There are many things that I wish to say about Transistor, but the story-related ones will have to wait for after the break. I don’t want to spoil anything for you.
To start with, this is one of the prettiest games I have seen in a while, and it has a soundtrack that makes me want to close my eyes and sink into it. I spent a considerable amount of time simply sitting and absorbing the game’s music, doing nothing else for fear of missing out on the songs. I wish that the soundtrack had all of the various in-game versions of the music, including Red’s hummed accompaniment.
I’m hard pressed to peg the game to a single genre or type, but its construction and design bears a profound similarity to Bastion. You do battle with an ever-growing variety and number of foes, following the protagonist from a third person isometric perspective as you wander through lushly painted land- or cityscapes, slowly puzzling out the backstory of the characters and learning what is happening around you. As far as I’m concerned, what worked in Bastion works here too.
As a game, I found Transistor very appealing; designing my own powers, mixing and matching elements as I discovered new killer combos, and adapting my loadout to the situation presented were all quite satisfying. Making sure that I wasn’t crippled when I lost one of my powers due to a mistake, and being forced to rethink my situation creatively when I failed in that, were both very rewarding as well. And when battles became a little same-y towards the end, or failed to present me with situations that I hadn’t foreseen, I still wanted to follow the story. Now that I’ve finished the game, I also want to see how it handles itself on a second pass-through. But I’ve played it enough to be able to say that I like it, and that I suspect you’d enjoy it as well. Now about those *SPOILERS*…
Rarely have I ever been so strongly reminded of the fact that I am not the character I have been following. The end of the game came as something of a rude surprise after coming to identify so strongly with Red, but in many ways I found that her final decision to commit suicide (of a sort? more on that later) gave her a stronger sense of self than I’d anticipated; her choices are not my choices (even if I have been guiding her actions), and she is there for me to understand and come to terms with, not for me to control. It’s a fascinating choice for a game to make, though I’m not sure whether to applaud Supergiant for telling a good story or mourn the loss of player agency through creating such a prescribed ending.
Let me be clear: I was disturbed by Red’s self-slaughter. I shouted in protest and alarm, as my friend who was watching can attest, pretty much in agreement with the Transistor. In a lot of ways, I’m glad that I slept on it before writing this article; while I found the end of Transistor to be sad and disturbing, on reflection I also found it bittersweet, and I think I have a better understanding of why Red made the choice she did. Red was the last person alive in a city that was supposed to be full of people, and, as best as I could tell, faced the prospect of rebuilding an empty metropolis in which she would remain the only person.
A brief but related excursion: the repeated mentions throughout the game of “going to the country” appear to be a metaphor for death, whether or not the people speaking about it realize it. It is, perhaps, a metaphor for a pleasant death, but Red’s discoveries of the traces (souls?) of those who were believed to have gone to the country seems to put that to the test. Death through the Transistor, meanwhile, seems to offer some semblance of attachment and permanence. The only other person (or people, if you count Royce) we’ve seen struck down directly by the Transistor were subsequently incorporated into the blade. Red’s mysterious companion, the voice of the Transistor, is the most obvious example.
Back on track… I can see why, left almost alone in a ruined city, a singer without her voice and without any prospect of recovering it, Red thought that the alternative of joining her companion in the Transistor might be preferable to continuing. Facing so futile an exercise as repairing Cloudbank, when there would be no one else to see it, seems ultimately depressing.
At the heart of it, it seemed to me that she was lonely. I admired the ways in which we were slowly given hints as to Red’s internal state, but I wish that her connection to her companion prior to his entry into the Transistor, and Red’s subsequent loneliness, had been made more clear earlier in the game. Maybe I’m just obtuse, but even something like a simple touch to say goodbye to his dead body would have helped me place their relationship earlier. I suppose I was meant to make more of the fact that she took his jacket. Regardless, on fuller reflection I feel like her final decision to kill herself with the Transistor, perhaps hoping to join her companion inside, does make sense even if it hurts.
That last sentence is telling. I found myself so attached to Red that her death hurt. I appreciate what Supergiant has done here in terms of storytelling, and for that alone I would wholeheartedly recommend the game. I just wish I could do it with a trigger warning, without giving away the end. In some ways, I’m reminded of Sword & Sworcery. The bittersweet tone certainly strikes a similar chord. If you haven’t yet, check out Transistor.