I can’t stop thinking about the design of Control
This is about Remedy’s latest game, Control.
The Oldest House is a place of order. It grows far and away above the New York skyline, its concrete obelisk pierces the sky. The sky opens wide and reaches back. The walls are so very thin. The ocean beyond is so very deep. There is nothing under the sun our science cannot delineate. The windows of The Oldest House look upon foreign stars. It is within the < corridors / arteries > of The Oldest House that the Federal Bureau of Control situates itself.
The bureau exists to protect us. The bureau cannot protect itself. The bureau houses constructs that would cause us harm not because they are malicious but because their modus of existence is inimitable to human life.
Control’s antagonistic “hiss” reminds me of The Colour Out of Space or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. EGttR tells the story of humanity’s first and last encounter with alien life. Of course, the term life implies a whole host of meanings that do not apply. The “life” in EGttR is a pattern. It is a wavelength. It is mathematical. It cannot be reasoned with nor understood because its existence is fundamentally inconceivable. It is not even clear if it is capable of recognising or acknowledging humans even as it seemingly brings about armageddon.
It is within this novel* setting that Remedy shows canniness and cleverness in the presentation of story and gameplay.
*Listen, we could have an entirely too-long discussion in which some will claim that Control is simply a big-budget SCP adaptation, but then we would have to work backwards and catalogue every single story in which a secretive government agency works to combat and understand the supernatural and frankly I’m just not interested. It is The Oldest House itself that I find intriguing as well as how Remedy treats it.
The following is by no means an exhaustive list of everything good in Control, these are just the things I think are NeatTM.
Number One: The player and protagonist are in agreement.
Control opens with a monologue from the protagonist, Jess Faden. “This is gonna be weirder than usual,” are the first words you hear upon launching the game, “Can’t be helped.” The stage is set for both the narrative and the gameplay itself. The game takes place (almost) entirely within an office building that houses the Federal Bureau of Control. Never of heard it? There’s a reason for that, but it doesn’t matter right now. It is clean and orderly and eerily off-putting. The entire building is holding its breath, waiting for you to make the first move.
You begin in the lobby. It’s sparse, but nice. If you’re like me and have a deep fondness for fifties and sixties interior design married to brutalist architecture then you’ll be thrilled. It’s wrong, though. Too empty, too quiet, how did you even get inside? It’s a secure facility but you walked right in. There are more concrete clues that help triangulate the particulars of the wrongness. A memo, detailing the things that may not be brought it. I used to make deliveries to courthouses, the list looked quite familiar aside from the final line: “Any objects considered iconic representations of an archetypal concept.” That’s certainly a non-standard specification.
Inside the unstaffed security checkpoint is a stack of monitors: “INTERNAL LOCKDOWN IN EFFECT. BUILDING LOCKDOWN IN EFFECT. MULTIPLE CONTAINMENT BREACHES. HRA PROTOCOL ACTIVATED.” Some of these term might not mean anything to you, but you still understand that something is dangerously wrong.
The intro works to evoke a feeling of unease that only grows as you head upstairs and take a suspicious number of turns. You hear a voice: someone singing. It is here you encounter Ahti, the janitor. He seems to recognise you, or at least your intentions. He is more than he seems, but not in a threatening way. He isn’t sinister or plotting, but plainly greater than his title implies.
Continue on, take a few more turns and — wait, you’ve been here. You’ve arrived back in the lobby, but you never turned around. This is a strange, impossible space, and you feel that in both the gameplay and storytelling.
These impossibilities continue to stack up. Further into the introduction, you will need to progress through the Oceanview Motel and Casino. Getting there is simple: pull the light switch cord. The motel is a strange place, the spiritual amalgamation of every rural-americana motel, so naturally you don’t get there by walking in the front door. You need to use story logic — perhaps dream logic — to access and traverse it. You, the player, are the one who has to do it though. Pull the cord three times and see where it takes you. The action is so mundane that it makes traversing different dimensions seem entirely normal. Just roll with it. Jesse isn’t perturbed and you aren’t either. There’s a beautiful symmetry here between player and character. In horror games, there is often a difference in intent between the player and the protagonist. The character is forced by the story to continue onward even when they would rather turn around and flee. The player, while they may be frightened, has the luxury of being excited and curious. They are playing the game to see what comes next, creating an almost adversarial relationship with the character they are controlling by forcing them to go on when they may rather turn back.
