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Transistor preview: finding a new voice

by Steve Watts, Mar 27, 2013 7:45am PDT

Supergiant Games made a notable first entry in 2011 with Bastion, a game that quickly grabbed the attention of critics and fans. As the studio was porting its first game to everything from Chrome to iPad, it was also quietly working on its sophomore effort. It introduced Transistor just before PAX East and showed it at the convention, giving curious fans a chance to see what's next for the studio.

Though Transistor shares certain visual trademarks of its creator, mostly in the form of its color palette and isometric view, the game itself feels very distinct. Rather than a quick reflex-based action title, Transistor is a turn-based hybrid. Enemies move in real time, but the heroine, Red, can pause the action to select targets and chain a series of attacks. She then releases them all at once with brutal ferocity.

"We just kind of build around the preoccupations of the people here," Supergiant co-founder and studio director Amir Rao told Shacknews. "There were people here that were really interested in taking the suspense of turn-based games, and bringing that into a more immediate real-time context. For us, we were all about the game we wanted to make and interested in a more futuristic setting and all that came together."

That's not to say that the similarities are absent or accidental, of course. I immediately noticed that two of Bastion's most iconic features, its music and throaty narrator, had returned. This time, though, each plays a more immediate role in the story. The soulful melody we hear in the opening cutscene comes from our lead character. Red is a famous singer who has her voice stolen. Wandering despondently, she finds the Transistor, a sentient weapon that carries the raspy tones of Bastion's Logan Cunningham. The weapon acts as a guide and protector for Red against the forces who are willing to kill to get it back.

"We always want what we're doing to be fictionally justified by the world," Rao said. "We really like that synergy between the narrative design, gameplay design, character design. That kind of stuff gets us really excited." As an example, he points out, the silent protagonist trope is common in video games, but Supergiant wanted to give it context.

Red is soon beset with enemies, sharing more visual similarity to Portal's turrets than the ragtag, organic creatures of Bastion. Before long she comes upon the body of a young woman. The Transistor pauses, speaks for a few moments, and then informs Red that the woman wants to come too. "Think that means we can use her," the Transistor says, and Red gains a new power. The short demo showed only hints of this richer narrative device, and Rao was careful not to give too many details.

The world is different from its predecessor too, defined by high skyscrapers, overbearing advertising, and dazzling technology. It certainly carries a similar visual tone, and fans of Bastion can immediately recognize the imprint of its creators, but this world is colder and more claustrophobic.

"This is made by the entire original team that made Bastion, so I think some of our signature is definitely on the game," Rao said. "You're seeing us sort of evolve and build on our styles in all the different areas and disciplines. It was a conscious choice to make a new place and a new feel, and have that all work together with the musical style we wanted to pursue and the gameplay we wanted to pursue."

The demo ended with a release window: "Early 2014 (Probably)." Rao said that the studio has "reasonable confidence" in that date, so the cheeky tag shouldn't be too much cause for alarm. Based on what I've seen so far, next year can't come soon enough.





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