Transistor and Love

by Sam Z.

The two games released by Supergiant studios – Bastion and Transistor – share a number of details: the story deals with the collapse of fantastic worlds, both the palette and the soundtrack are vivid and full of emotion, and the isometric viewpoint supports a kind of game play that emphasizes experimentation: the player can choose their weapon or skill combination, allowing for flexibility and combinatorial delight. The player-controlled characters are silent, and the events are narrated by the dulcet voice of another figure. Both games are point-and-click. And so on.

Yet for all of these similarities, they are very different games. Given that the ending is the conceit, the story of Bastion is all about the response to a massive catastrophe: do you adopt an old man’s nostalgia for the past, along with the – perhaps futile – belief that one more shot can fix everything? Or do you side with Zia, who has known only pain and alienation in her life, but is nevertheless optimistic about what the future might bring. Both choices, and their advocates, represent two different kinds of hope: that things can still be put right, or that things will be better than they were before. These two stances resonate with the rest of the game. For example, most levels are spent churning through various wild animals, to which Rucks says:

Best thing we can do for these beasts right now is put ’em down, quick and clean. There’s only one kind of mercy left these days. Look at it this way. It’s either them, or us. But if we win, they win too. Our Bastion is everybody’s gain, not just ours. Unfortunately, there’s no explainin’ this to a simple beast.

But the player is given the option to rise above the “one kind of mercy left” when Zulf is at your mercy. In the last level, the choice is between fighting your way out or showing real mercy and carrying the body of your enemy while seeing whether you make it out alive; that is, between Rucks’ idea of necessary slaughter and Zia’s sense of hope. We can even talk about how the game’s combat system, predicated as it is upon the choice of two different weapons, reinforces this kind of dualism. Again, Bastion is about the hope that follows a catastrophe. But Transistor is about love.

The world of Transistor is blatantly a digital one, and an idealized one at that: residents of Cloudbank can vote on the weather, the colour of the sky, and the easy remodelling of the city. Accessible terminals allow for the easy dissemination of information, the polling of the city’s residents on whether they would prefer rain or shine, and the ability to order food to your apartment in the same way that I might order a pizza online. Even the name of the city is a reference to cloud computing, a format that stores information not on the computer itself, but on servers accessed through the world wide web. The digital world of Transistor is, simply put, a mimicry of the synapse-like, rapid-fire conversation that is the internet.

But it does not appropriate the internet’s capacity for knowledge – there is no equivalent to, say, Wikipedia in Cloudbank; the one exception (Cloudbank’s archives) serves only as a battleground and not as a place of revelation. Rather, the city resembles something like an expanded facet of Reddit: a community of content creators and commenters engaging with one another. The different biographies of characters processed by the Transistor makes this clear: Wave Tennegan is an alternative broadcaster, Preston Moyle is a racer, Olmarq is a sports player, Farrah Yon-Dale is in charge of the aesthetics of the ever-changing sky, Shomar Shasberg is a kind of trickster performance artist, and so on. Each biography makes mention of these figures’ adoring fans: Yon-Dale “worked for the pleasure of thousands, who remembered they once took the sky for granted.” Similarly, Shasberg’s disappearance is disbelieved by “more than 80% of individuals who self-identify as fans of Mr. Shasberg’s work.” The Camerata’s attention is fixated on these entertainers’ ability to enthral their audience, and they choose to assimilate these types into the Transistor – and there is something interestingly self-reflective about the way in which these entertainers, by becoming skills and attacks, become a driving mechanic of the piece of entertainment that is Transistor as a whole.

The prime entertainer in Transistor is, of course, the protagonist Red: a singer whose voice was stolen from her. But to say that Red is the sole protagonist in the game would be misleading: she is one half of a pair. Though we control Red, she remains opaque to us. We can click for her, choose whether she responds to an article or what she strikes with her talking sword, but because she is mute we do not understand her. Mechanically speaking, it would be just as fair to say that we control the Transistor, as he is the one whom we attack with: we click to move the one, and we type to control the other. But more importantly, the Transistor is the lens through which we understand both the game and Red. He narrates the story, and the significance of different events is given to us only through him.

