Cloudbank, by Jen Zee

I have many, many good things to say about Transistor.

I’m processing my thoughts for a review that will go up tomorrow, but my immediate takeaway was that Supergiant Games have done it again. They’ve shown how coherently and completely a story can be told in the medium of video games, with a bare minimum of exposition and dialog. In Transistor, they also demonstrate how effectively one can characterize a silent protagonist through action.

More often than not, silent protagonists are conveyed to us through the reactions of others than anything else. They tend to be blank canvases for the player to project themselves upon. Other characters, mostly in first-person games – Garret in the Thief series, Master Chief from Halo, etc – gain more of their own character from the occasional line of dialog, opting for the taciturn badass mold of protagonist. Not so with Red. Her voice stolen by the Camerata, she cannot speak for herself. But despite being silent, and our protagonist, Red is very much her own character.

Throughout Transistor, Red pulls the titular sword-like device around her as if it’s quite heavy. Yet, she pulls of flourishes with it, tossing it up in the air to catch it as she runs. Her initial pose not only allows her a good range of motion with the weapon, but it can be off-putting to foes: they may think she is too weak to use it effectively, only to be surprised when she enters Turn() to bust some heads. She hums, either along to the music when in Turn() or holding the Transistor, as well as short vocalizations when she sees something in Cloudbank the Transistor wants to tell her (and us) about. Despite the loss of her voice, Red refuses to be completely silent. This is also evident in the terminals scattered throughout the game – the roles of which I will not spoil here. Finally, in the Backdoor hub for the ‘bonus’ portions of the game, there is a hammock, and after using it, Red yawns and dabs at her eyes, a gesture that speaks to someone used to a refined and maybe even posh lifestyle. Her life might have been thrown into upheaval, but Red refuses to let go of herself, allowing time to breathe in the midst of the chaos.

All storytellers, not just video game designers, could benefit from Red’s example. She informs us of who she is through her actions. Nobody tells us that she’s this smart or this stubborn. It comes across in what we are shown. The guys at Supergiant are not in the habit of explaining much of anything in their games at first; players discover more about the world and the characters through play rather than through cutscene. Brevity, it is said, is the soul of wit, and it’s also helpful in conveying a story in the most effective way possible.

If your characters have agency, and you’re allowing them to change and grow as your story progresses, you’re well on your way to this effectiveness. Building on the foundation of agency, you’ll want your characters to come across to your audience through actions, possibly more than words. The more speech you cram into your character’s mouths, the less story you’ll actually be telling. While it is occasionally okay for a character to be long-winded as part of who they are, or needing to explain something to someone else, for the most part, our conversations are relatively short. We do far more than we say. Your characters should be no different.

There are a lot of things to take away from the experience of Transistor, many aspects that other game designers, even for big publishers, would do well to emulate. One of the strongest is this method of conveying character through action. I may reiterate this point in my review, but Red feels like a person, with her own life and thoughts and emotions, and this pulled me even deeper into the experience. It’s powerful storytelling, and in an interactive medium like this, it’s always wonderful to see. Like characters in Journey communicating almost entirely through action, forcing the player to pay attention and forge connections through their own agency, Red takes on a life of her own not just because we have a mouse or thumbsticks to guide her. Her actions show us who she is.

Can you say the same for the characters you’ve created?

Art by Jen Zee