Two main threads run through Transistor: the personal, private, intimate storyline centred on Red, and the socio-political focus of the arc involving the Camerata and the city of Cloudbank, almost a character itself. While separate, these two themes are intertwined and meet, as we’ll see, most notably in the character of Sybil Reisz, and then of course during the action of the game itself. I’d like to start from Cloudbank, and the Camerata.
You can find the (entirely skippable) introduction here.
Cloudbank, where almost all the action in the game takes place, is a city in virtual reality, as the name suggests. Knowledge of the outside is sketchy and speculative at best, and equally unspecified is the meaning and consequences of death in this space. Both the outside and death are often referred to as “The Country”, and the game over screen also shows a countryside image, but what “The Country” actually amounts to is unclear. Either way, Cloudbank appears to be a utopia, especially before the beginning of the game: it is a direct democracy, in which there seems to be no shortage of material resources and no poverty. Through several panels around the city, people can vote on pretty much everything and shape the city to their liking, including things such as the weather, and the colour of the sky. After the votes have been cast, the decision of the majority quickly becomes real, without need for manual labour.
But the city’s status as utopia falls apart as soon as one starts noticing several small but unsettling details: the city is still divided in districts based on social standing, and there are still issues of discrimination. Politician Niola Chein had to fight against inequality, educate non-voters and boost the visibility of the works of minorities and underrepresented groups, which are considered by some to be “meritless perspectives undeserving of notice”. Also the “social challenges” that Bailey Gilande had to experience are likely to be attributed to her falling outside the gender binary – her gender is not M or F, but X.
Further details erode the ideal that Cloudbank would like to represent: visually it is wonderful, at least the part we see, a dense urban area with pretty lights, impressive buildings and no dirt, dust or trash, but there only seems to be one source of news, the OVC, and the comments are pre-moderated, i.e. they need to be approved before appearing for everyone else to see. The extent of censorship, propaganda and communication control that actually happens is unclear, but the oppressive structure of surveillance is already there, and we do see Red often censoring herself when commenting, re-writing her comments to be less anti-establishment. A comment on the cancellation of a sportive event begins as “No way the authorities are giving it to you straight”, but in the end she turns it into “No way the Clientele [one of the two teams] are going to beat us anyway.” She knew the former wouldn’t have been accepted.
(Oh, you’d like some material about online surveillance? Here, have a talk by Julian Assange and some Cypherpunks activists. There’s an abridged version, if the uncut one is too long for your liking. “The [technological] architecture defines the political situation, […] even if the best people are in control of it” – Jacob Appelbaum)
So, while superficially Cloudbank looks like an utopia, a place where a petition is enough to create a bridge, and food can be complimentary, all is not well. The issues are subtle, but run deep, and this is where the Camerata come in.
The Camerata are a secret subversive, revolutionary organization founded by Engineer Royce Brackett and Administrator Grant Kendrell. Both of them were, in very different ways, public servants: their job was to follow up on people’s wishes, and implement the results of votes and ballots in practice. For Royce, that meant designing “roads, buildings and byways”, for Grant it meant keeping the everyday operations of Cloudbank running smoothly. Both men realized at one point the fickleness, the banality, the lack of a strong and consistent vision of the will of the people as manifested through their votes. In his long career, Grant “had fought for virtually every social position at one time or another, always pleasing the majority”. (It’s important to understand that Grant is not a politician, his job requires him to facilitate and implement the results of the votes, no matter what they may be, leaving aside his own personal ideas). Even more unsettling is Royce’s realization not only that his work was ephemeral, as it often had to be replaced at the people’s whim, but that the will of the people changed in a predictable and cyclical fashion.
Furthermore, Royce made a ground-breaking discovery: the Process. Remember that we’re inside a virtual reality, inside a computer. The Process, like a computer process, is what ‘makes things happen’. It seems that the people of Cloudbank didn’t really know how the things that they decided to build actually came to life: it was the Process that built them. Royce discovers the Process, and also the Transistor (a fundamental part of a computer processor), through which he could give instructions to the Process. The two being friends, Royce tells Grant about his discovery.
“The Camerata was just the two of them at first, and its ranks were never meant to exceed a number to be counted on one hand. They encapsulated their beliefs in an expression, that when everything changes, nothing changes. And they had in their possession something [The Transistor, by extension the Process] that would move their mission forward. 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.”
