Metaphors of Control

Last week I finally got around to playing and finishing Remedy’s 2019 third person action-shooter game Control. It’s a wild and weird one that I liked a lot. The game tells an odd story about Jesse Faden, a young woman searching for answers about the disappearance of her brother Dylan. Her searches result in her stumbling upon the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) and their headquarters at a place called The Oldest House. Jesse quickly finds herself as the new FBC Director and the Oldest House comes under attack by the mysterious Hiss. To find her brother and overcome the Hiss is the central plot development in the game, but the thematic development is coming into the role of the Director and finding out one really likes being in a place where the various possible realities and objects of power are kept and managed.

Control’s had a lot of various critical dissections that are worth reading. Video game scholar Noah Caldwell-Gervais goes over the various artistic and dreamlike/nightmarish experiences the game gives the player, Wil Wheaton discussed how the mechanics and challenge of the game reinforce a potential female perspective, The Face broke down how its artistic in-game posters reinforce the bureaucracy, comedy, and world-building going on in the game, The Vice discussed the symbolism of “The Board” on our world today, and Escapist magazine had an interview with its narrative designer that illuminated more about how this world and story were sculpted over time. But none of these discussions reflected the perspective I took from the game. See, Control is game of very vague explanations. It’s a game where names and locations are very “on the nose”, direct and broad to serve easy translation for metaphorical discussion. Because of that, I found Control to be one of the more recent standout examples of a video game going “meta” about video games. It wasn’t the first, it won’t be the last, but it stood out like a sore thumb to me for the first time since Bioshock 1 and Spec Ops: The Line (oh and Pathologic 2 of course, please @ me). And I think that’s worth looking at.

Names and Symbols

So Control isn’t necessarily a game that’s woefully spoiled on a player, at least in my opinion. The conclusions the game goes to are pretty predictable for a “coming into a role” story, the things that feel spoiled in Control once you’ve played the game are moreso the experiences and surprises that await you. Similar to The Outer Wilds, having the ability to frame the universe you are inhabiting in Control is what eventually shifts your experience for the game, not to mention the visual feast this game pushes in your direction. The brutalist-inspired architecture mixed with the hodgepodge of unreal visual moments leads to a steady stream of discovery and flights of fancy. Control wonderfully toes the line between dream and nightmare and as Noah so perfectly sums it all up: In a nightmare you’re falling, in a dream you are flying. I bring all of this up to say that I can’t quite spoil the very strong two handfuls of experiences you’ll have in this game as you broach other realities and objects of power that tap into moments unheard of, but I am going to be talking general plot spoilers and looking at the various inner workings of some of its sequences/cinematics. If you’d rather just go play it, do it. But before we even begin this discussion, I have to identify the various icons, names, or symbols in this game so we can talk metaphorical about those scenes and sequences. So here we go:

Jesse Faden — The player character, the avatar, a woman who grew up in the town of Ordinary before an Altered World Event took place that resulted in the Federal Bureau of Control showed up and stole your brother Dylan. Jesse has been on the run since for many years and at the start of the game stumbles upon…

The Oldest House — The Oldest House is a physical location on Earth (in New York City) existing as the place where the other dimensions and realities chose to reveal themselves in privacy by hiding in plain sight. The Oldest House is a massive building of seeming concrete and imposing towering might that stretches to the sky and never really has an end to it. Inside, the Oldest House is a shifting impossible space that exists to house many Objects of Power, often created around or involving Altered World Events. Many years ago the greater powers that be that have no real name decided to allow humanity to interact with them and and thus permitted humans within the walls of the Oldest House, to experience the Objects of Power, and to study the various dangers and magical items that are housed here. Why? We do not know. But because of this, our government saw fit to maintain the secrecy of the Oldest House and manage it by giving a special dedicated form of organization to maintaining and exploring the Oldest House. That group became known as The Federal Bureau of Control (FBC).

