Archives in Video Games: Control
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I've been writing about video games with more frequency than in the past. The primary reason has been quarantine related as I now find myself with the attention capacity of a gnat's lifespan when it comes to reading novels at the moment, so a lot of my media consumption either comes from podcasts, YouTube videos, or live streams. Of those three, live streams have provided me with the most content inspiration because, to my delighted surprise, there are a lot of archives in video games.
It shouldn't be as surprising to me, personally, nor is it likely a surprise to gamers because one of the primary functions of a lot of games is providing a font of knowledge, lore, and world-building via information-based institutions like archives, libraries, and museums. Sometimes it's important to the protagonist's main quest, other times it's supplementary material that shows the extent to which the game developers fleshed out their ideas beyond the main storyline.
One such game is Control by Remedy Entertainment!
I was introduced to the game via Jonny Sims' (you know, of The Magnus Archives) Twitch channel (jonnywaistcoat) as the followup to his Bloodbourne play through. As of the writing of this article, he's gotten through the main game and the first DLC, so I've had hours of relatively free research provided by Jonny to talk about Control with some familiarity.
Set in the same universe as Alan Wake, also by Remedy, Control follows Jesse Faden on her search for her brother Dyan years after they were separated by a supernatural phenomenon as children. It all leads her to the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) where nothing is as it seems and everything is Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" dressed up in a Shawshank Redemption costume.
Maybe. It's still unclear.
What is clear is that the FBC is riddled with archival materials. They're lousy with documentation as is befitting a government institution reliant only on internal oversight and a questionable moral spectrum. No matter where Jesse travels in the building, she finds reports, internal memos, confidential correspondence, reel-to-reel footage, recorded interviews, and the most frightening yet wonderful educational nightmare fuel in the form of Threshold Kids. And the materials she comes across are not fully known to her. Many of the documents feature that all too familiar black bar of redaction that comes with classified materials. Not even the Director of the FBC gets to see everything!
It's this supplemental material where Control really shines. I can't speak to the game play because that's not my thing and I have no sense memory of an action I never performed. You'll have to ask, Jonny, I suppose. But as you read and/or listen to the archival materials, a narrative forms around the culture of the FBC as well as the greater threat of the game's primary antagonists, the Hiss, and the danger posed by the presence of Altered Items (AI) and Objects of Power (OoP).
The writing involved in these materials is, for the most part, hilarious. It speaks to the mindset of people who work within the Bureau, whether they're higher-ranking researchers or grunt-level security guards, that everyone treats the supernatural with the same level of inconvenience as one would the copier breaking down. A favorite series of correspondence involves an office book club with competing analysis of the book's plot and themes. It's great and it adds to a the game's world-building that isn't necessary, but it's still fun to enjoy because it makes the reality of the world more relatable and, for lack of a better word, real. There's also the more subdued Dead Letters Collection, which you find samples of dispersed about the building, that are written from the perspective of those who've lost someone to an encounter with an AI or an OoP. There's one involving a refrigerator that hits pretty hard and comes into play later in the game.
What becomes abundantly clear, however, is how concerned Control is with physicality. Not once does Jesse ever open an email or use a smartphone. All of the archival materials she engages with are in formats most people would deem obsolete even in a government building. Tapes, projectors, and actual paper are more commonly found within the FBC, and I can only imagine that none of its documentation has been digitized, though that's not as out of this world as you might think. See The Myth of the Paperless Office by Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper for more on that. It's clearly a workaround to explain the need for outdated tech since newer technology doesn't play well with the supernatural, but the game developers are also setting the player up to understand their physical space before they start messing with it as the narrative progresses. The documentation scattered around the building acts as an anchor point that shows up no matter how far away from the "real world" you seem.
The first thing you really get a good, hard look at is the exterior of the FBC building, a monument to brutalist architecture if there ever was one. It's a deliberate choice, the developers have said as much, and it embodies how Control establishes a physical reality rooted in a style of architecture, and a philosophy, that exudes structure and functionality but also appears cold and soulless. The developers want the player to have an expectation of the building's interior reflecting the exterior, which it does for the most part, before pulling the rug out from under them. Or ripping the poster off the wall to go with the Shawshank reference from earlier.
I'm not being clever, the game does the same joke.
There's a great video by Curio in which they examine Control through the lens of brutalism and cosmic horror, which is a fascinating study in how the reality-bending madness of H.P. Lovecraft eventually led to the New Weird of Control. One of the recurring topics of conversation is how Control imagines and re-imagines structure and space. As Jesse goes deeper and deeper into the inner workings of the FBC, the idea of physical space stretches beyond what should be possible in your standard government building in New York City or Washington, DC. There's far more contained within the FBC than we could conceive of and if you can't trust the what your senses have told you is a building that follows the same laws of physics as you do, then what else can't you trust? If the building isn't fettered by simple things like gravity, then why are you?
Speaking of containment and physical space, let's talk about the archives in Control. Adjacent to the Panopticon (because ominous is what we aim for), the Archives Department of the FBC is presented in the same fashion as any other sector of the building. There's no deviation because we're still dealing with a brutalist framework and there's very little difference between the archives and the Dead Letters section. Both contain a bevy of file cabinets and the office space is just as mundane as any other department before the baddies show up.
What makes the archives standout just a smidge more is it's placement in the institutional structure. First of all, it's not in the basement, so there's a win, but is instead part of the Containment Sector. As far as the game is concerned, the Panopticon is the more important structure, housing hundreds of altered items and objects of power for study and research. The word Panopticon implies observation of the AIs and OoPs, but then why aren't they part of the Research Sector? Once again, it comes down to the functional space. The Containment Sector is concerned with the physical objects while Research deals with conceptual studies like parapsychology or luck and probability. The Containment Sector is an internal storage department, but not in a way that brings to mind the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the misconception of archives people have drawn from that final scene.
The Panopticon and the archives are tasked with storing seemingly mundane artifacts that are far more unique than one would first assume. Wow, does that sound familiar! They study, research, and create documentation that fills in the gaps for future use within the Bureau. Even if an item is "cleansed" of the supernatural, a record still exists of its make and model, how the supernatural manifested within it, and the extent to which research was conducted. None of that goes away, it's preserved in paper and ink for the foreseeable future. I don't know if they keep the artifact once it's been "cleansed," but it wouldn't surprise me if they did. Never can be too cautious.
And, remember, from the moment Jesse steps into the building she's interacting with archival materials. Every piece of paper read or tape played is part of the Bureau's collecting policy and abides by whatever retention schedule they've set forth. When you actually get to the archives, you're mostly getting a look at the place where all of your supplemental information comes from. It's not worth writing home about because what's actually important are the materials you've been provided as they flesh out the world for you one memo and invoice at a time.
There's no archivist to speak of, though. Frederick Langston, a weird dude that I thoroughly enjoy, is the Panopticon Supervisor but he's not anywhere close to what I'd call an archivist. Just a guy trying to keep a bunch of supernaturally awakened objects as calm as possible who plays the theremin and recites awful poetry. I mean, when you have someone like Casper Darling who can put together full synth-pop music videos, how cane you even compete?