Most of the things I’ve talked about in Part 1 actually happen off-screen, before the game proper begins. It’s all backstory, reconstructed from bios, dialogues and clues gathered as we play. The real protagonists of the game are Red and Breach, not the Camerata. Their love story brings ideas down to earth, makes them come alive, lets us touch them. Through its focus on intimacy, it recognizes the fundamental importance of physicality. Transistor is a celebration of the physical.
Last time we left off at the very beginning of the game, so let’s pick up from there. Sybil Reisz, mad with jealousy and unrequited love, deceives the Camerata, leading them to Red and her lover Breach, hoping that they would kill him, not knowing that the Transistor may malfunction. Sybil’s decision is the crux of the plot, from which everything else follows: the downfall of the Camerata, the unravelling of Cloudbank, Breach being absorbed inside the Transistor, and Red becoming the Transistor’s new user. Sybil links the political and the personal arcs in Transistor: the two are clearly distinct, but inevitably intertwined. After all, every act is political, even if not always apparently or overtly so, as the controversy over Red’s songs reminds us. (Did you need a reminder, after GamerGate?)
We have examined Sybil’s role in the political narrative, but her role in this narrative is different. Once again, we should turn to the soundtrack.
“In Circles” is Red’s song for Sybil, although Sybil sings it too, when we fight her. “I hear you buzzing, a fly on the wall […] Flying in circles, just trying to land” Sybil is constantly around Red. Red noticed, but she’s just not interested, Sybil is just a fly to her. Still, she feels bad: she knows Sybil loves her, Red simply doesn’t love her back. She doesn’t mean to hurt her, in fact she tries to minimize the damage, but she can only do so much. “I see you hurting, I do what I can, But I won’t save you”.
“Maybe you’re looking for someone to blame, Fighting for air while you circle the drain” At this point, Sybil has been rejected, and she is not accepting rejection. She tells herself that it’s Breach’s fault, and if he wasn’t there she could have a chance, Red wouldn’t toss her down the drain. Finally, Red reminds Sybil of the happy times they did spend together, no matter how small. Even if they can’t be lovers she should treasure her memories, her feelings. “Never be sorry for your little time, It’s not when you get there, it’s always the climb”
We meet Sybil again on Red’s stage, where the assassination attempt took place. She’s already been mostly absorbed by the Process (98%), and she obsessively repeats every sentence like a broken record, like a broken person. “In Circles” plays in the background. At first Sybil is happy to see Red, as if Red had returned for her, then she asks: “help us, help us, won’t you, we only wanted your help…” Referring to Breach’s death: “I saved you, I saved you, I always wanted to”; only to then hear his voice coming from the Transistor: “That voice, that voice, we killed him, we killed him”. Finally, when she’s close to being defeated: “You knew I would wait for you, welcome back, finally, finally we can be…”. At the very end, she simply crawls across the stage, crying, waiting for Red to kill her. It’s an excruciating moment that only the Player can put an end to. I left her alive for 30 seconds, and seeing her, hearing her, knowing her suffering made me shiver.
Now, there are a few possible interpretations for her last words “finally we can be [together]”: she may be referring to meeting Red again in The Country (whatever that means), like other characters do throughout the plot. Or, she may hope that her bond with Red is strong enough to let them communicate through the Transistor, like Breach. What actually happens, though, is that, once she is absorbed in the Transistor, she generates a function, Help(), that is a dog that helps Red in combat. Not only that, but her function is the only one (aside from Breach(), obviously) that manifests itself outside of combat, specifically in the sandbox – a mysterious place that exists outside of Cloudbank, where the player can relax, exercise her skills, listen to music or simply watch the sky as it changes colour – in the form of a dog that Breach names Luna. Dogs are the archetype of selfless love, of trustworthiness, loyalty and unquestioning devotion. A dog would give her life for her master without thinking about it twice. This is entirely speculation, but I like to think that, while the bond between Red and Sybil wasn’t nearly as strong as that between Red and Breach, Sybil’s love for Red was still potent enough to allow her to be more than a simple function like the others. As her body was consumed and her trace (roughly, her soul) absorbed inside the Transistor, she was finally able to let go and love completely selflessly. As if her love was strong enough to erase or take over the rest of her identity. Sybil’s new form would allow her to stay at Red’s side, even be part of her ‘family’, without interfering with Red’s main relationship: Red, Breach and their dog Luna.
