FULL SPOILERS OF TRAVIS STRIKES AGAIN AND ITS ENDING.
Travis Strikes Again is Suda’s most personal game yet. Showing his most vulnerable side since the original Silver Case, Suda is throwing all his cards into this one game that happens at a crossroad for the company. Grasshopper Manufacture have been considerably downsized down to 25 employees, they have moved offices away from Gung-Ho, their parent company, hinting at a split between both of them, and we know of at least Hideyuki Shin (director of Killer is Dead and Let it Die) leaving the company behind.
But this game is also the return of Suda51 at the directorial chair, something many fans wanted for a decade. It is also their first attempt at self-publishing since their inception. All of this points to Suda tidying up its business in order to go back to the right track. It is even more important considering that he spent the last three years of his life releasing the back catalogue of Grasshopper, going back to the origin story of the company with games such as The Silver Case and The 25th Ward, both central games that informs the overall themes of his stories. What we have in front of us is a Suda that has taken the time to re-appraise his work, games that he mentioned feeling like it was written by another person, and carrying this baggage into Travis Strikes Again. Both old and new finds its way back into this one single game, that is now of considerable importance. We will see how it matters in the context of this game.
To the surprise of no one, Suda’s games doesn’t fit the mold of mainstream gaming once again. His ideas are probably the closest we have to a Lynchian author in the video game space, but Suda goes even further than just emulating this style. Rather than being a supreme fan of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s work is something that complements the influence of his rocky youth. His past as an undertaker and stylist informs a lot of his creative endeavors, often cycling around the idea of death.
Death in Suda’s games is not the heavy topic we come to expect in most stories. He once said that his job as an undertaker, always preparing funeral ceremonies and seeing a bunch of families grieving in their own ways meant that he developed another outlook on death. This is why death means many other things in Suda’s work: it can mean living in another dimension, it can mean staying in the real world as some kind of ghost, it can mean a rebirth, it can also mean a way to kill the past. What is most important however, is that Suda’s philosophy focuses in “breaking up” death. Death is more than the act of dying, but the act of leaving behind things in your life to go forward. Suda’s characters are constantly going through this, for example by making a clean break in their lives (Tokio Morishima), by transforming killing as a tool of creative expression (Travis Touchdown), or by complementing yourself in the areas you don’t excel (The Smith Syndicate).
This philosophy is supported by the central theme of Suda’s games known as “Kill the Past”. KtP is the most essential thing driving forward most characters in the Sudaverse. It obviously doesn’t mean literally killing everyone you knew in your life (though some attempted it), it means that you have to face your past and acknowledge it in order to face forward. Most Suda stories offers a tale of characters who manages to live on because they manage to face their past, whether they wanted it or not, whereas the characters who don’t often meet their demise in return. Most Suda characters are faced with this dilemma at one point in their lives, on the existence of an invisible force that will swallow them if they do not keep going forward. However, their inability to look back and face this force head-on makes them so that the moment they stop moving is the moment they die.
Travis Touchdown is one such character. He led the usual life of an otaku without much to look forward until he became an assassin. But the elements that defines his motivation as an assassin aren’t as clear cut as one would think. In the first fight against Death Metal in the first No More Heroes game, Travis goes on a soliloquy about what his desires are.
This Count…I feel as if I’m looking at my future self. Mega bucks, big ass house, fast cars. Dining in 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 beck and call. On the weekends, tanned babes knocking on my door every two hours. Every day full of excitement and luxury. That’d be the life. Everything in its right place. It’s the perfect life. It’s the life for winners. That’ll be my life!
However, this life is something he quickly realizes isn’t the something he so deeply desire right after:
I thirst for selflessness. Hypocrites lusting for their own desires get killed by young rookies like me. This is how it goes down. And for the old killers? They’ll croak anyway. I guess you can call this a comedy. I realise there’s really nothing 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.
Death Metal represents the life of an ancient generation. He isn’t what drives him forward anymore. But he couldn’t realize it until he saw what was in front of him. The inability of Travis to find this something he desire forced him to move forward in a scheme he couldn’t get out from. The allure of sex with Sylvia or becoming number one was something he just went along with in his quest to move forward.
