SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses events in the beginning, middle and end of Transistor.
Before we discuss what makes its story so special, I must make a confession; from the moment the credits rolled, I was supremely disappointed with Transistor. It didn’t matter that the art was gorgeous, the combat was an inspired meld of turn-based and character action, and the music perfectly set the mood. As someone who adored Bastion, Supergiant Games’ critically-acclaimed first project, I had expected the story of pop-star Red and her talking sword companion to hit me in places that few games could ever dream of reaching. Instead, I found myself lost and befuddled as the city of Cloudbank (my assumed focus of the plot) felt inadequately explained.
Spending more than a few minutes in Cloudbank makes it all too easy to assume that it’s the star of the show. The city is simply gorgeous; lavish concert halls and docks easily dwarf Red, and citizens can change something as significant as sky’s color through popular vote on one of the many terminals scattered everywhere. We’re also given glimpses into the lives of its prodigious residents, from a coveted fashion designer to a daredevil prankster known for ruffling the elite’s feathers. This is a word with hundreds of untold stories sitting just below the skin, and it fosters this hunger to pierce the layer and learn as much as you can.
Sadly, the expectations set up by focusing too closely on Cloudbank only lead to frustration and anger. The biographical tidbits I just shared consist of only a few paragraphs hidden within your loadout screen; to unlock the stories of the people behind your powers, you have to cycle each ability through your primary, secondary and passive slots. What’s clearly meant as a small incentive to shake up your playing style instills animosity when seen as an inconvenient roadblock to complete the story. The villainous Camerata explain their motivations and a brief endgame sequence demonstrates how the Transistor is used to summon whatever structure the wielder desires, but these revelations are mere drops in an ocean compared to the questions left unanswered. How does the Transistor really work? Where did The Process come from in the first place? Is “The Country” merely the afterlife, a place that can be visited on a whim, or both?
As I explained my utter frustration with the game to Scanline’s own Colin, he suggested that I might have missed the forest for the trees; why was I spending all my time worrying about the logistics and history of Cloudbank when the real meat of the plot revolves around Red and her swordfriend (sword boyfriend)? I had my doubts, but one day later, as I was driving home, the final song in the game started playing and everything just clicked. This wasn’t about the grandeur of a city in peril; it was a relentless tragedy about losses so significant that even the power to shape Cloudbank into anything couldn’t bring peace.
When I say that everyone in the story loses, I’m not exaggerating. Every one of your attacks, from the simple sword swipe to a devastating ground pound, is powered by a soul murdered with the blade of the Transistor. The city is in an ever-constant state of erasure and decay from the invading horde, and its helpless residents inevitably perish along with the apartments and data centers. Fighting The Process is futile as they grow in strength, numbers and size, and your triumph against the massive Spine is short-lived when a second unit follows in its footsteps. Even the Camerata, the classic villains responsible for the heartless automatons’ invasion in the first place, is beset with anguish and guilt over what their actions have wrought. The two lovers within the group take their own lives before you even confront them, leaving only messages of sincere regret.
The Camerata’s pain, the victims of the Transistor and the citizens that perish distance themselves from the player with off-camera actions and, in some cases, a mere collection of words. The real barb to the heart is struck by the up-close-and-personal loss of Red and her unnamed partner (Given no name in the story itself, I will henceforth refer to him as Logan Cunningham, his brilliant voice actor). Starting from Logan’s immediate death at the start of the game, both bear witness to an unstoppable force ripping apart everything they knew and held dear. Without her voice, Red can no longer sing or communicate with Logan (aside from a few impromptu terminal conversations toward the end); without his body, Logan cannot embrace his love, and being trapped with so many other souls is slowly robbing him of his individuality. The Camerata’s own sorrow prevents Red from finding her own solace through revenge, and even after she takes down their leader, her newfound power to rebuild as she sees fit can’t bring anyone back, not least of which the man she loves. To slap the final nail in the coffin, she runs herself through with the Transistor, despite the raw, heart-wrenching pleas from Logan.
We’re used to stories that have happy endings, or at least plots that have at least a few major positive points. Transistor sets out to do something different by starting you in a low place and only climbing deeper and deeper until finale sends both of our heroes to The Country. This is a tragedy that never lets up, and as soon as the ramifications of the ending hit, it’s hard not to shed buckets of tears.
This is the part where I’d normally say how eager I am for more games to tread into these unexplored waters, but if my delayed reaction to Transistor is any indication, I’m not sure that my heart can take too many aggressively sad titles. However, Supergiant Games are to be commended for once again achieving the monumental task of doing something few people have attempted and doing it well. It also goes to show that some plots are easier to perceive than others; by paying attention to Red and Logan instead of the city, a fairly disappointing, half-hearted tale turned into something truly special.