Spoilers for Transistor below.
I’ll be honest with you all: I don’t really know what a transistor is used for in real life. Wikipedia is telling me that it’s a tool used to amplify and/or switch electronic signals, and considering that Transistor’s battle system is all about switching around various powers to get the combination that works the best for you, the player, the name makes sense. (Although I would argue that my initial thought of “USB sword” is also very fitting, despite the lack of catchiness.) While, yes, this system creates what is essentially the game’s magic, I found it interesting that the act of “downloading” a person’s consciousness into a sword wasn’t really considered strange. When the player is first instructed to provide sanctuary to a townsperson that has already succumbed to the Process by absorbing them into the sword, it’s just a matter-of-fact kind of deal. Sure. Why not do that–totally normal. True enough that magic doesn’t always have to be a scary, alien concept in a fictional universe, but since the Transistor (sword) is essentially the only one of its kind, the idea that everyone is just okay with this struck me as kind of bizarre. Yet, when the world around you is dying, affording this much suspension of disbelief isn’t too hard.
Looking at the game now after the fact, I think I was distracted from the true magic in the game. Not that the power of the Transistor should be entirely discounted, and there is definitely something to be said for transformation, but the line spoken near the end by Royce Bracket, member of the Camerata, hints towards the true magic taking place here. He states that the Transistor is a brush, while the Process is the paint by which the city is created and re-created. Compared to the blunt theme of transformation throughout, what I find is the true magical force in this game is that of rebirth: a power that Red ends up embracing, but only on her own terms.
The city of Cloudbank is dying; its people are already dead, save for Red and Royce, but the city itself is dying a slow-but-exponentially-speeding-up death at the hands of the Process. Cloudbank is touted as a city where anyone can be what they want to be, and for all their meddling with the Process, the Camerata wanted to make a city where its people were happy. Players get a small insight into these themes of rebirth when looking at Royce’s codex entry. As the architect for Cloudbank, Royce constantly built and rebuilt the town to suit the eclectic, artistic tastes of the people, making sure function and form lived beautifully together. However, Royce’s departure marked the beginning of the end for Cloudbank, as due to the machinations of Royce, the Process began running wild and destroying everything. After facing off with him inside the Transistor itself, upon returning to Cloudbank, Red discovers that she can breathe new life into the city. With the Transistor and the Process under her whims, she can bring back the architecture and all the sights that people loved about the city. Yet, she rejects this rebirth and instead initiates her own rebirth of sorts.
In the last moments of Cloudbank, a theme arose among its population: going to the country. It’s never explained what “the country” is, but many say that they’ll see their friends (or any other person) in the country. It’s even mentioned in one of the songs. At the end of the game, though, we get an idea as to what this country might be. Here, Red is at a crossroads: she can use the power of the Transistor to bring the city back to its original glory, but with no people to populate it, she quickly determines that while this power is great, she wants nothing to do with it. Instead, she will get her life back by going to the country–by starting a new life inside the Transistor.
After submitting herself to the Transistor and ending her life in Cloudbank, we see that Red has gained back everything she has lost. She has her love, she regains her voice, and presumably since she found her beau, she also has a community to look for within the Transistor. Despite their mortal lives being over, they are able to start again within the sword. Instead of being saddled with being the savior figure she never wanted to be, lonely and untouchable, Red chooses to be reborn as the singer that she loved being before.
So maybe Transistor isn’t some uplifting story of phoenixes rising from the ashes to bring hope to a hopeless world, but it doesn’t have to be. (If you want that, read Sailor Moon.) While this theme is somewhat more subtle than the game’s other themes, I think it adds so much depth to the game, especially in concerns to Red’s character. Transformation can be a powerful and empowering story, but giving your protagonist a chance to reject that transformation for something they want more can be just as empowering.
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