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Why Video Games: Transistor and screaming in silence

We aren't going to get away with this

Why Video Games is our ongoing look at the construction, reception, interpretation, and impact of important video games.  For the introduction to our series, please click here.

We aren't going to get away with this Supergiant Games. Transistor. I can't speak for the developers, but I think they chose these names well, and I'm gonna go ahead and read into both of these names as we kick off this article. I'm a  visual person, and when you put a word like Supergiant in front of my face, I'm gonna see pictures in my mind that correspond. Not a giant, but something large enough that merely 'giant' wouldn't fit the bill. When I play a game made by a company using that name... I'm thinking "These guys are using big words, I hope they deliver an experience that lives up to their big words."

Transistor. We're talking computers now. That's a sort of vague reference by itself, but we have this strong theme. We have excellent visuals. Lady with a talking sword. From the beginning of the launch trailer we see this light-up sword corresponding with the primary voice actor's dialog. He's talking about friends and enemies. There are some tech-y looking elements here and there, but nothing to explain the title of Transistor. What's going on here?

That's both my interpretation and the theme of this game. There's a story, but that story, to me, is a vehicle for a entirely unseen, unspoken narrative that has something to do with electronics, processing, computers, or what-have-you. "What's going on here?" is a question which is figuratively pasted all over the game world. And I'm pretty sure that question is an invitation as well. One of the rabbit-hole sort of invitations that can lead anywhere, pending your willingness to submit to the process of finding answers to your questions.

So before we dive down the rabbit hole. Let's define transistor outside of the game. What did this word mean before there was a game borrowing its name? In short, a transistor is a device which regulates the flow of electricity in a circuit, often within a larger electronic device. The other half of this question is "what do they do?". Often, they are used as a switch or gate, in other words as physical unit of logic for how an engineer wants power to flow through a device.

What does it have to do with a talking sword or a mute warrior lady? To be honest, I'm not sure, even after reaching the end. But I'm not sure whether it's completely important to understand the characters themselves. If we return to our thesis statement that video games are the approximation of some experience, we'll be hard-pressed to come up with any suitable answer if we draw directly and only from the actions of our protagonists.

Since this is my first time writing the opening statement, I'm going bold. Gonna lay out my big idea at the beginning here and see if it holds up through the rest of the conversation. I think Transistor is about observing choices, opposition, and other binaries in a linear narrative track. In other words - what it's like to be aware, to have understanding, but to have no control over an outcome.

This idea is informed both by my experience in-game, and by my experience outside of it. In-game, it's a weird-but-awesome battle against robots and other creatures that seem to be in a position of power or dominance (or are deployed from such a position). Outside the game, I'm working through another set of game-like obstacles... inside my head. I have fought many battles there, too, and this video game has illustrated some of those internal battles. I started to see Transistor as a fairly accurate representation of a personal breakdown (mental, or otherwise).

Logic gets applied, strategies are formed, power is gathered where it can be gathered. But the path is linear, the obstacles are set and staged, the ending is determined (Note: I have not played the Recursion mode and have no idea whether there are multiple endings in either mode). The sense I got through the whole thing is that all the time I'm powering up and learning the game, my power and effectiveness was actually being stripped away. That's not to say I didn't figure out how to kill bad guys. But I didn't figure out to save those people and things to which I had given my focus and attention. And I didn't make the world a better place. Not for the protagonists, anyway.I will kill who should be my sisterI can work with big ideas, and Supergiant Games entered the realm of Big Ideas with Transistor.  Their previous effort, Bastion, was a good game, but not one which caught my imagination.  It may be because I grew up with classic Western heroes in a cinematic sense as the narrator of Bastion reminded me of Sam Elliott, or John Wayne if you caught him on a day where he'd had nothing but cigars and whiskey for sustenance.  The setting of Bastion wasn't too unique either as I've grown up with video games like Joust and Chrono Trigger, so I was accustomed to the idea of a decaying world either being propped up or collapsing from the sky because of powers our avatars couldn't understand.

On the gameplay front, Bastion also reminded me of a slightly more action-packed DiabloBastion wasn't anything I hadn't seen before, but as you mention their care in naming I'd be ignorant not to say that the idea of a bastion, or a bulwark against annihilation, wasn't core to both the narration and the constant barrage of action.  With Transistor, the name already prepares us for an amplification of Bastion, but instead of going bigger with Transistor - because how much more can we go than the end of the world? - it goes smaller, and by that I mean more focused.

A transistor in "real life" isn't the end of an electric signal as all that happens within the transistor is it gets amplified or moved to a separate current.  What happens within Transistor is just that, painful and sudden changes from one state of being to the next.  The narrator is already trapped within his (its?) next state of being, transitioning from a human existence to one which has to settle for cool and disaffected narration throughout most of the gameplay.  The protagonist Red, on the other hand, is stuck in a phase before the transition.  She calls out to the world with words and expressions which don't mean anything in face of the apocalypse.

