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!


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.

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.