Control’s artistic and functional design is one of my favorites to experience, with its impactful brutalist architecture, simplified default button layout and cinematic elements. In this Real-time Design Review, I’ll be going over these aspects as well as others that I experienced while playing. By “review,” I don’t mean critique. I’m merely reflecting on my experiences with the game and the design choices that were made.
Let’s start with the gun, first the pistol. The gun has limited recoil and reloads instantly if there are bullets available. While in some shooting games like the Call of Duty franchise, pistols waver a bit, especially when zooming in to target.
To better explain this, pressing the fire weapon rapidly in the other games can cause the player to hit two different locations. In Control, the weapon focuses back immediately, so the firing feels more heavy and mechanical and exact. I enjoy this choice in firing so the player doesn’t feel out of control with their weapon, or that the game is forcing the player to droop.
Other forms of the weapon do change in sporadic directions, but the aiming reticle is still centered and doesn’t move around. The sporadic bullets are predictable, and with more upgrades, are more focused than just a spread of bullets. The predictability of how a weapon will function allows the player to appreciate that weapon more and understand if it is more useful to them. The main/starting gun is good in itself, and I kept it in my quick stock most of the game due to the simplicity of it. It allowed me to rapidly fire a lot of bullets while knowing exactly where they land.
The diversity of weapons allows the game to cater to a variety of play styles. There is the basic weapon that is simple enough for all players to use and upgrade. Starting with the simplest gun is a design choice, where the game is purposefully constricting the player in doing actions so the player feels the want for better weapons. Increasing the want to improve is important to the game because it means the player wants to continue playing to improve themselves. If the player didn’t feel the need to progress, they are probably losing the motivation to continue. On the other hand, the player may really enjoy the weapon and never feel the want to change what they have, but still want to journeying through the game.
When alternating playing Quantum Break with a close friend (a previous game created by Remedy), I noticed the friend only enjoyed using the pistol, saying it’s the only weapon you need in the whole game. Part of me feels this is a design flaw, but it depends on what the design team wanted. If the designers wanted the player to use the other weapons, and actively encouraged the player to use other ones (by forcing the player to use specific ones for specific tasks), then seeing the player continuously switch back to the starting weapon should be a red flag. For both Quantum Break and Control, the only gun that the player is forced to use is the starting pistol. The other guns offered are merely there to give the player options.
How many choices should a game give the player? Should the game overwhelm the player with weapons, or should the choices be limiting? All these options have differing effects to the play styles that are possible. A limiting weapon selection could be more focused on the ways the weapon interacts with the environment, and the game is focused on encouraging the player to play a specific way. This can be seen with the weapons in Doom, where the game is focused on close-quarters and fast moving combat, or the one gun in Journey to a Savage Planet, where the puzzles in the environment are more important than the gun. Control gives the player a range of weapons, going from strategical to haphazard.
My play style affects how I enjoy games. Given my (slightly) more impatient nature, I tend to rush into battles head-on without too much planning. This tactic can lead to frustration, as I am not able to succeed right away the first time. With Control’s variety of weapons, my raucous play style succeeds, giving me the player an automatic hand gun (almost like a small machine gun). I combined this gun with my basic pistol because they were the two weapons with the highest fire rate. I could have held back more and used the long-range, or got up really close and used a chat gun, but due to how enemies swarm the player, I feel like taking them down as fast as possible was the player’s best bet in clearing the area (we’ll talk more about the enemies later on). The player must be constantly moving to avoid flying obstacles, so having weapons that needed time to charge and aim didn’t work as well, but they were there for players that wanted to go down that route.
A design choice of the gun I found really interesting was the unlimited ammo feature. Perhaps I’ve been playing too many “looter shooters,” or games that had the player pay attention to their supplies, but not having to run around and collect bullets was a nice relief. This relief quickly passed, however, when I realized that health doesn’ regenerate. It’s interesting how in games where ammo needs to be picked up, health is usually self-healing or at least the player carries health packs, but in Control where the bullets automatically fill back up, the player has to go to fallen enemies to get health orbs. Upgrades can be earned to give the player more health with pickups and give them more health in general, but I always had a difficult time with the health. When the health was at a certain percentage (around 30%), I knew there was no hope for me to regain it back if I was in an intense firefight. This was due to the enemy’s hits being strong and multiple enemies would surround me. Having to pick up health was frustrating at times because when an enemy died they were standing with other enemies, so if I was low I couldn’t just walk up to them or else I’d get shot. With ammo pickups, the situation is slightly different. A player could walk up to enemies to get the fallen ammo, but they wouldn’t have as much of a risk of dying because their health was replenished. If they didn’t get the ammo the first time, their health would come back and they could try again. Health as pickups puts a lot more risk on the player to jump into the fray, because their health would already be down (why else would they go in to grab more health?), making it possible for a quick death.
