Why Video Games: Transistor and screaming in silence - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
2May/160

Why Video Games: Transistor and screaming in silence

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, 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, "...how 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.My options are plentifulCSTVIcon_SethGordenLots of fertile ground in which to work, too. Things/People are churning the world over right now with serious and energized discussion of gender, and outside of binaries and spectrums and other ways of illustrating humanities variety - I see people noticing each other. It's hard not to jump right into existential-type stuff when we go here, but the main thing is, yes, there is already a lot of talk and attention about who feels control and lack-of-control and why, and what is there to do about it? The trick of gameplay is a hard one, though. And this where every industry is likely to have some mis-steps as they figure it out. It's the point where we have all these great tools, all this great talent, but now we have to deal the traditions and habits that got us those great tools and skills. Habits like how video games are about fighting.

That's not a definition, but it is a strong habit. And it's hard to think outside strong habits. That too, is part of the metaphor I see between the idea of process, control and observation and the human mind itself. Our central processor is electric, and it is capable routing and re-routing power according to our development as a person. But those strong habits, those are hard to break. If we imagine, briefly, that some given electrical pathway in our brain is actually a river. Breaking a habit, once we are aware of it, is something like asking that old river which has developed over time (and is quite cozy flowing down that mountain into that valley and so on) if it would kindly flow back up the mountain, down the other side, and into a different area entirely.

So far as Transistor's fighting goes, it's fine. Plenty of fun to be had there. But it'll take a real spark to figure out how create a gameplay experience (not just a story) that's about loss of control without shedding some of the presuppositions about how to make a game.

You made another point which I think is quite important, about the silences between battle. I've had this idea pop up this year, which makes sense of a lot of strange things. Pointing out a mute female lead, that's fascinating. One the one hand, it could said to represent a related situation that women find themselves in. It could also be said that this particular representation isn't helping. But no matter which way you look at it, I'm primarily curious about the silence itself, and about how and where it happens. And here's why - I'm pretty sure that the only real communication that exists happens there.

This is pretty out-there type stuff. But I'm pretty sure (and, by the way, it has completely transformed my listening of Simon and Garfunkle's song on the subject). I see humans interact all the time, and it seems to me lately that language is busy work we do while we communicate something entirely other. I say 'other' because sometimes the stuff that's happening in the silence is very similar to what's being said out loud, or what's being gestured. And when those things line up, we might call that sincere, or we might call it integrity, or we might call it well-aligned if nothing else. But whatever we might call it... there's in intangible form of communication somewhere in the mix and more-subtle even than body language (which is it quite loud and busy itself, in a way).

Bringing it back around to Transistor, a mute character could be seen as disempowered. And that view couldn't be called wrong. But also it could be seen (even simultaneously) as the false communication being stripped away. It could be seen as focus. I could be way off, but I related to Red as the only character who made any kind of sense. She had lots to say as I ran along with her, it just wasn't voice acted.

After all, the sword never shuts up. Can't handle much silence. Can't move alone. Is afraid of being manipulated by the wrong people. Is concerned about everything. Who's disempowered here? Who, if anyone, is strong?

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThe point of the gameplay, where Red has to literally disembody herself to defeat her enemies, is a great one to address who is powerful and not.  When you first acquire the Transistor you travel along until you fight a single part of the Process.  The Transistor is heavy, Red can't move it without creating sparks as it scrapes along the ground, and when you fight your first enemy you may take a good bit of damage while you slowly dish out enough attacks to destroy it.  The Supergiant team creates a nice response to Bastion, and reminds the player that even if you fine-tuned your twitch reflexes, they aren't going to cut it for Transistor.

When Red gets to the next fight she gets the ability to pause the Process.  Now, it's not enough to destroy each bit, but it's enough to give Red the room to eliminate the bits of the Process which pose an immediate threat to her.  The important piece for this bit of gameplay is that if you destroy the non-enemy parts of the Process, like the walls, they'll grow back after a bit of time.  This reinforces the idea early on that whatever change Red can make in the world is going to be temporary.  If you play Transistor with the higher difficulty modules added then Red's enemies end up with the same abilities.  She can kill one, but it will just split into fractions of itself, and if you kill or absorb those fractions, all it means is that she'll be able to move on to the next struggle.

