“For who among us has touched the foundations of this world and deemed them solid?”-Dr. Theodore Ash, former Head of Research at the Federal Bureau of Control
In Remedy Entertainment’s latest game, Control, players step into the shoes of Jesse Faden as she is unwittingly thrust into the directorship of the mysterious and occult Federal Bureau of Control. While it was released in August of 2019 to positive reviews, the title didn’t exactly dominate streaming sites or break sales records. However, thanks to positive word-of-mouth throughout the industry at large, Control slowly grew in notoriety, attracting new players and greater general interest. This soon culminated in a slew of accolades during award season, winning Game of the Year from several publications, including IGN. Perhaps the most visible sign of its surprising success was its tie with Death Stranding for most nominations at the Game Awards, with a total of 11 nominations each, the highest in the history of the event.
What caused this under-marketed title to achieve such success? How did this Finnish-developed game go from underappreciated gem to sleeper hit to award show darling? There’s the typical measurements of success, like the quality of the gameplay — Control’s physics-defying, particle-heavy combat is fluid and enjoyable, and its Metroidvania format inspires exploration and replayability. The game is also particularly praised for its graphics — it was one of NVIDIA’s poster children for its new RTX technology, prompting industry personality Alanah Pearce to state that “Control might actually look better than real life.”
But while these aspects of the game are indeed high-quality, they are only one facet of Control’s rise to stardom. Perhaps the greatest asset the game has going for it is its presentation, in terms of its story and the setting it takes place in. The world of Control is quite unlike the the ones usually seen in video games, or even popular fiction as a whole, and players were entranced by the game’s one-of-a-kind surrealist writing and avant-garde cinematography. Within the Oldest House, the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, the laws of physics are merely a guideline. Walls move and change, rooms loop back into themselves, and the building’s interior space — the size of a small city — fits into a single brutalist skyscraper in Manhattan. Within these shifting halls, the FBC researches and contains objects that violate natural law — Altered Items — and advance their agenda for the protection of the human race from forces beyond its understanding. Around every corner is a new document to collect that sheds more light on this strange and otherworldly House and Bureau that calls it home. It’s a setting that inspires wonder, curiosity, and dread simultaneously. Enough answers are provided to keep players from being confused, but so many other aspects of the setting are left open to interpretation. The world of Control is designed to encourage countless questions, some of them seemingly impossible to answer — making it a hallmark example of the New Weird genre.
This commonality, where authors play with impossibility and delight in leaving readers with questions they can’t answer, is a defining characteristic of a genre that otherwise stubbornly refuses classification. The New Weird is the child of the Weird Fiction genre, a category exemplified by the unknowable horrors and inherent strangeness within works done by authors like H.P. Lovecraft — though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. The modern iteration of this genre is difficult to categorize — in some ways, it is easier to define the New Weird not by what it is, but what it is not. New Weird author China Miéville explains that the genre is “a moment, a suggestion, a tease… You cannot read off a checklist and say ‘x is in, y is out’ and think you’ve understand (sic) what’s at stake or what’s being argued.” An aversion to conformity is perhaps the only thing each New Weird author has in common with their colleagues — it’s a genre where authors thrive on subverting typical conventions and morphing science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror into a coherent whole while simultaneously turning these genres upside-down. The stories are often fantastical, but spun in a way that turns typical, romantic notions of comfort and wonder into disquieting and strange set-pieces, usually without being outright horrific. Those who read Weird novels enjoy searching for answers for questions they never thought they’d ask — and with the expectation that there will rarely be an answer that satisfies them.
One particular trend within the genre is the most important piece of the puzzle for those looking to understand its appeal. In New Weird stories, the real world, or the otherwise mundane aspects of the setting’s everyday society, are often emphasized to better contrast the intrusion of fantastical elements. A common trope in Weird works is that of the secretive government agency, such as the eponymous FBC. In Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation book series, the Southern Reach agency investigates strange happenings within Area X, treating this paranormal location like any other scientific endeavor. So too does this happen in the collaborative fiction project SCP Foundation, where the titular organization studies and contains anomalous phenomena that violate natural law (incidentally, Control was very much inspired by the SCP Foundation). These stories are presented using documentation and a clinical tone which serves to ground them, despite the fact that they, at their heart, are examples of paranormal fiction. However, the New Weird should not be viewed simply as a genre about secretive government organizations dabbling in the supernatural, as while several popular works from the genre feature this trope, it is certainly not a requirement. In Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, for instance, the contrast between mundanity and the paranormal is shown through its unique framing device, an academic paper that analyzes the impact the discovery of a non-Euclidean, physics-defying hallway within a living room has on a typical American family.
True to the genre’s name, weirdness is embraced wholeheartedly, and the strangeness present in Control is only the tip of the iceberg. In China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris, Europe is still in the midst of World War II, and this historical perspective grounds an otherwise fantastical story where surrealist artwork is weaponized and released in Vichy France. The Nazis turn their guns inward on the French capital to keep marauding melted clocks and butterfly windmills from taking over reality itself — all while the resistance crafts more surrealist artwork to create “allies” in the fight against the Axis. It’s a story that honors both surrealism and its predecessor, dadaism, while simultaneously demonstrating the New Weird’s connection to dadaist philosophy. Anything, even near-nonsense, can form a work of art — a story can be filled with fantastical elements, logical paradoxes, and an incomprehensible setting, and still be an engaging read, as long as these aspects are embraced and a work is crafted to fit around them. New Weird authors embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly, subverting tropes and even common sense to create a disconcerting yet intriguing story. Whereas most speculative fiction authors (and most human beings) would agree with Philip K. Dick when he says “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,” New Weird authors embrace a more postmodern perspective.
In Control’s case, facets of American government work and corporate bureaucracy are used to better contrast the setting’s supernatural elements. It’s an environment that you could see yourself encountering — a cushy federal job, just in a building that’s bigger on the inside than the outside, where you take orders from a talking, inverted black pyramid that resides on another plane of existence. Similarly, in House of Leaves, the Zampano manuscript feels very much attached to our own reality — you feel like you’re reading the life’s work of some eccentric academic, filled with seemingly authentic footnotes, sourcing, and quotes. This makes the first mention of the anomalous hallway even more striking — if you hand the book to a friend and don’t tell them it is fiction, they won’t realize this until the hallway is first mentioned — and may even continue to believe it’s real for a time. Jeff and Ann Vandermeer summarize this aspect of the genre succinctly:
“[The New Weird] is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping-off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.”Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, The New Weird, foreword
So, when you’re playing Control and you watch Dr. Casper Darling talk about “resonance-based life” and “altered world events” with all the confidence of a Nobel prize-winning physicist, you are struck by the way New Weird fiction elegantly weaves the fantastic and the realistic together. This is what gives the New Weird its charm, and this ever-present dissonance is one of the few discernible characteristics of a genre that, like the works within it, is vaguely defined and open to interpretation.