header is screenshot from Control
Nick Capozzoli

Control, you may have heard, has got itself some Architecture. That’s certainly what jumped out in the first glimpses I got of it. And when the game begins to sunset in the discourse, architecture will likely be what endures: in year-end awards, in postmortem concept art drops, in those unnarrated Youtube spots (gun-wielding henchmen tastefully excised, camera tilting slowly up the naves of Central Research or Dead Letters). In the inevitable photo mode so we can see how all that Brutalist concrete looks filtered through Clarendon or Ludwig (assuredly: fabulous). It’s often the fate of architecture to outlive its original purpose. But so soon? I wonder if we’re a little too eager to usher Control on to its second life of stately Archillect jpegs. Something did happen in The Oldest House, after all. I seem to recall shooting a lot of people.

They were infected, mind. The Oldest House is the office of the Federal Bureau of Control, the agents of whom investigate and quarantine paranormal objects. An invisible brain parasite dubbed “The Hiss” has been turned loose on them, levitating its hosts and using them for either fanatical chanting or guard duty. Jesse Faden does not arrive on this scene with an intent to save them. But she’s forced to grudgingly take on the responsibility when the role of Director of the FBC passes to her.

She does this, naturally, by picking up a gun. The Directorship belongs to whoever can wield the Service Weapon, the FBC’s most special gun, and a so-called “Object of Power.” What does the gun do? Well, gun things, mostly. It fires bullets, it changes modes—but only if you press a “change guns” toggle, and only between any two of a handful of age-old archetypes: shotgun, automatic, sniper.

Tools define one’s trade, and so Jesse won’t do much more directing than say, The Divison’s shotgun-toting firemen do firefighting. But I won’t be coy, you know how this all goes: mission objectives, waves of gunmen strafing around cover, armored boss fights. A variation of abilities and enemy types to spice up combat. Upgrades. Loot. There’s telekinesis, which would seem more promising, but its applications are tragically limited: other than throwing comically unsubtle “electricity boxes” at door panels to activate them, it mostly functions as sort of jazzed-up charge shot. Jesse can exorcise sections of The Oldest House at “control points”—marking an area as cleared and creating a fast travel point—but not people, as Control establishes right away.

When combat ends, Hiss-infected bodies quickly disappear in an iridescent plume, the violence in the space burned off like cooking wine. It reminds me of something I read recently complaining about the bleak tastes of “butcher aesthetes” who design homes like they’re for fishmongers or surgeons—anyone “required to remove old blood and animal bits from clean surfaces so they can do it some more.” That sounds like us in videogames (we might cite the need to conserve RAM). It’s almost enough to make me pine for the perpetual motion giblets of a Fallout game, its ribcages that keep clattering over floorboards long after you can remember who they were supposed to belong to.

It’s not like we, Americans especially, need any help writing violence out of our spatial memory. Folks are still out there leaving bad Yelp reviews on plantation tours that happen to mention slavery. Mass shootings are like, meteorologically transient now. I don’t have it out for shooting games, though I do think the act ought to be able to justify its presence amidst this context for better reasons than simply “it’s fun” or “it sells.” I think too often shooting is an initial assumption, a given, a space reserved and cordoned off for it like bloatware partitioned on a hard drive.

As an activity, shooting readily expands to fit a space or a runtime (it really is just a matter of throwing more bodies at the problem), but this does not make it a substantial base. I know that there are people out there who enjoy Control’s combat, but I have heard those same people enjoy the combat of many games in the moment only to cast them aside for the next serving of empty calories that comes along. Fun, empowered combat just isn’t actually very remarkable.

Stirring architecture is. And Control’s is often stirring. That coffering! And the conspicuous variegations of texture, the nods to Mies and Corbu, Ando and Breuer. I’m a big fan of the bold font that announces locations like NOSTALGIA DEPARTMENT, or HOTLINE CHAMBER, ineluctably, as Places, forcing you to accept that they represent some esoteric logic that may or may not be revealed in time. There’s a tantalizing suggestion that the atrium of the Dead Letters department, which twists up and out of sight in a recursion of balconies, might actually open into the side of a completely separate department.

There’s a notion in these touches that Control applies particularly well to objects. Even if in doing so it cribs from the SCP Foundation (something I confess I hadn’t heard of prior), here the idea benefits by the game brazenly carrying the absurdism forward all the way to, say, an actual Panopticon for monitoring imprisoned floor fans and picnic baskets. Or an office abandoned to an inexplicably self-replicating post-it note. Between all the happenings at the FBC, it’s a pithy role reversal for people and things: to have to watch a refrigerator 24/7 lest it murder you, or to be leveraged by the Hiss, like a smart toaster on the Internet of Things, for a DDoS attack of babbling nonsense.

In reviewing NaissanceE back in 2014, I’d said that its architecture was possessed of “an internal logic that appears to accommodate you only by sheer luck.” That’s the promise of The Oldest House, described as less a work of construction than a shifting set of planes and thresholds that at best, tolerates occupancy. But for all of Control’s collectible FBC memos complaining about bathrooms that spontaneously blink out of existence, the game’s got a map and the map don’t change. The shifting, such as it were, tends to line up behind the needs of popular action conventions: platforms for climbing that rise politely out of the ground, or crushing slabs that drop at interval. There are spacious arenas for fighting, with cover on the sides, paced out at interval. This tendency reaches its cringey apotheosis in the Ashtray Maze, Control’s “Breaking Benjamin in Halo 2” moment. It strikes me as Remedy’s most honest expression of how it thinks architecture (and music) can best serve its shooting galleries.

True, the Oldest House doesn’t make a lot of sense as a building, with its infinite basement or its light switches that teleport you to a motel when pulled three times. But it makes a little too much sense to me as a place to do videogames in. Wherever its better, subtler grains surface—revealing mystery, horror, or wonder—shooting works against them to impose its mundane logic, reducing them to something more understandable, beatable, conventionally “badass.”

Control has a moment that recalls NaissanceE’s “Going Down.” But where that game had me alternating between marveling and doubting if I could—if I should!—proceed downwards, and then rewarded me at the bottom with a vast, impossible undercity, in Control you just thwump down a dreary service shaft, looking for the generously signaled landings on gangways and ducts. This is the hazard for dilettantism: it invites comparison with things that are often more focused. NaissanceE, with its unnerving alien grandeur, makes for a better Oldest House than The Oldest House. Carl Burton’s ISLANDS: Non-Places will give you the neon and the whimsy. Any given Resident Evil interior is more delightfully baffling.

Control’s architecture plays in stills, like those that first piqued my early interest. I’d even fired off a few pitches hawking my spot in a Manhattan architecture firm (“who better to comment on this one?”). But I lost some of that vim after actually playing Control. We seem to like our videogames best when they do shooting and 1-to-2 other things, and I don’t know if I want to be someone who’s always tacitly sanctioning the former by testifying proudly to the latter. It’s starting to feel like being one of those honored guest speakers nattering away about their pet interest at a conference, without a care for who’s discreetly sponsoring it or why.

I’ll offer one architectural term, though: a “falsework,” which is a temporary frame that holds a structure up until it can support itself. A certain subset of falsework lends the texture to Brutalism’s concrete walls, in fact. Shooting is the falsework of Control: built first, defining its form, supporting its architecture. In the end, we’ll dismantle all that scaffolding so the beautiful pillars and the coffered ceilings can settle into their new positions on high. It’s needed somewhere else next week.

Nick Capozzoli is a freelance critic and a project manager for a historic restoration firm in New York City, and chairs the Games Journalism Award for the New York Video Game Critics Circle. Tweets @nickcapozzoli.