Spoilers for Remedy Entertainment’s Control below
Control is a fantastic game that ultimately betrays its most powerful themes.
Or maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe it doesn’t know that it doesn’t.
Jesse Faden, searching for her missing brother, is called by an unknown force to the official headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, which specializes in the paranatural and the weird. But this building is not a secret underground base, not an Area 51 or a lunar space station. It is a massive concrete monolith smack dab in the middle of New York city, in plain sight. And yet no one can actually see it unless they’re actively looking for it.
This building is referred to as “The Oldest House”. Not as a codename, no. That is simply what it is. The Bureau didn’t build the Oldest House, they merely “found” it waiting for them, and then occupied it as their own territory. Video essayist Jacob Geller describes it best.
“They found a haunted house and set up a government agency in it, but at every turn, they’re just reminded how little they know about where they’ve placed themselves.”
When you enter the Oldest House, you are greeted with large portraits on the wall of Zachariah Trench, the Director of the Bureau. You find him dead in his office shortly after he committed suicide with a strange cube-gun that feels alive, breathes. Jesse, your character, picks up this gun and is immediately “chosen” by it as the new Director of the Bureau. When she exits the Director’s office, she finds the portraits of Trench have been replaced with portraits of you, Jesse. It chose you. You’re the Director now. Good luck.
This gun is dubbed the Service Weapon, and is said to be a deviation of Objects of Power like Excalibur, items that “chose” their users, that chose the Chosen One. But Jesse continually refuses being chosen. “I am not their Director,” she keeps reminding us. As soon as each Bureau employee meets this woman they’ve never met before, they immediately accept her as their new Director, their chosen Queen. Jesse’s just as averse to this, especially after learning they were responsible for kidnapping and experimenting on her brother Dylan.
“How do I make her stop calling me that! I’m not here for them… Nothing’s simple here. These people took my brother, but they’ve accepted me without question. Are they my enemies or… my friends?”
I felt deeply for Jesse’s initial distrust of the Bureau throughout the majority of Control. She’s horrified by the experiments, the things from other dimensions they brought with them and studied, the practices they used, the toxic work environments, the oversight committed by its former Directors and Heads of Research and Containment, the inhumane testing they performed on her brother, the revelation that they were spying on her most of her life, proving her paranoia right. The bureaucracy is shown to be just as much an inescapable horror as the game’s paranatural beings and Altered Items. They think themselves in control but are merely playing with toys they can not begin to understand. The Federal Bureau of Control is corrupt, flawed, and fundamentally broken.
I wanted so desperately for Jesse to burn this Bureau to the ground. I wanted her to expose the rotten core of bureaucracy and build from the rubble and ash something new and complete.
But that moment never comes.
By the end of the game, Jesse doesn’t follow through on her mistrust. She ultimately accepts her new role as Director of the Bureau, and it’s subtly framed with the kind of “yass kween” girl power that Eric Andre famously spoofed. The abuse of Dylan is completely forgiven and never once brought up again in the post-game, blamed entirely on the previous Director and not on the thousands of well-meaning but ultimately complicit employees who watched and confined him.
Jesse tells us that things will be different from now on. The Bureau will be “fixed”. But can you fix what was never meant to be from the start? Jesse turns out not to be the revolutionary I prematurely pegged her for, but another useful idiot hoping to change the system from the inside. How aware is she that, like every other useful idiot, she’ll be swallowed up by the system because it refuses even incremental fixes. Spoiler alert: this game takes place in America.
I pondered this ending for a while now, trying to make sense of it. Was this the ending most conducive for allowing sequels and expansions that kept the game’s premise and status quo intact? Well, yes. And to be honest, I will begrudgingly yet gladly accept the further adventures of Director Jesse Faden if it allows me more time in its weird, fun world.
But the longer I thought about it, the more sinister facets of itself were revealed to me, like I myself was studying one of the game’s many Altered Items.
Let’s rewind: both Jesse and Dylan were considered by the Bureau “potential candidates” to become the next Director. Dylan is groomed through the Prime Candidate Program, while Jesse is merely observed from afar, the Bureau planting their own agents into her therapy sessions to try to gain information from her about a prior Altered World Event she and Dylan were involved in. Jesse is a product of nature; Dylan, of nurture. Both are apprehensive, at least initially, about the prospect of becoming Director.
It is in the Prime Candidate Program offices that you find a TV containing yet another episode of Threshold Kids, the creepy, Bureau-made children’s puppet show that — as an in-game document tells us — was meant to teach children held in the Bureau (namely Dylan) about standard operating procedures and “the fun side of the paranatural!”
The episode you find in the Prime Candidate Program is titled “You And Your Special Powers”. It opens with the girl puppet Meg (clearly a stand-in for Jesse, who the Bureau was hoping to detain like Dylan someday) sighing at the big fat F she received on her Prime Candidate Test on Clairvoyance. Her instructor, a skeleton named Mr. Bones, tries to console her. “You can’t ace every test, Meg. You see, everyone has different brains. Some brains can talk to each other […] Some brains can lift objects, like a baseball.”
