Transistor: Voice, Agency, and Enormous Swords [A guest Experiment by Alex Hardison]

 If you’ve played a single-player videogame in the last ten years, more than likely the experience involved a character yammering in your ear as you navigated the story, telling you what to do and where to go. This might be one character for the whole game, such as Cortana in Halo, a number of different people, like the Control team in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, or one for each mission, like the million vagrants and scoundrels who put you to work in any given iteration of Grand Theft Auto. The point is, despite being the greatest badass who ever lived and the saviour of all mankind, you probably spent much of the experience feeling like you were schlepping around at the behest of someone who couldn’t even be bothered leaving that one spot directly outside the inn. RPGs are especially prone to this trope, with the mechanics of Borderlands and its sequel only making any sort of sense if literally every person besides the player character is an actual paraplegic cruelly deprived of wheelchair technology. Not every game works like this, of course – some are content to have instructions for the player pop up on screen, while others like Alan Wake or Murdered: Soul Suspect feature leads who talk to themselves, and by proxy the player. Nevertheless, it’s common enough that I feel confident in calling the instructional narrator is one of the most common tropes in video games today.

"Go here, do this, pick up my laundry...boss."
“Go here, do this, pick up my laundry…boss.”

 The relationship these characters have to the player is complex. They need to serve two purposes – to give necessary, story-advancing information to the character, and to tell the player what they need to do next in a strictly mechanical sense. Sometimes the outcome of this double duty becomes absurd  – Solid Snake’s commander literally telling him to press the action button to jump while rappelling in Metal Gear Solid leaps to mind – and some games subvert the relationship entirely, such as the amazing twist at the end of the original Bioshock. For most games, though, it’s the narrator characters who are in charge of the proceedings, even when they’re technically subordinate to the player character within the fiction of the game. Commander Shepard might be the Captain of the Normandy, but when Joker or Liara tell her to be somewhere, she has to be there, otherwise the game simply can’t progress to the next part. I’m going to try not to tumble too far down the rabbit hole of ludonarrative dissonance, but suffice to say that these three people – narrator, character and player – sit in a delicate balance necessary to provide both a story and a game, even when those two aspects are sometimes at direct odds with one another.

Red and the Transistor
Red and the Transistor

 This trope is particularly important in talking about Transistor. The second outing from Supergiant Games, this action RPG follows on the heels of critical darling Bastion and, in this nerd’s opinion, more than lives up to its predecessor’s reputation. I’m going to leave it up to other, more professional reviews to praise the stellar music, lush graphics, intriguing story and intricate, rewarding combat mechanics in order to focus on one topic – voice. You see, our protagonist Red is a singer who has been stripped of her voice by the villains, an initially vague force known only as The Process, leaving her wielding a sword (the titular Transistor) that contains the essence of a mysterious man whose relationship to her is unclear to the player for the majority of the story.

 It’s this mystery man whose voice we hear as we play the game, and at first the concept made me roll my eyes. A female lead who is literally voiceless, acting at the beck and call of a male character? I picked up this game looking for a dynamic action heroine, not some errand girl. Then, something happened. At the end of the first section, the Transistor tells Red the route to take to get to the docks, leave town and escape The Process. I assumed that this would be what happened next in the game – after all, the disembodied voice is instructing the player in what to do to advance the game’s plot, right? Wrong. In the following cutscene, Red gets on her motorcycle and heads back into the centre of town, bringing the fight directly to the bad guys. It’s a tiny moment, but one that upends the entire character-player-narrator trifecta in a single stroke. The narrator might be the only one whose voice that we can hear, but this scene makes it very clear that the agency is entirely in Red’s hands.

Red shows off her skills
Red shows off her skills

 Unlike any of the disembodied voices listed before, the Transistor is very much not in charge. Red acts and he reacts, rather than the other way around. This can be motivating, such as when he congratulates her on landing a powerful combo on an enemy, or heartbreaking – I won’t spoil it, but there’s a moment when Red visits her apartment on the way to confront The Process that stuck with me for the rest of the game. Either way, it’s effective, all the more so given that we never even get to hear Red speak. In a way, she doesn’t need to – like countless cowboys, vigilantes and Men Of Few Words before her, she lets her actions to the talking.

 This fact becomes all the more interesting when we look at it in terms of gender. Red is a woman, and for all the progress we’ve made in the last hundred years we still expect to see women in the subordinate role in action stories, especially those in video games. With a few notable examples, women in video games exist to motivate the hero with their death, to be captured and rescued, or to give aid and sustenance to the masculine hero. They don’t drive the story, but merely exist to support it.

