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May 26, 2014

On Transistor (And My Love-Hate Relationship)

My excitement for Watch Dogs is inversely proportional to hype surrounding its release -- and directly proportional to the amount of time left until said release.

I can remember a time when I thought that the game would be something new, exciting, and interesting, and actually looked forward to seeing more of it.  But from what I’ve seen and what I could gather, and with the knowledge gained from what are now semi-historical precedents (and recent concerns), I’m not feeling very confident about its quality.  Is Aiden Pearce going to be more than just a bland, designated hero living out a revenge fantasy?  Probably not.  Is the gameplay and game at large going to offer up something better than what we’ve seen in the open-world genre?  Probably not.  Is the story going to have something meaningful to say and do more than just name-check real-world concerns?  Probably not.  And I feel bad about thinking the way I do right now; once upon a time, I would have been eager to try Watch Dogs, or anything coming down the pipeline.  Now it feels like I have to wait for people to announce that the newest release is anything above "not terrible".  Look at what you’ve done to me, video games.

Well, maybe this is just a sign that I need to stay away from triple-A games forever for a while.  Tokyo Jungle has been plenty good to me recently, after all, so it’s not like I’m ready to wash my hands of this woeful medium. 

And then there’s Transistor.  Oh dear, is there ever.

One of the greatest injustices out there, I’ve found, is that there are smart and talented individuals -- groups and companies full of them -- who have the skill and vision to make something amazing, but the only thing holding them back is the amount of money in the war chest.  Okay, it’s true that indie games can and often do succeed despite (or maybe because of) the fact that they can’t wave away all their problems with the Money Wand, but still.

 I just can’t help but imagine what the gaming landscape would be like if those that deserved ALL OF THE MONEY actually had it.  Think of what the world would be like if Atlus had the money and resources of, say, Square-Enix (pre-2013/Tomb Raider failure woes).  Think of the glory of Persona 6 (or even Persona 5) releasing during a console generation, instead of at the tail-end once everyone’s moved on and they’ve rolled up enough quarters from the couch.  I wouldn’t mind being in chains if that happened.

For what it’s worth, though?  If it’s true that absolute power (in this case money) absolutely corrupts, then maybe it’s for the best that Transistor is a more modest game.  Instead of trying to “appeal to a wider audience” or any of that garbage, it’s content with being the very best game it can be.  And it is the very best game it could be.  It’s overflowing with style, it’s got a sick-as-hell combat system, and it actually feels like it has something to say -- well beyond the half-assed scraping at controversial topics and real-world issues for legitimacy.  It’s a lean, mean slicing machine.


Notice the word choice there.  Note that I said “the very best game it could be”, instead of something more obvious or direct, like “it’s a good game”.  That’s not to say that it’s bad, by ANY means.  Merely the fact that it exists is something to be happy about, and if supporting it means giving its developer Supergiant Games a shot at becoming a true tour de force, then by all means support it.  Indeed, it has plenty of merit, and isn’t just riding on the coattails of Bastion (or the just-as-fallacious mindset that “it’s an indie game, so it MUST be perfect and amazing!”).  But if we want the devs -- any devs -- to get better, we have to be critical about what they put before us.  We have to take its offerings, positive or negative, into consideration.  That’s what should determine the quality of a game.  Not just some divine right.

And while I like the game, let’s be real here: it’s a long shot from divine.  Though I could be biased.  This game makes me…well, let’s say “flare up” for now.  But I’ll get to that.

So what’s the story behind the game?  Well, you play as Red, a singer who’s making a name for herself in the city of Cloudbank, a futuristic world so integrated with technology that it might as well be in a computer (or maybe it IS in a computer).  But things take a sour turn when there’s an assassination attempt on her life, she’s forced on the run, and she’s lost her voice.  And also, there’s some unsavory business involving The Process -- some collection of cyber-monsters, I take it -- erasing the city and the people in it, piece by piece.  As these things tend to go, it’s up to Red to sort the mess out -- and she’ll do it with the help of the mysterious USB stick sword, Transistor…which ends up downloading and taking on the consciousness of a man it stabbed to death in the midst of the assassination.  Whoopsie-doodle!