What if health regenerated?
How would the gameplay be affected? For one, players could keep attacking and when their health is low, they could hide away from enemies to heal. While this may lead to more strategical gameplay, it removes some of the urgency on the player because they don’t have to worry about finding health. If Control was a “cover shooter,” like The Division 1 & 2, where players hide behind obstacles and poke out at intervals, the regenerating health would be better suited because the player isn’t forced to move around as much. Control is not a cover shooter, however. Sure there are places to block oneself from oncoming attacks, but enemies spawn everywhere, not just in front of the player, and frequently move to get a direct line of fire on the player. The player must constantly be moving around. If players regained health, the pacing of the battles would be thrown off, as they appear in waves that allow moments of respite at the end and in between. If health regenerated, the feeling of relaxation would be too much and make the moments without battling not as effective. Control is trying to go for hectic battles, and the player would constantly remove themselves from battle if they knew they could just gain health back automatically. The players should be constantly battling the whole time during the wave of enemies. Another problem with health regeneration is that hiding to regain health can also cause both the bullets and the power meters to charge to full strength as well. This means while a player is in the middle of a boss battle and the anxiety of completing it is starting to rise, the player can appear like they just entered the battle while the enemies are at half health. This is unfair for the enemies (just joking, enemies don’t care, but it’s interesting to think about if they did), but it’s really unfair to the pacing of the game, making it almost too easy (unless you’re me and a complete scrub).
What really makes the game interesting, and adds to its a ominous and paranormal feeling, is the special powers that are given to the player. When first introduced, telekinetic blast and item carry are the two main options, but the player can obtain more throughout the game.
The telekinetic throw, where players launch objects at enemies, is probably the most used attack out of all the powers (at least in terms of my play through). The attack works separate from the guns so that even though the player is waiting to reload on bullets, they can still use telekinetic powers. The powers are also on a meter, and anything “special” (dashing, throwing, bursts, etc) drain the meter a little before it needs to be replenished. Having this power meter restricts the player from constantly using the powers, but also requires them to be aware of what they are doing. As with my play style, I try to launch as many attacks as possible onto enemies immediately, so it wasn’t uncommon to see both my power meter and my weapon meters drained at the same time. This means that I was stuck for a few seconds running around while waiting for the meters to power back up, making vulnerable to attacks. Albeit, not the greatest play style in the world, and I soon learned that art of juggling the two meters; using the weapons while the powers were reloading and vice-versa.
Due to the hectic nature of the game, however, this rotational strategy of meters still didn’t work as well. Dashing took a chunk out of the power meter every time you used it, and because the enemy’s aim follow you around and launch objects quickly at you, it is a necessary move to survive. The only problem: what if you run out of power? Well good luck walking through a bunch of flying obstacles and bullets. Okay, but you get a shield power later on, that should solve your problem. Not really, it still uses power, so if you’re out of it, you’re basically a fish out of water.
Running out of power was my biggest problem in the game, due to how much dash I was doing to avoid enemy attacks. The only kind of enemies that allowed the player to move around normally were the foot soldiers. Most of the other enemies either followed the player around or launched objects at them, requiring some quick movement. Running out of power was a big problem, so I focused on getting upgrades that would reduce the cost of using powers and increasing the recharge rate. The problem with this is that it didn’t allow me to try to obtain unique upgrades that could change my play style. Players will normally gravitate to things that are easy or what they are familiar to. Since I already had a style that I was set on, I focused more on making it powerful in that aspect.
On paper, having the multiple moves all using the same power meter makes sense: the meter tracks how much energy the player uses, and uses any kind of energy should deplete it. Playing the game, however, the different moves seem to be “walking on each other’s toes” in a sense. I would block myself if I could, but I just had to dodge another attack instead. Instead of getting frustrated at Control’s chosen mechanics and trying to come up with solutions, let’s question what the game is wanting to teach us. Movement management.
