There’s a good reason the brutalist architectural style defines so many of the U.S.’s federal structures, from the stoic and understated Hubert H. Humphrey Building to the blocky and looming J. Edgar Hoover Building. A 1962 report commissioned by President John F. Kennedy and drafted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan about the physical expansion of the federal government encouraged architects of these new buildings to “reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American National Government” while also “embody[ing] the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” This report happened to coincide with brutalism’s zenith of popularity, and the efficiency and durability of concrete (brutalism’s material of choice) made the style appealing for more practical reasons.
Brutalism has its fair share of detractors, but I find the style evocative. Its obsession with unnatural geometry and cultivating a monolithic expression gives many brutalist buildings a surreal, almost threatening presence. Besides the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, America isn’t known for the kind of towering, awe-inspiring effigies that populate Asia. Instead, the way we celebrate humankind’s triumph over nature’s chaotic whimsy and our place in history is by erecting these strange, bald-faced buildings that bridge the gap between past and present. These brutalist federal buildings are monuments to order.
It would be reductive to look at developer Remedy Games’ choice to set its latest title, Control, in a brutalist building as one of simple believability. The story revolves around a fictional government agency located in New York City called the Federal Bureau of Control, and setting it inside a traditionally federal-looking building simply makes sense, right? But given how often the horror and surrealism of the game emerges directly from the shapes and style of the Oldest House—the name of this particular headquarters—it seems pretty obvious that the developers at Remedy understand the psychic menace that can live under the surface of brutalism’s meticulousness.
Before I played Control, I thought that the title was a bit underwhelming. It doesn’t have the particularity and specificity of Remedy’s previous titles, especially the ridiculously on-the-nose yet somehow still endearing Max Payne. But it also doesn’t portray the kind of powerful dread that other one-word titles like Prey or Doom evoke. It’s mechanical, hollow, and lilting, I thought.
After having played the game, I can say that I couldn’t have been more wrong. If there’s any other game that’s more thoroughly explored the concept of its own title, I don’t know it.
Control opens with Jesse Faden (Quantum Break’s Courtney Hope) walking into the Oldest House and finding no one at the front desk. Having traced her brother’s disappearance to the Bureau and its headquarters, Jesse is quickly sidetracked by an evil force that has infested the building and an otherworldly service pistol that’s chosen her as the Bureau’s new director, with its previous owner, Zachariah Trench (played by Max Payne himself, James McCaffrey), dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Jesse discovers that the evil force—which she labels “the Hiss” due to its incessant chattering and mist-like appearance—has taken over the minds and bodies of many Bureau agents. It’s up to her as the director to contain it and hopefully find out how and why it’s invaded the Oldest House.
In an external sense, control is possession. The Hiss possess Bureau agents, but the Bureau has also figured out a way to inhibit the Hiss through devices they wear on their chests. In that way, the surviving members of the Bureau retain control over their own minds and bodies, even though they’re in lockdown and essentially trapped within the building. Jesse possesses the service weapon, but the service weapon chose her as its owner—or, rather, the Board, an entity that exists on an astral plane intrinsically tied to the Oldest House, chose her. The chaos inside the building clashes with its brutalist architecture, as does the Oldest House’s propensity for shifting its walls and doors, a phenomenon that occurred occasionally even before the Hiss entered the picture.
Ironically, the one force that Jesse trusts, above all else, is Polaris—an entity that, as a result of a paranormal childhood trauma, now lives inside her head. Polaris is the reason that she finds the Oldest House in the first place, as the only way to find it, according to one character, is to know where to look for it—making it the perfect home for a government agency that deals in secrets. The FBC’s entire raison d’être is to find and cover up the inexplicable. They’re the real Men in Black, the ones who contain and explain interdimensional leaks that enter our world and defy all reason.
Polaris is one of these leaks, but it’s the anti-Hiss. At least, that’s the hope. It’s also the reason that Jesse doesn’t have to strap a device to her chest in order to escape possession, and it’s assumedly the reason that Jesse can confront and subdue the various Objects of Power that are running amok during the Hiss’ rampage. Finding, confronting, and taming these Objects of Power, which are all afflicted with some sort of astral leak, give Jesse the abilities that make up half of the gameplay. They let her telekinetically throw things at enemies, shield herself from damage, zip and dodge her way out of danger, seize an enemy’s mind for a brief period, and even levitate. The other half of gameplay is her service weapon, which you can upgrade to take on different forms that should all be familiar to shooter fans—the standard pistol form, the shotgun form, the automatic form, and so on.
