There’s a man staring at a fridge, and he's locked in a glass room.
“Oh thank god,” he cries. “I’ve been staring at it since yesterday with no breaks. Are you here to take over?”
This is a scene from Control, the upcoming psychological shooter from Remedy, the creators of Quantum Break and Max Payne. Our hero, Jesse Faden, is the newly appointed head of the Bureau of Control. She has entered a room where the Bureau keeps all the strange artifacts they find. One such object is this powerfully unsettling refrigerator, which must be observed at all times or else it will “deviate”. That’s why this man is so upset. He's one of your agents, but an emergency has left him without a shift change for 24 hours. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to help. We’re just here to catch the Gamescom demo, after all.
“Wait!” he sobs as Jesse runs away. “Don’t leave me here!”
He never takes his eyes off the fridge. Control is a weird game.
Or maybe that should be “new weird”, if you want to indulge the developer as they chase a somewhat niche literary genre. As Remedy shows off the demo, they mention this as an inspiration. But they cite many movies and books with a sense of weirdness they want to capture. The Stalker movie by Tarkovsky, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, the trippy ending of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Basically the idea is that you encounter something that is possibly beyond human understanding,” says Mikael Kasurinen, Game Director. “There’s no physical way that you can wrap your head around what you are seeing.”
It's a third-person shooter. We can wrap our heads around that much. When Jesse aims her gun, it can cycle through different firing modes. The gun itself is an “altered object”, one of those items that the Bureau seeks to quarantine, observe and control. It’s an unusual firearm, in that it throbs and shifts, with small metal cuboids floating around and re-ordering themselves to create different gun styles, according to the player’s whim.
The security staff and other Bureau officials have turned against you, so it's time to use your weird gun to take them down. You don’t know exactly why everyone is acting aggressive, but it has something to do with a phenomenon called “the Hiss”. Another thing we’re told that is “beyond human comprehension”.
This otherworldly antagonistic anomaly is also causing the building itself to warp and shift as the player makes their way through its offices and hallways. Which means you are shooting your former colleagues while the walls turn inside out. Oh, and you’re throwing heavy furniture at them with new-found psychic powers, and telekinetically raising debris to use as a shield. If you were to pitch this game in an elevator, you’d say: “It’s Max Payne meets David Lynch”. And then the elevator doors would open into a caravan.
The Bureau is beset by this dream logic, we’re told. It’s very Inception. In a quieter moment, we follow Jesse as one door leads from a government building into the crimson lobby of an old motel, where the sunset is bleeding through the blinds. Later, in another concrete room, a cathode ray television will take off from its pedestal and create a swirling corkscrew of grey architecture through which Jesse will “levitate”. This is another ability granted by the strange objects of power she collects. So far, so unusual. But through all this, Control doesn’t entirely abandon the rules of reality (or game design). The Bureau’s corridors and research rooms are built with Metroidvanias in mind, says Remedy.
“You need to pay attention to the environment,” says Kasurinen, “everything you see has a meaning. If you see a door it can be opened, maybe not immediately, but eventually.”
The ability to levitate, for example, will get Jesse over pits. At one point, we follow our hero as she lifts herself into the air to cross a broken bridge that she wasn’t able to cross before. Her legs dangle unsteadily as she floats, like a rookie stunt double attached to an unseen wire. Later, we spy a wall of ice blockading a corridor, which suggests we’ll get some kind of melting power later. It puts in mind the backtracking and door-prising of Prey’s space station.
“[It’s] something very different compared to previous Remedy games," says Kasurinen, "where most of the time the world was more like a backdrop and then you have this linear experience within that. Now, we have a very different type of approach. We’re not hand-holding our player anymore...
“They need to go the extra mile if they want to fully understand what’s going on, if they want to get all the possible rewards and resources to fully upgrade their character. They have to try and find that path and do side missions and find all of those secrets and so on.”
Side missions will crop up as you meet people, like the officer trapped by the attention-seeking fridge. We could help him out through some side quest, we’re told. But, like I said, we don’t have time for that. Mostly because we have the rest of the demo to see but also because an intense man in a strait jacket just flew through the wall and is now firing some metallic objects at us. Jesse chases him into an open area, and dodges his projectiles with a speedy “blink” ability. The enemy flies around, the cloth arms of his strait jacket flapping like wings.
Everywhere he flies, he leaves an oily trail of vapour behind him. This same warped gas also puffs out of his body as Jesse finally kills him, a creepy visual effect that adds yet more dream rules to this world. People don’t bleed when they’re hurt. They leak gas.
