Listen. Okay, I know I fucked up.
You can ask me right now, “Rin, Transistor came out in 2014 and you haven’t played it until this very day?” To which I will reply, “no, you silly. I played this on Tuesday. Get with the times, geez,” followed by a very mumbled and incoherent “yeah, I guess you’re not wrong, though.” Everything about Transistor outside of the gameplay feels like it was catered to my tastes: female protagonist, stunning art deco theming, romance. I don’t even have a defense for this. I am honestly so mad at myself for not playing this earlier—Steam backlog be damned! So, if you want the short of it: play this game. Even if you’re kind of ehh about video games, play this game. If you want the long of it, follow me below the cut (with all those juicy spoilers) and see what makes this game so goddamned good.
Trigger warning for a mention of suicide below the cut.
Supergiant Games starts out with a bang, by which I mean a death. Our protagonist Red is still reeling from an assassination attempt on her life, for which her lover took the blow, shielding her from harm. As such, his body lies limp in the plaza of Cloudbank while his consciousness has entered a strange sword (that is concurrently impaling him),which will be known as the Transistor later on. Without knowing how they teleported from the crime scene—a concert hall—to the plaza, Red takes the Transistor and sets out to bring justice to the group behind her lover’s death, and many other strange disappearances in Cloudbank. This revenge isn’t simply for her lover, but also for her—in the scuffle, Red, an accomplished singer, lost her voice to the Transistor.
Making their way through Cloudbank, her lover expounds on the mysterious Illuminati-like group behind everything in the city: the Camerata. This secret group lives by the phrase “when everything changes, nothing changes,” however, for as sinister as that sounds, something immediately feels off. Foes called “the Process” continue to try and impede Red’s vengeance, however these computerized baddies aren’t harbingers of the Camerata. Well, not entirely. Speaking with one of the last living members reveals that the group was honestly trying to help the city; however they were messing with technology far beyond their control and, well, killed everyone in the city and changed all the stunning art deco architecture into white squares. With all but one of the members of the Camerata faded from existence, Red and her love head to the Fairview District to speak with the remaining man.
Strangely enough, he’s willing to parlay with no effort needed, and more than that, he explains how Red can return beauty back to the city, stopping the Process entirely. The Process, as it turns out, was the paint to the Transistor’s paintbrush, allowing the Camerata to change the city to the people’s (and their) whims. Thus, to stop it Red must relinquish the Transistor to its original resting place. Doing so—while both main characters struggle with the fact that this may be the last time they interact with each other—the Process halts. However, what the Camerata member kept to himself was that Red would be teleported inside the Transistor, and that he also has a Transistor. Since there can only be one Transistor, he battles her, eventually losing, and sending Red back to Cloudbank.
Once back in the real world, Red finds that she can undo everything the Process did, just as the Camerata member promised. Immediately, she returns to the body of her lover, which had been absorbed by the Process in the meantime. Uncovering it, her lover tells her that he can’t go back—he’ll never be alive again. His body is no longer a part of the Process, but then again, it wasn’t the Process that killed him. Resolute in her decision, Red sits next to her lover’s body, and then impales herself with the Transistor, finding him again within the sword.
This game is just… oh my god, it’s so good. With around a seven hour playtime (an hour or so longer if you’re going to get as much as you can on the first playthrough), the story keeps going at a pace that keeps the player interested and invested, while still allowing moments for meandering thought or exploring. In terms of game design, what I really have to appreciate with Transistor is how easy all the search points are to find. While you do have to get in a general area, the prompt for these little pieces of flavor dialogue are easy to see so you don’t have to worry about missing one that was hidden behind some bullshit wall. For only having three characters with voices and only one of those you hear for a majority of the time, the dialogue was skillfully written in a way where you don’t get tired of hearing Red’s beau speak. And, in terms of the battle mechanics, they were very much in the “easy to do, hard to master” camp. The game does everything in its power to ease the player into these mechanics, but god, I just am so bad at dodging enemy attacks.
What I can say for certain though is that for a short game, Transistor’s representation was surprisingly good. While both Red and her beau were white (I think?), the town was full of people of different orientations and races. Many of the city folk you find biographies of—the game’s way of fleshing out Cloudbank since, well, everyone’s dead outside of Red—are people of color. In fact many people in the Camerata are characters of color too. Not to mention extremely gay—one of them was in love with their leader, Grant (which I’m assuming was mutual, since he was with Grant when he died), and another was unquestionably in love with Red. While this does kind of toe the line of the “non-white, non-straight people being in deviant groups” trope, I do think Transistor saves itself by having them actually be characters, and making the Camerata not an evil group, but a flawed group. While it would have been nice to have a character like Red be non-white or non-straight, it’s still refreshing and surprising to see that in a game that’s a tenth shorter than most AAA titles, it still manages to have more non-offensive representation put into those seven/eight hours of gameplay.
Red herself is a fantastic heroine, too. I loved seeing her quest for vengeance and justice never being called into question, and that her gender was never brought up in any derogatory way (ie: antagonists calling her “little girl” and the like). The narrative and characters both reinforce that Red is a capable woman, especially her beau. He always chimes in with how much he trusts her, and how much he knows she has everything under control. In fact, what I liked best about the relationship between Red and her beau (outside of how hard they supported each other) was how her beau filled all those stereotypically femme roles—as much as a consciousness trapped inside a sword can. He was the damsel, constantly professing his love and adoration for his hero. It was so good (imagine me putting my fingers to my lips like a very satisfied chef here). However, I am conflicted about the ending. I didn’t want Red to kill herself, obviously, and I don’t feel like it’s necessarily representative to the strength of her character. Yet, in that situation—she’s lost two of the most important things in her life, and she’s absolutely now the only one alive in the city—it’s at least understandable in her situation that this is what she chose to do. While I may not be entirely okay with it, I can, at least, appreciate from a narrative standpoint that in the end it was entirely her choice to do so.
Despite my struggles with its combat system, Transistor has found a home on the top level of my favorite games list. Supergiant didn’t rely on their past success with Bastion, and created a somewhat inclusive game with a female protagonist that stands on its own, and stands proudly. And while I won’t be returning to Cloudbank anytime soon (I’m not ready for hard mode yet…) I’ll always have the memories, and the music to cry to.