This is the fourth in a series of five musings on Control. Previously: Behind the Poster, Use of Weapons and Reverse Shock.

There will be spoilers.


Let’s say Control isn’t working for you. It’s fine, it’s keeping you entertained but it doesn’t give you that rush. But inside this puzzle box of hype is another one.

They say: this is the actual good stuff.

They say: this is the real deal.

This is the real get hype.

And now you are here. You don your spacesuit ready for your first step on the surface of Planet Disappointment, because that’s where a free ride through hypespace usually ends up.

You enter the Ashtray Maze – and wait for the other shoe to fall.

Okay, that wasn’t a hypothetical, you got me.

None of the Bureau’s staff had asked me to brave the Ashtray Maze but, having discovered it, I saw no need to perform some Plot-Relevant Shit for another three hours to earn my visit. I’m a tourist and I paid the goddamn fee to go where the fuck I like.

I walk down a corridor and enter a room. Walls shudder and split apart in front of me, walls shudder and seal behind me. I’m thinking this is interesting but I’m not seeing anything hypeable. It’s amazing, they said, it’s amazing. I keep following through each new opening and soon realise I am going around in a loop.

I also notice there’s one particular opening that always seals when I get too close. It’s obvious that this is some sort of puzzle. That’s the path I need to take, but there’s a code to break. If I step in a certain way, can I keep this portal open? If I retrace my footsteps, do I surprise the walls and obtain access? Can I jam the walls with telekinetically hurled sofas? (Spoiler: No.)

This goes on for a while. I feel stupider by the minute. This is the most brilliant chapter of Control so I must be missing something rather obvious. I’m not even sure I trust my dissatisfaction. I mud-wrestled Stephen’s Sausage Roll and won, yet I can’t beat some little maze in a big budget third-person shooter? What is going on? Something downright paranatural.

Later I turned to a walkthrough and – oh my fanny. I’m not supposed to come here yet. That’s it. That’s the fucking puzzle. The Ashtray Maze is deliberately broken at this point. Deliberately. Broken. It doesn’t tell you it’s broken unless you’re sent here by a mission. Then it’s got signs telling you to keep out, Ahti doing a voiceover and a new mission to go seek What The Fuck Opens The Ashtray Maze.

Okay. Deep breath. Let’s just forget this episode ever happened until I write it up for Electron Dance.

After a real long-winded exploration to find Ahti in an underground canyon in the Black Rock Quarry, he hands you a walkman which will help you “navigate” the Ashtray Maze. Even better, the walkman seems to have the astonishing power of being invisible when Jesse puts it on.

Oh, holy fuck, this is totally different and is, wouldn’t you know it, actually pretty cool. Forget about a wall opening here and a wall closing there – the whole maze is a living thing, restructuring around me as I traverse its corridors and doorways. Rooms appear in glimpses before being snatched from view as the walls shift and gravity tilts. A noisy rock track floods my ears and I don’t need no stinking VR because I’m the star of a music video experience and yes I’m gunning down whole platoons of Hiss soldiers and it feels wonderful, I’m floating about like Bruce Lee if he had the power of levitation conferred by a haunted floppy disk, I’m slamming the bad guys into pulp, I can hurl big-ass rocks and –

And I’m dead. That’s okay. These things happen.

But it happens again a little too easily. I build that musical momentum, melt into the moment, let the bullets bop with the beat – but there’s no climax. I just die because I’m showboating in gun ballet rather than actually shooting infinite bad guys dead.

To survive the Ashtray Maze, I had to withdraw from the music and step through carefully like it’s some booby-trapped tomb from Indiana Jones. Control, you see, has never been very forgiving of mistakes and one too many will leave your vision glowing red. One more will leave you going dead.

I loved the concept but the Ashtray Maze inevitably left me feeling a little empty like Polis did back in Metro: 2033. Meh. Why do I always have to be right about the disappointment?

Next: Before the High Tide

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16 thoughts on “Slave to the Rhythm

  1. Confession: stupid ‘am I supposed to be here yet’ bullshit is why I got exiled from Earth for not liking Metroidvanias. Fortunately here on the moon the Lunarians don’t really like them either, so we’re cool. Although their dislike is more to do with that time Samus Metroidvania came through and blew up a bunch of their walls, ceilings and ancient Precursor Race statues instead of just using the lift like everybody else.

  2. “Slave to the rhythm” a.k.a. “The thrill is gone”.

