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Another one way behind schedule. It took a bit of finagling, but I think the new name system for particles is working correctly. I’ve added a field to edit the particle name into the editor, but it still needs to be integrated into the behavior editor in a way that makes sense, which is a surprisingly non-trivial task. I’ve made a task-list of things that still need to be done for the detail editor, and I’m working through it bit-by-bit. In addition to the new name field, I just added buttons to delete extra facets, a field to change the update rate of a behavior, and a bunch of other slight improvements. Here’s what it looks like now:

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I lost a couple of days of work this weekend due to getting really really tired for no apparent reason. It may have been a delayed reaction from writing the Neverending Nightmares piece, which I put a whole lot of work into (I hope it shows!)  Hopefully I’ve recovered from that nonsense tiredness spell, and can wrap up this damn editor this week and get on to more interesting stuff.

[moderate spoilers for Neverending Nightmares]

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I like dreams, and stories about them. Though they never capture quite what it feels like to exist in a dream space, though they never quite emulate that constantly shifting boundary that builds itself based on whatever seems appropriate to your internal narrative, there’s always a seed of that familiar space that is universal and lies within each of us. Our dreams may differ, but we all dream – and sometimes it’s hard to tell when the dreams end. When you spend enough time thinking of abstractions and possibilities, they start to blend together with the abstract constructed realms of the sleeping life.

Neverending Nightmares is that kind of dream. When you are overwhelmed with visions of failure and guilt, and these visions manifest themselves into pathways through hallways at-once familiar and unfamiliar. Just trudging, step-by-step, through a series of nearly identical hallways, stared down at by portraits of strangers and more disturbing images, feels like a dream. Ancestral homes that were once a place of comfort twist into unfamiliar passages in the undefined half-light of dream, shift and loop like a snake, become infinite, never-ending.

Antiques and old houses show up a lot in my more unnerving dreams. Is it just that they’re old, and know more of death than us, surviving owners and occupants, witnessing betrayals and murder? Or is it that I fear being forgotten and left behind, as they must have been, so long ago? Whether because of this primal association, or to fit more closely with its chosen Edward Gorey-esque art style, or to make the nightmarish hospital and asylum’s antiquated facilities not seem out of place, Neverending Nightmares seems to take place quite some time ago, in Victorian-style rooms filled with paintings and ornate antique furnishings, lit by candlelight only.

Sometimes the candles placed around are enough, and the rooms are well-lit, but as the nightmares progress this becomes the case more and more rarely, and as the rooms get darker and darker the art style begins to show its teeth, the darkness around you fading into a solid wall of pen-stroke hatch-marks. The jagged edge of the circle of light cast by your candle interacts strangely with the wood grain, wallpaper, and furnishings, crisscrossing to form abstract not-quite objects at the edge of your vision. Though the lighting doesn’t behave like actual flickering candlelight, it captures the sinister illusions of that inconstant light well. And, when the candle goes out and leaves you in the darkness, completely obscuring the world in black, you can still see which direction you’re moving by the motion of the textured pen-strokes that comprise the endless night, something that would be impossible to convey in a purely representational art style.

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At times the music seemed inappropriate to me, often harshly synthetic and reminiscent more of horror movies than of dream sounds – but our dreams are formed of our experiences, and movie tropes have their place within them as well. Simply keeping music going at all times helped to soften the edges of the game’s reality, making it feel less artificial and constructed, even if the process to get there was more explicitly engineered. Alongside the music, a number of sounds seem to recur: A woman crying, a death rattle, a creaking of rope or wood… these sounds, played over and over in different contexts, bring to mind the terrible stickiness of post-traumatically seared memory, the flashes of moment that will never be forgotten.

