Tag: Transistor

Game Review: Transistor

Big budget studios love their hype machines. They see their customers as fuel for mechanical devices that print money. They choke the causeways of industry news with information on pre-orders, exclusive editions, the latest innovations and “ground-breaking” technology, sometimes before we even get a screenshot of the game in question. Independent studios tend not to do this. The only pre-order benefit that Supergiant Games provided for Transistor was the soundtrack to their game, and if you know anything about the studio, you know that they didn’t need six different exclusive editions to win us over. They seem to have this crazy idea that solid design and powerful storytelling alone are enough to sell a game.

Courtesy Supergiant Games

Welcome to Cloudbank. It’s a nice enough town. There are plenty of modern amenities from automated flatbread delivery to concert halls with plenty of seating. But for the Camerata, it isn’t quite enough. They want to make adjustments to Cloudbank, on a pretty massive scale, and to do this, they have unleashed the Process, an automated vector for change. Voice have risen up in opposition, and one of those voices belonged to Red, a prominent singer popular in Cloudbank. Their attempt to silence Red forever is only partially successful, and while her voice is gone, she manages to escape with seemingly the only means to stop the Process and defeat the Camerata: the Transistor.

When I talk about wanting to tell stories that draw in the audience, interactive storytelling, or getting into the gaming industry, it’s games like Transistor that I have in mind. With a minimum of exposition and even dialog, Supergiant Games conveys an emotional and thought-provoking story that feels deeply personal. I still adore their first title, Bastion, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Red, as a character, is more fleshed out and more compelling than The Kid for reasons I have discussed at length – her personality shines through in her actions and design, and rather than being the blank slate many video game protagonists are designed to be, remains her own person making her own decisions from beginning to end.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
Red’s found herself some trouble.

Another advantage that Transistor has over its predecessor is the combat system. While Bastion was frenetic in its fights, player choices coming in weapon selection between arenas, Transistor offers players a robust system for dispatching the Process. The abilities provided by the Transistor have a surprising amount of depth and customization, allowing Red to mix and match what its primary abilities can do and how she benefits from the functions it hosts. The Turn() system is also shockingly flexible, in that it can either work similar to the pause function in FTL as a break from fast-paced real-time action or pushes the game towards more of a turn-based experience. You (and Red) can either stay out of the ethereal wireframes and bash heads as quickly as possible, or you can take your time to plan a perfectly executed combo, or you can mix the two to your liking. Rather than a mere set of mechanical tools, the options in Transistor are more like dabs of paint on your palette, allowing you to participate in the creation of this work of art. It provides you with just as much agency as Red is given, pulling to further into the world of Cloudbank.

I do not use ‘work of art’ lightly. Even if the combat wasn’t extremely well-realized (it is) and the story wasn’t absolutely flawless in its execution (it is), Transistor would be a treat for the eyes and ears. The richly painted and noir-inspired pseudo-future world of Cloudbank is offset by the austere white of the Process, and the wide streets and empty chairs and benches throughout the city make the experience feel very lonely at times, further underscoring the struggle Red is undertaking. Enemies each have unique appearances, abilities, behaviors, and challenges, and the Transistor’s attacks produce striking effects as it takes them apart. Logan Cunningham’s voice work remains top-notch, the uncertainty and pain of the Transistor’s voice making the narration far more immediate and intimate than that of Rucks in Bastion, as good as that was. The music, as written by Darren Kolb, adds another layer to the world we’re exploring, and hearing Red hum along with it underscores the haunting beauty of the entire experience.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
You seriously cannot tell me this game is not a work of art.

There’s no multiplayer. No imposed social media or proprietary platform functionality. Supergiant Games isn’t interested in bilking their players for money or regulating their activities. These are talented and passionate folks interested in telling good stories and making great games. With Transistor, they have knocked it clear out of the park. The art is magnificent, the music is electrifying, the combat is exciting, and the story is compelling and engrossing. It hits all of the points to make for an unforgettable experience. With a New Game plus (or ‘Recursive’) option, unexplored permutations of Functions, and a world this breathtaking and characters this fully realized, there’s no reason not to enter Cloudbank yourself. Transistor is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Informing Through Action

Cloudbank, by Jen Zee

I have many, many good things to say about Transistor.

I’m processing my thoughts for a review that will go up tomorrow, but my immediate takeaway was that Supergiant Games have done it again. They’ve shown how coherently and completely a story can be told in the medium of video games, with a bare minimum of exposition and dialog. In Transistor, they also demonstrate how effectively one can characterize a silent protagonist through action.

More often than not, silent protagonists are conveyed to us through the reactions of others than anything else. They tend to be blank canvases for the player to project themselves upon. Other characters, mostly in first-person games – Garret in the Thief series, Master Chief from Halo, etc – gain more of their own character from the occasional line of dialog, opting for the taciturn badass mold of protagonist. Not so with Red. Her voice stolen by the Camerata, she cannot speak for herself. But despite being silent, and our protagonist, Red is very much her own character.

