on CONTROL: verisimilitude is for cowards

I finished CONTROL last week. Taken mechanically, it’s a good game. I found the combat loops satisfying, especially after collecting the full range of non-gun powers; there’s few things more satisfying in video games than hurling a filing cabinet at a bad guy’s head. The upgrade and accessorizing systems were too finicky and incremental for me, but the fundamental weapon choices were sound, even if I found myself relying almost exclusively on the powerful “pierce” sniper-rifle variation. Traversal is fun, which is key for a game that expects no small amount of backtracking. The visual and physics engines feel delightfully next-gen, even playing at 40 frames per second on the Steam Deck.

(As YouTubers and Redditors will tell you. 40 FPS is a real magic number on the Deck: at the size of the portable, it feels nearly as smooth as 60 and worlds better than 30, but the Deck’s much more capable of keeping the lower framerate steady.)

And while I wasn’t enthralled by the story, the world that CONTROL creates is a blast to explore and inhabit. A few years back I was heavily involved in and wrote some pieces for the SCP Wiki, from which CONTROL seems to take heavy inspiration. Many of the game’s lore bits pull the “mundane workplace comedy meets eldritch horror” vibe that SCP’s best at, where paperwork and daily janitorial work can be at once menial and mind-bending — or life-threatening. I laughed out loud at a few gags in the memoranda I collected and shivered a bit at others; the sheer absurdity of the presentation gets the jokes halfway there most times, and the writing overall is strong enough to carry it over the finish line.

But CONTROL has a weird problem I think of best by comparison to — stay with me here — 2010’s Chris Nolan joint Inception. I was hyped as hell by the trailers for Inception, which promised the marriage of Nolan’s flair for set-piece spectacle with dream illogic, where anything is possible and a wet-lipped Tom Hardy insists you must simply dream bigger. Turned out though that Nolan’s imagination only stretches so far; beyond a few Escher staircases and gravity switch-a-roos, the world of Inception is in fact extremely logical, to such a degree that I found it both boring and disappointing. The film either misunderstands or ignores what makes the worlds inside our minds so compelling and weird; it uses a premise of infinite defiance of reality to create a comprehensively real and trackable space.

CONTROL’s premise is brilliant because it takes a space identified with logic and order — the workplace, particularly the workplace of government bureaucracy — and infuses it with the psycho-illogic of a half-comprehensible god-pyramid and animate refrigerators and superpowers granted by a friendly floating sphere the size of a battleship. The game’s environment is set up with a huge possibility space.

And yet the game is slavishly devoted to verisimilitude, in ways that resist the weirdness that could make the game shine. The more I think about it, the more the resistance feels rooted in the game’s genre trappings: it’s a semi-open-world third-person action game with upgrade mechanics and gunplay combat loops. There are main missions and side missions that require static placement of objects, people, and routes; experience and upgrade paths require causal relationships between bad-guy-takedowns and reward points.

Some of it, too, is surely budgetary; you can only create so many variations of enemies, and so many warped geographies, when you’re already pouring so much into motion and facial capture, full voice acting, AAA textures and environmental design, detailed craft evident in every stray document and breakable toilet stall, and a lighting and physics engine capable of driving it all in scalable and spectacular fashion.

Yet the end result is that CONTROL feels locked in by logic and linearity in many of the places where the premise demands weirdness. The map, for one thing, is almost frustratingly linear and static. Despite the potential of weird passageways like the motel and the firebreaks, it is easy at a glance to use the map to navigate from one corner of a division to another. Nothing ever moves; no movement results in strange or unexpected results. To be clear, it would be annoying as hell if things did move, but it would also feel of a piece with an environment that’s alive (really multiply alive, as the Oldest House itself is at active war with the Hiss invasion, both causing different topographical phenomena).

CONTROL also is perhaps too beholden to its office trappings; though I understand this in the opening passages as it establishes the baseline of what the Oldest House “appears” to be, it holds true all the way to the end that 9 times out of 10 you’re navigating or fighting through a space that looks like it could have come out of either The Stanley Parable or Half-Life. Even the most illogical spaces — the Black Rock Quarry, the Ashtray Maze — end up more mundane than surreal.

Mission structures follow the same pattern: go here, do this, go back here. Linearity is king. Some of the side missions break this up a bit, but only so much and without ever violating expected boundaries or progression hooks.

