By Alex Wakeford
Fair warning. This is going to be longer than usual. Can’t be helped.
This week, Universally Speaking takes a deep dive into how the opening of Remedy’s recently released Control instantly captivates the player with its mind-bending mystery.In the grand tradition of storytelling, it is generally accepted that the opening is one of the most important aspects of a narrative.
This is where the reader/viewer/player must be ‘hooked,’ where they must be made to want more, where they must jive with the journey you’re going to take them on.
If your opening is weak, it doesn’t matter whether a later chapter is a masterpiece. At best, you’ve got an uphill battle to win that person back; at worst, you’ve already lost.
“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” Stephen King wrote in 2013, admitting that he spends months – even years – on the opening lines of his novels.
“It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
How can a writer extend an appealing invitation – one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?” [Stephen King, The Atlantic – ‘Why Stephen King Spends “Months and Even Years” Writing Opening Sentences’ (23/7/2013)]
Many games over the years have favoured the use of a prologue, a literary device you’ve likely seen (and will continue to see) no end of. These come at the beginning of a story, providing some degree of context regarding the events tied to characters, plot, setting, and themes – informing us of what we’re about to see.
This is particularly popular with long-running franchises which have to condense a lot of information about the established universe and previous instalments into something more easily digestible (particularly so new players aren’t totally lost).Prologues are often regarded as controversial, for as many great ones as there are (the likes of The Last of Us and Gears of War 4 come to mind), they run the risk of excessive info-dumping, as well as a lack of brevity and overall relevance to the story which disrupts pacing and structure.
One might look back at some of the most memorable openings in video games over the years and immediately think of the plane crash in Bioshock, cinematic blending seamlessly into gameplay as you head to the monolithic lighthouse and descend into Rapture.
Or the destruction of the Normandy SR-1 in Mass Effect 2, with Shepard being pulled into space as they help Joker into an escape pod…
Or Fallout: New Vegas, where an instant connection is made between player and protagonist as a mysterious man robs you of the item you’re on the road to delivering and tells you “Truth is, the game was rigged from the start,” before shooting you in the head…
I’ve been playing Remedy’s Control over the last few weeks and having a great time with it, but something that really stuck out to me was its opening, which easily stands alongside the titles mentioned above.
“Fair warning. This is gonna be… weirder than usual. Can’t be helped.”
This is the opening line of the game, spoken by Jesse – Control‘s protagonist – who delivers a delicious bit of meta commentary.
Remedy are well known for titles like Alan Wake and Quantum Break, games which stretch the ‘ordinary’ with supernatural concepts.
For a returning fan, there’s an element of “Ah, we’re going full Remedy!” while newcomers are promised an experience that’s going to be very different to what they’ve been playing.
Jesse is not giving us a warning, a caveat. She states this as a simple fact.
George R. R. Martin begins A Game of Thrones, the first book in his acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire series, with a similar bit of meta.
“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. [A Game of Thrones, page 1]
Martin’s stories invite multiple readings, they are books that ideally need to be read more than once, and doing so has led to the creation of numerous popular fan theories and interpretations pieced together across the texts.
When the woods grow dark, as the density of the text grows, we should return to where we began.
Control is similar, drawing its aesthetics from the ‘new weird’ genre to articulate its unsettling and inexplicable otherworldly-ness. Just about everything that the story moves forward with is established in this opening.
“You called me, so here I am. I know I shut you out sometimes. I’m always glad to hear from you. It’s just that I get my hopes up. So many times, it’s led to nothing. I found nothing.”
This dialogue is accompanied by the image of a strange spiralling ‘entity,’ and right from the start we are made to naturally ask questions that draw us in.
Who is Jesse talking to? Who called her, and what for?
A slowly descending camera then moves down the symmetrical concrete facade of a building. Panning down to the street, we see a taxi pass and people going about their ordinary business outside The Oldest House – as we will come to know it.
As the dialogue suggests, we are dropped into the story not at the very beginning of events, but at a moment of great intrigue.
Our protagonist knows more than us as she steps into this world, which can be quite a dangerous game to play in writing by creating that separation between player and protagonist, but that is offset by how effectively this sequence captures the game’s tone.
In doing so, the player is able to fall in-step with the ‘mood’ of the text and wants to figure out what is going on to get on the same page as Jesse.
“It’s like, we live in a room, and there’s a poster on the wall. We stare at it and we think that’s the whole world, the room and the poster. The picture’s something nice, a landscape, a famous person. Like in that movie, what’s it called, the prison movie? The room’s a cell. And the picture, it’s different for each of us. It can be beautiful or terrible, but we’re all transfixed.”
This is where the weirdness really starts to bleed in…
It evokes a visual comparison to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, immersing us into the psyche of a young woman descending into madness as she is locked in a room – subject to the ‘rest cure’ by her husband, seeing a woman trapped behind the ugly yellow wallpaper.
At this point, you might also start to notice that there’s no music playing over this opening, just a few discordant sound effects to punctuate each transition.
