There’s a moment near the end of Control that is so unabashedly thrilling, joyous, and decadent in its design that it would make most roller coaster creators reflect on their life decisions. To say much more about the Ashtray Maze would be to spoil the giddy surprise. But it’s worth noting that, when it’s over, protagonist Jesse catches her breath and offers her analysis of the mind-blowing events that just transpired:
“…That was awesome.”
It’s not something you’d expect the normally stoic Jesse to let out, given her predicament. Control is a game about navigating a paranormal US government agency in an attempt to find out the truth about what happened to your brother, and things get pretty dark. But it cuts to the core of why this is my favorite game of 2019. Remedy Entertainment didn’t just create an exhilarating action sequence; it had the confidence to know that its players would be thinking the exact same thing as Jesse.
That same confidence is key to Control’s storytelling, which leans heavily on the assumption that players will be invested in Remedy’s enigmatic lore. Control throws a lot of cryptic terminology at you from the start and trusts that you’ll be intrigued enough to figure out what it means down the line. For me, at least, the payoff was more than worth it.
Control is not exactly shy about its influences. There are clear references to the likes of Lost, Annihilation, SCP fiction, Twin Peaks, and House of Leaves, all wrapped up in a distinctive visual design that references brutalist architecture and ‘70s typography. The resulting bricolage is tremendously satisfying, feeling entirely like its own thing without being shy about the homages it is paying.
It all works because, unlike any of those aforementioned inspirations, Control is a video game. And video games, more than any other medium, are uniquely suited to the concept of a character digging up information on fascinatingly arcane subject matter. Control is a game that spends most of its running time placing you in dour office blocks, yet every dusty computer and abandoned cubicle around the corner of each right-angled corridor feels ripe with possibility. There might just be another heavily redacted email to read or grainy videotape to watch that gets you that little bit closer to understanding the Astral Plane.
Of course, Control isn’t all about rifling through filing cabinets. This is an action game at its core, and Remedy adopted a relatively conventional Metroidvania-style structure where you start from a hub area and gradually unlock abilities that grant you access to new locations. The important twist, however, is that much of the best stuff is optional. Useful combat abilities are often unlocked through narrative side-quests that reward you for investigating further.
Control can be a tough game at times, and it doesn’t have any difficulty settings. In the end, though, I didn’t have much trouble finishing it. Far more than other comparable action-adventure games, I found myself compelled to finish as many side missions as I possibly could, which had the welcome bonus of making Jesse a lot more powerful by the end of the story. Control doesn’t necessarily have the tightest combat, and some of its level-up systems are a little over-designed. But when you get to the point where you’re able to fly around a vast room and use concrete pillars as a shield before flinging more masonry at your unfortunate adversaries, it rarely feels like a chore.
That’s what makes Control so special. It’s unusual to come across such an ambitious game where each of its elements feels so perfectly in tune with one another, the pursuit of one rewarding you with progress elsewhere. Control’s lore is rich and engrossing, and the best way to delve into it is by taking on combat challenges. The combat is experimental and satisfying, and the best way to get better at it is by exploring the game’s fiction. If you’re not into either of these elements, you won’t like Control. If you’re into both, you will love it.
Control is a knockout game. It clicked with me on a level so few games do, where I wanted to read it as much as play it and play it just so I could read it more. It all comes down to Remedy’s confidence and, yes, control over the vision it had from the start. I believe it’s the best game Remedy has ever made and the best thing I played all year.
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