He continues, “Once we know what your brains can do, we’ll know what job to give you. And if your brains are juuuust right, you’ll get to sit in The Big Chair.” Meg the puppet stares up at a giant leather office chair announced with an important spotlight, but no fanfare or excitement. She asks innocently, “What if I don’t want The Big Chair?” Mr. Bones mocks her,
“‘whAt iF I DoN’T wANt ThE bIG cHAiR?’…
EVERYONE WANTS THE BIG CHAIR, MEG!!”
He screams this at Meg, creating a frightening echo that startles her. This is framed as borderline abusive, like the Bureau’s practices in grooming Dylan to sit in The Big Chair. Yet by the end of the game, Jesse finds that she does in fact want to sit on The Big Chair, but on her own terms. This would all be fine and good were it not for the fact that The Big Chair in this instance feels as much a monstrosity as the mysterious Fridge Altered Item that won’t let anyone look away from it. But I also, in some sad way, deeply empathize with Jesse’s decision to accept The Big Chair.
As Jesse travels deeper into the labyrinthine, ever-shifting halls and rooms of The Oldest House, she begins to express something decidedly “abnormal” for a video game protagonist: she’s happy. She feels more at home in The Oldest House than she ever felt in the real world.
“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.”
Over a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Everything about my life made sense after that — my behaviors, my habits, my interests, my anxieties. I could not for the life of me socialize in real life until I found Twitter. I made lasting friendships there, even got jobs through the site. As much as it is also a nihilistic hellscape that’s only grown near-unbearable post-2016, I would much rather be there than try to fit in with reality.
Jesse, a weirdo who finally finds a weird place she gets, could not feel more on the spectrum. In fact, I felt just as at home as Jesse when I first booted up Control because for once I was experiencing a story where it felt like nearly every character was on the spectrum, every character speaking my language. Hell, an in-game document on Rituals all but confirms that the Bureau goes out of its way to find individuals who fixate, and employ them.
Is it really so hard for me to imagine Jesse would accept a Big Chair she doesn’t want so long as she gets to stay in The Oldest House, like, as her job?? That is quite literally what I am doing right now.
I do not hate being on the spectrum, but I do hate living in a society that tells me I need “normal” job to be a functioning adult when I have a condition that ultimately prevents me from being able to keep one. There is one thing I can do well and can make money off of, and that’s my screenwriting. I’ve already had one of my scripts bought by a notable studio. I want to be hired by more studios to continue my passions. I want this even knowing that the film industry is imperfect and downright toxic to someone like me. I want to write a big budget feature. I want to direct an indie someday. I want to be in a TV writers’ room, and then eventually run a show of my own at some point.
I want to sit in The Big Chair.
I want to, and I also have no other choice.
We live in a capitalist democracy. White, cisgender, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied males benefit the most from this system, and even they can get screwed over from time to time. I — a transgender, filipina, autistic woman — am happy to pursue my passions, but with the knowledge that I live in a system that disadvantages me for doing anything else. Sometimes the fun of screenwriting I once had is drained because I’m not only doing it professionally, but also out of survival. The Oldest House doesn’t want me occupying it, yet I can not live anywhere else. If I don’t succumb to The Big Chair, I will be thrown back to reality, and reality doesn’t want me.
Over the course of the game, you find documents warning employees not to spread an infamous “Tennyson Report” that Director Trench seems afraid of. When you find it in a hidden location, it reads like a manifesto.
“We all realize that the concepts we explore here are mystic ones, with arcane-thinking required to understand them. Yet we insist on using words like “paranatural” and “parautilitarian” to create the illusion of a scientific structure; a tidy little system. The Bureau is desperate to stand with the close-minded cult of logic and data that has overrun our society. If a thing cannot be quantified, then we dismiss it outright. We live in an age that is openly hostile to faith in the veiled forces governing our reality.
I must remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the anti-esoteric bureaucrats watching us from their plush offices. Those same bureaucrats, Trench and Darling chief among them, have been steering us away from the Bureau’s arcane foundations for decades now. It is time we corrected course.
If you stand with me, share this message. We are not alone.”
How much of the game understands that the Tennyson Report is in many ways right? Maybe there’s an alternate reality where Jesse herself is inspired by its words, a Jesse that realizes that the Bureau stands for something more sinister than its Altered Items and Objects Of Power because it is controlling them. But that now feels like a fantasy, a dream, as distant as another dimension. Maybe that’s what mirror version esseJ was all about?
It is too early to say how well Jesse Faden will do as the new Director of the Federal Bureau of Control. But if I were to go by personal experience and observation, this is how I see it potentially going down — my headcanon of sorts:
She will enjoy it. She will feel at home. But she will also have to work that enjoyment within a corrupt system that works to control inexplicable things that resist control. Just because she hires “better people” doesn’t mean they won’t be prone to the same kinds of hysterics and egos that led to Darling and Trench’s respective downfalls. She will ultimately realize that without the Bureau, without The Oldest House, she may as well be dead. She must keep this position, or there will be nothing left worth living. She will fall under the same lust for control that plagued Director Trench. Like Trench, the job will be as much a prison as it is privilege. Things she once enjoyed will be corrupted by bureaucracy, just as the Altered Items are corrupted by the collective subconscious. A self-fulfilling prophecy. A cycle that repeats and renews ad infinitum. Capitalism, bureaucracy, politics, America.
Intentionally or not, Control is a game that acutely understands our fundamental desire to find our Big Chair and sit on it. Whether it can imagine something other than that Big Chair, however, is another story entirely.