Giddy action and astonishing art design combine in one of the great locations of modern video games.
It spoils nothing, I hope, to reduce a game as luxurious and uncanny as Control to just four words. Here goes, then: Hell is an office. Remedy's latest takes place inside the Oldest House, the austere, echoing and inhumanly vast headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control. The FBC is an agency that deals with unusual horrors and is, as of your arrival, in the process of being overwhelmed by them.
Unusual horrors are not actually that unusual in games, though, so the peculiar genius of Control is that its oddness often lurks in its workaday setting rather than the many dizzying glimpses into the void on offer. There is something wonderfully perverse about so many of the things I marvelled at in Control. Sure, here is a magical winter forest growing out of an old storage room, but look at how convincingly placed these snowfalls of Post-it notes are! I can throw desk chairs around with my mind, which is great, but it's so much better when one of the desk chairs in question hits a wall of filing cabinets and the doors of the cabinets ripple, woozily, outwards and away from the point of impact! That I could watch pretty much forever.
This blend of the paranormal and the clerical works so well because offices are weird already. Testify! What are offices if not places where ill-matched strangers come together in the name of some nebulous and often deeply abstracted common cause? Offices are filled with monstera deliciosa and water coolers, but they are also filled with grudges and arcane rituals and human secrets and mysteries. Certain phrases act like incantations in offices: we've-always-done-it-this-way-that's-why and only-Henry-knows-how-to-make-copies-on-both-sides-of-the-page-and-he's-off-today.
Meanwhile, in a large company, computer systems often grant certain users powers over their fellow humans that may make them akin to a god, or at least something that hovers in the mind and shines brightly and leaves everyone else a bit nervous. You can raise invoices?! And sign off expenses?! Yes, Control is committed to the Fortean side of pseudo-history. It's a bit like Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, as you cause havoc with your telekinetic powers. But it's also a bit like Who Moved My Cheese, the polite modern fable regarding the best approach to dealing with operational change in complex organisations. And in the mingling of these two things something pretty special happens.
There's plenty of story, but this is a mood piece at heart. Anyway, I am going to spoil as little of this stuff as I can. Know only this: you arrive at the Oldest House on a mission of great personal importance, but you quickly discover that the place is a bit of a state. Things run amok, the FBC's leader appears to be dead and everyone who's still alive seems to think only you have what is needed to take over at the top. Hey, have this magical gun that can morph between different modes and generates its own ammo! Here come the hordes! Briskly, the pieces are arranged for an obligingly straight-ahead blaster mounted in the most ornate of frames. And Control delivers.
Let's start with that frame, because the location's an enduring delight and the main source of Control's considerable appeal. Even before things get properly strange, The Oldest House is a marvel, a Masonic temple of the mid-century modern. The whole place is equal parts Barbican Centre and plate glass University. Hallways echo. Floors are glossy and perform gorgeous puddle-effects with the simple click-clack of a heel. Concrete looks like concrete and wood looks like wood. Atriums are so roomy they feel distinctly troubling, like negative-space Mayan temples. You always feel stuck deep, deep underground, in the Oldest House, cut off and dizzy from the sheer weight of implied darkness that is massed overhead.
References matter in any office job, of course, and Control has the best. It has taken a leaf or two from House of Leaves. It has spent time in the basement with Escher and Schiele. And it has lots of Kubrick on the CV. The lighting and volumes are plucked from Dr Strangelove, with blinding overhead illumination giving nearby geometric forms a sharp-edged blackness, while distant areas dither into smokey shadow. The carpeting is fresh from the Overlook. Even 2001 gets a nod, and let us say no more of that here. (Remedy has always been one for the nods and the in-jokes, but Control suggests a finer balance than normal in this regard. We are a long way from Alan Wake, in other words, which begins with something like, "Stephen King once wrote…", and so an arrogant novelist has given his first line away to another novelist, which always felt rather unlikely.)
The world is big and you are small, and wonderfully there's no BioShock golden arrow or on-screen waypoint to tell you where to go as the missions send you from one department to the next. Instead, you have to read the environment, follow signs, and find your own way. It's first day of the job territory, and you slept through the orientation.
