I first read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves when I was 15. I read the whole thing in one sitting, overnight. To say too much about the ‘plot(s)’ of the book would be to sully its magic for anyone fortunate enough to still have the experience of reading it ahead of them, but what I will say is that I have not stopped thinking about it for 15 years. This book has haunted me for half of my life. A great deal of the novel’s power lies in its famously unorthodox typography and presentation – the layout of the text, the use of negative space – all reinforce the themes and ideas explored in the novel. As I’ve said, House of Leaves really got under my skin. I spent years chasing that high, looking for my next fix of that very particular flavour of dread, and it is very particular. Somewhere between Lynch and Lovecraft, take a left and at VanderMeer and straight on til morning. Those who have read it will know exactly what I mean and understand why it’s so much easier to draw these sort-of-parallels than actually articulate it. House of Leaves is not a book you read sequentially; you can, of course, but true understanding (relatively speaking) can only be found by going back and forth. Forever. It is, very appropriately, an impossible labyrinth that I will never escape. In video game terms, it’s a book with a hell of a lot of backtracking involved. You move forward, arm yourself with fresh information and perspectives, and return to previously explored areas to uncover new secrets and passages. Hang on… is House of Leaves a Metroidvania?
But, speaking of Metroidvanias (or a game with Metroidvania elements, don’t @ me) I finally found something that came closer than anything to recapturing that feeling. Not on a bookshelf, but in Remedy Entertainment’s 2019 third-person action video game, Control.
Control was simultaneously a phenomenal third-person shooter AND the New Weird ergodic, epistolary novel I’d been looking for. I’d found that specific kind of weird again, only this time it came with 12+ hours of floating around and throwing desks at people. It’s clear that House of Leaves got under the skin of Control lead writer Sam Lake in much the same way it did mine. Tweeting about Danielewski’s novel way back in 2012, he cited it as one of his favourites, calling it ‘a book that is vastly bigger than the sum of its parts’. Years later, in 2017, he told VentureBeat that the novel is ‘one of the most important writings to me, because there’s a circular game in it. It shows what’s possible, in a way, and that’s very stimulating and exciting.’ Clearly the intervening years had done nothing to curb the novel’s hold on him, and much in the way his love of Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone manifested itself in his earlier work, so too has House of Leaves wormed its way out of the hidden, impossible space in his mind and into the world of Control. Both in terms of narrative and design, but also in the way it encourages and rewards engaging with the game’s writing.
Lots of games do collectable documents, notes and audio recordings, but Control takes it to another level entirely. Its ancillary writing is exceptional and requires a certain amount of time and diligence from the player to collect, interpret and collate, that it becomes integral to fully appreciating everything the game is doing. The very act of navigating the menus, reading the files, and making connections or inferences is crucial. Crucial, but entirely optional. Control tells a complete story with a beginning, middle and end without any of this. Reading, re-reading and cross-referencing these heavily redacted documents, piecing together the larger puzzle is not rewarded with progression, achievements or in-game perks. The knowledge, or at least your own very elaborate working theories as to what the heck is going on, are the reward. I strongly believe at least 20% of this game is in these collectables. Late in the game, a few of these documents pertain to the events of an earlier Remedy Entertainment game, the much-lauded Alan Wake. The fate of the eponymous Mr Wake has been left largely unexplained for many years, and while it would have been very cool just to see it referenced in Control, Remedy are going one step further and setting up the release of their upcoming DLC. We may soon be delving further into the Alan Wake mystery, merging the two games further, and finally providing answers to one of modern gaming’s most enduring mysteries.
When last we saw our favourite purveyor of weak metaphors (in 2012’s Alan Wake’s American Nightmare) he was desperately trying to write his way out of The Dark Place, facing off against his evil doppelganger, Mr Scratch. As with everything ‘Wake’, the ending was not clear cut, and despite appearances it was heavily implied by the Serling-esque narrator that the fairy-tale ending Wake wrote for himself was just that, and he is still confined to his para-natural prison. According to the heavily redacted documents found in Control by protagonist Jesse Faden throughout the Federal Bureau of Control, Wake fell victim to one of the very ‘Altered World Events’ the Bureau investigates. The author was even being monitored by the Bureau, who thought him a potential candidate for their Directorship. Control, and its central concepts such as these A.W.E’s, Objects and Places of Power, Jungian archetypes and the collective unconscious are the key to working out the truth of what happened in Bright Falls WA all those years ago.
Following the end of Control’s campaign, Jesse is now the director of the FBC. Having spent the last few months grinding at that free Expedition update in the hopes of bagging herself that unlockable outfit. What else is she supposed to do with her downtime? Talk at her creepy, comatose brother? Hard pass. Plus, the lapels on that exclusive outfit look soft. Being director has to have some benefits, right?
But, as of today, Director Faden will have her hands full once again as the first expansion, Foundation, is released for season pass buyers. The ever mysterious, ever unknowable Board have new instructions, and she’ll be venturing back down (Do directions still apply in the Oldest House?) to the foundations of the Bureau – the point from which the rest of the building supposedly ‘grew’. It’s hard to know what’s in store, but I’d wager we’ll see our favourite janitor Ahti again (he does seem to have a strange affinity for that place, doesn’t he?), and perhaps find a few more hints as to the ultimate fate of Alan Wake to set up the second expansion. Coming some time mid-2020, little is known about the ‘A.W.E’ DLC, other than its promotional materials featuring imagery from the Alan Wake box art.
Clearly answers are coming. But are they really? Both Alan Wake and Control play their cards close to their chest, and Sam Lake’s aforementioned influences are notoriously oblique works with little interest in closure or audience satisfaction. It’s highly probable that we’ll be cracking open a fresh tin of interdimensional worms and find ourselves with even more mind-bending questions. Now Remedy have announced their two game deal with publisher Epic Games, including a triple A title Sam Lake claims is the most ambitious the studio has ever made, is a fully fledged Alan Wake 2 on the horizon? Remember, ‘it’s not a lake, its an ocean’. We can always go deeper into those murky, mysterious waters. Either way, I’ll be booking myself in for a nice long stay at the Oceanview Motel & Casino. As long as there are reams of classified documents full of conceptual weirdness, cosmic horror and inter-office memoranda, I’m good.