Transistor: The Function of Love

Transistor Splash I throw the game into my Steam cart as I smile and chide myself for ever doubting it’s release. Information and buzz about Transistor had come to a halt long ago and with all the layoffs and studio closures of the past year, I feared Supergiant might be struggling also. I purchase it and feel grateful to be wrong one more time today.

I’m excited. I played through Bastion multiple times, enjoying the smooth narration of Logan Cunningham and savoring hearing his voice again. My senses are rewarded for years of patience when the splash screen pops up. It’s simple and the colors, while not neon, grab my eyeballs and roll them in awesomesauce. I’m too geeked about this. I go grab a hot cup of tea. It’s a bit chill down here where I play my games and since the kids are asleep, there’s no danger of them knocking the hot cup over.

237930_screenshots_2014-05-22_00001Once I resettle in my chair, nerves firmly back in place, senses properly piqued, I pick up my controller and find myself transported into Red, the main character. As her name implies, she’s red …flowing red hair surrounding a porcelain and petite face, wielding a sword broader than her frame. She drags it around on the floor as she runs through the virtual city of Cloudbank. Oh and the sword? It’s actually a transistor. Ah ha! I get it now …clever narrative device. Hello again, Logan …how’d you get in this thing? Red carries the transistor around like a forlorn lover resides within. I can hear his voice, but I can’t see him. So this is how the story begins …and I have to find out how my lover got stuck in there and, more importantly, how to get him out. I’m motivated now. I’m excited. Remembering the last adventure with Rucks in the tangled and crumbling world of Bastion, so I must do it again in Cloudbank. Let’s do this. I’m with you, Red!

My mind is focused, because I know that, just like the last story, I have to pay close attention to if I’m to understand what’s going on. This is shaping up to be a love story, but I’m uncertain of the Romeo and Juliet overtones. There’s only one way to find out what’s really going on here.

Moments after this introduction, I enter combat for the first time. It’s confusing …but intriguing as hell, a generous treat, beautifully distinguished from the rote action of button smashing and the reflex tests of traditional games.

Is it an action game? Is it turn-based strategy? It is both. If, say, I’m not agile on the keyboard or controller, in Transistor there’s less penalty and I have the option to play combat skillfully with little reliance on dexterity and twitch. Those won’t usually determine my fate in the heat of battle. If I prefer to run around smacking things in the head in real time, I can do that as well. But as I continue playing, swinging the transistor, vanquishing strange looking robot-like creatures with every slice, I’m learning that I’ll need to finesse my moves into fine combos that I can only achieve in Turn() mode. Not only does the game not require the hands of a teenager, but it actively rewards more deliberate, thoughtful combat. While it was unintuitive and challenging to become handy with the controls, I immediately loved the concept I vowed to master it. As the combat ramps up progressively with each wave, character level and stage, fighting in real-time requires those reflexes I only had when I was a 20-something. 30-somethings can appreciate Turn() mode. Transistor and I have found love and I can’t put it down.

The controller feels much better than the keyboard for me since the game plays more like a platformer. Activating circuits around town, interacting with processes and programs energizes me. Story clues here and their reboot my interest with each find. The flat but vibrant art style, bright visuals with dark metaphors satisfy my expectations. Together, the style looks like crisp cyberpunk meets Roaring 20s from the fashion to the font, and this puts me in the mood for something new and something old. We’re partying all the way to the impending crash, I suspect.

2014-05-20_00011The interface is brilliant – literally. It surges into life when activated, lights flashing gently before you while menus fly open and options are presented with flavor. It’s beautiful to behold. It’s like the graphics have a life of their own. How do they make such beautiful games? Just watching the game play is enough to thrill and inspire want. Who cares about the endgame? The imagery is pure bliss.

Now my feet are grounded in what the various symbols and signs mean as I explore the streets and rooftops of Cloudbank. What’s this about? I sip my tea and eagerly search for meaning, for story. Why is my sword talking to me with such emotion and longing? And why is it a transistor? Having been amazed enough by now, I want to dig deeper into the tale which I noticed I so far haven’t really understood. Is the story really that good if it leaves me confused?

I try to plow through to the end in one session, but by one in the morning I realize the futility of it. My interest is there, I’m having fun, but the story leaves me hungry. The emotional ramblings of the transistor, the fatalistic echoes of the processes I’ve captured in it …where am I? I don’t know any more. I go to bed and promise that tomorrow I’ll finish it …and tomorrow comes not soon enough as I rush home from work before the kids get there to spend quality time with Red and our transistor. It was worth it. The ending doesn’t satisfy, but …it was worth it. The story feels like it abandoned me about 75% of the way through and I start to think maybe their development was cut short. Maybe they didn’t know where to take it. Maybe I’m just not getting it.

I finish the game. I’m left perplexed by the story and only mildly intrigued by this point. I can feel the game trying to pull at my heart strings, but as it comes to a close my initial misgivings turn out to be true. Transistor is a game that’s hard to look away from for it’s sheer visual power. Yet the game felt incomplete. Was it fun? Hell yeah! Was it well-made? I think so. Bug-free? Mostly – minor graphical glitch …OK it was quite major. The screen would become blocked by stuff when I entered tactical mode for combat, making it impossible to plan moves. And as the game goes deeper, it becomes more important to do that. So the bug sucked, but they fixed it within 24 hours it seems.

So then …what was missing? Why does this game feel a touch incomplete? What’s bothering me about it? What’s the story?

Potential, Mild Spoilage Ahead

Is it about online relationships? Is it a metaphor for the faceless people we meet in virtual worlds, whose feelings carry us across years without ever meeting the physical them? MMO players are very familiar with this query.

2014-05-22_00010In fact, throughout the game I had the feeling that Transistor is all about living inside of an MMO, going on quests and ending with the deletion of your character.

The game is full of clever metaphors and ambiguity. You’re never quite certain what’s going on, but it draws you in anyway and makes the trip interesting. Still, going through the game without a grasp of what was going on felt like mindless sword swinging most of the time – which Transistor attempts to make interesting by combining action combat with a tactical, almost turn-based strategic combat. It succeeds.

Some of its ideas are very Ayn Randian, the stories of the heroes of Cloudbank resembling the characters of Atlas Shrugged strongly in my mind. If Rand wrote a futuristic version of her book, it might look something like Transistor. A world where people are disappearing. Where some secret group is offing them, leaving only bits of digital data behind as you travel around picking up their pieces, piecing the mystery together only to find that John Galt is responsible for the terrible disaster that killed the city.  Red’s lover remains the faceless romantic we hear throughout the game and in the end …well, you’ll have to play to learn what happens in the end, won’t you?

The story may well be incomplete, but one thing is for sure: Transistor is supposed to be about love. About the function of love. About how far we’ll go for it and how desperately we cling to it.  Perhaps Supergiant had to release the game – I’m not complaining about that because I’m glad to have it in my Summer 2014 library. It’s fun, the combat is inventive – I’ve never seen it done this way before – and the story is mysterious and intriguing, keeping every morsel of data you find throughout the game an unraveling of the tale. Should you join Red as she adventures through Cloudbank?

Of course you should. And you should do it over, and over, and over again.

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EDIT: Grammar, spelling, and corrections.

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