Poetry In Motion: Control Review

Control is perhaps the only game I’ve ever played that is so entrancing in everything that it does that I can only describe it as “poetic.” The entire game is so weirdly elegant and strangely beautiful that I found myself coming back to it night after night just to luxuriate in its bizarre world. If “dream logic” is the term you use to describe Control’s abstract, incomprehensible experience, it’s a dream I don’t want to wake up from. Sure, I have qualms with the story, and I agree with other critics who say that perhaps the shooting mechanic is stymieing the game’s potential, but every moment in Control is so aesthetically fascinating that all those other gripes melted away every time I played it.

This poetic-ness becomes evident as soon as you boot up the game for the first time. Even the background of the menu screen — a swirling, reflective, kaleidoscopic bulls-eye shape — begins to entrance you. The first scene of the game itself features our protagonist, Jessie Fayden, making her way inside the offices of the Federal Bureau of Control, a mysterious organization she’s been trying to find for years. No one is at reception, but the swirling object from the menu returns as a hazy screen overlay that guides you to your next destination. It’s a unique, elegant visual display, seeing that symbol used to guide you, and the first of many to come.

The next one is the director’s office (where you find yourself a few minutes later) which features an impossibly bright window shining blinding light down on…a recently deceased man, presumably the director. Something compels Jessie to pick up the strange gun that seems to have killed him, and when she does, you encounter another signature visual element in Control: FMV cut scenes that are displayed on in-world screens. This one is displayed within its own cut scene as part of an over the shoulder shot of the dead director watching it. There’s also a sudden cut within that sequence to a dark, inverted pyramid that seems to be speaking to you in a muffled voice. Then you‘re dropped into a glowing, Matrix-like void called the Astral Plane — a place where the entire world is as impossibly bright as the director’s window.

After completing your “ritual/challenge,” as “the board” called it, you encounter The Hiss: humanoid enemies that spawn through pillars of red light. Their presence triggers a cut scene that seems to mix animated captures of Jessie with real-life footage of the actress who lends her appearance to the character. You dispatch the enemies with the gun you just picked up, and they elegantly disappear in a burst of refracted light, the kind you might see above a heat source like a campfire or a car’s tailpipe.

Shortly after this encounter, it becomes obvious that this game is structured with the standard framework of an adventure game. You meet various people; they give you quests; you complete those quests; you get more quests. Rinse and repeat. But the world is so intriguing that you can’t help but want to keep swimming in it. Around every corner is a delicious curiosity — a mystic red phone at the end of a long bridge, a pulsating orb of energy that attacks you, a cube puzzle that unlocks doors, a fridge that demands to be observed, a furnace that’s literally hungry. Even tiny collectibles like misplaced office documents and recordings of late-night radio programs are so entertaining that not only did I read every single one I came across, but finding more was actually one of my reasons for progressing through the game.

And, typically, progressing isn’t a problem. Enemies often spawn in to block your path, but they’re easily dispatched with a couple service weapon rounds and a well thrown desk chair. (Oh yeah, that’s Control’s other big selling point: You’re telekinetic and can throw almost everything in the game.) But the game does have a difficulty arc, and — like all games that get harder as you go on — you’ll eventually encounter fights that stop you dead in your tracks. With no difficulty to adjust, you’re on your own to pound against theses sections until you can skip past them and get to the end.

If you’re playing this game for the atmosphere and the curiosities and to uncover what the hell is happening in this world, you may wonder, “why does this game even include shooting?”

I understand that sentiment, and I would love to see the alternate-universe version of Control that completely omits the combat. (Hell, I’d settle for a tourist-mode difficulty.) But I assume that any studio would get laughed out of the room for pitching a ten-hour walking simulator that costs tens of millions of dollars to develop. To the best of my understanding, large triple-A games like this require a core gameplay loop. If that loop turns the game into a well-tuned and well-balanced third person shooter, you won’t hear any complaints from me.

What you will hear me complaining about, even in this non-alternate universe version of Control, is the ending. Control suffers from a common disease that afflicts many stories set in a supernaturally-tinged real world. I call it Lost-itus. Just as the TV show Lost asked hundreds of questions but only answered a handful, Control piques your curiosity but never quite gives you the answers you’re seeking. The game revels in its twisty turns, especially near it’s conclusion, but even after all is said and done, you’re not left with a sense of resolution. Perhaps that’s because there’s DLC or a sequel on the way. (The game does allude to it…or at least I think it does?) But, even if that’s the case, I’ll still eternally wish Control had the thing Lost and so many other Lost-itus stories never gave me: a ringing moment where you finally see the forest for the trees.

But even without that moment, I think I’ll be revisiting Control in the near future. There are just too many things I want to see again. There’s the magical light cord hanging just before a precipitous drop into a total abyss, the block letters that introduce a new area, the Oceanview motel, the sharp light flooding every hall and bouncing off every reflective surface. Maybe I’ll return to Control in a few years when I finally have a graphics card that can take advantage of the game’s use of ray tracing technology. Maybe it will be when that DLC comes out. Or maybe it will be when I need a reminder of how magnificent a game can feel when it decides to write in poetry instead of prose.

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