Control Review: A Formula Refined to Perfection
A great game, complemented by a great creative vision from Remedy.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Prior to release, expectations were set up high for Remedy’s comeback into the scene after breaking free from the corporate shackles of Rockstar Games and Xbox Game Studios. Codenamed “P7”, Control had signature elements of Remedy’s game design peppered all throughout–the dynamic nature of combat is all-too-reminiscent of Quantum Break, the gunplay is as satisfying as Max Payne’s, and the eerie atmosphere bore great resemblance to that of Alan Wake. What you get is a rather strange amalgamation of Remedy’s past work all condensed into one single coherent package. And now that Control nailed the essentials, it had to complement that with an interesting story to tell in an era where honest-to-God solo experiences seem to be a dying breed.
The story that Control tells about itself, and the one that it does about the studio building it and the environment in which it exists are a stark departure from each other. On paper, Control is as potent of an entertainment product as the most pristine AAA experiences by first-party Microsoft and Sony studios, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at Remedy’s balance sheet– the studio has been independent throughout its entire existence, but its creative output was always somewhat hampered by publisher interest. Fortunately, Control turns things around for the better, and offers an experience that by all accountable measures, is completely unshackled from outside influence and is just a foray into a unique convergence of different artistic influences and ideas–how can you make a game that is as much concerned about the story as it is about providing satisfying player feedback? The answer Control offers is a mixture of the tried-and-true method of Metroidvania-style level progression, RPG-style character progression, looter-shooter-style item pick-up system, along with what sets up Remedy apart from the rest of the pack–their ability to tell compelling stories.
The latter part is what Remedy has always proven to be so good at complementing. If the studio’s previous effort was about manipulating time, this one is about manipulating space. Where Control differs from Quantum Break though, is there is a tangible way to progress your abilities beyond blank-slate permanent upgrades–the world is just chock full of interesting mods you can stick to both your weapons and your character. When combining them, you can make a character that is truly your own. No two Jessies are the same–the semi-randomized nature of item population elicits adaptation that is both proactive and retroactive. This lets individual players familiarize themselves with a specific build and harnessing its boons to the fullest extent–there is no right or wrong way to play Control, there’s only one you construct through the tools that the game provides you.
With that solid of a foundation, Control’s remaining task was to conjure up something new. Something we’ve not seen before. In an interview with IGN’s Ryan McCaffrey, creative director Sam Lake said that Remedy would not “hold any stops” for Control. After finishing the game, I can confidently say that not only did Control completely disregard player expectation with what it was trying to do, but it also set a new benchmark for the genre of the New Weird, both in the gaming medium, and the media at large. Sam Lake drew from Noah Hawley, Sam Esmail, and David Lynch — arguably the greatest in his weight-class— and built upon their ideas with a creative confidence that is simply unrivaled in the medium. When the conversation of a true “auteur” in the gaming space is abound, it often leaves out Sam Lake, defaulting rather more to recognizable fixtures in the industry–like Hideo Kojima, John Carmack and Shigeru Miyamoto, for example. But Sam Lake’s contributions to the medium — if often overlooked because of Remedy’s disillusionment with the mainstream — are just as important. He set the industry on a path to embracing narrative as an integral part of the gaming experience with Max Payne, and continued to lead that tradition after almost two decades. Very few can claim to have survived the fierce winds of change in the gaming industry as Sam Lake did.
Part of what makes Sam Lake’s writing particularly cogent, is despite how many layers of subtext it is buried beneath, it still manages to be topical and relevant. In Control, you’re suddenly thrust into an unknown world of paranormal bureaucracy where one of the few measures of potency is an undefined metric of meritocracy–the Federal Bureau of Control functions through a familiar set of guidelines you would expect from any American federal agency. But what’s different in the case of the FBC, is that it is divorced from the ordinary machinations of American life–its only binding link is that of culture and technology. What happens in the Oldest House and beyond, is a reflection of our fundamental ideas about mystery and legend –a predicament where Bigfoot, UFOs, Megalodons, among many other dubiously-sourced sightings, are born through perpetuity, not original thinking. A world where the collective imagination of an ever-directionless humankind creates its worst nightmares. That’s what Jesse Faden — the main playable character — is tasked to fix when she enters the Oldest House, and that’s how the story is framed when not much else is revealed.
As you move through the story, you start to realize that the Bureau’s imminent demise was one caused by humans’ unconditional strive towards knowledge. Just as the atomic bomb was exemplary of what happens when great power is used without regard for human prosperity, the Federal Bureau of Control thought the latter part of its name entitles it to take hold of unwieldy Objects of Power it understood little about, but tasking itself with the responsibility of being the supernatural’s policeman turned out more complicated than expected. Dr. Casper Darling — a character you only witness the tribulations of through live-action footage but never actually meet — is an interesting case-study in how video games have traditionally portrayed the retrieval of great power. Control’s main mechanism of introducing new powers to the player is by purifying Objects of Power from Hiss corruption — the invasion you’re tasked to eliminate — but never quite giving that up away before mowing down waves of enemies and/or defeating a powerful boss. The game is clearly communicating to the player that as much as using your powers is fun, what lead to them being attainable in the first place caused great grief.
This is core to Control’s internal conflict. It deals with the concentration of power in the hands of a few bureaucrats, between an outgoing director who values the methodical ways of times past, and a seasoned scientist whose quest for knowledge knows no bounds, consumed by curiosity until they no longer could. If it is the case that Control’s in-universe stance on its internal struggle is active involvement and not complicity, it is just as useful a reminder that art is as relevant to the context it is depicting, as the context it was born within. Cleaning up the mess of a reckless leadership has never felt better–especially contrasted against how powerless we feel facing the impotence of global leadership right now.
Control would’ve undoubtedly looked very different were it made a decade ago — hell, even five years ago — but it was released in 2019, and it now thus had a completely different set of expectations to fulfill as a reflection of our modern culture. In a sea of overbearing masculinity, Control broke the wheel and pushed a fully performance-acted woman as its main character; and just as important, Control communicated a relevant story about the concentration of power in an age where so much of it is relegated to a privileged few. That has always been Remedy’s greatest asset — making stories that feel as fun as they are relevant — and I’m glad to report it’s still the case here.