This dreaminess has to be embraced by Jesse, if she is to succeed. Or so she’s told by the disembodied voice of the Bureau’s former director. A big, shadow-faced man called Trench. Basically, he’s the voice guiding you through the game (at least he is at this stage). It’s not the tinny voice of a support agent in your earpiece, but a ghostly figure overlaid on the screen in certain moments. If you've played Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, you'll recognise the effect. He's a ghostly image, bleeding in and out of your vision to deliver cryptic advice.
“Dream logic is a requirement,” he says.
True, it all feels like one big lucid cheesedream, with extra bullets. The "altered objects" in particular have their own logic, we're told, even if it's not obvious at first. And the idea behind many of the Bureau's encounters, is that they exist in a place "where the mundane meets the strange", says Kasurinen. We see that formula in action when Jesse passes a cleaning lady who is calmly mopping up the aftermath of a gunfight and quietly whistling to hersel as if nothing is wrong. But this formula - mundane + strange = new weird - almost feels too easy. At any point, a level designer at Remedy could simply point at his desk and say: "That lamp could be a bit freaky."
“It’s a bit more refined [than that],” laughs Kasurinen. “It always starts from a place of: what is compelling for the player but makes sense within the world that we’re creating? So it can’t be random, right? And there is a kind of strange logic to what these things can do, and you kind of follow that.
"I think it’s important that the team has a sense of freedom in exploring the different possibilities but what always seems to happen is a refinement process where we kind of end up with objects that click into place and serve the larger purpose of the game.”
To harness this dream logic, like Trench says, Jesse needs to perform rituals. In the demo, these seem to be baked-in bits of dialogue, rather than something the player can affect. She walks up to a light-switch cord dangling from the ceiling and turns it on and off multiple times.
“I have a right to be here,” she says to herself. “I have the clearance.”
This whole idea of mundane rituals, especially the turning on and off of lights, comes up a couple of times during the demo. It’s never explicitly said, but it feels like a clear nod to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (or the popular idea of it). The other things Jesse mutters to herself sound like the incantations of a woman who listens to self-help tapes. “Going forward, never backward,” she says. “I am in control.” At these moments, the game seems to be angling at some deeper observation about mental health (I mean, there was also that guy in the strait jacket). But precisely what the creators are trying to say remains unclear, even when I ask the game’s director about it.
“When we talk about rituals,” says Kasurinen, “we don’t mean this old-fashioned kind with somebody summoning a demon with goat blood and so on. We’re talking about real consequences to symbolic acts, basically.
“OCD is an interesting example of that, where people do certain types of things out of an obsession but they can think that it has real meaning - ‘if I don’t do this something horrible will happen’. And you can see the ritualistic angle to that kind of thinking.
“So when you see what we call ‘rituals’ in the game, they definitely come from that place, more than that, let’s say, old fashioned sacrifice… we wanted to have a fresh, modern take on that.”
Even if the imagery and dialogue seems obvious in this instance, Control is a game dense with unknowns. Both in the sense that it is purposefully mysterious, courting the weirdness of Inside and Virginia at the same time. But also unknown in the sense that I don’t know how it plays (this is a hands-off demonstration). I don’t know if the physical building of the Bureau follows the free-form code-busting of Talos station or if its powers and unlocks are given out in a stricter manner, whether it's enough to appease the Metroidvaniacs. I don’t even know if it feels fun to hurl a desk at your former workmate’s head. It looks fun, like the old box-flinging of Psi-ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy. But as long as I only have a twenty minute presentation to work from, Jesse will be as functionally unknowable to me as the Hiss she is fighting against.
This is the problem with the unknowable, I can’t tell you if it’s clever or not. The “new weird” genre Remedy is channeling has the frustrating characteristic of being so open to interpretation that any reader or viewer can come up with a piping hot take about what the hell is happening, and it will be considered valid even if it is unconvincing. That broadness, the unrelenting force of weirdness, is always going to turn some people right off. But that’s not something the makers of this world are worried about, says Kasurinen.
“I’m not worried that people are alienated,” he says. “We don’t want to compromise too much just to make it approachable to everybody on the planet. We instead want to create a game that challenges the player, and in a positive way. It’s a world you have to explore to fully understand.
“I think there’s a way to do strange things in a way that is awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time. But at the same time it also feels like there’s a hidden meaning or connecting tissue between all of these things that you can begin to try and understand. It’s a tricky balance to maintain but something that we’re willing to do.”