thing. It explains why the FBC building – called The Oldest House – is sometimes complicated to navigate and why the floor plan doesn’t follow traditional institutional templatesThe Oldest House is a strange thing with a life of its own, and walls shift according to designs that are mysterious even to the people who work there. This also explains how all the lovely environmental damage gets fixed / cleaned up. The building evidently heals itself over time.. There’s an explanation for why loot is stored in boxes for you around the levelsThese boxes are actually containment devices for holding artifacts that are dangerous to normal people. Stuff has a way of going missing in the FBC building, and if someone finds a dangerous object they drop it in one of these boxes. It’s like a sharps container for paranormal objects.. There’s an explanation for why we can’t just call in the army to deal with this massive threatLike, why would the army even DO, aside from get possesed? These special agents are just barely holding on. and why you can’t just solve this problem with a bazookaYou ALREADY have the best weapon in the building, in the form of a supernatural meta-gun with infinite ammo that only you can wield. A bazooka would be a huge downgrade.. There’s an explanation for how the place is funded, why the public never finds out about it, how the bureau is run, and dozens of other amusing little details. A story doesn’t need to do this sort of thing, but I enjoy the attention to detail and the work that goes into making a world that can stand up to a little scrutiny.
Every room looks plausibly like a real space, and when the fights break out they take their toll on the place. Furniture shatters, paper scatters, glass breaks, pillars crumble, and office supplies are knocked far and wide. It feels like fights take their toll on The Oldest House, and as the gameplay ramps up the destruction continues to escalateAlthough areas “heal” when you leave. Again, easily explained by this living building..
The soundscape is captivating, from the mournful atonal background noise, to the eerie chanting of the possessed, to the threatening drone of Hiss-infected areas, The Oldest House evokes a wonderful sense of place and mystery.
Here is an example of the fun ideas this game is toying with: At one point you encounter one of the many videos that FBC research scientist Dr. Darling has recorded. It’s not really related to the plot, he’s just explaining how things work for new recruits. I don’t want to transcribe his scatter-brained dialog, so here’s my synopsis:
An altered item is any object that’s begun to exhibit paranormalCalled paranatural in the game. Potato, potahto. properties. These properties can range from a nuisance (a noise or disruptive movement) to dangerous (it might blind you, confuse you, injure you, kill you, or drive you insane) and it’s not always obvious what the properties are at first glance, which means altered objects are treated the way we would treat nuclear or biological waste: Very, very carefully.
This typically happens to archetypal objects. That is, it happens to objects that humans think about and attach meaning to. A door jamb, a hinge, or a latch are unlikely altered objects. But a door, or the door knob are likely, because they’re more familiar or iconic. A clock would work, but probably not gears. Ductwork no, but possibly a window air conditioner. Ice cubes might work, but probably not a random hunk of ice. A briefcase is likely, but a plain wooden box of the same size is not. The game doesn’t mention it, but I notice all altered objects were man-made. No flowers or tree stumps or beehives. I don’t know if this is important, but I thought it was interesting.
This means that humans have an effect on what objects can become altered objects. Supernatural items are somehow shaped by human language and culture. A clothes wringer would be incredibly archetypical to someone from the first half of the 20th century, but it would be almost unrecognizable to people today. It certainly wouldn’t be “iconic” in the way a drip coffee maker or a stapler are.
That’s a fascinating idea to play with. Of course, this has always been true in fiction. In movies we have haunted houses, baby dolls, weapons, paintings, and lots of other stuff, but you don’t typically have a haunted throw rugs. Writers do this because it makes the haunted item more interesting. Sam Lake took these rules of paranormal fiction and made it an explicit system within the world. People in the FBC are aware of these rules and they use them to guide their procedures and investigations, even if they don’t know why the rules are true.
This is such a fun idea, and it’s one of countless such ideas scattered through Control’s sprawling haunted government building.
In the next entry I’ll get into my problems with the game.
 I’ve also been told it borrows heavily from SCP Foundation, but I wasn’t familiar with that work until after I’d played the game.
 The events of Alan Wake are even explicitly referenced in Control, with a single found-item bureau report briefly discussing his adventure.
 The Oldest House is a strange thing with a life of its own, and walls shift according to designs that are mysterious even to the people who work there. This also explains how all the lovely environmental damage gets fixed / cleaned up. The building evidently heals itself over time.
 These boxes are actually containment devices for holding artifacts that are dangerous to normal people. Stuff has a way of going missing in the FBC building, and if someone finds a dangerous object they drop it in one of these boxes. It’s like a sharps container for paranormal objects.
 Like, why would the army even DO, aside from get possesed? These special agents are just barely holding on.
 You ALREADY have the best weapon in the building, in the form of a supernatural meta-gun with infinite ammo that only you can wield. A bazooka would be a huge downgrade.
 Although areas “heal” when you leave. Again, easily explained by this living building.
 Called paranatural in the game. Potato, potahto.
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Mass Effect Retrospective
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A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.