transistor bike

Storytelling Devices That Break Immersion

After over a year of pining, I have finally deemed it the appropriate time to pick up a PlayStation 4. I promptly downloaded Transistor, given it’s free this month for PlayStation Plus subscribers. While I got a huge kick out of the combat, visuals, and the ever charming isometric point-of-view, I was less than thrilled with the game’s overall presentation. Despite the many things it does right—it’s a great game that I’d recommend for an off day spent at home—it’s also a glaring example of how not to present a story, game world, or characters.

Some developers focus so heavily on these elements that they de-emphasize gameplay, proffering too much exposition and beating players over the head with melodrama. Transistor suffers from the exact opposite problem. The game begins in medias res, with the protagonist having survived an attack while a friend took the proverbial bullet (actually a huge sword) for her. Of course, the fact that she was attacked isn’t revealed until later, and in the meantime you’re dealing with myriad attacks from robots and soon learn of an organization called the Camerata. Their purpose in the plot isn’t revealed until a few hours into the game (the game is only five to seven hours long), and nothing plot-wise comes together until the final area of the game.

transistor red and sword

The real shame is it’s a cool game with an awesome concept, and though I usually gripe about RPGs being too long rather than too short, I felt a couple extra hours could have been added to flesh out the game’s world, explain the story (and the details of the gameplay, for the love of God), and develop the characters. Oh, the characters are on a whole other level. Other than the protagonist, Red, and the unnamed narrator, nothing substantial is really known about many of the characters, and most are literally relegated to text-based character profiles. Even the game’s world is barely explored until the enemies show up and begin altering it. I seriously thought one aspect of the game’s world that was supposed to be a result of the enemies corrupting and changing the world was just another aspect of how the world naturally was. It wasn’t until near the end of the game I thought, “Oh, so that’s not supposed to happen.”

These problems, sadly, are not exclusive to Transistor. While there are a plethora of examples of games that have done a fabulous job of telling story and developing characters and worlds, there is definitely a wrong way to do it. Dissidia Final Fantasy comes to mind in this regard. The plot is so intricate and complex, an in-depth analysis is almost required reading to truly understand it. The problem with that is the game didn’t need to be so complex; it was presented horribly, with text-based “reports” serving to provided the entirety of backstory, save some esoteric lines of dialogue you have to be pretty astute to pick up on.

I’m sorry, but there are better ways to provide backstory. Mass Effect, a game rife with lore, uses conversations with other characters to provide exposition without beating the player over the head with minutiae. Sure, it would be better if they added some flashback cut-scenes, but if they didn’t have the budget to diversify the multitude of sidequests (talking about the original here), I’m guessing additional cut-scenes were out of the question.

It's all right, she was too annoying to care about, anyway

It’s all right, she was too annoying to care about, anyway

Character profiles are the worst offender, though. Offering profiles for existing characters who are well-defined is okay, but characters that didn’t even appear? To offer a counterpoint, I’ll turn to a game I don’t much care for: Final Fantasy XIII. Yes, the datalogs are easy to criticize, but the character profiles were actually a nice touch. The reason is because almost every character was given ample “screen time” and their personalities were extremely defined. Yes, there may have been too much text-based material in the game, but anything character-based was entirely in excess of what was already provided in-game…we’re not talking about the sequels.

To close, I’ll restate that I am in no way attempting to bash Transistor or discourage anyone from playing it. In some ways it was a wonderful and charming tale, with an ending as poignant as any you could ask for. I just wish there had been a little more exposition to offer clarity, developed characters, and a world you knew anything about before everything in the game’s world started going bad. Hopefully SuperGiant Games, as well as other developers guilty of these storytelling crimes, will take note for future projects.