When Finnish studio Remedy was crafting the story for its time-traveling action game Quantum Break, the team put a lot of effort into world-building, the hows and whys of the fledgling sci-fi world. But once the game actually launched, players sped through its main storyline, and didn’t dig much deeper than that. Remedy did a whole lot of work that people never saw. “The reality of the experience was that people blasted through it and were done in one or two evenings, and that was it,” says Mikael Kasurinen, director on Remedy’s follow-up, Control. “It felt like a missed opportunity. That inspired us to look at the next game a bit differently.”
Control is slated to launch in August, and the supernatural thriller represents a big departure for the studio. Whereas games like Quantum Break and Alan Wake took a more cinematic approach to storytelling, with plenty of exposition and cutscenes, Control moves in a different direction. It’s a more open adventure, one that uses the environment, character dialogue, and optional lore to tell its story; during a short hands-on demo with the game last week at GDC, I didn’t see a single cutscene. From what I played, it feels less like a story that’s told to you, and more like one you’re uncovering yourself. “You have to pay attention,” says Kasurinen.
Control takes place in an alternate version of America, one where supernatural phenomena are not only real, but subject to intense scrutiny by a government organization known as the Federal Bureau of Control in New York. You play as a woman named Jessie, who, just minutes after arriving at the bureau’s headquarters — known as The Oldest House — discovers that not only is the director dead, but thanks to a strange ritual she has become the de facto leader of the organization. She’s then forced to use her newfound powers to investigate a mysterious and disturbing force known as the Hiss that’s been infiltrating the building.
The Oldest House is a massive brutalist structure, and at the time the game takes place it’s like a cross between a disaster zone and a waking nightmare. Bodies float in an open-air atrium, while hallways will morph and change direction as you walk through them. Suffice to say things get pretty weird. The slice of the game I played also felt more open than anything Remedy has done before; I was able to explore virtually wherever I wanted, without the game pushing me in any particular direction.
This sense of freedom extends to the action. You have an array of telekinetic powers and an odd, futuristic gun that let you approach combat in different ways. I found myself floating through encounters, using my powers to toss concrete blocks and couches at enemies. But I was also able to grab grenades mid-air and toss them back, as well as take control of guards so they’d fight for me. It all felt very tight and dynamic, and Remedy says you’ll be able to regularly upgrade your skills and weapons, unlocking even more potential options.
The fact that Control doesn’t explicitly tell you what to do is by design. “We want people to feel like they’re in this world and that it’s up to them to figure it out,” Kasurinen explains. “We won’t hold their hands.” While he adds that it’s “terrifying” to relinquish so much control to the player, the director also says that the team was emboldened by the success of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which took a similarly hands-off approach to guiding players. “I would like to believe that there’s fun in being lost,” Kasurinen tells me. (Two years ago at GDC, Breath of the Wild director Hidemaro Fujibayashi told me that the feeling of being lost can be a “very positive thing.”)
It helps that the world of Control is one that demands exploration. Though I only played for around 30 minutes, I was captivated by the sheer strangeness of it all, and wanted to dig in more to learn the game’s secrets. There are moments that appear familiar — government videos playing on lobby televisions, safe rooms designed to fend off the Hiss — but they’re almost immediately broken by things that feel... off. You’ll walk past rooms that are empty save for a giant splash of blood or a floating couch, and the changes can be as simple as a hazy blob hovering around a group of enemies, or more intense like a yellow alien realm growing above office cubicles and meeting rooms.
“There is this unsettling feel to this phenomenon,” Kasurinen says of the setting. “It’s not about good or evil, it’s just things that are strange and us trying to understand them. It’s almost like watching a nature documentary. There are all kinds of things that might surprise you, but it’s not like you put moral judgment on what’s going on.”
Control is a game full of mystery and intrigue, but it’s also one that may end providing more questions than answers when it launches in the summer. Just as the world and gameplay are flexible and open, offering players a degree of choice, Kasurinen says that he also enjoys stories with a touch of ambiguity. “I definitely like open-endedness,” he says.
Control launches August 27th on the PC, PS4, and Xbox One.