Though Neverending Nightmares would have likely never existed without being funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s hard not to feel like the source of its funding leaves some unsightly marks on the game itself. Since the higher donation levels allow the donor’s name to be put on a tombstone in-game, I was taken out of the moment more than once by seeing a familiar name – I suppose this might not be the case with someone less ensconced in gaming culture, but for me and, I suspect, many of the others most likely to be aware of this relatively small game, seeing these names will be distracting. There are also a series of custom portraits of backers in the game, any of which you can look more closely at: In a game with such a paucity of interaction and density of background information, having unusually detailed portraits of unknown people can also be quite distracting – though walking through a hallway of portraits of strangers doesn’t seem like it deviates too far from the dream logic of the game, and isn’t as distracting to the experience, it is an example of how extraneous detail can reduce the overall impact of a work. It’s fortunate that these are largely relegated to the early part of the game, before the nightmarish spell is wholly woven and distractions come at a critical cost to engagement, but it still demonstrates that the form of a game is ineluctably tied to how it is created and funded, and in some games this can improve it (as with Prison Architect’s custom prisoner profiles) and in others it can derail.

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Neverending Nightmares doesn’t rely much on explicit story, using a few short storytelling moments to anchor a web of symbolic significance hinted at by the environments you walk through. The game opens with a first-person vision of stabbing a young dark-haired girl, who we find is named Gabby. Gabby becomes one of the few constant points between the nightmares. You are always Thomas, she is always Gabby, but the relationship between you shifts depending upon the context of the dream. At first she’s your sister, then your therapist, then your wife.

This game has a branching ending system which, paired with the conceit of the game, has an interesting implication. Because the final scene of each story pathway is, at least implicitly, the reality that has lead to the nightmares, his real-world circumstances are derived from the dreams he has about them. It’s an interesting kind of reverse-causality emerging as a natural consequence of the decision to tell a branching story about a dream-world. It implies a certain universality to nightmares, that any one of three very different Thomases could suffer similar acute anxieties. It also implies that whatever decisions you, as a player, make, those decisions were foreordained by the nature of your Thomas, driven not by your choice as a player but by the shape of the reality that haunts his dreams.

There’s a number of different thematic elements that repeat themselves in background elements, found objects, and enemy design. Birds are commonly portrayed in the paintings you walk past: Frequently what appear to be albatrosses, tying into the theme of guilt and loss, but vultures and crows also seem to be portrayed. Additionally, several times you walk past a long dinner-table set for a holiday meal, and among other things the table is set with a large turkey – and, in darker iterations of the nightmare and in paintings, the turkey on the platter is rotted and hollow. This image neatly echoes the guilt of the albatross, the death-imagery of the crows and vultures, and the familial betrayal and unease that seems to underlie the anxiety between Thomas and Gabby.

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Suicide and murder, betrayal of the self and betrayal of those close to you, are portrayed as roughly equivalent. Gabby is so closely identified with Thomas that any harm that comes to her seems almost indistinguishable from harm done to Thomas himself, and they both harm themselves as often and as brutally as they harm each other. There’s a truth here that is rarely expressed about violence in games or, indeed, much of anywhere: Past a certain point, hurting the ones we care about most is the same as intentional self-harm, and often arises from the same impulses. Those who are close to us actually substantially define who we are, and if their perception is shaken or ceases then the person we believe ourselves to be exists a little bit less. We become orphaned from existence. We become castaways.

The floors of the hospital are littered with broken glass, and in one branch of the nightmare you find a broken bottle sitting in a sink, blood on its edges, teeth with traces of blood beside it. The teeth are there in earlier iterations without the bottle, but the bottle is unique to that branch, perhaps implying alcoholism in the reality of that nightmare – an interpretation amply supported by its conclusion. The teeth are in the sink for all paths and, perhaps along a similar theme, misshapen and grinning slit-mouths and bleeding or missing eyes are common thematically, most of the enemies having one or more of these, but it’s not clear to me whether this is intended to represent a specific anxiety (blindness, helplessness, self-harm) or are merely raw nightmare-stuff, the kind of thing that every human finds generally disturbing and which thus tends to find its way into horror games.

