This week we gather around the Push to Smart Water Cooler to talk about Supergiant Games’ Transistor, the follow up to the 2011 critical darling, Bastion. It’s complicated.
Transcript below the jump.
JAYLEE: Hello and welcome back to the Push to Smart Water Cooler! This episode we’re going to be taking a look at Supergiant Games’ latest release, Transistor. And I’m just going to—It’s a very vague game, there’s a lot that is left unsaid in the game—so I’m just going to read their blurb to kind of intro it in their words.
“Transistor is a sci-fi themed, action RPG, that invites players to wield an extraordinary weapon of unknown origin as they fight through a stunning futuristic city.”
Um, the game was released in May. This is their second game, their first was the critical darling Bastion, which I believe neither of us have played.
JAYLEE: So we’re coming at it a little bit blind in that regard. So, Transistor. It’s about… there’s this weapon, and it’s sci-fi, and you’re playing Red, but she can’t speak.
JAYLEE: Because her voice is gone.
STACEY: Like Ariel.
JAYLEE: Hey! Another red head. (laughter) It’s a very short game. It’s only about five or six hours, which was surprising for me. And I do feel like the length of it was to the game’s detriment.
JAYLEE: Just overall package, it should have been longer. I didn’t… There was just a little too much time spent unclear of certain motivations of the very few characters that we have in the game. That being said, I did really like the combat, I did think it was cool once I got my head around it, but again it was one of those things where I couldn’t really get into the intricacies of it in five hours.
STACEY: Yes. That is my major problem with it.
STACEY: I think, um, we should probably go ahead and forefront this and say this game also, much like Bastion but maybe not to the extreme… another critical darling, getting great reviews. We didn’t feel as strongly about it, and I think I feel even less so than Jaylee. I really didn’t like it that much, and a lot of it is the length. Which is not to say that games need to be long and, you know, meet a certain quota in order to be worth my time and money, but the thing about Transistor.. it presents very, very cool world. It has this really neat aesthetic. And the way that it encourages you to explore and learn about that world is very interesting. It communicates it in kiosks you discover that tell you things about… as different as how the weather is determined in this strange city to the ways the news is controlled and things. And you get some… even though Red is a silent protagonist, she does talk through comments she makes on these posts at the kiosks.
JAYLEE: Which was so cool—once I figured it out, which took me a ridiculously long time.
STACEY: Yeah, and I really like the way that they expanded on the world too in the way you play, and they explicitly encourage you to try different combinations of attacks to learn more about the different characters. But the problem is a disproportionate amount of the work in playing and experimenting is done in these challenge rooms which are optional and away from the city. So that, I think, is the game’s biggest weakness in that it creates this great world, and then in order to actually play the game you have to remove yourself from it.
JAYLEE: That’s a very good point actually.
STACEY: I spent the game kind of… just kind of lost. Which there’s value in being vague and just kind of letting yourself into this dream-like state. But then it was over too soon and the conclusion just carried more weight than it merited, given that you had to spend so much time away from it.
JAYLEE: That’s one of those things that, you know, there was a challenge room, and I did the first one. And then I was like, “I’m kind of good,” and there were, like, several different kinds of challenge rooms, and I was like, “that is a bit much.”
STACEY: Yeah. You just want to get back to the cool stuff.
JAYLEE: And then you kind of learn that… You get to learn more about the characters, who are actually the abilities in the Transistor, if you put them in different roles, if you, you know, swap up things. Which was cool, but, again, completely optional, and I never felt compelled to do these particular tasks?
JAYLEE: And one of the things that I find very odd that I’ve been reading a lot lately is that there’s been a lot of people that have been praising it for having LGBTQ characters.
STACEY: I’ve read that too.
JAYLEE: Even though it’s just footnotes. I don’t know. I’m not going to take points from it, but I’m not going to give them points for kind of hiding away these characters. I don’t know. It was just… It was such a cool world; such a cool concept. But I feel like a lot of the execution was weak.
JAYLEE: But it had such a glossy paint over it, it’s easy to over look it.
STACEY: Which, I mean… I don’t even feel like it’s even fair for me to say that because the guts of it are there. Like, the combat system works very well, and the customization options are really interesting, you just don’t get to play with it unless you go to these really boring, optional challenge rooms. It’s like, why wasn’t that integrated into the game proper better, because the guts are there. Everything is there. They just didn’t figure out a way to… mish them together more effectively.
JAYLEE: I mean, the atmosphere is phenomenal. And then you, like you said, to kind of get these character bios, to kind of… get more deeply into the combat system, you have to go to, like, the sandy beach area with a bunch of monsters that you have to kill in 30 seconds or whatnot. And it just… it didn’t work for me. And it obviously didn’t work for you (laughs).
STACEY: No. It’s like, the more I think about this game, the more I’m like, “no, that did not work. I don’t like this game.” And I’m not even just like… when I first played it, I tweeted, “Well, it sure is a game!” You know, like, kind of neutral, but now the more I think about it, it’s like, “no, I don’t think it’s even that great of a game.” Like…
JAYLEE: I think it’s one of those things where because of the potential there, you don’t like it.
STACEY: Yeah, that’s true.
