A Look Back At A Masterpiece: Transistor

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Video Games are Art

That’s the cliché statement we’ve heard from gamers for years now. It’s a statement made by us to try and convince non-gamers that the medium we love so much should be respected like movies, T.V, literature, and well, art. And I’ve always hated this statement; not because I don’t think it’s true, it’s because it’s so obvious to me that video games are art, that I don’t think it should be even argued. I mean if this can be considered art:

and hey I’m not going to argue with it because art is meant to evoke emotion, and it’s completely subjective by the eyes of the beholder, but then this:

should definitely be considered art.

But when you think about art in its truest form, what do you think of? I personally think of two things. The first being a painting. Something by Monet or Van Gogh. The second is music. Something by Hans Zimmer, Maria Callas, or Nobuo Uematsu. But when I think about a game while thinking about the word “art,” I think about Journey.

There’s not much else that can be said about Journey that hasn’t already been said. The game is basically the quintessential example given by gamers when arguing about whether or not games are art. It’s truly an audiovisual masterpiece that plucks at your heart strings and evokes so many emotions, without saying a single word. Now that in no way means that other, larger, games aren’t “art” either, because they most definitely are. But Journey is a game that pops into my mind when thinking of a game that evokes the word “art” in the truest fashion. But the problem is, though Journey is a masterfully made game, a game that I will also do a video on in the future, it isn’t exactly a “video game” in its truest form. Yes it has gameplay mechanics, and established elements we now relate with video games; but at the same time, it’s not exactly what you’d call “traditional.” In the same way that games like, Firewatch, or Gone Home, which are great games, but are less “traditional.” But just last week I completed a game that not only oozed in audiovisual artistic design and polish, but it was a game that made me feel. It’s a game that I personally believe tackles Journey when considering video games as not only as a form of art, but a way for a narrative to be told in every aspect of the word, “art.”

After my deep dive into the indie scene, and having played a couple dozen games across various systems. Some fantastic, some great, and a few not so much. I came across a game called Bastion, developed by California based company, SuperGiant Games. This game was made by a few people who worked at bigger game studios, but decided to band together, and form their own company. And thank god they did, because they do some spectacular work. I bought Bastion originally on the Vita, but played most of it through on my PS4. I fell in love with the soundtrack, the visual design, and everything else about the game.

Though it did have some minor gameplay hiccups and annoyances, it was truly a fantastic experience. After completion I went to see what else this company made. I saw that they had a new game that already released and was quite popular. I downloaded it. But life, and an ever-growing backlog of games made me push that game to the side. Until a couple weeks ago. From the opening scene, to the ending credits, I was speechless.  This game moved me in many ways like Journey, but did so by retaining the essence of being a true video game.

This was a game that I finished in one sitting, something that I hardly, if ever, do. From masterful gameplay mechanics, a breathtaking visual design, a narrative that’s delivered in a minimal, yet effective way, all tied up with a beautiful soundtrack that truly embodies this masterpiece of a game. This, is Transistor.

Narrative: Telling a Story Through Minimalism, Visual Design, Music, and Voice Acting.

Music plays a key part in the experience of Transistor. When you dissect the lyrics, each song has a meaning to the story, the other characters, and the protagonist, as she is the one that we are to believe has written these songs.

When the game opens you’re greeted by this gorgeous artwork of our protagonist, Red, holding the Transistor, which is a large sword-like…thing. We then hear a man, with a deep timbre to his voice, echo out from the Transistor, as the sword illuminates. The artwork slides away as we see Red, pulling the Transistor out of the chest of a fallen, unknown man.

Here we can only surmise that the voice that we hear from the Transistor, belonged to the fallen man. This man was killed by this Transistor by the Camerata, the villainous group of high-officials, who were originally intending to kill Red with the Transistor, but this man – who we assume is Red’s partner – got in the way. However is this voice that we hear truly coming from within the Transistor, or is it coming from the guilt ridden mind of our protagonist, who’s simply aching for her loss? It’s most likely the former, but I like to think it’s the latter as it adds another tone of colour to Red. That’s when you know when a story is being told successfully. When you go out of your way to make your own story and add your own theories, simply because you’re so invested in what’s going on.

Without going too much into it, the plot basically involves you fighting the aforementioned group called the Camerata; who have unleashed a robotic force called the Proces on the city of CloudBank, and can only be destroyed by the Transistor. Though a basic premise at a glance, it’s the execution that makes Transistor special. The ambiguity right from the beginning of who, what, when, and why. The spectacular visual design of CloudBank city, with it’s beautifully over-saturated colors.

The writing of dialogue mainly spoken by the Transistor in the beginning, which is only heightened by the subtle yet enticing performance given by Logan Cunningham. It all spoke to me on a whole different level.

