Welcome to The Oldest House, a nondescript but profoundly abnormal skyscraper. It hosts and subverts the Federal Bureau of Control, a secretive government agency that keeps the lid on paranormal happenings. The FBC made a terrible mistake setting up shop on the front lines, as the House is a shifting labyrinth, a "place of power" eerily mirroring the brutalist architecture and bureacratic imagination of its occupants—a trap too intriguing to leave unexplored.
Jesse Faden heads in hoping to find her missing brother, who she suspects is in FBC custody. But she's the one doomed to remain, chosen by the mysterious Board as the bureau's new director. Her (and hence your) first job is to eradicate the supernatural "Hiss" which somehow inspired your predecessor's suicide and has corrupted the house's expanse of concrete plazas and office spaces. It's also turned the security guards into a legion of monsters, so there's plenty to get on with before you can even begin to worry about the paperwork.
Faden is given The Service Weapon, a weird pistol that can be upgraded to act as sniper rifle, shotgun or machine gun as her skills and experience grow. As you explore the House and her potential, you'll unlock powers of telekinesis and telepathy that let Faden bowl over foes and control them from afar. These powers also lead to unsettling truths about Faden, her brother, and an invisible friend.
The vibe of Control's deepest state owes a lot to X-Files and Dark Skies and Half-Life and David Lynch by way of the SCP Foundation mythos. The psychedelic cutscenes reminded me of Beyond the Black Rainbow, Panos Cosmatos' moody tribute to institutional psychic horror. There's even an inverted pyramid motif, looming in an astral plane to which the Board occasionally summons you, and replicated in marble at the game's safest point.1 The deliberately stilted dialogue is fun, but also cringes from sincerity.
The Oldest House is the star of the show, a magnificent example of virtual architecture. It's partly inspired by the National Security Agency's windowless Long Lines Building, an inconspicuous but menacing brutalist tower in Manhattan. An in-game note even gives The Oldest House the same Thomas St. address. Inside, however, the House sprawls wildly and would cover half of Tribeca with its granite hallways, plush carpets, dark soaring lobbies and cavernous atriums bathed in daylight from nowhere.
Control is two games in one. The first is about exploring The Oldest House and the FBC's secrets, and the second is a shoot-em-up inspired by Metroidvania-style platform games. These two modes aren't necessarily in conflict, but the narrative adventure vanishes completely into the action. A few hours in and the Oldest House felt more like a Marcel Breuer deathmatch arena than an unfolding mystery.
The various scattered letters, tapes and notes are expository snacks: with a few important exceptions (some side quests are so clever I can't believe they're not compulsory) there's not much to do in the house other than enjoy the scenery as you plow from one fight to the next.
Which gets us to the problem, because as exhilarating as Faden's powers are, the combat is a real slog. The combat system seems well-designed, with no ammo to manage, and telekinetically flinging desks and filing cabinets into enemies seems like it should never get old. But it does. Many fights repeat each time an area is revisited and there's always another one waiting around the next corner. The fights go on and on. Fights are too easy or too hard. A one-shot kill out of nowhere sends you back to the beginning of an area, with all the fights reset and waiting to be fought again. So much combat!
Perhaps it's a reminder that games are rooted in consumerism, and even the most fully-realized works of art must stick to the normative design assumptions that come with commercial viability. Or maybe I just don't like Metroidvanias, whatever.2
There is a place where it all comes together: the Ashtray Maze. This creepy hotel basement lounge endlessly reforms itself around you as you tear along, battling hissed-out security guards to a roaring metal soundtrack.
It highlights the game's amazing looks, the best and worst of its action, and shows why Control's other evocative moments (a sentient furnace, a towering archive of FBC-intercepted "dead letters" from folks reporting paranormal events, Threshold Kids, a forbidden subway station, the bureau's internal information films, a dreamlike motel that proves Remedy can do puzzles, a scale recreation of ██████████, and a perfectly-formed groundhog-day sequence) don't need so much combat to work.
I loved the office memos, too, exposing the daily life of a stuffy institution forced to contend with constant paranormal bullshit. Employees complain of fridges, desks, even toilets disappearing for days. Cartoon posters remind workers of incomprehensible procedures. Reports are filed on trivial catastrophes caused by improperly-stored eldritch items. If there's one place in the Oldest House I'd love to visit again, it's an office haunted by a self-replicating post-it note and its many offspring. The prospect of finding more wonders like this pulled me through the drudgery of combat.
If I wanted a different game, a less relentless one where Faden explores an FBC teeming with the everyday business of paranormal mangement, a closed world of bureacracy, mystery and shifting walls, the game I found is still a fine one.
Good enough for government work, anyway.
Remedy Entertainment's Control is available now on Windows at the Epic Games Store, on XBox and on PlayStation 4.
1. Obscure references and flourishes abound. My favorite: "the Hiss" shares its name with the infamous Soviet spy, Alger Hiss, whose unprovable crimes came to represent cold war bureacratic paranoia and doubt to its own obsessive chroniclers. Hiss-infested sections of the building are duly bathed in red light. Also my favorite: the jump-scare chapter titles, thumping onscreen in massive blocks of Avant Garde Gothic Bold.
2. One thing you might expect The Oldest House to remind you of is the writings of J.G. Ballard, such as High Rise and Concrete Island. But the psychic frequency is a clear decade or two earlier. If Control were more Ballardian, it might have found more interesting ways to introduce explosive violence into the cold hygiene of its environments.