More than Just Numbers

I went with my family to watch Mockingjay: Part 1 over thanksgiving break. As I filed into a movie seat, I was prepared to take the movie seriously. After all, the book series and now the movie trilogy tetralogy has gained massive following, specifically in the realm of feminism. To summarize, Katniss Everdeen, our female action/survival hero lead character, is forced to compete in a fight to the death called the  Hunger Games. There she exhibits not only physical bravery and strength, but courage, compassion, and an unshakable mental sense of self. It is mainly for these non-physical characteristics that much of the media is centered around praising Katniss as a feminist role model.

I would agree wholeheartedly with the prior description, but only until the start of Mockingjay: Part 1. From then on, Katniss becomes, to put it bluntly, useless. Throughout the movie her main role is to be a puppet for the revolution on camera and off camera hysterically cry for Peeta, her now-captured boyfriend-ish former huger games partner. The only times she stands up to anyone about anything are when she’s yelling into a camera and when she’s arguing for Peeta’s full pardon. Original Katniss may have been quite the feminist role model, but now I have to wonder where that Katniss went. Aside from Katniss, we have her family who are too shaken up to stand for much of anything (unless it’s Prim’s cat, that is), and President Coin, the cool pseudo dictator leading the revolution. Perhaps there is an argument to be made for Coin taking up the feminist torch, but given that her main characteristics are being cold, manipulative, and power hungry, she doesn’t exactly make for a good role model of any gender. To say the least, I’m slightly confused how Mockingjay: Part 1 is in any way the “end of men” movie of the year. The movie left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Feminism is a cause I believe in too, but it seems like the only aspect of Mockingjay: Part 1 that is remotely feminist is that there are more women on screen than men. Surely a step in the right direction, but there has to be more to feminism than simply the number of women, right?

While scrolling through Neflix to find a series to binge watch, I stumbled upon Sword Art Online, an Anime I had vaguely heard of. Nothing else was appealing, so I clicked start and promptly watched the entire first arc of 15 episodes. The premise of the show is that in the near future (2020) a company develops the first fully immersive virtual reality system, and quickly creates a MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game to utilize it. The Sword Art Online MMO depicted is fairly traditional; players level-up by defeating in-game enemies and progress up the world (shaped like a tower in a series of layers) by defeating bosses. The twist in the game comes almost immediately at the beginning, halfway through the first episode: once the official launch has begun, the creator removes the ability to log out – the players are stuck in the game. Furthermore, dying in the game will cause the Virtual Reality headgear to kill the player’s body, thereby killing him or her for real. The only way to escape is to progress to the hundredth floor of the tower and defeat the final boss residing there, thereby ending the game and releasing all of the players who are still alive.

From just the premise it is clear that Sword Art Online shares the forced-game plot device with The Hunger Games. Players in both stories are forced to participate in a life-or-death game, and are only able to escape by repeatedly putting their life on the line in combat. This leads to many of the same thematic elements appearing in both stories: physical strength, courage, sacrifice, dedication, and many others. In both stories we have one female and one male lead. In The Hunger Games we have Katniss and Peeta, whereas in Sword Art Online we have Asuna and Kirito.

Here, however, the stories diverge. One of the main hurdles feminist characters have to jump is when they enter a relationship of any kind with a male character. Usually, when we hit this point, the female character goes from being strong in every sense of the word (physically, emotionally, mentally), to basically being baggage. It’s an awful stereotype and one that we as a culture and a race need to break. So why, then, does Katniss, one of the most feminist characters in recent memory, do just that? In the first book Katniss is inspiring on multiple counts. While fighting for her life she manages to show compassion and mercy when it is due, and stays stalwart against the real enemy: the Capitol and President Snow. Somewhere during Catching Fire (book two), however, a switch is flipped, such that this entire side of her personality is turned off. In Mockingjay she loses sight of the real enemy (Snow), loses her mental resolve, and even loses her combat awareness as she is nearly crushed by a falling pillar. I get that she’s dedicated to Peeta and wants him back more than anything, but if you want to paint a feminist female character, your job isn’t done as soon as she meets a guy and then loses him – that’s when the real challenge begins.

