Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Character Profile: Travis Touchdown

"Everyone deals with grief differently. Some people fuck at funerals... I cut off heads." - Travis Touchdown

It's hard to analyze Travis Touchdown, the legendary assassin king of Santa Destroy. In true fourth-wall-breaking form his past and the events that led up to No More Heroes are shrouded in mystery. What we know about Travis can be surmised through the first game's intro: he's an otaku assassin, a punk paradox. He's usually out for blood to satisfy a spur of the moment urge for violence, yet it's an urge that has reason. Travis signals the end of Suda 51's series of "Kill the Past" games. A few writers have called out No More Heroes's story as a parody of video game narratives. Players saw a shift away from the abstract, intertwined plots of games like Killer 7 and Flower, Sun and Rain to a self-aware meta-narrative. That's where Travis Touchdown exists. He's a character trapped within a mature story created by a writer who continually circumvents it. Travis is constantly at odds with the author-god of his game, and it's a desperate struggle to escape.

Travis Touchdown from NMH and NMH 2 are going to be treated as separate entities. They share common character traits, but the narrative that surround the two Travis' are wildly different. While NMH's focus was on themes of "Killing the past" and memory, NMH 2's focus was shifted towards the ramification of violence and themes of revenge. I'll try my best to keep the two of them separate throughout the article and when something in common comes up I'll be sure to make note of it. Travis has shown quite a bit of character development since his debut. By all rights his character from No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle should be the one profiled, but his former self is still punk and unlike any other "protagonist" around.

Travis is constantly at odds with his sexual nature. In both games, he fights because of a promise made to him by Sylvia Christel, a United Assassins Association representative. A full course meal of sex for killing hundreds of people. Sounds like a good deal. This is the central impetus of No More Heroes, but there's another reason shrouded because of a hangover. In the first game, Travis meets Sylvia in a bar and she tells him - after he bought her a few drinks - that she can help him get the revenge he seeks. She lets him into the association, which might or might not exist, and helps him climb up the ranks. While Travis is in it for the sex, he's subconsciously seeking revenge for his parent's death. It's never said when or at what age his parents were killed. What we know is that someone scarred a young Travis, a girl not unlike Sylvia.

It's hard to say why sex is so important to Travis. It serves as a loose justification/impetus for him to reach the top of the rankings. Sex as a theme is never developed enough in No More Heroes. He's continually manipulated by Sylvia who uses her sexuality to lure him into killing, at least in the first game. What we have to look at are the base reasons why Travis fights, why he kills.

Travis in No More Heroes is green. Up until this point in his life he's never killed anyone, or at least no one that we've heard of. At the beginning of the game we get a taste of why he bought his beam katana from an online auction and why he wants to be the best.

Here’s Travis’s monologue from his tenth rank fight with Death metal:

This count, I feel as though I’m looking at my future self. Making bucks, big ass house, fast cars, dining is style with a world-class chef and a trusty nutritionist counting every calorie. A team of hot yoga instructors to keep me in shape, nurses to attend to my body, maids and loyal servants at my every beck and call. On the weekends, tan babes knocking at my door every two hours. Everyday full of excitement and luxury. That’d be the life.

Everything in its right place. It’s the perfect life. It’s the life of winners. That’ll be my life. I thirst for selflessness, hypocrites lusting for their own desire to get killed by young rookies like me. This is how it goes down, and for the old killers they’ll croak anyways.

I guess you could call this a comedy. I realize there’s nothing really here for me. But what else can I do but keep going? Maybe I should have been a little more careful before I jumped in. Gotta find the exit. Gotta find that exit to paradise. But I can’t see it. I can’t see anything. There’s this sense of doom running down my spine like it’s trying to suck the life out of me. I need to get rid of it before I bail. Something deeper… deeper than my instincts taunting me. Can’t find the exit… can’t find the exit… can’t find the exit… can’t find the exit.

Money, yoga instructors and a purpose in his comedic jaunt into the violent life of an assassin that's what Travis Touchdown wants most. All Travis can do is kill. He’s a merchant of death who has suffered due his sole purpose in life. Does he like his job? Does he enjoy his role in life? Is this just some huge prank being pulled on an otherwise redeemable character? What Sylvia offers to him - other than sex - is a way to channel his purpose within the video game experience. No More Heroes is an extremely self-aware video game. I wrote an entire article on how it breaks the fourth wall here and part 2 here, so I won't go over it in too much detail. What I will say is this, Travis Touchdown's desires begin to deteriorate as the game progresses and he lets you know that it's happening.

Like Garcian Smith Aka Emir Parkreiner in Killer 7, Travis Touchdown suffers from a multiplicity in his character. Each time he defeats a boss, Travis is given a tidbit of information, a story or a lesson that teaches him about the life he is about to enter. His dream of being at the top begins to fracture as the memories of his past return. At the climax of the game when he fights his sister Jeane, Travis recalls the events of his father's death. Though his relationship to Jeane is more a poor B-movie parody, it still serves to break his character further. The more he fights, the bloodthirstier he becomes and the more he kills, the more Travis becomes like Jeane and the "old hypocrites" he refers to in his monologue.

