Control – Sci-Fi, New Weird, and Brutalism
by Jack Sellers
In my review of the Playstation 5 I brought up Remedy Games’ 2019 game CONTROL. I downloaded this game on a whim when it was free for PS Plus members. Upon starting this game it quickly became something that compelled me to sink more and more time into. It begins by revealing a massive skyscraper in the Manhattan skyline that’s never been there, The Oldest House, headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Control. The reveal of this massive, brutalist building is accompanied with narration from protagonist Jesse Faden, “It’s like, we live in a room, and there’s a poster on the wall. We stare at it and we think that’s the whole world, the room and the poster” … “The room’s a cell. And the picture, it’s different for each of us. It can be beautiful or terrible, but we’re all transfixed.” This modern retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave through the lens of Shawshank Redemption (1994) serves as our introduction to the bizarre world that Remedy has crafted, and is a narrative throughline that comes back at pivotal moments throughout the plot. I won’t be getting into spoilers here, but if you truly want to play CONTROL I recommend going in completely blind to experience this wild world of Sci-Fi, New Weird horror, and mundane office spaces.
In CONTROL you’re Jesse Faden, a seemingly ordinary woman in search of her brother, who is thrown into the unknown as she assumes the role of Director of the Federal Bureau of Control following the death of the prior director. This is no ordinary first day on the job though. As you trek through the emptied halls of the Bureau, you will discover that a breakout of some kind has torn through the several departments of the Bureau leaving people floating in the air or corrupted by the sinister frequency of The Hiss. The Hiss is the main enemy you’ll be facing throughout CONTROL. The Hiss is explained to be a sort of resonance that corrupts and brainwashes those that are not wearing Bureau issued Hedron Resonance Amplifiers or HRAs, but for some unknown reason Jesse is unaffected by The Hiss. So, Jesse must find the source of The Hiss and find a way to stop it all while in search of her brother Dylan. So, if there’s a killer frequency out there turning coworkers into monsters trying to kill one another, what is it that the Federal Bureau of Control does?
The Oldest House is chock full of letters, dossiers, and records of Bureau activity dating back to the 1960s. Through these documents—despite copious amounts of information being redacted from them—the player can begin to piece together what it is the Bureau does, before meeting some of the employees and going into the other sectors of The Oldest House. The Bureau deals in what are called Altered World Events (AWEs), Altered Items, and Objects of Power. These three things are paranatural events or objects that change and affect the world around them. Objects of Power in the game are linked to powers that Jesse will unlock throughout the runtime of the game. These objects have specific effects on people that Jesse can then recreate. AWEs are events that are caused by Altered Items and Objects of Power. AWEs occur mostly when these objects get out into the world and are left unchecked.
While the main physical antagonist the player will face is The Hiss, the true antagonist is The Oldest House itself. This is where the genre of New Weird comes in. New Weird is a genre that has taken the place of Lovecraftian horror and is inspired by things like Twin Peaks. Tvtropes.org defines New Weird as “a specific genre of Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror literature that does not follow the conventions of derivative Sci-Fi, Fantasy or Horror, without being an outright parody or deconstruction.” CONTROL occupies a similar genre space to the films Annihilation (2018) and The Void (2016). The first obstacle that players will face is the winding and intricate hallways of The Oldest House that are subject to “building shifts” that are affected by the Hiss and other enemies that occupy the building, and prevent progress. Even when these “building shifts” are corrected when Jesse clears the Hiss from a control point, the building is almost a horror within its own right. The Oldest House is designed like a maze, and every sector has the same design philosophy. That design, as mentioned before, is brutalism, and this philosophy permeates every aspect of this game.
There’s so many bizarre little moments in this game. In fact, the game is almost made up of little moments. Yes, there’s a plot with something of a conventional ending but more so than providing a narrative (it is a great story), the story is an incentive for players to explore The Oldest House. This is perfectly exemplified by one of the early moments of the game. After speaking with Ahti the janitor, Jesse makes a comment in her internal monologue and Ahti responds to her. These moments build upon one another crafting a feeling that the player will come to be familiar with throughout the game. This feeling is almost like the brutalist design of the space they are weaving in and out of. Each new piece of information read builds on the game’s core design. Every line of dialogue is in service of the greater philosophy at play. There is so much to this game and its world. The plot develops its own themes and ideas based on the foundation of the gameplay and world design, but the thing that stood out to me more than anything was the environment in which the player inhabits. In the first paragraph of this I mentioned feeling compelled to sink into this world, and in a way this is the whole point of the game’s design. If Jesse is Alice, then The Oldest House is simultaneously the rabbit hole and Wonderland.