By limiting the amount of activity we could perform, Control is trying to lead us into a certain play style. Yes, there is the trick where holding the player back on all the possibilites they could perform naturally encourages the player to improve, but if we focus on keeping the limited amount of power and using it to the best of our ability, we find we are “micro-managing” if move we take. We start paying attention to the kinds of enemies that are around us, prioritizing who needs to be attacked first and in what way is the most effective. Instead of complaining about the game and the restrictions it gives, we can learn from it. So obviously my original play style of just rushing in and attacking didn’t go over that well (it never does in most games). I would still rush in, but I recognized which enemies needed my attention first (I make a priority chart later in this blog). Next comes what I’ll use to attack. I also need to save some power in the meter to dash out of harm’s way, so I can destroy the enemy’s shield first with one telekinetic throw, fire my mini-gun rapidly at them (giving time for my power meter to recharge), then lay another hay-maker with a telekinetic throw. My attacks naturally became methodical, planning whole sequences in my head before they actually happened. Without the plan, I could try to dodge and block attacks with my powers, but in the end it would just leave me stranded when I needed it the most.
Control’s enemies could be considered slightly stereotypical: foot soldiers with different kinds of weapons. There are special kinds of characters that have been thoroughly demented by the “Hiss” (evil entity within the game). These creatures slowly progress into more difficult entities, hinting first from the lifeless people floating in the air, to invisible teleporting demons.
The progression of difficulty for the enemies gives the player a feeling that they are getting stronger in the game. What was presented first as a boss battle becomes a normal kind of enemy type. This kind of scenario is seen in various kinds of games, where something that was introduced early can be difficult to the player, but can be easier the farther they go into the game. Some challenging characters aren’t even presented as boss battles, they are just introduced briefly and not fully developed (note: my experiences with enemies are from only playing the main story line). One enemy that left me disappointed was the invisible/teleporting hiss. While the enemy requires a lot of attention to hear when and where it will attack so the player can use a power to put a wall up, its tempo isn’t too difficult to figure out after a while. I was expecting these new characters to appear more frequently after the first interaction, but they were missing, even in the final battles of the game. Perhaps they were suggestions for the player to test out side missions and that’s where they would be found, much like what Control did when presenting the mold creatures.
While the first two areas felt like a standard game where there were waves of intensity leading up to a final boss, the ending of the game felt almost lack luster. The game wasn’t leading up to a large, single boss, but rather a series of waves formed into a difficult cluster. I was really expecting a kind of large entity that I would have to battle, much like the large enemy in the side missions, or at least battle the player character’s brother that succumbed to the Hiss. Perhaps I’m relying on a stereotypical trope where there must be a big boss at the end, just like in every Mario game. When players reach a specific level and start feeling like they can take down any enemy, they need one that truly tests out their skills. Having the final test be a group of enemies rather than a singular enemy splits the player’s focus. In the case of the group, their power combined may be stronger than the player’s, but if they were battling one at a time, the enemy wouldn’t have much of a chance. So really the player sees each enemy as a small obstacle before moving onto the next one, looking for more power against them.
One of the most interesting of the enemies, in my opinion, are the Hiss clusters that are just an entity of Hiss essence. They don’t attack the player directly, but rather heal the other enemies to make them resistant to the player’s attacks. Because of this ability (and because their are a large shiny orb that’s difficult to miss), they would be the player’s first enemy to destroy. Knowing this, the Hiss essence has the ability to hold itself make and quickly (almost teleport) to an area out of the player’s point of attack. This feature makes the game exciting, almost like it’s a game of tag or hide and seek. Attacking the other enemies are almost pointless because the Hiss essence will just heal them, but the player still has to pay attention to other enemies to avoid their attacks. The quickness of the enemy adds difficulty to it, rather than other enemies that are difficult because they are bullet sponges.
Ranking the different enemies based on the amount of priority I put on them are as follows (highest to lowest priority):
- Screaming, invisible teleporting Hiss: Requires a lot of attention from the player because they can’t be seen until they attack, so the player needs to listen to sound cues and watch their surroundings for movement.
- Hiss essence: Heals the other enemies so the player’s bullets are wasted on them.
- Floating, exploding Hiss: Slowly creep onto the player and can cause a lot of damage if they aren’t paying attention. Another bonus from destroying these is that their explosion hurts other enemies nearby, so destroying first can benefit the player when moving onto other enemies.
- Flying & attacking / Flying & throwing Hiss: These two Hiss enemies act in roughly the same way, except one lunges at the player besides also launching objects at the player through telekinesis. These enemies can be tricky (hence why the lunging one was the first boss) due to how high they fly above the player. Forcing the player to look up can be a challenge to them because we naturally look straight ahead, and looking up curves our neck in the opposite way it wants to bend. By focusing on enemies in the air, the player can forget about the enemies on the ground, creating a problem when trying to dodge attacks.