Sword Art Online faces a similar situation near the middle of the arc. The Kirito-Asuna relationship that everyone has waited for finally becomes reality. If everything went according to stereotype, Asuna would transform from her brave, strong, wise-cracking, leader-of-a-guild self to a wet noodle who’s only purpose is to be Kirito’s cheerleader. In the first conflict they face as a pair, however, we get exactly the opposite. Watch through 19:35 (just over a minute).

The tension builds until 19:20, when Asuna is the first to break the standoff. Not only is Kirito holding Yui (already a few feminist points there), Asuna shows that just because she’s with Kirito doesn’t mean she’s changed at all. It would have been really easy, and perhaps (regretably) even the default choice for Kirito to hand Yui to Asuna and then take on the Liberation Army men himself. Whether conscious on the part of the author or not, that’s not the way the plot goes; Asuna kicks the crap out of the head Army soldier and sends them scurrying on their way. Besides showing that her physical edge is still sharp, Asuna proves that she isn’t just handing over all responsibility to Kirito from here on out – a point that is really hammered home in the rest of the arc.

Sword Art Online barely focuses on feminism, however. The main questions it raises are ones that have puzzled philosophers for centuries, pertaining to reality and the meaning of life. If you had a choice between living forever in a paradise that you knew was only an illusion while everyone else struggled in the real world, or to return to the real world to struggle with them, what would you do? Now toss love into that equation, and make the decision again. While in that world, is that love even real? Is courage, or pain? Do you have a duty to try to escape that perfect illusion, even though the attempt may cost you your life?

Kirito and Asuna struggle through the challenges that Sword Art Online throws at them to try to beat the game and save everyone in it, and through those struggles come to trust one another. The most moving scenes are when they fight together. Not him protecting her, or her protecting him, but as one against a common enemy. Most of the characters in Sword Art Online are male (which is probably accurate, given that only around 15% of MMO players are female), but Asuna alone gives the show more feminist presence than a whole command room full of one-dimensional female characters featured in Mockingjay. Feminism is more than just numbers, a lesson that Sword Art Online proves with flying colors, and that Mockingjay will hopefully learn by the time part two comes around.

Edit: I have since finished watching the full of SAO. The second arc of the show is terrible. Do yourself a favor and don’t watch beyond episode 15 or so.


When Everything Changes…

“Look, whatever you’re thinking, do me a favor; don’t let go.”

It’s taken just under two days, but I’ve finally made it home to the good old VA. Driving is nice, especially given how awful dealing with air travel has gotten these days, but upstate NY to central VA is just a bit too long of a trip for my tastes.

There were many things I wanted to do during the semester, and now I finally have the free time to start checking items off that list. The list (as with all mental things) is in a constant state of flux, but it looks a bit like this:

  1. Hug my two miniature poodles.
  2. Arrange music for next semester.
  3. Continue working on the game I’m designing. Hopefully have a playable prototype by the time school starts up again.
  4. Boot up steam and see what’s new.

I checked off number one immediately upon opening the door, not that I had much of a choice. With my desire for poodle hugs briefly sated, I flipped through the other three. In browsing Steam, however, I stumbled upon a game I have been waiting for forever, and everything else would have to wait until I finished it. Usually I wait for sales to make my Steam impulse purchases, but Transistor, released for Mac since I last checked, couldn’t wait.

I loved Bastion. Like, a lot. So let’s get the biggest disclaimer out of the way first: Transistor, the second game produced by Supergiant Games and spiritual successor to Bastion, is not Bastion. This isn’t at all a bad thing, but it means that in evaluating Transistor we can’t ask it to fill Bastion’s shoes. We have to judge it based on its own merits and flaws, and come to an unbiased conclusion.

