header is screenshot from Control
A Loose Grip on Reality
Reid McCarter

“For who among us has touched the foundations of this world and deemed them solid?”

—Dr. Theodore Ash, Control

Remedy Entertainment’s games have always shown a love for the strange. In Max Payne, the main character, haunted by his wife and daughter’s murders, descends into surreal nightmares and drug-induced hallucinations that blur the line between Payne’s role as videogame character and in-fiction human being. He comes across TV sets that play episodes of Address Unknown—a Twin Peaks homage with a talking flamingo and backward-talking killer. The studio’s other games, Alan Wake and Quantum Break, take these same concepts further. In both, the fabric of reality shifts (and sometimes rips open) to reveal alternate dimensions and undermine their characters’ sense that the world is a logical place. Wake, which riffs in part on Stephen King novels and The Twilight Zone, even includes otherworldly shadow beings and a malicious doppelgänger.

In Control, though, the weirdness that’s always formed part of Remedy’s games has become the entire premise. A mysterious woman named Jesse Faden comes to New York City’s Federal Bureau of Control (or FBC) and soon finds herself at the site of a suicide in one of its abandoned, dimly lit offices. She picks up a gun near the dead body and is transported to a vast, hazy dreamworld populated only by dark marble pillars veined with bright gold and a great inverted black pyramid looming in the milky-white sky. A strange voice speaks to her. She leaves and finds herself appointed the FBC’s new Director by otherworldly forces.

Control’s setting is the FBC’s sprawling base, a place called the Oldest House. Like House of Leaves’ mutating home, the Oldest House looks ordinary enough but shifts constantly to reveal physically impossible mazes. Here, they’re constructed of faux-wood wall panelling or open out into cavernous research facilities built with jutting chunks of right-angled concrete. The most bizarre of these spaces make the player, as Jesse, feel like the presence of human bodies is an intrusion on alien landscapes, but others, like the postwar office chic that dominates the OIdest House’s working spaces—leather chairs and heavy wooden desks, green-shaded lamps and boxy old computer monitors—stands in nearly organic contrast. The enemies Jesse encounters as she explores the setting consist of glowing reddish-orange humans possessed by a force she dubs “The Hiss.” Some of them shoot guns and throw grenades; others, more monstrous, fly through the air strapped into armchairs or have been warped into distended floating blobs that look like pale, vibrating insects. Alongside all of these, she also meets members of the FBC—normal-looking people who, when come upon after traversing hostile terrain, the player might accidentally shoot before realizing their similar-looking silhouettes belong to friends instead of eerie, Hiss-controlled friend-shaped enemies.

The effect of these people and places is a player who’s kept on uneasy ground, both in terms of feeling at home within Control’s (wonderfully assured) aesthetic and the proper targets for the itchy trigger finger that shooters encourage their audience to maintain. The FBC, we learn pretty quickly, exists to unearth and study paranormal phenomena. Its scientists catalogue items (and document stories) that reveal the slippery nature of the game’s version of reality. Everything from UFOs to curses, ghostly possessions and poltergeists, fall under the FBC’s purview, making the employees stewards of the inexplicable—guards who patrol the outskirts of an enormous, incomprehensible landscape they cannot fully understand.

Fittingly, all of these plot points are introduced through a barrage of proper nouns that make Control’s early hours feel like the unidentifiably menacing surrealism of a half-remembered dream. Jesse enters the Oldest House knowing little about its nature other than that it’s connected with her brother’s disappearance years earlier. She finds the previous Director’s corpse, travels to another plane of existence, defends herself against possessed agents, and is appointed as the new head of the FBC without any significant explanation. The Hiss babble barely coherent words in a threatening whisper as she fights them. When she finds FBC employees, they try to explain the situation by using evocative insider terms like the Hiss, the Resonance, Objects of Power, Thresholds, Black Rock, The Director, and The Board. (Some of these, like Objects of Power and Altered World Events translate into goofy acronyms, like OOPs and AWE. Control has an excellent sense of humour.) Her only other guidance is offered by telephone calls from The Board, which consist of sentence fragments croaked out by a vaguely robotic voice whose speaker(s?) communicate in free verse riddles. The effect, until Jesse has acclimated to a new version of reality that looks normal but plays by its own, consistently mind-bending rules, is of being shouted at by insistent maniacs from all sides.

This is one of the best things that can be said of Control. Rather than dabble in the weird, as Remedy’s past games have, it’s designed on every level to embrace the particular, sometimes unsettling, potential of stories whose fiction refuses to adhere to reality as its audience understands it. There are obvious examples of this, like some of The Board’s calls knowingly referencing videogame conventions like fast-travel and crafting (thankfully, these winks aren’t overdone) or areas of the Oldest House that take a familiar setting—an elevator or office hallway—only to gleefully reconfigure the setting so walls shift, room flip, and areas reveal entirely new, physically impossible landscapes. There are references to unexplained, real-life occurrences like last year’s “Havana Syndrome”, whose oddity is chalked up to the paranormal intruding on the mundane, and, most strikingly, there’s a wealth of videos that see the player watching footage of real actors alongside computer-generated models, sometimes, like when the previous Director’s monologue tapes flicker over the geometry of a level, within the same shot. Remedy has included human actors in their games before, most heavily in Quantum Break, which includes a serialized drama to watch between chapters of the game. Here, though, given the fidelity of Control’s digital cast, and the aim of its disorienting tone, is a more thematically striking blend of flesh and pixels—a suitably uncanny aesthetic that seems to slip between dimensions of reality from one moment to the next as the player watches one of FBC research specialist Dr. Darling’s many videotaped informational sessions just before Jesse approaches a realistically modelled, more fully artificial character for a chat that frames the virtual models’ zoomed-in faces.

The way these points feed into Control’s narrative is responsible for creating both its striking tone and informing the growth of its protagonist in subtle, non-explicatory ways. Over the course of the game, as Jesse delves deeper into the Oldest House and we, along with her, learn more about her past and the nature of the FBC, she becomes someone different from the average person who starts the game. Jesse looks the same as before, red hair pulled back into the same ponytail and her black leather jacket and jeans still unruffled by her journey, but she responds to her surroundings’ oddity with increased confidence. By this point, she’s both figured out how the FBC and its bizarre insight into reality function and gathered a variety of supernatural powers that allow her to telekinetically battle enemies or manipulate her environment. As Control’s conclusion makes clear, Jesse is no longer the same person she was during the story’s opening. She’s not only seen through the thin fabric of the game’s version of reality into something else entirely, but she’s come to understand it enough that she’s able to exert control over it, too. And yet, you wouldn’t be able to tell just from looking at her.

Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.