- Hovering Tornado Hiss: These enemies are difficult (second boss of the game) because of the wall of objects they create around them. It took me a while that my attacks didn’t really affect them when they were in the floating stage. It was only when they were about to attack where they vulnerable. This presents risk and reward to the player. Should they attack and risk getting hit back by the objects the enemy was going to throw, or should they hide? Movement management plays a key role in these enemies because they take so many bullets to both stall and kill.
- Foot soldiers / Mold people: The foot soldiers cover multiple kinds, but still involve a soldier holding a kind of weapon. The different weapons require the player to use different styles of play: shield characters require something that quickly depleats it, while rocket launchers need the player to reserve some power so they can use telekinesis to send the mussel back or dodge it. Sometimes I would attack these enemies first because the level of difficulty in receiving health orbs is low. The game uses the idea of soldiers being attacking health containers by starting waves out with a few, or spawning them after harder enemies. Mold people serve the same kind of purpose, and are only really difficult when presented in large hordes.
- Mold turret: This enemy is interesting because the player doesn’t have to defeat it necessarily to continue their journey. They do have to pay attention to it because when it spots the player it launches a rapid series of attacks that are difficult to avoid unless hiding behind a wall.
While many upgrade UI paths can be expansive and unique, with branching choices and decisions making it a mini game within itself, Control presents a simplified approach. Each ability and status that the player has, from health bar all the way to jumping, can be improved in some way. The game doesn’t present multiple tiers of abilities, where the player must choose one over the other. By having all the abilities shown, the decision making is already built in. Which ability do you want to improve over the other? It doesn’t matter which one you choose, you are still improving, not losing out on choices because you can upgrade them later. The upgrade experience is always positive, there’s less regret in choosing abilities because you already have them, there are just properties of some abilities that give the player an additional advantage, but still offers its core function.
What’s nice when upgrading is the next step to upgrade is roughly the same cost to upgrade as the previous tier (sometimes less). It is typically expected that upgrades will cost more and more the farther the player continues through the game due to the more enemies that they are battling. This exponential growth doesn’t work with Control and other games because the player doesn’t earn experience and upgrade points while they’re playing, they only earn rewards once they complete a mission. This reduces the cost of upgrades and normalizes them because the player isn’t performing a whole bunch of missions unless they’re completing all the side ones. The upgrade path is more regulated where designers can count all the missions that will be given in the main game, calculate how many upgrade points each one is worth, and decide how far into the upgrade tiers that the player can reach. To the player, seeing small numbers in terms of upgrade points makes the upgrades feel reachable, and adding special moves that may fit that players style along the upgrade row pushes them further to choose that path, or play the game more to get more points.
What’s interesting in Control (also done in other games), is how all the abilities that the player can have isn’t forced upon the player, as in they don’t need to acquire the move to complete the game. Having the player decide if they want to pursue the mission or not to improve their abilities (the game doesn’t tell the player that they get a new ability) makes the player feel like they are in control. Some moves that the game deems important is given to the player, or requires the player to use to continue, but other moves are located in side missions, or part of the expansive moves in the upgrade paths. The upgrade screen is sneaky in the fact that it doesn’t hint to the player the moves that they could have in the beginning of the game, giving more shock to the player and making the repressive of the moves more worth it.
What can be upgraded is placed into various screens as well. For the upgrades affecting the player directly, like their health or the strength of their telekinesis, there is the large list of abilities arranged in a column format. For the weapons that the player uses, there is a completely different screen. While navigating to this other screen can be tricky to find within the descriptions of the menus, the way the player upgrades their weapons is smart. Instead of using skill points that players earn when completing missions, players must use different kinds of currencies (related to properties of the mind) to buy upgrades. Having different currency for the different screens helps the player in association of those currencies. If the same currency was used between both screens, the player could be confused, or regret their purchase decision because they didn’t realize something was being offered in another screen.
The currency of the guns are also used to lure the player to explore the world. There are “safe rooms,” where players can always rely on to have weapon currency in them, creating a kind of solid theme that the player can stabilize with while the rest of the game world shifts and evolves. The currency in places where the player can explore rewards the kind of player that enjoys searching through the game worlds. This may be the same kind of player that takes their time to read all the documents lying around the offices, trying to fully understand the story. The weapon currency in this sense is payment for the player’s time in read all the documentation and collecting and watching the videos, because it’s enough information to create a book within itself.
This is as far as I’m going to get within this design analysis before things get too long. To see how I use these design points from the game, check out my Game Design Document that covers a fan-made expansion to the game that I created: