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Hello, Ladies ([personal profile] helloladies) wrote in [community profile] ladybusiness2016-05-13 05:07 pm

"I'm going to break its heart" - Transistor Review

Transistor cover

From the creators of Bastion, Transistor is a sci-fi themed action RPG that invites you to wield an extraordinary weapon of unknown origin as you fight through a stunning futuristic city. Transistor seamlessly integrates thoughtful strategic planning into a fast-paced action experience, melding responsive gameplay and rich atmospheric storytelling. During the course of the adventure, you will piece together the Transistor's mysteries as you pursue its former owners.

"Buy a bundle with the soundtrack?" I asked myself at checkout. "Why on earth would I do that?!" LITTLE DID I KNOW.

LITTLE DID YOU KNOW. As the game's developer, Supergiant, is apparently wont to do, the soundtrack for this game is absolutely gorgeous and woven into its storytelling and characterization. The music is a great way to start this review because it's so much a part of the game's atmosphere and worldbuilding. The game is set in a city, Cloudbank, that is ever-changing based on the votes of its populace, from what's on restaurant menus to the colour of the sky to the weather. We start the game with Red, the female protagonist, and a man's voice coming from the titular sword, the Transistor, and we face the Camerata as our antagonists. The cast also includes a variety of diverse characters, including people of colour and queer folks, though the way the narrative treats them is... complicated. Red is a silent protagonist, but the sword talks plenty, providing narration, commentary, and interaction. This is accomplished by absolutely superb voice acting on the part of Logan Cunningham, the voice of the Transistor. It's especially effective when he has emotional moments with Red or when he's being affected by the Spines.

Transistor screenshot: stopping to hum

Logan Cunningham carried so much of the game for me, entirely on the strength of his voice acting. The man in the transistor is our narrator, our primary source of explanations and world-building, and the voice acting adds so much colour and emotion – which is really what you need in a game where the protagonist can't speak for herself. The way he says Red's name breaks my heart, there's a world of backstory in the way he says "Hello again, Sybil," his pitch-perfect reactions – Ira, I don't think I can tell you how much I liked that voice acting, and the bits you picked out are the bits that got me too.

(The other voices are good too – Royce sounds like Matthew McConnahey's character in True Detective, played back at a slower speed, Asher is the right level of awkward stiltedness for someone trying to reveal and conceal the truth at the same time, and the distortions of Sibyl are appropriately unnerving – but the man in the transistor is the stand-out part for me.)

The voice acting is also what sold me on Red and the transistor's relationship in the early stages of the game. Who and what they are to each other isn't really clear for at least half of the game – I admit, I spent the first few levels going "Please tell me he's not a charming creeper taking advantage, that is a trope I recognise" until I caught up. But through the voice acting, it's crystal clear that he adores her, even though he's essentially talking to himself the entire game.

This structure – the transistor speaking mostly in monologue rather than dialogue – means much of the story and characterisation is told in gaps. Because Red doesn't speak at all during the game, you have to actually look for her characterisation. A lot of it is done through what the other characters say about her, or through her gestures and comments on the OVC terminals – public-access computer terminals set up all over town to enable the mass voting that Cloudbank relies on – but interacting with most of the terminals is completely optional, which means that you can actually skip half of the characterisation of the game's main character. But the way it's done is excellent - she can leave comments on news items and surveys, so you can watch her type, delete, type -

("Is it following me?" she writes, but she posts something different entirely.)

Transistor screenshot: stopping to hum

And there are only two chances that I've found to have Red and the Transistor actually interact, both of which come through the OVC terminals (one I actually MISSED the first time around - when I say that it's possible to actually skip some of the characterisation, I'm not kidding!).

At this point I want to pause and consider the problem of silent women. Women's voices are often silenced in the real world, and I was a bit iffy about playing a game that employed this trope (AND LET US TELL YOU about this game and TROPES). Red does get to talk a little bit via the terminals, but you have to look for that, as Susan says. But what saves this trope from overwhelming me is Red's singing. SO much of her characterization is put into her songs. We learn that she's a bit of a revolutionary, that she's independent, that she has emotional depths. All it takes is paying attention to the soundtrack, which is admittedly a little hard to do during gameplay itself with all the various effects and noises competing for auditory attention. Thankfully, there are little nooks and crannies scattered throughout the game where you can take a break and just rest in a hammock, listening to the soundtrack. Tracks are unlocked by completing various optional challenges. Again, though, to the game's detriment, this is all optional content. It serves to fill out the game, give more challenges, and provide bonus content, but it also robs Red of much of her voice. Susan, what do you think about this?

