Time and Transition

I’ve never been much of a gamer (more of a watcher, whatever that might entail), but I’m familiar with enough of the tropes to appreciate how Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia was able to manipulate them like Braid had, but in a much shorter span of time. Like Braid, Dys4ia uses video game tropes to lend a sense of familiarity to the player while simultaneously dissociating them. For instance, on more than one occasion, the player’s goal is to fit blocks into their respective sections—however, the blocks don’t fit, thus the game doesn’t adhere to Tetris or its variants. The rules of video games, like the rules of gender, are made to be broken.

It called to mind an essay I read a few months ago, in an anthology of Doctor Who essays, called Queers Dig Time Lords. “Same Old Me, Different Face: Transition, Regeneration, and Change” accounts Jane Bigelow’s transition through an extended comparison to the Doctor’s series of regenerations. It’s an amazing essay, especially for those familiar with the franchise. Mostly, though, I was interested in the way both texts explore time in regards to transformation and transition. 

“Here’s a story I heard: somewhere there was a transgender woman trying to explain her transition to a geeky-but-otherwise-clueless friend. Nothing she tried could really convey what she was going through to him, until she described it in terms he could grasp. “It’s like I’m the Doctor,” she said. “Except I’m regenerating into a woman.”

His eyes lit up. He got it then.”

My basic observation is this: Dys4ia is, suffice to say, a very short game, and a fairly simple one. Despite that, there is never quite enough to time to explore the rules of each level—the player is rushed through without much time to consider the implications of Anthropy’s experience. It creates a coherent narrative due to our expectations of it, but is otherwise disjointed in both chronology and rules. When the levels begin to repeat with variation, the player is invited to view the process of transformation—not into the expected video game trope (the block fits into the hole), but one that is unique and further changed (the block flashes and shifts but still doesn’t fit).

Bigelow’s essay explores something similar. When the doctor knows he will be regenerating in the near future, he makes a survey of his life (across timelines), says goodbye to old places and people; he will be a different person soon, even if he is in many ways the same. There is never enough time, though, so say goodbye, never enough time for him to understand the “rules” of a given lifetime before the irrevocable change. Each regeneration is the same, but different.

I suppose these two transwomen’s accounts—though different in both form and content—made me consider the possibilities of genre in regards to expressing change. A straightforward, “realist” account of a transition did not suffice for either creator; instead, elements of science fiction, time travel, game play, and the blurring of time and space, were necessary to express their respective subjective experiences. Genre or new media elements, to me, express the inexpressible, or at the very least, invite their audiences to experience something they might have otherwise never attempted to understand. In the case of Dys4ia and Bigelow’s Who essay, audiences are moved through disjointed, fabricated time in order to understand the process of transitioning. I found it to be extremely emotionally resonant. What do you all think?

“It’s a small thing, but I feel like I’ve taken the first step toward something TREMENDOUS.”