Game Club: Transistor Analysis

As a part of a part of a game club, same idea as a book club but with video games instead, I played the game Transistor. And while I need to wait to fully discuss the game with the rest of the club, I can write and post what I want on my personal blog. I just finished and wanted to get my thoughts out while they’re still fresh. To start as simply as possible, Transistor is a great game. The story and atmosphere is great, art and music are beautiful, and I adore the narrator. Gameplay on the other hand, has a few issues. Ultimately, I’d call the gameplay good. In fact, I see the possibility of true excellence. There are just a few key parts that fall short.

Transistor is an action rpg. You control a singer nicknamed Red who wields a tool called the Transistor which she wields as a weapon. Inside the Transistor is Red’s bodyguard’s “soul,” whom was killed when the Transistor stabbed through this chest. The game is set in a city known as Cloudbank, a seemingly high-tech urban utopia. The people have great control over the environment, to the point that there’s a poll on what tomorrow’s weather should be. This level of control stems from the fact the world appears to be a computer simulation, or at least a world that runs on those rules. This is reinforced by the game’s use of computer and programming terminology; character abilities are called Functions, your main foes are called The Process, and a person has a Trace which similar to a soul.

I mentioned that Cloudbank seemed like a utopia, and in many way that’s true. The concept of money is never brought up and seems to be absent from the world. It’s also a fully democratic society, where building bridges, the weather, or even the color of the sky is determined with a vote. However, not everyone is happy with this system. The human villains, named the Camerata, sought to change this, and in doing so accidentally released The Process. But they weren’t the only ones dissatisfied. You learn your bodyguard wasn’t completely a fan of this system either. When you find the poll asking what tomorrow’s weather, he laments that the obvious choice is leading, warm and sunny, while his desired weather, light showers, wasn’t even an option. The problems he have aren’t much different than the Camerata, both seeing individual voices being drowned out by the will of the majority. The Camerata seeked to change this by selecting talented and influential individuals to make these choices, then killing them to download their Trace. This is of course my interpretation, the game itself leaves Camerata’s plan and motivations unclear.

And then there’s Red’s bodyguard. As you may of noticed I never gave his name, and that’s because you’re never given it. In the city of Cloudbank he is a nobody. Where his biography should be is blank. He isn’t the kind of influential and talented person that were marked by the Camerata, he’s just an average person. But neither is he a part of the majority, a fact he makes clear through the game. Therefor he’s voiceless, stuck riding along with the whims of the populace.

There is the overview of the game, it’s story, and themes, but how is the story told. One tools the game implements that I’m surprised isn’t more more common, at least in my experience, is the narrator. Frequently, games only relay dialog during cutscenes, set piece moments, and text which greatly limits the density of words. Transistor’s narrator is Red’s bodyguard. This narration is superb, adding a lot of context and personality to the places and events witnessed, let’s us know more about the world without an info dump, and calls into focus important details that the player may miss or not consider deeply. And thank’s to the narration, the game seldom needs to take control away from the player, meaning immersion is broken less often. And the times we do cut away or lose control have greater punch because of that. Transistor also used the commonly used terminals with news and story bits to read. While this can be used poorly it is used well here and the narrator improves this by adding greater context to the text. We also have some fantastic environmental storytelling going on, very clearly showing just how wrong everything is going. Transistor has many interactable objects and locations which through Red’s bodyguards narration we get a cultural view of the city. The game points outs these interactable objects, and a nice touch is that we’re given a name or description to the objects as well as a random statistic on it. Some of these statistics are utilitarian, like average traffic, some are humorous, number of unauthorized swimmers in a decorative pool, but the best are the ones that boil down feelings and emotions into a statistic, best example being number of people inspired by a gorgeous view. This dehumanization really highlights the issues with the city where individual is ignored, only seen as part of the whole.

