Transistor: A Love Story

transistor red blue opening scene

“When everything changes, nothing changes” is the catchphrase of the Camerata, the antagonists of Transistor. They live in Cloudbank, a digital city where the citizens have the ability to change every aspect of the city via a central voting system. Anything that can be voted on is voted on, resulting in choices that reflect the lowest common denominator making everything including the weather perfectly bland. Things are constantly changing, but all the changes in the city are superficial and uninteresting.

The Camerata want to change this. They gained control over the Process, which is the underlying system of the city, by removing the prominent figures of the city and storing their code, in effect their souls, into the Transistor. Over time, they want to become the sole agents of change of the city. Grant Kendrell, the leader of the Camerata, from his bio:

By now he had realized he had fought for virtually every social position at one time or another, always pleasing the majority. Over time this left a hollow feeling in
his heart. He had his own position on many matters, his own dreams and desires. But he had learned to keep those thoughts in check.”

 “ Administrator Kendrell, ever familiar with the solemn burden of responsibility, knew more about the administration than anyone.
If anyone knew what was best for 
Cloudbank, it was him.”

In Grant Kendrell, we see a man who wanted to serve the city, but could not enact on what he found to be the best course of action. He had to do the bidding of others. In our world, Grant Kendrell would be one of the best politicians around, serving the people instead of his own self interest. Over time, he turns from a public servant working for the people into a sort of Hobbesian philosopher-king. He believes that he himself knows what is best for the city, and like Hobbes, believes that people do not have the capacity to rule themselves. In Cloudbank, the Process provides the structure and functions of the city, even though it is not a completely sovereign entity. A botched assassination of Red, a very popular and talented singer, causes the Camerata to lose the Transistor. Out of their hands, the Transistor is no longer able to control the Process, which starts attacking the city to change it to its original shape. Much like formatting a hard-drive, the Process want to erase the city and revert it to the tabula rasa it supposedly began as.

The reason for this failed assassination attempt is later revealed to be the act of a jealous fan, or maybe even former lover. Sybil, a member of the Camerata, tricks the small group into killing Red’s lover. Unbeknownst to Sybil, this act of envy begins the end of the world. The story is about what people will do in the name of love and the tragic and uplifting results of those actions but the game is more of a character study of Red and her lover.

The game gives us only a little bit of information about the world and by the end, a lot of questions remain unanswered, intentionally left vague. Negative reviews often bring up this style of narrative delivery, calling it pretentious. Personally, I believe that the word pretentious should not be used when evaluating a work, whether it is a videogame, book, movie, or TV show. Often people use the word pretentious when they are unable to extrapolate a meaning from a work while recognizing that there was an intent for meaning in it. While pretentious works might exist, most of the time it is used to describe something that the viewer or player did not understand and thus did not like. This is particularly prevalent in videogame reviews and I feel it is because narrative delivery in games tend to follow a certain style or are extremely brief.

Most games, notably RPGs, have many immersion breaking moments where the game dumps exposition into the lap of the player. Other games make it obviously clear what is happening through other means, clearly distinguishing who the bad guys are and why you want to kill them. The burden on the player to make meaning of the narrative is very light. While videogames are generally active, narrative delivery has generally been passive, no matter what devices are used to deliver them. Transistor is a game that breaks that mould and increases the burden of interpretation on the player.

It won’t appeal to everyone, but it does not make the game bad, and it does not make the game pretentious. Hiding or omitting certain aspects of a story is a well established literary device and does not mean that the author is assigning greater importance to the work than it possesses. It is a way to control and direct the narrative. If the gaps within Transistor’s story were filled, it would not change the plot, any interpreted meanings, or the emotional impact of the ending. Games have been experimenting in delivering narrative for a long time but still meet opposition when they try to do something new.

When everything changes, nothing changes.

Transistor is not trying to change how stories are told in games, but  it is part of a recent trend in more intricate story-telling (The Banner Saga also does this in a different way which I have written about before.)  Despite a vocal minority who oppose this type of narrative delivery and meaning, I am happy that studios keep releasing interesting and refreshing games such as Transistor.

We demand games to have a story, even the games that definitely don’t need one. If we are going to work at mastering a game’s mechanics, we should also be willing to work on a game’s story.

 

 

 

 

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DEMOCRACY’S MEDIOCRITY & ELITISM’S DANGERS – A great write up of the socio-political story in Transistor.

We All Become – One of the great pieces of original music made for the game. (the whole soundtrack is amazing)

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Comments

  1. Very well said. When I look at the reviews for a game I think I might like, I’m always cautious when I see “mixed” or “mostly negative.” Such tags are often misleading. It’s important to read the reviews themselves and see the reasons why many people don’t like a game. When the positive reviews are glowing, and the negative ones include phrases like “too short,” “pretentious,” or “trying to be artsy,” I know to ignore them. Not every game is for everyone, but I dislike the reflex to dismiss something as unworthy simply because it’s doing something different or unexpected, or because so many people expect games to follow different standards than other art forms.

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