Transistor

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.

The colors! I never knew there were so many!

The colors! I never knew there were so many!

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.

Yes, yes, Preston is clever and fast. Remind me again, why do I care?

Yes, yes, Preston is clever and fast. Remind me again why I care?

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.

Cloudbank was a genuinely interesting setting in want of a better story.

Cloudbank was a genuinely interesting setting in want of a better story.

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.

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3 thoughts on “Transistor

  1. hey, I really liked Transistor’s story, and I think I know why it is that we disagree. I feel our opinions are both correct, but rooted in different observations and preferences; I thought maybe my thoughts would be helpful in some limited manner, and therefore I share them below. Further, I highly recommend reading the attached review (see bottom of this post) and interpretation, which I did not write; I think it’s very insightful and helps to pull the work together as a very strong work of fiction. It represents a lot of what I saw in the story but could not describe, for which the related attempts I will here omit; yet know that I find them at least as important as the below text. (Note that I fail to give a topic for a very long time; much of this is simply giving my understanding. Perhaps this style is a failure on my part.)

    I tend to love story in the works I consume – but the story I refer to here is not so much the plot as the setting. A consequence of this is that I tend to like science fiction more than fantasy (the latter of which is often overly mired in the Tolkenian discipline ;D), and a consequence of this is that I’m statistically biased to like Transistor more than Bastion. Still, I do think this game has merit; in particular, I think the plot has significant weaknesses (which you discuss), but that the setting is unique, and to dismiss Cloudbank as a Matrix look-alike is rather unfair.

    To describe what I see in Cloudbank, let me steal a section from https://gamesarenotart.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/transistor-and-love/ – an interesting read, but one which I find especially compelling in its description of the exploration of what it means to be a digital society:

    “””But the relationship’s nature is kept ambiguous until the end, which is itself interesting given the atmosphere’s stringent attention to precise figures. The profiles are full of these numbers: when Preston Moyle disappears, “His close friends did not worry more than usual for three days, but for each subsequent day their worry increased an average of 84%.” Similarly, hololithic text will tell you how many steps there are down each flight, or how many people have passed through a certain door. But this stringent sense of record keeping reflects Cloudbank’s geographical embodiment of the internet, with its inexhaustible fountains of data and its compulsive need to categorize and record. The only ambiguity lies in this most personal relationship.”””

    Besides the game’s enjoyable gameplay, and its okay-so-it’s-not-Rucks-but-hey-still-Supergiant narrator, I find Transistor an interesting work on the merit that it explores a new and yet eerily familiar world. You mention “anything is possible, nothing matters”, which I would suppose hearkens to a quote from the Camerata, “when everything changes, nothing changes”, and which I would phrase as, “all is made beautiful, nothing is forever.”

    It is this last point which I think strikes at things I hear many people speak about in my field and among my friends: the right to privacy, the right to be forgotten, and the impermanence of the digital medium in the face of constant, ongoing, terrifying change (this is in very limited contexts also called “bit rot” – a term you might recognise more immediately). Indeed, Transistor is an exploration of agents of change: Everyone is living their own lives (ever notice how much people on Facebook pay the most attention to themselves?), and everything is perfectly measured yet without intrinsic meaning. The sky looks blue because we want it to, and we assign this meaning until it fades away and we breathe a new, different life into it.

    I have heard that Transistor is a story of love – Red for Boxer, Sybil for Red, Asher for Grant, Grant for Cloudbank, Royce for himself. (This contrasts with Bastion, which is a story of hate. Until the end…) I think this is perhaps the plot, but it does not describe why Transistor is compelling to me; I think Transistor is a story about beauty. For you see, Transistor is really a story about the city itself; indeed, much of the story is related by the terminals (you see, unlike most other stories about saving the world, here the world itself is speaking to Red!).

    While there are vague similarities to the Matrix, it seems that that movie chooses to focus on “reality.” Transistor does not concern itself with such things, and as you rightly point out, all have long since dismissed the idea of the permanent; instead it explores what it means to be ephemeral. Yet there is little suffering, in the visceral sense (unlike the typical cyberpunk dystopia) – for this is not an exploration of death – this is an exploration of life. And what I adore about Transistor is that Cloudbank, the Country, and the Transistor itself are so surgically used to explore this idea of the ephemeral in the context of the digital world we are becoming.

    It also had really cool gameplay mechanics (especially the “builds”) which I adored.

    A most excellent review: http://nissacam.com/post/88005598503/finding-her-voice-reds-agency-in-transistor

    Like

    • Ken McGowan says:

      Hi Rain, thanks for your comment! I particularly enjoy and appreciate feedback that challenges me to revisit my arguments and ideas. You’ve given me a lot to respond to; I’ll do my best to address the key points.

      First, it seems obvious we have different notions of what constitutes a story. That would be an interesting discussion in itself, but I’ll save it for another day (it’s actually something I’d like to write about sometime). For now I don’t think it’s particularly salient to a comparison of our positions.

      We seem to agree that Cloudbank is a fascinating setting, which brings me straight to one point where we probably aren’t on the same page: My comparison of Cloudbank to the Matrix was an illustrative analogy. There was nothing in the comparison seeking to detract from Transistor, and I wasn’t suggesting it was somehow a derivative work. On the contrary, I think the idea of Cloudbank holds significant potential (though I think most of that potential was unrealized).

      Most of what I’ve read about Transistor, including your comment and the article you cited, emphasize the games themes, what people perceive the game is about: love, the ephemeral, life in an increasingly virtual world, etc. There’s less material discussion of specific means by which the game may or may not convey its themes to its audience.

      This is the crux of my complaint: Not that transistor is uninteresting—I think we agree that many ideas in Transistor are timely and relevant—but that it fails to live up to its own potential. If, as you say, Transistor is a game about love, then maybe its biggest problem is that it fails to create a sense of intimacy with one notable person: the player.

      How does Transistor use the natural strengths of its medium to draw audiences into its world, to foster a deeper connection between itself and its players? Instead of inviting me in, I felt like Transistor perpetually kept me at arm’s length. I was never inside the story; I was always on the outside, observing the goings-on of others.

      From the review you referenced:

      “It’s slick as hell, beautiful, overwhelming, and more than a little aloof. There’s a lot of game to play, but sometimes it feels like you’re sightseeing in Cloudbank rather than plumbing its secrets.”

      At no point could I empathize with any of the characters. Neither did I ever feel uncertain, conflicted, or surprised at anything the game asked of me. Instead, Transitor walked me through a well-furnished museum of ideas encased in protective glass. Walk up to the display. Play with the interactive exhibit. Read the explanatory text and move on to the next station.

      In this way, Transistor is a coffee table book of a game. It’s attractive in its presentation and well-made. Set it out for guests. It will likely prompt lively, interesting conversation. But pick it up and try to read it, and you’ll very quickly turn back to the conversation. Or else just flip through the rather lovely pictures.

      Like

  2. I was wondering what this was. I saw Volpin Props on Facebook make the sword from the game, and the sword alone is beautiful.
    There’s been a lot of games that I find incredibly beautiful, but weak in other areas. It’s always even more of a shame that amazing art is wasted on weak storylines (or negatives in other areas). Thanks for this, you’ve saved me a job in checking it out :D

    Liked by 1 person

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