Transistor, Elvis Costello, Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Game?

And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good rock and roll did—challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.

– from The Essential Ellen Willis, by Ellen Willis

One of the most instructive parts of watching Mad Men is noticing how the men and women change their minds, particularly on socio-political matters. There is a fashion to opinion, even those on race and sex. Suddenly hemlines are higher; suddenly racism is something Pete Campbell is against. There are few instances where characters confront their beliefs and revise them, even though those beliefs seem to change. Sometimes I wonder similar things about the vogue that environmentalism and food politics currently enjoy. Right now, I wonder that about feminism. Is it a very good time, or a very bad time, to be a feminist? Those who are vocal about social justice no longer seem to be underdogs, even if those meant to be served by social justice still are. Joss Whedon, playing Joss Whedon and someone interviewing Joss Whedon,1 asked himself, So, why do you write these strong female characters?, and responded, Because you’re still asking me that question. It’s a significant response to a significant question, and it is also significant that this question is only imagined. And yet: Gamergate. And yet there are so many moments when playing a game, or reading books, or walking by bars in the dark, when I find myself unable to do anything except think of myself as a woman and unable to be comfortable with that fact.2 And yet I found myself unable to listen to Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True.

Before I heard a word of it, I was blown away by the album, and I spent a solid week waking up to “Waiting for the End of the World,” loosely grasping a connection between the percussion and the title and my own sense of a doomed summer. But loving it led to listening to it, and listening to it led to growing discomfort. The album is named for the repeated chorus of ‘Alison’, quoted below:

Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.
I think somebody better put out the big light,
cause I can’t stand to see you this way.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
My aim is true.

– “Alison,” Elvis Costello

It’s an ambiguous double entendre: He’s got good intentions; his gunshot won’t miss. A perfect mixture of menace and sympathy.3 But it is ambiguous, so perhaps it’s unfair to put murder on Costello’s mind here — but note that his contempt for Alison is unambiguous, unambiguously combined with her sex appeal. Hearing this contempt, I looked for it elsewhere, and found it: the album begins with “now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired,” then narrator laughingly hopes that the working week, perhaps as a prostitute, perhaps as a sad career after some kind of stardom, doesn’t kill the admired woman; in “Miracle Man” he declines any disapproval about his abilities because he doubts the judgment of the woman in question; the loss of the narrator’s anger in “I’m Not Angry” occurs when he ceases to expect anything but disloyalty from this woman (perhaps all women), and in fact admits to snapping pictures of her liaisons behind her back; in “Sneaky Feelings” he confesses that, against his better judgment, he finds himself caring for this partner, willing to have sex where “You can force me to use a little tenderness / White lies, alibis, anything but say that it’s true. / Now we could sit like lovers, staring in each other’s eyes / but the magic of the moment might become too much for you”. The album is strung from vignettes of loneliness and unskilled sex, and closes with “Watching the Detectives,” which details a femme fatale’s callous observation of legal proceedings, “she’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.”

If there are helpless processes of identification, such that we search out those that are the most like us in a story and understand how they are treated as ways we would be treated in similar circumstances, then the people most like me in My Aim Is True were women who were pitied, dismissed, or morally repugnant, often some combination of these.

Ellen Willis, a fantastic rock critic in working largely in the sixties and seventies, was conflicted by whether or not her feminism contradicted her love for the Rolling Stones. Her resolution was that the ostensibly more ‘feminist’ offerings suffered from the very timidity that feminism ought to counter, and so she found herself feeling more feminist, powerful and unhesitant about the validity of her thoughts and feelings, when she rocked out to Exile on Main Street instead of the more womanly folk-singer strummy types.4 This could save My Aim Is True. It might be that the honesty in rock-n-roll prompts your own, regardless of whether or not the honesty in question is about you, in particular whether the honesty in question is about you as a pitiable, bad, dismissible but perhaps fuckable. Sometimes I listen to the album. There’s toe-tapping, but there is also always a point where I can’t do anything but listen. Which, if the lyrics are anything to go by, is roughly what the women described are doing throughout the album: listening to Costello tell them how it is, and if they object, they do so in the silliest ways. Excepting of course the murderess at the album’s close, but then Elvis notes that “Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay / it only took my little fingers to blow you away.” A gun metaphor again. This is not honesty as an invitation.

Enter Transistor.