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There’s also an ongoing gender motif. Visiting Thomas’s childhood bedroom, we see toy soldiers scattered about, and in Gabby’s there are dolls. Also, aside from the pictures of birds and of food, plus the occasional landscape or violent death, there are many paintings of women in wedding veils or shrouds or hidden mothers holding children, and even more portraits of men in military dress. Together, they hint at Thomas’s struggles with traditional masculine and feminine identity and the history of violence that comes with them, both as perpetrator and as victim. This is echoed by a recurring motif of the bloody axe and the bloody meat cleaver, the painting of the huntsman standing behind the girl with an axe and the tolling clock’s mechanical diorama of headsman and victim, and the stuffed bear – both the fluffy kind, kept in Gabby’s room and standing in for her in several places, and an actual bear, stuffed and mounted, Gabby dead again in effigy.

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Interestingly, one of the three endings shows the stuffed bear in Thomas’s bed, just before he goes to kiss his sister goodnight: The world still seems nightmarish, damaged dolls and missing doorways, but it seems to give Thomas some measure of peace anyway – whether by healing the conflict in his mind that leads to such terrible dreams, or merely succumbing to them and joining Gabby in endless sleep, it’s impossible to say.

Religious imagery is also commonplace throughout. This is made extremely explicit by the stained glass image of Christ near the end of one of the paths, emphasizing the connection between the fifth wound of Christ, the spear stabbed in his side, and the wounds that Gabby and Thomas suffer in many branches of the nightmare. There are two bibles lying open on lecterns at different points in the game. The first, in one of the early nightmares, is open to psalms 21, likely because of this line: “Deus, Deus meus, respice in me: quare me dereliquisti”, or “O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?” The second is open to Matthew 27, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth: “Et circa horam nonam clamavit Jesus voce magna dicens: Eli Eli, lamma sabacthani? hoc est: Deus meus Deus meus ut quid dereliquisti me”, or “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabachthani?’ which means: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” These messages are referenced in numerous places throughout the game, found scrawled in blood on the walls of insane asylums and bedrooms. Even aside from this obvious connection, there’s an interesting implied connection between the guilt of Judas at spilling the blood of an innocent leading him to hang himself and all of the hanging imagery in the game, as well as the name of Thomas, the Apostle “Doubting” Thomas who refused to believe in the resurrection of Christ, and the similarly recurring text scrawls, “Everything is a lie.” Continuing these biblical allusions further, Gabby likely represents Gabriel, the messenger of God, sent to guide Thomas out of the nightmare world he has created for himself.  Unfortunately, I am far from a biblical scholar so I’m sure a lot of more subtle allusions and connections have evaded my notice, but together this suggests a crisis and collision of faith as well as of identity.

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It’s difficult to say anything concrete about games that embrace ambiguity and mystery, but I love the feeling of having as much fun thinking about a work of art afterwards as I did while actively experiencing it, and Neverending Nightmares has delivered on that. Though it’s a lot of work sometimes to analyze a game like this, it’s also deeply rewarding in that it pushes me to take a closer look at the veins connecting a piece’s ideas and meaning, and in so doing think more deeply about what lies under the surface of my own work. It’s a powerful experience just to exist in a world like this, however distantly and abstractly, for a time.

Though I may or may not play it again, I’m sure I will revisit Neverending Nightmares – perhaps just a moment of doubt or a flicker of black hair at the edge of my vision, perhaps as a dream, perhaps as an inspiration. It’s in my head now.

[next: Lone Survivor]

[Ending spoilers for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons]

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I originally chose Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as a game to write about because Transistor had taken a day or two longer than expected and I wanted something I could finish quickly. This made sense since Brothers is just a few hours long – however, it took me a long time to get through those three hours because the beginning of the game was so bland and uninteresting. Brothers picks up a bit as it goes, but I never found it very compelling.

