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Tag Archives: Transistor

 

 

Stomach.

 

 

PAX East 2015.

I’m in Boston. I have a cold.

I spend Thursday afternoon dislodging the Hyundai rental from one of the four-foot snowdrifts framing my driveway.

Sweating. No hat. The wind blowing hard off the corn field across the road.

PAX East 2015: I fall into Boston.

I choke on its wind.

Same hotel. Same time of year. A different state:

2014. I am ready to give up on games. Everything feels hollow.

Everything feels bored.

Everything is hype and money.

Exhausted and numb: I find Tim Rogers.

I see Videoball. It pulls me back.

I start writing again for the first time in three years.

I gut my political blog.

I write about video games for the first time ever.

I write my first post about Videoball.

It stays with me. It sticks to me. I think about the game at least once a day for a year.

PAX East 2015 and I only need two days.

The panels are uninteresting.

I am curious about the booths on the show floor.

Friday night I walk with my wife through the park.

She takes pictures of fat, red squirrels.

We work our way to Chinatown.

We try shabu-shabu for the first time. We drink bubble tea.

It’s quiet. The streets are quiet.

The snowbanks glow from neon signs.

Caked in trash.

I think about Saturday. I don’t miss PAX.

I miss Action Button.

I miss Videoball.

 

Joint.

 

Pax East 2015.

I wake up. Shower.

I don’t sleep much. The walls are thin.

Exhausted, I step into the city. Buy some coffee.

I love the city.

I miss Madison. Chicago. LA. Beirut. Paris.

We walk through Chinatown again. We find our way to the convention center.

The foot traffic stops. The security line is two blocks long.

Stuck on a bridge. I stare down into the small pools of broken ice.

I have always had a fear of deep, complex water – A horror of it.

We make it in. We burrow into the display.

There is a muted excitement.

It feels familiar. It feels off.

Bethesda doesn’t make a showing for the first time in three years.

Evolve is buried away from the main entrance. No giant monster to display.

Supergiant is there for the third year in the same booth pushing Transistor.

Alienware brings back the opulent spirit of the late-90’s PC hardware fever.

The manipulative pre-order systems of 2014 are gone.

I see Grey Goo and Dreadnought. Overwatch. Final Fantasy Type-0. Monster Hunter. Elite Dangerous.

I wander into independent games.

I wind through rows of small developers: Frenzied innovation and a consuming boredom.

Iron Galaxy cuts into view.

I find Videoball.

I greet Tim. We talk with joy and excitement.

He introduces me to Michael Kerwin, programmer for Action Button Entertainment.

And I feel like I’m home.

Videoball is still stunning.

I watch it played on an enormous screen.

It has grown in the past year. It has matured.

It feels less like a video game. It feels like a court.

An arena.

An environment.

A world.

 

Knuckle.

 

2014 Videoball felt new. It felt vigorous.

It was a geometry problem stuck in the mind of a squash player.

It was a system brimming with friction and momentum.

2014 Videoball caressed urgency.

Videoball has now learned how to breathe.

This past year the game has evolved in small, intelligent ways.

Touching the ball no longer freezes the player: The player is pushed away.

The punishment is still the inability to move, but now the field is more active.

Nothing stands still.

This rejection system still requires the player to correct trajectory however much they can.

It’s a punishment that still involves the player.

It’s a punishment that involves losing field position.

2015 Videoball has adjusted the timing and features of the three shots.

The level 1 shot can now be used repeatedly with quick button taps.

The (persistent) level 2 shot is able to push the ball in a straight line.

The level 3 (slam) shot feels hot and alive.

Now when the ball is hit with the level 3, it creates a thick, rubber-banding color trail behind it.

Like the light trails from Akira translated into an organic brutalism.

The level 4 blocks actively deconstruct themselves with each hit.

One hit and the block splits into nine squares.

Two hits and the squares spin and disappear.

Tim explained he got this idea from the visual flourishes in Destiny when breaking down items.

The ball and the stages themselves feel more involved.

The ball contorts when manipulated with force like a soccer ball in the feet of Captain Tsubasa.

The stages absorb energy and ripple with soft, Mario 3 curves.

The stages have also become more complex.

Some involve the goals being split in the center.

Other stages are littered with small blocks around the center of the field.

The stages are diverse and shifting. Creative and challenging.

In 2014, Videoball was aesthetically cohesive.

Its visual language was clean and deep.

In 2015, Videoball is whole.

It’s completely awake.

It is a living, breathing world of systems and cues.

A world comprised solely of sunsets and city nights.

A year ago Videoball felt complete.

It inspired me then.

It showed me how much some people still care about games and vision.

2015: That passion hasn’t receded.

Last year, it was Midnight City.

Now it’s Iron Galaxy:

Revitalizing Killer Instinct. Pushing Gunsport. Supporting Videoball.

Showcasing games that pull on the flesh.

Games that rip open sweat and spine.

Videoball has found the right kind of new home.

The right kind of stable.

Videoball is ready to run.

To trample.

It’s powerful. Beautiful. Lean. Heavy. Fast.

In 2014, Videoball was a game I needed:

To see.

To touch.

To digest.

 

2015: Everything and nothing has changed.

