Spoiler Warning: this article discusses the ending of Control.
In the opening monologue to Control, protagonist Jesse Faden uses an allegory to try and describe her experience of tracking down the eponymous Federal Bureau of Control (the FBC); “like, we live in a room, and there’s a poster on the wall”, she says. “We stare at it and we think that’s the whole world, the room and the poster. […] But it’s all a lie. Something to distract us from the truth.” This allegory, a modern re-working of Plato’s famous allegory of the cave to be more like “that prison movie”, becomes a recurring motif throughout the game – and in particular, the ways in which fiction and reality collide and intersect becomes a dominant theme.
Within the fiction of Control, the FBC acts mainly as a literal interpretation of the modes of control that Capitalism employs, but applied to a much more fundamental and metaphysical layer of reality. It’s no coincidence that the FBC’s fantastical Oldest House headquarters are right on 33 Thomas Street, the real-life location of another infamous, windowless Brutalist New York skyscraper heavily rumored to be an NSA site. Rather than the actual act of surveillance, however, Control is far more interested in the ways that surveillance and bureaucracy have been normalized, again using the blurring of fiction and reality to explore how society has evolved to accommodate them more and more.
In Discipline and Punish Michel Foucault outlined a “society of discipline” in which individuals were instilled with a constant threat of potential surveillance that deterred them from defying the power structure. This deliberate phenomenon of the internalization of surveillance was coined by Foucault as “panopticism” after Jeremy Bentham’s infamous designs for a prison with just one guard. In the disciplinary society, the institutions that enforced these power dynamics – schools, factories, the military, etc. – were only analogical to each other, and “one was always starting again” as Gilles Deleuze wrote in his Postscript on the Societies of Control. In the societies of control, however, “one is never finished with anything – the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation”.
Contemporary power structures bleed into each other; “the family, the school, the army, the factory are no longer the distinct analogical spaces that converge towards an owner – state or private power – but coded figures – deformable and transformable – of a single corporation that now only has stockholders.” Surveillance becomes more and more invasive, tracking not only our behaviour in the moment, but our recurring patterns of behaviour, interpreted by a gigantic automated network. In one of Control‘s later FMV presentations featuring resident eccentric researcher Dr. Darling, he makes a brief off-hand joke while explaining his new, mandatory “HRA” harnesses, joking that they aren’t “tracking your movements or listening to your conversations while you’re wearing them…we do that regardless of whether or not you’re wearing an HRA.”
The FBC’s obsessive surveillance reaches a level of comical absurdity as its repossession of misbehaving objects has them taking increasingly large chunks of the world with them. One early memo has a worker complain that the Bureau brought in a whole plane for inspection (which is later found sitting in a service tunnel), and late in the story Jesse discovers that they’ve relocated the entire landfill from her hometown of Ordinary into the Oldest House. Most egregiously (and forming Jesse’s entire motivation for finding them), the Bureau kidnaps a 10-year-old Dylan Faden and locks him up in solitary confinement under the flimsy pretense that his latent paranatural potential might make him a good directorial candidate.
Within the narrative Jesse and Dylan act as opposite perspectives on the exact same institution. The hole and the poster come back as a framing motif here; Jesse describes entering the Bureau as if it were the moment the poster was lifted, while Dylan, who’s spent his entire life there as a prisoner / test subject, describes it as “a cold, empty prison. Not even a poster on the wall.” There’s some obvious irony here, but it only intensifies if you know the details of the allegory of the cave.
In Plato’s allegory, several prisoners are chained from birth so that they can only see a wall, and behind them is a bonfire casting light onto it. As objects move past the fire, they create shadows, and only being able to see these and having no prior experiences with reality, the prisoners perceive this instead as “true” reality. Even if someone were able to escape this situation and leave the cave, they would be disoriented, discovering a new and utterly bizzare truth of the world that they would then reject and go back to what they recognise and comprehend: the shadows. Alternatively, if someone was forcibly dragged outside and shown the real world without the possibility of returning out of fear, they would have to become accustomed to it and realise that it was “superior” to their prior experiences.
Plato reckoned if that someone were to leave the cave (in either situation) and come back to tell everyone else about their experience, the disorientation and weakened vision from having the intense light of the sun blast their eyes for the first time would lead the prisoners to deduce that this “outside world” (the truth) was dangerous and reject it. In fact, Plato thought they would go so far as to murder this returnee to dissuade any other misadventures from anyone, returning to their comfortable existence staring at shadows. (Hopefully you’ve caught on that Plato had an incredibly low and dismissive opinion of anyone who wasn’t a) an aristocrat or b) a philosopher, even justifying his prejudice throughout almost all of his philosophical ideas.)
