Jennifer and I used to watch this show on Fox called Fringe, which was about various paranormal topics like time travel, multidimensional beings, shocking bioweapons, and other similarly creepy things. It ran for a while, managing to finish a tremendously unpredictable story arc that ends quite well. Think of it like X-Files, except with a demented scientist who takes care of a cow in his lab.
Control reminds me of Fringe, though with far less cows. It’s brought to us from the same folks behind Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break, keeping their dose of weird-in-just-the-right-way-to-be-interesting storytelling.
Remedy pulled off what could’ve easily just been another mediocre shooter by pairing the experience with something stocked to the brim with lore and strange happenings. Jesse Faden serves as your eyes and ears into whatever the hell is happening in the Federal Bureau of Control, which has been locked down to stop the spread of something called the Hiss. She’s selected to be the successor to the previous Director (voiced by Sam Lake of Max Payne fame), after she stumbles into his office and discovers he’s committed suicide while trying to find answers about what happened to her brother.
I don’t want to get too into explaining everything, as I have a habit of doing… I know… I know… Spoilers… Instead, I want to talk about what makes something like Control so interesting in a more general sense. At least to me.
First, if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t really play for a story of any kind, this obviously doesn’t apply to you. My brother and step-father are that way. There’s really not a point to engrossing themselves in the story of a game, as they’d rather just get to the action. To an extent, I get it. They’re the type of people who skip through dialogue, and I’m the kind of person that listens to every line, goes through every conversation option, reads every codex or journal entry… I just basically scour the game for anything I can find.
What made Control interesting to me, isn’t that I didn’t have a massive catalogue of lore just thrown at me all at once, or even just had all my questions answered, but that I was given just the right amount of information that I needed to keep me fixated.
Many games, especially science fiction titles, need to fabricate a dense history from nothing, and the best example of a game I could think of that did this poorly is Destiny. There’s a ton of detail that can be so easily missed. In fact, Bungie seemed to go out of their way to make understanding anything about what occurred before your Guardian is magically resurrected as vague as possible. In the first game, the only way to gain any sort of understanding was to go onto Bungie’s website or the Destiny app and read the Grimoire cards there. Want to read them in-game? Nope. You gotta go onto the website and read them there. Of course, you can’t do that anymore, but plenty of fans have taken the time to create wikis dedicated to the lore of Destiny. Where Bungie bungled their lore wasn’t that they didn’t have it fleshed out, but that they made it a royal pain to explore it.
That wouldn’t be as much of a problem except that Destiny just throws a bunch of terms and proper nouns at the player with no sincere intention of helping you understand anything at all. What’s The Traveler? What made it terraform planets and moons? Why does Venus look like a garden world while Mars, which is far more habitable, still looks like a desert? Why does Titan have oceans that look like water when they’re almost certainly made of hydrocarbons that are well below the freezing temperature of water, alcohol, and even carbon dioxide?
I mean, it makes sense since the idea is that Destiny is just a space opera where any questions can be explained with “because space magic”, but that’s just inferred by the player, since nobody outrightly states it anywhere in the game. Your character in the original Destiny is just resurrected from a long death for however long they were dead, somehow…
Then there are games like the Mass Effect series, which contain relevant information in-game in the form of the story itself, as well as the litany of codex entries. Reading or listening to them is optional of course, which is a major plus for those that just want to get to the next scene or fight, but if you choose to dive in, you can find all sorts of bits of information. Take for instance, the Treaty of Farixen, which is based on the Washington Naval Treaty that predates World War Two (I’m a history nut, can you tell?). The codex entry sets a frame of reference for the power balance between the various races in the Mass Effect universe, with the Turians being allowed to construct the highest number of capital ships, or dreadnoughts as they’re called in that universe, in comparison to the other races of the Council and Citadel. Is any of that necessary to understand what’s going on in Mass Effect? Almost certainly not. However that extra context is just icing on the cake for weirdos like myself.