The other two members of the Camerata are Editor and Journalist Asher Kendrell and Sybil Reisz, organizer of social events. Sybil’s motivation for joining is unclear, and, although we can speculate, (extensive contact with people as required by her job may have made Sybil see people the way Grant did) it seems to be different from those of the other 3 members. She is certainly less determined to work for their cause. This detail will be important to understand Sybil and the downfall of the Camerata. As for Asher, he makes a similar discovery to Grant’s and Royce’s: Cloudbank’s recorded history is full of “dead ends and contradictions. The facts simply did not add up”. In other words, Cloudbank has no history.
The discoveries of Asher, Grant and Royce are all complementary, facets of the same phenomenon, which is summed up in the Camerata’s motto: “When everything changes, nothing changes”. (More than a motto, it’s a framework of interpretation, a lens through which they read their own society) Their story is a powerful and compelling critique of democracy, especially direct democracy.
“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter” – Winston Churchill (who didn’t have access to Reddit or the Steam forums)
The Camerata are intellectuals, worried for the health and future of their city. They serve their city, they love their city, but they’re frustrated by it. Cloudbank, they realize, is stuck in mediocrity. Stuck in meaningless loops. People every day vote on a myriad of things, including the colour of the sky, the weather for tomorrow, the winner of a singing contest, and whether there should be a bridge here. But what about the important things? Are these trivial freedoms being used to distract people from exercising their most important, vital freedoms? You can decide the colour of the sky, but you can’t comment freely under news articles. Is this technology enhancing our lives, or is it just a weapon of mass distraction? And also, even if the people want a bridge here, do they understand all the socio-economic implications of it? Can they really make an informed decision? Do they have a strong, consistent vision for what the city should be like, or are they just considering their own short-term convenience?
“We love our city the way it is, didn’t want to see it fade because someone didn’t like the colour of the sky” – Asher Kendrell
The Camerata’s motto, “When everything changes, nothing changes” has two, complementary meanings:
- When everything superficially seems to change, people are content but nothing important actually changes, the people in power use the apparent change to stay in power. Indeed, this is old Conservative wisdom: the same ideological structures and power relations, the same structures of oppression are perpetuated, even if they look different. And the simple appearance of change may be enough to instil the belief that things are actually changing, therefore trumping any backlash, any wish of rebellion. Cloudbank believes it’s growing up, but in fact it is stuck, it lacks identity, it lacks a history and a future. This is the primary meaning of the expression, and the Camerata’s major concern.
- The core identity of a city, much like that of an individual, need not change, but a strong identity may require several superficial changes to achieve self-realization. Think of an adolescent that grows into adulthood: their desires and fears, their basic personality, their worldview may remain unchanged, but as they mature the external manifestation of those instances may change significantly. Think of an artist repeating the same core theme that defines them in new and more refined ways. This is what the Camerata want to achieve with Cloudbank: they don’t want to change the core identity of the city, but they want to realize its full potential, they want it to move on and evolve in meaningful ways.
“We only wanted your point of view: To give the people what they didn’t know they wanted” – Asher to Red
The Camerata want to help Cloudbank. They want to rid it of the mental banality and the general apathy that have possessed it. They have the best intentions. They don’t want to take freedom away from anyone, but their privileged position, a consequence of their expertise and their experience, allows them to see further than the average voter. People think they know what they want, but their ever-changing whim says otherwise. The Camerata know what people really want – better: they know what they need.
Not just the 4 of them, to be sure. The Camerata are not omniscient. They are not enough. But people tend to follow those figures that give them something they want or need, even if more often than not they don’t realize it. The Camerata need the help of those figures, their perspectives, their ideas, their expertise. If people are so fascinated by Farrah Yon-Dale’s skies, there must be something in them that speaks to people in a profound way and that cannot be simply replicated. There must be something in Shomar Shasberg’s comedy. Something more than mere entertainment, more than mere apathy, more than just another way of passing the time.
The Camerata started kidnapping notable artists, intellectuals and public figures (from here on, I’ll use the catch-all word ‘celebrities’), and integrating them inside the Transistor. What this effectively amounts to, is that they will be able to guide the Process and shape reality not only basing themselves on their own ideas, but also on the ideas, personalities, abilities and creativity of the people they absorbed, effectively creating a technocracy.
