Friday Feature: Transistor

A little while ago (2011) a brand new game studio, called Supergiant Games,  showed up at PAX with a cute little action game. Gameplay-wise, it was nothing to shake up the action game scene, even by indie game standards What made this game truly unique, though, was it’s art-house style and peculiar narrative design.

In Bastion, the landscape itself formed up around the protagonist as he made his way through the game, fighting off enemies as they popped out of the ground. Much like the land itself, the narration of “The Kid” and his story happened only as you played. None of the story was told through cutscenes and the narrator only ever responded to the player’s actions. These two components of Bastion gave players the feeling of more involvement in the story. Rather than playing the game to reveal the story, the story was about what they were doing.

Of course Bastion was still a very linear game, but its claims to fame – gradual terrain and responsive narration (not to mention the absolutely unbelievable soundtrack by Darren Korb) – are no less well-earned.

But just last week, Supergiant Games released their second title: Transistor. 

Transistor is more than just a worthy successor Bastion.

The gameplay feels like a natural progression from where Bastion began. Both games would comfortably be described as “action” games, but Transistor incorporates strategic “tactics”-like elements (other “tactics” games include Final Fantasy TacticsAdvance WarsFire EmblemX-COM, and The Banner Saga) that make Transistor feel a bit more grown-up. Less technically speakig, of course, Transistor is just plain fun! As the titular weapon downloads more “Functions” (the game’s name for your attacks), experimenting with different combinations becomes almost as entertaining as the plentiful battles that adorn your journey.

Transistor is a beautiful story about a woman whose voice (literally) was taken from her. It’s about her lover. It’s about a city that they both love deeply, but isn’t what it used to be. It’s about change, and remembering the way things were without ever being able to go back. It’s even more than that, I don’t want to spoil any of the story, because it’s worth your investment. Suffice it to say that it rivals or even surpasses its AAA, giant game company, contemporaries while coming from a still-very-small studio.

The story is probably best described as a sci-fi noir romance. It has classic elements of all three genres, but it adapts them into something wholly new and claims it for its own. Where both Bastion and Transistor are set against the backdrop of collapsing “civilizations,” Transistor‘s approach is able to carry the romantic sub-genre in a way that Bastion wouldn’t have been able to, and as a result the protagonist is far more sympathetic, even while silent.

The game also carries on the grand tradition of having an unparalleled soundtrack, something I find to be an asset to any game, but it makes ones like Bastion and Transistor really stand out from the crowd. Darren Korb’s work is the music that the games industry deserves.

All-in-all, Transistor is just worth your time and money, don’t be kicking yourself when it starts getting tossed around as a possible game of the year – play it now!

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Enjoy fantasy? And female protagonists? Make this your next vacation read.

Sabriel Cover

It took me about 18 months to give in to my boyfriend’s suggestions and read Sabriel, by Garth Nix.

I don’t know why I was so reluctant — he has good taste that’s similar to mine, and I enjoy a good fantasy novel, especially with a female protagonist. (I think actually it took me a while to discern the bust on the cover figure, and so I assumed it was about some medieval version of an ’80s skater boy).

But, thankfully, I eventually relented. And when I mentioned enjoying it on facebook, numerous friends chimed in saying they’d been fans for ages! Apparently I missed the boat back in 1995, but I’m on it now.

The map presented by Nix in Sabriel’s inside cover

Sabriel is actually the first book in a soon-to-be-quartet by Australian author Garth Nix, which takes place in a fantasy world which includes both the magical “Old Kingdom”, and (on the other side of The Wall) a non-magical society called “Ancelstierre”, which seems like early 1900s England. (While the non-magical part of the world has telegraphs, automobiles, and tanks, they lack many other modern-day accoutrements).

In the Old kingdom, magic can still function, but anything machine-made crumbles. It’s a place of monarchy & magic, and it has little to do with the people on the other side of it. To the south, a different government rules, magic doesn’t work, and some people there think all the magic is really just scientifically-explainable phenomena.

Those who live along the wall know otherwise. Soldiers guard it day and night to prevent unauthorized crossing in any direction (you need an official letter from both sides’ governments to cross) — and they use both magical and man-made weapons.

Sabriel, knows all of this — her father is the “Abhorsen”; a title claimed by one woman or man each generation in her family. The Abhorsen is a necromancer who returns the dead to where they belong, instead of raising them for evil & manipulation. He or she is responsible for protecting the people of the Old Kingdom from undead-making necromancers, and for banishing them and their possessed dead back through the seven gates to true Death.

