Transistor – Introduction: The Parallels with Bastion and The (Un)Importance of Canon

Header image by Jen Zee.

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: I loved Transistor. No, like, loved. Every aspect of it not only works as it should, but is extraordinary in its own right: the soundtrack, the visual style, the characters, the plot, the storytelling, the dynamic, adjustable difficulty, the combat and several design decisions around it that favour experimentation within its incredibly flexible system. And all the parts fit in so well within the whole, and they all make sense within the fiction. It’s definitely up there as one of my favourite games. That said, I can’t say I had the firmest grasp on what had actually happened after my first playthrough.

Admittedly, I hadn’t delved into the bios just yet, as I was counting on my second playthrough recursion to unlock them all and read them in one go. Also, several details make much more sense once you’ve become acclimated to the city of Cloudbank. It’s definitely one of those works that asks to be experienced (at least) twice, and luckily the experience is short, dense and interesting enough to support it.

What I did notice straight away, though, were the similarities with Supergiant’s previous game, Bastion. Transistor is definitely not Bastion v. 2, but the affinities run deep: both stories are about a major Calamity that destroyed society, and the (silent) protagonists don’t really save the world in the traditional sense. Rather, they pick up the pieces, trying to carve their own small, personal space and save what they can while the world falls apart. In Bastion, civilization has collapsed before the action starts, and while in Transistor the city is being destroyed as we play, it’s still too late and Red is too powerless to stop it. We start where many games end, and no hero has been able to save the day before it’s too late.

The characters of Supergiant Games live in a world that is bigger than them, where things happen without them, and over which they have a very limited sphere of influence. If these games feel narratively more compelling than others, if they come to affect us more deeply and more personally than others, consider what this premise sounds like, even in very abstract terms, compared to a description of the life of an individual in the real world, perhaps compared to how you feel in society at large. How many Calamities, both literal and metaphorical, could happen to you and around you, tomorrow, and how would you react? Even if the gameplay progression is fairly linear and traditional, with both enemies and the Player Character growing stronger as the game goes on, these are far from typical videogame power fantasies.

Given this powerlessness, their games explore storytelling as a way to make sense of the world as it falls apart, as it turns from known into unknown, as it rearranges familiar elements into strange enemies. The characters have lost their past, their roots, their homes, their routines, nothing is familiar anymore, and as the world keeps shifting, unreliable, their sense of identity is shattered with the things and spaces it was attached to. Only they remain, and their loved ones, the ones that survived at least. Their games deal with mourning, and rebuilding.

There is no place for an omniscient narrator: the meaning of everything is changing, and even what we thought we knew isn’t actually what it seems or what it used to be. No, the narrator needs to be involved in the action, and most importantly, he needs to discover and rediscover everything, trying to understand and interpret, and then realize his mistake and tell a new story, fit things into a new interpretation, and try and try again, because no story seems to hold, no one narrative seems to fit. There is no grand, all-encompassing, ‘objective’ tale, only fragmented attempts at making sense of things. Voice actor Logan Cunningham interprets this role wonderfully, as he guides us through both games.

There is something both enticing and reassuring about his narration. Part of it is indeed to be credited to his sexy voice and compelling delivery (Logan, if you’re reading this, I’m not usually attracted to men, but if you agree to, like, narrate our romantic encounters…. You know, I am flexible.) but there’s something to be said for the psychological effect of just having a voice keep you company, no matter the words, simply a calm, reassuring, human voice. People who have experience of deep loneliness will probably recognize this process more readily than others. I myself have taken up the habit of falling asleep to some music or tv shows, even if I can’t make out the actual words, because familiar voices lull me to sleep and make the silence less oppressive and scary. Regardless of the script, simply having this narration accompany us creates a subtle but powerful bond in our minds.

As I said, I had fallen in love with the game immediately, but I wanted to know more about the plot, about the events in the game, before actually starting to analyse them and see what I could come up with for this article.

Warning: This is about to get silly, and occasionally ranty. If you just want to know about my reading of the game, skip to the End Warning Sign. I’ll re-tell any relevant plot details when discussing them in the next parts, so you won’t be missing much of anything.

What I usually do, if I’ve never played the game before, is a ‘clean’ first playthrough, paying attention but without taking notes, just going through the game, getting a first experience more similar to that of an ‘average’ player. Then I read about the game, and then I play it again, this time taking notes and testing what I’ve read against the text, and of course forming my own ideas throughout the whole process.

So it is that I started with 4 places. Firstly, the Wikia for Transistor. I’m sad to say that it’s such a desolate place: it contains very little information, even less speculation, and it’s not at all organized. Some pages are badly written and just plain wrong. Can’t say it was a fruitful trip. (Turns out the Gamepedia is much better) So I went to Youtube, because I remembered George Weidman (SuperBunnyHop) making a video about Transistor’s story. It’s not a bad video, but there’s not much insight in it. It lacks ambition. It’s mostly just a collection of relevant information from the plot, a few acute observations and the explanation of a couple of concepts. Perhaps I’m biased, it must have been more confusing and harder to decode at launch than when I played it. But, as he said, it’s more an attempt to reconstruct the text, rather than to interpret it, and still his theories don’t feel compelling or complete. (Don’t worry George, you’ll soon have the chance to redeem yourself!) Besides, I struggle to call it a bad video, when compared to the other videos – just a handful, surprisingly – that try to discuss the plot. I’m not going to link to them out of respect for the effort they certainly put into making those videos, but their work so often contradicts the text itself, it gives the impression they weren’t paying enough attention to it.

My first two attempts were failures, but I persisted, and I moved on to Transistor’s very own subreddit. I never learn, do I? May someone save my soul.

