PAX East 2013 was my first video game convention. It was the first time I traveled out of state with my wife.
She had only been in the country for a month. She was excited to see Boston. She didn’t care about video games.
I like that though.
I like that her world is bigger than this.
I like that she still tries to understand what I mean when I talk about games.
She still reads the things I write here.
She still goes with me to PAX.
PAX East 2013 was when I began to respect indie games.
I had taken issue with independent games in the years prior.
I disliked their constant rehashing of 8 and 16-bit aesthetics. I disliked how, for the most part, they never seemed to take themselves seriously, that everything was a big joke. I disliked their lack of mechanical polish.
I was also down on AAA games. I hated all their bloat and lack of innovation.
But I saw indie games at PAX with promise.
Hawken. Mercenary Kings.
I never played Bastion. I knew that it got a lot of credit for doing interesting things with narration.
It’s hard to pin down what made me not want to play it, maybe because it looked like a more involved Braid: Another colorful game about deconstruction.
Standing outside the Hawken booth I stared at the mural:
I knew in 2013 that this was a game I wanted to play.
A female lead, robots, a giant sword, a city: Neo-noir Cyberpunk Concentrate.
I liked what I saw so much that I didn’t want to play the game before it was released.
I wanted to be surprised.
Even when it showed up again at PAX East 2014, I avoided the Supergiant booth.
Transistor released a few months later in May 2014.
And it surprised me.
And it mixed me up.
Transistor is a celebration of the urban.
It is about the love of the city. It is about the love of the self.
It is about Narcissism.
Cloudbank is a place defined by change: A place that shifts according to the will of the citizenry.
Everything from the weather to new structures are voted on and enacted according to majority opinion.
Cloudbank is the final extension of urban expression.
It has both canonized and limited the will of the deviant: Destruction of property by the majority.
To manipulate The Process, the Camerata utilized the Transistor: A sword-like object which doubled as a tool for issuing commands to The Process and storing data for urban development.
The Camerata lose the Transistor after they try to assassinate Red, Cloudbank’s most influential singer, with the Transistor.
The Camerata were attempting to trap Red inside the Transistor in order to use her persona to influence future development of the city along with the traces of other notable Cloudbank natives.
The assassination attempt goes wrong when a man jumps in the way of the Transistor, taking most of the blow for Red.
The man is then ‘downloaded’ into the Transistor and Red, having been slightly injured by the weapon, loses her voice.
Red takes the Transistor and goes to find answers while the Process is no longer under control, rapidly deconstructing the city.
The man inside the Transistor becomes the narrator throughout the game.
Initially, I enjoyed the stylized narration.
The man’s voice is cool, smooth, flowing, loose.
At some point though, it all flipped. The stylization began to sound like a parody of itself.
The voice begins to annoy.
The man inside the Transistor talks too much.
The game would have benefited from tighter narration.
The seriousness and integrity of the voice would not have become the joke it ends up being.
By far the worst of this occurs when Red begins to encounter the Spine, a massive Process enemy, which affects the voice of the Transistor.
His voice becomes slurred, slow, stuttering.
This would not have been so terrible, but the narrator refuses to stop talking.
It becomes difficult to listen to and was grating enough that I almost wanted to shut off the game.
The gameplay suffers from the same problem.
Transistor’s combat is highly tactical.
In battles, the player can initiate a tactical mode which freezes the enemies. The player can then set a sequence of actions. Actions are limited by a bar at the top of the screen.
The actions are then initiated after the player confirms.
During fights, the player has access to four active abilities, which can be further enhanced by up to two passive abilities each.
Initially, the combat is satisfying.
It’s all about angles and positioning.
It is a game of pool taking place at some dark bar in Parasie Eve‘s New York.
But as the game progresses, as the player becomes more involved in the plot, the combat and the narration become the least interesting parts of the game.
At this point, at the point where the narration becomes a parody and the combat becomes a slog, the real beauty of the passive elements bursts out.
Cloudbank itself is stunning.
The intricacy and level of detail is inspiring.
The entire game is rendered in cyber Art Nouveau:
Supergiant did an excellent job in making Cloudbank a place the player wants to be.
It is dripping with character.
It feels lived-in.
Near the end, as The Process deconstructs the city, there is a sense of mourning, of loss for this place.
Spending a few hours in Cloudbank, one cannot help but become attached to its expansive, colorful vistas.
Its urban density.
Its thick flourishing.
The look of the city, the art of the game, is further enhanced by the music.
Transistor’s music is full of mourning as well.
It breaks the fourth-wall.
All the music in the game is sung by Red.
The player is being exposed to the same sounds, the same music that garnered Red such a massive following in Cloudbank.
The use of Red’s music forces the player to confront the loss of her voice.
Her music is also a celebration of the city, an epitaph in the face of its loss.
The player relates to it, having become attached to the place.
The way the art and the music work together seamlessly, the way they include the player, is not something that has been done before.
Transistor is at its best when it’s not trying to be a game.
Transistor is at its best when it’s just trying to tell a story.
What Supergiant does well is find new ways to express narratives. They should focus more on that.
Afterall, it was the promise of the art of Transistor that made me pay attention to it:
The gaze of a determined woman in a dying, neon-drenched city.