 Transistor is very different to this, and not just because the main character is a woman, but also because of the role of the man. As the story unfolds the Transistor continues to offer Red advice, though this is usually functional information pitched more at the player than at her – pointing out when they’re backtracking through an already cleared area, or are about to miss a vital recharge point. His commentary on the story and on Red’s mission is consoling, concerned and generally encouraging – a supportive role, which in a more traditional story would almost definitely have fallen to a woman. I can’t help but feel, even to hope, that this was intentional on the part of the good people at Supergiant, that they were deliberately seeking to undermine traditional narrative roles when they chose the genders of Transistor’s two protagonists. 

A peaceful moment along the way
A peaceful moment along the way

 To be clear, I’m not saying that video games shouldn’t feature a character who instructs the player in how to proceed. Without Liara shouting to reroute the comms console (or shut off the AA guns or deliver the virus or whatever), Mass Effect players would be left guessing as to what was expected of them to proceed. The more open the game’s world, the more complex this proposition is, to the point where games like Oblivion feature appointment books in which the character keeps track of the many demands of their various masters. Transistor’s gameplay is quite simple, and its story linear – the combat is deep, but outside of that the player really just needs to run through a series of rooms and staircases. This simplicity of form leaves the developers free to experiment with the basic building blocks of videogame narrative, to outstanding result. Of course, it’s not like plenty of other games with linear environments haven’t felt the need to put a monkey on the player’s back, directing the player (and by proxy, the character) in every step they take – I’m looking at you, Remember Me.

 The depiction of women in video games has come a long way, but there are still battles yet to be fought. This is an industry, after all, in which a female critic can’t catalogue games featuring Damsels in Distress without suffering an avalanche or rape threats, a major publisher states that it’s simply “too difficult” to include a female character in one of the biggest and best funded games of the year, and including women in the design and testing process is somehow a noteworthy, Herculean effort. A medium overburdened with stories of manly men doing many things, in which women are far too often relegated to the sidelines. There are female gamers out there, increasingly frustrated by their lack of representation in the characters and the stories presented by their chosen medium, and they are increasingly vocal about what they want – just check out the Twitter hastag #womenarehardtoanimate, the locus of the various responses to Ubisoft’s latest PR bungle. Transistor is a massive step in the right direction, a game that doesn’t just feature a female lead but that also acknowledges the context that this exists in and plays with convention in all sorts of interesting ways. 

 That reason – along with a million others – is good enough for me to say that this is already one of my favourites of the year, and more than good enough for you to jump on Steam or Playstation Online and give it a go.

 

Alex Hardison is a thirtysomething gamer, comic book and SF reader, film nerd and geek for all seasons. He has had short fiction published in the webzine FLURB not once but twice, puts up his own at Volatile Memory, and blogs about comics at Notes From Crime Alley. He lives in Sydney with his girlfriend and cat, and if you don’t like Babylon 5 he will fight you.

Transistor: Voice, Agency, and Enormous Swords [A guest Experiment by Alex Hardison]

Credit where credit is due

I don’t feel like I stop often enough in the course of this project to thank you all for the positivity and support you wonderful folks give me every day. When I decided to start the Ladyist, it seemed like such a small, personal choice that I honestly hadn’t considered how people would respond to it. Instead, I’ve been flabbergasted by the almost entirely positive response, not to mention the huge amount of articles, videos, songs and other suggestions you’ve sent me. It’s really wonderful to know that this decision wasn’t a silly one, that there are heaps of other people who understand and are keen to support this solipsistic little adventure.

In that spirit, then, I’d like to share some of the great recommendations that have come my way. I’ve always suspected that my friends are blessed with good taste (i.e. taste that corresponds to my own), and these last two months have done nothing but confirm that theory. So here, in an entirely haphazard order, is some of the brilliant music you’ve helped me find.

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Spotlight Kid – A Minor Character

 

Music savant (and, I hear, nifty game designer) Alex put me onto this, linking me to their Bandcamp. I had bought the album before preceding track, ‘Sugar Pills’, could finish, but ‘A Minor Character’ is the song I keep coming back to. Truly, it was laser-targeted: the dream-pop allure of Pains of Being Pure at Heart wrapped in sweet sweet shoegaze synths straight off M83’s Saturdays=Youth was a mix I was never going to resist, but Katty Heath’s soft coo lends the chorus kiss-off “you are such a/minor character in my life” such a casual edge that it somehow bites extra hard. You don’t even begin to matter, no matter how much you think you should. It’s the highlight of a very strong album; I’ve listened to Ten Thousand Hours for approximately as long as its title suggests in the past few weeks, with no signs of slowing down now. Once you hear that deeply satisfying moment in the chorus where the distortion kicks in at *just* the right moment, you’ll know why.

