Control's story and tone draw from a new tradition of uncanny fantasy known as the New Weird.
Control is not, director Mikael Kasurinen points out, a horror game, but the latest entry in the New Weird, a genre sitting in a debated space somewhere between science fiction, horror, and magical realism. It’s in this space that the team at Remedy Entertainment created the game’s unique atmosphere.
The game is set in the Oldest House, a shifting, rigorously mapped skyscraper that grows diseased like a human body. It is the base of operations for the Federal Bureau of Control, a mysterious government organization that investigates “paranatural phenomena.” This is also the organization that stole protagonist Jesse Faden’s brother, a setup that leads to the game’s main conflict, as Jesse investigates the Oldest House while also protecting it from a supernatural invasion. Along the way, the Oldest House plays with Jesse’s perception of reality. Like the best New Weird stories, the deeper she goes, the more twisted her surroundings becomes.
What makes New Weird different? The most highly-cited figures of New Weird are Jeff and Anne VanderMeer, who popularized the term in the 2008 anthology The New Weird. They describe the genre as, among other things, “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place.” This preoccupation with uncanny places is key to Jeff VanderMeer’s work as well as the almost-anthropological fantasy fiction of Leena Krohn and China Miéville’s dark fantasy worlds.
New Weird stories may be goopy and virulent, types and modes of place expanding like a cancer into the normal world. Prime examples include VanderMeer’s haunted Area X in the novel Annihilation and Miéville’s interlocking metropolises in The City & The City. If conventional fantasy is about Narnia, New Weird asks whether the portals into Narnia count as an invasive species.
There is some debate about where New Weird intersects with the metafictional and literary aspects of magical realism, or the climate-consciousness of ecological science fiction, or the speculative chills of cosmic horror. It is a genre bound in part by time—the 1990s and beyond—and like many of the creatures in these stories, its borders are blurry.
The key element of New Weird for Control’s lead writer, video game legend Sam Lake, was uncertainty.
“It’s not always clear what’s the right answer, and sometimes these strange forces we’re dealing with, maybe they’re beyond our current human understanding,” Lake tells us in an interview. “Maybe we don’t understand these things because they are so strange.”
Along with New Weird in general, and the novels Annihilation and House of Leaves specifically, he was also inspired by Inception’s “dreamlike” tone. The trippy Mr. Robot also made him think about “just the slightly paranoid side of it and [a] really interesting narrator as the main character.”
The work of David Lynch was also a major influence for Kasurinen, who tells us that he wanted to evoke the feeling of trying to understand something you can’t quite grasp. It’s a feeling that is all-too-real for Jesse as well as the player throughout the experience.
In some ways, searching for a work’s influences is like searching for a blueprint. How did the New Weird shape the creators’ perceptions of their own work?
Perhaps the most obvious pull is the use of rainbow, oil-slick color to denote the Hiss, the otherworldy enemies that invade the Oldest House in Control. They appear under red spotlight and die in a fog of color very similar to the rainbow tint the filmmakers used for Area X in the Annihilation movie.
The dying Hiss animation could also be a nod to the Annihilation novel’s description of the inside of an inter-dimensional portal: “a sudden impression of a fizzing block of light, fast fading.” The light breaks up the brutalist walls of the Oldest House while showing off Control’s cutting-edge lighting and physics.
Bureaucracy Meets the Unexplained
Many science fiction stories have dealt with the bizarre bureaucracy of a strange setting (the movie Brazil, for example), but New Weird walks a fine line between over- and under-explaining its particular world.
“Part of the New Weird is posing a mystery or a question and answering it with another mystery and a question,” says narrative designer Brooke Maggs. “And there’s a way to do that that feels really good and a way to do that that can sometimes be very confusing.”
Maggs and other developers know the underlying logic of the world and the answers to its mysteries, even if there are things that remain unexplained after the credits roll. This creates a confidence in the work that, she says, “helps keep the story feeling cohesive.”
In Control, the unexplained behaviors of the setting are part of the appeal. This description of a warning system from Annihilation would not be out of place among Control’s unexplained objects:
“Our most outlandish equipment consisted of a measuring device that had been issued to each of us, which hung from a strap on our belts: a small rectangle of black metal with a glass-covered hole in the middle. If the hole glowed red, we had thirty minutes to remove ourselves to ‘a safe place.’ We were not told what the device measured or why we should be afraid should it glow red.”
(As it turns out, in the book, this object is a placebo. It will never glow, and there are no safe places.)
This absurd bureaucracy is also a major world-building point in Miéville’s novels. The Scar, set in part on a floating city, details the day-to-day life of that long-standing burg. The City & The City is built entirely on this idea, with citizens of one interlocking metropolis requiring paperwork to visit the neighboring jurisdiction even if they are simply crossing one room.