The Abhorsen accomplishes this with 7 bells which can control either the dead or the living — making them walk, speak, be silent, or even go straight past the 7th gate on the river of death. As a necromancer, the Abhorsen must travels through the gates along the river of Death in order to find or fight other necromancers & the dead while avoiding the traps that each gate inherently holds.

Sabriel easily checks off the must-have qualities of a good fantasy novel — it’s well-written, dramatic, suspenseful, and each page leaves you hungry for more. The world is beautifully concocted and rich in detail; I was especially intrigued by the concept of the “Charter”, from which all “good” mages get their power. More power-hungry folks (like other necromancers) will instead try to tap into Free Magic, which the Charter was designed (in part) to constrain. Its power is drawn upon through runes, engraved or visualized, and it relies on the existence of engraved Charter Stones to keep it attainable by the mages. I found this concept to be very creative and distinct from magic in most fantasy novels, which is quite an accomplishment.

Once I got started, I couldn’t put it down — and then I couldn’t wait to get the next two from my local library!

via Flickr user Alastair Crompton: https://flic.kr/p/dqGgt7

via Flickr user Alastair Crompton: https://flic.kr/p/dqGgt7

In a delightful way which reminds me of Tamora Pierce’s books, the character development — especially of the female protagonists — is realistic & interesting. Throughout the series, we get female characters with aspirations and conflicts and problems that are multi-dimensional. And they’re not supposedly thinking about how their breasts feel against their tunics all the time, either (ahem, George R.R. Martin).

But, they’re also teenagers. And, you know what? They act kind of like real teenagers do — they can be short-sighted, ungrateful, grumpy, easily embarrassed, and reluctant to take advice. But they can also be brave & interesting & conflicted & are usually trying to do the right thing.

The comparative literature major in me also enjoyed the revelations over the 3 published books of conflicting moralities, shades of gray between wrong & right, and debates about whether anything can be truly, inherently evil (and whether attempts to restrain something dangerous can go too far).

(Oh, and did I mention there was a talking cat named “Mogget”? Yeah, he’s pretty cynical & awesome).

While the first book centers on Sabriel, the 2nd and 3rd are one long (and addicting) story arc following Lirael, whose life does eventually intertwine with Sabriel’s, though many years after the first book takes place. While this isn’t a common structure for a quartet, the books were so exciting that I didn’t care at all. I was glad I’d picked up #2 and 3 from the library on the same day so that I could move onto Abhorsen as soon as I finished Lirael.

There are elements in Nix’s series which remind me of the Gemma Doyle trilogy (Libba Bray), the Lioness Rampant quartet (Tamora Pierce), and even the Foundation trilogy (Isaac Asimov). (That last one is less obvious of a connection, but I personally got a similar feeling from the two books in how they tell stories of multiple generations & the passage of time).

They’re all quick reads, too (but so exciting that you might pick ’em up just a couple months later for a re-read!). As summer (and hopefully a vacation or two) looms closer, I heartily endorse picking up Sabriel, and seeing if you don’t get pulled along for the rest of the series!

 

Interactive Tragedy: The Kobayashi Maru, Storytelling, and Videogames

SPOILER WARNING: The Banner Saga, Spec Ops: The Line, The Last of Us.

Shakespeare is famous more for his tragedies than his comedies (or histories or poetry), but Shakespeare is far from the only tragic playwright. Aristotle believed that the purpose of tragedy is catharsis – the purging emotions like fear and anger through art. Shakespeare’s tragedies were famous for all (or nearly all) of the main characters meeting an untimely demise at some point during the story. This tradition continues in movies like The Departed and Pan’s Labyrinth, and to some extent in noir comics like Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal and Fatale .

One of the features of many of these stories is he often rapid decline and unravelling of the lives of people who would be “normal.” Tragedies are easily identified by the untimely demise of the main characters, often as a result of their own actions.

Tragic storytelling has long been a feature of art, but rarely is interactive storytelling (a-la video games) truly tragic in the Shakespearean sense. Spec Ops: The Line, The Last of Us, and most recently for me, The Banner Saga, are recent exceptions to this rule. These games, all of which rely on emotional investment in the primary protagonist to tell their story, are tragedies.

The Kobayashi Maru is a fictional “test” given to Starfleet cadets in the Star Trek universe. It is designed to be an unwinnable scenario – the cadet receiving the test encounters a disabled ship in the Klingon neutral zone. Rescuing the ship will violate the treaty and provoke an attack from the Klingons, but leaving the ship stranded will undoubtedly mean the death of the ship and its passengers. The test became part of the mainstream canon thanks to the 2009 Star Trek movie, in which James Tiberius Kirk cheats the test and reprograms it in order to make the scenario “winnable.”