I would call the game 100% original if not for the specter of Mega Man Battle Network hanging over it, because the more I think about Transistor, the more it reminds me of that buried series (and to a lesser extent, the outright-unfair awesomeness of SearchMan.EXE).  But for what it’s worth?  I’d rather a game copied Battle Network instead of the zombie apocalypse du jour because there’s a lot you can do with the “cyber world” concept.  And Transistor is proof of that; there are terminals tucked away everywhere that let passerby comment on posts, take part in polls, and even decide what color the sky will be that day.  Virtual rooms can be created, and practically act as alternate dimensions.  The powers you inevitably end up wielding are programs -- and more importantly, contain the essences of what I can only assume are the dead.

I didn’t think about it too hard, though.  I got distracted -- for obvious reasons. 

I have my doubts that Transistor could ONLY be possible on the PS4 (it’s on the PC as well, but I’m under the impression that some tweaking could make it as good as or better than consoles).  But what’s important is that rather than using the hardware to show the same old, same old, but with 44% more particles, it uses smart and stylish design to create a game that’s better-looking than a lot of its likely more-powerful peers.  It’s the difference between raw graphical power and design-conscious aesthetics.  Conscious thought and effort went into making every area look beautiful, or at least interesting; the game may take place in an increasingly-disheveled cyber world, but scene after scene looks like something out of a painting.  It’s an interesting contrast, for sure.    

But who gives a crap about DEM GRAFFECS?  It’s all about the gameplay -- and that’s easily Transistor’s strongest suit.

Here’s how it works.  Once an area gets sealed off and cyber-monsters pop in, you go into battle mode.  The four face buttons each give Red a different type of attack to use at your leisure, and you have to make good use of them to survive.  It’s actually a little reminiscent of The Wonderful 101, in the sense that you’re fighting in isometric arenas with a bunch of crazy powers.  (Or again, Battle Network -- if you’re willing to reach a bit).  The key difference is that there’s a turn-based element to combat by way of your “Turn()” power; you stop time and use your stocked meter to execute a string of attacks in one go, all according to your designs.  It’s a useful power, no question, but what makes it so great is that it’s actually pretty versatile.

Each move you make in Turn() mode takes a chunk of your meter, be it an attack or just walking through the field.  That’s where the strategy starts to come in; do you want to unload everything you’ve got in one furious burst?  Or do you want to use your Turn as a defensive measure, scoring a few free potshots before ducking behind cover?  I only ask because it’s possible to go half-and-half, but more importantly it might be a requirement to use your Turns wisely. 

Setting aside the fact that there’s a pretty long cooldown on your Turn, during which you can’t attack at all, this is a game where you need to be able to attack furiously, but also know how to defend yourself.  You get a dashing move early on that kind of helps, but one good way to stay safe is to use your Turn to get in some heavy hits, and then take whatever’s left and run behind cover.  The penalty for taking too many hits in a fight is that one that I think is kind of brilliant: you lose access to one of your powers.  There’s no better way to punish a player and put on the pressure than taking away one of his toys.

I would assume that by this point, everyone who’s touched the game has gone gaga over the customization aspect, so I’ll try to keep it brief.  Yes, it’s really good; you can mix and match your powers to give them different properties, so that you not only get to “play your way”, but also get a toolbox the size of a skyscraper.  Example: that dash-move I mentioned earlier?  It doesn’t do much on its own, but you can couple that with a mind-control power so that every time you dash past an enemy, you can temporarily have it fight on your side. 

It’s not hard for me to imagine the possibilities, and create a character that actually relies on subterfuge for once; it didn’t take long for me to become a friend-summoning, enemy-controlling, splash-damaging, bomb-debilitating swordswoman.  Nor was it all that difficult.  Nor is that likely the be-all and end all of combinations.  I’m kind of eager to see what other crazy combos I can come up with…so that I can unleash some crazy combos on the field.

If I had to point out a fault in the combat system, it’d be that the cooldown time is longer than it should be.  I know that the idea was to make you consider using your Turns wisely, but you’re a sitting duck for a long time afterward, even if you’re tucked behind a wall.  Even a few seconds of inaction means a lot in…you know, an action game.  Also, I know that if you screw around and “die” you lose one of your powers temporarily, but in my experience that only happened sometimes.  Other times, I’d get an “emergency Turn” and got to act like nothing had gone wrong.  I guess I just pulled the trigger at the right time or something?  Or did it activate on its own?  What are the requirements, if not random?

