There’s a moment at the start of this game that more or less defines it for me. I also think it’s a thing that a lot of players would miss, except maybe a transient feeling of disorientation, a hazy recognition that some fundamental but hard to determine rule has been broken with the casual disregard of dream logic, almost instantly forgotten. But I didn’t miss it. And suddenly questioning my very perception of reality, I doubled back to confirm that I wasn’t, in fact, going mad.
I wasn’t (not this time, anyway), but Control had done something entirely unprecedented in my 30-something years of playing video games. And it was the first in a series of entirely unprecedented events that, by the end, had established OOPs, AWEs, and “fridge duty” as concepts that totally make sense, and my perception of reality as naive and irrelevant. Because this game is entirely unprecedented.
Okay, so its influences aren’t exactly subtle, but (unprecedentedly?) diverse and eccentric – Control is a mashup of Remedy’s previous games Alan Wake and Quantum Break with some Lovecraftian cosmic dread and campy 80s horror movie tropes mixed in. Also, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and new weird genre conceits cribbed out of China Miéville’s The Tain. It’s Gormenghast on conspiracy-grade hallucinogens, reconstructed in brutalist geometry and transdimensional ambiguity and vintage photo filters. It’s the redacted accounts from /r/nosleep and the SCP Foundation, deleted for public safety. It’s about 30 hours of
Control is the unique result of that complex equation, a sum of its parts that can’t even be calculated because the numbers are now ducks. Or mould. Or flamingos. It depends on the case and the subject’s emotional state, perhaps, but additional testing is scheduled.
The game introduces the Federal Bureau of Control, an ultra-classified governmental agency responsible for the investigation and management of paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Or paranatural phenomena, according to FBC procedural documents, that don’t even exist, also according to FBC procedural documents. You’re Jesse Faden, protagonist and new Director of the FBC, but you didn’t actually apply for the job and the circumstances of your appointment are, uh, unconventional. Because everything about the FBC is unconventional like that.
And I’m not telling you anything else about Control’s plot, because this is a game you want to play with zero clues. There’s a reason the trailers are incomprehensible, and it’s not because a marketing synopsis of the game is impossible. But that too. If I can convince you of one thing before you play it, DON’T READ THE SPOILERS.
Instead, I’ll tell you that Control is a third-person shooter somewhat reminiscent of the 2017 Prey reboot but… different, and also a Metroidvania game, which was kind of unexpected, although I’ll concede that I dunno what I even expected. As such, this is a game that expands over time, opening up new spaces and opportunities as you acquire the requisite abilities – and The Oldest House, the FBC’s unpredictable HQ, has many new spaces and opportunities for its recently designated Director to find. Oooooh, and secrets. A lot of players are going to miss these too, and if I can convince you of one other thing before you play it, don’t miss them. Examine every collectible, explore every corner, punch every ostensible dead-end of the corridor. Much of the game’s absurd context is explained in office correspondence, memos and reports, and other things, even environmental cues, and without this info, Control’s conclusion is going to be an anticlimax. Even more of an anticlimax, I mean, but two expansions are planned so that’s not necessarily a problem, and besides, at the FBC, anticlimaxes are probably preferred outcomes because the alternative would potentially be even-even more of a problem. Which is worse? I won’t (can’t) tell you, but if you’re an Alan Wake mega-fan like me, lol no, I’m not telling you about that either.
Buuuuut if you solve the perpetual motion desk novelty toy puzzle – and there’s definitely a perpetual motion desk novelty toy puzzle – please let me know the methodology. This is important scientific research for the FBC’s files.
And so are most of Control’s side missions, which aren’t so much side missions as supporting main missions because in this game, you level up by completing missions of both types – so if you skip side missions, your level ups are limited, and you’re going to get stuck. Inconveniently, some the game’s side missions are also its most difficult and the game doesn’t even include difficulty modes, so get used to getting stuck. Like fridge duty, it’s an inevitable occupational hazard at the FBC. But not as bad as fridge duty, if that’s some consolation.
Visually, Control is absolutely astounding. Who knew concrete could be so provocative? The game’s levels feature some of the most surreal design I’ve ever seen, using vertical space and inconstant architecture to create a kind of ambient drama of its own, unfolding (sometimes literally) in sync with Control’s narrative. The Oldest House is basically an NPC, its dialogue spoken not with words, but improbable proportions and nauseating wallpaper.
Such aesthetic extravagance comes at a cost, however, and launching in this console generation’s finale, Control is pushing those hardware limits. Although it maintains a mostly consistent 30 FPS at 4K on my Xbox One X, there’s some occasional frame drop, and the load times for saves and location transitions can go up to about 30 seconds. The game’s minimap also has intermittent glitches, not rendering properly onscreen – but this one feels like an issue that’s fixable with an update. The frame drop and load times, not so much.
Control is extraordinary, a genre- and generation-defining game that exceeds even Remedy's most outré diversions. Bizarre but unpretentious, and hypnotically compelling from start to finish, this is an instant classic and a contender without equal for the case of games as art.
Mesmerising level design
Original and intriguing premise, with superb writing
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