Saturday, June 11, 2016


I think this is the first time since 2012 that I haven't had one or more RPGs in my gaming queue. That means time to play other video games, and finish ones I started long ago! Fortunately, all other video games are shorter than RPGs, and I'm looking forward to broadening my horizons a bit. Possibly until Torment finally comes out in 2017.

First on the list: Transistor. I started this almost exactly one year ago, before getting distracted by The Caldecott Caper and the universe. The summary description sounds like my kryptonite: stylish cyberpunk game featuring a female lead and awesome music. It delivered in spades.

Gameplay itself is terrific. It mainly focuses on battles, which you can either fight in realtime or by using a limited "Turn" ability, which lets you pause time while you plan your actions, and then execute them almost instantly. I did almost all of my fighting in Turn mode, which appeals strongly to my preference for tactical gameplay and limited hand-eye coordination, but I think it would be totally doable in realtime if that's your preference.

Transistor is technically an action-RPG. As you progress in the game and level up, you'll unlock new abilities ("Functions") for your character, as well as other benefits like more equipment slots ("RAM"). You can only use a limited number of abilities at a time, but different abilities can be combined in various ways to create new effects. For example, "Mask" can be used by itself to turn yourself invisible for a short time, but you can also combine it with "Crash" for a more devastating backstab attack. There are story-based reasons to experiment with different configurations of your programs, which keeps the gameplay fresh and interesting throughout, rather than just sticking with the same strategy throughout.

That said, I definitely found a loadout that appeals to me, mostly based on the earliest functions you find. I slotted Crash with Mask and Ping for a cheap and powerful backstab. I would follow this up with Breach for a combo. I can typically repeat this in a single Turn, which will destroy most enemies and seriously damage the rest. My third slot is Jaunt, which is useful for efficiently setting up backstabs or as a quick get-out-of-trouble button while Turn is on cooldown. My fourth slot rotated based on what I needed to unlock, but otherwise would remain empty to free up memory for my passives. At the end of the game, my passives were Void (boosts base damage of all attacks), Help (25% chance to become the superuser on each Turn, giving a powerful AOE attack), Bounce (blocks an attack from doing damage), and Tap (extra HP).

There isn't much of an exploration focus in the game - at any given time, there's only one or maybe two places you can go, with possibly a few nooks or crannies that hold a terminal or point of interest. That said, most of the pleasure I got from the game came from moving around, gaping at Cloudbank. It's absolutely stunning. Being an isometric cyberpunk game, there are scenes that are strongly reminiscent of the Shadowrun games, but where Shadowrun often goes for grimy and lived-in locations, Transistor is one of the most beautiful games I've ever seen. It combines cyberpunk elements (neon signs, enormously tall buildings, omnipresent digital terminals) with a fantastic arc deco architecture. These are some of the most graceful and elegant elevators you will ever see in a video game.


As everyone knows, I'm a sucker for story, and Transistor's is absolutely fascinating. Partly for the story itself (more on that later), but even more so for the unique way in which it's told.

I tend to think of video game stories as being synonymous with dialogue. Well, there's no dialogue in Transistor. That's by necessity, since Red (the protagonist, who you play as) has lost her voice. We only get to hear from her in flashbacks, after everything went wrong, or "hear" from her on the very rare occasions where she can type something into a terminal. When she does this, she'll type and then erase, which at first I thought was a form of self-editing, but now I realize was her attempt at carrying on a conversation. As soon as she pressed Enter, she would lose that input prompt, so she needs to reuse it for everything she wants to say.

In most RPGs, the plot of the story is communicated through critical-path segments that the player is guaranteed to experience. These are often cut-scenes, or crucial interactive dialogues that the player must complete in order to proceed. These are often supplemented by additional materials found in the world that will add in additional background or flavor; these can safely be ignored, but fans like me who want to learn more will gain a deeper understanding of the world and plot by finding them. These include codex entries in Dragon Age, books in the Elder Scrolls games, emails in Fallout, etc.

Transistor has a very full and complex story, but extremely minimal storytelling. The only way you can piece it together is if you combine everything you know. That means using all of the different functions in all of their configurations in order to unlock the characters' dossiers, AND paying attention to Breach's comments, AND finding and reading the terminal news reports, AND listening to Royce's rambling monologue. Each individual piece doesn't make sense. Reading Kendrell or Asher's dossiers in isolation won't help, but after you read both of them, you'll make the connection and realize how the Camerata came to be.

None of this is required to enjoy the game. The atmosphere is fantastic, and you'll be able to pick up on the gist of your motivations even if you never read a word of text. But it's impressive to see a game that's comfortable with such an opaque (but fair) system for communicating with its players about what the heck is actually going on.


So, no guarantee that this is correct, but here's my own understanding.

Cloudbank itself is a purely digital, virtual city. The people we meet may have real physical selves, but the community only exists because of their decision to participate.

It is a democratic, collaborative community. I find myself thinking of it as an ultimately-evolved BBS, though of course it would be more relevant to compare to something like an MMORPG. The best comparison might actually be something like a MUD or MUSH. Participants help build the environment that they live in.