The Board — The board is the mostly disembodied voice and representation of the great powers that be that truly control our reality, unlike the FBC. We are not certain of the Board’s true intentions with humanity. We do not know if the Board is any one person or allegiance. All we know is that the Board seems to tolerate the existence of and interaction with humanity that is permitted through the Oldest House. Because organizational power tends to be the norm in our world, the Board was called “the Board”, and they decided to appear to humanity in the makeshift Oldest House as a black inverted concrete pyramid. They speak through muffled mumbles and dual phrasing to illustrate their points. The inverted pyramid likely stands in as how the Board chooses to take their numerous perspectives and bring it down towards one individual, which they utilize to their benefits and to manage the decisions and actions taken place in the Oldest House. This is done through the role of The Director.

The Director — For as long as the Oldest House has stood, our FBC has always had a Director. The Director is chosen by the board and accepted. The Director mandates the direction FBC research goes and is supposed to deal with the problems that might arise from time to time in the Oldest House. It is also worth noting that the Director has always been a white middle-aged man, representing the American governmental political landscape. That is until Jesse becomes the Director. Directors also have access to objects of power, they have the blessing of the Board to bind objects of power to themselves to unlock imaginative potential for unique abilities.

Polaris — Polaris is the unique one and worth discussing last in this list because it’s such an evasive one. When Jesse and her brother Dylan came across an object of power man years back, that object of power was a slide projector that opened doors to many realities through its photos. One of those doors revealed Polaris, a presence that remained in Jesse long after the Altered World Event that took place at her home town. Polaris, named after the guiding Northern star, is a presence that speaks to Jesse from time to time and guides her on her path. Jesse doesn’t always agree or get along with Polaris and at time loses track of Polaris. Polaris itself is represented to the player as a shifting, spinning spiral that radiates inwards/outwards with numerous reflective plates to appear like some sort of metallic, glassy shell spiral. And even though Polaris’s deepest secrets are only known by the end of the game, Polaris is important right from the beginning.

Most other characters, symbols, or items to discuss in the game probably won’t be of focus by me.

Let’s talk scenes that illustrate some metaphors.

The Cell — The Frame — The Player — The World Beyond

The very intro of the game is heavy with so much of what this game is going to be about, despite the fact that players may not catch onto it right away. Below is the intro of the game for us.

Let’s get the first sentence out of the way: “This is gonna be weirder than usual” feels like directly addressing an audience that has played other video games. For people who play one big AAA game a year and then duck out, this would be weirder. But even fans of Remedy games might find Control to be weirder than usual as well. Previous titles like Alan Wake and Max Payne seem so defined by its characters, Control is defined by its landscape (though Jesse Faden stands out fantastically). The lines following that though are a sort of dialogue between Polaris & Jesse. The first lines in the game are this sort of in media res relationship note from one to the other, saying that Jesse shows up when Polaris pulls her to places, but Jesse sometimes doesn’t involve Polaris (shuts them out) out of Jesse’s feeling that searching for answers has been long and difficult and has always led to nothing. This establishes character states, but it’s not quite yet revealing to us what either character stands for on a metaphorical level.

Then Jesse talks about the room.

It’s like, we live in a room, and there’s a poster on the wall. We stare at it and think that’s the whole world, the room and the poster. The picture’s something nice, a landscape, a famous person. Like in that movie, what is called, the prison movie? The room’s a cell. And the picture, it’s different for each of us. It can be beautiful or terrible, but we’re all transfixed. But it’s all a lie. Something to distract us from the truth. They’re lying to us. We’re lying to ourselves. The room’s not the world, the world is much bigger and much stranger. There’s a hole hidden behind that poster that leads to the real world. We all feel safe in that room. But sometimes, sometimes something crawls out from behind the poster. And the ones that see it happen, freak out, and try to forget what they saw. I’m here. Why did you bring me here? … The cell and the poster. I was eleven years old the first time I saw behind the poster. They told me I imagined it. I’ve been trying to pull it down ever since. Will you help?

