Horror has always seemed right around the corner in Control. There’s a refrigerator that always needs to be looked at or it’ll kill you. A rubber duck teleports around maliciously. Your double is plotting your demise in a mirror world. Even so, horror was always the game’s selective spice, used sparingly to break up the shooting action and give you a creepy thrill. The new downloadable expansion AWE, out today, drags Director Jesse Faden and the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) a little more explicitly into the darkness.
AWE, which is an abbreviation of the “Altered World Events” that signify something weird that happens in the world of Control, centers on the previously-inaccessible Department of Investigation that exists somewhere in the game’s massive, shifting Oldest House. Like many of the events that power the plot of the main game and its previous expansion, The Foundation, there’s a mystery at the heart of AWE. What happened here? Why has this place been locked away, and what could I find in it? Where The Foundation leaned into the lore of the FBC and its science fictional and bureaucratic origins, AWE approaches these questions from a much more practical angle: some fucked up stuff happened down there.
Warning: some light and general spoilers follow, as well as some spoilers for Remedy’s 2010 game Alan Wake. I’m not revealing huge AWE plot details or anything, and the vast majority of what I’m about to talk about happens in the first few minutes of the expansion. Ok? Ok.
The breadcrumb that gets the player started on AWE is an apparition of the writer Alan Wake, the main character of Remedy’s 2010 game Alan Wake, who appears to Director Faden and hints, in his peculiar way, that something weird is happening in the Department of Investigation. It’s not surprising to see him here. There were already extensive references to Wake in the main game, and since AWE was announced myself and many others have noted those three letters’ dual meaning as both “Altered World Event” and “Alan Wake Expansion.” Unfortunately, he’s brought something truly terrible with him from his game.
Through Wake’s own writerly monologue and some easily-found in-game text, we learn that what happened during Alan Wake is known as the “Bright Falls AWE” to the agents of the FBC. After the events of that game, the Department of Investigation went to the town of Bright Falls to try to understand what happened. There were creatures of darkness there, Alan Wake had gone missing, and many questions remained to be answered. Luckily, there was a creature there to help provide them with some answers. It was Dr. Emil Hartman, and he was fully possessed by an evil force that had transformed him into a warped, distended monster.
If you haven’t played Alan Wake, then you might not know about Hartman. He’s a real weasel of a guy who wrote a book called The Creator’s Dilemma, which was a kind of self-help book for artists that he used to lure people to his retreat facility for creative folks who were having a hard time, well, creating. But he was also someone who realized that Cauldron Lake, a crater lake near the town of Bright Falls, had magical properties that would allow people to “write” things into (or out of) existence. In Alan Wake, he’s revealed to be a powerful manipulator, and in that game he is ultimately consumed by the dark powers that he was attempting to use the writer Alan Wake to summon or control or...something. Villain motives are vague sometimes. After that game was over, he apparently did not die.
Naturally, like good investigators, they brought this possessed nightmare man back to the Federal Bureau of Control. After some weird interactions between the Hiss and the darkness possessing him, Hartman got out (I’ll spare you how), and now he’s running around in the Department of Investigation.
The Dr. Hartman that the FBC brought back and somehow accidentally unleashed is just a straight-up horror monster. Another character describes him as looking like a “bar rag that’s been twisted by the world’s strongest man.” He’s stretched and bent, and when we see his entire body there’s a distinct feeling that he’s been flipped inside out. Something like ribs face the sky. Long hands look like claws.
It’s through Hartman that AWE delivers horror, and it does so by making our very powerful Director Jesse Faden very unable to deal with Hartman. He is a creature of darkness, and the Department of Investigation has been abandoned to him. It’s his domain, and you’re trespassing down there in the lightless rooms of recreated tragedies. In his element, he’s immune to gunfire. If he catches you with those stretched-out hands, it’s lights out. He can teleport, too, so when he’s around you’re always vulnerable. And you never know when he’s going to be around. Hartman isn’t quite a Mr. X or a Nemesis from a Resident Evil game, meaning that when you encounter him it is in controlled conditions, but you also don’t really know when you’re going to open a door and find yourself scrambling to solve a puzzle or operate some switches to get the lights on and dispel the darkness that he’s hunting you in.
I enjoyed Control and The Foundation, and I’m still finishing up AWE, but what I appreciate here is that there’s something tonally different that comes with Alan Wake and Dr. Hartman when they enter into the parameters of Control. Their horror-action game runs smack into this brutalist corporate action game, like someone getting chocolate in someone else’s peanut butter, and they produce dark corridors and creepy vibes and pulsating darkness that I need to carve my way through.
I can’t think of many times in the main game of Control that I was worried about what might be around the next corner or when I was truly concerned about what might be right behind me while I was searching for a power cube to turn on a generator, but AWE has tapped into those feelings with a weird, warped creature whose design is going to stick with me. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that this is the last planned expansion for Control, since I’d love to see what happens when other horror genres get explored in the Bureau of Control (splatterpunk? slasher?) or maybe even other tones and genres entirely. Hell, give me a romance expansion. Let Jesse Faden smooch the Astral Plane (finally). I’m on board.