Possibly the first video game ever to feature a sentient office building as a character, Control is renowned story-heavy developer Remedy’s most inventive and immersive game yet – as well as their strangest.
If there’s one thing that Finland-based developer Remedy could never be accused of, it’s being predictable. Sure, in recent years they’ve left their Max Payne roots behind and carved out something of a niche for themselves with heavily narrative-driven games that play out like TV or movies – indeed, 2016’s Quantum Break contained its own TV show built right into the game. That, and its predecessor Alan Wake, otherwise had little in common aside from both being ambitious, sprawling stories that combined third-person action with realities that aren’t always as solid as they seem. With Control, only the third Remedy game in nearly ten years, it’s as though they’ve looked back on their recent work, decided it wasn’t anywhere close to weird enough, and set about trying to mess with our minds good and proper.
Again staged as a third-person game, Control puts you inside the head of Jesse Faden, an ordinary woman from a town named Ordinary who arrives at the bleak, grey brutalist-style building that’s the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, an organisation set up to investigate and control paranormal objects and phenomena. She’s searching for her brother, who’s been missing for years after being taken away by the FBC. But when she gets into their offices, it quickly becomes clear that not all is right with the FBC – and not all is as it seems with their building. After picking up the service weapon of the agency’s former director, what seems to be a dull, ordinary office building starts moving and changing around her. Simply by holding the weapon, she has become the new Director, and at a slightly inconvenient time – the building and its personnel have been taken over by a force known as “The Hiss”, and it starts to reveal itself and its powers while she roams the corridors looking for surviving agents. The building, as it turns out, is a kind of weapon in itself. Known as “The Oldest House,” it morphs and changes like a living thing, as Jesse tries to take back control from the malevolent Hiss and their fondness for extremely dramatic red lighting.
Remedy’s games always seem to take a particular pleasure in messing with your mind a little bit, but with Control they’re deliciously unsubtle about it. Like a bunch of the best weird episodes of The X-Files smushed up and let loose inside a geometric concrete box, the story goes off on unexpected tangents and treats the strangest things as absolutely normal. All the while, Jesse (superbly voiced by Courtney Hope, who played Beth in Quantum Break) narrates via an internal monologue that initially sounds like her talking to herself, but which could just as easily be her speaking directly to you, the player – the one in control.
The Oldest House is a sprawling, maze-like office building with many unexpected surprises – including an “Astral Plane” that exists in another dimension inside this deceptively boring structure. The look and feel of the building’s interior is straight out of 1970s office chic – all grey concrete corridors, brown carpets and wood panelling, with vintage film projectors set up instead of video equipment and old radios instead of smart speakers. As you enter a new area of the building, a title in a huge block-caps font slams up on screen to tell you the name of the area. It feels like a bit of a nod to David Fincher’s Mindhunter, despite the subject matter here being completely different. But that’s part of the fun of Remedy’s modern games, in that they’re heavily influenced by current film and TV in so many ways. But those influences are used as a jumping-off point for some really wild, imaginative design and storytelling, and Control is perhaps their most successful effort yet.
“Remedy’s games always seem to take a particular pleasure in messing with your mind a little bit, but with Control they’re deliciously unsubtle about it.”
Part of that success comes from the game’s more expansive design. It’s billed by the developers themselves as a “Metroidvania-inspired experience” – in other words, a large map with sections that only open up after you’ve completed certain challenges or acquired certain abilities. As you progress through The Oldest House and discover the things that lie within, you build up your arsenal of powers and skills which, in turn, help you progress further into the building. There’s plenty of side missions on offer that aren’t needed to complete the game, but it’s best to seek them out and complete them for the power increases they often grant.
As Jesse gathers more abilities and stronger buffs, the game’s combat opens up into something quite strategic – don’t be put off by the early game where all you get is a gun that makes you wait while it reloads itself. The boss fights, when they appear, can be brutal – and the game has no difficulty setting. But it seems there’s some cleverness going on under the hood, as when one initially annoying early boss repeatedly two-hit Jesse to death, it initially seemed frustrating and unfair. But the game was trying to gently teach us to use the room to our advantage, all the while reducing the number of shots it took to kill the boss before he got within face-punching distance. It’s done well enough that it never feels like the game’s just letting you win, just tuning itself to match your play style. In that way, it feels similar to the wonderful Hellblade, another game that doesn’t let brutal difficulty get in the way of a good story.
Control runs on the same in-house engine as Quantum Break, and for the most part it looks great. But it’s not exactly pushing next-generation graphics quality in any way; the cutscenes are awkward, and the game world’s physics are almost comical at times. Jesse’s animations are limited, and if she brushes up against a desk or bumps into any furniture, it tumbles away like it’s a plastic model inside a snow globe. It mostly seems to fit with the mood and theme of the game world, as well as the almost platform-like hyper-real design of the game itself. Still, while more graphical refinement would have been nice, the compromises made here don’t get in the way of gameplay.
Soaked in eerie atmosphere while managing to generate the sort of tension normally found in survival horror games – and superbly acted by a great cast – Control is Remedy at their best. Freed from the rigid structure of previous games, they’ve crafted something that manages to feel familiar and inviting, yet uniquely and deliciously weird.
Control is available now for PS4 and Xbox One.