[CW: Spoilers for Control, the 2019 Remedy game.]
Representation in art can often feel like a wakeup check to how the world actually feels. Our social circles are both consciously and unconsciously self-selecting: I certainly didn’t intend to surround myself with other queer folks, but as I look around at my closest friends and most trusted cohorts, that’s what we all are. It’s easy, in these circumstances, to feel like everyone is queer: that queer is the standard. To say that this isn’t true is obvious understatement: the word “queer” literally means divergence from the norm. Still, when talking to those closest to me, queer ideas and mindsets are so everpresent that sometimes I forget most of the world doesn’t think this way.
It’s in media that I’m reminded of the abnormality of my situation, where queerness is novelty, nearly every gay relationship ends in tragedy, and trans identities are reduced to cruel comedy. It’s no wonder so many of my friends are deeply wounded by their representation in media: it hurts me to see how popular art treats them. But it hasn’t historically hurt me, because… well, I’m not there. Representation can’t hurt me if there isn’t any.
Asexuals are a small percentage of the population. Aromantic asexuals a smaller subset, and agender aromantic asexuals smaller still. Now, I don’t resent the fact that people like me don’t show up in media: I mean, what are you gonna do? Have a character talk about how Not Horny they are right now? Aces pass as a matter of fact because we are defined by an absence, and that absence is hard for others to detect. Until very recently, the only good representation I could think of was Orth Godlove, an ace character from the roleplaying podcast Friends at the Table. Even in his case, his ace identity only became apparent in a postmortem, because… yeah, why would that come up? If I didn’t wear my asexual pin during pride month, I’m sure most people around me would have no idea. Hell, I am sure they still don’t: basically no one knows the ace flag, so the pin means nothing to them.
Learning that Orth was ace tugged at nerves I didn’t know I had, and was a surprisingly powerful revelation for me. Still, it wasn’t like I felt Orth was a good representation of me: it was nice to see an intentionally represented ace get screen time, but we had little in common. After all, while Orth is ace he’s not nonbinary: he’s a cisgender man. For me, my identity as an ace is less important to me than my identity as nonbinary. I tend to emphasize the ace part, because… well, forgive me, it’s an easy to understand gimmick. The ramifications of being an asexual entity in our current society are at once easy to comprehend, but hard to understand. People intellectually get the idea, but are interested by the times it bumps into ordinary conversation. But the nonbinary part is harder to explain, and also makes me sad.
It’s not just that I don’t identify as male or female. That’s true, and it’s fine: people accustomed to queer ideas wrap their minds around that pretty quickly. It’s more that I resent bodies, and their necessity. I have long hated my consciousness being trapped in a prison of flesh, and wished to be just a presence, a friendly voice in your ear, a thoughtful formless phantom. But this goal is at least unattainable within my lifetime. I will fade away still locked in this meat coffin, but I can live without having a sex life. Thus, it’s easier to present the ace side to the world at large: it makes more sense to others, and it’s a way of living I can actually achieve, rather than an ideal form that I’ll die never knowing.
Still, it doesn’t stop me from observing the lack of characters that match my ideal self in fiction. Even AIs who you would imagine were free of form are ultimately shaped into people by their authors. Cortana from Halo can’t just be a voice, she has to be a blue titty lady. Mass Effect’s EDI can’t stay the ship’s computer, she needs to be given a curvy robot body. Ghosts possess suits of armor because god forbid they just be a will on the wind. Spirits of nature coalesce into humanoid form, beings of magic find a body to represent them. I rolled my eyes, I made my peace: I am not the sort of person who artists spend effort recreating.
That sentiment became a refrain I invoked when people asked about characters I connected with in fiction: “they don’t make art about people like me.” There was a touch of bitterness in the statement, I’m sure, but mostly it was just an acknowledgment of fact: the adventures of someone who just wants to have friends and ignore gender aren’t going to light the world on fire. As a side effect of this, there were plenty of characters I liked in fiction, but none I felt anxious for. I wanted my favs to do well, I wanted them to be happy, but it wasn’t like I had a personal stake in their future.
Then I played Control, and it scared the hell out of me.