    It was very enjoyable to read, Joel! It seems another great example of bad gaming design, specially about the flow of the experience.

  3. Aw, shucks. I think this was my favorite part of Control, maybe the onslaught right before Ahti and getting the walkman was better. I don’t think it was exceptionally amazing, but it was the highlight of the game for me.

    Which also is the biggest issue I have with the game, because all the trailers made me think the whole game is going to be a bizarro madness like Ashtray Maze Proper™ but it’s really just one time in the whole game. Meh, screw you marketing, I no longer trust trailers unless it’s Kojima in which case I can’t trust anything because I don’t understand anything but I trust Kojima. Oh and I guess Swery65.

  4. CA
    Ooh, that sounds like an comment derailer right there, bringing up the Metroidvanias. But I’m not sure you’re going to be able to read this comment from your offplanet abode. But, yeah, I think it should have been just a teensy-weensy more obvious here that I didn’t possess The Key to unlock the Ashtray Maze. I’m not the only person to waltz into this shit.

    Basically, Control echoes Dark Souls in that it wants you to be able to get through a string of encounters and only at the end of them will you be able to save your progress. So it makes you powerful yet also fragile. I rarely found, in the face of increased numbers, that I could just soak up bullets and play superhero. If I’d been a little bit more invicible, even if the developers cheated and made me much stronger for the Ashtray Maze, I think I would’ve been on here with “God that felt brilliant.”

    I don’t know if I have an equivalent “favourite” part. Probably Black Rock Quarry was my personal high point, the mixture of beautiful graphics and indestuctable enemies. By the time I got to the Ashtray Maze, the combat was starting to feel a bit staid.

    But, yeah, the only time we got to see the game do that sort of non-Euclidean space thing was right at the start when you do that loop around the offices. I was expecting a lot more of that too. What a shame!

  5. I was going to mention this anyway, but since CA brought up Metroidvanias thus making it totally on topic: I noticed you tweeting through your dissatisfaction with GRIS. Well if you want a 2D performer that:
    –is about grief, among many other things
    –but doesn’t smack you in the face with it
    –well, there’s this one theme that it somewhat smacks you in the face with, but then again judging by a lot of comments on the ending many people didn’t get it
    –is certifiably visually gorgeous
    –is by a designer who is known for the game feel of his platformers, at least I think he is
    –great soundtrack too
    –is extremely nonlinear once you get to the third level
    –not really a Metroidvania, though, in that you don’t gain new powers
    –if you wander off from a challenge you can’t do, there will always be things to do elsewhere
    –lots of backtracking though
    –you absolutely do not have to do everything in order to finish the game
    –I have totally given up on making these points have parallel structure

    perhaps you might be interested in Knytt Underground?

    I mean, I don’t know, I have to confess that I uninstalled The Witness (short on disk space) so there’s no particular reason you should like my favorite game. For a data point, I don’t like Uurnog nearly as well. Knytt Underground is much kinder about telling you its basic mechanisms (do know that you can press A to turn off a power before its natural end though).

  6. @Joel

    Interesting. I can’t give any good opinion about this game, since I complete ignore it. In terms of difficult, ongoing action, bullets, atmosphere and rhythm I can’t help to remember Hotline Miami, but probably doesn’t have anything to do with Control.

    To give my totally on topic recommendation, Hades from Supergiant Games is surprising me in very good ways, I think it’s worth to take a look.

  7. This is a good piece, so I don’t have much to add beyond a specific personal whinge about this section. Let me tell you a story.

    There is a point in the maze sequence where you climb up onto a pedestal below a matching hole in the ceiling. There are no enemies here. The hole in the ceiling cannot be reached by jumping. Not even using your new levitation power. The rock soundtrack impatiently repeats.

    You climb back down. Walk a lap around the room. There’s no way out of here.

    You climb back up. There’s nowhere to go. Maybe you missed an enemy stuck in a corner that you need to kill to progress?

    You climb back down. Another lap, nothing. The music keeps looping. Perhaps it’s a bug?

    Alt-tab. Ten minutes trying to adequately describe how and where you are stuck, in the right terms to match some unknown frustrated stranger. Hoping to find a sign that you aren’t alone.

    WHAT? You can HOLD the levitate button to ascend? Why didn’t you just SAY SO?

