There’s a part late in the Control expansion “The Foundation” where you can come across an altered object. The item, an older film reel video camera, was previously seen caged up behind thick glass (kind of like Magneto at the end of the first Xmen movie). It’s situated on a rail car simply waiting for Jesse to purge it. By now, you know it’s not going to be that easy. As soon as you interact with it, the camera takes off and the railcar Jesse’s standing on trails close behind. You suddenly find yourself in the last act of an 80’s action movie, as ambient red and blue light fill the tunnel and a dancey synth score starts playing. It’s a great moment that highlights what Control does best; taking in outside influences and recontextualizing them in their supernatural environment.
It would’ve taken a lot for me not to enjoy the two Control expansions, The Foundation & AWE, both of which I recently played through. Control has a style that I find impossible to resist. A supernatural governmental organization that deals with covering up and researching mysterious world events? As a fan of X-Files and Twin Peaks, this was right down my alley. The original touches that Remedy created work so well within this genre as well. A building with an unknown origin and mysterious architectural shifts (named “The Oldest House”), collective unconscious imbuing ordinary objects with power, and a collection of outside universal entities guiding the “Control” organization (“The Board”) are just a taste of Control’s interesting world. The expansions continue the main game’s worldbuilding with the former exploring the potential dubious nature of the Board and the latter tying Remedy’s older game Alan Wake explicitly into the same universe (the main game obliquely referenced Alan Wake in optional item pickups). They’re both more of control (a very good thing) that both serve to broaden the lore of the world rather than solve any of its mysteries (also a very good thing). It’s the one off episode of a tv series before the next plot arc starts up.
The Foundation is the one with more of a connection to the main game. The Board calls Jesse down to the literal foundation of the Oldest House to help restore “The Nail,” a black obelisk that serves as a tether between the Board’s reality and Jesse’s. The Nail’s precarity has led to the astral plane starting to bleed into the Oldest House with floors and objects replaced with empty white space. As you navigate your way around the Foundation’s interlocking caves, you’ll receive strange hotline messages from Head of Operations Helen Marshall and an offer of an alliance from the strange creature known as the Former. All of these story bits are served up much like the main game; straightforward, surface level explanations leaving plenty of room for mystery. This is what makes Control so great, its sparse details about objects within its universe without a tidy definition. Take for example your mission. You are working to restore the Nail at the Board’s behest and Jesse herself is really not sure what might happen when you do. Along the way you can find lots of supplementary notes and audio logs that complicate your situation. What is the Board exactly? Is it right to even restore the Nail? As you start to push back against their wills, the Board starts to get pissy. One great moment has them even reframing Jesse disobeying them by saying that no it’s ok, they meant for you to do that. The fact that that interaction is tied to receiving a power up is even better.
Jesse’s interactions with the Former are even better. The Former, much like the Board, doesn’t speak in plain terms. Jesse receives garbled messages, jumbled up sentences that only have certain words plainly communicated. This mixed translation does a great job communicating how much stronger the Board’s connection is than the Former. It also makes the Former’s offer to Jesse much less clear. You’re never sure exactly what they’re asking for, other than that it’s in opposition to the Board. The Former’s appearance (reminds me of the Advisors from Half Life 2) and its violent encounters with Jesse in the main game make any offers of allegiance skeptical. On the other hand, we’re offered no vision of what the Board looks like (apart from the giant inverted pyramid) or their intentions.
AWE on the other hand moves away from Control backstory and becomes more of an interstitial between the original Alan Wake and what I can only imagine is a proposed sequel (the credits really play this up). This expansion moves toward a much more King-ian tone and there is a lot more horror as a result. Post Alan Wake, Dr. Emil Hartman continued to study Cauldron Lake, eventually diving into it to experience it himself. He’s become mutated (or “stretched” as Alan so elegantly puts it) and was brought into the Bureau of Control for investigation. Obviously bringing a literal monster into your office building is a terrible idea and the entire investigations department is vacated after Dr. Hartman starts wrecking havoc.
Jesse is brought down there after receiving hotline messages from Alan Wake and immediately starts running into trouble with Hartman. Alan Wake’s fate is not unlike that of Dale Cooper; he’s stuck in a strange liminal space that he can’t escape from. He doesn’t understand how much time has passed and his awareness of time seems to have become distorted. Alan doesn’t know whether he’s done something before or if he’s about to do it, whether he’s hatching a plan or if it’s already failed. It’s very Black Lodge adjacent and I love this dark twist of fate that Alan Wake has found himself in. AWE definitely plays up the Twin Peaks references especially with a nail on the head final cutscene that announces a “Return.” My referential material comes through a “Research & Records” report. Alice Wake, wife to Alan, has seen Alan appear out of the blue at her home and rushes toward her. It’s an evocative piece of text calling to mind the appearances of Philip Jeffries, Bob, or other Lodge entities from Twin Peaks.
All of which is to say the story and lore of Control continues to be fantastic. Its mysteries are deeply compelling and only offer tantalizing glimpses into strange, supernatural phenomena. The gameplay though continues to lag a bit. It’s especially glaring in The Foundation, which consists of running through mostly empty tunnels. The move away from offices also means less Case Studies, Interviews, and audio logs to pick up. It feels much more sparse as an environment and those optional items are one of the main draws of the game.
AWE thankfully has a lot more to explore and items to track down. It even features extended puzzle sequences that are unique to the expansion. Unlike the main Hiss enemies, Dr. Hartman can’t be brought down so you’re stuck running between light sources (his weakness) to evade him. This turns your encounters with Dr. Hartman into tense games of cat and mouse as you try to work out a way to activate all the lights in a given area. These arenas become really fun puzzle boxes; trying to ascertain what area to job to next or how to move a hanging light adds an exciting problem-solving element to Control’s fights. It culminates in an eventual big boss fight against Hartman, which airs a lot of the tension out of it once he becomes just another enemy.
More Control is always a good thing. Even the detractors can’t bring down its supreme tone. These expansions are definitely teasers, but not in a way that feels unsatisfying. They offer up new mysteries to mull over and speculate and the new layers don’t make them feel overstuffed or complicated. Now when is Alan Wake 2 going to be announced?