[28 May 2014]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Perhaps, the most intimate relationship that is typically developed in most video games is between the player and that player’s weapon. After all in most games, the gun or the sword becomes the dominant way of interacting with the world, one of the few ways that we can “touch” that world or shape it, destructive though that shaping might be.
As a result, in video games, it is props that we become more familiar with than characters, coming to know them and depend on them with only the occasional bit of advice or hint of friendship or camaraderie provided by an NPC or the voice of a tutorial.
Discounting squad based games, rare are the instances in single player action or adventure games in which you spend an extended amount of time with any other character. Again, as a result, it becomes the things that we wield that largely define our relationship to the game, its stories, its puzzles, and its problems.
There are a notable few games that function as “buddy pictures” in which the protagonist is accompanied by another onscreen character, another voice to additionally observe the world through or to aid in interacting with it. Probably not at all unsurprisingly, these games tend to generate a kind of intimacy with such characters, often transitioning into the most intimate kind of relationship possible, a love interest.
Classically, Ico is a game often associated with an intimate onscreen relationship between a protagonist and a persistent NPC, as a young boy, Ico, leads a young girl, Yorda, by the hand through a castle full of shadowy horrors. Likewise, more recent games like the 2008 reboot of the Prince of Persia series or Enslaved: Odyssey to the West saw the leading men in those games accompanied throughout their adventures by a female sidekick and love interest that did a bit more than simply get dragged around the landscape. Indeed, Elika and Trip, the two female companions of the Prince and Monkey respectively, served also as forms of interfaces to the world, becoming as it were part of the arsenal, the weaponry of their male companions in addition to at times standing in for the commonly disembodied voice of the tutorial that “appears” in most games. Indeed, Yorda is a character that the player becomes familiar with because the player has to look out for her and protect her. Elika and Trip sometimes serve this role too, but become components much more familiar to players, since they give advice and actually aid the protagonist in his own work. They become legitimate companions because they stand alongside the protagonist in the action.
Thus, we come to the recent release of Transistor, a game for lack of a better descriptor about a girl and her sword, her sentient sword. The protagonist of Transistor is a singer named Red, who like a character out of a fairy tale (say, the Little Mermaid), has had her voice stolen from her. Equally (or, perhaps, even more disturbingly) a friend of hers, perhaps a lover, has had his body stolen from him. Having been impaled by a sword called the Transistor, this man finds his “soul” trapped within the blade, able to still communicate with its wielder, but, otherwise, left impotent and disembodied.
And this is where the relationship between Red and the dead man begins for the player, as Red draws the blade from his body, the blade itself begins teaching Red and the player how to use it. Potency is only restored to Transistor through the co-operative effort of Red and the sword, the player and the interface.
This then becomes the basis for intimacy in Transistor, the experience of interacting with the sword, arranging the sword’s various power ups, listening to the voice of the sword as it explains the situations that they encounter, and operating together to wipe out that which is unfamiliar, the hordes of soulless AI called The Process that have taken over the city of Cloudbank. Indeed, the lifelessness of Cloudbank is only relieved by the presence of these two incomplete human beings, the woman lacking a voice and the man lacking a body, who manage to complete one another, as each stands in for the other’s lack. The sword speaks for the woman, sings for the woman, while the woman interacts physically with the threat of a world being transformed into a total simulation.
Transistor then takes familiar elements that make the player feel an intimacy with a game and its world, the weapon that you wield and the voice of the tutorial, and houses them within a single persistent character, which in turn creates a sense of intimacy between its characters. What probably makes Red and Transistor’s love story (and it is a love story about two incomplete people that need each other) authentic is the familiarity of this method of making games feel more recognizable, understandable, familiar, and intimate to their players. Interface is the way in which we “feel” games, so it is unsurprising that developing characters and a relationship through interface is about as authentic as a game can get at producing a sense of intimacy that feels believable.
Furthermore, that this intimacy is defined by a weapon is seemingly at first a rather counterintuitive means, perhaps, of understanding a close relationship. However, the us vs. them mentality created by combining weapon and wielder in direct opposition to something outside of that relationship actually simply further drives the point home. Once again, especially to the player of the action/adventure game where relationships between protagonists and their weapons are often the only ones that are ever fully developed at all.