‘Transformers’ Is a War Story That’s Not a War Story

I liked Transformers: Fall of Cybertron but probably for very different reasons than most people. I’ve never seen the Transformers show. My only knowledge of the franchise comes from the Michael Bay movies, and those take place in a kind of alternate universe. Much of the hype and praise for the High Moon developed Transformers games stems from their attention to detail and canonical link to the original cartoon. So how do they appeal to those with no knowledge of the cartoon? As it turns out, Fall of Cybertron might work best as a standalone story. The less you know about Transformers in general, the more dramatic the game becomes.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron tells a very somber tale. It’s a story about a civil war fueled by such unrelenting hate that it literally drains the planet of its energy, and even as the world falls apart around them, both sides desperately try to kill each other. What makes it so somber is its willingness to kill off major character on both sides of the conflict.

The arc of the Dinobots is a perfect example of the game’s pessimistic story. They’re a team of rebellious Autobot soldiers who investigate a mysterious energy source and get captured by the Decepticons. They’re subjected to brutal experiments and torture, turning them into something unnatural on this world: dinosaurs. When they break out of their prison, they go on a rampage and hunt down the head scientist of the project that created them, killing him and destroying a tower that they’re on. Unfortunately, this tower powers a portal to another world, and as soon as the portal begins to close, the other Autobots launch an Ark ship into space in a desperate attempt to escape their dying planet. The Dinobots are left behind.

It’s a tragic arc. The Dinobots are the quintessential grunt in this story. They’re defined by their brute strength, they exist to be weapons, and as such, they’re both indispensable to the war effort and utterly expendable. They cripple the enemy by destroying the Space Bridge (unknowingly crippling their own side as well, an example of how mindless and misguided much of this war is), but then they’re abandoned by their comrades.

Fall of Cybertron shows the toll of war better than any modern military shooter. Its large cast is its greatest asset, allowing the narrative to change its perspective from one side to the other, building characters and showing off the diversity of its cast before killing off a good chunk of it.

As a result, I have come to hate both the Autobots and the Decepticons. Both sides are so eager to hurt each other that they fight even when it works against their common interest. The Space Bridge portal is their only hope for survival as a species, yet the Autobots are willing to destroy it simply because it’s a Decepticon construct. And throughout all this fighting, the characters that I’ve come to like are dying.

However, for this interpretation to hold up, all those characters have to die. The Dinobots must be abandoned, the Constructicons must be blown up in a shower of motor fire, Metroplex and Bumblebee must sacrifice themselves for their leader — death must be ever-present in order to give this absurd tale of robot warfare any kind of symbolic meaning. The game, though, ends in a cliffhanger. Neither side is destroyed, so naturally a sequel is possible. However, any story that continues this tale must not include any (allegedly) dead robots. If they survive, then the symbolism of their sacrifice, the horror of their expendability, is rendered void.

There actually is a canonical continuation of this story in the form a TV show, and I know that nearly all of those characters that I assume to be dead aren’t actually dead. I know this because I understand the business of a transmedia property like Transformers. I know that such a somber story would hurt the potential profits from future television shows and toy lines and movies and games. Before I had even finished the game I knew that I was experiencing a different story than everyone else since my story clashed with the more cartoonish sensibilities of some scenes. I don’t know for sure which characters appear in the canonical cartoon, but I sure as hell don’t want to find out.

I find myself in an interesting position, able to make a choice that dramatically changes the narrative and theme of the story. It’s a position that many games have put me in on purpose, but this is first time I’ve faced this choice outside a game.

If I choose to stop consuming Transformers media, Fall of Cybertron remains a powerful story about the horrors of war. If I choose keep consuming Transformers media, Fall of Cybertron will become… something different. It’s similar to other games that give me a choice at the very end. Is Grand Theft Auto IV about a man’s self-destructive life of crime or the self-destructive nature of capitalism? Is Spec Ops: The Line a story of redemption or damnation? Is Heavy Rain about the strength love gives us to overcome obstacles or the destructive power of love when used as an excuse for horrible things? What are or Silent Hill: Shattered Memories really about? Their meanings change with their endings. I’ve written before about how games can have two opposing moral and thematic messages thanks to their interactive qualities, but Fall of Cybertron proves other media can do this as well — in a more abstract way.

I’m at the end of the story, and I’m faced with a choice. Which ending do I want? For me, Fall of Cybertron is both an introduction and a conclusion to this Transformers universe.