I couldn’t tell you much about the national character of Finland. Unlike their Scandanavian neighbors, Finns don’t often express themselves in my preferred media of movies and videogames. Some of the world’s best and boldest filmmakers are from Denmark. Swedes have made some of my favorite videogames, and a couple of my favorite movies. Even Norway has gotten into my head. But Finland? I’ve seen two Aki Kaurismaki movies and I can’t even remember their names. I just remember concluding Finland is a bleak place with strange ideas about humor. For a sense of the deadpan minimalism of Finnish humor, look at the website for My Summer Car. Better yet, play My Summer Car, which might be a prank.
One of my touchstones for Finnish storytelling is a movie called Sauna, historical horror about a joint Finnish/Russian expedition to map the border between the two countries. It sounds like an oddly specific subject if you don’t appreciate Finland’s fraught history with Russia, especially during the 20th century. This fraught history is why Finland is one of two countries whose name is also a verb (Vietnam being the other). Finlandization means trying to not get swallowed by a hungry, vast, ruthless, bureaucratic nightmare crouched right next to you. The geopolitical equivalent of standing completely still and hoping the T-Rex doesn’t see you. So perhaps it’s a matter of national character that Control is a horror story about a hungry, vast, ruthless, bureaucratic nightmare.
Up to now, Finnish developer Remedy has been trying to tell stories about America, presumably to America, because that’s how games sell lots of copies. For instance, Max Payne’s overearnest take on hard-boiled detective fiction. Or Alan Wake’s appeal to the average Stephen King fan who doesn’t care about the difference between Maine and the Pacific Northwest. But Control, which has all the trappings of a game trying to sell lots of copies, seems uninterested in pandering. On the contrary, given what little I know about Finland, it feels like Remedy is finally at home.
Control’s setting and subject matter is an office building gone wrong. But it’s not Kafkaesque. Kafkaesque doesn’t even begin to describe it. Kafkaesque is the polite oppression in a country with one foot in Western Europe. It’s brutal, but slow and dispassionate. It’s the unexpected escalation from a bug smushed in a typewriter to Sam Lowry’s torture at the end of Brazil, a story told by two of the English language’s finest Kafka-esque storytellers, Terry Gilliam and Tom Stoppard. But the horror of Control’s setting, a government office building informally called the “Oldest House”, isn’t nearly so officious, absurd, or gradual. It’s the stuff of long lightless winters and wide-open spaces under dark skies where something ravenous might lunge at you. Control is Brazil from the perspective of the bug.
To me, this feels like a more direct expression of Finnish national character than Remedy’s other games. I don’t mean to push this angle too hard — he says five paragraphs later — and I’m out of my depth even using the words “Finnish national character”. But Control is remarkable partly because it deserves this kind of conversation. It’s the kind of horror that makes me think about where it came from. Who thought this up? Why did they think it up? What ideas were they grappling with that they channeled them into a scary story to tell other people who might be similarly affected? I could be completely wrong that there’s anything Finnish here. Maybe Remedy writer Sam Lake just came up with it waiting in line at Kroger’s. Maybe the premise was focus grouped in Des Moines. But the point is Control made me wonder. I’ve never once wondered about Jaws, It, The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, Night of the Living Dead, Blair Witch Project, or The Thing, because I get those. I totally understand their universal appeal. Of course they’re scary. But Control? Why this? And why did it work for me?
Of course, the storyteller is only as effective as his audience’s openness to the story. I remember in 7th grade, at Henderson Junior High School, discovering a ladder in a janitor’s closet that went to a door in the ceiling. I was sure it would be locked, but it wasn’t. So one day, instead of walking home after school, I climbed through that door just to see what was up there. I found cramped corridors, running the length of the school’s hallways, splitting off in various directions down more hallways, lined with exposed insulation and brushing up against noisy machinery. A dimly lit maze of catwalks under low ceilings, threaded with ducts like fat veins. The occasional janitor’s desk or some lockers or a cluster of strange implements. It was the secret alternate dimension of the hallways and classrooms where I had spent my days, completely unaware that it even existed. To an adult, it would just be hot, cramped, and dusty. But to a kid, it was a revelation.
Discovering the basements and back rooms of Control’s offices and hallways is like climbing through that hatch at Henderson Junior High. Control starts out as a shooter in tediously mundane offices. It’s all desks and computer monitors and cubicles and conference rooms. “Oh god,” you groan, “is the whole game going to be this office building?” The answer is “yes, but…” As Control progresses, the Oldest House reveals its mysterious doors and piping and maintenance corridors, its mazes of catwalks and exposed insulation, its fat veins and noisy machines, its secret alternate dimension that you were unaware existed. And most importantly, it reveals the pulse of its malevolence. Have you read House of Leaves? Play Control and you won’t have to.
Although this office building houses a law enforcement agency, it’s also full of science. Scientists are studying an unexplained phenomenon that began in a town called Ordinary. How’s that for Finnish deadpan irony? At first, these scientists and their labs will seem familiar if you’ve played System Shock, Half Life, or Prey. Like those games, you’re exploring the ruins of their scientific paradise after The Fall, picking through their notes and audio logs, using a shotgun to fend off whatever monsters have been loosed from their collective id. But what Control does differently is replace the player avatar — a camera through which you look — with an actual protagonist. Jesse is a character with motivation, backstory, and a voice, both internal and external. She relates directly to the Oldest House for reasons that move the story forward and raise the stakes beyond some eleventh-hour reveal that, oh-ho, it was about [insert spoiler that doesn’t really matter as anything other than an endgame twist] all along!
