I don’t usually write two deep analysis posts in a row, but I’m making an exception. Last week, as I was preparing for my blog post about Bastion and how it creates weighty, impactful choices for its players, I realized something similar about another game from Supergiant, Transistor.
Transistor was the first Supergiant Games title that I played, and I had no idea what I was getting into. I fell in love with its art, music, and mechanics that were unlike anything else I had ever played before. It was what opened the door for me to try Bastion and, later on, Hades.
Like Bastion, Transistor is also about decisions. However, it is not about how or why we choose one thing over another, but instead one’s right to make decisions at all.
As with my previous post, there are big spoilers for the end of Transistor up ahead. I’ll also be referencing some of the endgame elements from Bastion that I used last time, so beware of that as well. As usual, I highly recommend these games and encourage you to play them before coming back, but I’ll explain enough background that you can read this without playing too.
Transistor takes place in Cloudbank, a high-tech and heavily democratic metropolis. The player takes on the role of Red, a popular singer. Unfortunately, Red was targeted by a group of individuals known as the Camerata. They attempted to assassinate her with a sword-like weapon called the Transistor, but her bodyguard took the fall for her.
Red also lost her voice but gained possession of the Transistor, which now held the consciousness of her fallen protector. The unnamed man serves as the game’s narrator since Red is now voiceless, and it’s revealed over the course of the game that the two of them had a very close relationship and are implied to be lovers.
Armed with the Transistor, Red fights her way through hordes of robotic enemies – The Process – in order to stop the Camerata from killing the citizens of Cloudbank and changing the city permanently. Without the Transistor, however, the Camerata is powerless to stop the Process from spreading. The robots take on a mind of their own and destroy Cloudbank and its inhabitants.
Hoping to stop the Process, Red forms a truce with the last surviving member of the Camerata, Royce. As it turns out, Royce just wants to fight Red for control of the Transistor – i.e. control of Cloudbank. The final boss fight of the game follows.
Red, of course, defeats Royce and leaves him trapped within the virtual world of the Transistor. She is now the last survivor in Cloudbank, and she’s able to use her newfound power to reverse the effects of the Process. When Red rediscovers the body of her lover, however, she realizes that she does not have the power to bring him back to life and return his consciousness to him. She may be able to restore the world, but she can’t do anything about the people who died.
The game ends with Red sitting down next to the man’s body and impaling herself with the Transistor. Her consciousness lives on inside the Transistor’s virtual world, where she is reunited with her lover. It’s a bittersweet ending.
Unlike the end of Bastion, there are no choices in Transistor. The player does not get to choose whether or not Red dies at the end of the game. It begs the question: if Bastion’s final choices were so impactful for players, why not try to recreate the magic in Transistor? Why not give players the choice between “restoring” Cloudbank or “evacuating” to the world inside the Transistor?
This short walkthrough video shows the last scenes of the game, including the credits.
The reason, I believe, comes down to a difference in themes. While Bastion is about choice, Transistor is about control.
To start, we can compare Red with the Kid, the protagonist of Bastion. Both of them are silent protagonists and their stories are told by third-party narrators (Rucks and the man in the Transistor, respectively). The difference between them is that the Kid is silent by choice as far as we can tell. Red, on the other hand, has had her voice stolen from her. Her silence is forced upon her.
Why is that important? First off, it emphasizes a lack of agency for Red – unlike the Kid, she doesn’t get to choose whether to speak or not. That choice has been removed. More importantly though, Red’s silence gives players the illusion that they are in full control of her. We as gamers are so used to silent protagonists that we automatically ascribe our own thoughts and feelings to them. Since Red cannot voice anything on her own, our thoughts become her thoughts, and our choices become her choices.
However, Red is defiant. In-game information suggests that her music had a powerful influence on the people of Cloudbank, and it’s for that reason that the Camerata targeted her. The game also states that Red said she “never wrote her music with intent to stir controversy,” but I find that hard to believe. Fortunately for us, Transistor’s soundtrack features several songs with vocals, all of which are considered to be “Red’s songs” within the game’s universe. One of these songs, “We All Become,” features the lyrics:
Think I’ll go where it suits me
Moving out to the Country
With everyone, oh everyone
Before we all become one.
You tell yourself that you’re lucky
But lying down never struck me
As something fun, oh any fun.
What the “Country” refers to isn’t entirely made clear, but most seem to agree that it refers to either the afterlife or the world within the Transistor (read about it on the Transistor wiki). Regardless, the line does have a defiant attitude to it, and implies that the speaker (Red) would rather die than “become one” with the Process. This is only emphasized by the later lines “Lying down never struck me / as something fun.”
Clearly, Red is more defiant than she lets on. Her in-game actions consistently go against the Camerata and the powers that be. Her choice to die at the end of the game is yet another assertion of her own autonomy and agency. The difference is that this time, she isn’t defying the control of the Camerata or any other character – she is defying the control of the players themselves.
The lack of a choice at the end of Transistor serves to remind the players that they are not, in fact, Red. She is not simply a silent protagonist that reflects their will, but a person in her own right. As we watch the final scenes of the game, we realize that we only thought we understood her, because we thought we were her. That wasn’t true.
Giving the players a choice at the end of the game like Bastion does would completely undermine the theme of Transistor. Transistor is a game about control – the Camerata, frustrated by how quickly Cloudbank can change thanks to its extremely democratic system, wants to establish stability and control over the city. Because of this, Red making her own decision without the player’s input is the ending that must happen. It is a final reminder that Red cannot and will not be controlled by anyone, not even us.
Would we have chosen a different ending for Red given the chance? Perhaps, but that’s not really the point. The point is that we as individuals do not – and should not – make choices for others. We aren’t gods who can control the actions of others. This final choice is for Red to make, not us.
Once again, we are left listening to a bittersweet song, watching the game’s credits roll by. This time though, we’re asking ourselves different questions. If Red had her voice, would we understand her better? Or were we just not listening to her closely enough? Maybe if we had never given into the illusion that she was under our control, we would have seen that ending coming. Maybe.