The River Always Finds the Sea
If Dear Esther is the video game equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman feature, then Transistor, Supergiant Games’ sophomore effort (and the very indirect spiritual successor to Bastion), is more akin to a Tarantino flick. To be only a little bit more precise, Transistor’s overall aesthetic feels like a heady blend of Kill Bill, Blade Runner, and just about any Wes Anderson movie you can name.
It’s inherently unfair to compare games to movies, of course. The two media, while having the audiovisual component in common, are fundamentally different in just about every important aspect (structure, plotting, mode/level of engagement, etc.). In this case, however, the comparison serves as a convenient shorthand for what I’m trying to express.
Though stylish as hell, Transistor is not, despite what some may claim, an artsy-fartsy title. And that’s not a bad thing in the least. While I’m normally a big fan of the artsy-fartsy (art house cinema, literary fiction, art games), clearly to the point of seeming, and being, annoyingly pretentious, I will be the first to admit that an expressive medium hasn’t fully matured until it has produced its fair share of in-betweens, those hybrid pieces that truly straddle the line between art and entertainment, that do approach the sublime, whether in aesthetic or narrative or both, while remaining both accessible and conventionally enjoyable.
Transistor isn’t merely a stylish and emotionally eloquent experience, and it isn’t merely an excellent action/tactical roleplaying game. Transistor is both, and it manages to be both without compromise. That makes the release of this gem a very, very good thing both for gamers and for Video Games. Neither Kill Bill nor Blade Runner is Citizen Kane (and seriously, we need to stop constantly name dropping Citizen Kane – it’s getting unseemly), but both films, at least in my opinion, are fantastic works of art (note that in the case of Blade Runner, I do not acknowledge the validity or existence of any version prior to the Director’s Cut). They are unabashed, unashamed, unafraid to be exactly what they are.
Supergiant’s latest, much like its aforementioned cinematic brethren, never apologizes for what it is. It speaks, and sings, for itself, in the vernacular of its choice. And, in my view, there is something honest about it, something, believe it or not, refreshingly unpretentious.
Sparkle and Shine
Transistor’s story and presentation are simple enough and, in my opinion, are exactly as effective as they need to be. The narrative might seem dense or inaccessible at first blush, as the game thrusts the player into a very alien world without so much as a scrolling recap or even a convenient amnesia conceit, but the salient points of the situation do become apparent soon enough. In fact, it’s amazing how much the game is able to intimate, imply, suggest with its light, almost delicate narrative touch.
In what I think is a fairly elegant flourish, the secondary “title” screen doubles as the opening “cutscene.” We see our protagonist, clearly in distress, standing beside the titular weapon (which is one of those over-sized swords that Japanese character artists were once so fond of). The sword is protruding from a slumped human silhouette. We hear a disembodied male voice, and the sword pulses with light in rhythm with the words. Immediately thereafter, we enter the game proper, and watch as our heroine, in a rather morbid twist on the Arthurian legend, pulls the Transistor (at its own behest) from its grisly sheath. And off we go from there.
What follows is a relatively linear, and actually rather traditional, gauntlet. Using the unique abilities of her newfound weapon, the protagonist (Red) hacks and slashes her way through wave after wave of increasingly powerful robots/hostile computer programs (collectively referred to as “The Process”). Every once in a while, a glowing “backdoor” pops up along her path. Such doors lead to a sort of pocket reality, where Red can undertake various skill challenges, chill out to some groovy tunes, contemplate important issues on a hammock, and bounce a beach ball around. Then it’s off again to massacre some Process scum.
The world building unfolds organically, in bits and pieces, most of it through the rolling commentary provided by the disembodied voice. As Red progresses and acquires functions (powers), you (the player) learn more about Cloudbank (Red’s bizarre, quasi-utopian hometown), its various inhabitants, and the story behind the apocalyptic crisis at hand. You run into a few bosses and one or two NPCs. Your ever present companion reacts to, though very rarely explains, just about everything that goes on. You kill stuff. You kill more stuff. You read the contents of terminals. You vote on now-irrelevant (on account of the whole apocalyptic crisis thing) city issues. At one point you order, and eat, some pizza. It’s all rather straight forward. Diversions and side activities are few and far in between, and most of the game is spent kicking robot butt (and occasionally getting yours kicked in return). When all is said and done, Transistor’s narrative is a mad dash from start to finish. There really isn’t much to it, but that’s not even remotely a negative. There really doesn’t need to be.