Transistor screenshot: scene from  Last Night

I am really glad you brought this up! I had a similar reaction when I discovered that the silent woman trope was a major feature, but I think the game does make it work... Well, it does if you're invested enough to go looking. I do wonder what the game experience is like if you don't go seeking out all of the extra content – do you still get that sense of Red's character? Or is she just a blank slate? (I have to admit, I love the little character details of her idle animations, or her getting out of the hammock Ira mentioned – I am kinda charmed by her touching up her eye-make-up when she gets up.)

I think that the way the soundtrack is woven into the gameplay is really well-done, as well. If you can follow the music in situ, I find that the songs really reflect her feelings as well as her character – the most obvious example I can think of is "In Circles" over Red's encounter with Sybil, because there is such depth added to the relationship and Red's feelings towards her once you take the music into account.

I'd quite like to hear your thoughts about how Red's not only been silenced, but has a male character speaking for her. I love the narrator, I think he's excellent, but the trope of "male characters speaking for female characters" does often go hand-in-hand with silencing.

Transistor screenshot: Red looking at a poster of herself

OH BOY HERE WE GO *rolls up sleeves* So there is a weirdly common thing where we have male narrators but female protagonists. In Final Fantasy XII the main driver of events is Ashe, but our narrator character is Vaan. In Tangled, the story is Rapunzel's, but is introduced and capped by narration from Flynn. In Final Fantasy X, Tidus claims, "This is my story", and Auron backs him up, even though the main plot of the game actually follows Yuna. This is a common trick for making a female protagonist more... accessible... for a presumed majority straight male audience. But games with silent female protagonists succeed too! The Metroid series with silent Samus in the lead is a huge hit (I am ignoring Other M because of so many reasons), and Portal's Chell kicked GLadOS's ass all through the game. There's even an interesting inversion of the usual narrator/protag relationship in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. There, Link is the silent one who does things, but not the driver of plot; that honour goes to the fully (gibberish-)voiced Midna, who is arguably the protagonist of the tale. And just to cap this list off with a positive example, the much-maligned Final Fantasy XIII (and how much of that is caused by the following?) is an example of "women do all the things": Lightning is the protagonist, Vanille is the narrator, and the major drivers of events are all women (Lightning, Serah, Fang, Jihl).

So all in all it's a mixed bag, but I argue that you see more men talking in video games than women, as you do in real life. And in that sense, Transistor is, in the end, problematic. But it's also in many ways a step forward. Supergiant's previous game, Bastion had a male protagonist (The Kid; Supergiant has a thing for not naming characters, as I suspect "Red" is a nickname and the man inside the Transistor is never named) and a male narrator. There was one woman who spoke in Bastion. Transistor has Red, whose semantics are of the body: her gestures, her choices, her singing voice. One of the good things about Transistor is that Red gets characterization even if you take the quick and narrow path through the game, because there are times her choices disagree with the narration and guess what, everyone just has to go along with that. Her gestures are lovingly animated and unapologetically feminine without being sexualized. So I don't think Red is entirely a blank slate without the extra content you can seek out. They went through a lot of trouble to give her character for the average playthrough. And as the game's plot crescendos, you cannot escape being confronted by Red's choices, which are rooted in a stubborn independence and a deep emotional core.

I definitely agree with what you said about the game's emotional core – I'm not gonna lie, I cried while I was playing it. I can reduce grown men to tears by linking to the songs on twitter (which is impressive since the only other game I've managed that with is Mass Effect 3). I have been known to listen to the Transistor speak and then get Red to hum to him in response because I desperately wanted them to be able to communicate.

Transistor screenshot: Cloudbank, seen from from a bridge

I would like to talk about the narration, if that's okay, because you picked out something that I adore about it: sometime's the narrator's wrong! I'm so used to the idea that a narrator is an omniscient character that it's hard to remember sometimes that he's going off the exact same information that the player is – Reds's actions, Red's body language, Red's messages on the OVC. (Possibly less, in fact, he doesn't get the soundtrack!) His conclusions are the ones we hear though, which led to (for me at least) some excellent bait-and-switch in terms of motives and expectations. Red ignores a lot of his suggestions, right from the very beginning, ("Whatever you do, don't turn left! ... You turned left.") and her emotional reactions don't appear to always match up with his, such as when they are talking to Asher, and I still fell into the trap where my expectations of a protagonist matched with the transistor's expectations of Red, which meant that the end of the game absolutely blindsided me. Both the transistor and I thought we knew what Red's end goal was, and we were both incredibly wrong. It's a great narrative trick, it beautifully illustrates their characters, and it's part of what makes the game so emotional, at least for me.

I can definitely talk about that! But before we transition to spoilers, let's just wrap up some more spoiler-free stuff like the storytelling and gameplay.

If you've played Bastion then Transistor will feel familiar. It's an action RPG with an interesting twist on the skills/magic portion. Everything in the game is themed around programming, so the attacks you can do with the Transistor are called "functions", with a naming convention ending in parentheses, like "Ping()". The functions can be used straight, or equipped in different ways to make passive skills or enhance other functions. It's a combinatorial system that makes the gameplay very fluid and flexible. The functions take up memory, so you can only have a certain amount of various combinations equipped at a time. There's a health bar, and every time it empties out, your highest-memory function (usually your biggest damage-dealer) becomes unavailable, forcing you to try different tactics and adapt your gameplay.

Transistor screenshot: functions screen

The functions are also the way you learn most of the information about the characters in the game. The functions are made from the remains of characters. As you use a given function in different capacities, information about the character it was made from unlocks. A similar thing happens with Limiters, which are restrictions you put on yourself to make the game more challenging, but also earn more experience: using the Limiters lets you learn more about the enemies. This is one way the gameplay ties into the plot, which honestly is a bit opaque — I'm still not entirely sure I got everything that was going on, though the overall gist is relatively clear. It's just a habit Supergiant has of leaving a lot to implication and interpretation, rather than being explicit. Susan, before we go on to spoilers and discussing the narrator, what did you think of the gameplay and plot?

I really enjoyed the gameplay! I do really appreciate the way that the gameplay gives you the reward of additional story for playing around with it (I am absolutely the sort of person that needed that encouragement to play around with what the functions could do), and I think the trade-off of functions for health was really clever because it ramps up the tension! (And there's some great moments of character with it - I ended up panic spamming an enemy with my last attack at one point until long after it was dead, and the man in the transistor was actually there going "Hey!" like a reminder to stop.)

Transistor screenshot: Overload, losing a function

I also thought it was kinda cool that the enemies upgraded themselves as the game went on, so that even the basic enemies still remained... Relevant. The other gameplay aspect I thought was great was the ability to pause time while you queued up attacks, because being able to set up the battlefield to your liking and arrange your attacks was really useful. Doing that has a cooldown period though, which just using your attacks doesn't? So it could be a bit of risk-reward balance as I flailed around the city waiting for my attacks to recharge. ... I assume that you managed to be a bit more tactical than me, I'm not gonna lie.

I have so many questions about the plot. I THINK I could follow at least some of it, and I enjoyed it? But I was much better at following the plot lines of any individual character than I was at the overarching one? Which worked, because I could follow how each character interacted with the main plot, but I never felt like I'd got the whole picture. I think part of it is that, as Ira said, SuperGiant leave a lot up to inference and implication, so some of the world building (like "What is Cloudbank that it can be chopped and changed at the whim of the public?") is up to the player to work out. And I like that? I am generally a fan of stories that go "This is the world!" and move on, it's just that this feels like there are questions at both ends of the story.

And this seems like a good time to transition to spoilers so! Below we will discuss the narration and the tropes surrounding marginalized characters in the game. If you've played the game, or want to know how it treats marginalized characters before playing, read on. If you don't want spoilers, here is the place to stop.


So something in this game's storytelling is unreliable, as in "unreliable narrator", which is a device that I love but I can't tell if the narrator or the protagonist is providing the unreliable element, or whether it's the combination of the two together that does it. The narrator is, as Susan pointed out, sometimes wrong or contradicted by Red's words or actions. But the narrator is also the one to build our expectations of the storyline, which prove to be very unreliable when it comes to what Red will choose to do. Red builds up a thesis of her own with semiotics of the body, of choice, and even though she doesn't speak verbally during the game, I think the story of Transistor is in the end a conversation between Red and the man in the sword. Ultimately, I think the alchemy lies between them, especially when it comes to the game's ending.

And the ending is something I want to talk about as yet another trope that Transistor uses in a potentially problematic way but it works so well. I've mentioned a couple of times that Red's semiotic is of the body. In her essay, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, Leslie Jamison discusses how pain relates to the semiotics of the body: flesh speaks the language of pain, whether with the scars left by cutting or the protruding bones and stretched skin of anorexia. I argue that suicide is part of the semiotics of the body: one of the ultimate statements one can make with one's body is to kill it. Red is in pain throughout this game, separated from her love and hunted and, ultimately, alone but for a voice. This is pain; this is the emotional core of Transistor that rests so heavily on Red's characterization and the voice work of the man in the sword. Red's answer to the pain is to end it in the ultimate manner, gambling on a chance of reuniting inside the Transistor rather than live on in pain.