Que opening credits. There’s a few different directions you can take just this one paragraph of dialogue. Since the FBC is a shadowy entity dealing with things that are to remain hidden to the world, you can really push this up the conspiracy theory realm: People are “sheeple” who need to be woken up to the TRUTH instead of the LIES they’re being fed. And, while some degree of that is probably true in our day and age, we can take a step back and consider the room and the picture being the concept of people buying into lies that prevent self growth. You can call this “choosing the bubble” even after it’s already been popped for someone. In both cases, buying into some reality that we like to look at, even if an unpleasant one, can be us choosing to ignore the world beyond that frame of reality, maybe because we don’t like the monsters out in that reality or because we prefer the safety of that frame of mind. The room we inhabit by continuing to prefer the picture over the world through the hole behind the picture is therefore a cell, a form of self-imprisonment to avoid looking at what is behind the picture or trying to comprehend it. There is some importance to being aware of the monster beyond the frame, but Control doesn’t really waste time (except for one cool sequence) convincing you to ignore the world beyond the poster. It’s worth noting that our view of that world is also narrow, stuck to just being a hole, we can’t leave the cell, it’s a cell, a prison. But refusing the reality that fixates others is a start at escape (which is why Jesse likens it to Shawshank Redemption, the view out of the cell is the view to escaping your current reality into another).

Some might see this perspective as a cautionary tale since there are monsters out there, others might see this as a conversation about comprehending societal issues. The hole is small, your ability to escape the cell of your world out to another is limited, and by getting a view of that world through just a singular hole would rob you a full grasp of that world. Or maybe it’s just about physical capabilities: You cannot leave your home, the world is out there and you want to see it, but it’s scary (maybe because there’s a global pandemic going around) and you prefer the picture for now.

The thing that remains true is that Jesse Faden wants to tear the picture down. She wants the world beyond.

And I think all this vagueness works well if we’re talking about video games too. Consider the opening dialogue a conversation between player and avatar. Jesse, the player character, is sorry she’s not always responsive to Polaris, the Player. She’s been searching for answers for a long time but still hasn’t found them, but we call her up by pressing “New Game” so she answers the call. Then Jesse/the avatar narrates (really to no one, but sort of to Polaris/The Player) that we (Jesse & Polaris / the avatar and the player) live in a room and there’s a poster on the wall (the screen). Whether the image on that screen be horrifying (a horror game/movie/real life problems our world faces) or peaceful (a peaceful game/movie/pleasantries in social media), it’s one we buy into. And it’s not real. It’s a lie. “They’re lying to us.” The real dizzying moment in bringing video games into the conversation is when we ask ourselves if the picture and it being a means of keeping us in a cell is definitely video games, or if somehow the outside world beyond the cell is video games. The reason this dizzying reality is possible is due to the interactive and immersive nature of video games, as well as the fantastical idea of other realities and monsters. VR makes this conversation even more dizzying in a way that deserves its own article. Video games feel like the default stand-in for the frame here, and yet we’re playing a video game discussing these very things about false realities and a bigger world beyond that frame. This is as puzzling as the monster that reveals itself from behind the frame, changing the view of the world beyond the hole. Does this make video games and real life one and the same or instead a visual and interactive delivery mechanism through which we can try to comprehend something that is real? Control isn’t interested in answering those questions though, it’s just interested in suggesting those possibilities and making you stay up at night asking yourself, “What if? Which is which here?”

The Board & The Chair

As mentioned, the Board is a particular point of love by critical thinkers due to its fantastic stand-in for the “other” as well as the default mode of how power is granted in this universe and in this location. Through the Board, the “Service Weapon” is allowed to be given to the Director, this is how they are chosen as well. If you are a person unable to wield the Service Weapon, you won’t live the attempt to try in the first place. The Board use this as their means of thinning the heard of who is and isn’t worthy to be the Director in addition to whatever fatalistic or magical control methods they might deem. In the sequence where Jesse finds the Service Weapon next to the former Director’s dead body, Jesse picks up the weapon and hears from the Board. It’s in this moment that the Board really reveals to the player what I think they stand for in this game.

The Board specifically states “Only the Director can bind the Service Weapon and Live/Die-” (because living to become the director is just the same as death in a way, right?) “-This is your Ritual/Challenge. You must choose to be the Chosen One.” The game then presents players with a training exercise, which is essentially the Board’s challenge of proving oneself. These training moments happen in the game fairly regularly for a while as you unlock new abilities. They exist to show the Board’s cold and calculated method of “choosing to be the Chosen One” since people would be forced to survive a life and death situation, or die and thus fail to become the Director.

