I’ve never really been on board with the ‘Games as Art’ debate. To me, this has always seemed like an excuse to make first-person shooters with no guns or to omit gameplay entirely. It came as kind of a surprise, then, when I played Transistor, the latest from Supergiant Games (Bastion) and it made me question the possible existence of a video game I’d consider art.
Despite how much I enjoyed my time with Transistor, I’m not sure it really convinced me…but that’s probably because the question itself is moot in my mind. The debate smacks of a desperate appeal for approval. If games are art, well, they can’t also be toys, right? So all that time we’ve spent playing games wasn’t wasted playing with toys, then; it was art appreciation. I think that gaming may one day mature as a medium when we stop seeking that sort of validation.
Back to Transistor: it’s the story of a newly-mute singer named Red who lives in the futuristic city of Cloudbank. She wields a talking sword-like weapon against an otherworldly force called the Process that seeks to consume the city and everyone in it. You accompany Red for roughly three hours of action-RPG gameplay and then it’s over. There’s a New Game + option with a few interesting changes that makes for a nice bonus but that’s about it.
Framing the game like this does Transistor a disservice. Three hours isn’t much, but during that time you’ll learn more about Red, the Transistor and the world they exist in than you would in sixty hours in a lesser game. The world-building that brings Cloudbank and its inhabitants to life is what sets this apart from your average “art game” as Transistor doesn’t need to divorce itself from its existence as a game to make an aesthetic impact. There are very few cut-scenes and, to the best of my recollection, none last longer than five minutes. Art games, such as they are, present a vision to the player and say to take it or leave it.
Transistor presents a vision and allows you to interact with it – encourages you to do so, even, not by hiding gameplay-enhancing trinkets away but by making the world a joy to explore. The first are paintings, perhaps, or choose-your-own-adventure stories. The latter is what I would call a game.
Transistor’s graphics are fantastic as is to be expected from the creators of Bastion. Characters are lovingly animated, from the alien design of the Process to the tiny foibles of Red’s idle stances. The real highlight of Transistor’s presentation, though, is the sound design. Red is a singer, after all, so music plays an integral part in the experience, to the point where the soundtrack is a “concept album” of sorts that encapsulates both the gameplay and plot.
Speaking of gameplay, Transistor is a hybrid action/turn-based RPG. The Transistor is a multi-function weapon that the player can heavily customize to suit their play style and the situation, using abilities such as shotgun blasts, energy shockwaves and a beam that changes enemy allegiances. Various abilities can be combined together to produce new effects, such as a shockwave that explodes on contact. Red is also able to use it to stop time with the TURN() technique, allowing the player to plan out more complicated attacks without having to worry about dodging or timing their moves. Winning battles allows Red to level up, unlocking new functions for the Transistor and new Limiters, optional increases to the game’s difficulty.
Lately it feels like many developers will reach for artistic legitimacy in their games by removing actual gameplay from the mix, forcing players to focus on (and lend potentially undue weight to) the aesthetic or narrative aspects of the game. Transistor, on the other hand, is a solid melding of the two such that one wouldn’t work nearly as well without the other. Above all else that’s the real achievement here and I think it’s something anyone who enjoys fun should try for themselves. Is the game art? Who cares? It’s amazing.