Transistor is gorgeous to behold. Every visual element—from the city and its citizens to the cut scenes and menus—exhibits an impressive mastery of graphic design. The palette alone bears mentioning: In the same way that elaborately beautiful counterpoint in a fugue might motivate a person to take up music appreciation, Transistor fosters an inexplicable urge to study color theory.
All of which makes it the prettiest game I never care to play again.
Transistor opens with a still image of our protagonist, Red, looking stylishly distraught as she kneels beside the slumped figure of a man with an enormous, glowing sword protruding from his chest. The scene is quiet until the player presses a button, at which point we hear a voice—emanating from the sword, it would seem—saying, “Hey, Red… we aren’t getting away with this are we?”
Oh good, a mystery! Clearly, Red and her rather unconventional companion have just murdered the man. But who was he? Why did they kill him? Was it murder or manslaughter? For that matter, why is the sword talking? And why does Red’s expression show something more like subdued sadness than deep concern? A man is dead and Red seems to have been directly involved—shouldn’t she be at least a little flustered? Or is our protagonist a cold, indifferent killer?
Having finished Transistor, I know only a little more about Red. I know why the sword is talking, and I know its connection to the dead man. I can’t quite say I know who the dead man is, but I’m not sure it matters. I feel like it should matter, but it doesn’t.
I also learned there was never anything for Red and her companion to “get away with”. That enigmatic turn of phrase, plainly laid out to invite interest in the game and its story, turns out to have been an empty ploy: Intriguing, but ultimately meaningless.
This pattern persists throughout the game. Whatever fantastic tale is buried deep within the world of Transistor, the visible story is weak and elusive. It’s like hearing a song playing in the apartment next door: You can almost catch the tune, but it’s too muddled and obscured to hum along.
Consider the character bio’s. As we play, we’re occasionally rewarded with new background information on various citizens of Cloudbank, the beautiful and mysterious city where the game’s events take place. Each person is connected in some (usually small) way to the story. However, in disproportion to their relevance, the bio’s are as long-winded as they are vacuous, unnecessary, and boring.
The sad thing is that I truly think there’s a good story lost somewhere in the mix. It appears that Red, along with everyone else in Cloudbank, is living out a fully virtualized existence. It’s a more beautiful, classically stylish version of the Matrix, except that everyone here has chosen to take the red pill (and—just maybe—our protagonist’s name is a nod to these origins). In the self-awareness of their virtual existence, Cloudbank’s populace has made reality their canvas. There are rules and structures to prevent utter chaos, but everything is malleable, and so everything is in constant flux. I would guess that Transistor tells the story of a world where anything is possible but nothing matters.
But it’s unfortunate that we have to guess. To be clear, no story has to reveal all its secrets or explain its deepest mysteries. But, secrets or no, a story must engage its audience and bring them along on the journey. This is where Transistor falls down.
If, instead of dumping paragraph after paragraph of vain and inconsequential expository on the player, the character bio’s wove a coherent tapestry that revealed meaningful, relevant facts to players, it could have been outstanding. But transistor’s writing lacks self-awareness. It gives the impression that maybe it thinks too much of itself, rather like so many characters in the game.
All that said, Transistor isn’t a terrible game. It has its strengths. In fact, beyond the regrettable issues with its story, Transistor shines. It’s turn-based combat was exceptionally well-balanced and nuanced. The innumerable ways you can combine offensive and defensive techniques with genuinely fun, useful results was nothing short of phenomenal. Excepting one overused song that is now permanently engraved in my neural pathways, the soundtrack was outstanding. And, of course, I’ve already gushed about the rather impressive visuals.
Impressive as all that is, it makes for an incomplete experience. Playing Transistor, you can’t help but think there’s more to discover, if only someone would let you in on the secret. In the end, any hope of deep connection and engagement is stifled by vague and misleading dialogue, oblique prose, and a host of very fashionable but flat villains with no better motive than a bad case of existential ennui. All this turns what could have been an indie masterpiece into a fun but forgettable diversion.