Throughout Transistor, Red pulls the titular sword-like device around her as if it’s quite heavy. Yet, she pulls of flourishes with it, tossing it up in the air to catch it as she runs. Her initial pose not only allows her a good range of motion with the weapon, but it can be off-putting to foes: they may think she is too weak to use it effectively, only to be surprised when she enters Turn() to bust some heads. She hums, either along to the music when in Turn() or holding the Transistor, as well as short vocalizations when she sees something in Cloudbank the Transistor wants to tell her (and us) about. Despite the loss of her voice, Red refuses to be completely silent. This is also evident in the terminals scattered throughout the game – the roles of which I will not spoil here. Finally, in the Backdoor hub for the ‘bonus’ portions of the game, there is a hammock, and after using it, Red yawns and dabs at her eyes, a gesture that speaks to someone used to a refined and maybe even posh lifestyle. Her life might have been thrown into upheaval, but Red refuses to let go of herself, allowing time to breathe in the midst of the chaos.

All storytellers, not just video game designers, could benefit from Red’s example. She informs us of who she is through her actions. Nobody tells us that she’s this smart or this stubborn. It comes across in what we are shown. The guys at Supergiant are not in the habit of explaining much of anything in their games at first; players discover more about the world and the characters through play rather than through cutscene. Brevity, it is said, is the soul of wit, and it’s also helpful in conveying a story in the most effective way possible.

If your characters have agency, and you’re allowing them to change and grow as your story progresses, you’re well on your way to this effectiveness. Building on the foundation of agency, you’ll want your characters to come across to your audience through actions, possibly more than words. The more speech you cram into your character’s mouths, the less story you’ll actually be telling. While it is occasionally okay for a character to be long-winded as part of who they are, or needing to explain something to someone else, for the most part, our conversations are relatively short. We do far more than we say. Your characters should be no different.

There are a lot of things to take away from the experience of Transistor, many aspects that other game designers, even for big publishers, would do well to emulate. One of the strongest is this method of conveying character through action. I may reiterate this point in my review, but Red feels like a person, with her own life and thoughts and emotions, and this pulled me even deeper into the experience. It’s powerful storytelling, and in an interactive medium like this, it’s always wonderful to see. Like characters in Journey communicating almost entirely through action, forcing the player to pay attention and forge connections through their own agency, Red takes on a life of her own not just because we have a mouse or thumbsticks to guide her. Her actions show us who she is.

Can you say the same for the characters you’ve created?

Art by Jen Zee

Game Preview: Transistor

Courtesy Supergiant Games

It’s been almost a year since I did my writeup for Bastion. It’s proof positive that game developers with fresh ideas and stories to tell don’t need to hitch themselves to the wagon of any particular publisher. If I recall correctly from TotalBiscuit’s interview with Supergiant Games’ creative director Greg Kasavin, that little game sold 1.7 million copies. I, along with many others, have been wondering what would come next from this charming studio. That question was answered at PAX East 2013: Transistor.

Courtesy Cynicalbrit
There it is.

They teased us before the event with a trailer, which you can see here. Their booth was set up with images both familiar and new: Rucks, Zulf, and Zia from Bastion on banners that partially concealed the images of the flame-haired woman with the odd weapon that apparently gives the new title its name. The line was long, but the wait is worth it. Even though the demo only ran about 15 minutes, it highlighted the crux of the gameplay, introduced a fascinating new world, and whets the player’s whistle for more; in other words, it’s a demo that kicks ass for a game that looks to be every bit as good as Bastion if not better.

While the game does introduce us to an isometric view of a silent protagonist smashing things with what appears to be a rather nasty blunt weapon, the world is not the empty post-Calamity landscape of Caelondia, but the lively city of Cloudbank that might actually be in the process of a Calamity of some kind. Mechanical menaces that vaguely resemble refugees from Aperture Science (white hulls, red camera eyes, etc) appear to be reformatting the city and removing people that can stop them. On their list was our heroine, Red, and while they stole her voice, they didn’t quite finish the job, and she’s left with the Transistor, a unique and powerful weapon that speaks with a voice from beyond the grave.

Courtesy Cynicalbrit
Execute Turn()

The Transistor also seems to interrupt the processes of things around Red, including time itself. It changes what appears at first to be an isometric bash-em-up to a thought-provoking tactical game that rewards careful planning and mixing strategies. The thinking behind the construction of the UI and skill set is that the Transistor is already the most powerful weapon available; rather than entice us to play more with new weapons to unlock, different abilities look to allow the player to vary their playstyle to their liking rather than being stuck with bashing away. The enemies, as well, vary in how they approach Red, from duplicating teleporters to big burly jerks that destroy what little cover you can find. All of this is conveyed in the high-quality art style of Supergiant Games, and Logan Cunningham lends his voice to Red’s unique weapon.

Instead of simply a sequel or retread of Bastion, however, Transistor is already carving out its own niche. It feels decidedly more science fiction than Bastion’s fantasy adventure. The music has a more electronic bent to it, as well as being more feminine in its voice, while every bit as haunting and memorable as the soundtrack of the previous game. Red seems to have a bit more agency than the Kid, and the voice of the Transistor is very different from the voice of Rucks: less seasoned, more nervous and desperate, an immediate in-the-moment character rather than a reflective old man. Put it all together, and you have a game that, while familiar in many ways, promises a new story with which to fall in love coupled with gameplay that will challenge you, spark your imagination, and make the points of said story all the more rewarding.

And I, for one, can’t wait to play it.

You can see Transistor‘s early build in action over at CynicalBrit, both with and without commentary.

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