For a long time, and among many circles, video games have been looked down on as an artistic medium. They were seen as a childish past-time, a hobby to be eventually out-grown, and something with little to no artistic merit. Perhaps this argument may have carried some weight back in the early days, with the narratives of many of the first wave of games broken down to the simplest terms – big bad guy needs to be stopped, good vs. evil, damsel in distress, etc.
These sort of simplistic storylines were rife in games from Donkey Kong onwards, with players usually just given a couple of text lines of exposition and sent on their way. Of course, with the progress that films had already made by the 70’s when video games started to become widely available, the over-riding impression was that the novelty of the player controlling what was on screen negated any need for in-depth storytelling. These games were undoubtedly ground-breaking in so many ways, but riddled with complex characterization and story structure they were not. The problem is that this initial impression has somehow managed to keep itself alive in the minds of so many and it is quite simply not the case anymore.
Modern Masterpieces of Storytelling – Taking Back Control
Recent years have seen the release of countless video games that have pushed the boundaries of what people thought was possible in regards to story-telling in video games. Games like The Last of Us I and II, The Witcher 3 and God of War have all shown the capabilities of games to weave incredible stories and build complex characters and relationships. Recently another game has managed to place itself among this illustrious company, Remedy’s Control.
Control follows the story of Jesse Faden as she arrives at the Oldest House, the paranormal headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), looking for her brother, Dylan. For the sake of any readers who’ve yet to play this 2019 action-adventure masterpiece I will not go into much more detail concerning the intricacies of the game’s story because, quite simply, it deserves to be experienced rather than detailed.
The Oldest House – A Vague Structure
The game does not necessarily feature the incredible character development or arcs of some of the other titles mentioned but there can be little doubt about its unique and brilliant approach to story-telling. In Control, the player is unapologetically thrown into the deep end with Jesse, with little to no information offered up about the goings on of the FBC as you wander through the ever changing halls of their headquarters. It’s a game that doesn’t hold the player’s hand with its storytelling, a theme that continues right the way through its twisting and shifting narrative, and it thrives because of it.
One of the great joys of Control is trying to keep up with what’s going on. Trying to unravel the mystery of the Oldest House with Jesse, this doesn’t even begin to feel like an achievable task until a couple of hours into the game. The game is, of course, a science-fiction title and its existence within this particular genre means that it has the capabilities to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants. A feeling that the player carries throughout because of this is one of consistent tension and trepidation about which way the story will turn next.
At its heart, the game is a sci-fi mystery. It excels in hooking the player by initially loading them up with so many questions it makes their head spin, and then keeping the answers they crave behind the curtain for as long as possible.
Video Games as Art – Remedying a Misguided Notion
It is not just the interesting story that helps Control stand out as a modern classic, but it is the way in which it tells its story. There is an avant-garde feel to Control throughout; it does not spit exposition at you every opportunity it gets to unravel the mystery of the Oldest House for you. Instead the story is told across some quite simply breath-taking and incredibly artistic and unique sequences.
The game feels like an expertly crafted art-house film at times with particular moments reminiscent of some of Christopher Nolan’s finest mind-bending sequences – the Ashtray maze was a particular stand-out for me and even evoked an audible ‘wow’ to escape my lips as I sunk deeper into the striking and memorable labyrinth.
It’s a breathtakingly beautiful game at times, and so much of this owes to the fact that it revels in rejecting a conventional narrative. The Oceanview Hotel sequences are fantastically realized moments of calm during the story that would not be out of place in a David Lynch film. The game drip feeds the player subtle clues and flashes of information throughout, whether it be through optional video and audio cues or the access we’re given to Jesse’s inner monologue. These clues and hints make Control evocative of some of the greatest murder-mysteries ever put to screen.
Every crumb we follow and saturated mind-bending cut-scene we experience manage to all come together to climax in an explosive finale to the game that does not let the narrative down one bit.
Basic narratives have existed in video games since the very beginning and, in truth, Control’s surface-level plot broken down into its base elements doesn’t pull up too many trees, especially when one considers some of the science-fiction fare that exists these days. Yet it is the way in which it tells its story that makes the game resonate with the player and reverberate in their mind long after the credits have rolled (for the second time).
It is a masterpiece of unconventional story-telling the likes of which many of the great masters of unconventional cinema would be proud to call their own. It is a game about possibilities, about pushing limits and finding new ways to tell stories and, most importantly, it is a game that revels in its uniqueness. One that tests a player’s ability to keep up and that pushes the boundaries of how a video game can tell a story.
It has been a long time since games were all two-dimensional, both in regards to gameplay and the stories that they chose to tell. Control is a testament to how far the medium has come in its ability to tell a story. The game is a kaleidoscope of stunning visuals, exceptionally complex sequences that manage to be equally engaging, and fantastic characters that all spin together to create not just one of the greatest games of modern times, but a genuine piece of story-telling artistry.