Travis seeks to solve the hypocrisy of his situation, both stuck into a world of reality and fantasy with his life as an otaku, of fantasies he could not ever fulfill. His own world is only a recreation of famous pop-culture references, but it isn’t his life. So he moves forward, constantly. He becomes number one, he finds another reason to continue with his revenge quest for the sake of Bishop (a thinly veiled reason to keep going in the game), he ends up having sex with Sylvia, he finally becomes the ultimate legend among assassins. And then suddenly, there is nowhere else to go. Everything comes to a stop.
Travis Strikes Again begins.
Travis Touchdown in this game is at a standstill. Someone who had to stop moving and is now faced with the contradiction of his life, unable to find what it is that keeps him going despite having inherited the life experience of the many people he killed. He becomes the quintessential “Kill the Past” character, in which his punishment is a life as a hermit in the middle of nowhere. Travis Touchdown is neither alive or dead, which is another contradiction in itself. Spending his days as some kind of retro game collector in his trailer is his refusal to cope with what lies deep inside him that he doesn’t want to allow to come out.
The story of Travis Strikes Again then becomes one of unexpected soul-searching, where Travis re-experiences his own past (not only others !) through video games, not as a past-time, but as an examination of what made those games great, and what it took to make them. His own past finds a balance in the story of the creator of the Death Drive Mk.II, Dr.Juvenile. His own power as the best assassin in the world is recontextualized not as a power to assert his dominance, but as a power to understand first-hand the visceral power of the deep, engrossing experiences of video games, and the sheer power of game creators who manages to create something so incredible out of nothing.
Travis comes out of these games with a deep sense of respect for what they’ve made. He understand the expression of this fantasy by the ability of game dev to express their work and skill into something, only to come out so fantastic. He takes this expression of making art into himself, and realizes how the fighting itself is his desire. An intense fight to the death between two people becomes the canvas in which he expresses everything deep inside him. Killing becomes art. Travis cannot acknowledge this, because fighting then becomes a display of raw emotion, and he cannot deal with the contradiction of killing as an emotional affair. Travis doesn’t emotionally invest himself, he just thinks he does what he is good at.
Travis Touchdown’s outlook on video games changes as the story goes on. He would first be very critical of them.
But going through the various death balls and the past of Dr.Juvenile, he progressively comes to understand that he is in tune with what she wanted to express. It’s something that Travis seemingly never felt outside of killing: to be able to retrace the hopes and dreams of a person not as the last stand of a dying person but as a deep exploration of one’s lifework.
Her games were never released and ended up never being played by anybody, causing intense amounts of grief. This situation mirrors Travis’ bottling up of emotions, of his inability to find what it is that drives him, and to express it. But he finds a similar situation in the life of Dr.Juvenile that he retraces both in her games and through the “Travis Strikes Back” visual novel segment. His curiosity of Dr.Juvenile’s work turns into fascination, as seen above.
Despite her hardships, she was never once swayed from her path as someone who keeps expressing herself the way she wants to, and she knew she would find this trait in Travis Touchdown, despite not being a game creator himself. The events leading to him entering the Death Ball were orchestrated by Dr.Juvenile, as bread crumbs that would retrace her life, and as the final witness of her lifework as he was the only one able to destroy the CIA’s project, which meant in turn destroying her work.
Travis’ fascination for her goes even further, as he proceeds to savagely beat Damon for assaulting Juvenile. Something that seems quite out of character for Travis Touchdown.
Dr.Juvenile’s life is one of the few times where the experience of other people seems to really shape Travis Touchdown at his core. His outlook on video games keeps changing. While going through the sequel of one of his favourite game “Shadows of the Damned”, his scathing criticism transforms into an understanding of the issues that they might have faced, and offers constructing advice in return, only “hoping” that it might be fixed.
His respect of the people making games turns into a respect of the game itself. Travis living through the sequel of his favourite games and experiencing the ideas of Juvenile shows how much he has matured as someone who love video games, but also as a person too. He deeply respects her for her fantastic ideas and all the genuine sincerity she puts into her game
All of this is laid out in the final fight against White Sheepman, who is Juvenile herself.