Where Mass Effect has steered itself wrong in my opinion is that Bioware tried too hard to make the Reapers understandable, when the true horror of their existence was better left un-understood… Obscure? Incomprehensible? You get my drift. Sovereign’s motivation to get to the Citadel to continue the galactic extinction cycle was so creepy and interesting not because I knew there were answers coming in the next couple games, but that I had no insight into their designs for the galaxy. Then Bioware had to go and muck it all up with Mass Effect 3 by answering too many questions that didn’t live up to the imagination. Bioware emulated the eldritch horrors from the H.P. Lovecraft universe to create the Reapers, but then proceeded to explain everything about them.
What made the Reapers horrific, beyond the methods they used to complete their tasks of course, was that their motives were unfathomable. Nobody knew why they did what they did, and then Bioware ended the series with a god-child-AI who just spills the beans. To further extinguish any sense of unfathomability, Bioware created the Leviathan DLC, which while it was pretty cool, it essentially dispelled any mystery there was left.
By the time the credits rolled on the third game, players learned that the invincibility, mystery, and dread that the Reapers exuded was just a mirage. Bioware explained too much.
Remedy instead seemed to have found a way to drip feed just enough information to keep things interesting, as well as providing a little extra for the lore freaks like myself, while keeping enough concealed that I don’t see through the facade. Obviously I know that it’s all just a work of fiction, but I can suspend my disbelief because they created the right environment to foster that. Remedy used an approach with Control that’s something like:
“See that fridge? It’s an ‘Altered Item’. This fridge will kill you unless someone is staring at it. It’s the weeping angel of fridges. Why does staring at it seem to keep it from going crazy? Why does it do anything other than being a fridge? What’s an ‘Altered Item’? What makes them?”
I think that’s what I love so much about this approach to the setting of Control, and why it feels fresh in comparison to many other games. Sure, the mechanics aren’t exactly groundbreaking and it takes a relatively expensive computer to look as good as possible, but it has that X-factor that I used to talk about in my game “reviews” I wrote a LONG time ago. I wish more sci-fi games took Remedy’s approach with Control, where they don’t try to flesh out every detail, and instead focus on dangling just enough info in front of your face that it keeps you interested.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying that games can’t be fun or engaging if they take any of those approaches to the explanation of the setting and lore. My wife and I are massive fans of Mass Effect, have played hundreds of hours in the Destiny duology collectively, and enjoy many other games that don’t follow the same design philosophies of Control. Hell, I’ve even praised games like Horizon Zero Dawn for the background that’s given to the player throughout the game despite some of it making absolutely no sense at all.
Like, how am I supposed to ignore the magic that is a complex autonomous death machine that can power itself with “biomass” like plants and animals?
It’s honestly just refreshing to get sucked into a game and its lore again, and to have everything tied off so neatly with something as simple as the setting’s characters not even fully understanding everything, or really much at all.
It makes me think of that show Fringe again, where weird and horrific things just happen around the main characters constantly, without much understanding dealt to the viewer. Jennifer liked the characters and the stories about them, but I think what got me so invested was the incredibly diverse sets of science fiction topics that were thrown at me, and how there were often times that the characters who should know the most about what the hell was happening were just as clueless as anyone else could be, and just tried to find the best explanations they could.
Maybe I’m remembering things wrong… I don’t know. I haven’t watched Fringe in a while, but it’s the same brand of weird sci-fi that Control is, so that’s probably where my brain was going with that in the first place.
Ah, right. I know where I was going with all of this. There’s a fine balance to creating something that scratches the itch that Control did with me, and that’s giving just enough context to make the player ask questions without caring what the answers are. Not enough detail and you leave people wondering what the hell is going on. Too much detail and you risk the player just having to write off anything that doesn’t make sense.
Control is in the Goldilocks zone of lore. I’d really like some more of that.
