Preview: Control is a stunning action game for fans of Annihilation and the SCP Foundation
Midway through the hands-off demo of Control that Remedy Entertainment is showing off behind closed doors at E3 2018 the protagonist, Jesse, travels down a large corridor, past rooms containing mysterious "Objects of Power" and items touched by "Altered World Events." Each room is a cell with a glass wall, with the object in question carefully locked away, labeled, and monitored.
But as so often happens at facilities like these, something has gone horribly wrong. Jesse is dealing with a crisis, with otherworldly entities known as the Hiss invading and taking over human bodies. So she doesn't have time to help the poor man who cries out from one of the cells as she passes. He's sitting in front of what looks to be an ordinary fridge, staring at it. He explains that if the object isn't continually observed it "deviates" and changes form. He's been staring at it for hours on end, and badly needs a break.
Unfortunately for him, Jesse has much larger problems to attend to. Because things in the world of Control are very weird, and very dangerous.
Control stars Jesse Faden, who has an unspecified trauma in her childhood that leads her, through (again) unspecified means, to be trapped in the Federal Bureau of Control, in the role of the new Director of the agency.
Enemies fill the rooms and halls of the dark and ominous office building, in the form of possessed employees and guards. Jesse takes down her foes using her Service Weapon, which is a gun made up of swirling orbs that changes form on the fly, along with using what seem to be psionic abilities. If you're old enough to have fond memories of the PS2-era game Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy then you might experience some of the same strange nostalgia that struck me while watching the demo.
Combat in Control looks, for the lack of a better way to put it, extremely cool. Jesse blocks bullets with her Shield ability, then lashes out at enemies with telekinetic force. She shoots foes in the head with her pistol, triggers explosions, and switches smoothly to a more shotgun-style configuration of her weapon to take out anyone close-up.
Towards the end of the demo Jesse's enemies revealed the ability to fly, but fortunately she was able to match them with her Levitation skill. Surreal aerial battles ensued, with indistinct enemies that left hazy trails of distortion and color in their wake flying around as Jesse floated above a catwalk, grabbed objects with the force of her mind, and hurled them at her foes. It was smoothly animated, fun to watch, and strangely beautiful.
A mysterious sandbox
As she continued to explore, Jesse performed mysterious rituals, repeating mantras and pulling on hanging cords, and the environment around her shifted and changed. We were told that we were seeing the inside of "the Oldest House," a location that was constantly transforming, and which seemed to contain layers of locations and realities stacked on top of one another.
All of the environments we saw, while technically indoors, had soaring ceilings and strange angles which made them feel like caverns or cathedrals, rather than the government office it supposedly was. Though Control doesn't look to be a horror game exactly, the overlapping realities and surreal environments reminded me strongly of both Silent Hill and The Evil Within.
Remedy Entertainment's Anna Megill, Control's narrative lead, said the game will be much more open ended than previous Remedy titles, with side-missions and sandbox gameplay opportunities. While a well-crafted linear game isn't a bad thing, it's easy to see how the mysterious world of Control, full of hidden corners and unexpected depths, could be one that lends itself well to sidequests and nested narratives. The previously mentioned unfortunate man stuck staring at a fridge to keep it from transforming is an example of one of those sidequests; Jesse could presumably help him, if she wanted to.
The influence of the New Weird
Everything going on in Control is very weird, certainly, but it's also new weird, as in the fiction genre that blends sci-fi, fantasy, and horror elements. Megill specifically cited the genre as a major touchstone for the team when crafting the game's world and story, and identified Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation as a specific influence ("the book, more than the movie," she made sure to clarify). If Alan Wake was Remedy's extended riff on Stephen King, maybe Control will be the same thing for VanderMeer, one of the titans of the new weird genre?
And those weird influences are very apparent, even from the brief demo. It's clear the player will never quite be sure what's going on in Control, and that lack of sure footing in reality is a popular theme in new weird fiction. The enemies are often hard to look at, as if they are warping the world around them or making it hard for our eyes or mind to make sense of them. And the idea of a secret government agency responsible for holding back some kind of potentially hostile alternate reality or form of life has been a plot point in weird fiction since the days of Lovecraft.
It's that same fictional conceit that gave rise to the online weird fiction meme-factory that is the SCP Foundation, a collaboratively written site full of reality-warping objects and mind-altering hazards. Control's fridge that changes shape when it isn't being looked at is so close to about a dozen different infamous SCP entries that I had to ask whether the site was an influence, and Megill acknowledged that it was.
Control will be coming out sometime in 2019 on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. You'll have to wait until then to find out of the game features some horrifying SCP-682 equivalent.