[Game: Transistor, Supergiant Games, 2014]
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On the Interestingly Deep yet Frustratingly Vague Plot of Supergiant Games’ Transistor

 

Introduction:

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.

Transistor screenshot with ordinary thoroughfare - analysis and criticism of Transistor's plot - story, narrative

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).

Transistor screenshot with Process-engulfed landscape - analysis and criticism of Transistor's plot - story, narrative

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?

Transistor screenshot with back door beach hub world - analysis and criticism of Transistor's plot - story, narrative

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).

Transistor screenshot with combat planning turn - analysis and criticism of Transistor's plot - story, narrative

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.

Conclusion:

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.
Transistor screenshot with Process and oblivion - analysis and criticism of Transistor's plot - story, narrative

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.

 

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[Game: Transistor, Supergiant Games, 2014]
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On the Interestingly Deep yet Frustratingly Vague Plot of Supergiant Games’ Transistor

was last modified: July 5th, 2017 by Daniel Podgorski
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3 Comments

  1. Just beat the game. I feel the Camarata are a collection of people who all have their own intentions on wanting to control the otherwise free willed flow of society and culture. I don’t remember them exactly but Grant’s was generosity (or something), Asher’s was greed etc. Those are both real reasons why one could feel threatened by the unpredictability of the changing of the times and feel the need to divert from a perceived troublesome path. Much of the Camarata goes unexplained but, to me, it tells the whole story to assume that each of the 4 ultimately had their own motives but shared a similar goal taking control over the volatile ‘process’ which drove mankind. Just a few like minded individuals. You said it mostly.

  2. You, like so many others, have thoroughly missed the entire point of this game and it’s narrative thread. The information gathered and or discovered during play has NOTHING to do with you. It has EVERYTHING to do with Red and that is the crux of your confusion and misunderstanding.

    In the game “Inside” by Playdead you (the player) control an unnamed boy as he marches ever forward toward his destiny. At times he crouches and ducks in fear. His breathing becomes noticeably strained an ragged. The player has no control over any of those reactions when they occur, but you get to bear witness to them nonetheless. The only plot thread given in the entire game comes in the form of a 2 sentence synopsis on the game’s official website: “Hunted and alone, a boy finds himself drawn into the center of a dark project.” And you know what? That’s all you’re ever officially told about that game by anyone involved in it’s development.

    But here is why that doesn’t matter. The little boy knows why he’s doing what he’s doing even if the player does not. In both games the player is given scores of information regarding the respective worlds, but how much of it can be pieced together by said player isn’t remotely relevant. Why? Because in the case of both games, it’s not the player’s story. It’s the character’s story and the player is never meant to project themselves onto that character, but rather is meant to guide that character along to their final destination in the game. As such, both games are masterful in their respective narrative approaches.

    Films like George Lucas’ “THX-1138” and David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” come immediately to mind. Neither one of those films is concerned with how much of why those respective dystopian worlds are the way they are from an audiences perspective. Why? Because it isn’t remotely important to the tale at hand. That information simply doesn’t advance the characters journey within the space of their journey through the film. Context for those worlds would only provide context for the viewer and not the immediate, direct motivation for the protagonists. And quite frankly, it makes for a more harrowing adventure; one that can be left up to interpretation.

    One of the reasons it’s so brilliant that Red doesn’t speak in “Transistor” is because she spends nearly the entire time communicating through her actions and not her words. The latter are cleverly reserved for the pre-written songs in the game that tell various tales related to the events, her motivation, relationship with Sybil etc.. The player is granted tons of information about the world and it’s inhabitants, both specific and vague, but never enough to spell the whole thing out. However, the game is never indifferent with it’s narrative,even if it’s not entirely forthcoming. That level of exposition is simply not the point. It certainly isn’t for Red. She knows what she’s doing even if she doesn’t have all the answers herself and that’s just fine with her as SHE is the primary focus of the events that affect her during the game and not US.

    In the end, Transistor is a cyber-noir game about an ill-timed “murder”, wrapped in the veneer of conspiracy, whose resolution comes not from righting either of those 2 perceived wrongs, but rather from the self-actualiztion of the person at the center of it all. The player’s only real concern (beyond what we intuit and the information given to us) is to guide her through to that destitnation.

    • Sounds like you might also enjoy my film articles. Haha.

      I have no issue with lauding Transistor for its atmosphere and its symbolic thematic content, and I do so in the article above. But if it is to be considered on-par with great works of symbolic or abstract art, including those of David Lynch, then its dialogue writing and the symbols it presents will have to surpass superficiality. Moreover, the action-oriented silence of Red is belied by her singing; the developers were transparently attempting to duplicate the well-received rhythm of Bastion, whereby narration from Logan Cunningham interacts with gameplay. And regardless, a silent protagonists is not a unique or remarkable element in a game.

      I am a great admirer of the symbol-reliant art of figures like David Lynch, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrei Tarkovsky. And like you, I am confident that games are capable of reaching a similar level of artistic excellence and expression. But Transistor, while it is certainly art and is much closer to artistic excellence than the vast majority of other games, still pales in comparison to the works of those filmmakers. The peripheral details of Transistor make a sustained and specific effort to establish the world and the plot. They allude to aspects of the world which are contradicted by its barrenness (such as those relating to Cloudbank’s citizens) or seemingly forgotten by the creators (such as the familial relationship between the Kendrells). This attempt at communication is not subjugated to a greater artistic project; it is a good-faith effort at communication (full of straightforward, non-symbolic details) that is merely incomplete and therefore partially unsuccessful.

      To put it another way, I do not necessarily need Transistor to be more comprehensible. I try to judge each work of art on its own terms; it is the game itself which has pretensions of comprehensibility. I am only asking that it be more cohesive.

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