 

 

 

 

sa

 

 

Grate.

 

 

There are moments I stop playing video games.

I can recall each moment because they are all defined by an exploration of something new.

Lost somewhere in the fog of high school, I walked away from games for the second time.

It was never clear what triggered this.

Freshman year I was playing Grand Theft Auto on the Game boy Color.

Sophomore year my brother and I pooled our money together for a Playstation 2.

Junior year and something shifted.

I turned to music.

I explored vinyl records.

I pulled my parents’ old Sanyo floor speakers from the basement.

I bought my first pair of Sony Stereophones.

Sound became important.

The first car I owned was a 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo.

Its stock stereo system had a visual equalizer.

I spent hours tweaking frequencies and audio presets.

When I came back to games I had developed an aural palate.

I knew what I wanted to hear.

I picked up my Game Boy Color and played Dragon Warrior for the first time since its NES release.

Its music stuck with me long after I had forgotten about it.

I asked a friend if he could copy specific songs off the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack.

I listened to it everyday driving home from school.

I began to pay attention to what I once considered passive elements.

Soundscape. Music. Sound Design. Lighting. Art.

My only focus had been on plot and mechanics.

I revisited games from my past.

Lion King. Aladdin. Super Mario 2. Guerrilla War. Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Contra. Jackal.

I experimented through them all.

I played with the fluid sprites of Aladdin.

I realized how deep Jackal’s music had dug into my past.

 

Coil.

 

When the original Playstation hit, it occupied a strange place in sound.

The PS1 rendered an insinuation of orchestra.

Everything from Final Fantasy VII to Metal Gear Solid to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had soundtracks that landed between what was and what was to come.

With better hardware, it was a matter of time before game music became orchestral and real.

I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Most film soundtracks use orchestral variation and most film soundtracks are forgettable.

With each consecutive hardware generation, games became less immune to being forgotten.

Designers dropped simple, tight, engaging melodies for large, sweeping waves of sound.

Final Fantasy X was my first exposure to this.

I cannot recall a single FFX theme.

When everything is drowned in realized, emotional music, it has no impact.

It has no force.

The most recognizable themes in games today are those that understand how to use boundary and limitation.

Halo and its haunting, simple, choral opening.

Crysis 2 and Hans Zimmer’s dissonant, driven theme.

Armored Core V and its awkward, shifting, stuttering soundscape.

Transistor and its somber, tense, contemplative anthem.

Game music succeeds when it does new things with mathematical elegance.

As games shift further away from their origins, as they become more complex, more rooted in an approximation of reality, they can only strengthen their identities by reexamining the technical boundaries of their past.

By trying to forge identity through deliberate misremembrance.

 

Sea.

 

Until 2011, the last piece of Nintendo hardware I owned was a first-generation Game Boy Advance.

I skipped the N64, GameCube, Wii, and DS.

The 3DS was the first Nintendo console I bought in ten years.

I was annoyed at myself for ignoring the DS in favor of the PSP.

I was interested in experimenting with the parallax display.

It took time to get reacquainted with Nintendo.

I disliked what they did with the Wii and the 3DS was their initial attempt to rediscover the ‘core’ gaming audience.

Super Mario 3D Land shocked me. Its music was simple and memorable.

It was the perfect evolution of sound.

The music was experienced and enhanced the game’s bright art.

Nearly every first-party game on the 3DS had a thorough, crafted approach to sound.

The 3DS was the first handheld console where I couldn’t just mute the games.

I needed to hear what was going on.

In 2013, I bought Animal Crossing: New Leaf to cope with my wife leaving for a month.

It was the first Animal Crossing game I played.

The wholeness of its soundscape was captivating.

The music was light, crisp, and warm.

The sound of the rain, the waterfalls, the shore was thick and meditative.

The sound of footsteps on sand, grass, cobblestone, wood was mesmerizing.

More than any other element, the sound design stuck.

Listening to New Leaf was just as much a pleasure as playing it.

I bought a Wii U not long after launch.

I waited for the first-party games. I waited for the extension of the 3DS’ promise.

Super Mario 3D World was just as beautiful and whole as 3D Land.

Mario Kart 8 infused pop and joy into nearly every track’s theme.

The thoroughness of Sonic’s sound design in Super Smash Bros. Wii U is nothing short of a loving tribute to a dying friend.

Nintendo is often attacked for being slow to adapt, to change.

Nintendo is often accused of thriving in their own bubble and calling it success.

While these criticisms are fair, it is important to examine what it is they get right.

They understand how to build games.

They understand that sound and music aren’t just aural skyboxes encompassing their worlds.

They consider and entwine sound into every step, every inch.

Nintendo’s approach to sound is simple and profound.

Soulful and considered.

 

Grinning and whispered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Periphery.

 

 

Near the giant Hawken mech looming over the show floor, sat the Transistor booth.

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.

Transistor.

I knew about Supergiant Games. I knew they made Bastion.

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.

 

Sink.

 

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.

The fundamental conflict in Transistor comes into play when the city’s elites, the Camerata, use ‘The Process‘ to preserve parts of the city, to solidify the city, to slow down the change.

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.

 

Swan.

 

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.