Video games have to distinguish themselves from other media by giving the audience some agency. Horror games have been known in the last few years for taking a chunk of that agency away from players instead. Games like Amnesia, Outlast and Layers of Fear don’t let the player characters use weapons; instead, players have to scramble to find places to hide that their pursuers can’t reach.
In Control, you not only have a gun that you can customize and modify—the Service Weapon—you also have a set of unlockable and upgradable abilities, like telekinesis, mind control and levitation. You can also modify Jesse with up to three different modifiers, increasing things like how much health she can regenerate upon resource pickup, or the amount of force her shield can sustain before crumbling. With this much power at your fingertips, what could you possibly be afraid of?
Listen, I’ve already sung the praises of the set design, color choices and overall environment of this game. Control is spooky, and unlike certain games about immortal space warriors from the future, it actually acts upon its pages and pages of lore. But if I’m being honest, the most terrifying part of the whole game isn’t those moments where the music and the visuals sync up just right to create the perfect terrifying mood; it’s when a bunch of exploding Hiss swarm you faster than your telekinesis can recharge or your bullets can come back.
Despite the powers and arsenal she has at her disposal, Jesse is not a superhero. She isn’t immortal, there is no automatic healing factor or healing items, and death can come very easily if you’re not careful. It’s in these moments that I actually find the first problem I have with this game: the loading screens.
If you die, you’re taken back to the last Control Point you touched. To get there, you have to wait for a loading screen. You can also fast travel to other parts of the building, but unless you’re fast traveling to another Control Point in your currently-loaded section of the building? Loading screen. If you go to the Astral Plane, you get a loading screen. If you decide to use the section elevator, loading screen. There are a lot of loading screens and it takes, on average, a couple minutes to go from one area to the next, per loading screen. Maybe the load times are better on PC, but I could do without as many of them in general.
When you’re not busy dying to a mob of enemies and reloading to the Control Point half a mile away several minutes later, Control feels very good to play. Your powers are, well, powerful, but they’re not OP. Your Service Weapon feels nice to shoot. Everything feels pretty well-balanced. But mastery of this game kind of does impact the story a little bit, at least at the beginning. You’ll finish clearing out a room, you’ll take a deep breath, and a little voice in your head will ask, “wait — how did a person who just walked into the Oldest House off the street just do all of that?”
As it turns out, there is a reason. Jesse, like her brother, is known as a “Prime Candidate,” a person who is especially well-attuned to the paranormal forces inside the Oldest House and who can “bind” certain “Objects of Power” to her. When the previous Director, Zachariah Trench, dies by apparent suicide, Jesse is able to pick up and wield the Service Weapon because she can “control” it. In so doing, she becomes the new Director.
Over time, the concern over how Jesse is able to accomplish everything diminishes, and is replaced by new ones: why isn’t the Bureau looking more closely into how to eliminate the Hiss and save the people trapped by it? Should I be using my mind control powers to turn Hiss zombies against each other? Why on earth is the Bureau keeping some of the stuff it finds? These questions have fewer answers. But as a player, there’s no better way to keep me engaged than dangle a few ethical mysteries in front of me.