Kirk famously insists that he doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.

Interactive tragedy feels like a no-win scenario. In the realm of video games, it can be particularly frustrating. No matter how meticulously you play through each chapter, it’s often cut-scenes or non-interactive moments that snatch your beloved characters away from you. Sometimes, however, it’s a result of the choices you make that the characters you have invested in have to die.

My recent experience with The Banner Saga left me reeling a little bit. The story begins in a world already engulfed in tragedy: the gods are dead, giants and humans have been at war, mysterious creatures called Dredge are now invading the homes of both, forcing an uneasy alliance between them. Above all, the sun has stopped moving through the sky and the already-restless world is bathed in ceaseless daylight, offering the weary stragglers and survivors of two wars no night in which to find sleep.

The game centers around managing your struggling caravan of refugees as you make your way from one overcrowded stronghold to the next. The days tick by while your resources are soaked up. Many times, a week or more would go by between towns where I could restock our carts of food and supplies. Many times I was only able to buy a couple of days worth of rations on each stop.

With every day that goes by after your food runs out, your clansmen, fighters, and allied giants will die off in greater and greater numbers. Before I finally reached the final stronghold where we were forced to turn and fight the approaching Dredge, an inland sea at our backs, my caravan had gone for 4 days without food.

[Major spoilers follow for The Banner Saga] When we were making our final stand, my character’s daughter stepped forward. The party had been given a single arrow, forged from metal imbued with a dead god’s power, and it was the only weapon that could take down the large, vengeful Dredge called Bellower that had been hunting us throughout the game. She was a master archer, and I was less skilled. Despite my insistence that Bellower’s vengeful nature would make the wielder of the magic arrow his primary target, she said, “It’s time for me to decide what happens to me,” and took the arrow into battle where she would be sure to make the shot, and sure to incur Bellower’s wrath.

There was nothing I could do to stop it. We brought down the giant Dredge, but we watched the young woman crushed in his hands.

In the course of the game, I’d lost several friends to unforeseeable consequences of decisions I’d made for the good of the caravan. My most trusted friend lost his arm defending us. I was responsible for destroying a magnificent bridge, constructed by the giants, in a vain attempt to slow the advancing dredge army. Hundreds of fighters died under my “command.”

But this moment, this excruciating moment, was when I realized the tragedy of this story. As we floated her body away on a boat we’d set ablaze, I realized there was no other way it could have gone. Whoever shot that arrow was going to die, and though part of me wished that I had given it to my own character, my character’s daughter had a point: it was her turn to define what would happen to her.

The Kobayashi Maru is a simulated tragedy to teach Starfleet cadets a lesson about “real life” no-win scenarios they might encounter as the commander of a starship. It’s not real, but unprepared cadets would go into the test expecting to pass it, and would be shocked into learning a lesson that they will be making hard decisions one which lives would depend in their careers with starfleet.

Tragic plays, novels, and movies offer emotional catharsis, benefiting the viewers and readers. They’re also simulated tragedy in that they’re not “real” events. It’s not a lesson learned, like with the Kobayashi Maru, but it’s an emotional investment in art that changes you for the better.

Video games walk a line between what the (admittedly fictional) Kobayashi Maru does and what Macbeth does. They are interactive, like the Kobayashi, and decisions you make will affect the outcome of the story, the “lives” of some of the characters depend on you. Emotional investments are part of what makes these tragedies meaningful, like in other tragedies, but the impact of your own decisions on the stories gives the a different character. It’s one thing to watch Macbeth’s downward spiral into oblivion, it’s an entirely different and deeper thing to be the cause of it.

Simulated tragedy hurts. Interactive tragedy hurts worse.

Forward Momentum

There are  a lot of lessons that can be learned from the 8 Bit era of video games:

-Vegetables are always good for you (especially mushrooms)

-It’s dangerous to go alone.

-There’s always a proper order in which to tackle things (like robots)

-Looks can be deceiving (or box covers aren’t everything)

Mario 1

but the most important is one simple statement…

Move Forward.

In many of those classic games there was no going back. All your character could do was continue forward. You might have missed a power-up, you might have forgotten to grab a coin, or you may have timed a jump poorly and been de-powered; but none of it mattered. You had to keep moving forward.

In a weird way, that was one of my first life lessons; that regardless of what has happened sometimes all you can do here is

Move Forward.