I have to admit I am very fascinated by elitist ideas (even though I don’t think I can live up to the standards of that elite myself, which creates very interesting cocktails in my head) despite being aware that the distance between what the Camerata are trying to do and a totalitarian regime is short and the boundary is easy to cross. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for how totalitarian democracies can be, if you care to look under the surface. And the fact that a regime may appear to uphold freedom while being oppressive in every way that matters is almost more dangerous than a straight-up regime, for it defuses energies working for actual change. (See: “When Everything Changes, Nothing Changes”, Meaning n° 1)
Still, the Camerata are depicted by the game, if not as good, at least as well intentioned. They mean to do good, whatever you may think of how they’re trying to do it in practice. They’re far from your typical villain who wants to rise to power, and their purpose is not to oppress anyone. The game also seems to agree on the mediocrity of the general population. Consider the fact that we never see the common people, for instance. We see a few dead bodies, all celebrities. If the reports of the OVC are true, throughout the game we should see hundreds of bodies and people being absorbed by the Process, but we never see one common person, whether dead or alive. Their invisibility reflects on their (lack of) importance, not only relative to their society, but also in the eyes of the text itself.
Claire Hosking has criticized the ideal of the Camerata in an original way, appealing to
“the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s which encouraged citizens to see cities as collective works expressing common values. This city is beautiful, cool, exciting, intriguing, beguiling. By glamourising this democratic city, Transistor (intentionally or not) implies that a collaborative, collective art process enriches cities.”
Following Royce’s lexicon of the City as blank canvas and the Transistor as brush, she opposes the Camerata’s appropriation of the tools of artistic expression, achieving their own selfish freedom by denying freedom to everyone else. But in doing this, in aiming for their idea of “one true art” they destroy their own freedom too. I don’t agree with her reading, but her piece is nonetheless interesting and thought-provoking, and comes from a background we don’t often see in games criticism.
Transistor casts light on several problematic aspects of mass society and mass entertainment: issues of (loss of) identity, of homologation, of not being able to find one’s place and one’s voice, of the feeling of being Outsiders. People either become celebrities, or they become numbers without individuality. This is reinforced by the virtual reality setting, the Archives that store, sort and tally the data and votes associated with every person (again, the parallel with internet surveillance and loss of privacy is evident) and the cold, clinical prompts we often read on the UI. When approaching a staircase, we may read the number of stairs, when approaching a pool the number of average simultaneous users. Other tooltips are more uncanny, dehumanizing: number of people panicked, of dreams inspired, veracity of findings (expressed as percentage).
Perhaps the idea of Recursion – i.e. the fact that what we normally call New Game Plus is actually integrated in the fiction – suggests that these problems and these stories are either cyclical or at least archetypical, that they’re bound to resurface in time and that they’re common to several societies.
Even more unsettling would be to compare the Process to the proletariat in Marxist fashion, since they fulfil the same role within the respective worlds, that is, the lowest kind of manual labour. In this reading, the general, apathetic population would correspond to the bourgeoisie, while the workers would lack even that modicum of agency and self-awareness, only blindly and mindlessly obeying the dominant ideology and the psychological manipulation of the powerful, like computer processes obeying commands. Admittedly, the text doesn’t particularly pursue this perspective, but it does allow space for it without denying it. The fact that the Process tries to imitate its surroundings, taking on human shape, and is obsessed by Red and her posters, taking pictures of her etc, points to it being a bit more than just a computer process and echoes the ideological desire of the poor to look like and live the life of the bourgeoisie and of celebrities, reproducing the same structures that oppress them. On the other hand, the upper classes’ lack of awareness concerning the Process reflects our own (as in, people living in the First World) lack of awareness concerning where and how our technology is produced (e.g. Conflict minerals, Exploitation of labour) as well as our dependency on that invisible labour and its products. It also makes for a nice contrast to the bios of celebrities: information about people and Process is conveyed in the same way, by inspecting functions and limiters respectively. Except that there is no official data on the Process: again, they’re invisible, we only have Royce’s observations and comments, which read a lot like an anthropologist’s.
If that wasn’t enough, Red’s songs are pervaded by similar concerns (even if occasionally it may make more sense to see the lyrics as spoken by characters other than Red). Keep in mind that Red’s file says that her songs stirred controversy, even though she never wrote them with that intent. This is consistent with behaviour observed under several different regimes: the work that would often be censored would not have any overt political message, but would speak to the individual encouraging self-reflection and attitudes that would eventually come clashing against the oppressive system. The connection is not immediately apparent, but it runs deep, and if totalitarianisms have always been so concerned by this kind of things, it probably means it’s effective too. The inextricable link between public and private is one of Transistor’s defining themes.
Take “We All Become”: it’s permeated by a preoccupation with the loss of one’s identity, by the opposing stances of “lying down never struck me as something fun” and “every word a defiance”. There’s an oppressive atmosphere pushing for homologation, a “wound” that is “never healin’” and turns people “numb”. The singer wants to escape that: “Think I’ll go where it suits me” not where others want me to go, “moving out to the Country […] before we all become one”. Again, I’m uncertain how to read the Country, because it’s a concept in between death, outside of Cloudbank, outside of the virtual reality, and even inside the Transistor. But the message is clear either way. “Stop grievin’” what you’ve already lost to that wound, that numbness, and “start leavin’”. “Run!”.
