Why I Didn't Like Control's Story
In Which Adam Gripes For A Needlessly Long Time About A Pretty Good Game
(Warning: there be spoilers!)
Control was by far my most anticipated game this year. Made by Remedy, the same team behind Alan Wake, I was absolutely psyched. Alan Wake, while not a perfect game, is firmly in my top ten games list because of one thing: the story. Control looked awesome right off the bat, with a really cool setting and the distinct but intriguing smell of the SCP Foundation Archives wafting off of it.
It's been about a week now since I've beaten it, and over that time I've come to one unsettling conclusion: I didn't really like it.
Don't get me wrong, from a technical standpoint Control is a fine game. The third person shooting is basic, but function and fun, and acquiring new powers make the firefights more interesting. The progression feels entirely natural as enemies who once gave you trouble become mere inconveniences because you can fly right over them. Sure, there Oldest House could be confusing to get around in, and the map is absolutely worthless, but it's still a fun game.
So no, it wasn't the gameplay that disappointed me in Control. It was the story. Now, the story isn't bad per se. Like the third person shooting, it gets the job done. Unfortunately for Remedy, I expect more from their storytelling than gets the job done. To explain why, I'll compare it to Alan Wake, which, as I said, I absolutely loved the story of.
Some people would call Alan Wake slow, and I wouldn't disagree. If they said they didn't like it because of that, I'd understand. But for me, the slow walk-and-talk sections of the game did something very important: it built the world and characters. Alan, his wife, even Barry for as annoying as he could be, all felt like real people. That made me feel connected to them when the real game started. When Barry started screaming about birds attacking the cabin, he wasn't just a voice giving me a new objective. He was Alan's best friend and editor, a guy with a good heart despite coming off as kind of scummy at times, and I legitimately didn't want him to die!
Control doesn't do any of that. You're thrown right into the game without knowing anything about Jesse except that she's at the Oldest House to find her brother. Cutscenes are used almost exclusively to give you a reason to run to the next area, not to expand on Jesse's character. That makes it really hard to care when she's suddenly thrust into the role of the FBC's director, taking orders from a giant upside down pyramid. You can't care because you don't know her. What does she like? What does she dislike? How does she spend her time when she's not shooting floating glowzombies? We don't know because the game doesn't tell us. The most character I ever got out of her was after she finished the Ash Tray Maze, turned off Ahti's heavy metal album, and said "That! Was! Awesome!" She's not a person like Alan was, she's just the little person on your tv who moves around and shoots when you hit the buttons. Some people might like this, since it wastes less time in getting to the action. Again, I wouldn't disagree with them. That's their preference. But I'm talking strictly about the story here.
The supporting characters aren't any better. Like I said, Barry had clearly defined personality traits that made him feel real. The FBC's staff doesn't. There only role is to stare boggle eyed at you and spout exposition to any question you ask. The one and only time they felt real to me was when Langston made a lame joke about "Containment cell 69 has been breached. Ha ha, 69! 69, guys! Guys?" Other than that, they never interact with Jesse, robbing the story of any reason for the player to care about any of them.
The second problem I have with the story corresponds to one of the most important rules in writing: Is this the most interesting part of your hero's life? If not, why aren't you writing about that? Don't get me wrong, saving a giant multidimensional house from an sentient resonance that makes people float and chant gibberish is cool, but...well, go back over the last couple paragraphs to see why it isn't as engaging as it sounds. The weird thing is, though, that you get glimpses of a better story through all the data the bureau's been collecting on Jesse and her brother over the years. Reading and listening about the event that took place in Ordinary just made me think, "Wow, I'd much rather be seeing that right now!" You've got kids exploring alternate dimensions for fun without knowing what they're getting into, disappearing parents, bullies turning into some kind of monsters, some Lovecraftian nightmare called the Not-Mother, people spontaneously becoming dogs. How awesome does all of that sound? They could have made a game out of that and given it a sort of Stranger Things-vibe. But no, we're stuck in the Oldest House watching a story that almost doesn't exist.
This happens more than once, too. There are some documents you can find about Black Rock Quarry that mention a city somewhere out past the quarry. It mentions that several teams of agents have gone to investigate it, but none have returned. Sounds cool, right? Do we get to go there? No? Does it at least play some kind of role in the story? No? Oh...
On the other side of the coin, there are the Objects of Power, the items that the bureau contains and studies. These were obviously inspired by the SPC Foundation website, which I love reading now and then, but it feels like Remedy didn't quite understand what makes SPC so interesting. The SPCs could be anything and do anything. On the surface, that sounds exactly like what Control does. But in Control, the OOPs always amount to the same thing: a thing that does something weird, takes you to the astral plane, and gives you a new power. There's no mystery to them. SPCs could be a clay doll that kills you if you blink, a video recording of a basketball game where the players and audience have become sentient, or a camera that shows you doing what you desire most in the world. They had variety. (Seriously, they're great. Here's a list of some of the best ones: https://alienationmentale.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/top-10-greatest-scp-items/)
Even the documents describing the SCPs are intriguing in their own way. The Foundation is very much into secrecy, and will "expunge" data right in the middle of their own reports. When done right, this will pique the reader's interest even more, wondering what strange and morbid details have been hidden from view. They might go something like, "The door opened to an area which is theorized to be connected to [EXPUNGED]," or "SCP-38823 then proceeded to [EXPUNGED] its victims, resulting in a large collection of [EXPUNGED]."
In Control, I get the feeling they only expunged data to make themselves more like the SCP Foundation. "The OOP is [EXPUNGED] feet and [EXPUNGED] inches long. It is painted [EXPUNGED] except on its [EXPUNGED] which is [EXPUNGED]."
And there you have it! An essay about me nitpicking a game that's admittedly pretty good. How many people even made it this far? If you did, pat yourself on the back and have a cookie. You earned it.
...man, I have way too much free time.
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