Jesse herself is a breath of fresh air in a world where people read The Hero with a Thousand Faces and assumed it was a guide on storytelling. She isn’t reluctant: she’s excited. She has been looking for this place for most of her life and now that she’s here everything is starting to make sense. Jesse finds a dead man with the gun that killed him and is surprised to learn that she should pick it up, but she doesn’t hesitate. Jesse grabs the gun — chooses to be chosen — and says she’s happy to be here. Again, Jesse and the player share a mindset. They want to uncover the mystery, to learn the bureau’s secrets, and to reach their ultimate goal together.
This is the way in which Control manages to bring the player and protagonist into mental alignment. The Oldest House may be a horror show for everyone else, but not for the player and not for Jesse.
Number Two: It does metroidvania right.
I don’t want to get into a pedantic argument about whether or not Control is a metroidvania, but it bears similarities. You will encounter inaccessible areas that require you continue on and procure abilities, keys, or powerups that will allow you to backtrack and overcome the blockages. It is not done to the degree of early Metroid games, but enough similarities exist that I think the comparison is natural. Perhaps the Japanese term 探索アクション “search action” is more appropriate. It is an action game in which forward is not always the correct direction: you must backtrack and explore to progress and unlock new abilities or discover hidden goodies. You will often return to safe hubs for missions and upgrades in a way that is unabashedly Souls-like. The progression of the story may be linear, but your path through the world is not.
As is tradition in games of the search-action variety, the opening is a smaller area that allows you to come to grips with the type of game it is. Even before the play space really opens up you will see doors that you cannot unlock, hazards you cannot pass, and obstacles you cannot overcome.
I took a quick count during a recent play through and found that you encounter at least five locked doors before you can open a single one. Keys come in the form of clearance levels, and each door can only be unlocked with an equal or higher clearance level. On your way along the critical path to the first boss you encounter the first non-optional locked door. A quick search turns up a level 1 clearance card, allowing you to progress. Picking up this card will also hopefully refresh your memory and make you curious about all the locked doors you passed that you can now enter. This encourages backtracking from the very beginning. What’s more, returning to the main hub from the boss fight will bring you by a level 4 locked door. The number alone is tantalising: you’ve only just gotten clearance level 1 so this door must have something interesting inside, how long will it be until you can open it? Dozens of post-it notes seem to be spreading from the locked room lending it a greater air of mystery.
Players are consistently encouraged to and rewarded for exploring. There are always side passages, optional rooms, and hidden nooks that offer upgrade currencies, abilities, and modifications to enhance your weapons and abilities. On your way to another main mission you will see a diverging path with a blinking red light at the end of it. “What’s down that way,” Jesse asks. The game very deeply wants you to take the time to explore and leave the main path. Following that light, you will fall through the floor into a strange space that leads to the first real side mission. The mission unlocks a new power: evasion. This allows you to dodge during combat as well as cross wider gaps and permits more advanced techniques like in-air movement. After completing the mission — falling down through the floor yet again only to return to where you entered — a notification pops up: “Hidden location discovered”. This will hopefully prime you to be on the lookout for more hidden locations in the future.
The designers make the goals of the game crystal clear: exploring is not only permitted, but also encouraged and rewarded. Never be afraid to turn away from the path in search of hidden rewards. This gets expanded on later with entire wings of the building solely built for optional side-missions as well as some divergent paths that you can take through the main mission.
There are numerous other examples of the designers priming you to wander the corridors: a mysterious (sentient?) furnace that may offer great rewards if you give it what it wants; rooms filled with debilitating mold spores with seemingly no way to pass through safely. The game is replete with meaningful optional content and the story and gameplay are structured to make you want to experience it.
Number Three: Narrative is gameplay.