But don’t let those complaints get to you.  Those are nitpicks -- and minor ones, at that.  There’s absolutely no reason why those should scare you off, because the positives far outweigh the negatives.  Taken solely as a game, Transistor is much stronger, much more thought-out, and much more effective than games a dozen times more bloated bigger.  10/10, would play again.

…Is what I would like to say. 

But there are other problems that I have with the game.  Depending on your preferences, what I’m about to say next is going to just come off as me griping thanks to my perspective and biases.  It’s not something to be taken as the gospel, and definitely not in an objective sense. 

I take issue with a lot of the other things Transistor does.  Maybe not everything, but enough to make me wary of it.  Enough to keep me from being won over by goodwill alone.  And one of those issues is also one of its loudest.

Simply put, Transistor -- the titular sword and the game at large -- never shuts the hell up.

I get it, though.  I know that it’s a consequence of Red being a silent protagonist (and let’s not think too hard about the implication that we can get playable female leads as long as they don’t talk, yes?), and there’s a lot of information that can overwhelm the player.  Fair point.  But here’s the thing: I don’t need all that information projectile-vomited at me by a sword that’s almost always talking.  I want to be able to explore this strange and mysterious world on my own terms.  I don’t need Transistor to play tour guide, and certainly not try to color my perception with his melancholic rambling.  But it does anyway, and weakens the game as a result.

Thanks to The Process, Cloudbank is an increasingly-silent world.  It’s haunting, but there’s a sense of grace and wonder regardless (though again, the visuals help).  By design I want to be free to conduct a personal investigation of the world, and come to my own conclusions, whether I’m on-the-money or way off-base.  But I can’t do that when I’ve got someone telling me where to go, how I should feel, and doing its best to reinforce the obvious idea that “things are bad”.  I want to figure out for myself why this world is special.  Why I should care about it.

But that just highlights another problem: I don’t know if I can care about Cloudbank.  Because more often than not, I feel like it doesn’t care about me.  It just wants to be pretty.

I don’t mean that in the sense that the story should try to reward Red/the player just for existing.  But it’s an issue that keeps rearing up, and making sure I can’t get the most out of the game.  Here’s my problem: even if there are things happening in the present time, I feel like all the cool and interesting stuff happened long beforehand.  Everything I could possibly care about or even want may very well have been relegated either to background noise or backstory.  Slaying cyber-demons with a giant sword is cool, no question, but it’s not as impactful as some of the informed and implied stuff throughout.  I’m hungry for that context, and I want to see it unfold before my eyes instead of having the details tossed to me retroactively.

Now, am I saying that Transistor fails because, say, we don’t get to see what it was like for (or even play as) Red when she was still in her songstress phase?  No, of course not.  It’s entirely possible that adding thoe things in could also hurt the game, if not by way of execution, then by being someone else’s pet peeve.  But context is important, and I feel like the game would have more of a punch to it if I got to experience events and meet characters firsthand.  Red has some clear history with the first boss, Sybil -- but as a player and a distant observer I don’t get to feel what I should be feeling.  The most I have to rely on -- to make that emotional connection -- is Transistor trying to explain why this character is important.  Or telling me that she’s “lost her damn mind” when she turns into a freaking cyber-demon.

Transistor’s approach reminds me a little of games like BioShock, among plenty of others that rely on found audio logs/journals/records/datalogs to fill in the gaps.  How am I supposed to feel when I read/hear about cool stuff happening in the past, and I’m effectively picking up the pieces -- or better yet, finding out what should be (awesome) common knowledge? 

Granted, a game like BioShock Infinite offset this by giving Booker and Elizabeth something immediate (and interesting) to do during their adventure, but I feel like it’s more likely to do it wrong than to do it right.  The question I have to ask is this: as a gamer, which would I rather experience for myself?  The present-day stuff where I play warrior janitor and sort out the mess?  Or an actual participant in the events that led up to it?

Damn it.  It’s the War of Transgression all over again.

In any case, I have to bring up this issue with Transistor because it feels like I’m missing something I desperately want.  Remember how I said that the powers you wield have the essences of people in them?  Well, they also carry their bios and backstories.  Use/customize a power, and you learn more about the person within.  The dash-attack has the soul of a racer, for example, and Sybil’s inside a summoning ability.  And apparently, unlocking these bios is a reward for exploring the combat system. 