It’s the kind of game which seems to aim for a particular comment. You are Red, a young woman and popular singer in the city of Cloudbank, rendered mute by a bizarre attack by a cult of tastemakers. The game begins directly after this attack, the body of Red’s boyfriend laying lifeless, a glowing sword stuck in his chest. Turns out that the boyfriend’s personality has been stored in the sword, the titular ‘Transistor,’ and his voice guides you throughout the game, narrating the circumstance, naming the various computerized monsters that you encounter (things like “Creep” and “Young Lady”), but unable to do anything beyond that narration and naming. As you dash around Cloudbank, the city is being remade into a blank slate by a digital force called the Process, and as details about this become clearer, the nature of Cloudbank as a virtual place becomes clearer. Red’s goal is to save her boyfriend and the city. She cuts her dress, puts on her boyfriend’s bomb-ass jacket, and gets on a motorcycle against the initial protests of her sword, who begs her to escape with the rest of the citizens of Cloudbank.

These are various ingredients of gender and video game tropes. In A World…, a film about that ubiquitous beginning to movie trailers, ended with dialogue about the power of narration and gender, about how it matters who is telling the story, perhaps more than the content of the story. Here, perhaps as usual, a male voice narrates the circumstances, the female lead being unable to speak. Perhaps as usual, the story is a combination of save-the-world and save-my-romantic-interest, though less-than-usually, it’s a girl trying to save a boy. There are various clues about the sexual orientations of the few characters you encounter, though these things are not stated outright and do not feature prominently in their characterization. These clues suggest a happy marriage between two male cult-members, and an attraction to Red by a female cult-member, who planned to attack her that night knowing that her boyfriend would attempt to get in the way. All in all, there is a feeling of play to the ingredients of the game, the spare plot and the lonely, rapidly disappearing world, the girl who never speaks and the man’s voice which serves as the only real guidance through the world. When I said that they seemed to aim for a particular comment, it’s due to that sense of play, where a particular bedrock template has been adjusted just so.

Do me a favor; don’t let go

Of course, the mere presence of these ingredients does not guarantee that this work is feminist or aesthetic success. Bissell puts the aim of video games brilliantly in Extra Lives:

So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that points not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.
– from Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell

For a video game to be an aesthetic success, then, playing that game indicates something deeply about the player. Transistor‘s various ingredients seem to be poised for that sort of indication, and I find myself wondering if it’s poised for feminist aesthetic success. That ‘play’ I mentioned? It might be those elements of the narrative can be distilled into feminist success or failure, but that sort of interpretive work, and the squabbles surrounding them, sometimes is sometimes discouraging to everyone, participants and non-participants alike. By squabbles, I mean the various pieces, on Tumblr and in textbooks, arguing back and forth about whether or not Ariel’s choice The Little Mermaid film was a feminist one, or not, the sort of articles that spring up around blockbusters, sometimes about skin-tight suits, sometimes about Bechdel tests. “If there’s not some fact of the matter,” a critic of such squabbles might ask, “why not always interpret something feminist-ically? Why problematize?” There are lots of things to say about what might motivate feminists, and others, to problematize works. These thinkers might suspect that a lot of quite real issues begin as unquestioned statements about certain kinds of stories, certain kinds of importance, certain kinds of character given to various kinds of people. By making room for alternative interpretations, a thinker can weaken the claim that a work must be taken this way, that a certain interpretation is The One with the capital T. And sometimes simply the act of speaking up is powerful enough.

This essay began about identification. In video games, when one plays as a character, that playing-as seems like an invitation to identify. Here’s what it would be like, if you were, say, a young woman with a sword that spoke with her boyfriend’s voice, wandering around an empty Art Deco city, trying to confront an apocalypse. This partly explains the vast preference to play as ‘Good’ in games that offer good-or-evil choices, because we want to be Good. There are fewer female characters one can play as in games, and feminists sometimes point to this as a failure of identification. Young women who play these games can only see themselves as men, usually white, saving the world and, often, a girl along with it. If they identify themselves with characters based on gender, and not just who they play as, these young women are likely to find themselves in damsels in distress, in love interests, in various kinds of leather-and-sex villains.

Red fails to save her boyfriend or the world. At the end, in an empty city, with a weapon that can make that city any way she wants, she flicks her sword up and kills herself.5

Transistor Ending / End

What is interesting about Transistor’s Red is that the game presents a moment where identification is impossible. I pressed every button I could, watching the transistor rise, hearing the voice inside it go no no no no — in short, I was abundantly aware that Red’s suicide was not my choice. It was hers. Regardless of whether that choice was foolish, wise, virtuous, feminist, or misguided, the game presents in its last moments a woman as a chooser.

That’s your first hint that something’s alive. It says no.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, Catherynne M. Valente

In some sense, this lives up to Bissel’s claims that games point a finger at the person playing them. I think this game points a finger at the person playing Red in those final moments, namely, that she is a character whose choices are ultimately independent of my preferences. In one guise or another, combating one source or another, feminism’s primary motivation seems to be eroding the temptation to not see women as choosers. If there is a such thing as a feminist aesthetic, it would be an aesthetic that promotes that, and I think you can find it here.