There is a tendency (in my view a relatively modern one) in the criticism of any medium to talk about and evaluate a cultural product’s “depth” or, if you’re feeling extra fancy, its profundity. Does the product achieve depth? Does it aspire to it and succeed? Does it aspire to it and fail? Personally, I believe that the very idea of profundity in art, especially when brought up in analysis, is a shallow construct at best. “Deep” is a term high school litmag poets use to describe other high school litmag poets. All art, in my view, is essentially surface. The form, the texture, the level of polish, and the beauty of a given surface may vary greatly, but artists (and game developers count as artists) are incapable of producing something other than what they’ve produced. Once it’s done, it’s done. The audience (the reader, the viewer, the listener, the player) may choose to dive into all sorts of interpretive realms, but that is, ultimately, a choice. You can get real deep with Kill Bill if you want to, or you can just watch the limbs fly.
In Transistor, the surface shines. Everything is written, acted, modeled, composed (god, that soundtrack!), and designed with such skill and confidence, to such a uniformly high aesthetic standard, that the surface proves to be more than enough. I did initially find the game’s linear approach and sparse storytelling to be a touch off-putting. And, as I realized that the end was almost nigh, I was a bit dismayed by how short it felt (8 hours on the first play-through for yours truly). As it turned out, however, I only had to have a little patience, to wait a few more minutes for the game to finish speaking, as it were. Transistor’s ending works about as perfectly as an ending can to convey everything that needs to be conveyed, to drive home “the point” of the whole exercise. Once I saw the story all the way through, I didn’t really have anything major to complain about.
It’s Not When You Get There…
Some might accuse Transistor of aspiring to the realm of high allegory, and of ultimately falling short. I strongly disagree with this reading, and suspect that it may be based on spurious and externally constructed assumptions about what art is and is supposed to do. Obscurity is not always pretentious, and greater clarity does not equal greater effect.
I read Transistor as a classical and very simple love story, nothing more and nothing less. And I didn’t feel that it ever seriously misrepresented itself. It is a story of two people caught up in a disaster not of their own making. It is the story of two people willing to go to hell and back in order to be, to remain, together. It’s Orpheus and Eurydice, Tristan and Isolde, Odysseus and Penelope, Romeo and Juliet. Everything else (the City, the Process, the Camerata, the Transistor itself) is window dressing, a collection of mild MacGuffins, used with proper discretion and restraint. This fact is even cleverly and humorously highlighted by one of the later voice overs in the game, a subtle, indirect breaking-of-the-fourth-wall that I will leave for my gentle readers to discover and experience for themselves. Suffice it to say that the game actually tells us, almost point blank, not to get too bent out of shape over all those esoteric, behind the scenes machinations, or that secret society with the funky red logo, or the ultimate purpose behind the glowing, turquoise sword.
These “shiny things for the mind,” while certainly compelling and worthy of some consideration and interpretation in their own right, serve two basic functions. They provide a context for the primary drama — every story needs a setting — and a reason for the player to keep moving forward — every story needs goals and unanswered questions. But the important stuff is elsewhere, and it is very simple, very quiet, and sweetly poignant.
By the time the credits had finished rolling and the game prompted me to begin “recursion” (new game +), not only was I overcome with a case of what kids these days refer to as “the feels,” but I was utterly and completely satisfied that the story the game had set out to tell me had been told, in full and to great effect. Better yet, it had been told in a way that suits the medium. Transistor isn’t a book or a movie, after all. It is a game, from beginning to end, and its narrative is presented and structured accordingly.
Start the Motion
That being said, the real reason I was initially let down by Transistor’s brevity was that it felt like a waste of an uncommonly compelling combat system. While the game is more or less on rails, with the backdoors occasionally providing the player with just a hint of choice, its core mechanics are, in my opinion, a triumph of game design. The battles in Transistor (and there really isn’t much to the gameplay beside the battles) feel and look fantastic and, more importantly, are engaging enough to have easily supported a much larger, meatier, better funded title.
Transistor’s gameplay is the very epitome of “deceptive simplicity.” With the function system, Supergiant seems to have distilled the very essence of the action RPG. As Red makes her way through Cloudbank’s Process-infested streets, she learns new functions, new abilities. Some she picks up as part of the story, and some the player acquires after gaining a level (there is usually a choice of two). Each function can be equipped as an active attack (of which the player has four at any given time), an upgrade to an active attack (up to two per active slot), or as a passive effect (up to four total). Each function is unique, and when one function is attached to another in the upgrade slot, it will usually imbue the active function with one of its attributes. As you advance through the game and unlock more functions, slots, and memory, you gain access to more and more combinations and permutations.
The developers have clearly done their homework here. There is a function to suit just about every conceivable combat application, and together they can combine to accommodate just about any playstyle. Every single one of them feels as though it had been meticulously tested, tweaked, and balanced for maximum effect, regardless of which slot you choose to equip it in. There is no trash among the bunch, no single power that is inherently more or less useful than another (although I suppose some builds may turn out to be more or less effective for certain situations). Overall, it really depends on the player’s preference and, more importantly, on his or her inventiveness. You can inflict damage over time effects, debuff enemies, temporarily convert some of your foes to your side, turn invisible, summon a pet, leech health, and etc. And by equipping certain functions in the upgrade or passive slots, you can often have your cake and eat it too (and never in a way that feels overpowered). You can, for example, charm enemies while simultaneously poisoning them, or briefly cloak when you’re attacked, or pull enemies toward you (scorpion-style) and weaken them in the process (setting them up for a massive backstab). In short, Transistor is the creative theory crafter’s dream.