JAYLEE: Because it didn’t fulfill that potential. And for me, because that potential is there, and, like you said, those guts are there, I liked it in spite of all of its flaws.
STACEY: Which, I am willing to do that on some occasions, and I think usually, for me personally—
JAYLEE: It’s just a case by case kind of thing.
STACEY: Right. Like I am… I will evangelize Deadly Premonition to every single person I meet. If they say they’re remotely interested in video games, I’m like, “I have a game for you!” And there is so much more broken about that game than in Transistor where everything works quite well, it’s just really boring and not challenging enough in a way that is conducive to actually encouraging you to experiment with its really cool combat system. But Deadly Premonition just has so much character and charm, and it pays off when it matters to me that I’m willing to forgive it for all of its much more obvious and much more broken characteristics.
JAYLEE: You know, we’ve talked a little bit about the gameplay since you’re talking about the charm and character of Deadly Premonition, let’s kind of talk about the store of Transistor? That sounded quizzical when I said it, it is because it is kind of confusing. Like, one of the things that I had trouble with, is that you don’t know the relationship between Red and the narrator until too far into the game. Because you kind of have that cutscene where he gets in the way of Red getting killed, but she was a singer! He could have been a fan, he could have been a stalker, I had know idea.
STACEY: He could have been a bodyguard. Like, that could have been his job. Or just a random bystander who, like, they missed, you know?
JAYLEE: It’s just one of those things that’s not made clear so you don’t know the stakes of their relationship until it’s too late. And when it becomes clear, you don’t have enough time to, kind of, get involved in this relationship—unless you’re, kind of, projecting a romantic undertone to it from the beginning.
JAYLEE: Which makes, like you said, the ending feel a bit unearned. I did love the ending in theory, but it didn’t really have that emotional impact.
STACEY: There’s a lot about this game that I love in theory. And it’s just… ugh. It’s frustrating!
JAYLEE: I love the idea that she’s kind of turning into this almost, godlike, mythical creator. And she has, like they say, the canvas and she’s the brush, so she can do whatever she wants. And instead of remaking this world in her image, she chooses, and I think it’s a very beautiful, humane idea, that instead of just remaking a world where you’re the only person there, you choose instead to go into this kind of, Matrix-y world just so you can have that connection with other human beings. And that’s what I really loved about the ending. Because at first, I thought she was just going to kill herself, and I was like, “Oh, that’s bullshit!” But then I saw it for what it was, and I really liked that.
STACEY: (sighs) I don’t know. I—again, I like it in theory, but I just don’t feel like—‘cause for the whole game, it’s not clear what this world is and its relationship to anything else. And it all seems, like you said, kind of Matrix-y. It’s really cool, it has this kind of punk… noir-thing kind of going for it. I feel like the Transistor’s narration, he lends—or even… he’s not even narrating. He’s just talking to Red—it lends kind of a credence to this idea of it being a noir. But, for me, it wasn’t so much “oh she’s giving up for human contact, because I had no reference point for what human contact means in this universe.
JAYLEE: Especially to Red.
STACEY: Cause she has… I really like that she literally has the last word in the game after being silent. But, it’s like, she’s silent the whole time, there’s no one else around, we see through all the kiosks that everything is manufactured anyway… I don’t know. It felt really unearned and really, weirdly sentimental in a way the rest of the game was not.
JAYLEE: Yeah. It’s definitely… the juxtaposition is kind of… not shocking, but it’s a little off-putting because it’s so… the game is so, like, cool, and kind of calm. It’s just very, you know, stylish in its aesthetic and everything. And then it’s very kind of, like, heartwarming and sweet at the end.
STACEY: Which, I don’t think those things necessarily are mutually exclusive, they just were here…
JAYLEE: It’s a very sudden shift.
STACEY: Yes, it’s very sudden, and you don’t really have the chance—in part because the game is so short and so much of your work is relegated to a really boring sandy beach, you don’t get to really know it well enough to have that emotional connection.
JAYLEE: Um, and we did mention that it does take a lot form noir, and, you know, noir, film noir stories, they don’t have happy endings. That’s one of their hallmarks.
JAYLEE: And one of the things we were having a discussion about earlier, which you said that stuck with me that I just adore is that you mention how this is a story about what happens in a noir if the femme fatale—who’s Red—gets agency. And in that situation, she kind of crafts her own happy ending—which I thought was brilliant.
Stacey: Well, thank you. But, yeah. (laughter) That was how I read it, and that’s how I read they were going for, and it’s like, that’s a good idea but you didn’t do the legwork to get there. Besides having that really cool aesthetic, the awesome music, and then, like, just the presence of this male voice, constantly. I just didn’t like. (laughs) Sorry, I wanted to. It’s disappointing when something like this doesn’t meet expectations.
JAYLEE: So that does it for our latest Water Cooler discussion. We obviously had varying viewpoints on the same game, so please join the conversation in the discussion. Tell us what you thought, what you agreed or disagreed about our analysis. And subscribe and look forward to further Water Cooler discussions, scripted episodes, all that fun jazz.
Transistor: Not so bad when it’s cold! Not that I’d know anymore. Help yourself, I’m good.