But the real kicker for me came when the Board described the Service Weapon. For the FBC, it’s the “Service Weapon”, but the Board’s dialogue is, “Only the Director can wield the the Gun/Sword/Intentionally left blank.” The Service Weapon takes the form of whatever weapon that individual or species idealizes as a means of attacking or harming another. So of course, for the American human, it takes the form of a vague “gun” that shifts and changes based on the type of projectile it’ll shoot. For me, this moment, in which the Board is used as a force that vaguely gave you your new directive of Director as well as explaining that Jesse was now applying to become the Director by picking up the weapon made me see the Board as a metaphor for the game developer itself. Tutorials are often some pop-up text that explain what’s what or a character that guides you through understanding in-world ideas and how they work, but with the freedom to remain so vague thanks to Control’s utterly broad strokes, the Board gets to represent the developers without breaking much form. The Service Weapon itself could be any weapon in a video game. The point is that the weapon gives the player control over the game’s outcomes and the board is binding that fact to Jesse/The avatar. The Board might be the developers, they might be the stand-in for giant cosmic powers that are toying with you, telling you what to do and how you’ll do it. I mean, why not both?

The Board also aren’t really important in Control’s immediate storytelling, they exist as this focal point of interaction between the wider creepy world that we’re becoming familiar with and explaining that world to Jesse and Polaris (you), which means their brief dialogues explaining what is something you need to do, what this item might be, lines up perfectly with what the development team needs to relay to the player about how to navigate being the Director, about playing Control.

Placement

As Jesse navigates becoming the Director, everything is weird. Everything is outlandish, odd, and confusing, but the player and Jesse take to it much more naturally than any Director before (a telling debate point considering Jesse has an ongoing active relationship with an otherworldly entity through Polaris and/or the fact that she’s the first female Director). In a moment where Jesse and the player wait for an elevator ride to start and finish, Jesse remarks to herself, “Everything here is crazy, weird, but it feels…right. Like how the world should be. I am in an infinite building leading to different dimensions, and I never wanna leave. Even with all the horror, I’m happy. It feels sane. Or just the right kind of insane.” This dialogue takes place close to mid-way through the game and players at this point are fully comfortable with Control’s various systems and recognizing whether or not they’re really enjoying themselves in the experience. It’s also worth noting that this is a video game featuring kinetic physical and project violence. Jesse is enraptured in this experience while destroying the shells of what used to be people, and so are the players. It’s awful, it’s messy, it’s messed up. But as a video game, it’s just the right kind of messed up and unbelievable for us to have no problem acting out that experience because it’s not real.

While I don’t have the confidence to say that developers deep down think you’re going to love their games, artists typically just try to make something and hope the world will love it as much as they do, I do feel confident saying this moment stands wonderfully at that impasse for players of a 30-ish hour long experience and internally recognizing, “I’m having a good time. This has been really fun so far. I know I want to keep going.” Traditionally, certain earlier opening sequences of video games are ones that are honed and worked on a lot to try and get players past early barriers. Some say that the first 30 minutes will determine whether or not a player will finish a game, which would indicate that players look to that first 30 minutes to comprehend if this is something they want to keep doing until the end of the experience. Jesse having this moment of recognizing, half way through the story, that she not only likes this, but she feels at home, matches the “protagonist coming into their own” narrative as well as that of the player affirming to themselves, “Yeah this has been really neat and fun and I definitely want to see where this goes until the end.” I recently stopped my second attempt at finishing Dragon Age: Origins a full 30–40 hours into the experience. I’ve tried to play the whole game twice across ten years and never got there. Both times I just eventually lost interest, lost immersion, lost a care for the world around me. And while there are a great handful of games where you know pretty quickly you won’t be able to put it down for a second, and other games where you know pretty quickly that “this isn’t the one for me”, there are some games we try to love where the fuzzy gray area of why we don’t quite love it isn’t clear. And those are bothersome experiences for people who play games. We think the components of the experience are ones we’ll enjoy (I love Dragon Age’s characters, and I generally like Western RPGs), but for reasons we can’t put our fingers on, we don’t want to keep going. For me, I didn’t have that moment in Control. I felt just like Jesse, I wanted the boundaries of the game to be much larger than what they were. I could feel out the rough comprehension of where the game would probably end and how it’ll go and I was genuinely ready to sprint to get there because the experience was as exhilarating as running through one SCP article to the next. What I didn’t expect was the ending trick, something I won’t spoil but will say that it makes for a really fun pacing and end to the main game, a wonderful reward for making it all the way there. Now let’s talk about one last bit, the moment I genuinely laughed in the game.