That’s cool and all, but the question is, why should I care?  I’m not saying that to be cruel; I’m saying it because I have no basis of attachment or even understanding for these characters.  Why would I want to learn more about Sybil given that the first time I met her, she turned into a cyber-demon?  Why would she retroactively become more meaningful after her death?  What’s the allure of unlocking what’s essentially a codex entry at best and an obituary at worst?

I get the feeling that Transistor is trying to be a thoughtful and emotional experience instead of just an action RPG where you kill cyber-demons.  I don’t have any problems admitting that it’s thoughtful, and saying that Supergiant games succeeded on that front.  But the problem is that in terms of emotional appeal, for me the game falls flat.  I’m having a hard time getting invested the way it wants me to.  

In most instances I’m actively hoping for Transistor to clam up, so I can’t say he’s grown on me -- and despite that, he ends up butting in on Red’s character moments -- which are in there despite her being forcibly muted -- just in case I’m too thick to come to my own conclusions.  There’s an unmistakable air of melancholy in the game, but I have a hard time feeling it when I don’t have an understanding of why that melancholy exists, and worse yet I don’t feel it because I’m too busy having a kickass time firing Double Reppukens.  It’s almost as if they shouldn’t have tried to join an action game and a drama at the hip.

Now, I’m not going to say that it can’t be done, but there’s a pretty big disparity between the joy the game lets you feel and the gloom the game wants you to feel.  You could probably argue that about a LOT of games, but let’s focus on Transistor for now; it’s more than a little eyebrow-raising when L1 makes Red stand in place and hum forlornly with the background music, while R1 lets her toss up her sword and do some fancy flips.  The pieces don’t come together as well as they should, which makes me wonder if they should have been there in the first place.

I’m not going to say that Transistor has entered any form of failure state (it hasn’t), but there’s been a concern niggling at the back of my mind for a while.  The game is trying to be sad, weighty, and meaningful, which is fine…to an extent.  The problem I have is that I can’t help but wonder how different it would be -- or dare I say it, how much better it would be -- if it lightened up a little.  Don’t get me wrong, I like that oppressive affect it’s got.  But at the same time, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s trying to be sad for sadness’ sake.  Trying to wring out emotions without putting in the work first.  Trying to live by certain “ironclad” rules and expectations.  Even if it hasn’t crossed that precipice, it’s still on a steep slope; I’m not going to call it emotionally manipulative, but the potential is definitely there. 

I’m ready for a game to affect me emotionally, as they have in the past.  But I want them to do it right.  They have to earn it -- not just go for it because “that’s just a thing you do -- FOR GLORY!”

At least the game doesn’t bank solely on acoustic guitars and girls looking sad.

But you know what? It’s just like I said earlier: I still think that Transistor is a good game.  Really good.  It may tug on some of my mental tripwires, but those come from my personal preferences, not from objective complaints.  What bothers me has absolutely no guarantee of bothering you.  It’s entirely possible that I’ve just over-thought things, or I’m letting my biases get the better of me…again.

But even if they are, there’s a hidden benefit: honestly, I’m glad to be able to have thoughts like this about a game.  Given that my last in-depth look at a game had to go into grave detail about how inordinately stupid it was (as is usually the case), it’s good to be able to think more critically about the themes and techniques used instead of just worrying about if a plot element makes sense.  So on that note, I hope you took away something from my string of grievances; I don’t mind if you disagree with me, but I care immensely if you or anyone else walks away from Transistor thinking that it’s a TENOUTTATEN game.  No such game exists.  The sooner we realize that -- the sooner we realize that and think critically about the games we play -- the better off we’ll all be.

All told, though?  We need more games like Transistor.  It’s not perfect, but it’s doing its best to raise the bar.

And that’ll just about do it.  I hope you enjoyed this short post, and --

*checks word count*

I hope you enjoyed this post, and took something away from it.  And likewise, I hope you enjoy the game (or download it, if you haven’t already).  As for me?  Well, I think I’m going to start pecking away at my backlog some more.  I’d like to finish Ni no Kuni sometime this decade so I can return to Valkyria Chronicles.  Nothing warms the cockles of my hot dog-laden heart like a good JRPG, after all.  So let’s just see what’s on the docket and see how things go from

Oh, now what hot garbage is this?

Oh, poop.

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