I’ve been sick most of this week, and thanks to my girlfriend’s recommendation (and care!), we binged Severance in about three days. If you haven’t had the chance, I can’t recommend it enough. The show is a trippy, gorgeous, unsettling meditation on identity, trauma, and work/life balance. Adam Scott stars in the lead role as Mark, a “severed” worker at the positively batshit Lumon corporation who lives two entirely separate lives: one at work, and one outside. His and his coworkers’ memories are kept entirely separated from their outside lives by a wild piece of technology implanted in their brains.
I’ll steer clear of major spoilers, but the series sure goes places — ones that are by turns dark, profound, and profoundly goofy, while never missing an opportunity to criticize shitty pop psychology and cringey American office culture. I’m hurting for that second season almost as badly as the person in this tweet. In order to ease some of that pain, I’ve prepared a list of games that speak directly to Severance and its themes. I couldn’t stop thinking about them as I watched the show, and I’m looking forward to revisiting some of them in the long haul until season two graces us.
There are some very mild spoilers for Severance, Control, Yuppie Psycho, The Stanley Parable, and Beholder 2 ahead.
Maybe it’s obvious, but watching Severance had me craving a dip back into Control’s bizarre world. Set in a wild, supernatural (super-powered? Super freaky?) office building taken over by a paranormal force, it has so many of Severence’s bananapants office trappings, albeit with a slightly altered color scheme. We have interesting, troubled, multi-faceted coworkers who all cope in their own ways. We even have anachronistic technology straight out of the what-time-is-it and where-am-I dimension.
Another factor that tracks is the use of liminal spaces. The elevators and hallways of Severance evoke the mundane office spaces, too-boring-to-be-real halls, and dusty motel rooms of Control. Both works use liminal spaces and pedestrian artwork (like anything out of Burt’s spooky Optics and Design department) to great effect, establishing a world that is utterly ordinary, yet simultaneously anything but — and, crucially, always a split second from becoming fully sinister.
Finally, we have harmony (Harmony Cobel?) with the spooky, ethereal board calls. Oftentimes in Control, player character Jesse gets new information — and often, new powers — from the mysterious board. But who, or what, constitutes the board in Severance may actually be weirder — and almost certainly more terrifying.
As a place to work, The Oldest House certainly seems a bit more functional, if only because the awful things that happen there are less a direct result of the staff itself (or rather, management doing evil upon workers). In Control, the folks that work here seem to be on the same page (and fan-favorite Dr. Darling actively cares about helping and protecting his teammates); the danger is coming from outside. In comparison, Severence’s management staff has a penchant for unusual torture schemes.
Yuppie Psycho is a fantastic 2D Zelda-like set in an absolutely haunted office full of insanity. It plays on a lot of 80s and 90s office pop culture (team-building exercises, annoying coworkers, water coolers, and chunky computers). It adds giant printer monsters, a VHS club that’s on to the witch haunting the company, and floors full of zombies.
There are dozens of wild scenarios that you face as a young office worker on his first day, but all of them speak directly to the tone of Severance, as well as the core idea that, yeah, work — as envisioned in the American office — is basically hell. The office culture in Yuppie Psycho is about on par with Lumon in Severance in that they are both profoundly terrible places to work.
The Stanley Parable
Yes, okay, I know this is maybe an obvious and corny choice, but it still belongs on a list of games that are contending with the essential goofiness of office culture, the existential terror of identity, and the falsehood of choice and freedom. The Stanley Parable is a classic work — it’s like a great short story that holds up well, allowing you to enjoy it every few years.
As for how the company in the game compares with Lumon, it’s difficult to say. No one really has any choice in the matter, do they?
This dark satire of office culture and totalitarian control feels very much in conversation with Severance and its overall vibe. Yes, it’s more Soviet-style than Severance’s western capitalism and heavily Christian-inspired influence. But the core progression structure of being an intern at a horrible company, potentially causing harm to others through sterile, Reagan-era computer equipment, and working in a toxic environment all ring true.
Once again, Lumon stacks up pretty close to the shadowy corporation in this game. The fact that we might not know the true nature of Mark and his colleagues’ work makes it all the harder to judge.