I’m Not Entirely Certain… But I Think I Might Hate Control?
Spoilers ahoy for the entirety of Control.
The opening 30 minutes of Control are really strong. It presents you with new concept after new concept, each of which sparks a whole load of questions and ideas about what direction the story might be taking. “Who’s Jesse talking to when she uses the second person? Is she talking to me? Is this a thing like Zach from Deadly Premonition? What the hell is the deal with this janitor? Why’d Trench kill himself? Why are ‘archetypical objects’ banned from The Oldest House? Hey, why is it called The Oldest House? What the hell is up with The Board?”
Control isn’t a game that I’d been particularly excited about. It’d seemed kinda neat, but I haven’t played any Remedy games before, and nothing about it really stuck out to me. But once it released, I heard such a constant stream of praise from both friends and critics that I felt compelled to check it out.
After that opening half hour, I was completely bought in. Each new idea was more compelling than the last, and it was all wrapped up in a pretty novel presentation style, for video games anyway. “Experimental” is a bit too generous of a term to use, but they’re, y’know, going for something, which is more than you can say about a lot of AAA titles. The cutscenes are intercut with a bunch of different imagery: ultra-close-ups of Jesse’s eyes, The Board’s inverted pyramid, multiple shots of the former Director super-imposed over each other, Ahti the janitor mopping up a black void, some kind of bloody smear oozing around the screne, and an abstract spiral of overlapping rectangles that appears any time Jesse addresses… whoever it is she’s addressing in the narration.
The opening establishes so many things for you to expect from what’s to come. It suggests that the game’s gonna present a lot of weird, surreal concepts, and that presumably, it’ll be exploring the mysteries that it tipped you off to from the start. It also establishes a cinematic language that suggests that it’s going to be exploring all of that with a pretty unique sense of style.
And… I don’t really think it follows through on any of that.
I guess let’s start with the easy part? Presentationally, the game sort of plays its entire hand in that opening section. The editing and cinematography don’t really develop or change at all as things progress. Instead, you just get repeats of the same bloody smear, the same ultra-close-ups, the same shot of people standing ominously in a void. These shots don’t come to mean anything different or deeper, and they’re never expanded upon or added to. It doesn’t end up feeling much to me like these shots are being used to say something, beyond like, “ain’t this creepy?” And, sure. It is. For a while. Especially when it’s combined with the game’s really great soundtrack. But at some point pretty early on, all these little aesthetic flairs started to feel old hat. They’re not annoying or anything, but they’re also not gripping in the way they are during the opening chapters.
I think the game’s art direction suffers from a similar problem. The Oldest House is a great setting, and the warped brutalist architecture is really striking when you first see it, even moreso the first few times it shifts and changes before your eyes. But, a couple hours in, I was starting to feel a little bored by it. The Oldest House is a place where the logic and structure of reality don’t really exist. It’s supposed to be a place that’s constantly changing, and constantly challenging your perception. I don’t think Control really does enough to sell that idea. The only means the game has of demonstrating The Oldest House’s nature is by having hallways twist around, and by having an area that’s both outside and inside at the same time. These are neat tricks, but they’re also old tricks that I’ve seen in dozens of other games. I never truly felt confused or unsettled by The Oldest House’s geography or geometry. The setting’s visual creepiness never really develops past the point it starts at.
It just feels like, for a game that’s selling itself almost entirely on creepy surrealism, there’s a shortage of ideas in how to actually portray that surrealism. Which is weird, because Control is bursting with ideas. Every collectible you can find hints at something strange and fantastical. But… so little of that is actually made manifest in the game itself. None of the Objects of Power or Altered Items you interact with feel all that world-bending. They’re supernatural, to be sure, but for the most part the effects they have just don’t do much to impress. They each just do one weird thing, and often do very similar things to one another. There’s like three different Altered Items that endlessly duplicate themselves for unknown reasons, and two or three more that all make the room they’re in twist around. I was expecting every new artifact I encountered to be a window into a much weirder world than the one I was exploring. I thought each chapter of the game would take on a completely different aesthetic and mood as I was dragged into the sphere of control of whatever new paranormal object The Hiss had weaponized. And that… does happen, sometimes, in a few optional areas off the beaten path. But far more often than not, I ended up disappointed. Control seemed to become less and less interested in showing me new or novel images the further it went on.
