Despite what a lot of movies and games would have you believe, there’s more to Cosmic Horror than slimy tentacles and otherworldly entities. Popularized by the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, this sub-genre is really at its best when exploring the sinister truth that lurks behind what we consider to be reality, suggesting that the universe is in fact much larger and more terrifying than we previously thought. From the disturbing implications of impossible architecture in Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House to the infinite hallways of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, nothing’s more terrifying than watching mundane life fall apart before our eyes.
That’s exactly why I think Remedy’s Control excels in its presentation of Cosmic Horror, despite not necessarily being a horror game.
Control may be something of a spiritual successor to Remedy’s previous horror masterpiece, Alan Wake (existing in the same universe and even incorporating bits of Wake‘s plot into its lore), but it’s also an action-packed third-person shooter with none of the elements traditionally associated with survival horror. In the game, players take on the role of Jesse Faden, a young woman with untapped potential searching for her long-lost brother. With the help of a benign eldritch presence inside her head, Jesse’s search leads her to the ever-shifting headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a secretive organization that investigates paranormal occurrences.
Exploring the infinitely expanding corridors of the FBC, Jesse unwittingly becomes the new Director of the organization and is tasked with purging the building of a newfound interdimensional threat. Armed with a shapeshifting Service Weapon (basically Excalibur, Mjolnir and an automatic pistol all rolled into one) and a slew of telekinetic powers, players embark on a massive odyssey through “The Oldest House”, facing hordes of brainwashed security personnel and all sorts of unexplainable phenomena as they regain control of the Bureau.
While the game technically takes place in an open-world, you never actually leave the Oldest House, with exploration unfolding like a classic Metroidvania title. Players slowly gain access to more of the environment as they find keycards and unlock new abilities, eventually revealing an interconnected labyrinth that would put the Overlook Hotel to shame. Combat also evolves as you explore, with late-game encounters looking a lot more like a thrilling super-hero simulator than a traditional third-person-shooter.
However, even with your god-like abilities, Control still manages to unnerve players with the way the characters and environments get progressively more bizarre. Creepy possessed enemies aside, there’s something undeniably eerie about these supernaturally neat corridors and office spaces, and it only gets weirder once you dive deeper into the infinite bowels of the Oldest House. As you encounter god-like entities and physics-defying objects (which range from killer refrigerators to an ominous rubber duck), you’ll eventually come to realize that despite all these powers, Jesse is just a tiny speck of dust in an unfathomably large universe.
The main story doesn’t explore as many of these themes as I would have liked (with many elements appearing to have been intentionally held back for a sequel), but the world-building more than makes up for that. Even the numerous collectibles help to paint a picture of a hellish work environment that can either be played for laughs or used to provide moments of genuine terror. While I usually dread text-based collectibles in gaming, I found myself scouring these areas for letters and documents that would further expand the lore.
Of course, much of the Cosmic Horror present in the game is borrowed from its influences. The Federal Bureau of Control and its Altered Items are obviously inspired by the internet’s infamous SCP Foundation (another secretive organization that catalogs and contains paranatural phenomena), and there are quite a few nods to both The X-Files and Twin Peaks, as well as Remedy’s own previous work.
These references are more than just set dressing, and that’s why I think it’s impossible to discuss Control without diving deeper into its relationship with House of Leaves. For those who haven’t read Danielewski’s magnum opus, the book is a multilayered story that converges around a documentary about a suburban house that’s bigger on the inside. While this 2000 novel has been hugely influential on the Found-Footage genre, it was also an inspiration for the meta elements of Alan Wake, and a lot of that seems to have bled over into Control.
Not only is the Oldest House inspired by the ever-expanding roots of the House on Ash Tree Lane, but the layers of videos and vague documentation slowly unveiling the FBC’s true nature are also surprisingly true to the spirit of the book. While I’ve always thought that a direct adaptation of the novel would be pointless, the added dimension of interactivity makes gaming the perfect medium to explore these architectural nightmares, something that Remedy seems to be aware of.
Control is by no means an adaptation, boasting unique characters and a distinct setting, but the game’s most iconic moment feels a lot like an action-packed recreation of an expedition from the later chapters of House of Leaves. Blasting through the aptly-named Ashtray Maze is a wonderfully psychedelic experience, but there’s an ominous feeling of dread in the background as you realize that you’ll never fully understand the true nature of these events. This could have been a thrilling sequence in a movie, but nothing can top actually exploring these impossible environments in three-dimensional space.
Speaking of movies, Remedy once again flexes their cinematic muscles with this title, incorporating quite a bit of live-action footage and motion-captured performances into the game. The most notable of the live-action elements are the recurring institutional videos featuring Matthew Porretta as Doctor Casper Darling as he introduces employees to the Bureau’s weird science. Even on their own, these sequences would make for one hell of a Found-Footage flick (I especially enjoy a certain musical number towards the end of the campaign), but spliced into the game they serve as compelling windows into the inner workings of this strange world.
The rest of the cast is also consistently great, especially with Remedy’s absurdly detailed visuals, but Courtney Hope really knocks it out of the park as our awkward yet likable protagonist. Hope perfectly captures Jesse’s insecurity as she’s thrown down a rabbit hole where nothing makes sense and danger lurks around every corner. Over time, however, she learns to accept her place as a leader while also developing a great sense of humor, making for a highly-entertaining character arc.
Jesse’s one-sided exchanges with “Polaris” may seem strange the first time around, but things become much more interesting once you realize that the game is actually implying that the eldritch force inside her head may in fact be the player aiding her on her mission. Not only is this fourth-wall break kind of creepy, but it’s also rather fitting when you factor in Porreta and Ilkka Villi’s triumphant return as Alan Wake in Control’s AWE DLC, with an ending that teases a future crossover between the Bureau and the dark forces that have imprisoned Wake.
Despite its penchant for blockbuster action sequences, Control‘s dedication to proving that the world is, in Jesse’s words, “much bigger and much stranger,” makes it a perfect companion piece to Alan Wake‘s particular brand of existential terror. It’s also a stunning example of Cosmic Horror done right, feeling like a more faithful translation of the sub-genre than many straight-up adaptations.
At the end of the day, Control isn’t a traditionally scary game, but it contains so many horror elements that I believe genre fans are sure to be delighted with this mind-blowing experience. It may not always make sense, but the game is consistently interesting and Remedy’s novel approach to interactive storytelling will likely leave you wanting more. Luckily for us, the Oldest House has yet to reveal all of its secrets, though it’s up to you if you really want to know the terrifying truth that lies beyond the veil.