This is the end of Sybil’s arc, as her personhood and her political side (and all the other aspects of her personality we don’t even know about) are lost in her distillation from fully-formed woman to creature of pure love. But it is just the beginning for the two protagonists, Red and Breach. Interestingly, we don’t know much about them, in almost complementary ways: we have Red’s bio, we know her interests, we know her songs, we know what the public knows about her, but as she loses her voice she remains a mystery for the player. We can’t seem to get close to who she really is in private. Breach is the opposite: we don’t know who he is, what his job is, what his interests are, what he looks like and how old he is. We don’t have his public image and we don’t even know his name, but at the same time we hear his voice, we get to know his opinion on small things, we grow accustomed to his mannerisms, his idiosyncrasies, and we hear his moment-to-moment thoughts. Still, they’re both undeniably characters with strong personalities: Red in particular is not an empty vessel for the player to identify with.
Breach has, in a sense, control over the narrative: he is the one who can speak, therefore he filters the world for us players who don’t know anything about it. Breach can’t help but describe things as he sees them. He is the one who sets up the Camerata as the villains for us, until he changes his mind about them. But, if Breach is the narrator, Red is a character who maintains her agency and even defies his narrative. This is the focus of Nissa Campbell’s great article, in which she reads Red as asserting her own agency and subverting videogame tropes and player expectations in the process. Breach “wants [Red] to get out of town. Lay low. Be quiet, and mourn her voice (and everything that’s been taken from her) in safety and silence.” But Red doesn’t listen, she only obeys herself, until the very end. Breach “has no special insight into Red’s actions, so he frames them as best as he can from his limited perspective”, and has to re-evaluate that perspective several times, as Red’s actions contradict the narrative he had established.
“Her lover tells a story of heroism, a tale where the two of them save Cloudbank, win the day, and somehow get each other back. Camerata member Sibyl dies too soon to get much say, but her database entry makes it clear that she wants to possess Red. Asher looks to Red for redemption. Royce just wants to cast her aside so he can have what he wants. But Red isn’t the sort to step in line for anyone but herself. When Sibyl arranges Red’s lover’s death, Red doesn’t fall into the other woman’s arms for comfort. She also doesn’t flee, like [Breach] wants, or save the day, like he and Asher want. And she certainly doesn’t surrender to Royce. […] as players, we’re fighting through Cloudbank, too. We want to save the day. And when Red takes her own life in the game’s final moments, she takes that away from us. […][Transistor is] about what her agency really means in a game when everyone wants to control her – including the player.”
To expand on her point: in a flashback, presented mostly in Black and White, we see Red still shaken and scared, right after the events with Breach and the Camerata. Her arms are wrapped around herself, and she walks slowly because of her long gown. She looks fragile, helpless and weak, controlling her is disempowering for the player. Then, she discovers Breach’s body, impaled by the Transistor, and the flashback ends. The episode takes place mere moments before the beginning of the game. But at the beginning, she’s already a woman of action. Her walk is fast and confident. She does what needs to be done. A transformation has taken place in Red, and it is very clearly symbolised by the gown she has torn and tossed aside. We see it in a corner, in the first screen of the game. With that gesture of making her clothes more practical, Red takes things into her own hands, she turns herself from victim to heroine. It echoes women’s liberation from the shackles of impractical, disempowering and sometimes downright harmful clothing, from large gowns that made it hard to walk, to corsets that made it hard to breathe. The pressure on women to be beautiful to look at above all else, including their ability to move, is something that has survived, in smaller forms, for instance in high heels.
So, if Red and Breach are characters in their own right, who are they? To begin with, Red is the private intellectual: she is reserved, introverted, she only wishes to speak to the public through her songs, and she’s not explicitly interested in politics and society as such, although as we have seen, her songs do have an important socio-political value that she herself didn’t immediately realize. That value is to be found in the way she inevitably filters and retells reality in her songs, so that, even though the content of her songs is personal, her interpretation of reality is always political. Once “she fully understood the potent effect her music had on people”, she decided to be more careful and responsible, “receding from the spotlight to compose new material in relative privacy”.