A gorgeous travel cutscene
Even combat is beautiful

Let’s start with the good. Transistor, like Bastion, is absolutely beautiful. Bastion’s art style was full of vibrant colors drawn in a way to convey mystery and build the world. This strategy is applied once more in Transistor, to even greater effect. Transistor’s world is furnished with unending high rises that are at once indestructible and in a state of disrepair. Just as Bastion’s use of thin terrain and muted backgrounds created a sense of being alone in the middle of nowhere, Transistor’s never-ending urban sprawl creates a different kind of isolation – being alone in the largest city in the world.

Also like Bastion, Transistor makes use of a dynamic soundtrack with narration that follows you through the game. The music, along with the various bits of plot information thrown at you throughout the game, completes the feeling of isolation. Moments of silence drip with dread and desperation, punctuating key plot moments in the game.

The biggest way Transistor moves beyond Bastion is in its combat system. Bastion was a simple hack-n-slash. The weapon selection and upgrade system went a long way to allow all kinds of players to find something they liked, but at the end of the day everyone still selected two weapons and a special ability, and mashed buttons until everything stopped moving. Transistor starts at the same point, but moves far beyond it. Your core weapon is the Transistor but you get to pick four abilities to use at a time from a bank of learned abilities. Thus at the very start the level of customizability is higher – choosing four different abilities leads to a much higher number of combinations than three. Add on to that the fact that the upgrades and the abilities are the same resource – every ability you learn has three functions: an active, an upgrade, and a passive. You can only use each ability for one of its three functions in a given setup, however, so choose wisely. With this system, the number of different setups is nigh infinite and creates an extremely fun framework in which to experiment.

Thus far in the description, Transistor is still a hack-n-slash, though notably a complex and well-explored one. Transistor, however, doesn’t stop there. While you do have the option of playing the entire game in real time, you can instead treat it as a turn based strategy. Whenever you start a “turn”, all movement stops and you have free reign for a given amount of “time” – in turn currency. After you’ve planned out your turn you are able to execute it, seeing your immaculately planned series of strikes become reality.

The turn() interface. Admit it – you want to see how this works.

This turn() system is what allows the complexity of Transistor’s ability selection system to truly shine. Where the distinctions between your four abilities would likely be lost in a truly real-time setting, the ability to plan a combo allows you to use your set of abilities to their fullest and incentivize picking a set that you can really work with. It also creates a strange hybrid between a real-time strategy and a turn-based strategy, as you can seamlessly switch between the two even within the context of a single fight. At a minimum, it’s certainly an idea I would like to see more of.

Now, on to the bad. Transistor suffers from a few issues, but all are rooted in one core problem – the game is ridiculously short. I bought the game last night and had played about five hours when the credits rolled. I may play the “recurse” mode, but by the title I am lead to believe that I won’t see anything new. The combat system is amazing, but I felt that I had barely gotten the hang of it when I beat the game. The plot begins promisingly, but ends in a rush without real resolution because it just didn’t have enough time to develop. There were a few hard fights, but I never felt extremely challenged. It’s possible that the real difficulty of the game comes after the first victory, but I don’t think that’s good planning – the final boss fight should feel hard, on any play through. I came away feeling like I was ripped off. Not because of any monetary reasons, but because I really bought into the concept of the game in all aspects, from combat to plot, when it suddenly ended.

Overall, Transistor was a very good game. It proves that Bastion wasn’t a mistake – Supergiant knows how to use art, music, and gameplay to build a world and shape a plot within it. Moreover, Transistor brings up enough new ideas in its combat system that show that Supergiant isn’t skittish of trying new things that depart from the Bastion formula. At the end of the day though, Transistor’s short playtime is just too much of a handicap to argue for it being on the same level as Bastion. The real test, however, is what Supergiant will do from here. They had one hit game and managed to make a second one that, despite suffering from a key flaw, contained both the things that made the first great and new innovative material. I’m excited to see what they can do for their third game.