The Missing Heart of CONTROL
In 2010, Remedy Entertained released Alan Wake, a horror game about a writer who sees a horror story he wrote become reality as he tries to find his missing wife. The game was well received and I personally enjoyed its compelling story and surprisingly addictive combat. I recently had the opportunity to try Remedy's most recent game, Control. Control is an action game in which Jesse Faden explores the Federal Bureau of Control, an organization dealing with paranormal threats, in search of her long-lost brother. In some ways it's a lot better than Alan Wake. But it's missing something at the core of its story, and I'd like to discuss that in this article. There will be spoilers.
Greater Control by Design
Horror games often hinge on a sense of helplessness or vulnerability.
In the case of Alan Wake, the titular writer is always outnumbered by the monstrous Taken and only safe in the light. To make matters worse, he barely has any stamina, after months of indulging in alcohol and parties while frustrated with his inability to come up with a new book. But the game also went against this by making the combat "cool," and giving the player a wide arsenal of tools to defend themselves with. The game has cinematic dodges, enemies fall apart in thousands of sparks in slow motion when defeated and weapons like the flare gun and flash bang grenades decimate crowds of the Taken all at once. The player can be so loaded with powerful resources that the game resets your inventory at many points in the story to prevent it from becoming a cakewalk. Similar to Dead Space 2, the game struggles to find a balance between an empowering action game and being a disempowering horror game.
As its title implies, the developers commit to a certain path with Control. While it is still a game with horror themes and unsettling content, it is much more a third person action game than anything else. Throughout the game's story, Jesse Faden is empowered with a multitude of amazing weapons and abilities, none of which hinge on limited resources - even her ammunition regenerates automatically. And while both Alan Wake and Control have linear story progression, Control allows you to explore much more freely and includes many optional areas and sidequests as well, gaining more and more resources and claiming ever more of the Bureau's ground for yourself.
The game's design fully ties back into the central theme of control, and that's something to be praised. It makes the game less of a horror game, but it has a more consistent vision than Alan Wake did in this regard.
A Reason to Control
Alan Wake and Jesse Faden have a similar goal, to save a missing person who is dear to them. The way these two games approach that goal is very different, however.
At the start of Alan Wake's story, he and his wife Alice get into a fight. He leaves her alone for a moment to cool off, but in that moment, a malicious being known as the Dark Presence captures her. This lends two important qualities to Alan's motivation as a character:
Urgency. The Dark Presence makes people into its mindless, lifeless puppets. Every moment wasted feels like a moment you could lose Alice forever.
Personal responsibility. Alan got angry with Alice and then left her alone in their cabin, giving the Dark Presence the opportunity to strike.
At the start of Control's story, Jesse finds the Federal Bureau of Control after years of searching for her brother Dylan, who was separated from her when the Bureau attempted to capture both of them because they were involved in a supernatural event.
While both stories share a central theme of trying to save a lost loved one, Jesse's story lacks the same sense of urgency and responsibility. On a gameplay level, this does make sense; Alan Wake follows a linear path to the end, but Control allows you to freely explore and do sidequests. If the story presented a sense of urgency but the game itself did not, some people would describe that as 'ludonarrative dissonance.' Regardless, this is a significant difference between the two games, and I think Alan Wake manages to involve the player more in the story. But there's more to it than just pushing the player forward with a time limit; I don't think the game necessarily needed urgency; it just needed something to motivate the player, something to allow a connection to form with Jesse.
Throughout Alan Wake's story, we get a very clear idea of his relationship with Alice. Quite importantly, we see them interact and learn the dynamic of their relationship. This isn't limited to the opening cutscene, either, there are a few flashbacks that show just how much Alan needs Alice, and the events of the story are set in motion because Alice is trying to help him overcome his writer's block.
To contrast with this, in Control's story it doesn't seem like Jesse needs Dylan beyond just wanting to save him. While there is some lore material to read and listen to about Dylan Faden and how he views his sister, we see no actual interactions from their past. And what material there is doesn't hold any fondness; quite the contrary, in fact. Dylan expresses he feels abandoned by Jesse and has actually sided with the malicious Hiss, helping it take over the Bureau. And as for Jesse, beyond wanting to save him, it's hard to see what exactly she thinks about her brother. They were separated as children so it makes some amount of sense, but it feels like there's hardly a connection between the two by the time they meet again. There are a few optional conversations to go through, but Dylan is (albeit willingly) possessed by the Hiss and the conversations end up being strange, surreal and cold.