The opening section of Control is not purely linear, but it is manageable. There are enough optional experiences to whet your appetite, but not so much as to overwhelm you. There are hints to these other areas. The map is full of blanks and question marks. The elevator only initially connects to one area, but displays several more. The game is naturally about progressing and unlocking more and more wings and sections of the Oldest House, and this progression is mirrored in the story. Why are you unlocking these new areas? Because you are looking for someone in one of the cordoned off wings. How are you doing it? In gameplay terms: by solving puzzles, navigating the environment, and fighting enemies. In narrative terms: you are lifting the lockdown that restricted travel through the building.
A particularly clever moment happens at the close of the opening section. Once you have successfully lifted the lockdown, you return to the elevator and are presented with several new options. Lifting the lockdown greatly expanded the available play space, and you are free to ignore the main mission and explore other parts of the building. You can also take on smaller side-missions from Ahti as well as search for hidden locations on your own. Up until this point, Jesse has been fairly tight lipped when speaking with bureau staff. She is understandably reluctant to give up too much personal information or explain why she is in the building. After lifting the lockdown, Jesse decides that the only way she can accomplish what she came here to do is if she opens up a little. Not completely, she still holds some things back, but she’s gone from a tightly shut book to revealing a couple pages. This narrative moment of honesty and revelation mirrors the expansion of the building that was permitted by lifting the lockdown. Jesse’s emotional journey, the changes of the Oldest House, and the player’s experience are all in sync, creating a clever moment that is more than gameplay.
Number Four: The designers respect the setting.
In a story so fundamentally interlocked with its setting, it would be a shame if the game allowed players to brush past the environment without a second glance. Control forgoes using the little-dotted-line to trace your path to the next objective and invites you to truly *navigate* the space, not merely pass through it. Should you need to find your way to Central Executive, you will spend a brief moment inspecting your surroundings to get your bearings and find markers pointing to your destination. Despite the shifting nature of the house, the bureau has done a bang-up job of marking the different departments with clear signage. They aren’t tucked away: they are highway signs, prominent and clear. Placed on the ceiling, the signs literally smack you in the face as you wind through the corridors, nearly filling the entire viewport at certain angles.
Take this scenario: you have just received your first weapon. You must turn around and proceed down the hallway you arrived in. At the end of the hallway is a sign with arrows pointing to Executive Affairs and Central Executive. Placed at the end of the corridor, you have plenty of time to recognise and understand what the sign is indicating. Turn the next corner, and a ghostly apparition of your predecessor fills the screen, his form perfectly frames the next sign pointing to Central Executive. If you’ve been paying even a little bit of attention then you will already understand that the environment will point you to where you need to go.
Is it unrealistic? Sure, I’ve never seen a government building with such clear signage in my life. I had to go to a public hospital in Germany last year. It wasn’t a “call an ambulance” emergency, but my hand was leaving a trail blood as the makeshift bandage had long-since been saturated. From the entrance, it was nearly a fifteen minute walk to the emergency section. No signs, no clear path, and even asking for directions proved useless as the people working on the paediatric side of the hospital had no idea how to reach the emergency clinic. Following an EMT, I found that there was no direct path: I had to take a service elevator, cut through a garden, and circle a parking lot to cross the hospital campus. If you charted my path and turned it into a level for Control, playtesters would immediately tell you that it was confounding and had poor wayfinding. I don’t know, maybe I’m just uniquely keyed in to any large office building with adequate signage, but Control’s layout and markings never left me wondering where to go next. On top of that, in the early game Jesse will often offer reminders when she herself spots signs, helping notify the player that they should pay attention as well.
In conclusion: the game shows Remedy’s usual care and attention to crafting a cohesive experience with a beautiful dovetailing of gameplay and narrative. This is not a retread, Control feels as unique as their previous games. The commonality is the careful usage of setting, plot, and moment-to-moment gameplay to achieve an overarching goal. As effective as Alan Wake’s gameplay mimicking the story’s genre-hopping from thriller, to horror, to action, Control is a holistically complete experience and can teach a great many game design lessons.