As far as I’m concerned, the are-video-games-art debate is a ridiculous one. There are many terrible video games, of course, just as there are many good games that don’t qualify as art. But one of the ways a thing can be considered art is if it elicits a certain emotional response from the viewer. Transistor, for its rather prosaic name, is both a great game and a work of art rolled into one slick and beautiful package.
Let’s talk about gameplay first. Transistor is an isometric RPG, where the player controls Red, former singer turned wielder of talking techno-sword, as she roams her city fighting enemies called the Process while searching for the people who nearly killed her. Transistor’s gameplay is mostly centered around combat, using a variety of base skills that can be combined together to compound their effects in unique ways. There are about 21 or so abilities, and every ability can be compounded with another. And I mean every. Every ability can also be deployed as a passive ability, each granting a unique passive bonuses during combat. The player must choose what abilities to install given a limited number of ability slots. That leads to a staggering number of builds and play styles, representing an almost emergent form of gameplay. The combat system is innovative, deep, and refreshing, and encourages the player to constantly switch around their builds, so that the combat doesn’t get stale. The combat system is also a hybrid of turn-based and real time combat. Your character, Red, can enter into a kind of “planning mode” to plan and execute a series of actions, or you can sling your abilities around in real time, although your enemies will likely not give you any quarter – in real time they pack a mean punch. This combination of strategic and tactical combat, in both the planning and ability match-up senses of the word, leads to a highly satisfying and replayable gaming experience.
Aesthetically, the game excels in most fronts. Visually, Transistor’s techno-Victorian style and striking color palette are worthy of praise in their own right, but it is Transistor’s surprisingly affecting narrative that steals the show. It is common for indie games to have highly abstracted and sparse plots due to their budgetary and manpower constraints, but Transistor manages to tell a lot of story from very little. While the main narrative conflict is a jumble of techno-babble nonsense, the star of the show is really the game’s only talking protagonist, Red’s sword, which contains the disembodied consciousness of her lover, transmuted into the sword after he leaps into its path (yeah, yeah, I said it was nonsense, didn’t I?). Your character, Red, has had her voice stolen during an assassination attempt on her, and the talking sword becomes the de facto narrator of the entire game. His dialogue is clipped, restrained, sometimes deadpan, sometimes world-weary in a film noir kind of way, sometimes wistful, sometimes funny, and often tragic. The sword – the Transistor of the game – is really the conduit through which the substrate of the story is delivered – the surprisingly well-crafted portrayal of the relationship between Red and her lover. To be able to express so much given so relatively little is one of the cornerstones of the game-as-art.
Transistor’s other great artistic claim to fame is its soundtrack, written by Darren Korb and with vocals by Ashley Barrett, who sings many of the songs that Red, a famous singer before she lost her voice, sings in the background of the game. In many ways, Transistor deals in the theme of agency – to say more would be to reveal the plot MacGuffin – and the loss of Red’s voice echoes that similar loss of agency as a singer, but ironically empowers Red in the process through symbiosis with her lover, to impel alternative acts of agency (such as killing threats to the city). The aural experience, coupled with the ability to have Red hum along with whatever background music is playing at the time, is assuredly also an aesthetic experience.
Transistor is a simple and understated package, combining good gameplay elements with a strong unified aesthetic and a good love story, albeit one set against a weirdly contrived and ambiguous plot. I got a good 12 hours out of it. If you’re in doubt over whether games can be art – try Transistor. It’s a good short game that speaks of the elegance of which the medium is capable.
I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 Youngladies