Although there is no proof for this, it makes sense to me to think that she’d meet Breach at this point in her life. Breach, as we’ve seen, is a complete Outsider, and the simple fact of his existence has powerful, subversive political value: he has never voted, nor commented on the OVC, there is no public record on him. When they come to Red’s house, Breach comments: “Never thought much of Highrise, then I found out you lived there”. And when he sees the Spine, he remarks: “If I was the size of that thing, I wouldn’t hide from anybody”. Now, that may just be a figure of speech, but perhaps Breach really was hiding. Perhaps he’s not simply an Outsider by choice, perhaps he’s been excluded, persecuted, rejected, pushed away. My hypothesis is that Red realized the power and value of her own work as well as how detached she felt from the people and places surrounding her. She started questioning everything, and at that point she went outside her comfort zone, literally and figuratively, and met people who may otherwise have been invisible for her, as they had always been, as they were for many others.
It’s also important that Breach is not part of the digital world (in our world, he’d be someone without internet access, mobile phone and credit card). He doesn’t exist for society at large. Clearly he lives in it, he knows Junction Jan’s, he is familiar with people and places, but society doesn’t acknowledge him. His existence is purely physical (ironic, in a virtual reality), and in Cloudbank that is enough to be invisible, excluded.
Which brings me to Transistor’s celebration of the physical, as well as its effort to turn abstract ideas into concrete events, and, relatedly, its care for pace, for adequate, flexible difficulty and for the player experience as a whole.
It’s the small things that make Transistor what it is, that make it stand out from the crowd, as much as the big things. Take the theme of the End of the World, for instance: for the characters, the ‘Calamity’ – to use Bastion’s terminology – is not simply the collapse of society as we know it, but it’s Junction Jan’s closing. Censorship is not something nebulous and indefinite, but it’s Red not being able to freely express herself in the comments. Grant and Asher don’t just say they feel guilty in some grandiose speech, they kill themselves, depriving the player of a Boss Battle the game was building up towards. In fact, the trope would have demanded a boss fight for each member of the Camerata; the path that leads us to Grant and Asher includes a gate, build-up music, several hints coming from the narrator, and a conveniently placed Access Point just before the supposed fight. The themes of the game don’t remain these distant, abstract things that may barely mean anything to us as individuals, they translate into all the small little things that affect our everyday life, the little habits and pleasures through which we express our personality and that simply cease to exist. Amidst all the blankness and desolation of the unravelling Cloudbank, JJ closing is the only occasion that Breach describes as a “Real Tragedy”. Ironically, for sure, but also very seriously: the destruction of the World is made small, intimate, personal, tangible.
And not only for the characters, but for us, the players: we have ordered from Junction Jan’s before. It’s a small, inconsequential choice, but it’s a memorable moment all the same. We don’t even know what those meals taste like, the names just give a vague hint, and the following cutscene, when we eat in Red’s apartment, is always exactly the same, except for some flavour text. It nonetheless manages to establish a sense of ‘normality’: going out to JJ on a weekend with friends, the banter when deciding what to order (“Sea Monster is really the only choice here” says Breach) and then having it delivered at home and eating it. That sense of normality is established, and then taken away from us as much as the characters.
Incidentally, if I had to criticize the game for something, then this would be it: I’d have liked Supergiant to be more daring with this kind of thing, especially in terms of gameplay. The city changes visually, the player’s expectations are subverted, all this is great, but in comparison the gameplay side of things feels all the more static and detached. Fighting the Process remains exactly the same deal throughout the game: I mean, the Process levels up, the player gets new abilities, but the underlying rules remain the same. I’m not saying that every theme of the narrative always has to be 100% reflected in the mechanics and vice versa, but in this context the gameplay feels strangely rigid and familiar. We’re meant to feel the consequences of disruptive loss, of a total uprooting, of our home turning against us, but to the player the combat feels relatively safe and comfortable: if the rules never change, we can manipulate them and predict the outcome, we know what to expect. It feels ‘normal’, especially because we’re used to fighting in videogames all the time, and the game never showed us a ‘before’ to which we can compare the present. For the player, fighting the Process around Cloudbank is normal, they have been doing it throughout the whole game. (The Clucker’s disruption system is, admittedly, an attempt to surprise the player, to subvert their expectations in terms of mechanics, but I feel it’s not nearly enough)
Regardless, Transistor is full of small ‘moments’ that in many other games, are missing or only happen almost by accident. These moments, from a purely functional approach to game design, are useless: they’re not ‘fun’ in the traditional sense, they don’t really take the story further, they don’t do much of anything. But in this ‘uselessness’, in their being superfluous lies their real value: they make the world come alive. The game’s underlying themes become concrete. Transistor doesn’t forget to make its characters and its world human, as opposed to cardboard cut-outs standing in for some philosophical idea, and it also doesn’t forget that there is a real human being playing on the other side of the screen.