It helps here that, underneath the Cthulian horror spilling forth and pooling, Control's darkest shame is extreme neatness. This is secretly a very tidy game, with a central hub linked to the rest of the complex by a single elevator. And it helps that as you progress you open up control points that allow you to heal and restock and upgrade and fast-travel between nodes. But still, it's genuinely wonderful whenever you take a wrong turn on your way somewhere and feel a very real-world panic set in. I'm a little bit lost, aren't I? Everywhere is well signposted – the signs themselves add a great deal of character to the place: Luck & Probability Labs, Ritual Division – but it's still nice for a game to leave getting where you want to go up to you.
(Yes, this does mean there's a bit of backtracking involved, incidentally, and occasionally a difficulty spike will leave you some distance from a respawn point. This is annoying! But I wonder if it's also just a consequence of what Control is trying to do: give you a world that is daunting, that feels strange but also real and governed by its own inscrutable rules, and in which you have to pay attention to where you are. So much of what the game is conjuring would be weakened, I reckon, if the team made it a little more spatially forgiving. Control exerts control.)
The Oldest House is a knife-edge construction, in other words. Its scope is the scope of myth, but its detailing speaks to the homely old 9-5 toil of an earlier generation, walls of punch cards and rows of desks, elevators, as the poet said, to drop us from our day. It's spooky even before it starts to change. But the more you push forward, the more the world begins to shift and recalibrate itself around you.
It's beautifully done. Down in the basement the office plants have escaped from their polite concrete sarcophagi and have started to reclaim the walls and ceiling, making a swamp of the floor. Employees dangle in mid-air, arms limp and heads bowed. Further south a furnace room is home to a gaping mouth of flame that is so bright, so overwhelmingly yellow, that it was a relief to get out of there. My skin seemed to tingle. It is Moloch's realm: wordlessly I understood this. Elsewhere, a bottleneck of baddies will stain the air a Marnie red and, once they're cleared, the walls will Rubik's Cube themselves about a bit, opening out the space, one world reclaiming another, rejecting another. This is a kind of concrete that has tides, it seems. It advances and retreats, and it is a reliable pleasure to watch it move.
It's a world of finishings as well as scale. Along with those signs pointing to departments like Para-kinesiology, there are rooms of antique lab equipment and there are sextants gleaming in display cases. There's acoustic tile, coal seams, old AV equipment like reel-to-reels and projectors, rooms of plastic stacking chairs politely gathered around a yellowing screen and an OHP. All of this adds up. The Oldest House creates a cumulative sense of the dangerous wonders of research, of the dark side of curiosity.
And this is all the more powerful for being delivered largely straight. There are funny moments in Control – and if you dig deep in the collectables you will discover some excellent fancies – but on the very top layer there are few tedious jokes about the jaunty paradoxes of corporate life booming from every speaker, and on the walls there are oil paintings depicting darkly studious former employees, a smug hierarchy, rather than lame riffs on motivational posters. You get a sense of a wayward and addled heritage rather than a bunch of threadbare stand-up routines telling you how lame it is to have to wear a tie every day. And anyway, you don't need that kind of stuff to make a game playful when you can kill someone with a photocopier or a lunch bench, or when you can send blizzards of paper raffling through the air just by looking at them. Control's obvious delight in – and stubborn defence of – its own fictions is completely intoxicating.
Speaking of killing people with photocopiers, the bulk of what you actually do in the Oldest House orbits around combat. And combat, I will be honest, took a while to click with me. There was a sense, in some early battles, that Control might simply have too much taste and poise to let itself go. The rooms seemed too big, the threats too small. It was like a diorama of fun rather than the real thing.
I shouldn't have worried. As you level up and get used to your abilities, and as the game's particular thrills seep into your marrow, Control's battles become truly hilarious.
And they're built from such simple pieces. Control has a handful of different enemy types and as the game progresses it often just throws them together in new configurations. There are basic weapon grunts, flocking in hallways, gathering in corners. But they are soon joined by ragged floaty guys who explode, floaty guys who lob things, ground-based guys who lob lots of things, icy weirdos who…
These things warp in with streaks of red light and expire in spectrum blurs that bring to mind the sickly rainbows of a migraine aura. At its best, Control chucks threats at you that have real style. I'm particularly fond of a large glassy sphere rimmed in colourful light that gives off health buffs as it zips around and always makes me feel I am shooting at old Gary Numan cover art. Elsewhere, though, the visual design of the baddies cannot match the Oldest House.
