header is screenshot from Control
The Banality of Control
Cameron Kunzelman

There is a running criticism of Control that I’ve seen consistently articulated since the game’s release a few weeks ago. People are lauding its narrative and conceptual content as forward-thinking and interesting while openly mourning that it is, at its core, a third-person shooter. You have a gun, you aim it, and you shoot at things. This is another node in a daisy chain in the critique of violence in games, which is a debate that I have had, and continue to have, my own interest in. This piece isn’t a defense of Control as a shooter, but instead a kind of unraveling rationale, a statement of a coherent logic that this game has that is mostly lacking in the vast majority of games that have you aiming for heads down sights.

Let me start polemically: Nick Capozzoli calls the shooting, the gun violence, of Control a falsework. As he says, a falsework is an architectural necessity that can operate as an initial support before something is fully constructed. It’s a core that is eliminated in the final product and yet can be known from its absence. It is a shaping presence known only by the impression it made before it was destroyed, like a dinosaur or a bully.

And yet the shooting of Control is front and center, still present and iterated on and wholly available to the tinkering capabilities of the invested player. Less a falsework than a foundation, then, or at least the piers that have been shored up through the practice and polish that Remedy Games have performed from Max Payne through Alan Wake and Quantum Break. Contrary to critics like Capozzoli or Carolyn Petit, who writes that the game engages in the most “conventional, ordinary types of enjoyment,” I don’t think that the deployment of gun mechanics in Control is some kind of unfortunate error that sullies the good name of the New Weird and its internet manifestations. To the contrary: The conventionality and ordinariness of its violence is the point.

Our protagonist Jesse Faden steps into the role of the Director of the Bureau of Control at the beginning of the game. From that point forward, she uses the Service Weapon, an object of power shaped like a gun and connected to the infinite strangeness of the astral plane, to annihilate everything that stands in her way. This gun’s destructive capability carries us through to the end of the game. This is her function. This is how the gun works. This is what Director Faden does. This is the job.

To put all this another way: Being the Director means doing violence. The position exists to do violence to the world.

We learn, after all, that the previous Director was a heavy hand on the job, wandering the highways looking for creatures at the crossroads like a somehow-more-sullen Mulder. He got his hands dirty there, and he took on the mantle of Director when he was the only person who could do the job of convincing his predecessor to step down. And we know that the infection of the “Hiss,” the word virus that creates the shooting gallery of spawning drones that populate the game, was brought to our world through the hands-on activity that took this last Director to another plane of existence. He wanted to be there. He had to do the work himself.

And we know that the running theory on the Service Weapon is that it has fueled a mythical kind of violence down through the ages. It is Excalibur. It is Varunastra. It is Mjolnir. It validates power, licenses destruction, and rallies people beneath it. It compelled Sir Gawain to serve King Arthur in the same way that Head of Research Emily Pope eagerly performs scientific experimentation for Faden.

The Service Weapon is a vector for the force that the Directorship of the Federal Bureau of Control has as a position. I don’t think Capozzoli or Petit are somehow out of line by critiquing the shooter mechanics here, but it seems to me that the gun having a symbolic or representational relationship to power, almost like a Jungian archetype, is something fundamentally different than feeding bullets into a Dragunov rifle in a Call of Duty game. This is not just a game where you are doing the same rote activities as other shooters of its same category. This is a game that is concerned, on some fundamental level, with the inaugurating power that validates a Director to apply force to the universe.

Contrary to these other critics, it is hard for me to abstract the shooting mechanics in Control away from the other parts of the game. The FBC is a federal agency, made up of people in dark suits with guns and radios who parachute into sleepy towns and strip them of any destructive strangeness that might be lurking there. It extracts those bizarre artifacts of a world beyond our own, takes them back to a massive prison unbound by spacetime, and then performs a routine set of experiments on them. Pain and discomfort are noted. Human beings are fed to the artifacts, or they’re spread thin like a smear on a microscope slide, and all of the possible empirical evidence from them is reported back. This is all in the service of rendering them, to use a word from the poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, transparent. The objects and the people are wholly known, and the Director is the person that does that knowing. Everything is reduced to information, the blacked-out bars of a partially-redacted report so wholly focused on secrecy and being known to the Director only that not even the player, the controller, can see them.

And this metaphor of violence that I am feeding here is sidestepping the reality of a federal agency that spun up for real in the 20th century being represented by a gun. The Bureau of Control is the state’s monopoly on violence extended into all of existence. The Director is the one who knows, of course, but they are also the person who has the power to know. An assault on the Oldest House or the Director’s person is a crime so dire that the game can’t go on without it. The death of Director Faden forces time to reset at the most recent checkpoint. It is unthinkable to the world state, but the hell that a Director can unleash upon invaders is legitimate even at its most extreme expression. To act against the Bureau of Control is a sin so dire that a whole game exists to fight back against it. The Bureau itself has worked in secret for decades doing nightmarish things to people and the world they live in, and we wouldn’t even know about it if it wasn’t under threat from within. The Directorship, via a weapon or sheer hierarchy, has both a monopoly on violence and a monopoly on safety, on being safe.

I’m as critical of violence as anyone in 2019, but like Mafia III, I think Control is asking us to think a little more critically about what violence is, who wields it, and what its natural ends are. The strain of the history of game critique, with its delimited categories of “graphics” and “story,” makes it so simple to reduce a thing down to its individual parts without thinking through what it does holistically (and I didn’t even get into the strange complication that is the Board.)

Of course, the questions of why a gun and why a shooter and why violence are systemic critiques and not personal ones against Control. And we need to ask those questions as a critical community. But I came away with a much more complicated stance toward Director Faden at the end of things. The Directorship is a structural position of power, and being a “good person” in that position doesn’t make it any less violent or any less forceful in its goal of capturing, containing, and experimenting on everything weird in the world. And maybe that has to do with my own trajectory and the shades of The Four that resonate for me here.

At the end of things, when Faden sits down with Pope to figure out the new business of the Federal Bureau of Control, I wasn’t elated at the continuation of this. I was disappointed that Jesse Faden couldn’t see her own complicity in perpetuating this parasitic creature crawling around the Oldest House. And I felt like that sinking feeling was a designed one, not one I came to via accident or misreading. She’s a woman with a gun, standing in a long line of people who have their own symbolic guns, passing the buck of responsibility until it stops at the player.

Cameron Kunzelman is a critic. You can follow him on Twitter, listen to his game studies podcast, and check out his D&D sessions.