To that transition, I want us to consider the words of my video gaming equivalent of Roger Ebert - the magnificent Tevis Thompson.  With respect to the narration and Red's role in it, he said, " is a voiceless woman with a sword-lover who will not shut up a good idea?"  Considering the problems women have had with representation in the video game world, I think he makes a crucial point.  As an idea to consider alongside that point, it's the silences between combat, the communication which comes from the text and not the audio, which I feel is the most important part of Transistor.  What you mentioned, about being in control of an avatar who is explicitly not in control, is where Transistor's ideas about gender and humanity's next phase of evolution with technology come into play.

You literally play a woman who isn't in control of herself, and she's not in control of herself because of a man.  Yes, it's a sword, but as we find out it's men who masterminded the conspiracy which killed the world.  Transistor is a companion piece to Mad Max: Fury Road in this way.  So while the combat pushes Red toward a future where she has to let go of herself, the spaces in-between show Red trying desperately to communicate with a world which may have never been listening too hard to begin with.  I want you to take these Big Ideas, and start cramming them into the gameplay, because I feel we have a lot to work with here.


Keanu (2016)

The cinematography and performances are funny but never condescend to action movies even in Keanu's more melodramatic moments.

Rell is having one of the worst days of his life.  His longtime girlfriend has left him heartbroken and alone in his home.  Just as his cousin Clarence comes to cheer Rell up, he hears a little scratching and meow at the door, where he finds a kitten he names Keanu.  Just as Rell's life is starting to pick up he comes home to find someone has broken into his apartment and kitten-napped Keanu.  Rell, determined to make his life whole again, drags the reluctant Clarence into the criminal underworld to rescue Rell's feline companion.  Peter Atencio directs Keanu from a screenplay written by Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens, and stars Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, and Jason Mitchell.

Yeah, I'd do anything for my cat tooKey and Peele is dead.

Long live Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

Their brilliant show on Comedy Central came to an end late last year despite its continued popularity.  As Key put it, "It was just time for us to explore other things, together and apart.Keanu arrives just a few months after the last episode of Key and Peele and, saints be praised, it's a great sign of what Key and Peele are going to be up to when they're working together.

The big thing to remember about Keanu, and what made so many of their sketches fantastic on Key and Peele, is they don't condescend to any of the genres they work with.  Key and Peele are huge fans of every form of entertainment and do their best to work within a style even if they're making some satirical jabs at it.  On its face, and based on that wonderful trailer, Keanu may seem like a farcical take on action-comedies in the vein of Pineapple Express.  But, as with the best of their sketches, Key and Peele are using the form of an action blockbuster to function as a loving nod to the bullet ballets they love, all while delivering an assortment of great character beats and some sly commentary.

"Understated" might not be the word many associate with the work of Key and Peele, but the best moments of Keanu work in this vein.  Sure, you've got your slow-mo gunfights and adorable kitten costumes for little Keanu, but the insecurities of Clarence (Key) and Rell (Peele) are what drive the comedy.  On Clarence's end, his background training corporate yes men finds a comfortable and heartwarming place amid the stereotypical gangster supporting characters.  While with Rell, he gets to counteract his perpetually stoned post-breakup sadness with pure love and care for little Keanu.


The Hateful Eight (2015)

The odd beautiful shot here and there isn't enough to make up for Tarantino's ideological shortcomings, the repetitive nature of the script, or the boring camerawork once we're situated in the cabin.

A storm's coming, and eight strangers stranded in a solitary cabin on the hill are about to have a rough night.  One among them is a killer, picking off these mercenaries and reformed criminals one by one.  If any of them is going to survive the night they'll need to figure this out fast, or succumb to the hatred of an unseen enemy.  Quentin Tarantino writes and directs The Hateful Eight, and stars Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Into the murderous subsurvienceTo even the most casual of readers, it’s clear I haven’t been updating as much as in the past.  There’s a bevy of reasons, but the most important is many movies just haven’t been interesting me.  The Oscars hemmed and hawed their way through my screen, I saw a few of the stragglers left, and the DVD slowly gathered dust as my attention waned.  What I thought would be a good cure for this valley was Quentin Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight.

I’m not a Tarantino groupie, one of the few people bored by Pulp Fiction, and thought both Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds were terrible.  On the other side, Django Unchained was a magnificent change of pace and saw Tarantino turned some of the criticisms of his movies back on himself.  Tarantino the director-as-actor became a barely comprehensible huckster who gets himself blow up, all while Tarantino the director pointed at an alternate history where black performers dominated spaghetti westerns.  Django Unchained had its problems, most notably where Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda was concerned, but by criticizing himself Tarantino created one of his best films and my nominee for greatest scene of the 2010’s (so far).

