CONTROL, Part 1: Interpretive Closure
This is the first in a three-part series on the video game CONTROL, released in 2019 by Remedy Entertainment. It's a stunning entry in the New Weird genre, a twisty exploration of the paranatural labyrinth known as the Federal Bureau of Control and its headquarters, the Oldest House. Future entries will explore CONTROL in relation to my own difficulties writing about dysphoria and place CONTROL in the context of the tension between xenophobia and xenophilia that animates so much of weird fiction. But before we can get into any of that, we need to talk about one of CONTROL's most striking features: its rejection of interpretive closure.
Fair warning: ahead be spoilers, and philosophy.
I give you a blank piece of paper. "What do you see?" I ask. I give you a novel with no text. "Tell me what you think of the characters," I ask. These are questions without even the possibility of answer. There's not enough there to even begin building an interpretation on.
I give you a lush wilderness filled with tribes of hunter-gatherer humans and robot dinosaurs. I give you the ruins of the Air Force Academy, centuries-rusted, and sprinkle on the grounds ancient voice recordings of desperate soldiers enlisting in a war to stop the apocalypse. I give you Sun-mad cultists cutting their way through an entire village to murder you, specifically, based on one glance at your face.
"What happened to the old world?" you ask. "Who are the Eclipse, and how are they connected to the nightmare machines trying to kill me? What was Project Zero Dawn and how did it fail?" This is interpretive openness: questions raised, specific, gripping questions, things that capture the mind and animate the narrative. The world is full of half-truths and clues and hidden lore, machine-poems encoded in metal flowers, ancient script logs buried in the hearts of metal mountains. The shape of things dawns on you, gradually, and then all at once: and now we have arrived at interpretive closure. The questions that were raised have been answered, well, and satisfyingly. The true horror and the true danger of the world are apparent to you, and then the time for interpretation is over: all that's left is to stop the doom that once devoured the world from doing so again.
Which brings us to CONTROL.
CONTROL gives you a skyscraper in New York City that no one sees. Concrete, windowless, this is the Oldest House, at the moment of Jesse Faden's arrival. Faden has been searching for this place since childhood; Faden is looking for her brother, Dylan, stolen long ago. Faden is looking for the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control. You understand these things because she tells you in voiceover, or, you realize, because you are hearing her tell someone else. Her internal monologue is directed at a silent presence, a thing she calls Polaris.
She steps inside the Oldest House, only to find it deserted. There is only the janitor, who points her towards the Director's office, where (he says) she'll be interviewed for the assistant janitor position.
What she finds inside the Director's office is a smoking gun and a fresh corpse. And when she picks up the gun she meets the Board, CONTROL's mission-giver/nebbishe damsel/true antagonist. The Board speaks in a stream of indecipherable static, which the game helpfully subtitles:
The Board's utterances are always ambiguity made manifest, choral sentences with their own subtext written into them. "The Gun / Sword / Intentionally left blank," it says. "We expect Independence / Dependence." "Kill / Videogame the Hiss / Armor / Beetles. Amend: Squash." The Board utters them, and then recedes; it's not a big believer in dialogue.
Any natural language sentence contains around it a cloud of potential interpretations, stresses, subtexts, metaphorical connections. The Board's sentences takes that cloud and packs it into the text of the sentence. Is this to make its meaning more plain—to highlight the relevant features of that interpretive cloud? If true meaning is something beyond the world, only ever perceived through the linguistic shadows it casts, is the Board trying to show its meaning cast from many angles, and thus give us a better picture of it? Or is this to obscure its meaning—to disclose the impossibility of perfect interpretation, to highlight ambiguity only as a means to introducing further ambiguity, making subtext explicit only to generate new subtexts?
Each of these is itself a possible interpretation of the Board's speech.
This multivocal speech presages much of what Jesse finds in the Oldest House. Jesse wants to know what's really going on in the Oldest House. What is Polaris? How is she connected to Alan Wake? But all she has to go on are her unreliable perceptions, inter-office memos, old pictures and overheard conversations. It's no accident, then, that CONTROL begins with Plato's Allegory of the Cave (by way of the Shawshank Redemption).
"Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up that is open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They have been there since childhood, with their necks and legs fettered, so that they are fixed in the same place, able to see only in front of them, because their fetter prevents them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Between the prisoners and the fire, there is an elevated road stretching. Imagine that along this road a low wall has been built—like the screen in front of people that is provided by puppeteers, and above which they show the puppets." Plato, Republic 514a, trans. C.D.C. Reeve.
These strange prisoners, who see only shadows—they are us, Plato says, caught in the veil of perception and human fallibility. It was Plato's aspiration to turn away from the shadows and perceive reality unmediated. There are texts that follow this model—as I discussed with Horizon: Zero Dawn, the player begins with shadows, but eventually sees reality directly. If Elisabet Sobek tells you something, you can be sure it's true. The authorial voice intrudes on the fiction, closing interpretation down—telling you the correct interpretation of events.*
CONTROL rejects this. CONTROL only ever gives you shadows, particular perspectives of particular people, evidence without Authority, and then it dares you to piece together the true shape of things from those half-seen shadows.
Reality is that which we can't directly perceive. We want to know what is moving behind us, but all we have to go on are the shifting shadows they cast. But it's always such a struggle. As @TheymerSophie suggests, "Something might cast two different shadows into what we perceive as reality, and we would think of those two things as separate and different, but they're actually just representations of the same thing."
My background is in analytic philosophy. This means I was trained in mathematical logic; it means that I recognize mathematical logic as both analytic philosophy's crown jewel and its blazing sword. The first analytic philosophers, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, loathed the Hegel-inspired British Idealists that dominated England's academy in their youth, loathed their impenetrable jargon and meaningless pseudoprofundities. Their words were naught but shadows dancing on the wall, to be burnt away by the new light of logic. The aspiration of the analytic philosopher is ever to hammer a nail through the ambiguities of natural language and fix our words to something eternal, the bright glass-sharp predicates and principles of formal language.
This is a bit of a paradox, since analytic philosophers themselves are instinctively, intuitively obsessed with the emotive power of natural language—witness the evocative and multivalent ways they prefer to frame their theses. The whole point is to leverage that entire cloud of associations across the fulcrum of predicate logic to get you to believe their conclusions, or at least publish papers in response to them. Even the name for our blazing sword, mathematical logic, is an immensely ancient phrase. It comes from the Greek, from lógos, λόγος, word, speech, account, explanation, that-which-Socrates-sought. The word for the aspiration to look beyond the shadows.
But nobody likes to think too hard about the paradoxes of their profession. Thus the modern analytic philosopher proceeds by foreclosing interpretations, narrow the space of possibilities until only the truth remains. This disciplinary aspiration is mirrored in its style of writing. A paper aspires to say what it says in language so clear it cannot be misunderstood; it achieves this with certain stylistic tools—theses, outlines, literature reviews, signposting, summaries—all aimed to ensure that the reader is never once lost, never once strays from the intended interpretation of its words.
I left philosophy but I carried this style into my own writing, both non-fiction and otherwise. I meant to say what I meant and clearly, unambiguously; I thought there should always be a single correct interpretation of the texts I produced, and that this interpretation should itself be evident in the text. This is a deliberate closing of interpretations: I was encouraged to say one thing, exactly one thing, and say it in a language that can only be interpreted as saying that one thing.
And somewhere in the depths of the Oldest House I thought, maybe that is not the only good in the world. Maybe there is a value to interpretive openness. The weight of a text is not merely to convey one thought precisely, but to spark in the reader new and unknown others. For that is what I have come to value in a text—what it says, but also what it leaves open—what vistas of the imagination are opened up by it even more than which are closed off.
*There's another essay to be written about how Horizon: Zero Dawn works hard to close down other potential interpretations of its long-gone history. Consider: much of the lore of HZD's world is revealed via a series of holographic recordings of board-room meetings. Manipulating such data or staging such scenes would have been trivial in the Old World. But HZD going out of its way to avoid raising the possibility that the holographic recordings are as subject to manipulation and distortion as anything else. It interleaves the reality portrayed by the recordings and the reality perceived by Aloy ("that's the very chair Elisabet Sobek was sitting in!"), further discouraging the player from wondering after their veracity. By contrast every lore entry in CONTROL has an author, a date, redactions and gaps. It never lets you forget that each piece of information is perspectival. A very different game might have been made in that mold about the struggle between Sobek and Faro to control the memory of the future, I think.