Of course, there is a long history in fiction of women committing suicide, especially for the purposes of upping the emotional stakes for a man, but I don't think... Transistor quite does that. The man in the sword reacts to her decision, but the textual payoff of Red's suicide seems to be less about the man's reaction and more like the culmination of all of Red's choices. To me, this is about Red's characterization more than anything else. Susan, what do you think?

Transistor screenshot: Last Night cutscene, Red about to sing onstage

I'm going to be honest, the first time I played the game and got to Red's suicide, I actually went straight back through the new game plus. I was desperate for that to not be how her story ended, because "Woman kills self because she can't be with her lover" is a trope! I consider it a different-but-related trope to fridging, but it's still a trope that I recognised!

And then I got to Royce. And realised that maybe there wasn't another ending, maybe that was always going to be Red's choice, and had to take a minute. Because you are exactly right – the narrator does build our expectations to go in a... Traditional direction? The ending he (and I) expected was "Red accepts that she and her lover will never be reunited, rebuilds the city and revives everyone else who lived them, and goes on her with her life and everything is tragic!" And instead, as she'd done all game, Red chose differently. I think this ties into Ira's point that Red's suicide is about her character – I suspect that Red knew or hoped that she'd end up in the transistor with her lover, and it says a lot about her that she's the sort of person who would choose a chance at a reunion over a certainty of being able to shape the rest of the world to her whims.

Red's suicide is only one problematic end that characters come to in Transistor. Ultimately, everyone dies — everyone. What happens in The Country, beyond the realm of Cloudbank, is up for interpretation, but the narrative treats these events as deaths. Susan, I know you have a lot to say about how the narrative treats marginalized characters' deaths. Take it away!

Oh boy, brace yourself because this is going to get long! So, Ira mentioned functions earlier, and how swapping them around provides you with additional information about characters. The way it provides this is interesting The way it provides this interesting - when it mentions that someone has a partner or a romantic interest, it very deliberately doesn't use gendered terms or pronouns (for example, romantic interests are described as lovers, rather than boyfriend/girlfriend) or name other parties involved. There is a character whose gender is listed as "X" who uses female pronouns. There are characters who are explicitly queer in canon - there's a married gay couple, and a woman with a crush on another woman. In theory, it's great! Look at all of this queer representation!


The reason we know any of this information about people's private lives and gender identification is because they have been murdered. (This is a similar problem I had with The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes - there are so many wonderful women in that, of different races and classes and all the rest, but they are all dead. Sometimes it seems like people find it easier to show different kinds of women if they die a few chapters after they're introduced.) Yes, everyone in Cloudbank is dead by the end – but the majority die together, deleted in one fell swoop, while the victims that Red finds have been lured away and murdered specifically.

And then there's Sybil. The way the game describes her relationship with Red... Well, hang on, I'll let the game tell it.

Ms. Reisz met Red while putting together a small program for up-and-coming artists, and became infatuated first with Red's music then with her. According to diary entries there was something inscrutable and confident about Red that Ms. Reisz could not explain. However, Ms. Reisz was frustrated to find that Red grew distant. Through all this, Ms. Reisz observed the aloofness of one of Red's companions, and decided he must have been insinuating Red against her. Ms. Reisz thought through various ways to rectify this.

Transistor screenshot: meeting Sybil
(click to zoom in)

The way she chooses to rectify this, for those wondering, is to highlight Red as the next target for the Camerata to kill. And - okay, my main problem with this is that I can think of at least three slasher movies where the plot is "Woman A falls in love with Woman B, becomes obsessive, and when B doesn't return her feelings decides to kill her." If it wasn't a slasher movie trope, maybe it wouldn't have pinged with me! If Sybil wasn't the only explicitly human opponent we see that had been corrupted and warped by the Process - the Man enemies I believe are stated to be the Process copying human shape, rather than corrupted people - then maybe it wouldn't have pinged. Maybe if the fight didn't end with you having to administer a coup de grace while what's left of Sybil crawls across the floor whimpering - I don't know. It was supposed to be horrifying and it was supposed to be a betrayal, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth.

