By Sarah Doherty Granoff
There aren’t many games I can truly say have changed my life. I didn’t know that one of them would come out of a Steam sale. On an unseasonably warm winter day in the middle of the pandemic, I sat down at my laptop and purchased Control for PC, a 2019 action-adventure game by Remedy Entertainment. The reasons I purchased Control were numerous. I knew it was well-reviewed, and that there were even some people who thought of it as a Game of the Year contender. I knew that its setting was seemingly inspired by the fictional SCP Foundation (a collaborative fictional encyclopedia documenting the anomalous and faintly ominous entities and objects held by the named organization). I knew that it incorporated live-action video into its gameplay, following the tradition of previous Remedy Entertainment games like Quantum Break. And I knew that the main character was a red-headed woman named Jesse Faden.
What I didn’t know was that Jesse Faden would end up becoming one of my favorite video game protagonists of all time. I didn’t know that she would be unlike any other video game protagonist who I had ever embodied in a game before. And I didn’t know that much of the reason for my love and affection for this game would arise from how much of myself I could see in her.
Truthfully, my first reaction to Jesse Faden was that she seemed like a very odd character to inhabit. The story begins with her arriving at the Federal Bureau of Control in search of her long-missing brother. When she arrives, she finds that the building is being attacked by a mysterious force she dubs “The Hiss”, and is swiftly appointed the Bureau’s director by the otherworldly “Board”. Throughout all of this, the player maintains a third-person control of her character, with ongoing narration from Jesse herself. But despite the player controlling her movements and hearing her thoughts, there is something about her that feels very guarded. She seems distant, as if she is not allowing the player to fully inhabit her mindset. This is a social stance that she also maintains with the other characters in the story. Conversations in Control take longer than the limited dialogue would suggest, as we experience Jesse’s thoughts as she mulls over what the other person just said, what she wants to say, and reflects on whether or not she’s revealed too much.
Playing Control, I saw Jesse analyze and overanalyze social and environmental situations. I saw her sensitivity to the nebulous invading force known as The Hiss, a sensitivity that manifests seemingly as physical pain and overstimulation that we do not see others share. I saw her remain socially guarded with all but those that she trusted most, choosing every word carefully so as not to reveal too much of herself. And I saw how she grew over time into a more confident character, taking control (so to speak) of her surroundings, growing into the role of hero and leader while never fully growing out of her secretive and guarded nature.
In short, I saw that Jesse Faden was an autistic woman like me.
Jesse Faden isn’t explicitly autistic, and my sentiment has not been verified by any official developer statement. So, perhaps more accurately, what I saw in Jesse Faden was a blueprint for how I would want an explicitly autistic woman to be portrayed in some future game. Each aspect of her character that could be interpreted as one of her autistic traits is seamlessly incorporated into either the gameplay or the narrative. She speaks with a flatter affect than the other people around her because she is choosing her words carefully and internally debating which and how many of her thoughts would be safe to share. She guards her emotions because she has negative past experiences with others’ reactions to them. Her hypersensitivity to The Hiss is featured in the game’s sound design, an ominous, echolalic whispering that infuses the soundscape like a vocal stim or intrusive thought.
Most importantly, the story never treats these traits as positive or negative. They simply are. Jesse’s sensitivity to The Hiss, her bluntness, her conversational distance and secrecy, all are treated as inherent aspects of her character, just as smug quips are treated as an inherent part of a character like Duke Nukem. The only aspect of her personality that is treated as a problem at first is her lack of self-confidence, and this is what she works to overcome as she battles against The Hiss. Working through the game’s challenges with Jesse, I felt seen in a way I often don’t in games.
As an autistic woman, I don’t see myself often represented in media generally. Depictions of autistic people in most media tends to be limited to one of two categories, both typically white and male. Either the autistic person depicted is a small, non-verbal child, or they are an adult man who in some way is a jerk to everyone around him. And while depictions of autism in television and movies are becoming a bit better and more diverse with projects like the sitcom Everything’s Going to Be Okay or Erica Milsom’s short animated film Loop (each of which, notably, incorporates autistic people in the development process and features autistic actors playing autistic characters), portrayal of autism in video games remains nearly nonexistent. As a result, I often find myself seeking out representation in characters who are not explicitly autistic, creating explanations for myself about why, just maybe, if I tilt my head and squint at their behaviors, they fall into the same neurotype as myself.
This process is something that people of many marginalized identities know all too well. When the media we consume lacks representation, we have to create our own. We latch onto certain characters and choose to interpret them through our own experiential lenses. Their behavioral quirks become evidence of some trait never explicitly stated in the text. This process of headcannoning allows us to increase the diversity of the media we consume. In doing this, we get to see ourselves in the role of hero. It’s an easy enough process in a video game, where the character is controlled by a player that can impose their will upon the text.
But, for me, there is often an extra layer when it comes to video games. In a game, not only can I be myself, I can also be whoever else I want to be. I can be someone who doesn’t struggle with everyday life, someone who can rise to the stresses of the world and be a hero. In a video game, I don’t have to worry about the social difficulties and anxieties that come with being autistic. I don’t have to worry about sensory overload or using the wrong tone when I speak. When I’m at my most anxious in real life, I can play a video game and slay a dragon. It’s a bittersweet sort of escape. I can feel like a hero, but at the same time I almost always know in the back of my mind that the character I’m playing is nothing like me in real life.
This is why Jesse Faden is so special to me. I don’t have to tilt my head or squint to see myself in her. For the first time, I see a protagonist struggle with the same sorts of social anxieties I do. I see her experience sensory overload. I hear her question whether or not she’s said too much to someone. I hear her reassurances to herself that, yes, she can do this. I see how, despite her struggles, she rises to the challenge that The Hiss offers up and conquers it. I see her do this without losing the personality traits that separate her from everyone else. Rather than seeing who I could be if only I didn’t have to deal with the struggles of being autistic, I see a role model for what heroics can look like with them. Not in spite of these struggles, not because of these struggles, but simply with them as a reality.
I see myself, and it makes all the difference.
Sarah Doherty Granoff is a current BFA student at the New York University Game Center. She has also self-published a number of games, including several about her experience as an autistic woman. You can find her games at https://octopi-with-hats.itch.io/. Sarah is working with our interns on an anthology of Bronx Twine games.