Travis Touchdown went deep into a world of killing, yet at the final stretch of his adventure, the thing he desires the most is to save Juvenile. Having experienced her hopes and dreams through her video games made him realize how much of an incredible person she is. She is her new hero. Someone able to put all her emotions into something out of a passion for video games, something that can be felt simply by playing her games.
One more step is left for Travis. And it is to meet his original hero. John Winter, the original creator of the first Death Drive. In an even more surreal fashion, Travis (or the clone of Travis’ clone) meets him on Mars.
No More Heroes plays often with the idea of Paradise. In the final part of Travis’ soliloquy against Death Metal (the same as the one quoted before), he says:
Gotta find the exit. Gotta find that exit to paradise. But, I can’t see it. Can’t see anything. There’s this sense of doom running down my spine, like it’s…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 is taunting me. Can’t find the exit. Can’t find the exit. Can’t find the exit. Can’t find the exit. Can’t find the exit.
Paradise is Travis’ exit. His way of completely avoiding to deal with his deep desires.
As Travis is a huge fan of John Winter, with a part of his childhood defined by his games, one could assume that the interpretation of paradise from John Winter himself also has had an influence on Travis’ own interpretation of it. Winter’s paradise, of a home where he is free to do as he pleases on Mars, in a body that is free of any needs, is also Travis’ own vision of paradise.
In Flower, Sun, and Rain, another Suda game set in the same universe. Paradise is a central theme of the game. The hotel set in an island resort becomes this paradise where everyone can escape their issues in the real world, and just remain there. But it only is that, an escape. As it turns out, the inhabitants of the hotel are all people searching for something they can’t accept that they’re searching for in the first place. Paradise doesn’t become the solution, it becomes the problem. It is by itself another form of death, their inability to kill the past becomes their demise, they also live in this space between life and death, constantly in limbo, until they leave the hotel.
Travis Touchdown was given with a choice, to remain on Mars forever with his greatest hero. The one who made all the games he loved. To live a life of simple needs, free of human desire, only to stand there, enjoying coffee and beer with the gorgeous vista of Mars. it is very much the choice of a lifetime for Travis that was a part of him since the events of the first No More Heroes, and even possibly before that.
Travis Touchdown showcases the biggest change in his life since the first No More Heroes. His confrontation with John Winter is the test that makes Travis come to terms with his own desire and identity. The life and experience of Juvenile, pushed him out of his comfort zone, and in an act of selflessness, helped her set her free from her own state of limbo as she was unable to do it herself.
In killing Juvenile’s past, Travis Touchdown kills his own past as a result, as they are both intertwined with similar life experiences. Both have lost their parent in a tragic fashion, and Juvenile’s discovery that her dad is actually John Winter is a similar setup to Travis discovering his half-sister was Jeane. It is one of the reasons why they understand each other so well. The difference is that Travis’ backstory was played for laughs, as a stereotype of fictional character’s past in pop culture, but here, it is played without irony. Travis’ development as a character is instead treated with sincerity. Both as a character that outgrew his original role as an otaku assassin, and as the hope for the future of an entire company.
Travis Strikes Again is both as a celebration of Grasshopper’s games, and an acknowledgment of what they made, good and bad. Games like Killer is Dead and Shadows of the Damned are even on display. Games famously known for having been meddled with by publishers to the point of compromising Suda’s vision. However, Suda does not disown them, he faces them, acknowledge their flaws, and still makes it a part of the company’s legacy.
Travis kills the past at the same time as Grasshopper Manufacture does. A clean break after facing their past instead of letting it linger until it eats at them. All of this for a chance at a new beginning.
However. Travis had to go through one last trial: he had to cut his heroes down.
This is the first time that the No More Heroes series asserts the title of the franchise as a central theme that permeates Travis’ growth. Travis knows that in order to grow as a human being, he needs to find his own identity that goes beyond his borrowed world of pop-culture and heroes. This leads to farewells Travis didn’t want to face:
He cuts down Electro Triple Star, his hero of the arcade game he holds dear, made by John Winter:
Despite finding a new hero in Juvenile, and trying to save her, Travis ultimately had to cut her down. At that point in time, Travis was the only person who could understand her.
Juvenile was the only person he wanted to bring back with him, the only person that genuinely pushed him forward to become a better person for himself through her love of video games. Both by killing his own past, and by the connection they share in their personal struggle.
