Control feels more timely now than when it came out last summer. Perhaps less fanciful as well: it’s suddenly very easy to understand the cloistered weirdness that radiates from Control’s characters, who you meet while they are besieged inside their fortified headquarters, barred from leaving by a lockdown none of them has the power to lift, and wearing special vests that protect them from succumbing to a psychic infection that struck-down most of their coworkers.
They are all estranged from what passes for normal, not because they work in a haunted office building keeping peace between dimensions, but because they all long-ago lost contact with people who didn’t share their reality. They talk too much and too eagerly, unaware of how they sound or the way they come across. They are trapped in lockdown when you meet them, and they remain that way when the credits roll at the end of the game. At the end of a new story DLC, The Foundation, their sequestration has only deepened. Your hunt for a missing colleague in one of the most mysterious parts of the building doesn’t bring you any closer to resolution of the overall crisis, but implies that the world of Control might be far more complicated than it appeared. Once again, it’s not a lake, but an ocean.
The Foundation also suggests that Control is going to continue to move fast. Jesse Fayden was appointed Director of the Federal Bureau of Control at the outset of the game, but it’s not until the end that she seems fully installed and comfortable in the role. She is no longer a first, and seemingly accidental, responder to a crisis. She’s now the head of an organization she has learned from bottom-to-top, with a team of trusted experts and advisors around her.
In the TV version of Control, the game would have been a great pilot episode or miniseries that led to a case-of-the-week format, as Jesse and her team settle into the groove of dealing with possessed objects and unexplained disasters as part of the normal, daily grind of the FBC. Instead, The Foundation mostly serves to blow up the idea that even within the altered reality of the Bureau, “normal” is anything but a fiction. Or maybe more accurately, a deception.
Throughout Control, Jesse Faden meets the abandoned and oft-neglected survivors of the FBC hiding out in safe rooms and fortified strongpoints. Emily Pope is foremost among them, Jesse’s new head of research, and her story is representative of the game’s themes. She’s a talented woman who was recruited with the promise of a job worthy of those talents, but she was effectively sidelined by the game’s tragic hero, head of research Casper Darling. The consummate well-meaning but toxic supervisor, Darling puts Pope’s career on ice and cuts her out of all the important decision-making on the grounds that she’s “not ready.” So Pope, like everyone else at the Bureau, is left going through the motions of low-level work while there is increasing evidence that something is going deeply wrong at the top.
As Jesse, players have a privileged perspective on this. As usual for video games, we get to comb through the wreckage and unpack the story and see all the moments, large and small, when the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the FBC got an inkling of what lay in store for them. They sense that the once-unified leadership team of the bureau is at daggers-drawn, but don’t know why and don’t feel empowered to ask. They are burdened with new precautions, but never told what they’re preparing for… or why only some people are getting special protective gear.
The endgame of Control is putting the pieces of the mystery together, and forging a new path away from the secretive, hierarchical management typified by Darling, Director Trench, and the mysterious—too mysterious, given that she’s the game’s only major black character—head of operations Helen Marshall. RIP to Trench, Jesse seems to say, but I’m different.
The Foundation asks whether that’s really true. She is, after all, a woman who was effectively given the firearm version of Excalibur and put in charge of the Bureau by the mysterious Board that seems to exist in another dimension. She spends the game receiving messages from beyond the grave via a magical telephone. She is also, of course, the gopher for the agency’s godlike janitor, Ahti. All these things are remarkable, but Control moves at such a breakneck pace that Jesse doesn’t really remark on it. Like any good game character, Jesse has problems placed in front of her and gets to work solving them, but the question of who controls her agenda is always tabled for later. The Foundation moves it back to the top of the order.
It does this by sending Jesse back to its titular location, a part of The Oldest House that Jesse only glimpsed in the original game when she got some last-minute help from Ahti. Before we had only a dim impression of a vast cavern and darkness. It’s disappointing but not surprising, then, that The Foundation doesn’t quite live up to the eerie, otherworldly promise of what we saw in Control. From that eerie void, we are taken into a fairly prosaic cave and tunnel network, filled with a lot of old enemies and some new.
Jesse ends up following the trail of two key Bureau figures. She’s trying to find Helen Marshall, who went on a secret mission almost immediately after being introduced in the original game. She has gone into The Foundation because she is worried about some massive danger down there, something that could doom the Bureau or worse if the invading, psychic force called the Hiss manages to seize control of it. Along the way, she is also uncovering the records of the junior Theodore Ash, son of the Bureau’s first director and the first head of research. Ash’s story is a kind of cosmic bildungsroman against the backdrop of the first expeditions in The Oldest House, as he emerges from the shadow of his father and becomes one of the first people to understand and even impose some order on The Oldest House.
There are some other dangling threads that are revisited in The Foundation and at least one inspired side-mission that pays-off some of the strange mysteriousness around the janitor. In terms of developing the story from the main game, The Foundation ends up being an interesting new chapter. But it never finds anything as arresting as The Oldest House’s magical Brutalism, and the caverns of The Foundation just feel like retreads from more generic shooters.
I don’t think The Foundation adds an interesting location to The Oldest House and I don’t see myself combing over it the way I did the many levels of the original game. But the narrative wrinkles it adds left me feeling as excited about the future of this game as I was when I finished the original.
Even as Jesse gleans more info about the history of the Bureau and more reasons to be skeptical of the Board that attempts to control her, she can’t help but start falling into some familiar dynamics. She is a woman of action who keeps her own counsel, and by the end of The Foundation it has started to feel like her partnership with Emily Pope has developed some small cracks as the two women regard each other with mutual incomprehension. Pope is no less susceptible to the charms of the Bureau’s mysteries as Darling was, while Jesse only lets Pope in on a fraction of what she knows or suspects. Despite the lessons they claim to have learned, the warnings they’ve received, and the differences in character between them and their predecessors, the new generation of Bureau leadership are trapped inside a living institution with dynamics all its own.
One of the last images of The Foundation is the rows of stone columns we saw in the main game. Suddenly, it’s less clear whether those are pillars, or the bars of a vast cage.