Mega 1

Those early games taught me that sometimes all you can have is your forward momentum; and sometimes that will have to be enough. Much like the games that we loved, life is full of ups and downs and sometimes it will throw things at us that will try to bring us to a screeching halt. It will put people in our path, some to help and some to hurt. It will throw us into the middle of a storm and not tell us how to swim. It will throw you into a no-win situation and expect you to come out on top.

In the games, it was the past that educated you. You had to learn from your mistakes – and there would be many. You had to remember what had come before, to better understand it in the future. More importantly, you had to understand that you couldn’t dwell on what happened before, because what was after was just around the corner. You couldn’t help but to…

Move Forward.

This is a lesson that I still struggle with today. Things happen and I want to dwell on them. I let them sit and fester inside of me and let life pass me by. I don’t want to move forward, I want to go back to the way things were. I want to correct the mistakes of the past. I want to go back to a time when there was still a chance for something good to happen…but I can’t…and neither can you. All we can do is…

Move Forward.

Link 1

Much like the games, it is healthy to reflect on what has happened before, but only with the knowledge that it’s to help you in what is to come. Dwelling in the past, trying to get back there, does no one any good. The past is there to educate the present and to effect the future. Mario learns the same way we do; through trial and error and continuing on, despite circumstances.

There are things in life that we will miss; relationships that we didn’t take the chance on, job opportunities that we let slip on by, and many others. There are mistakes that we will make; hurting someone close, choosing the wrong side, ignoring the obvious among other things. This is the way of things, one of life’s few constants. Nonetheless, if we are to keep living all we can continue to do is take one step on and

Move Forward.

It is one of life’s hardest lessons, and one that many of us still have a hard time overcoming. It’s a lesson that’s hard to teach, let alone grasp. Yet, the 8bit games that we love gave us a simple visual metaphor for that exact thing. Whether they knew it or not, those creators were teaching us something as kids that would help us for years to come; a lesson we could pass on to everyone who came after.

There will always be days that seem dark. There will always be times when it seems like we can’t move on. Luckily, there was an Italian Plumber who struggled with the same thing, and showed us the answer. We are indebted to the pink bottomless pit that reminded us what matters is the journey forward. It is in the sacrifice of the blue hedgehog that we were able to see that going onward, despite all obstacles is always the greater path.

To no matter what…

…Move Forward

 

To Sort or Not to Sort: The Wisdom of Hufflepuff

Poor Hufflepuff. You are truly the least appreciated of the Hogwarts houses. The ambitious go to Slytherin, the wise go to Ravenclaw, the brave go to Gryffindor, and Hufflepuff gets the leftovers.

January-16-2013-14-16-54-h9658CFEA

The Sorting Hat’s song from The Order of the Phoenix seems to say as much:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”
Said Ravenclaw, “We’ll teach those whose
I
ntelligence is surest”
Said Gryffindor, “We’ll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name.”
Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot
And treat them just the same.”

On the surface, it seems that Helga Hufflepuff got stuck with the students that nobody else wanted. But if we read on, we see that Hufflepuff was actually the wisest of the four founders. The Sorting Hat continues:

So Hogwarts worked in harmony
for several happy years,
but then discord crept among us
feeding on our faults and fears.
The Houses that, like pillars four
had once held up our school
now turned upon each other and
divided, sought to rule.
And for a while it seemed the school
must meet an early end.
what with dueling and with fighting
and the clash of friend on friend.
And at last there came a morning
when old Slytherin departed
and though the fighting then died out
he left us quite downhearted.
And never since the founders four
were whittled down to three
have the Houses been united
as they once were meant to be.

I propose that Hufflepuff didn’t “teach the lot and treat them just the same” because she got stuck with the leftovers; she did this because placing greater value on certain characteristics and separating these people into different groups was antithetical to her character. “Take the lot and treat them just the same” is the value that is at the core of every Hufflepuff’s character. Just as Slytherins are driven by ambition, Gryffindors by courage, and Ravenclaws by intelligence, Hufflepuffs are driven by justice, equality, and inclusivity. In a word, Hufflepuffs are driven by the most powerful magic in the world: love.

Love can’t conceive of closing the door to anyone, but instead welcomes everyone in and “treats them just the same.” If you ask me, if it had been up to Hufflepuff, Hogwarts would not have been divided into houses at all, and the conflict between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and all the historical fallout of their rift, could have been avoided.