Right from the start of the game, the main character Jesse Faden offers narration of her thoughts and motivations. It quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t just a look at her interiority: she is used to sharing mental space, and refers to some unknown entity watching over her. The entity doesn’t reply with any words that we can hear, but an ethereal kaleidoscopic effect around the edge of the screen indicates some manner of response, which Jesse is clearly able to understand. At first, I assumed this is some fourth wall breaking: that the entity is in fact the player, and by playing you are in-universe guiding Jesse through the dangers that beset her.
The reality is far more interesting than that, however. After a few hours, Jesse opens up to another character about her “friend”: Polaris, an extradimensional being that is tagging along with her in some form, offering guidance, encouragement, and power. Polaris, we learn, is a Resonance: a sound, a frequency echoing through multiple realities. She (as Jesse indicates Polaris uses she/her) protects Jesse from threats, answers questions as best she’s able, and tries to guide Jesse toward goals, indicating locations or items she has expressed interest in with spirals of distorted crystal light.
Before the game gave me a name for Polaris, I had already begun to feel attached to her, and even defensive of her. When Jesse internally expresses hesitance to tell others about her passenger because “people tend to react badly” to learning, I bristled in indignation. When Jesse briefly lost contact with Polaris, I shared the character’s panic. Is Polaris ok? I really want Polaris to be ok. And then, after learning everything, about how Polaris had been protecting Jesse for most of her life, never asking anything in return, I felt so warm and cheered. I went to work that day rallied, thinking about what a wonderful character she was.
It was on this day, surviving my nine to five, that I got a message from my friend (and Scanline Media cofounder!) Jen. “Would you feel weird if I said Polaris reminds me of you?” she asked. Of course it didn’t feel weird! Is there anyone who wouldn’t be flattered by such a comparison? She’s kind, she’s generous, she’s smart, she’s escaped the confines of blood and bone- oh. Oh. So this is what it’s like to really, really see yourself in a fictional character. And in that moment, I felt a cold touch on my heart. Suddenly, I didn’t want to play Control any more. What if something happened to Polaris? What if they revealed that she was evil, what if they hurt her? The very idea genuinely upset me.
It took me two weeks to come back to Control, only after another friend told me that they’d beaten the game, and Polaris was ok. Upon that reassurance I sat down and played through the rest of Control in a six hour session, something I haven’t done in ages. The more I played, the more I realized the game was about Polaris, and despite my friend’s words my anxiety began to mount again.
In the finale, it is revealed that the game’s setting, the Federal Department of Control, is housing Hedron, a source of benevolent Resonance in the shape of a massive geometric structure. At first it seems like Hedron and Polaris are two of a kind, and then Jesse sees Hedron and reveals to the player that Hedron is Polaris. My heart sunk. So while my friend meant well, they were wrong: Polaris does get spoiled. The representation I’ve never seen anywhere else, a formless soul of kindness, is actually not formless, and is anchored to a vessel. Even she couldn’t escape her prison.
Still, Jesse’s distress and protectiveness of Polaris/Hedron moved me as she threw her everything into saving Hedron from attack. In the end, she failed, and Hedron was destroyed. And then, something miraculous happened. Polaris was fine. Hedron wasn’t Polaris, Hedron was simply an amplifier for her. A signal booster. In its absence, Jesse became Polaris’s new signal booster, and the pair were closer than ever before.
I sat back as the credits rolled, digesting this. For years, I’ve treated my body with disdain. It’s a jail cell, and though I would die without it, I can’t but loathe the form of it, the way it traps me. For Polaris, physical form is also a necessity, but not as a prison: as a relay. It is an avatar in the classic sense, a way of conveying and manifesting her intent. There’s no indication that she resents it, she just keeps in mind that it isn’t her, merely her helper.
What if I’ve been thinking about this all wrong? Sure, I long to not need my body. To be free of it. But I do need it, and even if I was able to be free of it, I’d lose some ability to affect the world. Perhaps I should appreciate my body more. And perhaps when people say my dead name, it’s like when the characters of Control talk about Hedron. They’re just confusing the relay for the consciousness.
This idea has been sitting with me ever since, and it has caused me to behave more responsibly. I take minor injuries more seriously, I don’t curse my body when it lets me down. For all its flaws- and ask my doctor, it has many– it’s my relay. It’s my connection to the physical world. And what good would escaping it actually do? Perhaps all I truly want is the option to escape. It’s a calming thought, when I’m at my most dysphoric.
This body isn’t me. If you talk to Six, know that this body is simply the way I receive that message. But maybe that’s ok, too. The message has to get to me somehow.