In trying to grow from its past, Transistor forgets a lesson in style
As I reflect on my time with Transistor, my mind wanders to Supergiant Games’ previous effort, Bastion.
With its painted environments, witty narrator and playlist-worthy soundtrack, Bastion just oozed with style. However, that beauty came at a price. While its aesthetics may have been out of this world, the gameplay was much more down to Earth. That’s not to say that it was bad, but when you really look at it, Bastion plays like a fairly standard hack-and-slash title.
Yet as simple as that gameplay may have been, it did help establish a popular philosophy in indie gaming. One based on the belief that with the limited amount of resources available to indie developers, if you’re going to make a game that’s stylish above all, the best kind of gameplay is something familiar but well executed. It’s a philosophy that may not hold true for all indie games, but has produced a number of classics such as LIMBO, Castle Crashers and Kentucky Route Zero.
Upon first glance, Transistor looked to be another example of that method. After all, it’s hard to imagine that such a beautiful neo-noir world, amplified by a booming, yet intimate, soundtrack could have possibly been produced if some sacrifices were not made regarding the depth of the gameplay.
As it turns out, though, that isn’t Transistor’s game at all. Initially, it not only presents the type of “work of art” atmosphere that indie gaming has done so well over the years, but the gameplay, especially the combat system, is also quite complex. Actually, more than complex, it is something new. An innovative approach to strategic battles that may take cues from other games, but is ultimately something entirely original and incredibly rewarding.
When the deep gameplay and stunning visuals are working in harmony, they make Transistor the type of experience that Bastion, and other games like it, could never be; a complete realization of the type of masterpiece that only gaming is capable of providing.
Unfortunately, that harmony does not last. About an hour into Transistor’s roughly four hour experience, certain things start to fall apart. The plot becomes rushed, the environments turn industrial or simply plain, the same basic enemies begin to appear over and over and even the music slowly starts to fade into the background. It’s not as if the game completely falls apart, or loses all value, but it does become evident that much more of the focus this time around was on gameplay over style.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, considering that Supergiant’s previous game was essentially the opposite of that pursuit, you could consider their efforts with Transistor to be an evolution of sorts in terms of exhibiting they’re not a one trick pony. To a degree, that’s true.
That being said, what Transistor should have learned from Bastion but didn’t, is that style in video games is not just about providing flashy video and audio cues, and it’s not about serving as a crutch, so that your gameplay can stand a little taller than it otherwise should. No, true style is about establishing a game’s personality, and personality is much more than just a source for charm. It’s something that defines a game and provides a sort of anchor that helps prevent the kind of crisis of identity that Transistor slowly suffers from as the game moves on.
At its best, Transistor verifies the importance of the kind of confidence that true style brings, by providing a game that is not only mechanically exceptional, but almost impossible not to fall in love with. At its worst, it also manages to verify the same by providing an experience that may be mechanically exceptional, but wavers in all the intangible aspects that so often separate good games, from the ones that you remember years down the line.
When first approaching Transistor, I hoped that its success would be tied into just how much it deviated from the approach that Bastion took to game design, while still having the same impact. That it would somehow evolve us past the idea that style and deeper gameplay are systematically at odds, and represent a new direction for indie gaming that would shun the past entirely, and help usher in an age where compromise wasn’t necessary.
In doing so, though, I forgot the exact same lesson that Transistor did. The one that says the influences of the past are not necessarily there just to be topped, but rather should be learned from and built upon, in order to build the future to greater heights than the past could have ever imagined. That sometimes improving upon yourself doesn’t just include directly changing what you may have done wrong, but also recognizing what you did right. And in their effort to do so many things different from Bastion, Supergiant Games lost a lot of the confidence in design they should have had from incorporating Bastion’s better aspects more liberally into Transistor.
But then again, it’s hard to fault them. They made a spiritual follow up that chose not to play it safe, and did an overall damn good job at it. That’s a rare quality in the world of game design, and the team down at Supergiant should feel great for having pulled it off.
Still, I hope that in the future they aren’t in such a hurry to separate themselves from the past, and instead really take the time to build upon the things they’ve done well up until this point, with the same amount of enthusiasm that they attack their shortcomings with. After all, the evolution of game design is ultimately a series of lessons, and there are a lot of them to be learned from Transistor.