Image captured by Hatm0nster
When I play a game, I’m used to taking on one of two possible kinds of relationship between player and character. Either the “character” is just an avatar for me within the game world, or I’m an outside observer who’s only present to guide the character through the action between story points. That’s how it always is. That’s the only way it can be…unless you’re playing a game like Transistor that is.
When I finally got around to playing Transistor a few days ago, it immediately won me over with it’s fascinating setting, interactive-yet-passive storytelling, and surprisingly deep combat. Oh and the music, definitely cannot leave out that lovely-but-haunting music! However, what has absolutely captivated me is the relationship the game forges between its player and Red, its protagonist. It is, in a word, different.
On the surface, Red is an avatar. She doesn’t talk, doesn’t react strongly, doesn’t explicitly have a character. This was my first impression of her, an empty vessel to give me, the player, agency within the quasi-digital city of Cloudbank. Nothing special. However as I traversed the city’s streets, commented on the news, and listened to the Transistor talk about one thing or another I couldn’t help but feel like it all felt a little too natural. Thinking back to the details: the familiar tone of the Transistor’s commentary, the implied choices, and the way those news-comments were entered, I realized that Red was in fact a character, and that I’d actually been playing as Red from the very beginning!
It was an odd thing to notice to be sure. Of course I was playing as Red, she is the main character after all right? Well yes, that’s exactly it. Red wasn’t my avatar, but I wasn’t an intermittent observer either. It was as if the decisions I made in the game weren’t defining Red’s character so much as they were agreeing with what was already there. Put another way, I was making the same decisions Red would make and thinking of them as my own. Instead of being given agency, I had been assimilated. I was playing as Red!
How can she have a personality is she doesn’t speak? Well, she doesn’t speak, but that doesn’t mean she’s silent. Her animations convey emotions at times, especially in the beginning. There are also numerous chances for Red to submit comments on the news via terminals scattered throughout Cloudbank, and each time we’re given another hint as to what kind of person she is; not just in the words themselves but how they’re entered! Then there’s the Transistor, which spends a fair amount of time talking over the course of the game, and all of it’s commentary is directed at Red. Sometimes it reminisces, sometimes it comments on a fight, and sometimes it reacts to things that Red does. Not as though it’s the only action available to the player, but instead as something that Red chooses to do.
Those moments always caused me to pause for a breath as I tried to figure out what its comment meant. It only ever took a breath though, as everything I’d learned about Red before was enough to give me a good idea behind its meaning. Despite this indirect approach, or perhaps because of it, I found myself with a strong impression of just who Red was even though on the surface she appeared to be an avatar.
As added reinforcement, few things in the game just exist only for the sake of the player or gameplay. Take the lore for example: you don’t just fall into it, you choose to seek it out. Either you’re choosing to listen to what the Transistor has to say, choosing to look more closely at a part of the city, choosing to access terminals to find out what’s going on, or using an Access Point to choose to how to use the Transistor’s functions in order to decrypt more information about a given character (because functions are derived from absorbing former citizens of Cloudbank into the Transistor). It’s all standard video game fare, but the difference is that it’s all there for Red just as much as it is for the player.
The city of Cloudbank appears to be at very least a semi-digital construct. As such, all of the game elements that would normally not make sense in the game world (like say an upgrade menu), are instead just another part of it. Which meant they were all things Red could actually encounter, and would make use of. Of course Red would use the terminals to keep up with the news! Of course she would learn how to use the Transistor! Of course she would wan’t to learn more about her friends, enemies, and notable Cloudbank citizens! Of course she’d stop and reminisce for a second as she caught her breath after a fight! Everything about the game is presented in a way that keeps its main character involved, almost never appealing directly to the player. It keeps us playing from Red’s perspective, rather than ejecting us from each time a menu is entered. In short, the usually necessary separation between player and character isn’t present here; there’s almost nothing standing in the way!
I didn’t think it was really possible to really play as a defined character. They’re either avatars for me to define with my own personality, blank slates meant only to give me a means to interact with the game world, or a rigidly defined character whom I’m ultimately observing; I may control them but those actions are always discarded by the time the next cutscene rolls around. Transistor was different. It actually put me in Red’s shoes, and did everything it could to keep me there. It allowed me to discover the character gradually through observation delivered by action. I wasn’t directing Red, but neither was I simply along for the ride. The result is a character whom I’ve never heard speak, but I whom I know better than almost any other because I’ve essentially walked a mile in their shoes! It’s a dynamic I’ve never seen before, and hope to see again soon.
Bravo Supergiant Games! Bra-vo! I enjoyed Bastion, but with this added to it you’ve earned yourself a real fan! (Sorry I just needed to say that! :D )
This was of course just how my experience with Transistor felt, and I’m sure yours felt at least a little different, so:
What was your experience with Transistor like?
How do you usually find yourself relating to the characters in the games you play?