But… okay, maybe that’s the point! Maybe the whole idea is that the supernatural world is a lot more mundane than it seems. There’s definitely a thread of that running through the game; a lot of the humor in Control is derived from how the employees of the FBC treat it like any other boring office job. That’s a fun angle, but I still can’t help but find it disappointing that so little of Control is spent on showing you legitimately strange and interesting things. It’s just so frustrating, because that stellar opening makes so many exciting promises, and then the game mostly fails to follow through on them. It goes a little weirder near the end, but by then it kinda felt like too little, too late.
My problems with Control don’t stop at the art direction, either. I think the story… kinda sucks eggs. Like, okay. The FBC are obviously bad guys, right? I mean, they’re a secret government organization called the Federal Bureau of Control. That’s not exactly a heroic-sounding name. Also, they answer to some weird god-monster that lives in, or maybe just is, a pyramid floating in another dimension, with motivations that are completely inscrutable, but which don’t appear to be particularly altruistic. What’s more, FBC’s real-life inspiration is obviously the FBI, an organization which, to put it mildly, has a pretty spotty track record when it comes to ethics. This is all so surface-level that I feel a little silly spelling it out. The FBC is very obviously evil. Even the friendly members of the organization, like Emily, are dedicated to enabling and enacting that evil.
You would assume, then, that the story of Control would involve learning the Bureau’s secrets, uncovering some terrible things they’ve done to achieve their goals, learning more about who and what The Board really is, and watching Jesse wrestle with being thrust into a position of authority over an organization that she morally opposes.
None of that happens. Not really. The threat of The Hiss is so immediate and so overwhelming that there’s no time to explore anything not directly related to them. Every new area seems to have some wild hooks for an interesting story. Maintenance reveals that the building is powered by some mysterious entity, implied to be the original Director of the FBC. Research seems like there should be something unreal behind every door, or maybe evidence of some unethical experimentation. Containment is a gigantic prison housing every supernatural object the Bureau has ever discovered. But by and large you have to blow past all of it on your quest to shoot more red glowy guys.
Around 2/3rds into the game, it finally seems like things are taking a turn.. You meet up with Jesse’s brother Dylan, who was abducted by the Bureau at a young age and raised to be the next Director. Eventually he was deemed to be too uncontrollable and was left to rot in a cell. Dylan has allowed The Hiss to possess him, and he tries to convince Jesse to do the same. He tells her that the Bureau is using her, and gives her access to a room containing proof. It turns out that the Bureau’s been spying on Jesse for years, even going so far as to steal recordings of her therapy sessions.
Here we go, I thought. Dylan represents the most heinous actions of the FBC, and he’s presented us with definitive proof that they’ve been stalking Jesse for her entire life. Jesse is finally being forced into conflict with the Bureau, this is what I’ve been waiting on all game!
Her reaction to all of this is that The Hiss are a bigger priority and that she’ll have to deal with it later. She honestly seems to barely even care about the stalking all that much. Dylan is treated as a villain for the rest of the game, and largely presented as a victim of The Hiss instead of a victim of the Bureau.
It’s just… it feels like Control chooses the most boring possible resolution to every single dramatic beat, for the length of the entire game. There’s so many cool stories you could tell in this setting! Maybe Jesse has also been a prisoner of the Bureau her whole life, and there’s some weird memory stuff going on with her! Maybe FORMER, an optional side boss that hates The Board, is secretly the real good guy! Maybe The Hiss are some kind of karmic backlash against The Bureau! Maybe they’re agents of The Oldest House, which has gotten sick of the FBC trying to colonize and tame it! Maybe Dylan and Jesse used to be one person that The Hiss split apart somehow!
I constantly felt compelled to keep playing, because surely the next chapter would be the point where the dramatic turn I was waiting on finally revealed itself. Surely the next corner was hiding the big plot twist that was gonna blow my mind and follow through on the expectations the game set. But… it never was. Jesse is exactly who she said she was. Polaris, the spirit that lives in her head, is just as benevolent as she believes. All of Dylan’s ramblings are nonsense that don’t really speak to any deeper themes. FORMER is unexplained, The Board is unexplained, and the Bureau is uninterrogated.
