Creating an internally-consistent world has got to be one of the most difficult aspects of game design. It has all the same problems as a TV show or a movie, but with all kinds of extra scrutiny coming from the players constantly combing it for items, upgrades and even secrets. Just a little of that sort of digging is usually all it takes to expose the world for what it is: a play-space and it only gets worse the more the world tries to emulate reality. This is not the case with “The Oldest House” in Control though. This is a space that is almost entirely believable as a secret government office and it’s due in large part to Remedy making full use of the structure’s lore, putting its function above all else and throwing out at least one staple of environment design.
Initially, the offices of the Federal Bureau of Control are fairly mundane in their appearance. The building’s interior looks like any government structure built in the first half of the 1900s: expressionless and imposing concrete decorated with dark, wooden accents and the usual sights of a government building. The rooms are all what one would expect to see: security stations, personal offices, meeting rooms, etc. Things don’t stay that way as players venture deeper into the Oldest House, but its function as headquarters for the Bureau remains dominant. Normal cafeterias, bathrooms and work spaces exist right alongside the labs and uncannily large areas like the Maintenance sector. It all works toward keeping the world of Control grounded and believable once the more otherworldly areas get introduced.
The Oldest House is a place pervaded by a sense of mystery. Even at its most mundane, there’s still the sense that there’s more going on behind the scenes. This feeling is consistently rewarded and deepened as the game progresses and questions are answered. The first odd things likely to catch a player’s eye are the hardened shelters seen throughout the building, even in the “normal” office sector. Their existence immediately begs the question of “why,” and Control quickly answers that question. In fact, just about everything the player observes in the Oldest House has a reasonable explanation.
It’s explained that the shelters are there to protect agents against the building’s shift and possible intrusions from elsewhere. Players get to see what they protect against and even get to see them serve their function; the same holds true for other features like the furnace and utility rooms. Really, everything in the Oldest House has a tangible reason for being there, so the illusion is almost never broken. Even the overt needs of gameplay are accounted for here: both in terms of actual design and justification through the lore. One can’t have rooms spontaneously restore themselves for no reason, right?
In at least two major ways, the Oldest House is perfectly suited to host a destructive action/adventure game. Its nature as a constantly changing place of power, combined with the Bureau’s techniques for keeping it somewhat stable, makes for the an air-tight justification for completely destroyed rooms to appear completely unscathed not even five minutes later. Its larger than life scale means fights can break out anywhere and the usual “big room = combat” trope of game design can be completely disregarded. The other usual tells like ample cover don’t apply either, because most rooms already have plenty of objects to hide behind and even then the Hiss don’t always show up. Aside from spots they’ve been “pushed out of,” the Hiss can show up anywhere at any time, meaning players must always be ready for a fight. That tension never quite goes away completely as a result and it has the bonus effect of making the Oldest House feel that much more imposing.
Creating a world that stays completely consistent in the face of gameplay is not an easy thing to do. More often than not, either the plot or the gameplay will demand concessions from environment design, leading players to see it as a play-space first and foremost. It’s clear that Remedy did not want this to happen in Control, so they used everything at their disposal to make the Oldest House capable of handling it. The lore allows it to be impossibly big, ever-changing and self-healing, while its actual designs places function over form in such a way that there are no obvious battlefields to break the illusion. Despite its inherent craziness, the Oldest House is completely believable and that really is no small feat.