Control, a Metroid Prime-like game that takes place inside an impossibly vast US federal government building, is out today. As someone who has been paying the IRS back taxes for a decade, it feels like a game that was made to terrify exactly me. It is also one of the best games I’ve played this year. (It’s out today, by the way.)
Offices are scary. People go to offices every day. Individual people experience oceans of psychological drama in offices on an hourly basis. If you want to set an unsettling narrative in a place that resonates with a bulk of players, you can’t do much better than a huge, drab office. I mean, heck: most people I know have not ever been to underwater steampunk jazz-loving tax havens for poets and philosophers.
And no office is quite so scary as a government office. Except a federal government office, which is even scarier.
A federal government office building is bureaucracy transformed into architecture.
Yesterday, after spending the weekend exploring Control’s fictional federal building on the verge of an interdimensional breakdown, I auspiciously spent four morning hours deep within a federal building in Manhattan. As I stepped off the street and into the lobby, the shocking clash of wide-openness and drabness reverberated through my skull. It’s like someone paved a Scottish Highland: the shadow of majesty remains like an aftertaste in the brain.
If we think of weeds as failed accidental attempts at mimicking flowers, federal government buildings are similar attempts at mimicking cathedrals. Weeds and bureaucracy both equally melt the facade of art off of their inspirations. Where a cathedral might have stained glass windows turning external sunlight pretty colors, a federal government building lobby has two stalwart American flags flanking a cold reception desk, and perfect, flat, rectangular pillars of speckly sheet marble.
Whether you’re a spiritual person or not, you might walk into a cathedral and think, “This is where worship happens.”
Similarly, if you only look at a photograph of Boston City Hall, you may utter to yourself in a dark language: “This is where The Rules happen.”
A cathedral inspires awe; a government office building extinguishes it.
Federal government buildings are perhaps the best setting possible for a Metroid-like video game. Nothing can surprise the around-poking adventurer like secrets hidden in a place so boring.
Government buildings give off an immediate impression like painted cardboard. Their insistence on mineral surfaces in their most highly visible areas comes across as a bold bluff: “We put this heavy rock here in this useless place. Imagine what else we’re capable of.”
Spending hours of your life in these buildings feels like wrestling with ghosts. Sinister deceased unreliable narrators leave behind these buildings as bold attempts to convince you of their made-up concept of antiquity.
Replace the dead forefathers with murderous extra-dimensional beings, and you’ve got a video game plot.
Control’s themes burrow deep beneath the facade of bureaucratic architecture. In my own federal building experiences, I’ve seen elevators that stop at such-and-such a floor halfway to my destination. I’ve walked past velvet roped-off darkened oceans of unpeopled desks toward The Next Elevator. More than once, I’ve looked into that desk-ocean darkness and had my gaze instantly recalled by the “Right This Way, Please” murmur of a uniformed, gloved elderly man.
To look at one of these buildings is to consider its infinity.
It’s an absolute, enthralling delight to find a video game made by a masterfully thoughtful team of people who feel the same way. The developers of Control have taken the unsettling vastness of real-world government buildings and exploded it into a non-comical farce of itself.
The unfathomable fictional Brutalist building in Control completely owns any creepy supernatural inkling you might have ever felt in a real government building. It’s literally Doctor Who-bigger on the inside. Its walls really are moving. Its halls really are changing shape. There really are extra-dimensional ghost freaks possessing the employees.
When I was an eight-year-old kid playing the original Metroid on the NES, I didn’t know what the title meant. I just thought that “Metroid” was a weird, cool word. Later, I learned that it was a Japanese portmanteau of “metro” and “android,” and that “metro” referred specifically to the Japanese subway system.
Subways, like federal office buildings, are daily-use civic structures that are equally awe-inspiringly cavernous and awe-extinguishingly mundane.
One day, I happened to glance out the window while a Tokyo subway train passed an unused station. Lightning struck my brain. What was that train platform out there in the darkness? This somehow came up in conversation with some friends at a bar several nights later. Deep into the night, my chain-smoking hardcore punk-rock dude friends traded third-hand urban myths about how such-and-such line ended up never connecting there, or that it might someday, or that it turned out they couldn’t finish the entrance topside. I was hooked the moment the conversation started.
Yesterday in a federal building in Manhattan, after spending a weekend diving into and loving Control, I remembered those Tokyo Metro lore conversations. As I Kafka-bustled back and forth between numerous nonsensical and incongruous destinations, I passed many dark hallways. I wanted to take so many photos. I wanted to take a photo of the very first thing I saw when I entered the building: a large sign with a picture of a gun, crossed out. I wanted to take a photo of the huge “NO PHOTOS” sign in the elevator. You know who’s afraid of photos? That’s right: vampires.
Every time I stopped for more than an instant to ponder some mundanely unsettling detail, every time I fantasized about the horrible supernature I’d likely encounter if I wandered off script, some unseen someone Right This Way Pleased me. They were totally extra-dimensional ghosts, dude.
Control nails this mundanity, and mines it for every last drop of lore.
At the top of this post I’ve embedded a video archive of myself streaming this game on Kotaku’s Twitch channel yesterday.
Early in the stream, as Control’s main character, Jesse, enters the Federal Bureau of Control’s office building, where the rest of the game will take place, I joked about my federal building experience that morning: I turned Jesse around and marched right back to the door. “This is what I would do, knowing what I know.”
Then I gasped in sudden, genuine shock: outside the front doors we can clearly see a bus stop. We see cars driving by on the rainy Manhattan street. We see a man waiting at the bus stop. We see numerous pedestrians walking by.
You can see these people for a brief flash as the game’s opening cutscene climaxes. Though by the time the player has (ahem) control, the camera has centered behind the hero’s back.
When the game gives you control, you’re facing a flag-flanked reception desk, and a big speckly marble wall, with a security checkpoint to the right. The game is pulling your eyes forward and to the right.
You’re never meant to turn around. I only turned around as a joke. By the time I turned around, I’d already forgotten that brief flash of pedestrians that I witnessed during the cutscene.
I never expected that anywhere in this game I’d have the opportunity to gaze upon regular people going about their regular lives. Not ten seconds of video game beyond this entrance, that front door will be hidden to the player forever. My respect for the game exploded at this moment.
You could watch my stream archive, if you want. You’ll see me, for example, repeatedly say “Heck Your Desk” as I use Control’s protagonist’s psychic gun to blow up an entire office floor’s worth of desks one at a time.
Don’t let the childish banter of my stream persona fool you: I was simply giddy from finally being free of the federal building in which I’d spent the morning. If the second half is anywhere near as good as the first, Control is one of the best games of the year.
However, if I get to the end and it turns out the twist is that the main character is literally being controlled by a guy (me) with a video game controller, I will print out this post and flush it down the toilet.