This article does not spoil the story of CONTROL (2019).
“Jahaa, jaa-a, you think there’s a dog buried in this?”
When Jesse Faden finds her way inside the Federal Bureau of Control, her objective isn’t straightforward. She knows she’s looking for answers, and thinks this is the place she’ll find them, but she isn’t ready for the mysteries that may resolve or complicate themselves here. After all, that is the nature of this building. Otherwise known as The Oldest House, this brutalist shape-shifting piece of architecture serves as the base of operations for a covert U.S. government agency in charge of exerting control over paranormal phenomena, which entails the retrieval, safekeeping, and research of objects and events that defy even our wildest imaginations. One of the Bureau’s most important tasks? The erasure of these phenomena from public knowledge. Yet, there she is. Jesse Faden. Normal™ girl, all things considered. Before she knows it, she becomes the new Director of the Bureau, and with that, the latest hero of this supernatural story. This is how CONTROL, Remedy Entertainment’s 2019 release, presents the protagonist to the player: the girl who arrived with urgent questions about her past, but instead became the one people look to for answers. This is how CONTROL became my game of the year.
Heroism is a blank canvas. We paint its edges, determining when and where the term applies, and what forms it takes. Sometimes, we color the term with another one. When Jesse is chosen to lead the FBC, she becomes responsible, thrust into a position of leadership. Even in good hands, leadership is messy. In bad ones, leadership becomes an obsession with and an abuse of power. One’s qualities as a leader are directly tied to the choices they make, and Jesse, too, has an important choice to make the moment she picks up one of CONTROL’s many metaphors for power: the Service Weapon. The Service Weapon is the Director’s gun. It is an Object of Power, an item connected to the Astral Plane, and in this case, strongly connected to The Oldest House. Whoever is worthy enough to wield it runs this place. It is a simple concept of leadership, a literal game of chance. As Head of Research Casper Darling says: “come out of that Russian Roulette a winner, and you… you’re it”. Much like the building it resides in, the gun can take different forms, and provide different advantages. Through it, Jesse becomes the leader. But it will not help her become a leader.
Jesse’s pending choice, then, is between two concepts. It is a delicate process of weighing leadership and heroism against each other; a tango, if you will. It is a choice of priority, and at the same time, the test that will prove her worth. When Jesse makes her choice, she does so by considering the Bureau’s current crisis; the invasion of a deadly extra dimensional force called The Hiss, a threat that could mean the end of the FBC, and more importantly, an oblivious country in danger. Her eventual choice is not an either/or, but rather a calculated decision based on where her efforts are most embraced. With everyone in the Bureau counting on her, she decides to put everyone in a position where they can do their work, and she can do hers. Regaining the control the Bureau has lost is a task for the Director, who has to dominate the canvas with a stroke of heroism before it can be colored with leadership. It took me a while to realize the significance of this dynamic. It hit me, ironically, not while fighting the numerous Hiss threats and becoming stronger as I upgraded my Service Weapon and gained supernatural abilities. Not even while juggling the needs of employees and Jesse’s personal quest. It hit me through a song. A Finnish tango, to be exact.
“’Järveks’ luulin merta kerran’, runon lausui hän”
This first line informed me I wouldn’t be able to understand a word of the song. Yet there I was, on a cable cart, utterly enchanted by the passive act of listening to music. I ignored the words, choosing rather to embrace the sound of it. Roughly three minutes passed, and the game allowed me to revisit the song through the menu. I saw that it’s called “Sankarin Tango”. Curiosity took over, and I found myself googling as much information as I could about the song. Sung beautifully by the Bureau’s janitor Ahti, real name Martti Suosalo, I found that the title translates to “Hero’s Tango”. A kind soul had already taken the time to translate the song to English, and therefore allowed me to dissect the song in context of what I had played of the game thus far. It blew me away. Key parts of the game’s narrative began to fall into place for me. Jesse’s decision to be a hero now presented itself to me as an amplifier for her larger arc, which was more nuanced than I had previously assumed. I realized that this game was not about being a leader. Rather, it was about growing into one. It is that subtle difference that allowed me to see Jesse, who had been tangoing her way through this threat, carefully and constantly trading heroism for leadership and vice versa. She was in control. Some vague entity may have chosen her canvas, but she sure as hell was going to paint that shit herself.
So, yeah. Naturally, I had to turn that translation into something that rhymes.
