Notes on Transistor

Having recently completed Supergiant Games’ Transistor, I wanted to get out a few things that ran through my head while playing it, in the form of a (carefully-edited, much-too-long) brain-dump:

Bastion 2.0

The teaser trailer for Transistor hinted that Supergiant were about to hit us with a spiritual successor to 2010’s Bastion, with its isometric viewpoint, hack-and-slash combat and a rich, colourful fantasy world. In many respects, that’s exactly what Transistor is: Bastion 2.0. By which I mean, it builds on the strengths of that game and takes them to the next level.

Combat is Transistor‘s core loop, but with the dynamics subtly shifted. In Bastion you play the Kid, a sort of white-haired, warhammer-toting Link. The Kid packs a mean punch and can block pretty much any attack with the Mirror Shield he picks up early in the game – plus, if the danger gets too close, he’s got a neat evade move that gets him out of harm’s way more often than not. Should all else fail, Bastion is pretty generous in dishing out its health potions.

The Kid

The Kid

Red, the star of Transistor, doesn’t have anywhere near as many of the Kid’s protective benefits. There’s no healing in combat (your health does get fully restored after each battle, and there is a leeching power-up that you can unlock), and no way to block attacks. Each battle, once triggered, takes place in a cordoned-off “arena”, from which there is no escape. Finally, where the Kid can tuck-and-roll away from most attacks, Red is comparatively slow on her feet – perhaps because of the Transistor itself that she drags around as she moves. Even the dodge function, Jaunt, is underpowered compared to the Kid’s evade move, requiring greater timing to use effectively.

In summary: it’s difficult for Red not to take damage in battle, particularly as around half the time, you can’t actually attack (see below). However, Transistor has a novel approach to “dying”. If Red’s health hits zero – which, given the above, it will do at least a couple of times – it isn’t a case of “you’re dead, try again”. Instead, you lose one of your attack functions.

The game lets you carry on, but takes one of your toys away. More specifically, it takes your best toy away: the first functions to vanish are the ones into which you’ve sunk the most upgrade points (“memory”). If you’ve been upgrading with the meticulousness that the game invites, then your best function is probably your favourite one too. No more Cull? Aw, man…

But it’s okay, you can get it back – once you’ve survived a few more battles and reached a couple more access points. But by that point you’ve probably switched in some different functions to take advantage of the freed-up memory points – and maybe you’ve found a new favourite toy.

That's a lot of functions.

That’s a lot of functions.

Designed to experiment

Transistor pushes you to experiment with your combat options, right the way through into a second playthrough (and maybe third: I haven’t got that far yet). Every function you unlock can be used in three separate ways: as an attack mode, as an active upgrade in combination with an existing attack, or as a passive upgrade that imposes its own buffs and modifiers on Red. As an example, the Crash function on its own is a damage + stun attack, or you can combine it with another function to add stun to that attack, or you can equip it as a passive upgrade to give Red some damage resistance and immunity to all slowing effects that might get hurled her way.

With individual functions running into double figures, the scope for combination is almost overwhelming, and it’s easy to slip into a set-up that you’re comfortable with and ride that all the way through the game. That’s fine – no function is noticeably overpowered except perhaps for Switch, which temporarily converts enemies to friends. It’s certainly not the case that you’ll need to discard your earliest attacks as you progress through the game – in fact I had Breach, Bounce and Jaunt equipped pretty much right the way through.

But while Transistor is fine with you using the same attacks throughout, it wants you to experiment. As well as the “lose a function” penalty of running out of health, the functions themselves are grounded in the game’s story: each one is a soul-like remnant of a citizen from the world of Cloudbank. Consequently, each function is linked to a deceased character – and you can only dig into their history with repeated use of that function.

Each character has three stages of discovery, with each stage revealing a little more about their backstory, their fate, and Cloudbank itself. To get the full picture, you’ll need to equip and use each and every function throughout the game, in each of the three available slots – which, to my best estimate, will require a second playthrough. But with each character so shrouded in mystery – particularly the ones that are so central to the game’s story – you’re constantly incentivised to experiment your way to discovery.

Fantasy worlds

For me, the best fantasy worlds are the ones that are shown rather than told: you don’t sit there while the world is explained to you, the world is sat waiting for you to discover it. A big part of this – and where Transistor succeeds – is not giving you too much detail, and not giving it in a heavy-handed way. Bioshock‘s audio diaries worked back in 2007, but have been frequently parodied since (just why do these people keep recording so much incidental detail on tape, usually while in mortal danger, and leaving it conspicuously placed for you to find?). Transistor‘s delivery of detail makes sense in its highly-digitised world: it’s a world of functions, processes, subroutines, SuperUsers, cells, upgrades, consoles – so it fits with the game’s logic that you can access data about characters via public records. The more “familiar” you become with those characters via using their associated functions, the more data you get access to.

Like BastionTransistor is not explicit in explaining what’s actually going on out there. There are tons of unanswered questions, the solutions to which are merely hinted at (if at all): where is Cloudbank – are we talking a pure fantasy world, or is it Earth in the future? Who is Red, really? What are the Process, and where did they come from? Who are the Camerata, and why did they try to kill you? Why is this giant sword talking to me? Just what is the Transistor? Enough is left unexplained that I’m still mulling over a lot of these things now after completing the game.