In terms of whittling these guys down, one of Control's central gimmicks is a single gun – the Service Weapon – that can become many guns over the course of the game, shifting and recombining in your hand to move between machine pistol, shotgun, charged sniper shot, rocket launcher. Besides unlocking new forms for the gun you can also collect and add mods – you can mod yourself too – which flare each build in specific directions. It's fun enough, and the crafting resources have brilliant names: Undefined Reading, Corrupted Sample.
Excellent sound design complements the Service Weapon's modular, voxely form, but in truth your best weapons are the kind of thing that you can find in an old Viking catalogue anyway. This is because the gun is designed to be paired with your growing suite of supernatural powers, the first and greatest of which is Launch. God, Launch is great. It's so simple, a squeeze of the bumper grabbing an object from the nearby environment before you heft it at whoever you fancy taking out. If there's no object available, Launch doesn't mind: It will simply pull something jagged out of the ground or the walls for you and you're still off to the races.
Launch is soon joined by a dash move, the ability to seize weakened enemies and have them fight alongside you, and a few other tricks that I don't want to spoil. All of these can be tweaked with their own skill trees, which generally offer incremental power boosts but chuck in the odd twist now and then. (Launch can be powered up so you can heft really big stuff, for example, or heft actual people.)
And, like the Service Weapon, which offers infinite ammo but needs a recharge period after each clip, powers are, well, powered by a separate stock of recharging energy. The aim of the game, in other words, is to manage and balance these dueling cooldowns, shooting only when you can't afford to chuck anything, and vice versa.
To Control's credit this never feels like clinical meter-wrangling. Rather, it encourages you to be creative, to take risks, to think improbable thoughts. The same is true of the health system, which forces you to regain health only by collecting the little pieces of blue light dropped by your enemies as you shoot them. Almost dead? The best tactic may be to charge straight into the worst of it. It all gives Control a welcome vitality, a forward momentum tinged with panic. It is not too stylish for desperation and carnage after all.
When it all comes together, Control's hallways and board rooms echo with wretched joy. There is something about the chaos of throwing big things about combined with the precision of the powers' targeting system that elevates the action. There is a special halo in nailing someone with a humidor through a distant railing, watching the bars go skewiff and the body crumble. Pillars shed their concrete under gunfire filling the environment with dust and grit. This game is the famous thick-air scene from the Matrix. It takes pains in depicting the way that things fall apart.
And in the crush of it all, Control has great fun with the impedimenta of office life. It is so energising to deck a machine-gunner with a well-placed white board, or use the spidery wheel-sprout of an office chair as a spinning glaive. Form follows function, too: the retro technology that the Oldest House runs on is perfect for style and atmosphere and also perfect to simply chuck around. The look of Control – a swipe-file mixture of what's cool in interior decorating at the moment, all of which suggests that Remedy's developers are probably doing up their own homes with Ercol and whatnot as they work – plays on the carefully disorienting time-warp detailing of movies like It Follows, where people have mobile phones in their pockets but use rotary phones back at the house, and it also makes the most of the fact that the good old era of heavy tech meant that there was an awful lot of stuff to hurt people with. Nobody's wounded by a flatscreen PC monitor, but something with a bit of Bakelite to it is going to do damage that everyone's going to remember.
Everything is an opportunity, in other words. It gets to you. Towards the end of the game, I chased one straggler halfway across a map just so that I could hit them with an armchair I particularly liked. Minutes later I survived an encounter simply because the physics are so bright eyed and malicious that you can nail people with an object as you pull it towards you in the first place: you can kill with concrete even before you've taken proper aim. There is something of Skate 3 to Control at these moments.
And when it all gets quiet again, you're left with a strange realisation. There's a little trickery in the narrative some of the time, but Control refuses to descend into all-out mechanical weirdness for the most part. It never forgets the pleasure of being a shooter above all other things, and with a few exceptions it's more eager to hit you with full-on with architectural beauty than warp your brain with the kind of spatial shenanigans you get in something like Portal.
In other words, while it invokes the dark things that lie beneath, Control's actually a peerless argument for the beauty of the surface. It revels in the peculiarly warm gloss of polished concrete, the simple and undeniable thrill of combat backed up with enthusiastic physics and animation, and the visual buzz of UI that has a stark, minimalist beauty to it. Without any shade of a slight, I would call Control a sort of coffee-table book in terms of its sheer visual flair – but for how dazzling it looks in motion as you wrench individual blocks from a stacked trolley, sending them thudding through the air, as you fling rockets back at the people who fired them at you, amber sparks glinting as they pass in and out of focus and then die away for good.