While playing Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, I was struck by the realization that what started out as a line of toys became something more dynamic and dramatic than it really has any right to be. I don’t know exactly when it happened or at what point a bunch of space robots locked in eternal war changed into a legitimate exploration of war, sacrifice, obsession, heroism, and villainy. It didn’t happen overnight. It took years. Hundreds of comics. Dozens of TV series. A few movies. But, somehow, it happened.
I’ve always loved the Transformers because, hey, robots that turn into jets, cars, dinosaurs, etc., what’s not to love? I will say that, for me, the Transformers were my gateway to storytelling. I loved playing with the toys, and I would craft my own elaborate tales of adventure. Fanfiction really is nothing new. Kids have been doing it forever. And with the aid of established characters, I was able to explore what made story and character work.
That was the beauty of Transformers, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Rainbow Brite, and so on. I grew up with a generation of toys built for storytelling. It wasn’t anything new, but it was so easy with the Transformers, who came with their own backstory, established personalities, sources of conflict, and fantastic premise. They were helped immensely by tremendous marketing. Every Transformer and G.I. Joe came with their own card. Cutting them out and saving them was just part of the fun. And if you wanted to know if Shockwave was stronger than Grimlock, you only had to check their power ratings. Yes, Transformers was my gateway to story continuity. And if you needed to know how the other Decepticons felt about Soundwave (short answer: his aloof nature creeps them out) or who Optimus Prime could always count on to watch his back (Ironhide), you only had to check.
Here’s the thing though: All of this was in the service of a line of toys. Everything was about convincing kids to buy toys, dolls, spaceships, what-have-you. It’s easy to be cynical about that, and not without good reason. Some parents feared that their kids would be reduced to mindless consumers, and while I think those fears ended up being exaggerated, it’s hard to not sometimes see my generation as particularly obsessed with its own childhood joys, sometimes to an almost pathological degree.
It always annoys me whenever I hear someone bemoan their “childhood being desecrated.” It would almost be amusing if it weren’t so absurd and insensitive. Just because Michael Bay made some bad Transformers movies, he didn’t “rape” anyone’s childhood. Nor did he take some sacred piece of art and pervert it. He just made some bad movies. His real crime isn’t in perverting a line of toys. It was in not treating it like the line of toys it was. Instead of giving us robot on robot action, he elected to focus on a few people and the army and everything but the Transformers. Which is pretty stupid because, everyone who has ever been a fan of Transformers would tell you, people are incidental.
But even then, it’s not the worst crime in cinema, and while I love giant shapeshifting robots from outer space as much as the next guy, it’s not that Bay corrupted them. He just entirely missed the point. To be fair, a lot of fans miss that point too.
Back to my original point, regardless of their origins, the Transformers somehow became characters in their own right. Not only that, they somehow managed to transcend that origin. Almost everyone knows of Optimus Prime, Megatron, and their endless conflict. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone with even a passing knowledge of American pop culture who doesn’t have a vague idea of what a Decepticon or an Autobot are.
Fall of Cybertron takes full advantage of this familiarity. If you’re a fan, you already know what to expect. There can’t even be any surprises because the story of Cybertron is well established at this point. And if you somehow managed to play the game without knowing it, the title kind of gives it away.
That’s the thing about storytelling though. It isn’t usually the destination. It’s the journey. And Fall is all about that. From Optimus Prime’s heroic defense of the Ark to Grimlock’s battle with hordes of Insecticons to Starscream’s (inevitable) rise and (also inevitable) fall, the game isn’t trying to redefine the Transformer universe. It’s exactly what it should be: a toy commercial. But it’s a toy commercial with heart and soul.
The finale ends with Optimus and Megatron locked in deadly battle. It’s not a spoiler to say so. How else could it end? And even knowing that neither can win, there is an epic struggle to the fight, an almost mythic clash. In particular, I still got chills when Optimus realized, finally, that there can never be any reasoning with Megatron, that, in the words of the Autobot leader, “We can never coexist in the same universe.”
It is without shame that I credit the Transformers for my current career in novelology. They taught me the value of characters, the virtue of adventure, the joy of unbridled fantasy. They showed me that the origin of a story matters a hell of a lot less than than the execution and that, if you treat your characters with enough care, others will begin to see them as something worthwhile too.
Also, the Transformers taught me that the only thing cooler than a robot that changes into a car is one that changes into a dinosaur.
But, above even that simple, universal truth, they showed me that telling a story is as simple as grabbing a bunch of cool characters, adding a bit of conflict, and giving yourself permission to see where it goes. For that, and for a hell of a lot more, I’m eternally grateful to the Autobots and Decepticons. Their war might have ravaged Cybertron, but it kindled the creative spark in me.
So even if you don’t like Transformers, you can at least give them credit, in a roundabout way, for Emperor Mollusk, Earl the vampire, Duke the werewolf, Vom the Hungering, and (most obviously) Mack Megaton, robot P.I. And if that hasn’t made the world a better place, I don’t know what has.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,