In Remedy Entertainment’s sci-fi video game Control, buildings are not human. They are, to all appearances, forged by human hands. Dull, featureless cement walls stretch above desks and cubicles; the white sunlight filters through the blinds and stirs the dusty air; pretentious sculptures litter the long silent halls. Everything about the world of Control screams overbearing brutalism and boring bureaucracy, except maybe the way the main building acts. She is unsure of herself, unable to constantly maintain the appearance of a structure built solely for bureaucracy. There is a closed wing because interdimensional beings filled the rooms up to the ceilings with ancient clocks. There are posters everywhere telling workers that delays caused by physically moving home do not count as overtime. There are body –floating organizations — in the research department. There’s a mold monster in the pipes.
In Control, no human is in control, yet every little detail of the architecture and the environment tries to say otherwise.
In recent years, there have been trends in science fiction that frame the chaotic nature of the supernatural through a rigid, authoritarian, and distinctly Human perspective. Characters and organizations subject the unknown to standardized regulation, a somewhat adorable attempt to turn nonsense into something meaningful. Marvel’s “Loki”,” “FX Legion,” “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer and, of course, Remedy’s Control, are just a few examples of this stylistic interpretation that I have come across. The best way to describe this genre is part of the “New Weird” movement.
New Weird is alienating. It forces audiences to encounter the surreal and the bizarre, shattering literary tropes and drifting into a subsection of science fiction that defies definition. Controls game director Mikael Kasurinen explained how New Weird highlights the moment when “The human mind comes into contact with something that is beyond comprehension, witnessing things of which it does not understand what they are. …When you watch New Weird, you encounter a lot of those kinds of elements and there’s a sense of realism and a disturbing aspect to it as well.
When the public enters a world as multilayered as Control, it’s overwhelming. But staring at rows of filing cabinets under sterile yellow lighting feels familiar, and it makes the uncertainty of having to, say, fight a version of yourself from the mirror dimension between those rows of filing cabinets a little more digestible. The harsh juxtaposition is meant to impose “a certain believability…as a backdrop for all the supernatural weirdness that was going on, because it doesn’t really work any other way,” says Control art director Janne Pulkkinen.
One of New Weird’s most recognizable authors is VanderMeer, known for titles such as “Borne” and “Dead Astronauts”, as well as the recently adapted film “Annihilation,” the first volume of the “Southern Reach” trilogy. The film adaptation and the first book in the series are set in a part of land completely alien and beyond human comprehension, beautiful and terrifying at the same time. It drives all the characters crazy, swallowing them up in complete mystery of words written in mushrooms and dolphins with human eyes and a building that breathes. “This is how the madness of the world tries to colonize you,” says the main character, “from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”
The public and the characters drown in the unknown. The only thing that anchors them in familiarity is the forest environment, which is filled with mutated monsters and wary humans. Everyone wants answers. No one is given to them. And as you read, you get tired; and while you read, you desire; and while you read you just want a breath of fresh air and a semblance of what is known, but you are bound to encounter this inhuman weirdness again and again until you lose all hope. And then the book ends – with no answers. And then the second book starts in an office building. The banal tone, the sterile environment, the public is drowning in an all too familiar setting, yet the questions persist. Despite any recourse to bureaucratic organization, the subjugation of the human order no longer has any sense of what is characteristic do not Human.
Marvel’s “Loki” takes place in a timeless bureaucracy, where not taking a ticket and waiting in line will make you disappear from existence.
FX’s “Legion” takes place in a bureaucracy trying to make sense of human mutations, where victims in a comatose state are pushed into a dark room to constantly sit and chatter their teeth for no known reason, creating a horrifying cacophony that cannot be described that like weird.
Despite any recourse to bureaucratic organization, the subjugation of the human order no longer has any sense of what is characteristic do not Human.
All of these media have something in common: the parameters and structure of the environment declare understanding. They declare control through paperwork, cubicles, and strict hierarchies, but in every corner and every shadow there is the underlying human fear of being completely and utterly lost.
By constantly surrounding the audience and the characters with a dominating architecture, they are forced to see in each wall the imposition of human doctrines and orders. It is all the redirection of what is less known. Especially in control and “Loki,” the architectural style of brutalism is a gross misdirection compared to the more chaotic features of the building. Brutalism has been defined as “a style of architecture used mostly in the 1950s and 1960s that uses large blocks of concrete, steel, etc., and is sometimes considered ugly and unpleasant.” UC Berkeley’s Evans Hall is a great example of brutalism, and yes – it’s ugly and it’s entertaining.
Brutalism originally emerged in the 1950s during the modernist movement when concrete was seen as a “humble medium of the people…as opposed to something ornate and rococo and very elaborately made”, explains Avery Trufelman in The Control and Significance of Brutalism. And yet, Control’s artistic director, Janne Pulkkinen, acknowledged the current connotation of brutalism, in that “what started out as very utopian idealistic architecture has come to represent oppression and bureaucracy”. Likewise, “Loki” director Kate Herron describes the bureaucracy at the center of the series, the TVA, as having similar “heroic” overtones, exemplified by grand and proud brutalist designs. “They work for the Keepers of Time who are these divine overseers of the timeline,” Herron said.
These strange new fictions are steeped in constant indications of oppression and attempts to attain divine status over the unknown. Architecture has this capacity – this declarative and revealing subjugation of human values. Michel Foucault, a philosopher infamous for his preoccupation with architectural design and his disciplinary indoctrinations, explores the function of prisons, like the panopticon, as an “architectural apparatus (which) should be a machine for creating and maintaining an independent power relationship of the person exercising it.
Seen as an architectural device for the dogmas of the creators, the bureaucracies seen in these media act independently of those who built them, but they fulfill the desires of the creators every moment the subject perceives their surroundings. Bureaucracies, especially those marked by the apparent totalitarianism of brutalism, stare down their subjects and implant in their minds a reminder of their gentle role in the larger human order.
When playing Control, the player fights interdimensional foes, but in every background they see an attempt to subjugate the supernatural to distinctly human authority. Watching “Loki,” the viewer is baffled by the mysteries of time travel and elusive authorities, but in every background he sees an attempt to condense these mysteries into something understood. When watching “Legion,” the viewer is captivated by sights such as an upside-down interview room suspended above an entire city; but in every setting, they see the need for such an interview room – characters lost and searching for ways to understand the phenomena that make every cell in their body scream in discomfort. In all of these media, humans attempt to colonize the unknown before it colonizes them.
The bureaucratic settlement in New Weird is typically self-indulgent. In the face of strangeness and a sense of estrangement, humans build walls to reflect some idea of our power and abilities directly back to ourselves, the Creators. We seek to contain — the inexplicable, our confusion, our pride. We seek to root ourselves. We seek to construct a reality that is familiar to us. It’s easy to sit on a couch and laugh at someone getting hit for not standing in line or twiddling our thumbs with a controller while we film a mold meltdown, or flicking the pages of a book about a completely alien world, because we’re engaging with that world through some device of our creation. It’s when we’re given no sight of our abilities to create worlds – no reminder of our own pride – that we start to go insane.
“We all live in a sort of continuous dream,” I told him. “When we wake up, it’s because something, an event, even a sting, disturbs the edges of what we took for reality.”
― Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation”
Contact Logan Roscoe at [email protected].