Red: The Girl on the Poster

I just finished up playing Transistor (I'm always a little bit behind the times). The game is a beautiful work of art and design and while the mechanics took a little while to ramp up, by the end it was one of the deepest action mechanics I've experienced.

The game got largely positive reviews and so I figured I would take a small opportunity to discuss one of the points I felt in which in didn't succeed:

Narrative.

More specifically, while the bulk of the narrative was well rendered Red's narrative and character progression left me a bit empty. (Warning: mild spoilers)

The kid

In their previous game Bastion they put the player in the shoes of the Kid, a maleable, blank-slate character. The Kid is silent and doesn't do much outside the control of the player, and this works. While he does't have much character development, the game never sets the expectation that there will be. The narrative of Bastion is one of the world around him.

Transistor-Cloudbank-O.jpg

With Transitor, Supergiant took a slightly different approach. While the world still plays a large narrative role, the player character Red is now a fully fleshed out character. She has a beautiful backstory and full of lush details.

But in practice, this backstory really doesn't come together—I couldn't seem to bond or relate to any of her actions. When you look over her character in the game, something jumps out at you: the game treats her like a blank slate. You're supposed to be playing the role of a dynamic character, yet you only get her character through a slow drip bottle and almost always through the Transistor as a liason. Beyond these narrative snippets, the rest of the game is completely indifferent to her.

The characterization of the (man in the) Transistor is beautiful, yet because they chose this silent protagonist role for Red, she can't vocally react to anything the Transistor says. Further, nothing in her posture, actions, or appearance change in reaction to the Transistor, or even to other mundane actions. Her two main emotions are 'battle ready' and 'passively observe'.

Because there are so few moments of Red's true character in game, when they do happen the player immediately latches on. Unfortunately these moments are bland. Throughout the entire game whenever Red interacted or noticed an object (whether it was a sign post or the dead body of a friend). Her character played an animation of Red running her fingers through her hair and she makes a small "Huh!". Having no reaction is lackluster, but having the incorrect reaction undermines her entire character.

At the same time the game delivers bits of contextual narrative outside the game (cutscenes, the terminal boxes, in-game audio, music). Nothing about her character is unclear, but I feel like I'm reading about her character, rather than feeling one with her character. I found it hard to care.

By the end I still felt like Red was a character on the poster, not the one I'm playing.

I was tempted to label this "ludonarrative dissonance", but after giving it some thought, the issue is not with any mechanic controlled by the player; it's that the in-game character doesn't match the contextual game character. The ludic narrative doesn't match the contextual narrative.

Interestingly, the game builds the Transistor's character entirely through ludic narrative, with very little context. The Transistor is deeply personalized: he responds to your actions, makes human comments, and feels like a breathing part of the world. But he has no context, no backstory or information.

The Transistor is all personality without a context, Red is all context without personality.

The game ends up cultivating a one-way relationship: the man in the Transistor clearly loves Red, but it's completely unclear whether the feelings are mutual, or whether she even cares. A few splashes of her caring come through the shared terminals in which she can type, but because these events are so rare, the responses feel completely unprompted and odd.

It's important to repeat that Red isn't a character empty of personality. When you truly dig deep into here character, the details come forth. My point, however, is that the way her character is managed ludically is in direct opposition to this character.

This issue is not unique to Transistor — in fact it's quite common across the entire medium (eg. a character breaking down in cutscene becomes stoic as you regain control). However the mismatch between ludic narrative and contextual narrative shouldn't be ignored, or taken as status quo. To create truly believable and relateable characters, we're going to have to figure out how to bridge this divide.

Comments via Reddit

John Austin