Thoughts on Transistor – A Dream of the City

Supergiant Games’ lastest RPG, Transistor, is a treat for the senses. Immersed in the gorgeous artwork, which blends geometric lines with an Art Nouveau style, which harkens to Klimt with its gilded flourishes, to the lush trip-hop soundtrack and vocals – you are instantly transported into a cyberpunk world dripping with saturated colours and the whispers of decay.

Initially, I found Transistor beautiful, but far too short, with the revelations coming hard and fast only towards the last half of the game. I had also missed out on responding to the first five or so OVC terminals and a huge part of the dialogue between Red and the Transistor. Playing the game a second time through, I began to have a better appreciation for its storytelling and the clues scattered throughout the game.

WARNING: Spoilers abound in this discussion of the game. Please do not read further if you have not completed Transistor!

Transistor is not a game that gives up its secrets easily. You begin in medias res – with no cutscenes to prepare you, simply thrown into the fray. You pull the sword from the dead body of the man and begin your quest. No HUD screen or helpful tips pop up to guide you, and it makes Red’s desperation and confusion even more palpable. You pick a direction and are quickly thrown into your first fight.

To make head or tails of the game, you have to listen closely to the voice of your Virgil – the glowing sword who is your only companion in a world turned upside down. Cloudbank at this point is far from the Underworld, but as you wander deeper through the city, the Process begins to corrupt the colourful, fluid lines of the buildings, eventually turning it into a maze of stark, white-washed Escher corridors. The slow creep of the Process’ tendrils begins as tiny scattered polyps that you can run through, and later become man-high walls that you have to actively hack apart and destroy to pass. In the beginning, the enemies are clunky and mechanical against an organic world – later they are become disturbingly humanoid, the only simulacra of life against the desaturated background.

Although Red is mute, you quickly get a sense of her personality through her actions. Looking all the world like a indolent Mucha pinup girl in her concert posters, she shatters that image by ripping her gown, throwing on a motorcycle jacket and dragging a sword the size of her body along to get payback. Through the musing of your guide, you come to realise what Transistor is about – it is a love story. Red is on a quest for revenge, but not only to get her own voice back. She is out to avenge her dead lover, who now speaks to her from inside her instrument of death – I love you, I love you, I love you.

How exactly, is unclear, as you cut a broad swathe of destruction through the machines that stand in your way, as the city becomes increasingly Processed. The Transistor remarks that they make a fitting pair – a man without a body, and a woman without a voice. They become whole together, as Red steps out of time itself, and unleases world-bending magic through the Transistor with her Turn() sequences. Although most video games rely on the progression of kill monsters -> level up, Transistor quietly points out this uneasy logic in an original way. Every half-Processed dead body they find puts more Function powers at her (or should I say – their) disposal.  The Transistor is capable of synthesizing the dead and dying’s essence and turning them into Functions via “integration”. Red literally grows stronger the more she is steeped in death, both organic and inorganic.

By the time you reach the final stages – bristling with your death-spoils and a weapon that can manipulate time and space itself – you learn that in an ironic twist, by taking the Transistor on her quest, Red has upset the delicate balance holding the Process in check. Originally conceived as the greatest urban-redevelopment tool, the Process is now running amok without the Transistor’s power and consuming the city.

Which leads one to speculate on the nature of Cloudbank itself – was it ever a real city to begin with? There are hints of this in the beginning of the game where you are asked to vote on the weather forecast – later, when the Process takes over, Red can change the environment herself, with the Brush she unwittingly carries. When the rules grounding the fragile reality fall apart, the game shifts to a more sinister tone.

In the final battle with Royce, we see the most disturbing scene yet – banks of frozen forms of the Functions you have integrated with the Transistor, each one as blank as the faceless lover. The Transistor has gone from a weapon, to a catalyst, to perhaps something far more powerful which was only hinted at before – a limbo where the souls of Cloudbank rest, dreaming up their new world order. Red and Royce do battle, and the loser does not die, but is sentenced to be trapped forever in the field of souls.

Upon her return, Red is triumphant, reborn, and the Transistor’s true potential is finally unlocked. She can turn blank blocks into golden statues and paint the entire Processed world however she/they see fit. Is this the same world you left? Red does the only thing she has been longing to the entire time – she sweeps the Brush of Time and Space over the scene of the crime, but the Transistor’s powers are limited. It cannot bring the dead back to life; it cannot reawaken the dreamer. If Cloudbank was indeed a dream of a city, now it is solely Red’s dream, the blank canvas waiting for its new master. It is full of glittering promise but obviously lacking the one thing she was fighting for all this time.

Red’s choice seems apparent to me, given all that has transpired. Who would choose to be queen of an empty realm? The real world – the only real world to Red – is beside her lover. Having held all of eternity in her hand, Red understands the nature of the world within and without, and she makes her only choice, to be integrated, and to become part of a shared dream.

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.” – Zhuangzi

Was Cloudbank a dream, painted over by hackneyed artists like Camerata? Is the world of the Transistor, and by extension, the Country, a state of eternal grace or damnation? Where does that leave us? To our protagonist, none of this truly matters. Perhaps everything was real, and nothing was. Out in the Country, the sky is a perfect, cloudless blue and Red finds her voice again.