Control is a 2019 third-person action shooter developed by Remedy Entertainment. The game takes inspiration from a variety of sources, but its most prominent and notable influence is the SCP project, which is very important to me, for obvious reasons. (I don't like to call it the "SCP wiki" these days... I think this gives people the false impression that individual SCPs don't have specific authors, when they absolutely do. The site has a chronic problem with attribution and this is part of that problem.)
This essay is, I guess, a review of Control. Specifically, it's a review from an SCP contributor's point of view. Technically there are some mild spoilers for Control down below, but if you read it anyway, and then just wait a few weeks, you'll forget all the important specifics. Probably.
Control is probably the closest thing to a AAA SCP game which is ever going to exist. It's the highest budget that anything SCP-related has ever had. It's definitely the best that the SCP project has ever looked. The graphics, the art direction and the "cinematography" of Control are all peerless. And it's a really, really good game too.
By which I mean, it's a very well-reviewed game. I mean, I enjoyed playing it.
Well, it's not that I enjoyed playing it, so much as I appreciated the game a lot. I got a lot out of it.
I didn't enjoy playing it.
Control is very derivative of the SCP project but the SCP project was always this huge melting pot of older influences and tropes. The project has been going for many years, and a lot of stuff has been stirred into that pot over the course of those years, but even from the earliest days you've got Men In Black in there, The X-Files, Hellboy, old Roswell and Area 51 conspiracy theories, real conspiratorial nightmares carried out by the real CIA, Warehouse 13, Fringe, Alias, H. P. Lovecraft, internet creepypasta and older schoolyard scary stories...
The idea that there are dangerous paranormal phenomena in the world goes back about as far as humans do. It's completely logical that, if these phenomena persisted to the modern day, there would be some kind of organisation which manages and/or studies them. A three-letter agency, say.
Once you've got that core concept, a lot of the next steps are intensely obvious too. Of course this agency's internal documentation would conform to a terse, humdrum, bureaucratic style — this would be completely in character for a principally American organisation, but it would also provide a neat contrast with the wildly inexplicable phenomena being described. Of course the agency would use heavy black marker redaction of the most sensitive and alarming specifics.
Of course this agency's offices would provide a similar interesting contrast. A stale, boring, dead location being infiltrated from beneath by gibbering madness — it just makes sense. What architectural style of office would provide the best contrast, then? What would be suitable and in-character for an agency which has existed since, say, the turn of the 20th Century? Neither Control nor the SCP project invented Brutalist architecture.
And then you start asking: What specific paranormal phenomena are there? What's a day in the life like, working at this place? What kind of person works here? Who runs the agency, at the highest levels? Who founded the agency? When, and specifically why? And all of these questions almost automatically have interesting answers.
This basic concept, the paranormal research agency, isn't a radical act of invention, honestly. That first question, "What paranormal phenomena are there?" is a textbook story spinner, something you can use to drive standalone issues of a comic book or episodes of a television show. From a storytelling perspective, this is like the shark: one of the old shapes which just works.
I'm now going to spend an unnecessary amount of words talking about the SCP project. Click here to skip ahead to when I finally get around to discussing Control.
Because the paranormal research agency is an old recipe which has been done many times over, when you hear that someone's doing it again, the question to ask is what, if anything, they're doing differently this time.
The SCP project does bring something legitimately new to the table, which is to turn the premise into a Web 2.0-style collaboration. The SCP project turns that story spinner question, "What paranormal phenomena are there?" into a formula, a constrained fiction writing format which we call the SCP.
An SCP is a document created by the in-universe agency, the Foundation in this case, detailing the Special Containment Procedures for a single anomaly. The format of the document is fairly rigid:
As a real-world contributor to the SCP project, your task is to create something interesting within this constrained format. You have to invent an imaginative new anomaly all of your own, and figure out a way to nail down its particulars in such a way that they make for a compelling read. Once you've done that, you submit it to the real-world SCP site, it gets put in the Most Recently Created stack, and people start voting on it. If you did a good job, maybe it'll get voted up. If you didn't, maybe it'll get voted down, and maybe deleted.
The end result is this vast database of thousands of SCPs written by thousands of different people. SCPs run a huge gamut of quality because the contributors run a huge gamut of writing ability, from people who are taking their very earliest creative steps to people who by rights should be writing professionally by now, or in some cases are in fact professional writers.