“Signals”, which should probably be read as Royce’s song, reinforces similar points: “Look out below, I know there’s no Decision, just Collision, it’s all arranged”. The people down there don’t actually have any discernible independent will, they’re just interlocking physical systems, predictable like the collision of billiard balls, or atoms. (Note the choice of words, alluding to the field of physics and mathematics) And voting is as inefficient a system of expression as “smoke signals” The intellectual distances himself from that: “keep pretending we’re one”, as if the majority of the votes could represent everyone. More: “I won’t become a number in the system, zeroes and ones, not me, not me”. Other parts of the song hint to the beginning of something, “step out beyond the edge and start the motion”, most likely an allusion to the Camerata’s plan to elevate Cloudbank above its current mediocrity.
So far, I’ve tried to paint a picture as sympathetic as possible towards the Camerata. I’ve explained their worldview, the issues they see and they want to fix, their intentions, the fact that they’re fundamentally good. This is how I believe the text sees them, and if nothing else, this is how I see them.
I’ve willingly ignored that their plan fails. In fact, it fails before even starting. The reason why it fails is Sybil. More specifically, the reason why it fails is that Sybil’s motivation is not ‘pure’, she brings into the Camerata interests that are personal, not political, not belonging to the group. She tries to use the Camerata for her own selfish goal, not to do what’s best for the city.
This is what sets the plot in motion, and this is where the game starts. Sybil is infatuated with Red, but Red is already in a relationship. In short, Sybil is in a typical situation of unrequited love. Remember that Sybil’s task, within the Camerata, was to designate targets to integrate into the Transistor for the Camerata’s plans, since, as an event organizer, she knew a lot of celebrities, she knew their habits, she knew when to find them alone or make them be alone. So, she designates Red as a target for the Camerata (and Red fits the description, she could definitely be a valid target, she has much in common with others who had been absorbed before her) and tells them when to find her alone. In fact, Sybil knows, at that time Red will not be alone, she will be with her lover, whom we will call Breach, after the function he will generate inside the Transistor. When the time comes, The Camerata show up, and Red is not alone: Breach intercepts the Transistor to protect Red and is stabbed by it. For unexplained reasons – there is some speculation to be made – the Transistor malfunctions, and some sort of disaster happens. When Red wakes up, far from where she was, she finds her lover has been absorbed by the Transistor, but he can still speak to her, and she becomes the new owner and user of the Transistor. Throughout the events, Red also lost her voice, probably a consequence of being only partially absorbed. Also, due to the Transistor malfunctioning and losing its connection to the Cradle, the Process stops receiving any orders, and, starts converting the whole city, including its citizens, to a blank slate, awaiting new orders. (The Cradle is to the Process like a CPU is to a computer process – think of the Transistor losing its connection to the Cradle as if you couldn’t control your computer because you unplugged your mouse and keyboard; the Process attacking the city is like deleting data from an Hard Disk, restoring it all to 0s and waiting to store new data)
First off, the likely reason why the Transistor malfunctions is that it cannot find any data to associate with Breach’s trace. (roughly, a manifestation of his identity. To oversimplify, you could say his soul) Incidentally, the Traces absorbed by the Transistor also have a gameplay use: each Trace generates a function (a computer command, a verb like copy, or delete) i.e. a move that we will be able to use in combat. We don’t know Breach’s name, but the function associated with him is called Breach(). So, Breach is an outsider: there is no recorded information about him. We don’t know much about him, but we can safely say he considers Cloudbank his home, he is familiar with the neighbourhoods, celebrities, the OVC and everything. He is very much a citizen of Cloudbank, but he is an outsider: either he has erased all the information about himself, or he has never voted, he has no profile on the OVC system, he hasn’t commented, he hasn’t used it to order food from Junction Jan’s. I’d like to say more about him, about the idea of the Outsider, but perhaps simply noting the disruptive effects an Outsider can have on the system, just by living outside of it and refusing to accept the shackles it disguises as commodity, is a powerful enough image. It says it all, really. And it also says a lot about Red, that she’d choose to be in a relationship with someone like him. The polar opposite of the social butterfly Sybil.
