It’s easy for videogames to be surreal. By the very nature of their design, games are good at abstraction, abrupt changes, and weird settings. Videogames have always been weird. But being surreal in a meaningful way, in a way that’s surprising, that feels truly strange? That’s unusual.
Control, the newest title by Remedy Entertainment, is one of the few games to pull it off. Even the most mundane moments in Control are suffuse with an other-worldly energy, a sense that anything could happen around the next bend. The spaces you’re in, which begin as ordinary office buildings, are constantly shifting, and the characters and obstacles you meet are pulled from a dense web of urban myths and pop cultural ephemera. Control is a paranoiac’s dream come to life.
You play as Jesse, a woman hunting a secret. That secret, and her own paranormal intuition, leads her to the Oldest House, a bizarre building on a nexus of supernatural and strange energies that has become the home for the Federal Bureau of Control—a government agency responsible for, presumably, keeping all the world’s weird stuff from leaking out around the edges. You soon find a gun, the Service Weapon, which is less a gun than the idea of a gun made real (or perhaps less a gun than a heroic weapon given some modern form). Finding this object somehow makes you the director of the FBC. Or more like the janitor, maybe, considering your primary task quickly becomes fixing something that has gone terribly wrong with the Oldest House and perhaps reality itself.
The task of playing Control is not that strange. You fight using the Service Weapon from a third-person perspective, mixing other special abilities you get from finding Objects of Power—totemic metaphor objects—and binding their strength to yourself. There’s a light upgrading system, and exploration occurs like it would in, say, Metroid or the first Dark Souls—a slow opening up of areas to explore, with backtracking, gated unlocks, and hidden rewards and challenges.
But those familiar notes serve as a guidepost for the player to involve themselves in Control’s bizarre spaces. Remedy Entertainment has hit just such a perfect blend of atmospheric ingredients—inspired lighting choices, the subtle mixture of mundane and unreal, use of full-motion video interludes to further distance players from the game world—that the normalcy never feels taken for granted. In the world of Control, an office building gives way to a maze of underground caves housing a giant reactor running on something that’s clearly not normal power. Hallways can go on forever, or cut off abruptly. Doors appear and disappear as you change the space. In the Oldest House, smartphones are banned lest they carry in contagious ideas or turn spontaneously into terrifying new objects of power. The whole endeavor oozes with a pulpy unreality.
What’s more, the game even manages to call into question its own scaffolding. Early on, Jess begins talking to a sort of presence that follows her around, that shares her perspective and some of her mind. From the player’s point of view, that presence seems to be, well, you. It’s the kind of narrative trick that would fall flat in most games, but here it serves as a sort of uncanny effect. It causes the normal structures of big budget games to be defamiliarized, called into question. Like, is the “presence” controlling Jess the way I’m controlling her? Where do these objective markers come from? And who’s writing all these government-style reports that seem to recap events that are far too recent to have been analyzed and written down? I’ve not yet beaten Control, so I can’t speak to whether it answers these questions or not, but there’s such intrigue in asking that I don’t particularly care. Unanswered questions add flavor to the world, as well as mystique. I don’t fully understand this place, but I don’t understand the real world, either. It’s OK not to have all the solutions from the start.
As a game about distorted spaces, Control has a unique interest in architecture. In particular, it likes brutalism—that style denoted by blocky concrete and hard angles, the format still used by government buildings and unassuming offices everywhere. It’s an effective microcosm of the game itself, because brutalism is more than it appears. When it was conceived, brutalism was a utopian architectural ideal. It was a means to build large, efficient buildings to house the future’s growing communities. But in the US, at least, the style was largely abandoned as a social project as it became associated instead with inhumanity, and with the high crime rates people believed were associated with high-rise apartment buildings. Now, brutalist buildings have the veneer of a grave for most people who don’t know the history—austere, imposing, gray monoliths.
Control’s supernatural world, and its spaces, are like that. On the surface, they’re clinical, straightforward, dead offices and concrete behemoths. But just beneath that surface, they’re disturbingly alive.