TRANSISTOR – the Mute Heroine and her Faceless, Nameless Lover

They took away her voice. She took up an omnipotent sword that alters reality. This is a love story and a contemplation on tragedy, power, and mutability.

It’s interesting to me that, for the entire game, we never see Sword Boyfriend’s face and he’s never named. Red, of course, has a face and a name but no voice outside her singing; we only ever hear her speak, as such, a single word at the very end. This post will contain spoilers, but this came out May 2014 so, you know.

The most obvious things to say are that the game’s stunning to look at, just like its predecessor Bastion, and the storytelling is once more conveyed through the voice-over narrator – simple but compelling, perfectly acted. The music is absolutely fantastic. Artistically this game is a breathtaking accomplishment; it maximizes the medium to its full potential.

It’s also a tragedy and this is telegraphed from the start, as you discover the city’s been emptied and everyone Red knows is dead and one by one converted into a function in the Transistor. Even the antagonists, the Camerata, are fairly tragic: they unleashed the Process that they don’t understand and eventually are themselves destroyed by it.

So when Red chooses to commit suicide by Transistor at the end – so she can be with her boyfriend and the rest of the city’s population forever inside the sword – it comes as no surprise. She has the choice to rebuild the city; the Transistor is an omnipotent tool that can alter reality (though it can’t bring back the dead). But she rejects that choice. A city without her loved ones is as dead as her boyfriend’s body. I think it’s suggested that Royce, the other user of the Transistor, might have chosen to rebuild the city. In terms of greater good, insofar as the rebuilt city can be repopulated, maybe you should’ve let him win.

But then again, even a rebuilt city would still be desolate and empty. The tragedy of the Process unleashed – the Camerata’s terrible decisions – can’t be undone, not even with the Transistor itself. Red’s decision is essentially about her and selfish, but it’s also intensely understandable.

That Sword Boyfriend has no name doesn’t stop him from having a personality and character, and he’s also the narrator: Red is the physical actor but does not tell her own story – he does it for her. It’s still possible to argue that he exists (narratively and literally) as her prop and not much else; certainly we don’t get a look into his background (and he, very simply, is faceless) or his interests outside of Red. You can glean his opinions of secondary characters, but that’s about it (at the same time though, we also don’t get to hear what Red thinks of most people, not even Sybil). In some ways, Transistor provides the ultimate boy’s dream: a conventionally super-hot woman who literally can’t talk, whose actions and story are framed and narrated entirely by her boyfriend. Contrast the Kid from Bastion, who’s mute in-game but who isn’t stated to be literally mute; he just doesn’t talk in the game, and while his story is narrated by Rucks, it’s the Kid’s story, not Rucks’. Red’s actions meanwhile ultimately lead to her deciding to commit suicide to be with Sword Boyfriend.

Which is… unfortunate. The way these two games interact, meta-textually, can be understood (Red has a name but no voice, the Kid has neither voice nor name; Sword Boyfriend has no face or name, Rucks has name and face and voice; the final decisions are narratively similar but in Transistor the player doesn’t get to choose – Red makes the decision on her own), but there are some iffy implications.

Yeah. Delving more into that, while it’s tempting to be charitable and suggest that Red’s internal thoughts and feelings and personality are a closed book to the player – when she types into the terminals it’s the one chance she has at verbal communication but she doesn’t do anything with it that’d personalize her words – it also feels like she doesn’t have any interiority. As in she wasn’t written with that in mind and there’s not so much a concealed inner self narratively as there is no inner self: what we see is what we get – a mute woman with no opinions and whose only desire is self-immolation so she can join her lover. Inside a sword.

Inclusion-wise, we have got a gay couple (who commit suicide together but, in fairness, that’s also how Red decides to end herself). There’s a character whose gender is listed as ‘X’, suggesting that she’s non-binary. One of the antagonists, Sybil, may be bisexual or lesbian and in love with Red, though she does fall into the ‘evil lesbian/bisexual’ trap. Still, all told, pretty decent and with more attention paid to this aspect than with Bastion.

Gameplay

Commenting on the game proper seems superfluous, since this isn’t exactly a new game and everything that needs to be said about the actual gameplay has already been said. So I’ll just say that toward the end, tactics become ridiculously simple – on normal difficulty, nothing will survive stacked Void and a backstab Cull (not even the final boss). I wasn’t even trying to min-max it or anything, it’s just that 325% weakening and backstab Cull do a hell of a lot of damage and enemies on normal (on a first-time play) aren’t equipped to absorb that much damage. Of course, there are many boss encounters where this isn’t a viable tactic anyway, so for the most part the game gives you decent challenge. The tactics are fun to figure out, the functions combos are great to customize, and the ‘Turn’ function is enormous fun (and necessary – you’re often overwhelmed with enemies that you can’t otherwise survive). It lets you pause time and gives you a limited amount of moves, where you can maneuver Red into backstab position and beat the everloving daylight out of enemies. Each move can be undone until finalized by unengaging Turn. There’s a recharge period before Turn is usable again, during which you’re going to frantically run around to avoid enemy fire.

You gain more functions as you meet more, well, dead people and convert them with the Transistor. Red has a limited number of upgrade slots so you can equip only so many. What functions you ‘install’ will greatly affect your play style.

I appreciate that the final duel is handled the way it is – between two Transistor users, with Royce abiding by the same set of rules you are rather than cheating. The AI being what it is, he’s not that smart and doesn’t pull off the same combos a player would, but then again if he did the fight would also be impossible so there’s that (when he engages Turn, as with Red he can move and attack freely while Red is defenseless – and vice versa).

Saving is done via access points rather than ‘save any time’, but access points are plentiful and show up perfectly frequently. I love the GUI – it’s minimalistic, elegant, and wonderfully functional.

The system requirements are happily low. For the 20 or so gamers who don’t use Windows machines, the game’s even available on Mac OS and Linux.

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