One of the most unsettling parts of Control is the way Hiss-corrupted humans hang in the air. From the floating bodies comes a partially-legible chant.
When Jesse’s brother Dylan appears, he is partially corrupted. He’s lucid, but speaks the chant as a kind of compulsion: “It feels good,” he says. The mantra’s rhythm and poetic incomprehensibility is similar to the poem written on the walls of the Annihilation novel’s infamous tower. “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms …”
The Hiss chant starts this way: “You are a worm though time. The thunder song distorts you….”
Both have an elevated, formal tone, and a suggestion of meaning that is not directly clear from the words. Both invite the listener to understand a magical, and perhaps biological and pestilential ritual.
Growth and Rot
A trait of VanderMeer’s fiction in particular is a preoccupation with ecology. He focuses on an awareness of the rules of the ecosystems in his fantasy worlds, particularly in the bio-engineered wasteland of Borne.
In the Oldest House, three elements in particular represent fungal growth: the Hiss, the Thresholds, and the Mold. When federal agents discover a Threshold to another place, protocol dictates they measure how far it has gone—as if it is a growing organism or mold. Elasticity between human and organism is also hallmark of VanderMeer’s work. Area X in Annihilation is sometimes described as growing, potentially serving as a vanguard for some alien force. (Later books in the trilogy explore this in detail, but lack the vivid uncanniness of the first novel.)
“One of the metaphors I sometimes use of this building is that it’s like a human body and when the Hiss invade it’s like a disease,” Kasurinen says.
Lake confirms that the Hiss were directly inspired by New Weird: “It is this very strange alien foreign force intruding upon our reality. It’s trying to spread and it’s not just possessing or taking over, it really is corrupting and coming in and disrupting and changing. In its purest form it seems to be this strange resident almost, that travels and spreads and tries to take you over.”
The Use of Distance
One of the key visual elements in Control is the way the Oldest House shifts. Sometimes these shifts are small: doors and hallways rearrange. Sometimes they are larger. A corrupted object spirals through a hallway, warping it into a corkscrew of concrete stairs. Compare that to this disorienting paragraph from Annihilation, about the team’s discovery of stairs spiraling down into a pit:
“At first, I only saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building. Yet as soon as I saw the staircase, I remembered the lighthouse on the coast and had a sudden vision of the las expedition drifting off, one by one, and sometime thereafter the ground shifting in a uniform and preplanned way to leave the lighthouse standing where it had always been but depositing this underground part of it inland.”
Control, like Annihilation, means for its setting to be disorienting and not completely set in our plane of existence.
An Infected Protagonist
In New Weird, people are obsessed and infected by their settings, or constrained by them in a way that leads to a new kind of freedom. Borne’s secondary protagonist, Wick, is revealed to be a bioengineered creature—and even before that, he has worms living in his skin.
“My free will was compromised, if only by the severe temptation of the unknown,” says the nameless protagonist of the Annihilation novel.
Like the biologist who is the protagonist and narrator in Annihilation, Control’s Jesse finds herself both horrified by and drawn to the strangeness of the setting. In this way, both stories evoke the appeal of the unknown. Faden loves the Oldest House even with all the horror, she says. This doesn’t prevent it from being horrific, but it does echo the kind of engulfing fascination experienced by the biologist. She has always studied transitional spaces, and the space between the real world and the supernatural is the strangest one.
Lead actor Courtney Hope expands upon the idea that Jesse is drawn to the fantastical because of the strange experience she had when she was a child: “She can understand the basics of what’s logically correct, but more interesting to her is the weird side of it. And so that’s the direction she goes.”
The House, Hope says, has “become a confirmation of [Jesse’s] past and more solidification of who she is as a person.” She feels her past is now more understandable, even as the situation harms her. The word “solidification” seems especially appropriate. In New Weird, as with the Hiss, identity is a shifting and liquid thing, and a solidification provides greater structure, but is also a kind of wound.
The events of Annihilation are not a pleasant experience for the biologist, but she can’t turn away from them. She needs answers. But clarity comes with horror.
Annihilation is also about the solidification of a person, in the sense of a gelatinous state gaining new shape. Moreso than both of the protagonists, this idea of human mutability is also shown in Jesse’s brother Dylan, who intentionally becomes corrupted by the Hiss and believes they should destroy the Bureau. In the end he is irreconcilably changed. He’s separated from the Hiss but is comatose, unable to function as a human but also unable to infect anyone else.
New Weird should feel uncanny, uncomfortable, and yet very familiar, like seeing an X-ray of your own body. Other games have captured uncanniness and horror, but Control’s direct connection to New Weird help give it this specific tone.
Control is out now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Additional reporting by John Saavedra.