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Control is the culmination of many things. It’s influences are wide and varied but it’s distinctly it’s own beast as well. It owes as much to the imagination of its writer Sam Lake as it does to the likes of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy or Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves or the New Weird online depository SCP Foundation. Control is Twin Peaks wrapped in a suit from The X-Files and trapped beneath the house from The Navidson Record.
In Control we play as Jesse Faden, a young woman hellbent on finding her brother Dylan who disappeared after an Altered World Event occurred in their home town of Ordinary. Jesse wanders for years guided eventually by a voice in her head, possibly implied to be the player, to the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC). Located inside a constantly shifting Brutalist skyscraper called the Oldest House the Bureau attempts to control extra-dimensional forces that would do humanity harm. Soon after entering the Oldest House Jesse finds the Bureau boss Director Trench dead by suicide. Upon claiming his shifting, fractal pistol – the Service Weapon – Jesse becomes the new Director. From there she sets out to find Dylan and defeat the extra-dimensional presence, the Hiss, that has invaded the Bureau.
Control is slow to tease out the questions it wants you to ask and even slower to tease out the answers it wants to give you. It’s an enigmatic game where becoming lost in the labyrinthine building is a feature not shoddy game design. Of course Control is still very much a game and though it takes great leaps in its storytelling it also loses its footing occasionally in its gameplay. Certain areas are far above your level forcing you to grind out new abilities and upgrades before tackling them. It’s save point system feels arbitrary; more Dead Rising than Dark Souls. Performance issues on console are common and only add to already frustrating boss battles. So no, Control is not a perfect game, far from it in fact, but it’s willingness to get weird and spooky more than make up for this.
Jesse could be any character from any sci-fi TV show in the last quarter century. Olivia from Fringe. Scully from The X-Files. Sydney in Alias. The list goes on but Jesse’s questionable sanity and unreliability as a narrator supersede any archetypal tropes or traits common to this kind of character. The other human characters of Control are pretty unique both in design and dialogue. Ahti, the Finnish janitor, for instance is like the Log Lady from Twin Peaks only a little more sensical. But it is the Board who are the most mysterious.
Represented by an inverted black pyramid the Board are exactly that. They oversee the operations of the FBC although they may also have something to do with all the weird shit going on. They don’t exist in our world or even in the morphing dimensions of the Oldest House. Instead they occupy a vast white space known as the Astral Plane. Their intentions are as obvious as the inside of that pitch dark pyramid.
Control is very aware of its originality but not enough to shirk its influences completely. This bureaucratic hell with its political power plays and warring departments is not all that different from the Southern Reach in Jeff Vandermeer’s trilogy and Alex Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation, the first book in the series. The Southern Reach and its manipulative, power-hungry series of directors guard the mutating landscape known as Area X jealously. So too does the FBC obscure the Oldest House from public view and keep even the beneficial Objects of Power and Altered World Events under wraps. It’s not a question of what good can we do with this? It’s a question of what evil are we preventing?
In this way Control takes liberally from the SCP Foundation. The SCP Foundation (short for Special Containment Procedure) is an internet archive full to the brim of stories and descriptions of objects with reality altering powers. Some include a concrete statue that kills anyone that looks away from it, a rotting old man that drags people into an alternate dimension and a Yield sign that claims to be a ghost. Although nothing is directly stolen from the free site several things are referenced. The concrete statue is replaced by a fridge for instance. Elsewhere a rubber duck that seems to be bleeding its colour away can be seen. An empty motel functions as an occasional hub for Jesse. But nothing is ever peaceful for long in the shifting maze of the Oldest House.
Unlocking a Control Point will at times force the building into new shapes. The walls and floor will sink or rise. An area not unlike the Red Room from Twin Peaks leads you in circles as you try and navigate it. It’s not hostile but it wants you out. In moments like these we see the influence Mark Z. Danielewski’s doorstop horror-romance novel House of Leaves had on Sam Lake. House of Leaves tells many stories but the one at its ostensible centre is about a house with an endless maze constantly shifting and growing and moving beneath it. Whether these movements are random or malevolent we never find out but its effect on the inhabitants, both physical and mental, is clear.
Working in the Oldest House must be a struggle. Not only are you under constant threat of death and dismemberment but your bosses are unknown entities that don’t even live on Earth. For all its gameplay flaws and performance issues Control will drag players back into its depths thanks to its bizarre and terrifying story. Control wears its myriad influences on its sleeve but the stitches holding it together are wholly original. Control is the bureaucratic nightmare you’ve been waiting for, or perhaps it’s been waiting for you?