The Hateful Eight began slow, gathered disdain through Tarantino’s typically spicy dialogue, and finally collapsed into a void of horrible as Tarantino indulged in all his worst impulses.  I suppose that’s better than forgettable, but the overt misogynistic, racial, and homophobic violence which forms the core of The Hateful Eight is barely preferable.  For those who think Tarantino cloaks himself in the veneer of an alt-filmmaker who uses his clout to write things so hateful they’d sink lesser directors, The Hateful Eight will offer little in the way of a counter-argument. It’s, in fact, so bad I may join them.


Why Video Games: The Hypocrisy of Life is Strange

We'll be enough for now, but not always

Why Video Games is our ongoing look at the construction, reception, interpretation, and impact of important video games.  For the introduction to our series, please click here.

We'll be enough for now, but not alwaysAlex Robinson is, for my money, one of the greatest graphic novel artists of the 21st century.  There's no bad place to start, but the most relevant of his works to this essay is the opening story to one of his issues of Box Office PoisonBOP is a soap opera of sorts, prone to breaking the fourth wall by having its characters answer questions like, "What would you ask God?" and taking detours into the character's histories.  The history that opens this particular issue of BOP (and I'd like to give you the number, but my collection's still packed away) has the cartoonist Jane Pekar address her high school self.  Instead of telling her past self things like, "You're going to be a massive success," or, "Everything will be ok," the elder Jane opts for the truth.  She tells her younger self that things are going to be hard, and she won't always fit in, but if young Jane continues to work through her pain and awkwardness she'll find success on her own level and meet the man of her dreams.

These are painful truths, that even though Jane recognizes as an adult that her teenaged self was a good person, Jane will have to weather more pain before she gets to the good stuff.  Life is Strange (LiS), developed by Dontnod Entertainment, focuses on the pain of being a teenager and still trying to figure out what your place is in the world.  There are clumsy aspects to this, especially as LiS hits its last chapter, but the focus on being a weird teenager ostracized from what you think is "normal" is always the focus of the game.

The brilliant aspect of LiS comes from its central mechanic.  Max, your player character, has the opportunity to rewind time and replay events in her life as they unfold.  This is a play on one of the most common desires of those entering middle-age or going through a rough college era patch - that you could go back in time and tell your high school self everything they'd need to approach life with more confidence.  But LiS, like high school, isn't so simply arranged in a, "Do this and now things'll be swell," mindset.  Instead, LiS constantly reminds the player, through the events of Max's life, that no matter how many "do-overs" you have, life is going to continue on - for better or worse - without you.


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

His light is our light

There was a time before Superman, and a time after.  Now that the world knows there are men among them who might break the planet at a moment's notice, what do we do with our lives?  Batman takes it as a sign that he needs to return to punishing those who live in opposition to order.  What neither Superman nor Batman are aware of is another figure behind the scenes, one who understands all ethical systems may be manipulated to destroy one another.  So if Superman and Batman were to fight, would any of us win?  Zack Snyder directs Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, from a screenplay written by Chris Terrio, and David S. Goyer, and stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and Jesse Eisenberg.

His light is our lightWhat are we talking about when we talk about Clark Kent?  We're all going to answer the question a different way.  Are we going to be discussing the paragon of All-Star Superman, the one who is able to take time for a woman contemplating suicide before giving Lois Lane superpowers?  Or maybe it's the flawed Clark of Kingdom Come?  This one couldn't handle what his symbol was inspiring, escaped the world to live only as Clark, and when he returned as Superman created a prison for those who wouldn't play by the rules.  My favorite, and the one who came to mind the most watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS), was the Clark of Superman for All Seasons.  The one who was manipulated to feel he couldn't make a difference, but when the time came to save a flooding town he put the cape back without question because, "...all I needed to know know was Clark."

Zack Snyder understands Clark.  He understood Clark was a boy raised in a humble, loving, and not always correct family.  Clark had abilities which made him unlike anyone else, and with that the pressure of becoming a symbol for something we as a species aren't capable of.  Man of Steel put Clark through the wringer, presenting him an impossible situation and a public suspicious of him, and still Clark found the strength to do what good he could. Snyder's Clark is not like Grant Morrison's, Mark Waid's, or Jeph Loeb's.  You may recognize bits of those other Clarks, but Snyder's is aware that he can't save everyone.  But still he tries.

If Man of Steel was Snyder embracing the optimism of a superhero in our troubled times, BvS positions itself as the critique that Clark's best is not good enough.  I don't agree with that, and thankfully neither do screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer.  This is because the critique comes in the form of Batman, whose perspective skews the moral lens of BvS, and exposes the virus of modern American society.  If Batman is what our policemen aspire to, the one's who are supposed to be protecting us, then they aspire to become careless xenophobic men of power who can hurt who they want - when they want.  Batman is not someone we should aspire to be.  Clark is.