To a certain extent the SCP project serves as a kind of incubator for new writers. This is one of the things I like the most about the project. I was a new writer myself at one point, and old writings of mine from that era of my life are still floating around out there. People have to start somewhere, and I'm proud to be part of a project which is still serving the purpose of providing that starting point. The SCP project also, subjectively, seems like a pretty inclusive community. I would be much less inclined to stick around if that wasn't the case. That's nothing to do with the SCP format specifically, that's because of good community management.
Understanding the SCP format is easy enough if you just read a few existing SCPs. It's very accessible. Executing a good SCP in your own right is actually deceptively difficult, because the format is so backwards.
Firstly, by being a static document from the Foundation's database archives, an SCP necessarily has to capture all the known facts as they were at a single moment in time, which is usually a moment in time after everything interesting has happened. This instantaneity (yes, that's a word) makes it challenging to have any kind of arc or narrative. It's kind of like trying to tell a story with a single photograph. The format also doesn't allow a lot of room for the development of characters or the insertion of dialogue. In a lot of cases, SCPs simply make do without these things.
Secondly, the positioning of the containment procedures at the front of the entry is very inconvenient. If the containment procedures make the nature of the anomaly explicit, the description section can become entirely redundant. If they don't, they can end up being so evasive and unenlightening that they don't actually capture a real-world reader's interest, and it becomes difficult for a real-world reader to pretend that they would actually be useful to an in-universe reader. Hooks are difficult; a hook in the form of containment procedures is especially difficult.
So, it's a challenge. It's not as simple as inventing a new monster of the week. How do you pace an SCP? How do you have a twist ending to an SCP? It would be like a Wikipedia article having a twist ending. It's not unheard-of, but it's uncommon. It takes some dexterity.
There is a great tendency to bend the format a little to get around these limitations. Additional sections like "History" or "Acquisition", experiment logs and interview logs, multi-part SCPs which start with an initial version and then let the reader navigate to more recent iterations of the in-universe document... All of these techniques can serve as escape hatches, allowing the writer to go back to a more conventional narrative structure. I've done this kind of thing myself, a little... but I try not to, because I think it's kind of sidestepping the challenge.
There is, of course, an entire subgenre of SCPs which screw with the format in more serious ways. And there is an entire second half of the site made up of "Tales", which are not SCPs, but are instead relatively conventional narratives set in the Foundation universe.
There are a few important things which the SCP project intentionally doesn't have. These, also, I would characterise as novel takes on the paranormal research agency template.
One omission is a singular editorial voice. Contrast this with other shared universes like the DC and Marvel comics universes. These, too, are huge collaborative efforts assembled across many years by thousands of contributors working in very different styles. But they have an editor-in-chief, a sort of narrative CEO; someone who sets the overall direction and tone of those contributions and holds them to some kind of consistent standard. In the SCP project, by comparison, the barrier to entry is relatively low, and there are almost no editorial constraints at all. Although you're encouraged to follow a process which involves (among other things) getting your draft critiqued by more experienced contributors, you can, in theory, just "cold post", and you can, in theory, take the basic SCP concept in any direction.
The other thing the SCP project doesn't have is canon. Explicitly, there is no canon. In the earliest years of the project, when it was one-tenth of its current size, there were attempts to keep a consistent singular continuity across all SCPs. Those attempts fell apart, and looking back now it's easy to say in hindsight that they could never have worked. There are thousands upon thousands of SCPs now, far too many to practically reconcile in this way, especially without an active editorial board or EIC.
Each SCP implies different things about the capabilities of the Foundation as an organisation — its reach, its scope, its resources, its ability to keep secrets. Summing up what the Foundation is keeping contained, even across only the most basic SCPs, you get an organisation so absurdly large and powerful that it eclipses any real-world government or large treaty organisation. It becomes improbable, and then ludicrous. Due to power creep, some individual SCPs have gigantic, world-ending or universe-ending scope. These become incompatible with smaller, lower-level stories, which we still want to be able to tell. A lot of the "biggest" SCPs are simply mutually exclusive. Continuity is basically impossible in this scenario.
A singular canon would also have a terrible chilling effect on new contributors. "No, you can't write that, because it contradicts something someone else wrote six years ago," you would be told, over and over and over again, until you gave up.