What kind of life is this where all you get for defeating one struggle is to move on to the next?  Pretty dismal, if you ask me.  The bosses reflect this too, going from external threats to the city, and culminating in an internal threat within the Transistor itself.  You said that you didn't play the Recursion option, and it ends the same way as all the other struggles do - with Red deciding it's better to die by her own hand than it is to assume she'll be able to shape the world into something better.

Saving the gendered implications for now, the gameplay feeds into an ending which says that the only way to succeed is to stop.  The player doesn't win by continuing to play Transistor, but by putting it down and doing something else - anything else.  I'm not 100% sold on the implications of this approach because our increased access to technology has been able to make lives more bearable for people than ever before.  Yet, we know from studies that social media tends to make people more depressed than if they were living their lives without it.  This is where the breaks in the action, those moments where Red types away at different consoles, where Transistor becomes heartbreaking.  Red just isn't able to keep up with her technology-bleached world, and decides to retreat to an Eden within the Transistor instead of trying her hand at reshaping the world into something new.

The subtle visual changes, soundtrack, and writing state that in a world where technology becomes our primary source of communication there comes a time where you have to accept that and change.  The only alternative is to be left in a world of your own making - which is kind of how we exist to begin with.  I think the ending is a happy one, because the world may be a blank scroll Red can bend to be whatever she wants it to, but that wouldn't make her much different than the Camerata.  So if Red is powerful +1, the gameplay and conclusion of the story lead her to an ending that makes her powerful +0, putting herself onto the same level as everyone else - but by her choice.

Stop the world I'll digitize with youCSTVIcon_SethGordenI like the illustration that to change the world by attempting to defeat it always goes to a similar place. The idea that going all the way in that direction is, for the sake of argument and storytelling, the villain's path. That's fascinating to me. I think I agree with you, that the ending is a happy one. I don't like it. And I don't like it because it's possible to consider her choice viable for her, based on the world we're shown in this game.

In our world, there are a lot more things going on. We have our Cameratas, but that's one layer of many. And our world is teeming with life always, no matter how bleak the world of humans is at the time. In our world, Red's story would register as an unnecessary tragedy. It's jarring. It's not fun. Even though she is shown making her choice of her own will, and making her peace in the midst of it.  It threw me out of Transistor because there were so many parts of it which energetically reminded me of my own world. And it was only at the end point that my world and Transistor's world were irrevocably thrown apart.

I wouldn't call it a deep story, so far as characters go. Maybe this game is what film-makers of the '60s might call a tone poem. Even if I'm misplaced that reference, I think poetry is the ballpark I want to put this game in. Its got style. Its got mood. There is a deep experience available, but there's resistance on the way down if I focus too much on the surface elements.

Either way, this game is bigger than it looks (if not especially long). And it's stronger than its narrative, and Supergiant Games are living up to their name, in my opinion. They've got my attention, and they've got me curious.

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayTaking Transistor as a tone poem isn't a bad approach, especially when we consider the soundtrack.  I'm a sucker for reverb-heavy guitars, and the first thing we hear after the opening line, "We're not going to get away with this, are we?" is the lovely ringing of those guitars.  If the dialogue wasn't indication enough, the reverb gets us mentally prepared to listen out for one musical pattern bleeding onto the next.  Even when the score is silenced between walks the echo of Reds feet continues the hum of the guitar in a different direction.  The only moments where Red gets to be alone is when she's separated from herself in combat, and in those moments the soundtrack is silenced save for one voice and that endless drone.  Even when she's in control the reality of the disappearing world makes itself known.

