Warning! This post has spoilers for the story and lore of Control pouring out of it, like an office quickly filling with self-replicating clocks and Post-It notes. We recommend you finish Control before continuing. Read on at your own risk!
About halfway through Remedy Entertainment's latest game, I encountered something that changed everything I thought I knew about Control. During a sidequest, I found the Former, a giant, black, worm-like creature with one massive eye and a murderous disposition. And then I learned about its connection to the Board.
You battle the Former at the end of the sidequest after venturing into the Astral Plane. Afterward, you receive a message from the Board, the mysterious Astral Plane force that supports the Federal Bureau of Control and sanctions the Director. The message, a call on the supernatural telephone known as the Hotline, features the Board trying to dissuade you from listening to anything the Former may have tried to tell you. As with all communications from the Board, the message is full of statements where two words are included in the same place, allowing either to be used to interpret the sentence.
"You have heard Wrong/Fake News. The Board is A-OK/Intact. The Rebel Faction/Dissent is Former/Fired. The Crisis/Purge is over. This is not a Matter/Worry for you. You can hang up now, please."
This isn't the first message from the Board that's strange or vaguely menacing, but it is fundamentally different from most or all of the others. In this one, Remedy uses some very particular language that's become familiar in the real world. The invocation of the phrase "fake news" has some specific cultural connotations. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, it's not uncommon to hear "fake news" used by someone to discredit a fact they don't like. Unlike your other messages from the Board, this one feels like the entity or group is straight-up lying to you. And as in all its messages, the usage of replaceable words give a look into the Board's intentions you wouldn't otherwise get. And if the Board is unreliable, it throws a lot of other underlying premises in Control into question.
The Board is far from the only thing about Control that's slippery and untrustworthy. There's Zachariah Trench, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Control, who speaks to Jesse from beyond the grave with the help of the Hotline. For most of the game, Trench comes off as a guide, imparting useful wisdom to Jesse as she takes on the role he just vacated. Once you hit the end of the game, however, you realize what really happened to Trench. During an expedition into another dimension with the use of the Slide Projector Object of Power, Trench was attacked and invaded by Control's otherworldly antagonist force, the Hiss. He wasn't just possessed outright, as the enemies throughout Control were; the Hiss worked on Trench's paranoia as a voice in his head for years.
The Hiss finally convinced Trench to use the Slide Projector to open a portal to its dimension, allowing it to invade the Bureau and leading to the crisis that precipitates the events of the game. Once you know that, everything Trench says in his messages becomes suspect. Rewatching those messages, you realize that Trench's asides and offhand comments are the results of a malicious influence on his mind that ultimately drove him to madness. You have a pile of messages from Trench telling Jesse how to be a good Director and warning of a conspiracy brewing within the Bureau. Trench even suggests his head of research, Dr. Darling, is behind that conspiracy. But it's only after the fact that you realize that some or all of it might be tainted.
But it's not just characters who aren’t exactly what they seem. Everything in Control builds on its shifting double-speak and altered perception. For one, there's the fact the Board may not have your best interests at heart. (In one message the Board refers to you as the weapon it wields against the Hiss; in another, it threatens to annihilate you if you trust the Former's lies, even though the Former hasn't communicated with you in any way.) Another is the suggestion that the Hiss might not be the true villain in Control. Yes, the Hiss attacks you at every turn, but at the same time, you're the Director, an instrument of the Hiss's enemies. The Former also attacks you on sight, possibly for the same reason.
From Trench's point of view, the real enemies are not the Hiss, but the entity called Hedron that the Bureau brought back from Slidescape 36. And in the same way that the Hiss seems to influence Trench, Hedron seems to influence Dr. Darling, driving him to build the Hedron Resonance Amplifiers to protect against the Hiss. To Trench, those wearing HRAs are the ones who are no longer human and who are possessed by a malicious force.
Jesse's brother Dylan, who has accepted the Hiss but retains at least some of his identity, also draws attention to the things Jesse doesn't know about the masters she serves and their agendas. For Dylan, Trench and Darling are the enemies, and the Hiss is a liberator. Dylan also tells Jesse that she's a puppet of both the Bureau and the Board--and even eam in which two of them are trapped in a game, one that Jesse can't stop playing. Are Dylan and the Hiss just messing with you or trying to tell you the truth?