The Sorting Hat itself acknowledges the wisdom of Hufflepuff:

And now the Sorting Hat is here
and you all know the score:
I sort you into Houses
because that is what I’m for.
But this year I’ll go further,
l
isten closely to my song:
though condemned I am to split you
still I worry that it’s wrong,
though I must fulfill my duty
and must quarter every year
still I wonder whether sorting
may not bring the end I fear.
Oh, know the perils, read the signs,
the warning history shows,
for our Hogwarts is in danger
from external, deadly foes
and we must unite inside her
or we’ll crumble from within
I have told you, I have warned you…
l
et the Sorting now begin.

In one of my classes this year, we took the Enneagram personality assessment.  Like the Sorting Hat, the Enneagram classifies you into a certain personality type, but takes your self-assessment into account as well.

harry-potter-and-the-sorcerers-stone-284

I ended up as a Type 5, also called “The Investigator.” These types are focused on gathering knowledge and wisdom. (Classic Ravenclaw). Some of my friends were Type 8, or “The Protector.”  They are natural leaders who are driven by a desire to protect the weak and fight injustice. (Gryffindors for sure). Others were Type 3, “The Performer.” These types are very driven to succeed in life, and to project an image of success to the world. (Hey there, Slytherin). Type 9, “The Mediator,” is good at connecting with others and desires peace and harmony. (What’s up, Hufflepuff).

The idea behind our class taking this assessment was to get an insight into one another’s personality types and communication styles, so that we can better understand each other’s weaknesses and learn from each other’s strengths. However, what the activity turned out to provide was a simple and systematic way for the class to stereotype each other and write each other off. Fives rolled their eyes at the impulsiveness of the Eights. Eights were appalled by the opportunistic attitudes of the Threes. Threes admonished the Nines to stop letting people walk all over them. Rather than creating an opportunity for greater understanding among the class, the Enneagram assessment gave us a ready-made system of division, and we hopped right on.

I don’t mean to trash the Enneagram; it’s one of the more open-ended personality tests out there, and can be a useful tool for self-reflection and self-improvement. But my class is one example of the way that categorizing people into “types” creates division rather than harmony. It’s important to acknowledge diversity, but in order to draw strength from diversity, we have to get mixed up in communities of people who are different from us.  I think Helga Hufflepuff understood that.

The true greatness of the Hufflepuff spirit is celebrated in this Wizard Wrock classic, “The House of Awesome Theme Song,” by The Whomping Willows. Check it out. Regardless of our differences and our House loyalties, we’re all members of the House of Awesome.

Friday Feature: Lazarus

We’ve gone a few weeks without a Friday Feature around here. I’ve been working 2 jobs and honestly, the Feature column has taken a back burner to other things. I was happy to have it as a weekly column, but it looks like that won’t be possible anymore. So from now on, I’ll be posting a Friday Feature whenever I can get around to it!

This week my fanboyish affections are turned to Lazarus, a comic book by Greck Rucka and  Michael Lark. I got a week behind in my monthly readings, so this month’s Lazarus actually came out 2 weeks ago, and I’m really sorry I waited to read it!

 

The basic premise behind Lazarus is that the world (or at least the United States) has been broken up into feudal oligarchies ruled by a handful of absurdly wealthy families. In this dystopian future, these families are known for particular industries or territories, and there is at least some cooperation between them for economic purposes, but they operate in a cutthroat system and most families will gladly betray another for a leg up.

Every family has one member who is their “Lazarus,” (from which this book takes its name) who is a specially trained and specially engineered. The Lazarus is the guardian and assassin of the family, all-but or perhaps entirely unkillable. Forever Carlyle is the Lazarus of the Carlyle family and the protagonist of the comic. Forever doesn’t seem to fully understand the intrigue of her family, but she is a capable soldier and is loyal, almost to a fault.

While the politics of the Carlyle family is interesting and offers compelling drama, Lazarus sets up another, even more interesting drama about the “waste” (the tasteless but honest name that the ruling families assign people who live in their territory, but do not serve them directly as serfs and who are not a part of the family). Focusing on one family in particular, the creators tell the story of some of these poor folks who, in the midst of a natural disaster, lose their home and are left high and dry by the Carlyles, who offer no help. Their story of coping with a system that leaves them powerless, poor, and hungry is set up early on, but in April, we really got to see it follow through.

I won’t spoil anything about it, but it’s satisfying to see that storyline explored with so much effort, rather than just letting it drop in favor of Forever’s story.

Lazarus is a violent book. Blood and dismemberment are, if not frequent, more common than in other books, so, it’s definitely a “rated R” read.