In Control's defense, I believe the heart of the story wasn't meant to be derived from Dylan, but from a different character. Jesse Faden is accompanied by an unseen force, a supernatural being that established some kind of link or connection with her mind and communicates with her telepathically. She calls her Polaris, the guiding star. She came across Polaris during the supernatural events after which she and her brother got separated. Polaris' presence in Jesse's mind is the only reason she's safe from the Hiss, and it allows her to cleanse the Hiss' influence from the Bureau. As a neat detail, she quite literally guides Jesse in gameplay by indicating where your next objective is as well.
Polaris has been with Jesse for all those years, guiding and supporting her. These characters have a clear connection. There's just one problem, though - while Jesse hears Polaris, we, the player, do not. When Polaris speaks, this is indicated by a vignette of triangles around the screen, and we are meant to infer what she's saying based on how Jesse responds. Sometimes this works; one time, Jesse talks about Polaris to someone and initially refers to her as 'it' - a vignette briefly covers the screen to indicate Polaris is speaking and Jesse subsequently corrects herself and refers to Polaris as 'her' instead. It can be inferred that Polaris was unhappy being referred to as 'it.' Sadly not all interactions in the game are as clear cut, and there really aren't that many conversations to begin with. Jesse even opens the game apologizing to Polaris that she often ignores her. Not being able to see or hear Polaris at all stops us from forming the connection that we have with Jesse, or the connection we built with Alice. This doesn't serve to say that Jesse or Polaris are bad characters, just that we as the player can't easily form a connection with Polaris or understand their relationship. I don't want to be so presumptuous as to call it shallow, but we can only see the surface - that's the problem.
Of course, it might be unfair to compare these characters, as their roles in the story are wildly different. Alice is the motivation for Alan Wake's entire quest, while Polaris is a guiding force; more like a partner character. But in that case, we can look to Barry in Alan Wake. He's Alan's agent and best friend, and accompanies Alan in many parts of the game. Most importantly, because we can see and hear him, we get a much better feel for what kind of person he is and how he relates to Alan. The two don't just talk about the task at hand, they're two people who work together but disagree on a lot of things. Some people might even consider Barry's critical attitude towards Alan annoying, but it's undeniable that he has much more of a visible personality than Polaris does.
Throughout the story, Alan meets, and is accompanied by, many characters with whom he has aggressive or warm interactions - like punching Dr. Hartman in the face, or giving Barry a hug right before the end. He has a pretty short temper and expresses a lot of emotion; many of them negative. Jesse is accompanied by no one but Polaris, and while she has cordial interactions with characters like Emily Pope, her interactions rarely have any kind of emotional intensity. Jesse as a character is generally quite stoic and reserved. There's nothing wrong with that on principle, and it certainly suits the idea of a character gaining control over her life, but perhaps it would've been good as the endpoint of her arc. Perhaps initially Jesse could've had a very short temper or be more expressive but she learns to control that side of her. Again, I must stress that this doesn't mean Jesse is a bad character; she is mistrusting of everyone in the bureau initially and learns to trust people like Emily over the course of the story. There is depth and character development there. Sadly, I feel that the lack of emotional expression and the lack of emotional interactions lends a very sterile feel to the story. To come back to the title, the story is intelligent and interesting, but it lacks a heart.
As a videogame, purely looking at its mechanics, Control is Alan Wake's superior in many ways. It has a consistent vision, a great sense of progression and freedom, while Alan Wake seems unsure if it wants to be cool and empowering or scary and disempowering.
But when we examine the story, Control ends up being quite sterile or clinical. Very few of Jesse's relationships are built upon in a meaningful way, and those that are are either distant and cold or difficult to grasp because the characters involved are unseen and unheard. The game isn't completely lacking friendly interactions or emotional moments, but they are too few and far between to keep the player emotionally invested in its story. Said story revolves more around freely exploring the Bureau and learning about it than saving Dylan, who barely has a connection with Jesse in spite of being her brother. There are positive interactions with side characters, but those end up mainly being info dumps and side quest dispensers.
Alan Wake's distinctive personality, the personalities of the characters he interacts with, and the expressive and intense nature of those interactions lends something more human to the narrative. Alan Wake has an urgent goal to fulfill with a great emotional incentive. His connection with other characters drives him forward - namely, his love for his wife, his friendship with his agent Barry and so on. No characters just dispense info and there are no sidequests to distract from the main goal.
All in all, Jesse Faden has a much better head on her shoulders, but she lacks the heart that Alan Wake has. Taking control is all well and good, but why is more important.
Whoa, it's been a while since I've posted anything, hasn't it? I hope the rust wasn't too apparent. I've started on several articles but just couldn't bring myself to finish any, but this particular critique of Control's story had been on my mind for a while.
What do you think? Am I right, or way off base? Did you like Alan Wake? Did you like Control? All responses are appreciated, and as always, thanks for reading!