I don’t mean to say that Brothers is a game without merit, but I found it difficult to enjoy its merits when it was full of contrived and railroaded environmental puzzles. After a certain point, I began to enjoy it almost as a parody of itself: Of course this bridge mechanism requires two people on opposite sides of the bridge to operate, despite this making it pretty useless as a bridge. Of course there’s windmills conveniently and nonsensically placed on either side of the chasm, placed in a location that wouldn’t get much wind and serving no logical purpose. This is a world designed solely to be navigated by exactly two people, and it enforces this design in painfully contrived ways. Despite being able to leap six feet vertically from handhold to handhold to scale a sheer cliff face, big brother can’t climb over the cage that small brother can fit through the bars of – nor can he be helped up from below by little brother, who was moments before shown to be easily capable of pulling his body weight as it swung at the edge of a rope, a rope to which they still had access if the height advantage were too acute. The environment, even while being so contrived and arbitrary as to be completely nonsensical by the standards of an actual lived-in world, still suggests at solutions that don’t work simply because they weren’t accounted for.

It’s strange that a game with such an unusual control scheme would feel so incredibly pandering. Perhaps the developers were afraid that challenging the player in any way on top of the control scheme would be too much, but nearly every puzzle in the game is just a matter of moving to the next area, finding out which objects were usable, and using them. There were a couple of scripting events where literally all I had to do to survive them was press the controller in one direction, and if I didn’t start soon enough I would be killed a little while later when whatever catastrophe I was running from caught up with me.

It’s bad enough when it’s puzzles and scripted events, but twice in the game I was forced to finish a defeated opponent off for no discernible reason. Though these were certainly villains, at both points they are soundly defeated, with their ability to even survive already in question, much less to pose a further threat – however, if you don’t murder them in cold blood you cannot progress.  Even worse, it’s only when performing one of these executions, on a character I didn’t particularly want to kill at all, that tragedy strikes, and older brother gets stabbed in the stomach with, I dunno, poison or something – at which point it cuts to the father figure we’re supposed to be trying to save waking up and flipping out about about the vision he apparently had about the stabbing, then cuts back and there’s now a hole in the wall that I can go through, with little evidence of causality.

I want to take a moment here to state that some of these events take place in truly beautiful environments. Though earlier portions of this game tend towards generic fantasy village, some of the later areas are, if not quite breathtaking, imaginative and intriguing. A battlefield full of dead giants, a lake of sparkling ice, and the great willowy-white panacea tree that is the object of your quest, these are all impressive. The majesty and imagination of areas like this calls to mind the Dark Souls games – which, unfortunately, calls for unflattering comparisons, since in the Souls games these environments are first and foremost about telling a deep and strange story, whereas in this game they’re first and foremost a contrivance for mediocre environmental puzzles.

If you’ve gotten this far I assume you don’t care about spoilers, so I’ll save you the suspense and tell you that big brother dies. You know, the big one? Wore blue? Was able to swim? Yeah, that’s the guy. Though I understand the intent of using a made-up language for the dialogue, as it forces the player’s attention towards the game mechanics (and probably saved them a chunk of change on localization), it also means the characters are completely generic and forgettable. It would have been relatively easy to have the characters engage in friendly conversation and banter, even if it was all in gibberish, to make them feel like humans instead of a couple of maze-navigating lab-rats – but, as things stand, we understand the characters entirely through the lens of their physical capabilities, which seems like it’s intentional since it drives the prime storytelling moment of the ending, where little brother remembers… you know, whatsisname… the blue kid, or possibly summons his spirit, and in doing so is able to finally swim a lap and leap – well, approximately as high as he’s leaped several other times over the course of the game. This is a potentially powerful storytelling moment, completely undermined by the facts that a) the inconsistency and contrivance behind the environmental navigation thus far has eroded any real sense of my character’s physical limitations, and b) I completely don’t give a shit about any of these generic characters. I honestly liked the spider woman that tried to murder me more than these kids.