And while those games’ endgame twists might have provided a memorable surprise, Control seems less concerned about where it’s going than how it gets there. I suspect the ending will be unsatisfying to many people. But I’m not sure it’s trying to be satisfying. Rather than ending with a twist or reveal, Control would much rather get under your skin along the way. “I had you all along” isn’t quite as snappy as “gotcha!” So if the ending is unsatisfying, perhaps that’s because Remedy isn’t telling the usual horror story. What if you only ever understand as much as the protagonist? And what if you don’t know whether she’s an unreliable narrator because she’s not sure herself? What if the ending is about a decision instead of a surprise?
The protagonist is a fundamental part of Control in the same way Max Payne was a fundamental part of Max Payne (I would have been okay with Control being called Jesse Faden). During the cutscenes, as she talks to someone, Remedy cuts to a close-up of her eyes as we hear her internal monologue. It’s the visual weight of third person but the intimacy of first person. At first, actress Courtney Hope seems too lightweight for the role, which implies someone with gravity, mileage, and a Max Payne world weariness. Hope’s Jesse comes off as soft-boiled and even naive. The embryo-smooth character model implies a young girl untouched by time or care. She claims at one point she worked as a janitor, which is absurd. This pretty millennial worked as a janitor? Sure she did. But as the story progresses, and especially during its more emotional scenes at the end, soap opera veteran Hope gives it her all and mostly pulls it off.
I wish I could say the same for some of the supporting characters. Nerdgrrl handler Emily is almost as facile and grating as whack-a-doodle psycho Dylan. Almost. But Dylan is in a class by himself. It’s hard enough to get a good actor to play a babbling psychotic. Without one, it’s cringe-worthy. Emily and Dylan feel like characters from different genres and neither of them fits Control’s overall tone. Alan Wake actor Matthew Poretta is featured throughout the game, doing sketch comedy where the exposition should be. But by the time his character reaches the end of his journey — including a shirtless scene that shows his physique is nearly as implausible as Jesse being a janitor — it’s obvious he’s been doing exactly what Remedy wanted. I was sold. By the way, how can I get my hands on the Control soundtrack? Also, a shout out to a security chief named Langston. He looks like a balding Phillip Seymour Hoffman with a cleft palate inherited from his voice actor, Derek Hagen. It’s the sort of bold choice you don’t see in American movies or TV.
I should probably mention that Control is also a tremendous game. Here, too, it feels like Remedy is finally at home. Max Payne was all about the art of control during the chaos of violence. They tried to express the grace of a John Woo scene and the thrill of John Carmack gameplay. Control has a similar intent, but its thrilling grace doesn’t have to resort to bullet-time gimmickry. What’s more, it’s free of real-world limitations. It gradually introduces weapons and psychic powers so you can learn, integrate, and master them, no slow-motion needed. By the time you’ve got four or five tools under your belt, it’s astonishing how much you can make happen, and it’s spectacular how well the world responds to what you’re doing. This is the Jedi power fantasy you’ve wanted all along, but with serious guns! And it happens in a place that responds to the chaos. Control’s debris and noise and furious destruction is an unprecedented joy. It is to interiors what Red Faction: Guerilla was to exteriors.
The overall structure of the game has a lot in common with Prey, but with more muted RPG elements. Control doesn’t want you constantly leaving the world to muddle around on an inventory screen. Smart design decisions about ammo, health, and traversal keep Control moving at a steady pace while keeping your attention focused on what the game does best. It smartly avoids a lot of the pitfalls of similar games, where you can just save and reload your way past a boss fight or difficult area, or you can just change the difficulty setting, and sometimes you have to because the developer expects you to make your own fun. There’s none of that in Control. Remedy is at the helm, confidently engineering the experience they want you to have. Is it ironic that one of Control’s strongest points as a game design is how you can let go and let Remedy handle it?
In the Max Payne games, Remedy did that usual thing of stringing together a bunch of settings for their various gun battles, dropping story bits in between. They also kept shoehorning in trippy dream sequences. But Control is all of a piece, trippy dream sequences included. In a way, it’s an open world. Lots of freedom to explore, lots of rewards for exploring, and lots of nonlinear excursions, if you’re so inclined. The Oldest House is a massive place and it’s a real joy to navigate, with an unobtrusive map overlay and some of the best ingame navigation cues since Far Cry 2. Of course, this is an office building, so the goal is to get employees where they need to go by putting signs and arrows on the walls. A real haunted house doesn’t point you to the exit. And here, too, you’ll find touches of Remedy’s deadpan humor. Next to the mail room is a department for dead letters. Okay, that kind of makes sense? It gets better as you explore deeper. You’ll find one of the most uncannily cohesive haunted houses since Citadel Station.
I don’t want to use the word masterpiece lightly, but what else do you call the combination of gleefully chaotic gameplay with earnest storytelling in a setting as refreshingly unique as Bioshock? What else do you call a combat system that goes so far beyond the simple act of shooting a gun without drilling down into a set of intricate menus and complicated controls? What else do you call darkly malevolent horror that doesn’t feel like it was cribbed from someplace else? What else do you call the crowning achievement of a studio with a unique voice, an uneven track record, and 25 years of experience? If there’s a better word to describe what Remedy has achieved with Control, I can’t think of it.