You Are Red, But Red Is Not You

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! 😀 )

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?

10 Comments Add yours

  1. This is one of the more interesting experiences I think I have ever read about gaming.
    Definitely looking at this game in detail now!! Awesome review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hatm0nster says:

      Thanks! Glad you liked it! Transistor has a quite a bit going for it, this is just one of the more subtle elements.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating post. There was something a bit similar (although nowhere near as in-depth) in Portal – gradually learning more about the silent protagonist through Glados.

    Like

    1. Hatm0nster says:

      I wonder how much of what GLaDOS said was true though. All it aimed to do was test Chell, perhaps to see how she would react? Then there was the barely concealed resentment it seemed to have for her, but could that have been part of the test too.

      Still there definitely was a hint at characterizing Chell in the first Portal, like when it reacted to how “quickly” Chell disposed of the Companion cube, as if Chell just threw it out without a second thought by choice rather than it being the only option available to the player.

      But again, how much was true?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha ha, wow, I’m floored how much you remember of Portal. I haven’t played it since it came out so I’m very hazy on the particulars. I thought you learned some things from Glados about your character during the final section of the game, the post-training part if you will… but yes of course it is all very unreliable.

        Like

      2. Hatm0nster says:

        Yeah that’s right. They do reveal some things, like how Chell was abandoned as a child and such. Is it true though?

        True or not, those comments do frame Chell as a character rather than an avatar don’t they? They aren’t generic enough to be directed at the player. …never really noticed that until now…makes Portal seem even more brilliant!

        Like

  3. cary says:

    I picked up both Bastion and Transistor in the latest Steam sale, and I can’t wait to get to both of them! (Bastion’s not a prequel to Transistor, right? They are two separate games?)

    Your characterization of playing *as* Red is pretty intriguing. In games where you don’t get to customize your character it’s often difficult to feel any connection to him/her/it. Like, I got perfectly caught up in Nathan Drake’s story in the Uncharted games, but I never felt any personal attachment to his actions. Nothing is ever going to make me empathize with Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom because that’s not what those games are about. And the trials and tribulations of Mega Man are hardly mind-blowing. But when developers really allow players to develop lasting relationships with these unchangeable “people,” as it sounds like the folks who made Transistor have done, it sheds new light on games as something more than just “games.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hatm0nster says:

      Yeah Bastion and Transistor are separate and unrelated games, though I think there’s at least one Bastion easter egg in Transistor.

      It really does feel like more than a game now that you’ve said it. It feels like more in the same way that Mass Effect was trying to be more. Mass Effect let me make a custom Shepard, and I did feel some attachment to the character, but it just didn’t quite get there.

      I never got beyond seeing my Shepard as an extension of myself. He behaved the way I wanted him to, reacted the way I wanted him to, related to the characters the way I wanted him to. Shepard was more or less an avatar. There wasn’t enough about them that was “immovable” to make it feel like I was actually stepping into someone else’s shoes.

      I didn’t think any game would get closer to it than Mass Effect…glad to be proven wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. duckofindeed says:

    Wow, this game sounds really interesting. I need to check it out some time. I’m sure we’d all like to feel more involved in the games we play, such as the choices we are allowed or not allowed to make. I have been playing The Last Story lately, and while it’s a good game, there were occasions I believed I was actually allowed to make meaningful choices, only to find that if I chose the wrong decision, my character would think it over and decide my decision was wrong until I chose what the game wanted me to choose. It was rather disappointing once I found this out. I was quite excited back when I thought my decisions mattered.

    The closest I came to feeling part of a game was probably Zelda and Metroid Prime. Link has very little personality, and he never speaks, and this caused me to feel I was him more than most characters, and I even feel like I grew up with him over the last 15 years I’ve been playing the games. And in Metroid Prime, not only is it in first-person, but Samus doesn’t speak, either, so I also felt a bit more like I was a part of the game.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hatm0nster says:

      I actually Link and Samus are only a step away or so from being able to establish the sort of character relationship I described. They’re established “characters” but still function as avatars more than anything else. All they need is for their worlds to regard them in a way that’s similar to how Transistor regards, Red.

      I think that all they need is some hints of character added into the games (not in the cutscenes) and we’ll get to step into their shoes like never before!

      Like

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