“‘Järveks’ luulin merta kerran’, runon lausui hän
Mysteerin sen syövereissä vietti elämän
Alla synkän valtameren varjoiss’ vaeltaa
Etsii tietä valoon, luokse armaan, ainiaan”
“’Once, I saw an ocean for a lake’ he said in his poem
He has spent his life in the depths of the unknown
Under the dark ocean’s shadows, he forever roams
In search of the light, and his beloved, far from home”
While the song is mostly filled with excellent references to Remedy Entertainment’s past games, deserving of an article in itself, it also serves as a lens through which to observe CONTROL as a narrative about heroism. This first verse reminds me strongly of the sheer absurdity of The Oldest House, and the people that devote their time working for it. Yes, for it, as the game makes perfectly clear to the player that this shifting Place of Power will not adhere to the presumed control you as the Director exert over it. It is the phenomenon of seeing an ocean for a lake, as the song chronicles, which has deeper meaning related to a Place of Power in Remedy’s 2010 game Alan Wake, and simultaneously addresses the nature of the building you, as Jesse, have to navigate. This building has obstacles, if you will, ones you can circumvent but never manipulate. The Oldest House is a constant reminder that for a Bureau of Control, control is a slippery ass thing. To spend your life in these overwhelmingly unfamiliar, strange, and unpredictable depths is a decision each character makes for different reasons. At the same time, they all love the weirdness of it all, which gives the place a refreshing humorous feature where things nearly seem… normal. It’s what makes reading the abundance of incomplete documents in the game an authentic experience of supernatural, classified office life, especially when [redacted].
“Yksin sankar’ yöhön syvemmälle matkaa pois
Se taakka hänen harteillaan kuin lupaus aina ois
Täss’ pelissä tää narri lyödään maahan aina vaan
Vaan hetki kuoloss’ lepoo suodaan, jo takas kutsutaan”
“Deeper travels this lone hero, away from the light
A burden on his shoulders that will chase him in the night
This fool is beaten, time after time inside of this game
But death only offers a moment of respite, until it comes again”
In this shifting place, then, Jesse must carry out her role as Director. This now means her acceptance of heroism before leadership. After all, she does think “there’s a dog buried in this”, the brilliant Ahti quote I opened the article with, which calls out Jesse’s feelings towards The Oldest House as a place full of suspicious activity. It is stating the obvious, of course, but stating it is vital. Jesse carries this burden with her throughout the game, constantly suspicious of the Bureau and demanding answers to her own questions. As much as Jesse’s heroism allows her to do what’s best for the Bureau, her presence here means something to her, and the more she uncovers inside of The Oldest House, the more her own quest becomes an obsession. The chorus stands out because of this very thing; Jesse’s obsession translates to a journey that goes even deeper into the unknown, consistently becoming more dangerous. It is a game, and while games welcome foolishness, the failure it inevitably leads to is not a safe haven. It will find you again, quickly. Like any hero, Jesse needs to be ready for it.
“Aika särkyy, ikuisuuteen laukaus
Ei onnellista loppua hän kohtaa milloinkaan
Niin monta kertaa kerrottu tää tarina jo on
Sankarilla tuhat kasvoo, polku lohduton”
“Time shatters, a shot that echoes in
No, he will never have a happy ending, certainly
This is a story that’s been told too many times to count
Where heroes have thousands of faces and hopeless hills to mount”
How realistic are the chances of a successful hero’s journey? Does the hero get a happy ending? Does this hero get one? Turning the translation into the verse you see above was an interesting process, as I thought deeply about its significance inside of CONTROL’s narrative. I settled on the idea that, while the verse makes a strong statement about heroes caught in the same story over and over again, this song also highlights the extent to which Jesse’s story could differ from it. Jesse’s story of heroism is one of unpredictability, whereas this song paints heroism as a series of calculable events. The verse attempts to color heroism with imminent failure, explaining the fruitless nature of the process. If the song were CONTROL’s stance on heroism, Jesse’s face would be nothing but one of many in the long line of so called heroes. One way in which this argument starts to become convincing is when you examine the paintings that hang throughout the building, of Jesse as Director, and specifically inside the Board Room, in which past Directors adorn the walls. In the Director’s Office, Jesse’s painting has replaced that of Zachariah Trench, her predecessor. To a certain extent, Jesse really is just the latest hero of this supernatural story. But this verse, and the narrative as a whole, are interesting precisely because they leave us with questions more than anything. It is beautifully and almost frustratingly characteristic of this game. It is also brilliantly authentic, because Jesse’s status as hero isn’t complete until you finish the game. Jesse only truly becomes the Director when she has fully grown into the role, and since the game ends exactly at her true claim of leadership, it is impossible to argue why her heroism will be any different. We may never know until a new hero comes out of that Russian Roulette a winner.
“Sankarin Tango” elevated CONTROL. It is a prime example of music that serves as context for a narrative, becoming more than mere ambience in the process. The folks over at Remedy Entertainment seem to be acutely aware of this, as “Sankarin Tango” is not the only song in the game that so wonderfully communicates a theme; it just happened to be the one that resonated with me most. This song helped turn CONTROL into my game of the year, because it gave me the tools to look for what would resonate with me in a game that hides much of its nuance behind the absurd. When I finally saw through the absurd, I found Jesse Faden. A protagonist I couldn’t wait to see reach her destination. A character I related to, because I try to earn my titles, too. I, too, feel unworthy of accomplishments. I related to her because sometimes, feeling worthy means taking control, and if that makes me just another hero, I will gladly have my portrait up in The Oldest House next to Jesse Faden.