The combat, too, becomes repetitive by the end despite the variation. You only come up against about a half-dozen variations of enemies, and they’re all just riffs on “what if a man was haunted.” Initially your superpowers feel like violations in a really satisfying way, but very quickly they become rote mechanics for movement, defense, or offense; none of them ever get truly strange with it. To put it another way — none of them would feel out of place in an Avengers video game, and a game like Saint’s Row the Fourth does far more interesting and buck-wild things with the possibility space of “this isn’t really reality, so go crazy with being Superman or whatever.”

This isn’t helped by how much protagonist Jesse Faden is your prototypical AAA player avatar, full of redundant or useless voiceover that overexplains and over-exposits at all the wrong times (meaning, always). That her voiceover is actually her talking to someone else would be more compelling if it were more Mr. Robot in practice, i.e. if she were literally talking to you, the player. Instead she’s talking to her resident friendly alien presence, who helpfully creates objective markers and has no particular motivations except to be helpful.

The lack of motivation would be fine if it were weirder! The inverted pyramid’s narration would be less “ok, that’s cute” and more “whoa that’s weird” if every mangled translation weren’t so easy to parse, but that’s what you get when the translations are supposed to also serve as gameplay instructions—CONTROL’s unwilling to go full Tunic and obfuscate its objectives or mechanics in service of aesthetics. Which is a fine choice in a vacuum, but a strange and disappointing one when this is the world and story being presented.

I think the disappointment hits me hardest because this is a video game, and video games have tremendous opportunity for subversion and playfulness that AAA properties rarely attempt to swing for despite being best set up to do the establishing work that creates the best frisson upon violation. By which I mean: CONTROL clearly has the budget to look real, which would make it all that much more exciting if the game dropped fully into the unreal and broke its own rules.

Funny enough, most of this rumination was kicked off by thinking about how CONTROL should have a built-in explanation for all the moments where its game-ness gets in the way of its ability to mimic reality. The fact that there are still literal treasure chests littered around the office, for example, bugged me in a way it shouldn’t have—because on the one hand, yes, this is a game where such pickups could easily be placed more convincingly on office desks or in stray stacks of paperwork without calling attention to the artifice, but also the collectibles are so often given bizarrely abstract or impossible labels (from this chest I have collected a physical item called “intrusive thought”???). This should be the thing I’m saying I want! But the game’s otherwise leaning so heavily towards the realism trick that it bugged me nonetheless.

Or consider the more practical moments when you realize games are games. At one point the third-person camera got locked in a little too close to me during combat, and I shot at enemies while staring at the back of Jesse’s eyeballs through a void where the back of her head should have been. A couple of times I managed to get up a little higher than I should have before I could even levitate simply by abusing hitchy physics and mashing the jump button, turning Jesse into a hyperactive rabbit fighting gravity up the side of a ventilation pipe. When you skip dialogue a little too aggressively in cutscenes, characters will sometimes teleport around or jerk around abruptly, the game engine rushing to catch up and place them in situ for the next line, like how in old 2D Sonic games it’s possible to move so fast that the camera literally can’t see you.

If CONTROL committed more to its weirdness, it could fold its rough edges into the tapestry of storytelling, and somehow make the least realistic parts of the video game some of the most convincing. The game pulls a few neat tricks that nod in this direction towards the end of the main story, but it was never quite enough.

Small tangent at the end here: You know what game series does a fantastic job of simply ignoring verisimilitude and somehow feeling more realistic for it? Soulsborne games. I can’t even count the number of platforming sections where I saw my character with her two legs spread out into the void on either side of a thin railing, the game simply expecting you to understand that most video game collision is a matter of arbitrary collision box detection hidden by animation sequences; there are innumerable bits in Elden Ring that either don’t mind or fully expect you to abuse horse-jump physics to navigate wide and tall spaces.

These games have some degree of in-world explanation for certain game-y mechanics, but mostly just let the game be a game, verisimilitude be damned. If there’s a FromSoft game that CONTROL should have especially been inspired by, it’s Dark Souls 2, with its intentionally nonsensical world design, severe opacity, and memorably odd storytelling tricks.

To wrap up and just to be clear: CONTROL’s a fun game! Seven point five out of ten or whatever. Like I said, few things beat the momentary thrill of mind-tossing an ergonomic office chair at a sniper and watching the force of the impact knock him into a bunch of his buddies. I only wish that chaotic energy had infused the whole production.