Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Transistor (Supergiant, 2014) combines art nouveau and cyberpunk elements to create a unique visual style in this beautiful game. Art Director Jen Zee’s incredible work is one of the biggest appeals of Transistor. She created a unique dystopia that drew me in. Transistor takes place in the city of Cloudbank, a place whose design is constantly reworked by a group of individuals from behind the scenes. The fluid nature of the city lends itself to grand structures and artworks that appear before the player as they explore the city.
Transistor’s story is about Red, a singer who was attacked by those who intend to control Cloudbank. She seeks revenge and to take control of the city back. This in-fiction poster for one of her concerts reminds me of art nouveau works by Alphonse Mucha, like the one below titled Sarah Bernhadt (1896).
Walking around Cloudbank, the architectural influence of art nouveau is evidenced in the curved design of the backdrops and buildings. In this waterfront area the ornate curves take inspiration from artists such as Victor Horta and Hector Guimard. The curved, flowing architectural patterns can be seen in the following in-game images and real world architecture.
On the left is the interior staircase from the Hotel Tassel, designed by Victor Horta in 1894. On the right is Le Pavillon de la Station Bastille, an entrance to the Paris Metro designed by Hector Guimard. The entrance has long since been demolished but is preserved in photographs.
In some design elements, however, I notice a departure from a strictly art nouveau style. In this cityscape below, I interpret greater art deco influence, the art movement that immediately followed art nouveau. This in-game cityscape of Cloudbank brings to mind art deco era work like this poster of the New York Central Building by Chesley Bonestell, crossed with a science fiction vision of a future city. Art deco, with its greater focus on geometry and hard lines, presents a more streamlined, industrial aesthetic than the naturalistic forms of art nouveau.
Building on the presence of art deco’s geometry in the cityscape, triangles can also be seen in both the scenery and are ever-present in Red’s outfit (see header image). They work almost as a way of adding hard form to the art nouveau style, which is usually marked by its fluidity. The insertion of these rigid forms in a mostly fluid, art nouveau world parallels the characters’ mission to redesign their city.
The beautiful cyberpunk elements of Transistor have more influence in the combat and mechanics of the game than in the design of the city. When in combat, the turn-based system takes on a virtual reality-like overview, stripping away much of the world to allow the player to focus solely on the enemies.
The menus also look far more like computers than the art nouveau architecture. These cyberpunk elements extend further to the names of attacks. They are are all named as though they were programs in a computer terminal, such at Get(), Help(), or Crash().
Despite the evacuated or deceased residents, Cloudbank feels alive because of the vibrant artwork and architecture. I am jealous the characters in the game had the luxury to wake up and live in this lavish and luxurious place. In places like the one below, Jen Zee seemingly combines ancient Greek style of the massive statues with the already pervasive art nouveau themes.
The extravagance of the city contrasts with its eventual decay. As Transistor continues, the bright design of Cloudbank begins to fade to white to signal the city’s destruction at the hands of those who are trying to control it.
Transistor’s artwork feels unique to me among video games. Jen Zee and everyone else at Supergiant Games created a beautiful aesthetic experience that makes the game far more memorable than either the story or gameplay could on their own. Jen Zee is truly a remarkable artist. She was also the art director on Supergiant’s first game, Bastion, which is on my long list of games to play. You can find more of her work on her DeviantArt page, http://jenzee.deviantart.com. I can’t wait to see what she creates next.
Featured images courtesy of www.alfonsmucha.org