I opened tabs for every single thread that talked about the story. Six months of speculation and theorycrafting in one Firefox window. To be fair, I did learn quite a few things that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. Mostly, they fleshed out for me the theory of Cloudbank as a computer world, with the Cradle as the CPU, the Process as a computer Process. This is probably the thread that is most worth reading. But doing that research was oh so painful. Most posts were not only horribly written, but for every relevant or semi-interesting observation, the same person would go on and balance that with a dozen stupidities or banalities. It was very frustrating to sift through all that and discard 95% of all I was reading in order to collect only those nuggets of useful information that would have helped me.

And then, a few things just upset me. Despite my criticisms above, those people were really trying to get somewhere. But some random person would always come along and tell everyone else that they were overthinking and overanalysing, that those details were meaningless, just randomly put there by the creators. I should just ignore those people – they’re everywhere – but honestly, I find it an insult to critics, and most importantly, to creators, who spend months or years of their lives working hard on something and have to see these idiots just dismissing all the love and energies and efforts they put into their work. It says more about what kind of shallow work those people would make if they were creators themselves, than anything else.

But after that, I laughed. I laughed so hard. And it was thanks to Reddit. More precisely, thanks to this thread. I took a picture for posterity.

Is the main character a man trapped in a woman's body- - transistor 2014-12-03 12-57-56Not even going to comment.

Moving on, I thought to myself that the Steam forums couldn’t possibly be any worse than what I had just experienced. Did I already say that I never learn? I must be an incurable optimistic or something.

Actually, it was only when I started reading steam that I realized there wasn’t really much toxicity on Reddit, after all. Perhaps the Transistor subreddit was very well moderated, but in comparison Steam was a cesspit of hate, anger and misogyny.

Unfortunately, some people are born with an empathy deficit. But we shouldn’t discriminate them because of it. The politically correct term is differently human. I learned they exist, because of Steam. Thanks Steam.

In this thread, OP can’t play the game because he is male, and Transistor has a fixed female protagonist. “The problem is that gender is a fundamental part of one’s identity and for games to be immersive it would even be better to have a gender match between different alien species than the gender mismatch itself.” The developers are misandrists, too, they “obviously had a sexist [against men] agenda in mind” because the majority of gamers are male, you see. “It is a well known fact that western culture has a anti-male bias”. He goes on to cite very ‘reputable’ sources that I refuse to link to.

Instead of telling him that he’s an idiot, that putting himself in someone else’s shoes (admitting he really identifies with the player character that much) could be an interesting, enriching experience and could broaden his mind, and that he’s an idiot, some people engaged with his reasoning, arguing that, say, if 90% of gamers are male and 10% are female, there should also be 1 female protagonist every 9 male protagonists. That’s as far as I’m comfortable reporting, there are some more ridiculous claims in there if you want to have a fun time.

Oh, you want more, you say? There you go, dear.

Given all that, it was surprising to find the most comprehensive reconstruction of the events of the plot right there on Steam. I’d make a couple of amendments here and there, and when, in a handful of paragraphs, it tries to get into analysis, as opposed to mere reconstruction, it quickly becomes superficial and misguided, but as far as explaining the plot through the current fan theories, it does a pretty good job.

Although one thing did make me unhealthily upset, and not only in this guide. People seem to be very confused about what literary analysis is. That is not literary analysis, except in a few isolated paragraphs. Merely reconstructing the events of the text is not analysing. I’m not sure why it makes me so angry, but it does.

Oh, and Steam totally won, against Reddit. The best and the worst is on Steam. I’m sorry Reddit, you need to work harder.

— End Warning —

As you may imagine, all this reading took me several hours over a few days. It wasn’t all wasted time, but I felt a certain dissatisfaction with what I had been doing. And not only because, after the first few reddit threads I started learning things at a much, much slower rate, but because an enormous amount of time and energy had been spent on mere reconstruction of the events, and no one even tried going any further than that. (Worse: often people would present their theories without even bothering reading old threads first, suggesting that they didn’t actually care all that much after all.) It boggled my mind: why are you doing all this work, why are you putting in all this collective effort if you’re not even going to try and talk about what it means?

As I kept reading, I grew more and more aware that this is exactly one of the major threads of the story of Metal Gear Solid 2. MGS is a series renowned for very convoluted plots, and it has fans speculating and trying to reconstruct what actually happened. Those communities are very preoccupied with reconstructing what is canon in the universe of their beloved game. Funnily enough, the game itself says that it doesn’t matter.

These questions were deliberately left open to make room for a greater message, which is to stop worrying about canon and learn to love subtext. Of course this story is a linear mess of holes and contradictions, but, in the end, you’re supposed to have your own fun trying to come to the conclusions yourself.

Solid Snake: Listen, don’t obsess over words so much. Find the meaning behind the words, then decide. […] I know you didn’t have much in terms of choices this time, but everything you felt, thought about during this mission is yours, and what you decide to do with that is your choice.

This message isn’t in Transistor, but it can be applied to it and to its community. Games with vague or convoluted plots tend to get this kind of treatment more often than not, and it’s important to realize that merely dissecting the plot, or checking that everything makes sense within the rules of the fiction, only matters so much. (There are other interesting parallels between Transistor and MGS2, especially concerning information – collection, overload, manipulation, curation; but there will be no space to go into the comparison in detail.)

It’s with this premise in mind that I want to start delving into the game.

Part 1 of my work on Transistor is this way. It’s more rigorous and less silly. And long. Thank you for reading and have a lovely day.

See you next time! Meow ❤


9 thoughts on “Transistor – Introduction: The Parallels with Bastion and The (Un)Importance of Canon”

  1. Thanks for doing this, I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to really take a crack at this game, probably my favorite of the year. I look forward to reading your analysis!


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