Speaking of voice acting, this is another area where this game excels. The main voices you hear in the game are the Transistor, and a couple members of the Camerata. And though the dialogue each of these characters have are minimal, what they do have is impeccably written and delivered in such a unique and eerie way. Some of what the villains say later in the game makes you think twice about their character, as tones of loneliness and even existentialism come through. But even the delivery of the lines by the voice actors is something that is done so differently in this game. When I read some of these lines, and then hear how the actors deliver them, it’s not in the same way I’d imagine that line to be delivered.

There’s a unique twist, and subtlety in the slight inflections, and pitches that the actors say their words that give their character so much more…well, character. The same can be said for the Transistor as well, who’s quick remarks and quips, that are slipped in ever so often throughout your play through is always something that I looked forward to. You also find many of these consoles in each area called OVC’s that give you some insight of the city and the events that have been happening.

Every area you come across has a significant design, a unique colour scheme, and architecture, that is very easy to bypass, but you appreciate so much more when you take the time to take it all in. Every little detail tells a story. And when you realize that the protagonist you play as, Red, doesn’t have a single line throughout this game, as her voice was taken, but her whole story can be told while pressing the L1 button, is magical.

What I mean by this is, any time during your play-through, you can simply stop, and hold down the L1 button on your controller, and Red will begin to hum. The screen will darken around the edges, and a spotlight will shine on her as she hums. The first time I did it, it was during a long climb up this tower.

There was no music, no sound, simply her footsteps. Then when I held down the button, she began to hum. I closed my eyes and simply heard her for a solid minute. It was one of those video game moments that reminded me why I play video games. It was special. It told me everything I needed to know about this character, and she didn’t have to say a word.

Gameplay: Refined.

While Bastion’s gameplay was much more action oriented, Transistor’s approach has not only more RPG options, but also some strategy involved. Obviously that big green sword does more than just talk, as he’s your primary source of defending yourself. But beyond that many of the mechanics from SuperGiants previous game come through here as well. You can outfit yourself with an array of abilities.

Basically what happens is that once you level up, you get new abilities called Functions, these functions can also be found from bosses, and specific fallen enemies. So here’s the interesting part. You have 4 ability slots, that each have 2 additional slots. You will collect over a dozen functions throughout the game, and are able to decide which ones you want as the main ability, and which ones you want to add as an additional modifier to an already existing function.

Though that sounds complicated when explaining it, it’s an incredibly interesting way to customize your arsenal. And unlike Bastion where I basically stuck with the shotgun and machete the entire game, because everything else simply wasn’t as useful, this game I would constantly find a better, or more unique way of approaching combat. The other big change again is the strategy element. The games combat system works both in real time where you can hammer away at your abilities, or in a frozen, quasi-turn-based, planning time much like Mass Effect, wherein you plan out your moves accordingly, and then execute them in one fluid motion.

It’s a much more satisfying way of playing the game, and brings a whole different aspect to the game.

Usually when you look at a game and it looks stunning, and the visuals and music are all so amazing to behold; you then come to the gameplay and realize that it simply doesn’t hold up. That is far from the case with this game. Not only is the combat nuanced and refreshing; the game simply plays beautifully.

I’m extremely harsh when it comes to modern games as gameplay has always been the downfall of many recent titles, both indie and otherwise. But Transistor plays just as good as it looks. The framerate never drops a beat, there are no unnecessary animations, no time where I felt the game couldn’t keep up with my inputs, and no time where I felt I didn’t know exactly what was going on or what I was doing.

There was also never a moment where I felt the gameplay wasn’t offering something new, either with the upgrades, or with the enemy designs. The game kept adding new mechanics. New enemies. It was not so much where I felt overwhelmed, and not so little where I felt it became tedious. And that, was easily the best surprise. Because I was waiting for that moment, you know? That, “okay, this looks way too good. The developers clearly put all their time and money into making this look and sound pretty, so it no way plays good” moment. But it does. It plays great.

Transistor is a masterpiece. I’ve said that for about 7, maybe 8, games I’ve played in my life. And moreover, for me, it’s a masterpiece with the fewest flaws. I think Mass Effect 2, Castlevania Symphony of the Night, and Ni No Kuni, are masterpieces, but they all have flaws that I can think of. When I really try to think about it, I’m not sure if I can truly find a flaw in this game. Now, that’s not to say that this game is better than those I just listed.

Actually, I’m not sure if this game breaks into my top 5 of all time. But I know its close. And I know it’s a masterpiece. The simple difference is that the games in my top 5 of all time evoked a stronger emotion in me that was outside of the game and more about me.

Transistor didn’t do what Mass Effect 2 did, where it had me crying for 9 weeks that I made Garrus die. But it didn’t need to. What it did do is remind me why I love video games. And did so with the utmost polish, and audiovisual creativity. And reminded me why this medium is so important not only as a form of art but a unique form of story-telling as well.

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