In her book on the concept, contemporary philosopher Svetlana Boym defines nostalgia as ‘the search for collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world.’ The phrase also seems perfectly suited to describe the ideology of indie developer Supergiant Games, whose second title Transistor I played just recently.
To put the game in context, one must also examine Supergiant’s first title, and in many ways the forerunner and counterpart to Transistor: the 2011 release Bastion. Bastion is a game with nostalgia at its core: it plays on our desire for it, and our enjoyment of it. The game takes place in a community that lived in serene harmony until it was infiltrated by a medley of monstrous enemies from outside (I’ll come back to my emphasis later). Our task, quite simply, is to rid the community of this external contamination so that it can resume a serene national existence within closed and secure borders.
Hard then to avoid comparisons with the current political climate in Europe and America, where various kinds of global crisis have led many to mourn the perceived loss of past national serenity. The Greek referendum and surrounding crisis were, in fact, centered around the idea that Greece, were it to leave Europe, might have a chance at restoring this mythical state of national serenity. A similar discussion is happening in Britain, and one need not look further than Donald Trump’s desire to ‘make America great again’ for a third example of rhetoric that preys on our communal nostalgia for a golden past. Boym, however, argues that this idea of a collective national serenity (before contamination) is in fact just a dangerous fantasy.
With the exception of Greece, this is in fact a perception of the world heavily endorsed by right-wing nationalist ideologies seeking to garner support for anti-internationalism and even racist policies. The act of restoring order in Bastion then, could be perceived as a very dangerous and right wing form of enjoyment. The game is literally about collecting ‘fragments’ and ‘shards’ to piece the world back together into its proper ‘whole’. Does Bastion see the world a little like Donald Trump does, a perfect nation ‘being infiltrated by a medley of monstrous enemies from outside? Certainly this was my opinion until I played Transistor.
In playing the studio’s second game I gained a form of clarity that led me to revisit Bastion and thus re-interpret Supergiant’s games in a new light. These titles aren’t simply nostalgic. They’re self-consciously about nostalgia. Take for example the voice-overs present in both games: the narrator busily turns our actions into fables as we progress in real time. This allows us to both play the game and experience its retelling as an old legend about some epic past event. In fact the very words ‘bastion’ (last remaining thing) and ‘transistor’ (reconnecting that which has been disconnected) could both be seen as overt plays on nostalgia as a concept. And is there an object more representative of nostalgia than the transistor radio (sung about so nostalgically by Van Morisson)?
In this light, Bastion, can be seen as a statement about nostalgia: the game portrays the imaginary, coherent past as a mental projection, a vision cobbled together from fragments of our present. Transistor, on the other hand, is set in a dystopian future, yet refuses to yearn for a perfect past. Instead it turns nostalgia on its head by asking us to look positively towards the future, embracing ourselves as technological beings.
Before jumping to any conclusions, I’d like to examine the two main ways in which modern gaming tropes relate to capitalism. The dystopian future genre could be seen as a pro-capitalist warning: “if the current system were to fail”, the genre says, “all we would have left is a barren wasteland… and maybe even a zombie apocalypse.” I would argue that this is a right-wing idea designed to prevent us from considering potential alternatives to capitalism, a theory I have already discussed at some length in my book and on the podcast with Julian last month. The other main trope would be that of nostalgia games, which play on our fear of capitalism’s collapse by encouraging us to preserve the (capitalist) roots of our collective imaginary past. Stardew Valley is an excellent example of this, and until recently I believed Bastion also fell firmly into this category. Seemingly opposed, these two genres (apocalyptic future, utopian past) actually complement each other and work to reinforce the core values of right-wing capitalism.
So where does Transistor fall on this spectrum? On first impression I thought this game was a little of both: fears of a dystopian collapse sprinkled with nostalgic yearnings, if you will. Not so. Transistor in fact deals very differently than either of these genres with the relationship between happiness, identity and the future. Whilst ‘the Kid’ in Bastion seeks only to restore things to how they were, Red, our character in Transistor, is a malleable being, one prepared to change everything about herself in order to combat the evil forces of technological dystopia. Gone are the monstrous alien ‘others’ of Bastion, replaced instead with ‘processes’, an army of computer-driven droids. If the former reflects a nationalist fear of (let’s say) refugees, then the latter is much more related to out modern anxieties about rogue artificial intelligences arising from rampant capitalist progress.
But what makes Transistor so special is that it refuses to hark back to a time when none of this ‘evil’ technology existed. Unlike Bastion, it doesn’t seek to ‘restore’ the imaginary past. Red does not reject technological advancement in order to combat it with her so-called ‘real’ humanity. A singer, Red abandons these old ambitions to take on new ones: she buys into every facet of technology and becomes a technological being herself. By using the transistor, Red sidesteps nostalgia and embraces her cyborg nature. As such, she is a much more radical figure than ‘the Kid.’ She’s not scared of the future, and (methinks) she would never, ever vote for Trump. So, like Bastion, Transistor is about nostalgia in that its protagonist is a warning against it. Red is in fact a pioneer making the argument that to improve the future we must embrace it and, ultimately, make it work for us.