So we got back and saved the dad, earning him another 30 years of life or so, at the cost of the life of his young, fit, physically healthy son. I don’t mind the ending being a downer, but at no point did I feel involved. Blue man died because I was forced by the game to murder a defeated opponent. Dad man was saved because I kept doing the things the game told me to do. My role in this endeavor felt entirely ancillary. It was all just a big pantomime put on to get me to that final ending sequence, and I still didn’t care about that payoff because it was a garbled message about characters I didn’t care about at all.

I don’t like being negative about games. I don’t want to be an Enraged Video Games Critic or Perturbed Electronic Entertainment Man, but I can’t play a game like this, a mess of conflicted ideas and goals that add up to noise, without feeling a bit resentful. I don’t understand how someone could approach game design in such a slap-dash and careless way. I don’t understand why someone would try for a big storytelling moment payoff with characters we’re given no reason to care about. I appreciate that the Big Storytelling Moment informed the design in such a fundamental way, right down to the control scheme, but when it came to that moment? It was a total dud. The horse ran into the back of the cart at full speed.

All I can hope is that this game’s ending is a useful illustration of how to communicate intentional meaning through game controls and mechanics, even if the storytelling intent behind that meaning is a non-starter. I hope that, even if I don’t think this game is very good, it can lead the way towards more games using this idea in an interesting and nuanced way – as, indeed, plenty of games already do. I hope this one, blatant, ham-handed example will lead to a wider literacy of understanding the narrative use of game mechanics.

Because honestly, aside from that and some pretty environments, I don’t think this game has a lot going for it.

[next: Neverending Nightmares]

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Unsurprisingly, there have been complications. Foremost among these is a feature that I forgot I needed for particle effects to work properly, at full flexibility and power: The ability for a single particle to change type. I know I’m going to need this capability because I can already envision a case where I need it, rain-drops hitting water – first the rain-drop particle, with a behavior that makes it fall, then the ripple, with an effect that makes it spread out in concentric rings. This might conceivably be achievable with one type, but I think the ability to change types will prove itself indispensable sooner or later, and since the first chapter of EverEnding will feature rain quite heavily, I want to get all of these effects nailed down as early as possible.

So what, right? Sounds easy, right? Well, yes and no. The problem is, the way I’ve designed the particle system, each particle’s behavior is determined entirely by a set of floating point numbers. While it’s easy to give each particle type a name, it’s less easy to give a particle instance an instruction to change types, since there’s no place where it can store that name. I’ve solved this particular problem by making a simple algorithm to hash text strings into floating point numbers: Thus, a particle instance can take a floating point number that uniquely identifies with the name of a particle type, and when anything is found in that field the particle system will look up the type using the hash and use that to assign the particle.

I’ve gone through and implemented this new system, but there are a number of minor restructures to the particle system that I keep noticing need to be addressed as I go, so it’s a bit slow. nevertheless, it’s steady progress. Once this is all in place, I’ll go back to the detail editor, make it so the newly implemented detail name is displayed, and change the interface for behavioral type assignment to reflect the new method. And, once I’m done with that… well, I think the detail editor will be complete, give or take a couple of minor improvements, but that’s basically what I said last week as well. We’ll see.

Hey, at least this update is close to on time though.

 

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I’m doing a terrible job of getting these out on-schedule. I think I keep wanting to have some solid progress to show before each update, so on weeks where I’m a bit behind I tend to procrastinate on the devblogs until I make that progress. And, of course, each time I do that the time I have to make more progress before the next scheduled update shrinks a bit more. It’s not a great habit.

Anyhoo, the facet selector is pretty much done now.

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It’s the purple thing at the bottom, above the distance filter slider. Not too fancy, but then it doesn’t have to be. There’s only one facet here, but the button to the right (not implemented yet but should be easy) will add additional facets as needed. The little tabs underneath each open a browser for their respective asset type (bitmap, animation, or graphics data), with the last just changing it to a plain pixel render. I may change some of the specifics of the layout here, and there still some work to be done in terms of making it all work right, but it’s only a couple of days away from being done I think, which will… pretty close to finish the detail editor, unless there’s something I’m forgetting.