  8. @haddond & @Joel

    Interestingly I didn’t get stuck on the levitation nor had any problems with the enemies – I felt that section was fairly easy and relaxing, and I don’t think I was good with combat. Maybe a different build or I just got lucky?

    Nevertheless I am glad I could enjoy that sequence!

  9. Matt I do want to play Knytt Underground! I have a copy after all. I loved the in-progress build I played on Nifflas’ laptop back in 2011. I think I even did try playing it a little? That sounds familiar.

    Pedro That’s actually a good call with Hotline Miami. Hotline Miami shows the opposite end of the wedge; what happens when you make a game that lives on its soundtrack really brutal. I played HM but I felt like it burned my hands. I never got past the police shootout and there the game was quietly graveyarded.

    haddoncd Ha ha, oh no. I don’t think I fell into that trap as I had been using levitation to excess to find a number of little secret nooks and secret crannies. Control did offer explorers a little extra on the side. Not too much, but enough.

    Maurycy I think the first time I took on the Ashtray Maze I almost made it all the way through but I abandoned it because I wanted to show it off to my children. It was then the problems started, so I tend to look upon my first playthrough as the one that was a fluke.

  10. @Joel
    Great! I loved to play Hotline Miami, it was a very hypnotic experience, it’s hard if you think too much while playing, you have to think fast and play by instinct, but there is some careful planing too, you analyze and act step by step, stopping, waiting and moving in a perfect timing. While the process of these acts are the skill set you learned by yourself, that’s the big difference, doesn’t matter what weapon and what mask, the only thing that matters is the way you care on your “mission”, like an action movie of Rambo, once you realize that, the game turns out to be a bloody playground. It’s like the brain washing of Clockwork Orange, but in reverse, instead making violence something repulsive, makes violence enjoyable, which I think it’s what the whole plot is about. The only part that really annoyed me was the final boss, a real pain in the ass.

  11. Pedro – I have great respect for Hotline Miami, it’s just not made for my weak, mortal hands. I probably would have been better at it about ten years earlier, but I’m never going to be sharp at these games that need rapid, accurate manuevers on a gamepad! But I managed to survive enough of it.

  12. I also made my way to the Ashtray Maze early – how could I not, with those tantalising hints and that weird space on the map – and looped around it a few times before figuring I was not supposed to be there yet. There’s just enough variation in its patterns that it initially seems like you must be able to get somewhere, but after trying everything I could think of I figured what was up.

    Like Maurycy, when it came to the main event I got through smoothly, and found it a memorable experience with just enough friction to make me feel like I wasn’t coasting. Joel, it’s a shame that you had to step back from that 3 minutes and 30 seconds of ‘flow’! Did your audience at least enjoy the sequence?

    The levitation frustration is also not something I ran into, but I can sympathise with it. I’ve run into problems with other games where I’ve been oblivious to one minor game mechanic until the point it was necessary to proceed. My memory may be faulty but in Control I recall using the ability to gain greater height to explore levels for secrets and items. I assume the game taught me this at some point. But it’s a tricky design challenge, ensuring that players have learned the lessons you want to impart. I guess it’s a case for conditional tutorials: resurface a tutorial at a relevant point if a player hasn’t utilised an important mechanic.

  13. Shaun – everyone enjoyed watching The Ashtray Maze. They thought it was pretty cool. The reason I jacked out is that I wasn’t sure if Control would let me experience it the same way a second time. In fact I haven’t been back to check whether it would or not.

    I can’t remember the mechanic was SPACE-to-float-higher but I wonder if some of Control’s in-game tutorializing was a bit too blink-and-you-miss-it. Nice suggestion for conditional tutorials. I imagine that would make development and QA even more convoluted, of course…

  14. @Joel

    I see, so you actually played on gamepad, that’s why your mortal hands was burning! I don’t think I’m capable either, in fact probably HM was planned having mouse and keyboard in mind.

  15. but only a three-button mouse razz frazz bazz

    Seriously, I effectively have a two-button external mouse now, and I still don’t think I could play Hotline Miami because there’s a function that requires center-clicking and there didn’t seem to be any way to remap it. This isn’t a big regret for me, though, as it was mostly something I was trying out because I got it in a bundle and everyone was talking about it, but it didn’t seem super like my thing. I got four and a half games I liked out of the bundle so I have no regrets.

  16. @Matt

    Okay, I admit it, I’m the Super-Gamer and used my nerd superpowers given by the social distancing gods.

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