And now the gameplay. In my opinion there are 2 major sources of problems. First problem is the Function system. Functions are your attacks, abilities, and eventually passive effects. You start with 2 function and as the game goes on more are unlocked. You can have up to 4 main Functions equipped. The twist is you can also add Functions to the Functions you have equipped which improve the equipped Function in various ways. Some of these improvements are simple, like extra damage or range, but others add whole new effects, like leaving behind clones or causing effects to bounce. While an intriguing system, this become complicated very quickly. The number of options goes up very fast with each new Function gained. But a complex system isn’t necessarally a terrible thing, the true issue here is in teaching the player how to use it. We’re only given a description and statistics telling us how the Functions work and how Functions modify other Functions. This isn’t sufficient for understanding how various Function set-ups function in combat. Only by using a set-up can you know how it works. You don’t even get a place to practice set-ups until a ways into the game. You do get a place to practice eventually, and along with it there are several challenges. In these challenges, your Functions are either chosen for you or you have a limited number of functions to choose from. This actually does a decient job at teaching and showing off the system. By choosing Functions for you it shows you ways Functions can be used and how they modify other Functions. And when they limit your selection, it lessens the number of options available making easier to find potential combinations. If these had come sooner, were more numerous, and encourage the player to do them more there would be little issue with the system.

Now, the question is would Transistor be better without this system? The answer is no. This gameplay ties in strongly with the story and themes present. Each of your Functions were made from the Trace, or soul, of a person. As you use a Function you given a biography of who the Function used to be. But Functions being made from a person’s Trace is more than just a way to give background. At first I had a hope theory about this, combining Functions would be a metaphor for teamwork, right? But then I noticed the insidious nature of what was being shown. I was looking at these people as their Functions. Just think of that, I was only looking at the job that the person performs and not as an individual. That’s super dehumanizing! And we’re all guilty of doing this in our lives. We frequently only see people as the job they’re preforming, not as people with lives and thoughts of their own. Sonder is the realization that everyone is living lives as complex as yours, this is the feeling I believe was being aimed for. This is emphasized with the selection of Functions to equipt. Not only are we seeing people as just their function, we’re looking for the most statically effective way to use them. And as one final punch to the gut, Red’s bodyguard, our narrator and the person we spend the most time with, can only be referenced through his job(Red’s bodyguard), Function(Breach()), role(narrator), or appearance(the Transistor). All this ties in deeply into the greater themes presented that the game would be lacking without it.

The other issue I have with the gameplay is the Turn() mechanic. You fight mainly in real-time, but you also have an ability called Turn() which changes this up. When activated, time freezes and you get to plan a series of actions which Red will quickly perform once you’re finished. Again, good in theory but with notable issues. Turn() is a double edged sword, after you execute your actions most of your Functions are unavailable, so depending on your set-up you either can’t attack or your attacks are limited. Now Turn() is a powerful ability, it allows you to do a lot in a short amount of time and lets you perfectly plan it, so a downside makes sense. On it’s own it’s a good idea. But the problem is combat frequently forces you to use it. Without the right modification most attack Functions are fairly slow and conversely most enemies are fairly quick, with many of their attacks being constant. In the time it takes to wind up an attack you’ve likely taken a good amount of damage. The easiest way around these attacks, and seemingly only way early game, is to use Turn(). But after I’m done I’m helpless and can only run and wait for Turn() to recharge. I may of not even defeated the enemy that was attacking me, either by not dealing enough damage or having to deal with other targets first. So fights always go get attacked, use Turn(), run, get attacked, use Turn(), and so on. And it feels like this is the right way to play so if I wasn’t playing in the intended way the game didn’t let me know.

I haven’t noticed any greater theme to Turn() other than it playing to the computer themes to the game. Otherwise it feels like a game feature, which is fine. Just needs some improvements.

That’s my take on Transistor. A great game that had it taught itself better and balanced Turn() better could’ve been excellent. There are some cool themes to explore and has an interesting setting. Not to mention it’s well written and beautiful. The more I think about the game, the more I love it, just wish I felt more of the love while playing.