Within Control the “room and the poster” plays basically the same role allegorically. The hole in the room is the exit to the cave, and the poster is the wall on which light is being cast. The major difference is that, since this is a society of control being portrayed, the subjects have absolute freedom in their cell (no longer forced to watch the wall by their shackles) but since the poster masks the exit from them, they just voluntarily stare at it anyway. Deleuze wrote that “man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt” – we might be able to do more now, but what we can do is more and more controlled anyway.
Similarly the poster, as a particular mediated ideal ‘appearance’ of reality (to cover up “the true reality” behind it, ie. the hole) closely resembles Guy Debord’s concept of the Society of the Spectacle; “commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity.” All of existence – material, historical, metaphysical – is rewired and altered by Capitalism to benefit the idea that Capitalism is not only natural but eternally present throughout history. Jesse manages to see through this, realising that there’s a hole behind the poster and relentlessly chasing after it until she finds herself inside the Bureau.
Actually, I lied. She didn’t see through it at all. The hole is, itself, part of the spectacle, a carefully constructed image of truth replacing the actual truth. Capitalism has, in adopting more of the society of control, assimilated counter-culture and rebellion into itself, “precorporating the subversive” as Mark Fisher put it in Capitalist Realism; “‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream.” In the 1976 Sidney Lumet movie Network an embittered news reporter lashes out at the establishment only to become its hottest commodity, his outrage already accomodated into the spectacle before he even expressed it.
The second Jesse enters the Bureau she’s immediately incorporated into it at the highest level, her search for answers rewarding her with total absorption into the faux-truth. Even at the presumed highest point of the organisation, she’s still being denied access to considerable amounts of information, both through the ubiquitous black-out censoring and through the total lack of obtaining said information. Nobody knows what the deal is with the Astral Plane because nobody actually bothered to look into it, only caring about maintaining control over it (something they evidently did very badly). This whole process of discovering the truth only for it to routinely block itself off increasingly leaves Jesse more and more despondent and disillusioned; by the time she fails to save Hedron in the game’s climax, she remarks that “the poster comes down and there’s nothing there. It’s just the cell and death. I was wrong. There was never anything there.”
This feeling of hopelessness and despair is exactly what the Hiss latches onto, a defeated realisation that the truth was never really “real” either. The Hiss promises its hosts an existence of blissful unawareness, a voice in their head to remind them of their perceived “rightful” place in the corporate hierarchy. Dylan readily accepts it, because the Bureau had eroded everything that he ever was down into nothing. Trench has it forced onto him, constantly picking at his insecurities and putting ideas in his head that everyone’s secretly conspiring to stage a revolution. Jesse lets her guard down for one second and it slips in to show her where it thinks she should be, at the bottom of the food chain, picking up coffee cups and delivering mail. The hole in your room is a hole in you. You came and we let you in through the hole in you. You have always been here, the only child. A copy of a copy of a copy.
By the game’s conclusion the Bureau still hasn’t actually defeated the Hiss – it’s still lurking their halls, latched onto employees and teleporting in to start gunfights with Jesse. In the same vein, despite becoming the director of a paranatural agency at the fringes of human perception, Jesse as a character has really accomplished very little. Her long-lost brother was found possessed by a nightmare and is now comatose, the voice in her head is well and truly dead and gone without having revealed anything, the truth behind what happened at Ordinary, the fate of Dog Neil and all that, still totally unanswered. By having Jesse enter the story an alienated skeptic and come out of it no different (but now absorbed into the system completely), the game highlights the totally futile task that we face trying to fight back against the society of control as individuals.
The society of control and of Capitalism imposes itself so overwhelmingly into our lives that we find it impossible to escape, and Jesse unknowingly demonstrates this in her fantastical adventure through the Oldest House. The narrative of Control wonders whether this false “reality” created for us might have gained a life of its own, as factory-produced commodities appear to gain sentience and an impossible office building shifts and warps around its inhabitants. Many people (both within the fiction and outside it) have even described the Oldest House and its imprisoned Objects and Items as “haunted”, being possessed by some unknowable force beyond our understanding, but it’s not quite like that.
Gilles Deleuze wrote in his Postscript that “we are taught that corporations have a soul, which is the most terrifying news in the world”. It’s not the House or its objects that are being haunted here; we are, all of us, by the waking nightmare of Capital.