Jesse spends the entire game driven forward by yet another unknowable force: Polaris. Another entity from an alternate dimension, Control suggests Polaris is the reason Jesse has come to the Bureau in the first place--and not just to look for her brother. One recording explains that Polaris is pushing Jesse to arrive at the Bureau at a very specific moment. When Polaris sends Jesse to find Hedron, Control seems to suggest the two entities are actually one and the same (or at the very least, Polaris and Hedron are related or Polaris is a part of Hedron). And then Polaris tells Jesse to remove the HRA that protects the entity, allowing the Hiss to attack it. Hedron, seemingly, is destroyed in the next exchange--but Polaris's power becomes a permanent part of Jesse.
Through it all, it's not clear what Hedron's or Polaris's agendas are, or why they would instruct you to open Hedron up to the Hiss's attack. All we know is, while Polaris knew that Jesse was searching for her brother, it was only when the Hiss threat reared up that Polaris finally revealed the Bureau's location to her.
But even off-hand comments and lines of dialogue have hidden depths of interpretation. During a mission to protect the Bureau's power plant, Trench tells Jesse that the Director's most basic job is to keep the lights on, which sounds like an innocuous truism. But climb to the top of the NSC, the Bureau's power reactor, and you'll discover its true name is "Northmoore Sarcophagus Container." Northmoore was the Director before Trench, who Trench describes as being overwhelmed by his quest for power. It seems that notion was as literal as it was metaphorical, as Northmoore was apparently transformed into a human energy source. When Trench says the Director's job is to keep the lights on, he's speaking both literally and figuratively.
The Bureau's very nature is to seek out and understand things of a double nature. The place is filled with Objects of Power and Altered Items--everyday things that look normal enough, but are imbued with life and powers of their own. And the Oldest House itself seems to be a living character with an agenda of its own. Documents describe how the building often shifts without warning, with doors, corridors, or whole rooms disappearing or being sealed off for indefinite lengths of time. You see this as you play; sometimes pathways you took to get to a place no longer exist when you return. The Oldest House isn't exactly working against you, but it is working at something.
That idea is most wholly embodied by Ahti, the Bureau's janitor. Ahti is a supernatural figure of some kind, although the details of his nature are hazy throughout the game. He knows about the intricacies of the building and more than once allows you to access areas you couldn't otherwise reach without his help. Later in the game, there's a whole chapter devoted to Ahti's strange capabilities within the Oldest House. And unlike other characters, Ahti can hear Jesse's internal monologue. In her first meeting with the character, Ahti responds to a comment Jesse only thinks but doesn't say aloud. In the Executive sector, you can find a painting of Ahti with the inscription "Our Bureau at Work," and some players have interpreted this to mean that Ahti is a personification of the Oldest House itself.
Sure, all of these elements help bolster Control's "New Weird" genre storytelling, but together they go further than that, to turn the game itself into a mystery. It'd be possible for Control's lack of concrete answers to become frustrating, since deciding what's happening in the game so often seems left up to your point of view. But instead, that subjectivity allows Control to transcend what we're used to in video game storytelling as it draws from its inspirations in the New Weird genre and the works of David Lynch. It doesn't just tell a story about a strange building set in a weird universe of interdimensional madness; Control embodies those ideas at every level.
Remedy uses all these intricacies to turn its entire game into an Oldest House unto itself--something that shifts and changes depending on how you look at it, and when, and what you've learned along the way. The most fascinating and captivating thing about Control is how well Remedy has integrated its themes and ideas through every inch and element of the game. With DLC expansions on the way, it's clear we haven't seen everything that Remedy means to show us about the world of Control. Jesse riffs on Plato's Cave at the start of the game, explaining that most people's conception of reality is akin to sitting in a prison cell, staring at a poster on the wall and never realizing there's a whole world just beyond. Control makes it clear there's more behind the poster than what Remedy has already shown. Absolutely nothing is as it seems in Control--and that's what makes the game itself so remarkable.