It's in the cycle of gameplay, to soundtrack, to the gorgeous (if, admittedly, similar) visuals of the city that I identify with Red's gendered fate.  Women's voices get drowned out in a sea of aggression and violence.  The recent hate slung at Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian show how readily the men in this tech-heavy gaming world are willing to silence women.  I thought of that as Red accessed her first terminal, trying to go along with the world and vote in internet polls without changing much.  Then, as Red tries to warn more people of the danger and she gradually uses her own voice, all the system can muster for a response comes in the form of bland platitudes and violent attacks.  This is a depressingly accurate reflection of the larger conversation about sexism in the video game industry, even if our "real world" holds a bit more hope.

With Transistor, I'm taking more steps into the idea that video games don't have to be fun to convey a message well.  I still like bright colors, optimistic protagonists, booming soundtracks and so on.  But with Transistor I was gripped so immediately in this dying world that I became curious about the world's fate, and how Red would respond to it.  Instead of rebuilding the world according to a man's wishes, that constantly chattering man, she decides to roll the dice and take a chance on something she wants for a change.  This singer, whose image was molded to please others as we see in the many illustrated breaks from the story, wants to end this story on her own terms.

I respect that, even if I don't think it's much fun.

What we're gaming this week

CSTVIcon_SethGordenIn a slight departure, I'm gonna talk about Pokemon the collectible card game. My son is seven years old. I've been a Magic: The Gathering player on and off since I was a teen, and I was prepared to have a strategic advantage from my experience as a Magic player. But as my son and I learned the rules, and began building decks together and really pushing the power of our available cards in combination, I marveled at how carefully controlled the game's design really is. And when I stay controlled, that includes elements which hardcore gamers sometimes rail against as uncontrollable. Namely: random effects in the game. Randomization is a deep well of debate, but it's basically a method of whimsy that allows players of any experience level to occasionally score a bonus of some kind. Lots of Pokemon cards have attacks or ability that hinge on coin tosses, which is one side of it.

But there's all a thing called Prize Cards. At the beginning of the game, you after both players have settled on their opening hand. Each player deals out six face-down prize cards that nobody gets to look at. The idea is that when you knock out an opposing Pokemon, you get to draw one of those cards as a reward. All sounds positive. And certainly... in Magic, being able to draw a card whenever an opponent's creature dies would be a huge advantage. But wait... there's more! If you draw all six prize cards, you win the game! But wait... there's a hidden element in the design of these prize cards. And that element is that each player eliminates six cards from their deck at the beginning, which cannot be drawn until progress has been made. This puts both players off balance, and allows for swings in either direction for control of the arena as those cards are recovered (if arena is the proper term, I'm not sure how they refer to the play area in official tournaments).

I've both and won and lost to my son in our first games together, which is delightful as an experience to share with a young gamer. The Pokemon culture also, I have found, promotes good sportsmanship. Shaking hands is always step one of the game. And it's important to keep a good attitude in all situations, and try one's hardest, even in defeat. As franchise experience, the cartoon (despite its highly effective commercial indoctrination) does do a good job of demonstrating sportsmanship in key moments, and I was pleased to see these behavior come unbidden out of my son. As a final comment, I did find one major similarity between Pokemon and Magic, which is that solid deck-building skills, and an understanding of general patterns in probability are immensely helpful in crafting a winning experience. There's always the chance, though, that somebody will come along with Pokemon that happen to target your dudes, and big damage will rain down and spoil things. Which brings me to the other point of similarity: always have another deck handy!

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayBoy howdy has April been a packed month for gaming.  I beat Scholar of the First Sin right before my copy of Dark Souls 3 came in.  I've been making surprisingly speedy progress through DS3, but since I've been playing SotFS or Bloodborne so much over the last few months I shouldn't be surprised.

On my 3DS I picked up the delightful Bravely Second, which I may have to write about once I'm done as it further refines its unique approach to random battles and damn near perfects it.

Finally, at least for the moment, is The Banner Saga 2.  I'm a huge fan of The Banner Saga as its elegiac tone, gorgeous art style, and careful map-based RPGs put my brain into a nice place.  I'm about two chapters in with TBS2, and while some earth-shattering stuff has occurred the focus never strays far from the strain of the fantastic on people who just want to live in peace.

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Posted by Andrew

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