Maybe these lessons carried over into his three-year disappearance from Santa Destroy. The issue now is that in No More Heroes 2, Travis is confronted by the mistakes of his past and is
forced into confrontation by powers greater than the UAA.

What separates Travis from No More Heroes 2 from Travis in No More Heroes is his age, maturity and cynicism, yet you could never tell that his character changed. This is what made Desperate Struggle such a let down. Travis returns to Santa Destroy to find out that Skelter Helter, the 11th ranked assassin from the last game's brother, has killed Bishop Shidux. He's the guy who owned Beefhead video and Travis' only true friend. In a fit of rage, Travis calls up Sylvia setting up the next fight and begins a "motherfucking" war to kill whoever called out the hit on his friend. It's almost the same setup as before. There's no escape for Santa Destroy's former assassin king and he's forced into a confrontation for no reason. I guess the question is: why is Travis so affected by Bishop's death?

Throughout the first game, Travis is subjected to escalating examples of death and insanity. Thunder Ryu, his mentor, is killed. Bad Girl shows Travis how violence can lead to a life of maniac excess. Holly Summers showed him that all assassins live by a code dictated by victory and defeat. Each boss of No More Heroes foreshadows what Travis could become. Bishop's death is the unintentional result of his life as an assassin. Maybe it was the sudden nature of his demise. Maybe they had a longer relationship than other characters from his past. There are a lot of unexplained reasons why Travis feels so intensely about the death of his friend when hundred of people around him have died including his sister by his own hand. His death felt like the final straw. It's one thing to be attacked personally, but it's an entirely different thing to have your life outside of the game attacked.

The remorse Travis feels for Bishop's death is what ultimately propels him forward in No More Heroes 2. There's always the sexual impetus, which includes Shinobu Jacobs, a character I'll be talking a bit about, but it plays a smaller role in the game's narrative. The theme of revenge, the cycle of killing and death becomes the story's central focus. It's surprising that it would come into focus as Travis knows that revenge only begets more revenge. It's a lesson Travis learnt from the first game, and he's living proof of it. Near to the end of the game, Travis remembers that the main reason he became an assassin was to get revenge on his sister/childhood love Jeane for killing his parents. After fighting, maiming and killing 10 other professional assassins, he gets his vengeance and is ultimately left with nothing. What did Travis get by killing his sister? There's no emotional catharsis, he didn't win a prize, he didn't get laid, so is it any surprise that he'd try to run away? In No More Heroes 2, he's pulled back into the conflict and forced to confront, again, the cycle of violence he created by accepting Sylvia's offer.

In No More Heroes 2, Travis is confronted by another set of assassins propped up by an organization. In the new Santa Destroy, the Pizza Bat corporation has taken advantage of the bloody conflict that happened three years ago a la Mad World. They've made being an assassin more than a profession, they've made it into a sport. The new assassins that go after Travis aren't really up to par with the ones from the first game. In a small sequence before each fight, Sylvia, now working in a brothel, tells a mystery listener - it's Travis by the way - about the assassin's past. Alice Twilight, the second last boss, shows quite a bit of depth in her character. She recognizes the sick game that has been created by Pizza Bat and all she wants is to stop the cycle of violence. She embodies everything that could go wrong with being an assassin. Unlike Travis, Alice has analyzed her life and seen that it has been an endless cycle of violence, and yet she idolizes Travis.

Alice instill a new maxim in Travis. She helps him understand that whether you're an assassin, a murderer or anything in between humans bleed, they die and they suffer. Humans or even representations of humans in video games, literature and film are never worthless, and nor should they be played with like toys. It's a realization that gives Travis the most dramatic character development in the sequel. Although he has already learnt this from his first rise to the top, the fight with Alice and the subsequent lesson in humanity he receives is the most explicit message he's ever given. It is the one time Travis admits that what he is doing is wrong. And at the end of the fight, Travis vows to shut down the United Assassins Association.

What happened? Isn't that the end? Travis realized that he's wrong? Pizza Bat and the other ranked assassin organizations should be destroyed, he said it himself. Alice Twilight's last wish was that Travis would remember her. Who else said that in the series: Holly Summers from No More Heroes. Like Holly, Alice is an assassin, one that has lived a life of death by rank. Holly tells Travis that when an assassin loses they must die. For a moment, Travis matures, he learns the weight of his actions and he gains insight into the mentality of an assassin. After a brief cutscene, she kills herself leaving Travis neck-deep in regret. In a melancholic sequence after the fight, Travis carries her body to a sandpit where she is buried. What Holly said resonated with Travis and it was further emphasized by Alice's speech. These are two characters he remembers, unlike Helter Skelter. There's a convergence of themes seen here from the two games. Memory and revenge are seemingly interlocked with one another. Travis is the "No More Hero" the assassin king who walked away from the throne. After killing his sister Jeane he learns the true impact of vengeance. It creates a cycle of death. He doesn't gain anything, nor does he when he killed Holly or Alice. All he does by killing is bury himself further in a pit of sand, one he can't escape from.