A word comes back in these situations: emotion. Travis Touchdown displays a rare episode of feelings laid bare. This is something he wouldn’t allow himself to take in while fighting other assassins. It was what was locked deep within that prevented him to express himself as an assassin.
Travis is at his most vulnerable when forced to cut down his heroes. It is a part of his own identity that leaves without him, something that he has to fill back by himself. Something hard to do for an otaku who let popular culture fill in the blanks during all these years. His openness to the feelings of his heroes brings him to an understanding of who they are when up close, instead of the glorified version they had of them in the past. By doing so, he shows a surprising amount of maturity to the situation, when confronted against Juvenile and John Winter.
And finally, the last one to kill is John Winter himself.
His refusal to join John Winter in Mars is also his own way to kill his hero. Despite being his most important hero figure, Travis acknowledges that his place is not here. He isn’t the glorified person of his youth, he is simply another man in front of him and he has his own life to live. Leaving John Winter means he will never see him ever again, but instead of being a moment of of emotions running amok like for Triple Star and Juvenile, it becomes a moment of strength for Travis Touchdown, by confronting both his hero and the glorified version he had made of him, he comes out as a better person who can fully face his past to look for the future.
But before Travis Touchdown goes, he forgot one more hero to leave behind.
Travis Touchdown cemented himself as a legend among legend. The champion of assassins, undefeated. His legendary status even ran amok in No More Heroes 2. Simply put, his biggest enemy towards his growth as a human being was himself. His years spent running away from his desire made him reach a status that was similar to the one of Death Metal. One of fame, and reputation, all things that he did not care for them. The only way to complete his process of killing the past and his heroes was to die.
And thus, with the help of John Winter putting an end to his life, he was reborn anew. Ready to live his life fully as his own.
No More Heroes.
Travis started as a character seemingly unrelated to the “Kill the Past” mythos, yet became Suda’s most accomplished and mature iteration. He also adds the “No More Heroes” mythos, something he seldom used before with this amount of purpose and clarity. The NMH series finds itself an even greater identity thanks to it.
Grasshopper, just like Travis, goes through a process of rebirth by thoroughly facing their past, and killing their heroes. For Grasshopper, it was about acknowledging their catalogue of games, and taking the good and bad. For Suda, it was understanding what it was about his career to keep, and what was there to leave behind. Suda’s strength in writing and weaving themes together in TSA shows the kind of Suda some wanted to see. This involved getting rid of the Suda of recent years, the one in publisher hell, the one who had to let his vision be compromised and his stories left unfinished, for the sake of keeping the company afloat. Now, Grasshopper has made the gamble to go indie just to put all these years into a newfound strength to offer a new experience born out of their love of video games.
The story of GhM and Travis is also something that is mirrored in Travis Strikes Again. Suda is both represented by Juvenile and Travis. Juvenile had a boundless passion for video games but could never release them for people to see, even having to leave games unfinished (Suda had 5 video games cancelled in his career). On the other hand, Travis is someone who grows to have a deep appreciation of the video games of someone he didn’t even know before. He tries out the games and respect them all for what they attempted, warts and all.
Both represents Suda and his passion for games, prevented from being fully realized because of the shackles of publishers, but it also represents the deep respect Suda has for indie games. Always trying them, impressed by the creativity on display from people with a limited budget.
Travis Strikes Again becomes the reconciliation of these two sides, it’s the representation of a Suda who was pushed to make the game he wanted to make with the passion that he sees all around him from indie developers. He was pushed to put a part of himself into Travis, to impart his experience about the making of video games, of the respect one should have towards video games even if it isn’t always what you wanted. It comes from this desire to realize how something so powerful can come out of nothing.
To return to this amount of earnest, genuine glee towards video games, it took Grasshopper the time to kill the past. A place and time of self-reflection and soul-searching in order to start anew. And it is precisely because Travis Strikes Again exist, that Grasshopper are now ready to continue on their journey with the strength and confidence they displayed in this game.
Travis Strikes Again is the cornerstone of the new Grasshopper studio. A game of hopes and dreams that will become the beacon of their future endeavors. If this is already the level of craft that they’re displaying at this stage, the future of the company becomes as bright as it could be.