The Doubleclicks – Lasers and Feelings

 

If you have an instinctive, irrational hate for funny musicians, I suggest you move onto the next entry (and maybe, while you’re at it, reconsider your prejudice). Equally, if the idea of a two-women folk duo whose main instruments are ukulele and cello distresses you, move right along.

If you’re still here, welcome – you’re probably one of three people who’ll make it this far. Everyone else stinks, and it’s their loss. Sure, they’re incredibly dorky and earnest, but those are the exact qualities that make the Doubleclicks so endearing. They own their nerdiness with irresistible confidence, and do so while singing harmonies and dropping sharp little wordplays in every few lines. And seriously, how is it that I’ve waited this long to hear a love song to a supervillain?

Lucas, polymath nerd who knows stuff, put me onto the Doubleclicks, along with another billion or so things. I’ve only just begun to put a dent in the pile of comics he lent me.

Joanna Gruesome – Lemonade Grrl

 

I think Ben was the first person I know to be smitten with Joanna Gruesome, and I have learned that that is always a strong indicator of quality. Part of the appeal was the childish play on the name of another much-loved musician, Joanna Newsom; I am nothing if not a sucker for puns. The rest of the appeal, though, and the reason they appear on this list, it the sometimes sweet, sometimes savage twee pop that’s all over Weird Sister. Like Los Campesinos, there’s a wild, noisy energy to Joanna Gruesome, all feedback and cooed girl-boy harmonies, with the occasional temper tantrum breakdown (apparently the band formed in an anger management class, which is a damned cool backstory even if it turns out to be fiction). Alanna Gruesome (or Alanna McArdle, before the band Ramonesed themselves) can make you bark along with lyrics like “I dream of pulling out your teeth”, giddy with catharsis, then have you properly swooning when she sings, “it’s such a pleasure to touch your skin”. Those hard right-turns from sweet melody to shouting that keeps Weird Sister exciting the whole way through, listen after listen.

Ani DiFranco – 32 Flavors

 

Firstly, I only spell it without the ‘u’ because it’s a song title; secondly, I’m a little scared to admit that I knew virtually no Ani before Catriona made me this wonderful Spotify playlist (Brocklesnitch, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry). I mean, I’d listen to ‘Untouchable Face’ a bunch of times, but that was mainly down to the indisputable thrill of hearing the word ‘fuck’ in a song chorus when you’re an impressionable age (I remained impressionable well after I should’ve grown out of it). Since then, though, I didn’t give Ani much attention – the album covers have dated in that way particular to records from the late 90s, and I’m guilty of judging her music on that basis.

She hit me doubly hard, then, when I finally did revisit her as part of Treemie’s playlist. Listening as I ate breakfast one morning, I froze when ’32 Flavors’ cut through the pre-caffeine fog and struck me (this experience was so notable that I’ve resorted to mixed metaphors to explain it).

I still can’t quite identify what it is about ’32 Flavours’ that makes it so compelling, but I’m content to keep playing it on the off chance that I might make sense of that. I’ve listened to Canon a few times since then, and though nothing else has had such an instant impact, I’ll happily explore if there’s more like this to be found.

Perfect Pussy – Driver

 

‘Big Stars’ is one of the more sedate tracks on Say Yes To Love; I would’ve preferred to share ‘Driver’ or ‘Bells’ as a better indicator, but even Google’s SafeSearch function struggles when one of the key phrases of your search is ‘Perfect Pussy’ [edit: I gave up working from an iPad so I could embed from Spotify, which ruins an otherwise perfectly good opening sentence that I’m too precious to discard]. The band is cacophonous, a squall of feedback and blown-out drums that might overwhelm Meredith Graves if she weren’t such a commanding presence. She fights to be heard over the furious bashing and fuzz, gasping every breath and standing tall with every word she sings. It’s electrifying, and oddly uplifting. Jack can recommend me more like this any time she likes.

I don’t have the space to list every single one of the wonderful recommendations you lot have given me, and you wouldn’t have time to read it. I am, however, a bottomless pit where music is concerned, and as such am always in need of more suggestions. If you know any Ladyist music that you think I’d love, feel free to tell me! Comments are always welcome here. Otherwise, send a tweet (@aLadyist), a message on Facebook, or an email (theladyistexperiment@gmail.com), and enlighten me.

 

BONUS FEATURE

Alanna from Joanna Gruesome and Meredith from Perfect Pussy contributed to a fascinating article on being the only woman in a band. It was in response to a kinda tone-deaf piece by another musician, but the insights they and others have into that lifestyle are worth reading. Find it here.

Credit where credit is due