Control: The art of not telling a story


Way back in the days when he was still the frontman of Id Software, John Carmack famously said, “story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”

This missive tossed out over two decades ago when the original DOOM was the poster child for video game violence seems archaic when one considers how far along games have come as a storytelling medium, but it does contain a kernel of truth. Most players will overlook gaping plot-holes, lore ret-conning and any other general silliness as long as the central conceit that drives a decent game is in place: is the damn thing any fun to play?

It’s worth considering this when taking a look at Control, Remedy Entertainment’s last release involving an off-kilter protagonist, a gun, a super-power and a world that vaguely resembles our own. That set up, incidentally, can be applied to nearly every game the Finnish developer has produced, from Max Payne all the way through Alan Wake, Quantum Break and beyond. Control is at once both the most stripped-down and most complex variant Remedy has created on this template.

The reason being is that Control’s story promises a lot, reveals nothing and yet still manages to yank the player along through its labyrinthine levels. By the time it’s all over, no one can claim they were cheated.

Establishing Control

Control sees players charging through an office that shares the aesthetic veneer of both an Eastern European tower block and David Lynch’s take on a Hollywood studio in Mulholland Drive. The building houses The Federal Bureau Of Control (FBC) – whatever the hell that is – and something referred to as The Oldest House.

Former employees hang suspended from the ceiling. The game’s protagonist, Jesse, oscillates between talking to FBC employees, hearing voices resonate through the building’s halls, flinging bullets and objects at seemingly brain-dead adversaries and ‘cleansing’ areas of the building.

Jesse is told she’s the FCB’s director, yet the only reason she entered the premises in the first place was because she was looking for her kidnapped brother. On top of that, she’s able to tap into an astral plane, telekinetically manipulate objects around her and… are you still following any of this? Because if you are, you may be interested to know that Jesse seemingly breaks the fourth wall every now and then and commiserates directly with the player.

Down Control’s Rabbit Hole

Control feels rich with narrative, but what does it all add up to? Is there something to the game’s plot beyond offering players the potential to obsess over minutiae and argue on internet forums? Or is it really just a framework to hang set-pieces on? Control feels satisfying as an experience by the time the credits roll, but if you’ve been following the story throughout, you’ll be forgiven for feeling impressed and hoodwinked at the same time. Given its rudimentary interface – which one can see replicated throughout Remedy’s games – Control feels like it should live and die on its story.

It does and it doesn’t.

I won’t defy the internet to come up with a plausible explanation for the events in Control; it’s the sort of game fans will deep dive into, the rabbit hole becoming more convoluted and believable as time goes on. (I will however, defy the internet to explain why Alan Wake was climbing up the keys of a type-writer in one of the game’s DLC packs. I want to know the theories behind that). I will say, though, that Control is Remedy at the top of its game.

There is no story it has to commit to, although it’s written the paint off the walls. There are no easy answers it has to offer to those players seduced by it, but it leaves clues all over the FBC building. The central interface – gun, powers, insanity – is the same template that has always been used. But for the first time in a long time, the art, the mechanics, the plot, the meta-interaction – everything about the game – seems to be reaching beyond what players see and interact with on the screen.

Maybe I’m just not smart enough to ‘get it’ with Control. But maybe I am. Is the feeling my hand is closing on thin air at the game’s denouement, maybe the whole point of this exercise?

  • Control is available on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch

About Author

I've been writing about tech and games for around 20 years. Been playing games since I was tall enough to reach the controls on an arcade machine. Old enough to remember when games weren't something people yelled at each other about.

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