Transistor screenshot: fighting Sybil
(click to zoom in)

The same was the case with the Kendralls, Grant and Asher. What the game does is so clever, narratively! It builds up the encounter like it's going to be a major boss fight, makes you work to get to them - and then it snaps that tension when you get there and find them already dead. Suicide. One because he couldn't bear what he'd unleashed on the city, and one to follow his husband. And I got to that scene and just went "Oh, no." Because again, "one of the gay characters kills himself, the other one dies to be with him and/or because he can't deal with the death" IS A TROPE. It's a story that has been told before, and as much as I respect Supergiant Games for the way they handled that particular bait-and-switch - the fact that the suicides were the two explicitly gay characters was frustrating.

I have complicated feelings on the diversity in this game, as you can tell - I am excited, because yes! Casually mentioning that characters are non-binary! Having non-straight characters, in whatever form that takes! Actually showing some moral complexity rather than have them as COMPLETELY EVIL STEREOTYPES or PERFECT SAINTS WHO CAN DO NO WRONG, yes! It's just the way their particular arcs ended that bothers me. The flip side of course is that everyone in the game dies, so is it unfair that I fixate on a handful of deaths?

I don't think it's unfair to fixate on a handful of deaths when the narrative itself fixates on them. As you say, the vast majority of Cloudbank's citizens die together, and all of those deaths taken together are treated as a single narrative event. The deaths of the man in the Transistor, Sybil, Grant and Asher, Royce, and Red are likewise treated and single narrative events each. So I think it's fair to examine them as such, and in this respect Transistor is lacking: the non-straight characters die ugly deaths. So even if the fact that they end up dead is pretty equivocal — everyone ends up dead, so does it matter? — the manners of their deaths is troubling and use problematic tropes.

In Transistor's defense, not all is doom and gloom when it comes to these characters. Grant and Asher's relationship, what we get to see of it, is portrayed as loving and supportive, and their status as two married men is treated entirely casually. This is a game about pain; it is also a game about agency and choices, and in this light I do think it's nice that the marginalized people get to make choices and move the plot along, rather than just being window dressing. As Susan noted, the marginalized characters also get moral nuance. I think Sybil treads a bit too close to the Evil Lesbian stereotype for comfort, but even as you fight her, "In Circles" humanizes her and fleshes out her and Red's relationship.

I think perhaps more troubling to me than the deaths of these characters is that all the explicitly non-straight characters we see are with the Camerata, the antagonists of the game. Moral nuance aside, it would have been nice to sprinkle some explicitly non-straight characters into the celebrities who get absorbed into the Transistor and turn into functions. The gender-ambiguous "lover" language is nice, but an explicitly good queer person or two would have been even better. It would have been so easy, and would really have shifted the footing of the game when it comes to its stance on heteronormativity.

Transistor screenshot: Olmarq's profile

Stepping away from sexuality for a moment, there is more positive news with the people of colour in the game. They all end up dead, too, of course, but their deaths do not stand out from their ostensibly white peers. Amelia Garbur is part of the final wave of deaths, and Olmarq is one of the celebrities murdered by the Camerata. Amelia's death in particular is almost noble, as she keeps on reporting the news even as the world ends around her.

In the end, I did really enjoy this game, even with its problematic elements. It's beautiful, relatively diverse, and heartbreaking.

Yeah, for all of my complaining, I really love Transistor. It's a gorgeous combination of art, music, gameplay, and feelings, and I still keep coming back to it to listen to the soundtrack or play through bits to see Red and the man in the transistor together again. Can't really give it higher praise than that!

Supplemental Material:

Where to go from here:
  • If you'd like more "silent female protagonist teams up with a chatty male assistant in a game with gorgeous art" and don't mind an absolute genre/setting flip - Okami (PS2/Wii) is pretty great and has such a great sense of style and story.

  • If you'd like more of the cyberpunk aesthetic that the game does so well, Shadowrun (PC) is the most quintessential example of it I can think of.

  • If you enjoyed the morally-grey aspects of the characters and are looking for something else set in an alternate future with a great art style, Remember Me (PC, PS3, Xbox 360) is a game that is flawed in so many ways, but is a lot of fun!
okrablossom: (Default)

[personal profile] okrablossom 2016-05-14 01:48 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this! I only read the non-spoilery parts but it was a fascinating review, both in the round-robin format and the content. I'm going to check out the game.
justira: A purple, gender-ambiguous unicorn pony in the style of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (lady business)

[personal profile] justira 2016-05-14 01:53 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you! It's a good game in the end, and I definitely want to hear your thoughts after playing it!
spindizzy: Alice waving her arms with a love heart over her head. (Yay!)

[personal profile] spindizzy 2016-05-15 12:30 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it! The format was a new one for me, at least, so I hope it worked for you and you enjoy the game. :)