There’s a pervasive idea that procedural storytelling and arts are somehow less “authored” than linear narrative, which is bullshit. I love Transistor because it skewers this idea mechanically and thematically, and while many games ask us to question what we consume (a la Spec Ops: The Line), Transistor asks us to question what we make.
Transistor imagines a city where push-button-make-reality is possible. This is a game about a city where citizens create “functions” (a script written to do or create a particular thing, for instance, create a bridge or a new pizza topping), then people vote for which functions they want, then the winning designs are put into practice by the algorithm/robot force that automatically creates the city around them.
Are these generated/programmed works worth the same, artistically, as “hand-crafted” ones? Transistor says yes, erasing old “digital art vs real art” dichotomies in meaningful ways. Most effectively, the combat system merges both intuitive combat — the real-time, expressive responses to enemies — with a more ritual, turn-based system that allows you to “program” your character to carry out future attacks. This spotlights the continuity between what we think of as “authored” vs “procedural” design.
Then the story carries these themes of continuity between “authored” and “programmed” expression forward. Despite “art” being almost entirely procedural here, some Artists are still considered virtuosos. Transistor even frames this in a traditional romantic way: In Cloudbank, it seems possible to program things by transforming aspects of yourself or your expression directly into functions, much like the stereotype of ‘Artist as fountain of creativity’. (How & why this works is left unexplained, but technology, self and personality seem a bit magical here; this world has softer lines between reality and simulation, and might even be made out of uploaded consciousnesses, as Rowan Kaiser has suggested.)
Transistor treats them so normally; Why shouldn’t it? All artists practice according to their own rules, years of experimentation teaching “Do x if you want y” or “Don’t do b or a will happen”: There’s not that much difference between whether you intuitively calculate the outcome of those rules in your head to decide where to put the paintbrush down, or program them into a brush-wielding computer. I can paint a picture of a sky, or I can program a shader that creates beautiful skyscapes, in both cases I’m still an artist executing my vision with my chosen tools.
The game itself is the perfect example: The beautiful environments are a combo of hand painted and sculpted assets along with programmed elements like procedural patterns & shapes and shaders. Both sculpt the world to the makers’ artistic intentions.
But Transistor goes further, and asks - How do we treat systems with many authors, are they just as art? If our art is influenced or aided or constrained by the tools, algorithms and systems that other authors create, is it still our own vision?
Cloudbank, with its beaux arts styling, reminds me of the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s which encouraged citizens to see cities as collective works expressing common values. This city is beautiful, cool, exciting, intriguing, beguiling. By glamourising this democratic city, Transistor (intentionally or not) implies that a collaborative, collective art process enriches cities.
Which, as someone who studied urban design, I tend to believe this to be true. While some architects have been able to impose their individual visions directly on cities — Haussman’s renovation of Paris, or slum “improvements” like Pruitt-Igoe — most cities seem cohesive because of external pressures: laws & regulations, the local properties of brick-making-clay, the harshness of the sun, social beliefs about what houses should look like, builders’ expertise and technology, the will of the people. Architects aren’t fully autonomous but design within these limitations. It’s clear from history that the question isn’t whether social & circumstantial influences can co-exist with powerful works (they definitely can), but whether those influences are good or bad. Influence itself isn’t inherently bad.
But a nefarious cabal of super-rich self-appointed, uh, urban designers, don’t like how emergent this kind of democracy can be. To the Camerata, a city continuously subject to “popular whim” (to quote Todd Harper’s excellent piece on queerness in recent games) changing but possibly changing back, expresses no lasting values at all, no history or evolution or vision. To them, this influence is inherently bad, because it constrains their desires for their own art. Selfishly, they decide their own vision and desires for the city take precedence over anyone else’s, our character included.
However, The Camerata are glamourised too - tragic loves, dramatic deaths, sharp sartorial style - making it difficult to see whether Transistor believes that collective greatness trumps individual greatness or vice versa.
I know Greg Kasavin has written on his blog he prefers stories that explore all aspects of an issue than stories trying to push a perspective, but as an outsider, this “even-handedness” feels uneven.
The Camerata’s goal of artistic freedom only comes at the expense of everyone else’s any-kind-of-freedom. Is being portrayed as the villains enough? After all, they’re stylin’, highly intelligent, aspirational villains. Are they like Don Draper, a character designed to show how horrible ideas often come wrapped in an appealing shell?
It’s interesting. The Camerata’s very attempt to escape the influence of these overarching systems - or least control them themselves - ends up totally destroying any freedom they had. So you could say it ends up pointing to an interesting idea - there really isn’t any art that can exist outside these kinds of forces, some “one true art” that proceeds entirely from an author’s vision unshaped by their circumstances. The best we can do is create systems where the way we influence other artists is as productive as possible.
It also points to how the threat isn’t that the masses will take control of art, diluting its power, but that a handful of the powerful will, corrupting its purpose. (Art, after all, exists to explore our common humanity.)
Corrupt planning forces don’t arrive with robot armies but can do terrible damage to the people who inhabit cities. Poor regulation, or no regulation, can allow injustice & exploitation to run wild, as it did in the 19th century. So can the algorithms that shape ours, if we don’t take time to understand who chooses the variables and why. As we start to use programming more and more to determine those codes and limits - through ordinary stuff like traffic modelling, height modelling etc - we have to start viewing these techniques as something consciously authored, where those rules and limits are selected by someone, based on someone’s assumptions about how societies do and should work.
The rich and the big really do have more power to shape these underlying rules and decide who gets to design within them: Councils, Adobe, Caterpillar and Unreal are as much responsible for the shape of our cities, art, buildings and games as individual architects, artists, engineers and devs. (This was a problem for pen & paper too - the Sydney Opera House design changed because we lacked the abililty to calculate it).
That’s a bizarre thing about some video game fans to me now - people who are deeply concerned that ordinary individual critics might influence art just by popularising arguments and persuading artists to make different choices, but don’t seem worried about the ways that actual money and power can put hard limits what it’s possible for an artist to do (nefariously or not).
It’s not inherently bad that there are influences, since there’s no way to escape some degree of influence, and we’ve shown that systems themselves can produce art that’s as worthy as hand-crafted things - it’s just important that those influences are democratic, constructive and positive.
Cities are a collective artwork we make, so is the video game scene as a whole. Things like underlying structure, regulations and social convention aren’t just there to hinder or advance your art. Sometimes they exist to ensure your total autonomy doesn’t result in everyone else getting lasered by robots.