EVERYONE WANTS THE BIG CHAIR MEG

Context: Being a Remedy Game means that you’re not just experiencing a pretty video game with unique powers and third person kinetic gunplay, it also means you’re going to get a multi-media project from the team. That’s just how Remedy operates at this point: Tie in live action footage, radio and television shorts experienced in-game that help explain the fiction, documentation of the world through notes of some sort, and in-world fictionalized music experiences. In Control, Jesse’s brother Dylan was kept at the FBC for a long time (from childhood, through teenhood, and into adulthood) as they attempted to turn him into a super powered weapon by subjecting him to the capabilities of various Objects of Power and binding them to him. It went poorly, like any failed experiment. But as you play the game you stumble across various television shorts created for the sole purpose of trying to prepare Dylan Faden for the role the FBC wanted to give him. The show’s called Threshold Kids and it’s every bit as creepy as you can imagine, featuring stick puppets, warped senses of size, a teacher character called “Mr. Bones” who wears a mask of a baby, and, well, it grapples with the very real dangers Dylan would be tasked for. Some moments and stories in this game are funny, some are unsettling and creepy. But in Threshold Kids, the game goes full thelittlefears level disturbing for most of the run aside from a few laughs here and there. But one sticks out like a sore thumb for perfectly walking the line between funny and creepy through its presentation and delivery: Everyone Wants the Big Chair.

“Everyone Wants the Big Chair” is a conversation about the very reason we often play video games today and maybe even creepily pontificates briefly on why that may not be good. Dylan Faden is being raised to become a mental weapon for the government. In the Threshold Kids short, Mr. Bones tries to show Meg that it doesn’t matter if she fails a test for clairvoyance because she’s probably going to be good at other things, “Maybe your brain can throw baseballs, or talk to dead people, or make friends blind! Once we know what your brains can do, we’ll know what job to give you.” Here the short is more or less jokingly explaining mechanics you’ve already been introduced to at this point in the game (various powers), as well as the fact that exceptionalism is a rarity (Jesse happens to be that rarity, previous Directors couldn’t do what she can with these Objects of Power). But Mr. Bones still reinforces, “And if your brains are just right, you’ll get to sit in the BIG chair.It’s explaining a perspective of meritocracy and the fact that not everyone gets to BE the one in the Big Chair, only one gets to be the Director. And yet despite Mr. Bones’s comfort for Meg’s lack in clairvoyance, he still takes time to say that she has a shot at being the one in that chair, just like everyone else, and that everyone wants this. Which is to say: She should still try.

Video games these days are still regularly a power fantasy, Control is very much still that power fantasy given some smart twists and Remedy’s usual concoction of weirdness. But in this brief two minute excursion, Remedy asks if it’s okay for video games as an industry and as an experience to tout individualism and the fact that not everyone gets to sit at the Big Chair, while still giving the Big Chair experience a center stage light show and making sure we work really hard to market and sell the Big Chair to the world. Remedy may make games that get a significant amount of spotlight, but they’re also always games that break some conventions in the popular culture space, they play out action video games their way and ensure that their version of a Big Chair is something a little different and wild compared to the norm. It’s their best way of showing that the Big Chair doesn’t have to be what everyone wants. The Weird Chair is pretty cool too, and if you don’t want the Big One or the Weird One, forget what Mr. Bones said and go find the Chair that suits you.