After his fight with Alice Twilight, Travis has sex with Sylvia. He gets laid. It's awesome and everything that he's no longer the No More Virgin, but what's really the point? After fighting someone who made him reflect upon all of his actions as an assassin, essentially bringing back the regret he felt in killing Holly Summers, he has sex with the person who has facilitated all of the evil things he's done. This is one place where Travis' character has faltered slightly. Like the paragraph way back up there, Travis is constantly at odds with his sexual nature. After he's done, he triumphantly runs out of his apartment and yells "Downward Dog" to the whole of the city. Is it catharsis? Is it him finally being rewarded for becoming a killer? Was it all worth it? Why is that the only cutscene where we don't see him his sunglasses on? While themes of revenge and violence are most prevalent in No More Heroes 2, sex always makes it way back into the series.

Shinobu Jacobs returns in No More Heroes 2 as Travis' semi-servant. After the events of the first game, she traveled the world eventually conquering assassin tournaments in Asia. What happened between her vowing revenge on Travis and her becoming his faithful servant is never revealed, and we're left asking why she's so devoted to him. Call it a film cliche. We've seen it before when a sworn foe returns in a sequel only to become an ally. The difference with Shinobu is that she was spared by Travis. This condemned her as an assassin. As Holly Summers explained, if an assassin is defeated they have to die. To repay Travis, she devotes her life to him in a weird, unwanted sort of way. At one point she even offers her self to him because he is her "master." Why did he refuse? He said it was because it made him feel, "like that pervy teacher in a porn." There's more to it than that.

Throughout No More Heroes, Travis is confronted by hyper-sexualized male and female assassins. Every other fight he's taking on bosses getting off on giant-phallic brain vibrations - see Dr. Lentz Shake - and insane acid spitting vixens covered in bondage gear. Killing and sexuality become intertwined as thematic devices. Every time Travis returns to his apartment in the first game, someone from Beef Head video calls him up to return a number of different pornographic films. His beam katanas are basically giant, killer penis extensions that he has to jack to recharge. The overt sexual nature of No More Heroes symbols is never hidden from the player, it's pronounced. Yet when confronted by a woman's sexuality, Travis doesn't know how to react. Holly Summers, for example, calls him a pathetic example of a man because he wasn't able to kill her. Through her explanation, she de-sexualizes her character and her profession. This shows Travis that she's more than her appearance. She's a human being. Shinobu is a hyper-sexualized character, and in the second game when she comes onto Travis he relents being unable to go through with anything. Travis is sexually repressed. Why then is he able to have sex with Sylvia and not Shinobu?

What Travis showed when confronted by Shinobu was guilt. He felt that taking advantage of his "servant" made him into a perverted individual, which he has already shown to be a main character trait. Travis parades his sexuality around Sylvia continually pursuing her for the purpose of sex. He talks a big game, but when confronted by someone who has the same strong sexual desires he's affronted, scared even. Shinobu, like many of the other characters in the game, is a reflection of Travis. The master-slave relationship they have is no different than the dependence Travis shows for Sylvia. The guilt he feels when confronted by Shinobu is informed one: by his innate inadequacies in understanding his sexuality and two: by the guilt he associates his relationship with Sylvia Christel. On the promise of sex, Travis killed hundred of people. On the supposed promise of a relationship, Shinobu killed for her "master". It's complicated.

What we can take away from Travis Touchdown is this: appearances are deceiving. While he remains a big talking, macho beam saber wielding maniac deep down Travis is a disturbed and guilt ridden individual. The loose justifications he used to kill others, seeking vengeance only to create another cycle of violence and his want to escape an author created narrative make Travis one of the more complicated "protagonists" in video games today. People often look at No More Heroes' story as as kind of watered down Suda 51 experience. It isn't. No More Heroes and No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle are some of the deepest games available to international video game audiences. If you dig into the characters you can find as much depth in them as Emir Parkreiner in Killer 7 or Sumio Mondo in Flower, Sun and Rain.

No More Heroes is a series that is at the pinnacle of the self-aware video game narrative. It's an experience that knows it's a parody, but tries to circumvent whatever label is attached to it. As a "protagonist" Travis represent a video game character that has reached a kind of sentience. Throughout the series, he is confronted by characters who have already lived the game he is playing. They are just as guilt ridden as he is, and some of them want to be killed. Through Travis, the game preaches non-violence even when showing some of the most gruesome examples in video games. Like Travis himself, No More Heroes is a paradoxical entity. At once it feels like an immature series about killing, violence and assassins. It feels like a B-movie made into a video game, yet there's a depth to the experience that pulls it out of being a experience. No More Heroes is a game about the worst hero that has ever existed, and one that's one of video game's most human.

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