Bastion&Transistor – a videogame grab bag

Here’s a surprise for you all:

I love stories.

(No way!)

I read books. Comic books. Watch movies. TV shows. Listen to obscure audio games while jogging. And I play a boatload of videogames. Now each of these media are perfect for a certain type of story. Books have a certain poetry movies will never ben able to have, movies have the great potential of telling a story through moving pictures.

But what about video games? What can video games do storywise that movies cannot? How do you optimally tell a story through a series of player actions?

Most mainstream games act like makeshift movies: They allow gameplay for a bit, then they pause the action to turn you, the player, into a viewer to show you through the magic of a cutscene how the story continues. It’s about as elegant as using text overlays to gap two scenes in a movie.

And it’s a shame, too, because in theory, video games have the most potent storytelling power of all time: The power to put you inside it.

To me, that seems to be the essence of what Supergiant Games, makers of the superb Bastion, seemed to try. Bastion told you the story of its world as you were exploring it. The time spent on cutscenes and gameplay interruptions was minimal. As I approached the game’s finish line, I felt both excited and immersed – not because the story was brilliant, but because of its flawless execution inside the medium it served.

 

Warning – this is where I get spoilery about Supergiant’s newest game–

Transistor, their newest baby, tries to take this experiment even further – in that it doesn’t really tell a conventional story at all. There’s no real introduction, no overt conflict, there’s no explanation who the characters are… everything is up for grabs, letting you discover it by playing the game.

It’s an interesting idea in theory, but unfortunately it doesn’t really work that well. By the time I figured out the main character was running through a disappearing world to avenge her lover with a sword that embodied his soul, the game was over. Had I known this up front, I would’ve been invested to hell and back – but nope, the game keeps everything shrouded in mystery. There is a reason I spoil it here – it’s basic stuff you should know up front when diving into this brilliant game. It’s the only mistake the game makes. Other than that, you’re looking at a six hour-long gem with awesome visuals, great dialogue, superb music and engaging gameplay.

 Everytime I play through the (short but sweet) game, I discover more of its interesting and touching story. With every minute, the game gets better. This is awesome – because it does this through my playing the game. By combining the many skills the game throws at me and interacting with objects in the game world, I get rewarded with pretty pictures, cool sounds and actions that make my heart skip a beat. By now, the final moments of the game move me deeply instead of confusing me.

Press button -> stuff happens.

So please, next time, Supergiant Games, please, just a tiny tip of the iceberg up front. Just enough to clear away my confusion and make room for my emotional immersion.

And then you will have made the perfect example for how to use the videogame medium to tell a story.