It would be boring for me to simply say that Supergiant Games’ Transistor is a gorgeous-looking, wonderfully designed, mechanically fun, and brilliantly soundtracked title, even though all of that is true. It would be slightly less boring for me to defend Transistor‘s much-maligned brevity in the same spirit as I have defended other cheap, brief indie campaigns, even though I clearly would be willing to defend it. But the least boring thing for me to do, I feel, is to discuss the one area of the game that I am inclined to critique: Transistor‘s presentation of its plot.
Supergiant Games has an attraction to endings. And not just to the ending of games, but to the ending of worlds. Each of their wildly successful indie titles, Bastion and Transistor, has presented a vividly imagined world right around the moment of its ultimate demise (the world of Pyre had better watch its back). And I’ve loved this aesthetic decision in both cases. But in both cases the series of events leading up to the end of the world (and so leading up to the start of the game) is not easily discerned—which, in the oft-dense RPG genre, is saying something.
A Summary of Transistor‘s Story:
Yes, the one complaint that I might have about Transistor (and it is a complaint I also had for Bastion, though to a much lesser extent) pertains to the game’s story. It is a complaint that I feel bad making, because this game does with its narrative so much more and so much better than many other titles. But here it is: the plot details of Transistor either do not fit together or are not sufficiently communicated to the player.
At moments when there are potential gaps and complications, Transistor opts for mystery over clarity. Mysteries are welcome, but not if they’re never resolved. Even ambiguities are welcome, provided they do not become a crutch or seem like careless omissions. And this isn’t a matter of being unacquainted with the game’s background; I’ve read every word in the terminals, function biographies, and limiter logs twice over (while playing through the campaign, and while playing through New Game +).
Here is a brief account of the story, as I understand it. Independently, several citizens of Cloudbank grew tired of living in the constant flux of the simulated city. They teamed up, took on the name ‘Camerata,’ and drafted the mission statement, “When everything changes, nothing changes.” One of their members, while toying with the math of the world, stumbled upon the underlying Process that creates Cloudbank (as well as the tool, the eponymous transistor, that grants total control of that Process).
The Camerata plotted to use the transistor and Process to change the city to somehow better reflect their vision. They began kidnapping influential and useful members of the Cloudbank community to broaden their control. In attempting to kidnap protagonist Red, they were foiled by the intervention of her significant other (a wistful, romantic narrator simply referred to as ‘user’), losing the transistor and control over the Process in the ensuing hours. The Process begins running amok, and the game begins.
A Critique of Transistor‘s Story:
Alright, so in broad strokes it seems okay. But if you ask any questions about any part of it, it just starts falling apart:
So they were kidnapping people to broaden their control. Are the kidnapped people brainwashed? Are they replaced with Process puppets? Are they subsumed into the transistor? Were they just hoping to win hearts and minds legitimately after some underhanded beginnings? We get a hint at answering one of these questions in some visuals near the game’s end, but nothing substantial.
A lot is said about the apocalypse not being the Camerata’s goal, but it’s never clear what the Camerata actually wanted for Cloudbank in the first place—more stability? less superficiality? would stopping the seasons changing really alter everyone’s minds?
There are a lot of references to government cover-ups and forcibly quieted dissenters, but there is basically no information about Cloudbank’s government or administration available. The player never learns whether the administration really was overly controlling; the player never learns if the administration or the city’s artists knew about the Process; the player never even learns the most basic account of the origin of Cloudbank.
Even details that should be obvious are sometimes obfuscated. For instance, what is the relationship between Grant Kendrell and Asher Kendrell? Asher’s biography alludes to him joining the Camerata after meeting an influential adminstrator—presumably Grant. But if they met at work, and Grant is (according to his biography) probably about twice Asher’s age, then why do they have the same last name? Are they related? Are they romantic partners? Did Grant . . . adopt Asher? It’s just not clear.
And whenever such a question seems close to having an answer, a character dismisses the possibility with something vague and seemingly deep. I say ‘seemingly’ because it’s the sort of depth that one aims to create when writing a forum roleplay as a young teen—if the sentiment is sad and the phrasing is pretty, it sounds deep (even if the content is shallow or confusing). The biggest culprits here are Royce Bracket (always) and the narrator (during his periods of blurred consciousness near the Spine).
So, unfortunately, all of these inscrutable details make an interpretation of what is otherwise a very interesting set of ideas, narrative elements, and world details difficult. There is something here regarding metafiction—concerning characters whose entire existence is in a program (Cloudbank, the Process, Transistor, the endless other computing terms and labels). But the ambiguities make a full interpretation of these details difficult. And there is something here regarding relationships—concerning either loss or arduous long-distance separation. But one could interpret that part of the tale while completely setting aside almost the entire plot of the game.
Instead one is left with a reading as vague as the details of Transistor‘s plot: it’s about some kind of tension between creativity and incompatibilist determinism, between diversity and conformity, between color and sterility, between distraction and stability, and/or between texture and smoothness. Perhaps the theme is that one must balance these dichotomies; perhaps the theme is that the former always trumps the latter. I’m inclined to think, because of a few happenings toward the end of the game, and because of the separated planning and execution in the battle mechanic, that the game’s thematic stress is on creativity and actualization. But it’s difficult to say.
So, how could this state of affairs have been averted? Supergiant Games could have allowed the third tier of biography unlocks to contain more substantive plot details and answers; much of the meandering dialogue of Royce could have been replaced with (still meandering) clear exposition of the Camerata’s true motivations, obstacles, and end goals; and the early-game terminals could have been populated with full articles that give a clear picture of the city’s existing administration and atmosphere, so that we get some concrete sense of why the Camerata would want to do . . . whatever unchanging thing it is that they want to do.
But ultimately there’s one very big, overriding gameplay problem that results from having the game’s narrative as it is now, and it involves a spoiler of a late-game event, so if you haven’t played the game, skip to the trailer with my hearty endorsement and pedantic whining in your mind.
The problem is this: the narrative issues devalue the final boss fight. It does not feel as though the whole game has built up to it. As far as the player knows, the only reason for them to dislike Royce Bracket—besides his apparent incompetence in lending the transistor to Grant, who promptly loses it, and thus loses control of the Process—is that Royce selfishly attacks Red so that he can escape at the end. Like a miniboss in a classic sidescroller, one’s only reason for fighting the enemy is that it physically attacked you a few seconds ago. It is ultimately unclear if the Camerata’s goal was noble or terrible, and not because of moral ambiguity; just because we have no idea what that goal might be. A final boss fight should be the emotional climax of the playthrough as well as the final test of the player’s abilities. Transistor‘s final fight may deliver on the latter, but does not deliver on the former.
So that final fight is a poignant synecdoche for the whole Transistor experience: a fun, tight, beautiful session with great music, yet lacking in needed plot details on closer inspection. For this reason (and some of my own feature and atmosphere preferences), I find Bastion to be the studio’s stronger contender overall. But all pedantry aside, with a track record this strong, you can bet I’ll be keeping my eye on Pyre regardless.