Games

The Mysterious "Board" in 'Control' Is One of the Game's Best, Most Unsettling Ideas

Depicting the labor-management divide across different planes of existence.

by Cameron Kunzelman
Sep 4 2019, 6:00pm

'Control' concept art and screens courtesy of 505

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Light spoilers for Control follow

Early in Control, like in many games, you pick up a gun. It’s the service weapon of Director Trench, the leader of the Federal Bureau of Control, and it is lying on the floor of his office beside his still-warm corpse. You’re controlling protagonist Jesse Faden, and she gets a glimmer of an idea that she should pick up this strange gun. She’s fated to. And when she does, both she and you realize that this service weapon is actually the Service Weapon, a proper noun object of power. And in that same moment, you’re introduced to the Board, the most interesting phenomenon in a game full of fascinating ones.

At its core, the Federal Bureau of Control that you spend all of Control navigating is a bureaucracy. Based on the audio, video, and text logs that are scattered through the game, the employees of the agency spend as much time pushing papers and managing budgets as they do containing haunted televisions or fighting psychic events. It’s also strictly hierarchized, with the Director overseeing everything, the Research division running a lot of show under that, and a huge amount of support staff to make sure that things work out.

But the top of that bureaucracy, like so many others, is a board. In the real world, lots of organizations have a board that generally guides the trajectory of a company: A corporation might have a board of investors; a charity might have an executive board who represent major donors and community stakeholders; a professional organization might have a board of highly respected members who guide the ethical stance of the many. In all of these instances, the Director and the total hierarchy underneath them derives symbolic power from the board. A Director is, in many ways, like a priest or a shaman. They’re a node that acts as the hands of the gods.

Control's Board gives Jesse Faden instructions throughout Control, it is depicted as a black pyramid against a white neutral backdrop.

In Control, that relationship isn’t symbolic. It’s literal. The Director of the Federal Bureau of Control’s authority is derived from the Service Weapon, an Object of Power whose connection to an individual is controlled by the Board, who exist as a giant black inverted pyramid on the Astral Plane.

The buzzwords obscure a fairly simple operation. The Board live in some other metaphysical space that humans can sometimes access with their mind. They can reach through the divide between that space and the material world through very specific things called Objects of Power, which aren’t really understood all that well by the people who study them or the people who use them. The objects can bestow strange powers to humans, like levitation or telekinesis, but only if the Board allows that object to bond to that person.

In the same way that a board of an NGO might control access to certain amounts of money for a beleaguered director attempting to spend their way out of a problem in our world, the Board controls access to superhuman power for the Director in Control who is trying to rid the building of the nefarious mind-controlling Hiss. We can call it a metaphor, but damn if it isn’t on the nose.

A lone figure is silhouetted against a red doorway sealed with stone and unholy red light breaking through in Remedy's Control

Despite the charity of the Board in helping you in your mission, there’s always a sense that what you're acting from obligation rather than allied interest. Communication between Jesse and the Astral Plane is always partial, and the Board seems to be so unlike a human being that there’s a language barrier in the order of being. Slashes and euphemisms proliferate in the translated communication between Jesse and the black pyramid. Things are “bound/delivered” and sometimes you have been “approved/elusive” when you achieve a connection with an Object of Power. Sometimes these are clever writerly tricks, but they also feel like the Board doesn’t quite understand humanity or our world. The Director is pretty clearly seen as the Board’s tool that is meant to be directed at problems.

Adding to the mystery is the existence of The Former, the only other thing that we see in the Astral Plane other than the Board. A huge cyclops with many arms, The Former speaks to Jesse in the same garbled, buzzing language as the Board does, but without the opportunity for translation. Instead, it simply wants to destroy Jesse, and you fight it in multiple boss battles, and you never really learn all that much about it. Is it a former Board member who, disgruntled, is destroying the Astral Plane? Is it a Former not as in previously but as in construction, building something new and creating new connections with the material world?

Every visible facet of the relationship between Jesse and this alien thing is stranger than we think, and in that way it works not just as a fun metaphor but as a ground for how we think of the relationships between hierarchical positions in our world.

A soundstage in Remedy Entertainment's Control where a young woman contemplates a re-creation of her childhood hometown.

After all, the corporate structure of our own world imagines investors giving directors power who then distribute that to managers and then to workers. It portrays a great chain of elegant distribution that holds responsibility and choice together in harmony. The board demands something, and people and agencies down the line all fall into a concordance of order and decision. From the mouths of gods to the hand of a servant, a fable of power where money or influence or social capital trickles down from a class that controls it to those who are employees. One day, the fantasy holds, if they’re anointed and hard working, they can make their way up the bureaucracy to become a board member themselves with their own conduits of power and their own agents in the world.

Within this model, we can imagine that the boards of our various hierarchies are doing some work for the public good. We can hold that imagine in our head. But the troubling thing is that the Board is like all those other boards: it wants to maintain itself and its power. Whose good is it preserving?

The Board’s nefariousness helps us shatter both the implicit fiction of Control and this fiction in our own world. The Board pretty clearly distributed Objects of Power to preserve itself, and Jesse operating is as much of a shield as she is a sword. The Board is reaching out from the Astral Plane to assure its own existence in the same way that the investment class creates hierarchies of labor power to continually generate capital for itself. The Board is a metaphor sometimes, but the metaphor doesn’t have to stretch too far. The Board and all the real boards operate the same way.

The glimmers of critique that happen in Control are opportunities for us to think outside the rigid framework of received knowledge about the relationship between the power we’re given and the power we wield. I have an idea, based on the facts in the game, that Jesse might be able to maintain her connection with her Objects of Power even if the Board said no. I have an idea that she’s made an easy alliance, one of convenience, that so many of us make every day with the hierarchies that we exist within. I hope she renegotiates it.