I think wrapping up the core programming of the game is finally a goal that’s within sight. So what remains to be done?

  • inter-enemy and attack collision detection is probably the biggest one. Once I get that done I can start making test enemies to tune the gameplay. This will also include destructable walls and moving platforms as particularly important and, perhaps, tricky manifestations of the problem.
  • Collision detection still needs improvement. It’s largely where it needs to be, but still gets a little glitchy around the corners, especially on steep slopes
  • All the programming for the sling attack, which will require some additions to the Animation class to enable the procedural effects I envision to tie into the standard animations
  • Saving/loading game progress
  • Displaying dialogue subtitles and other text info on-screen, syncing it up to what’s going on sound-wise.

There’s probably more I’m forgetting, but I’m definitely feeling like there’s a lot more programming behind me than there is left ahead of me on this project. Once I get the above tasks nailed down, most programming is going to be a matter of solving particular problems that come up and less of building architecture to run the game. In other words, the kind of programming that’s generally a lot more fun and interesting.

I’ll probably try to write up a more complete version of the above list so I have a better idea of where I stand, and try to think of any weird outliers that I should account for before I put my seal of approval on the code base as it stands, but… yeah. I’m kind of excited that, even if things are moving more slowly than I would have hoped, they are moving. Maybe it took me a year and change to build this game’s basic skeleton, but I built it, and only a few finger-bones are left before it’s ready to do the heavy lifting.

 

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Wow it sucks that this is going to be the 100th update, because this was actually a pretty shit week for productivity. If I’d realized sooner that this was going to be number one-hundred, maybe I could have tried to have something awesome done, but I lacked that degree of awareness. Oh well.

So what happened? Well, I thought this week would be a good time to experiment with a multiphasic sleep schedule. I completely lost track of which day was which, when I’d last gotten work done, what I had left to do each day, etcetera. It didn’t work out well.

Nevertheless, before and after that disaster, I got a few good things done, completing the particle behavior editor and getting one step closer to finishing up the whole detail editor layer. From that point, it’s been kind of scrambling down a bunch of side roads trying to figure out what’s going to work for the next part, the detail facet editor. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make an animation browser similar to the already-created image browser, but before I can do so I need to create some infrastructure for managing animations. This infrastructure is similar enough to other structures I’ve created (such as my BitmapManager) that at first I wanted to just create some kind of reusable generalized resource manager, but after an hour or two of experimentation I found that this would be both more difficult and less useful than I had imagined, so I dropped it. I’m now most of the way to creating a simple animation manager, which mostly involves taking my bitmap manager and ripping out all the parts that are already managed within the animation class and the existing bitmap manager already. Once I get that running, it should be pretty easy to get an animation browser set up, and a browser for the vector graphics effects shouldn’t be difficult either. Once I have all those down, building the facet editor should be easy.

I hope this next week goes smoothly. I’ve been feeling constantly off-balance, what with one thing and another, and I think if I can just get into a good rhythm I can get a ton done. Oh well, let’s see how it goes.

[extensive spoilers for both Transistor and Bastion]

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It’s hard to put a name to the relationship between Transistor and Bastion. Is Transistor a successor? A spiritual sequel? A sister game? The relationship between the two is similar to that between two Final Fantasy games, where thematic and aesthetic similarities belie core gameplay systems that are, once you look past the superficial, startlingly different. It’s a style of kinship between two games that seems rare nowadays, when most studios would rather make a series of explicit sequels than toy with any kind of variation on a theme.

Regardless of how one describes it, the games are closely related, and yet strikingly different from each other in a number of crucial ways.