Add to that the beautifully executed, and just plain beautiful, Turn() mechanic, which allows the player to freeze time and thoughtfully “program” Red to carry out a precise series of actions in quick succession (at the cost of a global cooldown which leaves the heroine vulnerable for several crucial seconds), and you’ve got something truly special: a Goldilocks mixture of action and tactics that is at once breathtakingly high octane and satisfyingly cerebral. Between Turn() and the function system, Transistor’s encounters, even the relatively minor ones, gracefully transcend the hack and slash paradigm and become emergent, adaptive puzzles.
Even the many backdoor challenges, which are entirely optional, are uniformly at least as fun as the battles of the main campaign. I tend to undertake challenge modes grudgingly, if at all. Usually, they either feel like filler content or like a time sink intended for the “hardcore” and the “achievement hunters.” In Transistor, however, I was always genuinely excited to see the blueish glow of a backdoor portal. Not only does the pocket universe provide for a welcome aesthetic and narrative palate cleanser, but the trials it allows the player to access feel appropriately challenging, meaningful, and rewarding. Best of all, they give you yet another excuse to tinker with the combat system.
I Think I’ll Go Where It Suits Me
Of course, as with any roleplaying game, not everything is available all at once. You have to earn your functions, your slots, and your memory. And that means, unfortunately, that Transistor’s story wraps up just as you’re really starting to sink your teeth into its deep, delicious systems. My first thought was that the campaign needed to be longer. But when the ending really hit, I realized, as a single tear escaped from my ducts and sailed down my cheek, that anything more would have just been fluff. There were, in my opinion, no further explanations necessary. I didn’t need to know more about the Camerata, or the Process, or the Transistor itself. The McGuffins had all served their purpose beautifully and taken their bow at the appropriate moment, leaving in their wake the true, simple, emotional core of this high tech, high concept fairy tale. To extend the narrative artificially in service of the gameplay may well have disturbed that very delicate balance between art and fun that I feel is one of this game’s greatest strengths.
Still, the opposite also holds true. Transistor is unquestionably a game made for gamers, a game that isn’t ashamed of being a game, for all of its poetic qualities and indie sensibilities. Simply letting the experience end before the player has had his or her fill would have tipped the scales toward the other extreme. Thankfully, SuperGiant seem to have valiantly hacked their way around this dilemma.
While the solution may not be perfect, it is nevertheless about as elegant as may have been possible under the circumstances. As I mentioned earlier, Transistor does have a new game +, which is referred to as Recursion Mode. And while I generally don’t go in for that sort of thing, I contend that in this case it is something of a godsend. Simply put, Recursion Mode is one of the most robust, interesting, and fun applications of the new game + concept that I’ve ever seen (I suspect that only Demon’s Souls and the Dark Souls games do it better). In fact, I would argue that Transistor is one of those rare games that essentially cries out for an immediate second play-through, and maybe even a third.
When first presented with the option, I intended to get in, hit the first autosave checkpoint (just to make it official), and then retire to my chambers for an hour of quiet contemplation. Before I knew it, however, most of the night had passed. Recursion gave me everything I could have wanted. Aside from some really compelling new optional challenges and a few tantalizing, but very minor, variations in the narrative, I now had the whole span of the game to really, truly explore those addictive and downright fascinating mechanics. Everything I’d earned (and learned) during my first play-through carried over to the second, and as I leveled further, the function system began to open up even more, allowing me to earn an additional instance of any given function for greater flexibility and more possibilities. And not only did the enemies become tougher in general, but the encounters themselves were, by and large, totally different, totally fresh. Now that the story, the art, and the music were merely a beautiful and haunting backdrop, I was free to use Transistor as a sort of experimental sandbox. I’m happy to announce that I’m still at it. It’s been a blast.
Of course, Transistor is not Hamlet, nor was it meant to be. It’s the story of a songstress-turned-assassin and her talking super-sword as they make their way through a fallen utopia full of robots bent on clinically obliterating everything human. It’s unabashedly gamesy and unabashedly artsy, and it’s neither Shakespeare nor Tommy Wiseau. Ultimately, any comparison I make will have been utterly misguided and unfair (I really just can’t help myself). Suffice it to say that Transistor is a very welcome addition to the scene. It is a complete experience onto itself, a piece of culture that is confidently and skillfully crafted and almost perfectly balanced, in more ways than one.