In fairness, the final act of the game does start to pick up a bit. You get to travel down to the foundation of the Oldest House, and get some amusing and novel visuals in Ahti’s final scene, and then get a delightfully goofy sequence where you traverse a shifting labyrinth while blasting cheesy buttrock. You learn that the Bureau captured a being called Hedron from another dimension, a benevelont being that’s linked to Polaris. And then Hedron dies, and you get a fake credits sequence that transitions into an alternate reality, where Jesse’s a low-ranking office assistant working for the Bureau, which slowly gets more and more surreal as it goes on.
This sequence works for me. It’s the kind of thing I was expecting from the entire game, so I’m disappointed that it only shows up here at the very end, but it’s good for what it is. Although… I don’t love how it fits into the overall story.
Jesse slowly realizes that what she’s experiencing is what it’s like to be possessed by The Hiss, that with Hedron dead Polaris is gone and can’t protect her from their influence. Over time, she starts to understand that Polaris and Hedron aren’t the same being, and that Polaris is really a manifestation of her own power, and that she can summon it to escape back into the real world.
This is the theme that this game has finally settled on. From the beginning, Jesse has talked about her unease with the world, how she feels like the truth has been hidden from her by some unseen force (because, y’know, it has). She complains the entire game that she’s not cut out to be a “director,” that she doesn’t have leadership qualities, and that she resents the respect and responsibility that she receives. This sequence is about her taking charge, taking, y’know, control, and asserting her own will to escape a fake, cloistered-off reality imposed by The Hiss.
I’m not against that idea. I’ve enjoyed tons of stories that focus on themes like that. But… it doesn’t really work for me here, because Jessie’s self-actualization is dramatized as her taking control of a clandestine government organization that abducts children and gaslights the public about the very nature of reality. The FBC fuckin’ sucks! I can’t get on board with Jesse embracing it as a triumphant dramatic beat. So much of her childhood trauma, y’know, the stuff we hear about from the therapy tapes the Bureau stole, is founded on things that the Bureau did to her. Why isn’t she mad that they spied on her? Why isn’t she mad that they built a world that convinced her she was insane for her entire life? Why isn’t she mad that they kidnapped her brother and mentally and emotionally abused him before leaving him to live the rest of his life in a jail cell? Her triumph should be something about overcoming or dismantling the Bureau, and instead it’s about taking command of it and saving it. Fuck this!
You might argue that, y’know, maybe the Bureau will become better under Director Faden. Maybe! I have no idea because the game doesn’t really broach the subject. In fact, the ending is laughably brief. You save The Board from a direct attack from The Hiss, Dylan goes into a coma, and you get spit back out into the world to do more side missions. I kept playing past that point, doing any optional objective that seemed like it might finally give me the kind of content I was looking for, aesthetically or narratively, but the game I wanted Control to be just isn’t here.
I want to love this game so much. In theory, everything about it is laser-targeted at my sensibilities. I’m probably gonna end up buying the DLC, because even though I’ve finished the game I’m still waiting for it to get to “the good part.” The whole experience felt like holding in a sneeze. Despite the title of this article, I don’t really hate Control. The shooting’s okay. It’s pretty to look at, and the art direction is solid, even if it is less varied than I wanted it to be. The story sucks but Jesse and Darling are fun characters. I dunno. It’s like a solid seven outta ten. It’s just that it so clearly had the potential to be so much more.
I’ve been reading a lot of other folks’ reactions to this game, because I’m desperate to understand why I’m apparently the only one who isn’t in love with this thing. What I’ve noticed is, people seem to be really enamored with the ideas in Control. They love the creepy, enigmatic Board, they love the concept of The Oldest House, they love how the Service Weapon morphs to suit its owner’s idea of power and is implied to have been every legendary weapon throughout history. They love the dozens of SCP-esque write-ups about all the weird shit stored away in the Panopticon. And like… I love all that stuff too! The team behind this game clearly wasn’t lacking in creativity. It just feels like it’s all ideas and no follow-through. It all feels shallow. Not just shallow, two-dimensional. To borrow the metaphor from the game’s opening narration, Control is the poster on the wall of my prison, and no matter what I do I can’t tear it down to get at the tunnel running behind it.