I see the spine of the world
Sparkle and shine light the inside
I see the spine of the world
I know it’s mine, twisted and tied

The same voice speaks to you throughout both games, but, while in Bastion he tells you the protagonist’s story as a third-person narrator, in Transistor he’s a close friend of the character you play, Red, and is directly addressing her with each line. This difference places you, the player, as the main character, instead of as an external force driving her – and yet, in the end, Red seems as much as cipher to us as The Kid of Bastion ever was, and we’re left to only know her through her music, and rare appearances of personality, just as the people of Cloudbank must have known her. By placing us more intimately in relation to the protagonist, the fact that she still feels a stranger to me seems more jarring than it did in Bastion. They say the Camerata stole Red’s voice, but now how can we even tell what she was trying to say?

Though it feels like the game never makes good on the intimacy this relationship promises, it captures something else: The sense of one last wild ride, one last night, as the world is dismantled in place. It feels like a single important event, told in exactly as much detail as required, perhaps not in real-time but with little in the way of editing. Because of this continuity, as compared to the hub-world structure of Bastion, Cloudbank feels much more like a real place – which, I suppose, is appropriate, since Cloudbank is a living world in its death throes, while Caelondia is a dead land being reborn. Cloudbank falls apart, devolving into white noise and nonsense as you pass, whereas nothing at all is left of Caelondia at all until pieces of it are drawn back into place by The Kid’s presence as he passes – a concept which is reprised at the end of Transistor, when Red wins the ability to remake the remains of Cloudbank. But in both cases these piecemeal restorations are insufficient, only capable of restoring fragments of the world for nostalgia’s sake, and more drastic action must be taken. If we are ever to move on, to truly live again, to do anything besides rearrange furniture on the Titanic as she rests at the bottom of the sea, we must leave the world we’ve destroyed behind and begin anew – perhaps only to begin the same cycle again.

Maybe you’re looking for someone to blame
Fightin’ for air while you circle the drain
Never be sorry for your little time
It’s not when you get there, it’s always the climb

What strikes me as strange is that even though the framing of Transistor is so much more character-based and intimate, the impact of Bastion’s characters is much more personal and the characters themselves better defined. Though The Kid is so generic he’s never even given a name, Rucks, Zia, and Zulf are compelling characters, even if you seldom directly interact with them. Rucks’ guilt for the calamity he caused, combined with the naive optimism that believes he can solve it in much the same way he caused it, is a disturbing reflection of contemporary techno-utopian ideals. Zia’s innocence, and slowly growing realization of the lies underpinning the world she grew up in should, I would think, be easy to identify with for anyone who’s seen the hypocrisy of those in power and the nationalistic rhetoric they declare to be sacrosanct. Zulf’s anger is all of our anger – at the countless betrayals of society, turned inevitably, as anger always will be, into a monster that strikes indiscriminately, always seeking blood. No one in Transistor feels nearly so real – there are no signs of human habitation in Cloudbank at all. Though we all should be able to sympathize with the Camerata’s desire to preserve their legacy, and their guilt at causing unspeakable destruction in the name of that preservation, they always feel cold and distant – and, though we sympathize with Red’s attempts to salvage what’s left on principle, it’s not clear what even remains to salvage. Even Caelondia has the ashen remains of its inhabitants, but Cloudbank, at least after a couple of traces of life early on, has nothing but the buildings created to serve the people who are no longer there. What world are we supposed to be saving? It feels like walking through a museum the day before it’s scheduled to be demolished.

Throughout both games there are common themes. A world destroyed and reborn, possibly just one step in a chain of eternally predestined rebirth – predestination, as distinct from fate, being dictated not by some external deity but by the terribly predictable clockwork of human nature. If the calamity is reversed, there will be another calamity. Even if a new society is built withIn the Transistor, there will probably be a new Camerata to struggle against the currents of change within it – and, in both cases, who even knows how many times it’s happened before? How many times have the people of Cloudbank been digitized, one level further down? Do these people have physical bodies somewhere, in some distant and forgotten Earth, left far behind for an infinite-deep dive into simulated realities? Or is it turtles all the way down? In Bastion we’re given the choice to continue or to break these cycles. We’re given the choice to forgive Zulf or abandon him, we’re given the choice to move on and look for a new home or fight against our pasts and deny our future. In Transistor, though, we’re locked into our predestined paths, a destiny in between regression and progression, a rebirth couched in and defined by the circumstances of death – death and rebirth, stagnation through unceasing change, forever.