So, SCPs are free to contradict one other, and seldom directly reference one another. This model encourages (but does not force) SCPs to be standalone, complete works, not requiring much context to read and get a positive experience out of. This in turn frees readers from needing to follow any kind of strict reading order, and enables them to dip into the database almost at random, or just browse. This makes the project highly accessible to readers as well as to writers, and is a huge component of the project's popularity and following.
Although there is no canon, there is a kind of shared lore. Some parts of that lore are essentially axiomatic, such as the existence of the Foundation, the fact that it is clandestine, the conventional structure of an SCP document and the basic object classes. It's usually assumed that the Foundation has secret Sites all over the world, and each Site has (underground?) containment units, and most anomalies are confined to a single containment unit. It's usually assumed that the Foundation is run by the shadowy O5 Council, made up of 13 people, and that these 13 people are in turn led by an even more mysterious Administrator. It's usually assumed that scientific research on anomalies is carried out using highly expendable D-class personnel, who are typically repurposed death row inmates.
I never liked that last part. I don't use it in my SCP writing. My personal vision of the Foundation doesn't involve systematic experimentation on prisoners. That always seemed too gross to me. And, as absurd as this will sound, implausible.
But opinions differ. There's no consensus on what moral orientation the Foundation has, or should have. I think a lot of contributors would call it "ambiguously evil" or "clinically amoral", but equally many wouldn't. The Foundation is a large enough organisation that it could plausibly have no singular alignment; it could contain multitudes.
Personally, I favour depictions of the Foundation as something which is actively changing, ethically, as years pass in real time. A centuries-old organisation, formerly a great evil in its own right, and now slowly coming to terms with its past, endeavouring to somehow turn that corner. Maybe failing. Maybe splitting apart as forces inside of the organisation come to conflict over this issue.
The SCP project does have a few dozen canons, smaller self-contained continuities with more internal consistency and fewer contributors. Antimemetics doesn't technically qualify as a canon, because the SCP project's definition of "canon" is actually a little more specific than this, but it's definitely in that area.
What the project also has is an organic feedback loop. If you write something popular, someone else might build on top of it. If something is read by a lot of different people, it can kind of insinuate itself into the background of other people's SCPs.
I shared all of that with you partly because I wanted to get some idle thoughts about the SCP project down in writing. But also, this is where Control starts.
To sum all of that up: the paranormal research agency is an old and familiar setting, and the paranormal procedural is an old and familiar story spinner. The SCP project's unique additions to that old formula are a thriving collaborative web-based format and the deliberate absence of any singular editorial vision.
The end result is, in my opinion, very cool. Something important and valuable. A teeming mass of content, a kind of rapidly growing rainforest ecosystem of horror and fantasy and science fiction and weirdness.
Control takes the SCP concept and... gives it a singular unique vision. A single design, a very specific style. A consistent tone, well-realised characters, and a premise. A canon.
Enough is changed to make this qualify as an original creation. The Foundation, with its international scope and Sites on every continent, is now the United States Federal Bureau of Control. A three-letter agency, like I said. The FBC has one specific location: the Oldest House, a windowless, dimensionally confused, mysteriously difficult-to-pinpoint skyscraper in Manhattan, New York. The whole game takes place inside this sprawling building. The O5 Council is now the Board, an unseen and likely non-human extradimensional gestalt which communicates with our plane using distinctive cryptic cut-up semi-gibberish. And there's no longer an Administrator as such above the Board. There is, however, a human Director appointed by them, who serves as the public face of the Bureau.
the game Control may lift a whole bunch of SCP Foundation concepts but at least it doesn't rip off anything antimemetics-related— qntm 🐌 (@qntm) September 6, 2019
as far as I know
There is a singular narrative. The player character is Jesse Faden, who arrives at the FBC headquarters in search of her brother Dylan, who was abducted by FBC agents during a paranormal event in their home town when they were children. As she arrives, she discovers that the building is under lockdown after being invaded from another dimension by a malevolent force which she dubs the Hiss. Jesse is semi-willingly chosen by the Board to replace the Bureau's recently deceased previous Director. She proceeds deeper into the Oldest House to rescue the surviving Bureau staff (her new subordinates), drive back the Hiss, recover her brother, and uncover the true events of their childhood. A lot of high-octane third-person shooting is involved.
