I believe that Transistor would classify as one of the few genuine video game tragedies, though such classification could doubtless be debated to death. Transistor is a game of paradoxes and mysteries. It is a tragedy, but it is also a tale of revenge. It focuses on the end of the world and the beginning of a new one. It is about an eloquent singer without a voice. Supergiant Games designed almost everything in Transistor with multiple purposes in mind. While this might seem confusing at first, it is really a dazzling testament to the talent at Supergiant Games. All the individual pieces of Transistor click together to create a cohesive and interesting whole that is shocking, beautiful, and full of silent rage.
Inevitably people will compare Transistor with Supergiant Games’ first project, Bastion. On a purely surface level, Transistor shares a similar sense of style and world-building with its predecessor. It is highly stylized, played from an isometric perspective, and there is a constant voice helping to clarify the narrative and objectives. However, in almost every other respect it is an entirely different sort of beast. Nothing in Transistor is straightforward.
The story begins with a murder gone wrong and a stolen voice. Red, the protagonist, was a famous and influential singer in the city of Cloudbank, until a group of individuals known as the Camerata attempted to silence her permanently. They only half succeeded. Though they stole her voice and managed to kill the mysterious man who was with her at the time, Red finds herself armed with the assassins’ weapon: the sword-like Transistor. Rather than run and escape Cloudbank, Red decides to take the fight to the Camerata just as a strange mass of creatures known as The Process begin to tear the world apart. Most of the talking done in the game is done by the Transistor itself which has absorbed the soul of the unknown man who was killed instead of Red. Red herself can only communicate back by typing on the various terminals scattered throughout Cloudbank. Because of her lack of voice, Red’s motivations and intentions are left to the player to interpret and aren’t necessarily clear until the final moments of Transistor. The narrative takes some strange turns and brings up a lot of questions that it doesn’t completely answer, at least not after a preliminary playthrough. What starts out seeming like a simple, little story ends up asking huge questions that feel relevant to our rapidly advancing, digital society.
After having a few days to mull it over, I think I have a firm grasp on what Transistor was all about, what it meant. I’ve been trying to think of a less pretentious way of saying this, but I haven’t been able to come up with one: Transistor’s narrative doesn’t stoop to accommodate everyone. It requires a bit of effort on the part of the player to understand and piece together what happened over the course of the game. It isn’t a grand mystery, but it is an exercise in interpretation (which I think is bloody fantastic to see in a video game). Many games feel the need to spell themselves out, but Transistor understands that you don’t need to spell everything out and that sometimes conclusions that players reach
themselves feel all the more valuable because they had to reach for them alone. There are going to be a fair number of people who won’t feel like delving into the narrative of Transistor and that’s fine. However, those people will be missing out on part of what makes this game truly great.
The Transistor can absorb the fragments a person leaves behind after their death and make use of their power in combat. While the gameplay of Transistor initially feels very similar to the action-oriented gameplay of Bastion, a major addition changes everything. The Transistor allows the player to stop time and plan out a certain number of actions, which then unfold within the span of a half-second. This lends the game an almost turn-based feel as the time-stopping mechanic takes several seconds to recharge after being expended, during which the player is left vulnerable and unable to use (most) abilities. There are four ability slots that are open at any given time, each with one open augment slot (which can be upgraded to two augment slots), and later in the game there are unlockable passive skill slots.
There are tons of different ability combinations for players to explore and discover what configurations they prefer. However, for those curious about the world and characters of Cloudbank, no combination will be satisfactory for long. Every person that the Transistor absorbs has a story and you unlock different pieces of their story by using their power as a main ability, and augmentation, or as a passive. If you want to discover everything about Transistor, you’ll be constantly forced to incorporate new abilities in different ways and adapt your strategies accordingly. While background information might not be enough of a motivation for some players to experiment with their preferred abilities, I found it to be very effective at getting me out of comfortable ruts with tried and true strategies. Right up until the end of the game I continued to acquire new soul fragments; only reverting to what I found to be my most powerful ability configuration for the final, climactic battle. While I found Transistor to be at a well-balanced difficulty, players looking for more of a challenge will be able to use unlockable limiters to give themselves combat restrictions in order to get more experience points.
While the meat of Transistor revolves around its combat, there are many small, caring touches that make the game world feel a bit more human. These little things range from a button that allows Red to hold the Transistor tightly and hum along with the background music to a short pizza party sequence that results from interacting with a certain terminal. Those two examples might not seem like much, but they make the characters feel like people rather than pawns. Those slight moments inform and reinforce the rest of the game while simultaneously serving to briefly lighten the mood. Heavy topics arose throughout my time of Transistor and having some breaks, however short they might be, from looming catastrophe was welcome.
Transistor’s world is dramatic, bold, and beautiful largely due to the work of art director Jen Zee and composer Darren Korb. Transistor is doubtlessly some of the finest work that either of them have ever done. You could take a screenshot from just about any portion of Transistor, crop out the UI elements, slap a frame on it and it would look right at home in an art exhibit. Seriously, I cannot emphasize how gorgeous I found Transistor. The lovely visuals are likewise complimented by an amazing techno-jazz-electronica-noir soundtrack that seemed to insistently pull me forward, giving me a sense of urgency. The few tracks that make use of Ashley Barrett’s incredible voice serve as a reminder of what Red has lost. For all of the energy present in the Korb’s excellent soundtrack, many of the pieces contain hints of sadness and loss, heralding the direction events are destined to take.
(Warning: The Transistor soundtrack contains some light spoilers)
Transistor is not a game to play if you are looking to turn your brain off. The combat asks for tactics and the story requires some thought. It isn’t a long game, easily finished in two or three sittings, but it needs a certain level of engagement. It tells a tale of heartbreaking reprisal and presents moral questions to its audience. Some players might be dismayed at the lack of choices and exploration. However, Transistor is largely an on-rails sort of experience; not having a large degree of player choice or exploration aren’t bad things, they are simply different ways to make a game. As a game, Transistor is a deep and thoroughly enjoyable experience. As a narrative, Transistor sits as one of the best video game tragedies of all time.
Transistor was reviewed on PC. It is currently also available on PlayStation 4