Transistor: Ready To Broadcast
With the acclaim from Bastion under his belt, we spoke to Greg Kasavin of Supergiant Games about his team’s latest work, Transistor
Supergiant Games are an oddly named bunch. Though the Californian-based developers are responsible for 2011’s cult indie hit Bastion, their numbers are actually quite small with only a dozen workers whittling away at any one time. However, bigger doesn’t mean better in this case and the team’s aforementioned debut game drew near-unanimous praise upon its Xbox Live Arcade release, leading to various ports as well as plenty of awards for its innovative narration and distinctive art style.
Unsurprisingly, the team have been hard at work with their second game since then. Transistor, a similarly styled isometric RPG, was initially revealed last year and anticipation among Supergiant’s followers has been steadily growing with each new update. However, though there are certainly some similarities in design and both games rely heavily on dynamic narration, there is plenty to differentiate both titles. “Using voiceover lets us provide narrative context at the pace of the player, which is something we really like to do,” explains Bastion’s creative director and Transistor’s writer Greg Kasavin. “I think having a human voice in there also just helps you relate to what's happening. (However) there was a significant modal shift to the narrative from our perspective - moving from an omniscient-sounding narrator with foreknowledge of the story events in Bastion's case, to a character experiencing the story as it unfolds in Transistor's case.”
It is a tact that certainly helps involve players in the story of Transistor perhaps more than with Bastion before it. After an assassination gone wrong, players enter a cyber-punk world as Red, armed with a great hulking sword, the titular Transistor, which seems to have taken on the conscience of its unintended victim. Together, Red and Transistor start to eke away at the unfolding plot with Transistor, as Kasavin says, narrating the story in a more oblique way than the all-seeing orator of bastion.
"I think Sony is very serious about working with smaller teams like ours, and understands that it's important to have a large and diverse software library on their console” – Greg Kasavin
Firstly though, players are likely to be bowled over by the very world Supergiant have created for these events, particularly the gorgeous art style. “I think it ended up very close to what Jen Zee our art director originally imagined,” says Kasavin of our compliment. “The cyberpunk aesthetic was our starting point but we knew we wanted to twist it into something different, and we ended up at this idea of a romanticised, anachronistic quasi-futuristic city. Jen took inspiration from the art nouveau movement, from painters like Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha. Their work was characterized by these beautiful, elongated, natural patterns, and lots of use of gold. This gives our setting a vintage feel that we liked. We wanted the setting of Transistor to feel richly detailed and full of mystery.”
Beyond the narration and visual style, Transistor’s main innovation is its battle style. With an isometric view, play can scroll in a very arcade-style way, using one of four on-button attacks in real time against the shadowy robotic enemies sent to assassinate her. However, there is also the option to stop events dead and plan out more of an RPG mode, akin to games like XCOM. It takes practice but allows players to find a unique balance of attack modes that will suit them.
“It was really important to us that players felt like the planning mode was a tool at their disposal, rather than a requirement forced upon them,” says Kasavin of switching between these modes. “We wanted the balance between real-time combat and the planning mode to feel personal and intuitive. During development we found that different players balanced the two in really different ways, which we liked to see. Depending on which functions you use, you can skew heavily in favour of one mode or the other if you wish.”
Which effectively means you can play Transistor as more of an all-out brawler or as something more tactical, should you wish. Our money, and we suspect Kasavin’s, is on some kind of merging of the two but it’s an innovative design choice that will ensure the game has a bit more longevity and depth than its predecessor.
The release of Transistor itself also seems like an astute plan at the hands of Supergiant. Where Bastion found a home and success on Xbox Live Arcade, this time their game will debut on the rival Playstation Network as well as on PC. It’s perhaps further indication that ony have got their indie ethos nailed down tight whilst Microsoft’s continues to flap in the wind.
“The team at Sony has been tremendously supportive of us,” agrees Kasavin. “On the back end it's still pretty complicated to get a game published, though the mere fact that a small team like ours can self-publish on a console like the PS4 is huge, and it's been a great learning experience for us. I think Sony is very serious about working with smaller teams like ours, and understands that it's important to have a large and diverse software library on their console.”
Whatever the trial and tribulations, Supergiant now stand on the precipice of Transistor’s release, causing The Skinny to ask if this is a tense, a nervous or even exciting time for the team. “Of course! It's all those things,” exclaims Kasavin. “We've been working on Transistor for more than two years, and reinvested what we made on Bastion into this new game. It really means a lot to us, and when something's personal like that, you're naturally going to get some butterflies in your stomach when you put it out there for everyone to play. Above all I'm just excited to see what everyone thinks of it.”