The relationship between the two, and the way in which the player seems to run both sides thereof (we move her; we use him) is the game’s real emotional momentum. But the relationship’s nature is kept ambiguous until the end, which is itself interesting given the atmosphere’s stringent attention to precise figures. The profiles are full of these numbers: when Preston Moyle disappears, “His close friends did not worry more than usual for three days, but for each subsequent day their worry increased an average of 84%.” Similarly, hololithic text will tell you how many steps there are down each flight, or how many people have passed through a certain door. But this stringent sense of record keeping reflects Cloudbank’s geographical embodiment of the internet, with its inexhaustible fountains of data and its compulsive need to categorize and record. The only ambiguity lies in this most personal relationship.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast – Entitled Opinions, run by a Stanford Dantista. The theme of the episode is irrelevant to my argument, but the guest made a fascinating point that is, ultimately, at the heart of Transistor’s relationship and its ending:

…knowledge, sapientia, comes from ‘to taste,’ saparae, along with our word savour. It’s a question of savvy. When you say that someone is savvy, they have a kind of tactile wisdom. Or when you say someone has tact…

…And even in the age of the virtual and the digital, when it would seem we live in an age of materialism, it is actually a radically immaterial age. We seem, with our touchscreen, to be touching everything, but we’re actually out of touch with everything. There’s a vicariousness, and even a certain voyeurism where we see everything on the screen. The screen becomes our world, and the world our screen – not an oyster anymore, that you can taste and touch, but a screen. Something, then, is arguably lost even as a huge amount is gained…

…It says something about our world, which is increasingly becoming a world of excarnation.

The relationship between Red and the Transistor embodies this sense of excarnation – if that phrasing is not a contradiction in terms. They are never apart – he plaintively asks: “don’t let me go” – but there’s no real sensual connection between the two of them. She cannot speak to him; instead, she can only write messages as comments on the terminals. He, meanwhile, cannot touch her and can only speak to her through a digital medium. Indeed, the Transistor’s most touching complaints are those that express his longing for Red in physical terms:

Red… will I ever see you again? I mean… face to face. I like to wonder, about that. Like maybe you could get me out of here or something. Then! Then we could watch everything around us, wash away… Hand in hand.

I can’t take it anymore.

That he is Red’s lover is made clear during the credit’s montage, but, importantly, all of the little images of him and Red are intimately carnal: they kiss, they hold hands – he even brings her tea.

The game begins and ends with Red standing over the body of her lover. The second time, the Transistor says “That’s not me. Not anymore. I’m still with you, but I’m not getting out of here.” The tragedy of their relationship lies in the fact that the indefinite, irreducible expressions of love have been taken from them. They have been reduced to mere text and talk, and Red’s suicide is the ultimate expression of her dissatisfaction with this distance. The echoes of Romeo and Juliet, while somewhat inexact, do make the intent behind this self-murder clear: both Romeo and Red kill themselves because they cannot accept distance from their love.

I do not think it to be a coincidence that Supergiant set their story of two distant lovers in a digital landscape. Nor do I think it to be a cute bit of counterpoint that they are finally reunited in the country – an agrarian, sunlit, rural landscape, in complete contrast to the style of Cloudbank City. The game’s love story is set in a digital landscape in order to use its own connotations of disconnect and excarnation. Remember, Red’s lover is only called “Subject Not Found” in a world of precise definitions. His background notes, perhaps in an exasperated tone, that “it is difficult to imagine someone who would willingly choose nonselection.” The rest of the citizens are registered, polled, the results recorded, analyzed, and stored. The game also ensures that this statistical fidelity is tied to the city’s – and, when we strip the veil of allegory away, the internet’s – rapacious appetite for entertainment: for changing skies, for new clothes, for new vistas, new music, for novelty and frivolity.

In contrast to all this precisely measured noise is the relationship between Red and her love. The physicality revealed in the ending montage concentrates the game’s preoccupation with digitality. In the game, the two, as with any virtual interaction, can only connect through speech and sight, but not touch and taste. But this is an impossible restriction: a relationship divorced from physical contact is merely a facsimile; we only know (in all senses, including the biblical) our lover when we have touched them.

In the end, it is interesting to encounter a game that critiques its own medium in this way: the piece of entertainment that points the term of mere entertainment; the digital work that lightly mocks a digital existence. But I do not think this game should be taken as a critique of, say, online dating; only that the importance of the relationship is demonstrated through the contrast with the connotations of a digital environment. When the fat is cut away and the bone is scoured, the marrow of this story is love: substantial, intimate love.