There’s an unsettling undercurrent to it all, it sounds like what one might imagine pressure to feel like – pressing down on each scene.
The camera, too, shows long, slow shots of The Oldest House (home to – as it reveals – the Federal Bureau of Control) both without and within.
A pan up to a portrait on the wall of the Director, Zachariah Trench, quickly transitions to his perspective in his office, showing us quick flashes of a strange inverted pyramid and a bald man in a jumpsuit labelled ‘P6,’ before returning to another portrait of a man – Ahti, the janitor – with his back turned.
Similar to The Yellow Wallpaper, it is as if the camera ‘entering’ the world of these paintings – seeing Trench at his desk and Ahti with his back turned – is accentuating them as part of the building itself.
“But it’s all a lie. Something to distract us from the truth. They’re lying to us. We’re lying to ourselves. The room’s not the world, the world is much bigger and much stranger. There’s a hole hidden behind that poster that leads to the real world. We all feel safe in that room. But sometimes, sometimes, something crawls out from behind the poster.
And the ones that see it happen, freak out, and try to forget what they saw.
I’m here. Why did you bring me here?”
And, just like that, suddenly you’re inside the story.
There’s no artificial barrier to entry, no expansive lore you have to understand to immerse yourself in the universe – even though ‘a story’ already exists that we’ve not been told.
You listen, and then you’re there.
Jesse is instantaneously made interesting by the implicit suggestion through the dialogue that she was not somebody who ‘freaked out,’ but embraced the madness of this ‘real world.’
For Jesse, the unnatural is normal. In her introductory shot, she’s framed with the red ‘EXIT’ signs behind her as she enters the Bureau. What she’s exiting is “the room” – the world that makes sense – to enter the “much bigger and much stranger […] real world.”
The way in which we’re made to get ‘attached’ to her as a player is not by having an instantaneous knowledge of her situation, but by presenting the character in such a way that you can’t help but want to sort of ‘get on her level.’Establishing elements of the story is the key purpose that an opening has to serve. The difference between a great opening and a poor one is how well one can pull that off, how creatively those things are presented.
Rules, of course, are made to be broken. A rule like “Don’t do voice-overs, it’s lazy” can be broken by making the dialogue something beyond simple exposition.
Jesse’s dialogue tells its own story, presenting the character but withholding details in a way that accentuates the weird imagery of her dialogue, in-concert with the unsettling nature of the literal imagery shown of the Federal Bureau of Control.
The dissonance between the uncertain and weird atmosphere built throughout the scene with Jesse’s almost casual embracing of it only makes things more fascinating.
Courtney Hope delivers a fantastic vocal performance throughout this scene (and throughout the game), further drawing the player into the story.
This is something that is relevant to us at Universally Speaking, as it was our job to deal with the localisation – the translation and vocal support – of Control (namely translating the story into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese).
Ensuring that the narrative experience is as immersive – that this opening is as compelling – to non-English speakers is a difficult task, but the phenomenal work of Remedy’s narrative team made our job that much easier.But presenting the character in their introduction also comes down to their ‘aesthetic’ in-relation to the world, which Brooke Maggs, narrative designer on Control, has provided some insight into.
Also, the Oldest House and the Bureau of Control, we’ve made quite clear, have largely been operated by men for a very long time.
The point of Jesse being a woman, being from the outside – right from her costume, to how she approaches the unexplained – is contradictory to the Bureau. Everyone is in business wear, and Jesse is in a leather jacket and jeans, and coming in and shaking things up. So that’s a cool feminist sensibility that underlies that as well that I really encouraged. [Brooke Maggs, Only Single Player – ‘Remedy Entertainment on a Female Protagonist for Control: “It Was About Time”’ (6/9/2019)]
Jesse is notably Remedy’s first non-male protagonist, her visual presentation in this opening in how she looks “contradictory to the Bureau,” clashes with how the two men shown – Trench and Ahti – were just exhibited as almost literally ‘part of the furniture,’ when the camera centred on their portraits in the lobby.
All of these elements combine to deliver an opening which clearly defines the genre and tone of the story, effectively introduce the setting and protagonist, while setting up key questions that immediately hook the player into wanting to learn more.
Control is a truly incredible confluence of talent across the board – its writing, sound design, voice performance, visuals… everything.
It was a privilege for Universally Speaking to work with Remedy and 505 Games on such an imaginative and unique title. There’s really nothing quite like it and we can’t recommend it enough.
What are some of your favourite video game openings? Have you been playing Control? What are your thoughts on Remedy’s latest outing?
Let us know in the comments below!
After a secretive agency in New York is invaded by an otherworldly threat, you become the new Director struggling to regain Control.
This supernatural 3rd person action-adventure will challenge you to master the combination of supernatural abilities, modifiable loadouts, and reactive environments while fighting through a deep and unpredictable world.
Control released August 27th, developed by Remedy Entertainment and published by 505 Games.
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