One of the pleasures of having played computer and video games since, oh, the heady days of 1982 is that I’ve been in a position to observe their development almost from the beginning. As with any medium, there’s been more than a fair share of absolute garbage, but as cultural artefacts games have proven to be vibrant, creative and surprising. Certainly, the big money tends to go to mainstream behemoths like Call of Duty, the equivalents of the latest summer blockbuster movie, but you also get surprise successes such as Minecraft, arguably the Lego of gaming in several ways. These days, indie gaming has freed up developers to be visionary as opposed to keeping a constant eye on the bottom line, and while some visions may be pretentious, confused or simply result in bad games, others have done more than just hint at the potential inherent in the form.
Supergiant Games is not exactly the prototypical indie, but there’s definitely a strongly independent streak to their games to date, and this year’s Transistor bear few of the traits of mainstream gaming. The game’s production values are downright gorgeous, but there’s no pandering to what executives might think sells well – for instance, Transistor‘s protagonist is female, yet she isn’t sexualised in the sort of facile way that’s designed to appeal to a young male demographic. This is just one indicator of how, while the game echoes other examples of the medium, as a whole it is quite unique.
All in all, while in terms of gameplay Transistor isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, it’s a fantastic example of how the medium of games has come a long way: it is aesthetically creative and confident, evoking a world that can perhaps begin to be described as The Matrix filtered through a Gustav Klimt-inspired Art Nouveau/Art Deco sensitivity with a touch of anime. Its writing does not suffer from the tendency towards excessive exposition and over-explanation, instead being elegant and elliptic. The music is beautiful and stirring, more than worth a listen outside the game – but like all of Transistor‘s elements, it complements everything else exceedingly well. The game’s aesthetics, tone, soundscape, writing and atmosphere all come together to form what could easily be called a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, that is more than the sum of its already considerable parts. And it all works so well as a game; the visuals and acoustic design would fare well in any medium, but interactivity and choice add to Transistor, down to small touches that are full of personality. I mean, this is a game where pressing one of the controller buttons results in Red, the main character, humming in harmony to the music that’s playing.
Transistor won’t appeal to all: one person’s artistic triumph is another’s pretentious mess, the gameplay’s mix of action RPG and turn-based strategy won’t be to everyone’s taste, and many reviewers have criticised how much Transistor‘s writing leaves to the imagination. It trades broad appeal for a voice of its own (ironically, as aside from her humming Red has been stripped of her voice). A medium that’s capable of producing such works, I’d say, is definitely healthy and one I’m excited to keep following.