Because Jesse’s service weapon isn’t your typical gun, you don’t technically need to reload or worry about picking up ammo. Instead, you need to wait for the gun to recharge. Completely emptying the gun will mean a longer recharge window, so you’ll have to alternate between using the service weapon and Jesse’s abilities in order to stay alive in a confrontation with the Hiss. Combat, therefore, becomes an ongoing exercise in self-control, especially because getting caught out with multiple bars recharging at once will quickly get you killed. You also won’t automatically regain health. Instead, enemies will drop health when you kill them, so the game incentivizes you to stay on the offensive. While this can be somewhat frustrating during boss fights, which are a little stingier with health drops, it mostly creates a sense of hectic urgency and forces you to play fast and play smart.
The combat in Control is the best of any Remedy title, and that includes Max Payne, a game that’s celebrated for bringing bullet time to the medium. It’s not just mixing gunfights with supernatural abilities that makes combat so satisfying and sandbox-y. It’s the way that these violent encounters with the Hiss are constantly disrupting the sterile, carefully arranged bureau offices of the Oldest House. Enter any room on the Executive or Research floors and you’ll find papers neatly stacked, desks particularly arranged. Maintenance is a little darker, a little grimier, but its pipes and machines still convey a sense of order. But when Jesse uses her Launch ability to tear chunks of cement from the ground or fire extinguishers off the walls and begins chucking them at Hiss, the resulting explosion of particle effects and environmental objects is visual candy. If the rooms in the Oldest House are the canvas, then chaos is your paintbrush.
Control isn’t a linear experience. Some might describe it as a “Metroidvania” because you’ll be able to double back and access certain areas later once you obtain different keys and abilities, but you don’t need to do that. You can just plow through the story if you’d like, but you’d be missing out on the full breadth of content that Remedy has offered. Most of the abilities that Jesse can unlock are obtained during sidequests that bring you face-to-face with Objects of Power, and much of the world-building is tucked away in various, optional collectibles. I’m not someone who loves to spend time reading when I’m playing a game, but the mysteries of Control’s world compelled me to gobble up every bit of content I could get my hands on.
I wasn’t entirely sold on the Oldest House’s open floor plan at first. As much as I loved exploring Prey’s Talos I, Remedy isn’t a studio with a lot of nonlinear experience—at least, that players have gotten to see. But the developers were smart. The Oldest House is about as open as any office building can be. You can walk around, but you can’t go outside. Rooms are easier to design than deserts and forests. Despite its limitations, Remedy still managed to make the Oldest House feel expansive, not just with visual trickery and surreal imagery, but in its actual scale. I feel like if you were to examine a blueprint of the Oldest House, it wouldn’t make any sense. That’s fine. The Oldest House isn’t beholden to reality, but it also isn’t beholden to player expectations for what an explorable game world looks like. You don’t hop from island to repetitive island, following glowing gold beacons to tell you where to go. Instead, you follow signs and pay attention. It’s open, and it’s wild, but it’s under control.
None of this would work if Jesse was just another hard-boiled, tortured antihero. Instead, she’s a straight-up hero, someone who steps up when responsibility beckons her. She isn’t sexualized, and she isn’t given worth just because she’s got badass superpowers. She wants to help. She cares. And she’s good at reading people. She’s also vulnerable, when it comes to her brother and her relationship to Polaris. Jesse knows what she’s worth, and she knows what the people around her are worth, too. You get the sense, from the other characters, that the Bureau is lucky she showed up when she did. But was her arrival at the Oldest House really up to her, or was she destined to be there?
Control is a scary concept no matter which way you look at it. Self-control. Loss of control. Someone controlling you. We like to think we have control, but do we? Can we control ourselves? Can we control what we don’t understand? Can we place a big cement building somewhere and say that we’ve conquered nature? These aren’t the kinds of questions I usually find myself asking while I’m playing a game, but Control confronts you at every opportunity with the reality of what its title means. It’s haunting, it’s brutal, and it’s one of the best games I’ve played this year.
Header image: 505 Games
Control is Remedy at the height of its abilities. Finally, the studio’s expert handling of tone and story is met with gameplay that’s just as engaging and refined. As an experiment in nonlinear world design, Control doesn’t just stick with tried-and-true waypoints and forests. Its Oldest House is a brutalist masterpiece, and the characters inhabiting it are just as unforgettable. All told, it’s going to be one of the most memorable games of the year.
M - Mature
|Control is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Product was provided by 505 Games for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Michael Goroff has written and edited for EGM since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @gogogoroff.