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Media Review: February 2020

Control
Written by ‎Sam Lake, Anna Megill, and Josh Stubbs; directed by Mikael Kasurinen
Developed by Remedy Entertainment, published by 505 Games.
Worldwide release August 27, 2019, for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One

Control begins with a wide angle shot of the facade of a mysterious concrete office building stretching high into the night fog. A woman’s voice deadpans that “this is going to be weirder than usual.” For reasons that become clear over time, our protagonist, a young woman named Jesse, walks into the building and into the lobby of something called the FEDERAL BUREAU OF CONTROL, or so says a sign behind the lobby desk, flanked by American flags. Anyone who has ever entered a U.S. federal building recognizes the style, lighting, and design of the space. The eerie soundtrack undercuts the normalcy of it, however.

As Jesse explores the building, things indeed get weird. She discovers (or, perhaps, rediscovers?) a government branch tasked with protecting the public from supernatural events, only the Bureau has been invaded by a body-snatching evil force Jesse calls the Hiss. In the first few minutes, Jesse picks up a shape-shifting, mysterious gun, an object of power important to the story of Control. Powerful supernatural entities known as the Board inform her that she is now the new director of the Bureau of Control, and it is the director’s duty to save the Bureau from the Hiss infestation. This plays well into Jesse’s personal mission, but to say more about that would be spoilers.

Control has some of the most innovative and interesting visual design, setting, and storytelling elements of any video game I’ve played since the bar-setting Half-Life 2. The developers and writers at Remedy have invested thousands of hours into creating the Oldest House, the enormous, Brutalist-style government building that seems to have no end to its rooms, and the Bureau of Control that resides within it. Background details are scattered everywhere artfully, and the setting is most often explored in short films, documents, and audio recordings. The Oldest House contains countless mysteries.

Mostly, you shoot at the mysteries.

Control would make an amazing setting for a movie or a television show, and I believe the depth of its storytelling is definitely inspired by those mediums. Unfortunately for us, Control is a video game, and modern developers struggle to provide players with something to do besides occasionally pressing an “activate” button and pumping bullets into various human-shaped bad guys. Thankfully, the gunplay is spiced up with a series of psychic powers that Jesse can unlock, and the gravity-gun-inspired telekinetic powers are very satisfying to use. This is good, because to complete the storyline of Control, you will be using those powers hundreds, if not thousands of times.

A little shooting gameplay is fine by me, and the game does its best to break it up with other mechanics and truly genius level design here and there, but predominantly, the actual gameplay mechanic it leans most heavily on is the shooting. Worse, Control’s difficulty spikes in odd ways. I was thankful some boss fights were optional because I couldn’t beat them despite dozens of attempts. Given Control’s rich back story and setting, it’s a shame that it doesn’t have a difficulty slider to allow busy adults with families (like me) the opportunity to experience the story without being forced to shoot several hundred Hiss-controlled FBI agents. There’s an RPG-style experience system like most shooters have these days to unlock upgrades, but I found the need to grind and upgrade mostly annoying. I forced my way through the story only fighting when it was required to advance my current mission and the story.

My frustration with endless gunfight was only matched by my obsession with learning more about the Oldest House, the Bureau, and the characters Jesse meets along the way. The Oldest House is a fascinating setting for a video game, and it’s a real testament to the design team that I was able to push through my frustration and complete the game. The ending was, as to be expected, somewhat unsatisfying, as Remedy already has plans for several expansions and probably even sequels in the works. That said, there are clever twists and turns to the story that deserve mention without spoiling them.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy my time with Control. I enjoy shooters, so don’t think my dissatisfaction comes from not enjoying the genre. I think my frustration with the gameplay comes from the success of the other elements. The world here is so rich and interesting, I wish I had been provided more tools to interact with it beyond bullets and telekinetic fits. I would love a game in which I play a field agent of the Bureau hunting down objects of power, interviewing witness—perhaps something akin to L.A. Noir. I’m happy to shoot at bad guys sometimes! I just want to do more than that in games today.

There were times that I feel like the game hinted at its own faults, like when Jesse’s dry narration describes the metaphor of a poster on the wall in a room, and how an occupant of the room stares at the poster until they believe that the poster and the room are the whole world. But if one pulls the poster back, there’s a hole, perhaps a passage out of room to the “real world.” The metaphor represents the known world that we all believe in in Control. Remedy wants their game to be like pulling back the poster and revealing the hidden real world. In this, it’s only a partial success. The worldbuilding and setting evoke that sense. There is a greater world inside of Control, but when you pull back the poster, what is revealed is not only the clever setting and the Bureau’s history; it’s also is the mostly unsatisfying gunplay of a standard-issue modern shooter.

I will return to the Oldest House when expansions are released because I still hunger for information about the world of the game. If you can stomach the gameplay, your time there will be rewarded.

Jeremiah Tolbert

Jeremiah Tolbert has published fiction in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, Seeds of Change, Federations, Polyphony 4, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. He’s also been featured several times on the Escape Pod and PodCastle podcasts, and his story “The West Topeka Triangle” was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. In addition to being a writer, he is a web designer, photographer, and graphic artist. He lives in Kansas, with his wife and son.