This delicate kind of care for the player is apparent in several elements in and around the game, it seeps into the very ethos of the work. The result of all this is: I felt the game respected me as an intelligent, multi-faceted human being with limited time, other interests and capable of a wide variety of emotional reactions. No DLCs. No collectibles. As few menus as possible. No traditional difficulty selection. No manual saves. No achievements for which you have to go out of your way. (I’m confident they wouldn’t have put achievements in their game at all, if it wasn’t mandatory on console) All these things help immersion, and help the player relate to the game as an aesthetic experience, instead of being ‘just a game’, something to be beaten, to be won. It also doesn’t encourage compulsive reactions in the player, it doesn’t try to take over her life. It’s long enough to make its point, but it’s short enough to not overstay. It gives the player plenty of quiet moments when quitting the game doesn’t feel forced.
It gives the player room to breathe, to relax and take the scenery in, or to express herself, even without traditional choices with multiple endings. The sandbox is the most obvious example of this: you have several optional tests to complete, if you enjoy the gameplay. You can listen to music. You can play with a beach ball, or with Luna. You can relax on the hammock and look at the sky, while you listen to Darren Korb’s wonderful soundtrack. Outside of the sandbox, you can hum almost anywhere. Just stand there, admire the city and hum along with the soundtrack. You can ‘flourish’ if you feel like it. There’s absolutely no reason to flourish, it’s just a simple expression of joy, of energy, of vitality. There’s also no reason why you shouldn’t; even if it feels at odds with the atmosphere of much of the game, that vitality and that energy are part what makes Red who she is, what fuels her passion, her love, her art. It’s probably part of what makes us who we are too, and part of what defines ‘play’.
Consider the game’s pace: since the very first screen, Transistor lets you take your time. You only have a static image, with some light animation over it, and you can take all the time you want to observe its smallest details, or to ponder over it before things are set in motion. From that moment onwards, the player’s progression through the game is punctuated with episodes like these. Intimate, inconsequential moments, in which the game slows down, the urgency of the task subsides and we can take our time. The majority of them don’t involve technology: they involve being human, in all its physicality. The aforementioned episode in which Red eats JJ’s flatbread is one of them. Another one is when Red, very prosaically, goes to the bathroom, not unlike the player who may have had to pause the game for the same reason. Towards the end, Red has to make a scary jump, and she embraces the Transistor, both keeping it close and hugging it: for about 30 seconds nothing else exists anymore, the game space is whitened out, it’s just Red and Breach, suspended in space and time.
And then there are even smaller moments, simple dialogues without cutscenes. One of them is key to understanding a fundamental aspect of the relationship between Red and Breach as it is now: Red approaches a pool, and Breach apologizes because she “can’t even go for a swim, ‘cause you’re stuck with me”. They can’t swim together, and if she isn’t careful someone may steal the Transistor from her. The latter worry is a consequence of Breach being helpless, incapable of defending himself in his current state, and having to rely on Red. But the former is the interesting one: they can’t swim together. In fact, they can’t do anything together, not really. They can’t really hug. They can’t really have a flatbread together on a Friday night. Not as things are now.
As it is, Red’s relationship with Breach looks a lot like a long-distance relationship over the internet. It has all the qualities of it, especially impossibility of real intimacy and difficulty of communication. The words are real, the feeling behind those words are real,and they can still see each other, but a whole fundamental dimension of their relationship (of any relationship) is lost.