Step out beyond the edge and start the motion
Look out below, I know there’s no decision
Just collision
It’s all arranged

Both games, in the end, are creation myths. There’s an underlying theme of how societies communicate with and are comprised by art, how the act of creating a piece of the real world and a piece of art converge, whether we want it to or not. While this message is more explicit in Transistor, it’s presented more persuasively in Bastion: Though we are told that Red is an influential artist, we’re never led to understand her influence; it was never clear, to me at least, how her music reflected or was reflected by her society. In Bastion, we are introduced to Zia a short way into the game, and she and her music’s relationship to the world tell us a great deal about how her personal history and the history of Caelondia and Ura are intertwined.

First we find her sitting alone in a ruined land singing a song – and, at the moment, we don’t listen too closely. It’s just a song. Yet, as the plot progresses, as we come to learn of the great war between the Ura and the Caelondians, the history of the song becomes clear: It is an explicit threat, from one nation to another, that their protections won’t be enough, that they will lose everything. Zia isn’t thinking about that when she sings. She just sings the words, words she probably learned before she even knew what they meant, without realizing that those words were written from the same hatred that caused the ruin within which she sits. But Zulf knows: He grew up with this hatred, and spent most of his life fighting against it, only to succumb to it at the very end. This is poignantly accurate to the way art and culture intersect: Children learn old songs, songs so old that often their parents and grandparents don’t know where they came from. Yankee Doodle was a song made to mock American soldiers before and during the American revolution, which was then appropriated by the American soldiers and used to mock the British; It was not always a Tiger that was caught and released in Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe; and Ring Around The Rosey, though it is probably not, in fact, a song about the plague, could just as easily have been.

It doesn’t take ages for meaning to be lost, either, for strange and unsettling messages to be repeated uncritically, coded hatred pretending to irrelevance, eluding the understanding of those who repeat the words. Sometimes, as soon as the words are said, some weight of meaning is already hidden. Though overtly racist and sexist rhetoric have fallen out of vogue, it is common and easy to code the same sentiment behind words that are less obviously dehumanizing. Art is a beautiful expression of the culture it emerges from, but by the same token every toxic component of that culture is brought to its surface. Even as Zulf sought to build peace, even as Zia grew up in Caelondia innocent of the hatred of her ancestors, that hatred was borne forwards, through the songs she learned, and others like them, that were taught to Caelondian children. It shaped their world, just as similar sentiments shape ours.

Think I’ll go where it suits me
Movin’ out to the Country
With everyone, oh everyone
Before we all become one

I had hoped that Transistor would play with these ideas more, especially since the protagonist is herself a singer, performed by the same artist as Zia, and is presented as one who is influential within Cloudbank, but I never felt that this aspect was fully realized. Maybe it’s just that Cloudbank’s immediate past is one of peace and prosperity, and less likely to produce the kind of scars that bleed into music, or maybe the sentiment is more abstracted than the explicit threat of “Build That Wall”, but I never understood quite what Red’s music was meant to say about her society.

Reading over what I’ve written here, everything I’ve said seems to compare Transistor unfavorably to Bastion – and yet, that’s not how I feel at all. I like them both equally. However, what I love about Transistor is the confidence and skill of its aesthetic and execution, while what I love about Bastion is the universality and poignancy of its ideas. Together, though, these games are more than the sum of their parts, riffing on similar ideas in slightly different iterations. I can only hope that whatever comes next from SuperGiant games is able to marry Bastion’s empathy and insight with Transistor’s confident execution of aesthetic and gameplay details. Wherever they choose to go with their next project, I look forward to seeing it.

I see your star
You left it burning for me
Mother, I’m here

 

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