Short and sweet

Increasingly, I am finding that my ideal game length is somewhere around the 5-6 hours that Transistor gave me. Put this down to getting older, day jobs, an increased prevalence of tight mobile games like Year Walk or DEVICE 6, or maybe just a shortened attention span. But it’s a much more positive interaction with a game where you’re left wanting more (and consequently have no compunction about firing up a second playthrough) rather than the open world fatigue that usually sets in around 75% of the way through a Grand Theft Auto or an Assassin’s Creed.

A game as tonally rich as Transistor, with its relatively subtle exposition, is crying out to be experienced again; happily, I know that I can do just that without effectively writing off a month’s worth of free time.

That combat though

Yeah, back to the combat. Bastion‘s hack-slash-shoot-block-dodge battles were frantic and fun – but Transistor takes it in a whole new direction, blending real-time and turn-based combat into one with the Turn power. Hitting this freezes the action and activates one of the Transistor’s key powers, allowing you to plot out your attacks before you trigger them. You can move Red around, dodge behind enemies for the purposes of the “backstab” multiplier, get in position to chain a beam attack into multiple foes, or simply face up to one enemy and stack a ton of attack functions into one devastating burst.

Planning out a Turn.

Planning out a Turn.

There’s a finite amount you can do with each Turn, with the most powerful attacks using up the most energy from your limited supply. But it transforms every combat encounter into a tactical duel in which you have the opportunity to maximise whatever functions you’ve got equipped at that point.

It’s a forgiving system – if you don’t like what you’ve chosen, or aren’t in position for a good shot, you can reset the Turn at any point before you eventually trigger it. But it’s not overpowered: you won’t be devastating your foes without immaculate strategy and the right tools to pull it off. Equally, it has a cooldown period during which all other functions are disabled (apart from Jaunt/Jaunt-modified ones) – and the more of the energy bar you expend in a Turn, the longer the cooldown. It’s a brilliantly-balanced system: you can cue up a super-powerful attack, but you’ll be leaving yourself totally vulnerable for precious seconds afterwards… so how do you decide to play it? It’s a dynamic system that feels utterly rewarding when you get it “right”.

The Process

What is the Process? A self-inflicted wound that has gotten out of hand in Cloudbank and is now taking over and destroying the city. There are plenty of science fiction tropes hinted at: the self-aware AI that rebels, humans playing God.

Towards the end of the game the Process have gone from weird, semi-comic robots with names like Jerk 2.0 to full-on superpowered humanoids. It’s a pretty clear message: if the humans are wiped out, they can easily be replaced by superior models. As you progress through Cloudbank, so too does the Process: taking over every surface and replacing the rich, colourful world with a washed-out grey. It’s bringing a strange, identikit order to the individualistic beauty of the city: all monochrome blocks, with the sound dampened as though by snow.

Who are they, what do they want, and where did they come from? As with much of Transistor‘s fantasy, you’re left to form your own conclusions. It’s this level of subtlety that forms the basis of good fantasy fiction.

Members of the Process.

Members of the Process.

Sounds Good

Transistor is probably the first game I’ve bought on the strength of the song used in the trailer. Bastion made such excellent use of sound: not just a killer soundtrack but in Rucks’ gruff, mysterious narration and the way that it uses Zia’s song as a siren call for you to follow to her location. Transistor takes this on a step, weaving music into the game world: Red is a singer whose voice has been stolen, one of a group of influencers and artistes that the Camerata were trying to silence. And, again, killer soundtrack.

Close to the game’s end, when the Process have smothered Cloudbank, almost all is silence apart from the clacking of Red’s heels as you move around the world, reminding you that you’re not playing some badass superhero: just a character out for answers… and revenge.

Red.

Red.

Red

In keeping with the rest of the game’s fantasy, you’re given little information on who Red actually is. There’s no dumping of backstory in your lap, and no grand revelation as you progress: Red is just Red. Transistor dripfeeds tiny granules of detail about Red’s personality into the game, but you’ll only find it if you seek it out.

Her gaze lingers on a poster advertising her show, with the Transistor urging her to be strong and turn away – not to dwell on the fact that having her voice stolen has changed who she is. The comments she leaves on public terminals – usually self-censoring the stronger version of what she’d like to post – show her desperation at the situation. Eventually, she uses these to communicate with the Transistor itself, typing out what she’d like to say to it and then deleting it to write the next sentence. When the Transistor’s “life” seems to be being drained by a particularly powerful Process, she tells the Transistor “I’m going to find the thing that’s doing this, and I’m going to break its heart”.

There’s even an interlude, quite late in the game, for Red to go to the bathroom. She’s more real than any character I’ve played in a game for a long time.

Okay, I said that Red isn’t a badass superhero, but that “break its heart” line was definitely badass.

The ending

Hard to write about an ending without spoiling it, but let’s just say that, when it comes, it may surprise you. If not in what actually happens, but the deftness in which it does. And, while you don’t get the this-or-that choice of Bastion‘s conclusion, it does contain just enough ambiguity to leave it hanging hauntingly in your mind.

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