You don’t need to be involved in a romantic relationship to notice this, and it’s not something that will be made up for anytime soon, through virtual reality, holograms and other devices that facilitate online sex. The fact is, having a person sitting next to you or in front of you is fundamentally different from anything mediated by a screen. Holding hands, hugging, touching, smelling, exploring the body of the other person: there is a complex, rich system of communication and feedback that simply doesn’t translate, without the body and all the senses being involved. Technology as we understand it now, for all its ideology of interconnectedness, sucks at intimacy. And also: control. With technology we have absolute control, because we can always shut our device down, and the other side simply ceases to exist. The undeniable, potentially violent reality of the physical other, with the fundamental unknown of their intentions, the inescapability of their being ‘here’, the fact that we can’t simply delete them from reality, and the trust in the other that these circumstances necessarily require, is something that enables and enhances a sense of intimacy. Again, this dimension is completely lost with technology and long-distance relationships. Beyond all rational arguments, though, I’m sure anyone who has had this kind of experience will agree that long-distance relationships, for all the value that they have, cannot really quench loneliness. (And the same principle extends much further than just personal relationships: theatre has a quality that cinema inevitable lacks; seeing a concert or sport event live can never be the same as watching a video of it; in games, something of local multiplayer is lost when playing over the internet. Notwithstanding the unique qualities and advantages that the latter has over the former in all of these examples)
From Red’s perspective, and from the player’s, Breach doesn’t have a body anymore. Even though he’s arguably still the same person, in terms of identity, he has lost something. He can’t eat with Red, he can only watch her eat, spend time with her as she eats. “Not that I’d know anymore” what flatbread tastes like, he comments, highlighting another dimension they can’t share anymore. He can’t go to the bathroom himself, he can only wait outside. He can’t swim with her, at most he’d only be able to watch her swim. He can’t hold her, he can only be held by her. Of course, Breach feels this, it affects him deeply, it makes him suffer: that’s why he places so much importance on his wish: “I want to see you again […] Face to face”. He expresses this desire multiple times, and his words are always loaded with a very physical connotation.
Ultimately, that’s what it all comes down to: the ending. Red has obtained the power the Camerata wanted all along, she can shape reality as she wishes. (Did she even want this power at all?) But no one exists in Cloudbank anymore. An empty world is meaningless. Politics, after all, is simply one aspect of living together, with the Other(s). So is art, and storytelling. So is love. The other has to be physically ‘here’, in some sense, for these things to have meaning. What value does virtual reality have, without real people (as in, an ‘Other’), a ‘real reality’ to refer back to? The internet is precious because it connects real human beings sharing the same world. Virtual worlds, fiction and Art have value because they leave us enriched when we go back to ‘real life’. (Perhaps this can also be seen as an argument against compulsive escapism)
Red inevitably becomes aware that Cloudbank has become a virtual reality for her. Perhaps not literally, but in this sense of a World without an ‘Other’ and their violent, uncontrollable ‘hereness’. Breach can still talk to her, but he doesn’t exist in the same dimension as her, their relationship is inevitably stunted, limited. Whereas before Breach existed only for her, but not for society as a whole, now they don’t even exist for each other. It is to recuperate that dimension of intimacy that Red sits by his body, ‘kills’ herself, and joins him inside the Transistor (in the Country? I’m not sure, and I don’t think it really matters)
Her ‘suicide’ is the culmination of Transistor’s celebration of the physical. Through her gesture, they now exist in the same dimension, they can touch each other, they can communicate fully and completely, “face to face”, as she promised him. By only saying “hey” they acknowledge each other’s presence, each other’s undeletable, undeniable ‘hereness’ that is the basis of intimacy and love.
Thanks for reading my work, I hope you found it interesting. I’m always striving to improve, so if you have any feedback or criticism, please do leave a comment below or contact me. I don’t scratch.
Have a lovely day. Meow ❤
Links and Further Reading
If you’re looking for something in video form, Superbunnyhop’s Story discussion is not as great as some of his other works, but still worth watching. As for wiki references, forget the wikia and use the Gamepedia.
As for reconstructing the plot, I owe a lot to the Transistor subreddit, (I’m not going to link to every single thread that has something worthwhile, or I’d go mad) and also, to a lesser extent, to the Steam forums (especially this guide)
Concerning analysis proper, I have already referenced Nissa Campbell’s great article on Red’s agency and Claire Hosking’s examination of Cloudbank and the Camerata compared to the City Beautiful movement. I owe something to this piece on “Games are not Art” for pointing me in the direction of Transistor as celebration of the physical. Finally, on “Play and Care”, Maik ‘Onin’ Biekart reads in the philosophy of the Camerata and the city of Cloudbank an opposition like that between Modernism and Post-Modernism respectively.