The second part of my analysis of the video game Control will deal exclusively with the environment. While I loved every bit of this game, I can unequivocally say that the strongest element was environmental design.
There are so many moments in this game that inspire jaw dropping awe that will stay with me for life. But even more impressive is that outside of the bigger moments, the environment continuously has this capacity to make you feel fully immersed in an unreal space.
By just the environment alone you can get a sense of the story, you can feel dread or claustrophobia, you can feel safe or secure, you can feel nostalgia or uncanny — without a single word of dialogue.
The main antagonistic force in the game is known as the “Hiss.” They’re represented by a red hue and often accompanied by distorted audio/repeated nonsensical quotes in monotone voice. These forces also distorted the topography of the environments as seen below.
When we see them represented with distorted topography we understand implicitly that their invasion is intrinsically dimensional. They are not just taking over space or minds, but parts of reality itself.
A big part of gameplay is reclaiming control points or key anchor points of reality within the Oldest House. Reclaiming them also cures the geometry and reverses the red wrapped topography back to normal looking office space. When you take back the control points, this also allows you the ability to canonically teleport to them from anywhere.
A key thematic and gameplay element of Control is space itself and it does this incredible job at conveying to you both claustrophobia as seen above, but also immensity like in the picture below.
The game itself feels like a paradox of tiny enclosed spaces and incredibly vast open set pieces, with a pacing that never makes you feel comfortable in either. You never know when the next door you open becomes this massive structure looming before you
And it feels like each one is designed to convey specific and intentional feelings about space, challenge, and limitation at nearly a glance. Above is the research department that feels beautiful and like it opens up to breathe. Below is the Panopticon which feels oppressive.
This game constantly throws these experiences at you, while never really forcing you to slow down. It is through its environmental communication alone that you really feel and understand the alien enormity of the space you’re traversing. One area in particular is an ominous galaxy just barely claimed by powerful construction lighting as seen below.
You’re also slowly unraveling a mystery throughout the game, where the spacing and reveal of the rooms serve to create suspense and drama. Getting to this point of looking at a vast dark space, before you dramatically turn the lights on and see a reveal of a complete replica of your home down.
And every time you walk into these environments, no matter how confident you’ve gotten around gameplay and defeating enemies, you feel constantly on edge. You don’t know what you’ll encounter. You don’t feel safe. And that’s such a beautiful gameplay experience.
Sam Lake, one of the writers of the game, talks about House of Leaves being a huge inspiration and one of his favorite books. That book features this labyrinth of expanding infinity of grand halls, hallways, and spirals. And I don’t think they could’ve done a better job capturing that experience in this game.
The first moment that I felt just truly awe inspired was a sequence with a television distorting space and escaping into it, resulting in the spiraling path through space below.
That sequence by itself was one of the most jaw dropping things I’ve ever felt in a video game. It came directly after scaling the panopticon which felt every bit as scary and oppressive as the original concept design intended. You kept just not knowing what would happen, what you’d experience, and to see reality alter so seamlessly it was pure magic.
It wasn’t just the space, but the lighting and tone of these environments as well. The Panopticon was oppressive with it’s dim lighting onto dark gray concrete that invokes the real idea of a prison — serving in contrast to the brightly lit offices you come from. The entire place is just oozing dread, fear, and uncertainty and to have those feelings end with a sequence defying physics just sold the experience that much more.
No matter how beautiful these pictures are, they don’t do the full experience justice. Actually walking into these paintings is an entirely different experience than looking at them or watching someone play.
And while this was already something worth writing high praise about, they turned to full fucking 11 with a rock opera played over a five minute gun fight through infinitely distorting lounge space.
And as I describe everything here and the set pieces, none of them were just there to be cool. It wasn’t just a bunch of eye candy in-between random encounters to move a story along. Each place had significant narrative meaning that wasn’t always obvious.
I’m not one often moved by art or environments. I often, honestly, don’t really care about them most of the time. I’m happy that they’re just representational gamified space communicating boundaries or goals.
When I fangirl about how beautiful this game is or how much the environments have an impact on the player, it is because I’ve never been more impacted or impressed.
The picture below is my favorite. It feels so warm and comforting. The representational idea of the space gives me memories of things I’ve never experienced because they’re so clearly conveyed. I just love it so much.