The 2019 game Control, from Remedy Entertainment, seems at first glance like it might be a meta-reflection on the medium of video games. Its main character, Jesse, speaks to an invisible entity who never talks back. She addresses a silent ‘You’, with dialogue that could easily be read as addressing the player. For instance, she asks her invisible friend to help her find her brother, a task which you as the player are equally responsible for helping her complete. The title thus takes on an obvious thematic significance: you control the protagonist, who, through some mysterious, potentially paranormal set of events, seems to be aware of your presence, maybe even aware of your control. When Jesse asks you to help her find her brother, does she do so as a free agent, or as someone imprisoned in her own mind, as someone who asks because she can’t do anything else? Anyway, none of that turns out to be true. Jesse’s invisible friend is just an invisible friend. There isn’t any deeper symbolic or thematic significance – it’s just a random character with no particular purpose in the wider plot. I actually don’t think anything would change if you removed it from the story. And the ‘control’ motif – yeah, you know, whatever, it’s just the name of the government branch that Jesse’s investigating. It doesn’t speak to deeper themes regarding the player’s control of the protagonist, it’s just there.
I’ll admit to being a little frustrated by Control. It’s a game with a great premise and a striking atmosphere, but it’s not interested in exploring the psychological depths of its characters, or even in providing basic payoff to key elements of the plot. Control presents itself as a story about Jesse finding her brother, but that story never develops in any real depth. Jesse doesn’t have any significant responses or reactions to the things that she learns. She discovers that her brother was kidnapped and locked up by the Bureau, but she doesn’t do anything about it. She never condemns the Bureau of Control for what it’s done, or confronts any of the figures responsible. She doesn’t have any meaningful ambivalence about becoming the director of an institution that imprisoned her brother. She doesn’t even seem to mind that the Bureau was heavily surveilling her, that they possessed copies of her sessions with a therapist – none of that gives her second thoughts about the nature of the beast. Really, Control is a story about Jesse becoming the new Director and taking over the Bureau. Her brother features as the reason why she comes to the bureau, but is otherwise dropped as quickly as possible. It’s something we see in a lot of games – they don’t really care about following a character through a journey of psychological development. Characters (especially protagonists) exist more as ciphers, allowing the player to run around the world in as unimpeded a fashion as possible. Really, Control is a story about the player becoming the new Director, and taking over the Bureau.
And I should say that I did enjoy this game. It’s gorgeous to look at, it’s got a great atmosphere, I love the weird shit that happens – it’s a little like the SCP universe, if you’re familiar with that. There are a bunch of random objects with mysterious powers that the Bureau contains and tries to study – there’s a TV that lets you fly, there’s a whole wing stuffed full of self-replicating clocks, there’s this great bit with a fridge that – ah, I won’t spoil it. I bought both the DLC though, and I really enjoyed playing it. It’s just not that interested in its story. It’s more focused on showcasing its setting.
Control is set in the Oldest House, a mysterious building that sits somewhere between reality and the astral plane. The Bureau of Control occupies the House, and uses it to store and study all their paranormal shit. As the newly appointed Director, you travel around the House, solving problems in different departments and making your way towards your ultimate goal – finding your brother. However, as I mentioned, the game isn’t really that interested in Jesse’s brother, or in Jesse – it is more focused on having you explore the House. That in itself is sort of interesting, though. The House sometimes moves – it’ll shunt an office to another wing, or brutalist concrete chunks will block access through particular doorways (as above). But in many cases, you can make the House return to its normal shape by fighting off bad guys and claiming ‘control points’. This is where we do see a level of metafiction, and an engagement with the theme of control: during combat, control over a given portion of the House is contested. By triumphing in the combat, you assert your control over the gameplay space. The House then physically changes in response to your victory, acknowledging your control by offering a path forwards. You exert your will over a space, causing it to reconfigure in such a way as to allow you to progress. That core process is at the heart of most – maybe even all – video games. It brings into focus the game’s obsession with Jung, with archetypes and the collective unconscious. The Oldest House is the heart of reality, the core and foundation of the world, and your actions in the House are themselves archetypal. Games are about asserting control over your environment, and therefore you assert control over the environment of the House, not as one instance of control among others, but as the original, archetypal act, as the ur-action that gives meaning and form to the act in all other games.
From that perspective, there’s a little bit of House of Leaves about this game. It has a level of self-consciousness, an understanding of its own nature as game. In House of Leaves, the titular house is (among other things) the book itself, the text treated as architecture, as home to the leaves of pages collated into one volume. That analogy only makes more sense as applied to video games, partly because of the visual, spatial nature of many games, but also in how we move between files, almost like moving from room to room. Underlying processes are threaded throughout games like plumbing or electrical wire, largely unseen, but carrying that which makes the house inhabitable. We enter through the front door of the .exe file, and when we leave, we turn out the lights, knowing that everything inside will be in the same place when we return. If I’m annoyed at Control, then, it’s mostly because it has so much promise. It’s reaching towards these lofty, metafictional goals, but flounders with – frankly – really basic character shit. It tries to say something about the archetypes and collective unconscious underpinning video games, and it ends up revealing a little too much – and maybe not in the way it intended.