Secondly, I’d like to put these events into argumentative form, given the background I’ve described thus far. In fact, I think Transistor makes a powerful and original argument concerning why the Camerata’s vision ultimately fails. There could be many arguments against their project: that democracy – an idolatrised concept that means very different things to different people – would be better because the people should have a right to decide for themselves; that power corrupts; that it is not apparent whether the Camerata, or Plato’s philosophers, or intellectuals and experts would the best and most suited to govern, that they would be just only thanks to their technical expertise. But Transistor looks favourably on The Camerata, it acknowledges that democracy degenerates in practices, and colours the Camerata with good moral intentions. Imagine, if you like, that you could have the individual you look up to and respect the most, and that has the best knowledge and expertise for the role as well as a strong morality you completely agree with, leading your state, nation, government or community. He would never use that power for selfish gain. Wouldn’t that work? Wouldn’t that be the best of all possible worlds? An illuminated monarch that just did the right thing.
Transistor’s objection is that that form of power is a dream that should remain just a dream, because it is not sustainable, and it is not reproducible. What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that Grant would probably have guided Cloudbank to the best of his capabilities and most selflessly, without compromising his ethics and his morality, but that wouldn’t have been enough. And not only because he, like everyone else, is fallible. The problem is that Grant wouldn’t have been able to do everything by himself, and that even if he could have, at a certain point he’d have died, and he’d have to be replaced. In both cases, somebody else would have to exercise that power. And, even with the best intentions, Grant wouldn’t have been able to be certain of the motivation of this new person. And the dream could have quickly turned into a nightmare through no fault of his own.
This is what happens with Sybil: the Camerata cannot be just Grant and Royce, they need others to be effective, to make a change. But one of the people they bring in, Sybil, is not aligned with their ideals, her motivation is not pure. She uses her political power, the strength of the Camerata, for her selfish gain. She too probably had the best intentions, but her unrequited love and her jealousy are driving her mad. She shows us that, as much as we try to separate them, the personal and public sphere are inevitably intertwined. And once power is concentrated in the hands of the few, it only takes a couple of corrupted nodes for the whole system to become corrupted. The reason why this argument is more compelling than others like simply saying “Power always corrupts” is that no one can say “This would not happen if it was me, or if it was this specific person of inflexible moral stature”
But not all is lost, I believe. Yes, democracy is stuck in banal mediocrity, and a government made of only the very best isn’t an acceptable solution either. Yet, Transistor, silently, offers a positive alternative. It’s not ideal, it’s not an utopia, it’s not an easy way out, but it’s better than nothing. The frustrated intellectual shouldn’t follow in the wake of the Camerata, but should act more like a very marginal figure, the Journalist Amelia Garbur. Amelia works as an “Associate Editor” for the OVC. She’s such a minor figure that she doesn’t even have a page on gamepedia. Nonetheless, she accompanies us throughout the game by writing news as the situation in Cloudbank evolves. And she keeps writing until the very end.
The fact that she is so fundamental to our understanding of Cloudbank, more than almost any character, and yet her value goes unrecognized by the player is significant. Still, consider the way all these characters die: the people die just as numbers without individuality. Silently, off-screen, invisible. Sybil dies at the hands of Red, having lost her mind. (More on that in the next part). Grant and Asher kill themselves out of overwhelming guilt for the consequences of their actions. Royce is killed by Red in a boss fight. How much more respectable and full of dignity are Amelia’s last moments.
One reporter’s eyewitness account of the city’s final hours.
Posted 06-28-67 by Amelia Garbur, Associate Editor
As I stand here on the eastern perimeter awaiting the inevitable, I am surrounded by my community, and I am at peace. It has been my honor and my privilege helping spread the news of the day among the people of this city, and my only regret is having no more time to share with you all. To the west I see nothing, and to the east there is nothing, and so we wait, together, shoulder to shoulder. We will not leave our fair city under any circumstance. I suspect even the Process has figured that out by now. Farewell.
She dies with her head high, proud of what she did, what she has spent her life doing, and the positive effects of her efforts. She doesn’t die surrounded by ‘mediocre commoners’, but by “my community”, the community she helped build.
I like to imagine Amelia coming from the same background as the Camerata, sharing their ideas. But instead of taking matters into her own, fallible hands, she’s the intellectual that tries to educate the people, to spread awareness. Like the Camerata, she may have strong attachment to the city itself, and a love & hate relationship with its people, but instead of taking control away from them, she tries to make them see what she sees in order for them to make better decisions for themselves. And if she feels excluded, if she feels that her voice is not being heard, if she feels frustrated with the current state of affairs, she uses those feelings as her drive and redoubles her efforts. She tries to make Cloudbank better by making her citizens better. Not from the top down, but from the bottom up.
The second and last part of my work on Transistor is here.
Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you next time. Meow ❤