In Control, SCPs are now Altered Items, singular iconic objects like a swan boat, a surf board or a decorative pink flamingo. Each Altered Item still has a reference number, and its own dedicated redaction-heavy documentation, and its own discrete containment unit in the Containment Sector, which is one of several major areas of the game. Altered Item documentation is one of several categories of collectibles which can be found scattered throughout the game.
There are also Altered World Events, which is what the Federal Bureau of Control calls it when there's a major "paranatural" outbreak somewhere in the world. These show up as collectible documentation too. They also show up as locations inside the Oldest House — sets, built in warehouses by the FBC for the purposes of study and analysis. Kind of a cheat, I think, but whatever.
But the collectible documentation is completely secondary. I mentioned earlier that an SCP needs to work as piece of writing, and that this constraint is different from working as an issue of a comic book or as an episode of a television show. But Control is a third-person shooter, so this constraint changes again. In a game context, an Altered Item needs to add something meaningful to the game.
Altered Items serve two in-game purposes. Some Altered Items are specifically Objects of Power. These can be bound to a specific human host, and confer supernatural abilities. Jesse gathers these Objects of Power progressively over the course of the game, slowly becoming more powerful in combat, and more mobile. An old-style 8" floppy disk confers telekinesis. A television confers flight. A gun... well, confers the ability to fire the gun. But it's the Service Weapon, the Platonic archetypal firearm. Jesse wields it throughout the game, and it can be upgraded to emulate many different classes of real weapon.
Other Altered Items are adapted to become one-off encounters and challenges for the player. A mirror becomes a major optional boss fight. A mannequin duplicates itself a hundred times and the player has to hunt among them for the real one. A set of traffic lights, escaped from Containment, becomes a literal game of Red Light Green Light which has to be won to recapture it. In fact, recapturing escaped Altered Items is one of the major classes of optional side quest in Control.
Written down as SCPs, most of Control's Altered Items would not actually be very good. That isn't a value judgement on the game, obviously. I'm just saying. Even accounting for their brevity (a typical SCP is 500 to 1,500 words, a typical document in Control is more like 100 to 200 words), very few of these documents would pass muster on the SCP site. Which is fine. Control's Altered Items work much better as game encounters.
Well. Some of them do.
Bear with me for a second.
Near the end of Control's main story there is a twist where Jesse herself becomes possessed by the Hiss. In her stupor, she hallucinates that she is a downtrodden, low-level assistant at the Federal Bureau of Control. She rushes back and forth across a washed-out, dismal version of the Bureau offices, gathering up dirty coffee cups and hand-delivering mail. The tasks are miserable and repetitious. The whole time, other Bureau workers are berating her to her face and disparaging her behind her back. Every time she finishes a job, it resets; the unwashed coffee cups respawn and she has to clean them all up again. It's a nightmare she can't escape from. It's tedious and thankless. It's Jesse's greyscale Hell.
One of the tasks is to photocopy documents. Dozens and dozens of copies of the same piece of paper. It's pointless busywork. You, the player, can tell that it's a trap, it's not real, because of how boring it is. You need to break out somehow. Right?
Back in the game world, after Jesse escapes, the AWE expansion has a side mission where you have to go after another escaped Altered Item, a chain letter. To complete the side mission, you have to photocopy it three times, and then mail each of the three copies individually. This is a real side mission and it is a slam-dunk self-own.
This isn't the only underwhelming Altered Item-related side mission. I mentioned the mannequin encounter, which is far too thin to even qualify as a puzzle. There is a rubber duck (previously) which, when you try to grab it, teleports away down the corridor, quacking ominously. You follow it eight or nine times and eventually you catch it. There's nothing special which happens when you eventually catch either of these Altered Items. There's no twist to either of them, no difficult one-off enemy encounter which results. You basically walk forward until you're done.
Another is the Moving Letters: letters which zip from desk to desk near the mail room, unpredictably, at high speed. You have to wait at one spot until the letter stops at that spot, then claim it. You do this three times. That's it.