Wait… I just explained in detail that I liked Control for doing basically the same thing that Destiny did, but criticized Destiny for having similar methods to explain lore. I’ll explain, but first I want to rant a little more about Mass Effect, because I actually feel like I made a salient point about its lore.
My criticism of Mass Effect stands only because Bioware really did kill any sense of what made the Reapers enthralling as a foe in the games, and I don’t just mean how they can indoctrinate other lifeforms to do their bidding. Regarding Reaper indoctrination, Bioware actually took the best approach by sticking with the story of people in that universe not knowing how it works, but that they only have theories. That’s actually the perfect way to do that because it implies that there could be an explanation, but the answers just haven’t been found yet.
How does this differ from Control, I ask myself. Furthermore, after I wrote this originally, I realized that I didn’t complete that whole train of thought. After all, every sci-fi title relies on a bit of creative problem solving to explain away things that we don’t understand in our time. For instance, many sci-fi space shows, movies, and games rely on some explanation on how space travel works, and rarely is it done in a way that can be replicated in real life. After all, if an author could explain FTL space travel, then why couldn’t we do it now?
To me, it comes down again to the topic of “suspension of disbelief”, and giving the consumer of the media itself the ability to tell themselves “that seems possible given what else is going on in the story.” Some approaches feel more like a technobabble, like with the Mass Effect series’ explanation of how its namesake effect works. Destiny uses a different approach that more or less implies that the Traveler and the Darkness can imbue living beings with magical properties to allow them to do wondrous things. So I guess the question is: Where does Control fit in, and why do I think it feels different?
Control doesn’t pretend to explain everything. Rather, even the characters in that setting have a very limited understanding how the various paranormal forces and beings work. The Bureau of Control is headquartered in a building that defies all the known laws of physics. Things like “Altered Items” and “Objects Of Power” exist, and can pass on properties of themselves to people who are capable, but the process isn’t understood by even the brightest minds with the Bureau. The closest to understanding the folks at the Bureau is that all of these dangerous objects are controllable with rituals, and they’re contained and studied. The most information you can glean from the game comes from collectable files and media, the former of which are often redacted or incomplete.
One result of this is that the setting that Remedy has created is basically a playground for them. They can make whatever they want, regardless of it being explainable or not, and it can still seem plausible. That sort of approach is only really possible because the people in that universe don’t fully understand what makes everything tick, which in turn makes it possible for the player to write off that they should be able to know in the back of their mind.
That said, it’s understandable why I can compare Control to Destiny and Mass Effect, and walk away with a sense that Control has a better approach to dealing with the unexplainable.
Destiny tries to spin this tale of days long passed, when civilization in the Solar System flourished, and then thrusts the player into that setting like a kid being thrown in on the deep end of a cold pool. Anyone who cares about the “why” is left to wonder, because any questions asked are met with silence, or you’re expected to collect any relevant information yourself rather than discovering any of it in the natural progression of the game. At least Bungie has since learned their lesson from the first game and actually started putting some of it in the game itself. However, because lore is treated entirely as a collectible (likely as a way to encourage people to keep playing), there are some pieces that players may never attain themselves, which is further exacerbated by the fact that Bungie is now “vaulting” content.
Mass Effect is painted into a corner because much of the technology of the game has to be information that would be perfectly understandable to someone in that timeline, but obviously can’t be understandable to a person in real life. Again, if Bioware could explain how each technology in their universe could function, then there’s no reason we couldn’t replicate it in real life. To be fair, many of their explanations are pretty damn good, even if they’re definitely impossible. But perhaps the biggest problem is how Bioware chose to completely neuter the extraordinary nature of the Reapers by explaining everything about them.
Control stands aside from these other two sci-fi games by existing in a world where anything seems possible, and Remedy didn’t burden themselves with the minutiae of every detail. Honestly, maybe the best approach to sci-fi as a means to keep the player’s disbelief suspended is just going with three words: “I don’t know”. It sure worked for Control.
What are your thoughts on how lore is handled in games or other media?