I think some of this lies even in the game mechanics. You gain abilities throughout the game that can be combined in different ways, allowing for different abilities; as you fight, however, some abilities are ‘overloaded,’ requiring you to attempt new combinations constantly.

My first introduction to video games and the internet was through Final Fantasy games (and the character shrines they inspired online, websites chock full of essays advocating for that character’s specialness). Looking back on those games, in fact looking back on my gaming history, I wonder how much those games affected me. They are games primarily beaten through leveling. When you come across a boss you can’t beat, you grind for a few more hours and come back and voilà, you can beat him now. To win, you change the character you’re playing. You level up. But more and more I find myself playing games where characters don’t level up at all. You’re given a set number of abilities, which you, the player, have to combine to appropriate effect. I think that young women can get tempted by the level-up mentality. They acquire something that lets them be adequate to their challenges. I suspect this is half of why I went to graduate school, to level up, so that I would then be able to think through the problems that kept hitting me at three AM. In contrast, the do-it-now mentality presents a confidence about personal ability, without a new level, without becoming something else. Here’s a version of the same issue, put Simone de Beauvoir style:

… every human being by definition struggles with what she calls ‘ambiguity’: she is both a subject (a selef-conscious being capable of moving beyond what nature and the world give to her, including her desires as they stand) and an object (an embodied being with characteristics, a style, appetites, and a history, all of which invite the judgment of others. It is fashionable these days to reject the dualistic, Cartesian metaphysic of the human being. But both Beauvoir and Sartre — convincingly, in my opinion — understand the subject/object split not as a mere fact of ontology, as Descartes is at least ordinarily taken to have argued, but more as a phenomenological dilemma. In other words they are interested not so much in claiming that the dualistic picture is true as they are in drawing our attention to the fact that our experience is one of dualism, or more precisely, of a tension between our drive to transcend ourselves and our drive to cement our identities in ways that we and others will find ceaselessly praiseworthy.

…Beauvoir claims that from time immemorial human beings have on the whole found a certain satisfaction in exploiting inherently non-normative biological facts to split the difference when it comes to the painful existential fact of human ambiguity: men, according to this way of thinking, will be the subjects and women will strive to be objects. I put the idea in this odd way to bring out what Beauvoir identifies as the incoherence of this plan: to “be” something, once and for all, is precisely not to be a subject; and to strive to be an object is precisely to demonstrate that you aren’t one.

– Nancy Bauer, “Beauvoir on the Allure of Self-Objectification,” in Feminist Metaphysics, ed. Charlotte Witt (New York: Springer, 2011), 125, 126.

Perhaps antecedently to playing video games or perhaps partially because of what I found of myself in them, I’ve had the level-up mentality. It strikes me as just what Bauer is attributing to Beauvoir here, as tapping into the way in which a person is fixed. When I play do-it-now style, however, I find myself exercising more of that part of myself which is a chooser. That is, I see myself capable of choice, at present, without addition or permission or adornment. No doubt there are counter-examples, but thinking of what I can do in a game as largely stat-based, rather than player-skill based, evokes that same old phenomenological fixation.

Transistor is has lovely mechanics, different from the old level-up kind.6 The way you win encounters is through constant adaptation. No stats, although combining your powers in interesting ways reveals the majority of the information you get about the world, but not information necessary for the game’s completion. If mechanics can advocate a certain mentality, then I think this game can present something quite friendly to Beauvoir’s claims.7

I finished the game and sobbed while the credits rolled, then googled like a madwoman to see how I had gotten the ‘bad’ ending. I’ve realized that I only ever cry out of a wish not to be some person. The martyr on the screen, or, in moments of self-pity, myself, now or in the future. There is a pinch in feminism about whether, when you make claims about what all women’s lives are like, you are silencing them in the process. One of the great things about philosophy is that it always involves making claims about something you have a stake in, such that you cannot remain neutral. You buy the argument or you don’t, and you ought to say something either way. This is trickier in feminism, a subset of philosophy, where a traditional issue has been the difficulty women themselves can have in seeing themselves as capable of that kind of assertion. This would be a trick in a feminist game, too. If it involves presenting a woman as a specific character, how do you present that woman in such a way that women who have differing races, classes, dental histories, sexual orientations will see themselves in her specific choices? Oddly, I think it is powerful to present a woman who defies identification. I cried because I didn’t want to be her, but I couldn’t be her. If the problem with identification is that you extrapolate the specifics of a character you identify with in harmful ways, then I think the ultimate characteristic Red offers, as said, is that she is someone, and to be someone is to have a specific life all your own. It is an invitation in a way that My Aim Is True is not. This is an excellent point for everyone to learn and relearn about women. Women included.