Aside from Altered Items, "boring janitorial work" is actually an entire subcategory of side missions in the game. There are half a dozen of them, all part of a subplot where Jesse acts as assistant to Ahti, the Oldest House's janitor (and, possibly, the folk hero of Finnish myth). You have to tend plants, collect and burn trash, clean up mould... Later on, there are more janitorial missions which are... the same. You tend more plants, and clean up more mould, but in different places this time.
Maybe there is a lesson for us to learn here, a valid statement being made about the importance of boring jobs and the value of the people who do them, but... this is a game! And the game itself knows how boring it's being! It admitted as much during the main story!
These missions are not very exciting. I mean, I did them. So maybe I am the one who is owned. But the fact remains that a lot of the side missions and a lot of the SCP-like things in Control don't really amount to much in terms of actual entertainment.
And while I'm here, I'll also say that the Oceanview Motel puzzles are also only barely worthy of the word "puzzle". Noticing that the radio in one room is on the right, and then going to the next room and moving the radio to the right there too? That's weak, folks. That's tepid.
Other Altered Items do lead into more exciting content, but there I have a different nitpick, which is that a lot of them just don't make any sense. I mentioned the refrigerator, which is a portal to an optional boss fight against a monocular, tentacled monstrosity. The boss fight is a cool and freaky encounter. But it has nothing to do with the refrigerator! The boss arena isn't an icy wasteland, the boss doesn't resemble mouldy, expired food in any respect... I didn't catch any subtler thematic connection, either. It's a complete non-sequitur. This just seems like a weird choice to me.
Another optional boss fight is against a huge, mutating geometric sphere. This boss is a manifestation of an out-of-control, uncontained Altered Item, a boat anchor. What does this boss thing have to do with a boat anchor? Or shipping, say, or water? Nothing. This encounter happens in an area of the Oldest House which has been filled almost to the ceiling with millions of identical, replicated clocks. Not specifically replicas of a ship's clock, just someone's old clock which they had in their office. What do clocks have to do with boat anchors? Nothing. What do clocks have to do with the Anchor boss? Nothing. There's no strong timing element to the fight. The boss turns clockwise... at first. Then it moves more erratically. It belches more clocks at you. Why?
Let's go back to those Objects of Power. Jesse collects the optional shield ability by cleansing an Object of Power which is a safe. Fine. A floppy disk gives Jesse telekinesis powers, letting her launch objects at targets. It's explained that the disk contains nuclear launch codes. Fine, I guess. A little forced.
But why does the rapid dash ability come from a merry-go-round horse? Why does the flight ability come from an old, haunted CRT television? What do ashtrays have to do with mazes? It just seems arbitrary.
Is the arbitrariness the point? The illogic? Maybe. But also, no. Your point can't be that you don't have a point. That doesn't work. If these were SCPs, I would expect better.
But they aren't SCPs. And like I said, these are all nitpicks. It's all one nitpick, really. Flying, dashing and telekinesis are all fun. That is, actually, more important. The boss fights are fun. For the sake of balance, I should mention that the optional mirror boss fight absolutely succeeds on both levels.
The thing I like about this particular poster in Control is how yeah, it COULD be an Altered Item, but the Bureau clearly just wants you to stop stealing office supplies https://t.co/eporhYyWNK— qntm 🐌 (@qntm) April 29, 2021
Control's greatest strength is its atmosphere. This is what I loved the most about the game, and it's also what made playing it hard going for me. This is pretty subjective.
The whole game has this beautiful but grim, oppressive art direction. It is absolutely a game which earns its photo mode and its art book. It looks so good that it's spoiled me for other games. But that beauty in the screenshot is just so hostile to experience in gameplay. The whole atmosphere of the Oldest House made me not want to be there anymore. Even when seemingly natural light is pouring from the ceiling, it's this harsh, sterile white. Through the back half of the main story campaign, I couldn't help thinking to myself: "I really miss colours."
A severe lack of music also contributes to this hostile atmosphere, particularly during combat. One of the highlight sequences in the game is the Ashtray Maze set piece, an extended fight against many enemies in an environment of confusingly shifting walls, set to a heavy rock track called "Take Control", by in-universe band Old Gods of Asgard. This rock track is awesome, it's incredibly appropriate to the action, and it massively elevates the experience of the set piece. Many players of the game single this out as their favourite moment in the game.