The "Administrators" are users who volunteer to help keep things running smoothly. They're the equivalent of the forum moderators or webmasters. They have a position of authority, but their purpose is to implement the will of the community. They aren't dictators, they're the civil service of the digital world. Most administrators will serve for a time and then step back down to being users, similar to many volunteer forum moderators. Some will tire of Cloudbank and log out completely. Kendrell is one of the few who has served for a long time, outliving many different trends and fads.

This is a democratic community, hence the ubiquitous polls. However, this democracy leads to mediocrity. Nothing unexpected can ever happen, because people vote on everything that happens. Everything is just always sort of fine, never wonderful or terrible. The people always vote for mild weather, so they never experience epic thunderstorms or frigid blizzards.

Kendrell becomes disillusioned with the status quo, realizing that democracy can't make the city great. He starts the Camerata, whose goal is to improve the community by surprising it. He and Asher recruit two other people to their elite conspiracy: Sybil, an extremely well-connected woman who knows everyone in the community, and Royce, a brilliant engineer.

In order to make changes without going through the standard voting system, they will need to access the lower-level functions of Cloudbank. Essentially, access the operating system rather than the user-level program that everyone else is running in. This will let them bypass the community's democratic will. Again, their intention is to do good - "When everything changes, nothing changes." They create plans for a new form of Cloudbank, with some immutable features that cannot be modified by popular will.

Royce eventually invents (or perhaps discovers, I'm not clear) the Process, a low-level program that can rewrite Cloudbank. The Camerata begins using the Process. Some people find out about this, and are forcibly exiled from Cloudbank, never to return. When they leave, Royce uses some aspects of their avatars to modify the Process, making it more adaptable and training it to behave differently. I think that this is the purpose of the Transistor: it is the interface between avatars and the process, or perhaps between avatars and the OS where the process resides.

The Camerata is patient and works slowly, converting one person at a time. Things go wrong when Sybil, who feels jilted by Red, plots to use the Transistor to get back at her. Ostensibly this is just another step in their plan, to inject a necessary element for the Process, but it's actually driven by her own jealousy. "Breach" gets stabbed and pulled into the Transistor, Red takes the Transistor and escapes.

At this point, everything starts to go wrong. The Transistor was the interface between the user-level world of Cloudbank, where the Camerata avatars reside, and the OS-level world where the Process runs. (The Process manifests inside Cloudbank, but it's a one-way street. System-level code is allowed to access user-level processes, but  user-level code cannot access system-level processes. The Process can thus attack Cloudbank, but Cloudbank cannot retaliate without root privileges.) The Process no longer receives guidance from Royce or the Camerata, and so it acts on its own, drifting from its original purpose.

The Process begins deleting things. Avatars, buildings, entire blocks. All of the architecture that was built over time and colored by user consensus is erased, replaced with a blank slate. The Camerata, horrified, pursues Red to try and regain the Transistor. She, understandably, is not inclined to let them have it: it holds all that remains of her boyfriend.

In the end, Red and Royce agree to a truce. Red returns the Transistor, plugging it into the interface so Royce can access the root system and destroy the Process. He succeeds (in an astonishingly elided scene). However, there's a problem. Both he and Red are inside, and only one can come back out. She triumphs, and Royce is gone.

Red logs back into Cloudbank, but now as a superuser, rather than a regular user. So, she has the privileges that the Camerata wanted all along. Earlier in the game she cast meaningless votes; now she can do anything by willing it. (In both cases, it was the system itself that ultimately did the work, she's just bypassing the previously-mandated method of doing so.) With her newfound powers, she's able to restore the damage done by the Process. She creates the buildings and plazas and bridges anew, replacing the blank slate with a glorious new canvas.

But... she cannot bring the people back. Everyone else has logged out. (My theory is that they've returned to the "real world", though I'm not sure if the game makes that clear. If there is no "real world" and only the digital one, then all of the users have been deleted.) She's a goddess, but a lonely goddess with no living souls around her.

Except for Breach. He's still trapped in the Transistor. He begs for her to stay in Cloudbank. I'm not totally clear on why, but my theory is that, because Breach is stuck in the Transistor, he's unable to log out. Red basically has three options at this point. Remain in Cloudbank and create a beautiful city that nobody will ever see. Log out and return to the real world, leaving Cloudbank and Breach behind. Or enter the Transistor and spend an eternity with Breach.

She chooses the last option. It's a shocking ending, but after I had time to think about it, it does make sense. Red loved Breach so much that she would give up everything else in her life to be with him. That's really sweet.


Anyways, that's my theory! The game can feel very impressionist at times, and I'm certain that other players will come up with their own interpretations of the game. It's a story that really resonates with me, though, so I'll continue to believe it until persuaded otherwise.

So, yeah! I absolutely loved this game. It's the only thing by Supergiant that I've played, though I'm now very interested in Bastion, as well as the upcoming Pyre. I'm also amazed that they managed to build this incredible game with such a small team - the entire credits fit on a single screen with a lot of spacing. That says a lot for their talent, and also for the power of modern game engines. I'm looking forward to whatever they do in the future!

Oh - as per usual, here is an album with tons of screenshots from the game. Spoilers, spoilers everywhere!

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