But the combat during this sequence is just the same combat as in the rest of the game. They're the same enemies, at the same levels you're used to. The shifting walls make for a novel environment to fight in, but the only real difference is the soundtrack. This is the only fight in the entire base game which has music. Every other fight in the game is set to a war drum beat which rises and falls as the action ebbs and flows — with no tune. To put it bluntly, the Ashtray Maze sequence makes it painfully obvious that the rest of the game is in desperate need of listenable music.
(For my money, the best actual track in the game is "Constrain", by Byproduct. But do you get to play the game to this music? Nope. You just find a particular radio near the Central Executive Control Point, and stand there, and do nothing, and listen.)
Outside of combat, there's almost no score at all. Travelling through the Oldest House on foot, it is an empty, echoing, actively hateful place to be. It's so devoid of people and life and interactivity, so liminal, that it's functionally a desert. There's nothing around any corner but dusty files, vents, gantries and enemies.
In other words, fantastic job on capturing the SCP project's Foundation aesthetic! If your mental picture of a Foundation office is Control's Oldest House, then, you're not wrong. There's no canon, but you're not wrong. Fantastic job, up to and including the part where it's a universe that's fun to fool around with, but actually miserable to inhabit or linger in.
I didn't want to be playing the game anymore. It wasn't tense or scary in a fun way. I just wanted to go home.
I feel like it might have been nice if the enemy in the game, this violent antagonistic force, the Hiss, had some dialogue. Just... any dialogue at all. Motivation... An end goal...
I feel as if, in a videogame context, being made to sit still and watch full motion video can be a failure of storytelling. In-engine cutscenes are one thing, but... Control leant too hard on this, I think. This is a Remedy trademark, though, and asking Remedy not to be Remedy might be equivalent to asking them to stop making games, which no one wants.
I second-guessed the story pretty badly and I think this hurt my experience. That's on me. I couldn't stop myself. I was fully expecting Polaris to secretly be the Hiss, manipulating Jesse into releasing her/it from Hedron. When what actually happened happened, it confused the heck out of me. I was also expecting the Board to turn out to be the real antagonists, and to have to fight them in the finale.
I still think Polaris has some kind of agenda of her own, and opposing the Hiss doesn't make the Board a force for good. But these things have been intentionally left cryptic for now.
I was expecting some kind of boss fight in the finale. And that really did feel like a dropped ball. In fact, by my count, five out of seven boss fights in the base game are optional. (Control's first expansion, which is called Foundation as a nod to its influences, was an improvement in this regard.) What actually happens is just a huge fight against a huge number of conventional enemies. The enemies are massively stronger than anything you've faced up until that point, but the Board amplifies your weapons so that you're massively stronger too, so the net increase in challenge is essentially zero.
Lastly, I was let down by the highly open-ended resolution to the main plot, and the absolutely unending series of mopping-up side missions which spins off after that. Right after the credits, the game hits you with a very blunt message along the lines of: "This is not over. You still need to keep fighting the Hiss, forever." There's no way to actually evict all the Hiss from the Oldest House, and so the entertaining telekinetic shooty action becomes this Sisyphean chore.
Oh, and no New Game+? And not even a second save slot? No way at all to replay the main campaign without losing all progress? Come on!
I got a lot out of Control, and I appreciated it a great deal. I spent a shocking amount of time playing it considering how much I didn't enjoy playing it. I actually 100%ed it, for reasons I'm legitimately not able to fathom. Is that a thing which happens to other people? Was I secretly enjoying it? Was it just a need to do due diligence, or justify my purchase? What happened?
I appreciate Control's contribution to, if not the SCP project, then the same subgenre that the SCP project and other projects inhabit. I appreciated it so much that I even wrote crossover fan fiction, which I used as another way to examine the practical differences between the two universes as venues for storytelling.
I'm extremely interested to see where both projects go next. If Control 2 shows up then I'm absolutely in. It's claimed that there is a direct sequel in the works, but before that it seems like the plan is to produce a cooperative multiplayer spinoff, which... seems like an odd choice for a way to continue a hugely commercially and critically successful linear, story-focused single-player game?
And before that they're making Alan Wake II, which I don't care about at all.
In Control 2 I would like to see: more music, more radically inventive Altered Items, more colour and more closure.
As for the future of the SCP project... I don't think I can predict where that's going to go. I hope it's a blast, though. A strange one.