HEY RED, WE'RE NOT GONNA GET AWAY WITH THIS, ARE WE?

This is the story of a girl who didn’t save the boy // This is a story of a woman scorned // This is the story of noblesse oblige gone awry // This is the story of a body without a voice and a voice without a body that didn’t fit together, that couldn’t fix it together // This is a story of unpopular choices
You've found a shrine to Red, protagonist of the game Transistor, released in 2014 by Supergiant Games to great acclaim. Transistor is the spiritual successor to Supergiant's previous smashing success, Bastion: in both works, a silent playable protagonist navigates a crumbling terrain un-making itself around the protagonist as they attempt to reverse the apocalypse, the decisions therein narrated by a secondary character. Perhaps even more than its predecessor, Transistor is a game about what it means to be limited by perspective, a theme almost obvious from premise alone. Our Red, you see, is a silent woman, whose lover has been trapped in a weapon of great power; he talks, nameless but naming every new thing they see, and she walks further and further into her dear disappearing city, hoping to restore his embodiment.

Those elements alone suggest an angle. Pretend it is obvious in the 2014 of the game's release that who is telling the story is interesting, that having a voice carries a kind of power. That Transistor is a game about a band of obliquely queer artists who bring about the end of the world in pursuit of good taste, to delimit the power of democracy on their city, is a more subtle angle about what voice can mean. Red is targeted by these artists because of her incredible ability to sing, another kind of voice, but the same event that renders her partner incorporeal leaves her unable to speak.

Yet, though mute, Red has struck me as one of the most powerfully individualistic characters I've ever encountered. Often individualism can lead to power-mongering as a way to preserve that individual's freedom of choice, but in the game's climax, Red's ultimate choice is to decline power for love in a moment that shows her agency over and above both what her paramour and the player want for her.

I want to show you that Red is the hero of her own story.



I'm going to find the thing
                   that's doing this and
                                    I'm going to break its heart.

SHE
Age: 27
Gender: F
Selections: Music, Linguistics
Reasons Cited: Declined
Trace Status: Intact
Function: Crash()
Function Description: Disruptive, Reliable
HE
Age: ??
Gender: ??
Selections: Declined
Reasons Cited: 'Still figuring things out.'
Trace Status: Non-recoverable
Function: Breach()
Function Description: Extensive, Penetrating
OF ALL THE GIN JOINTS
OF ALL THE TOWNS

The story takes place in the digital city of Cloudbank, a reference to its lofty potential, its surrounding waterway, and the modern parlance of ‘storing something in the cloud.’ At the city’s heart towers Traverson Hall, an administration building that also serves as a facility coordinating educational selections. Each citizen selects two. Regardless of selection, much of the educational and administrative activity within Traverson regards ambitions of civic engineering, a particularly intriguing vocation given the possibilities of digital architecture.

For these changes to be put into effect, citizens vote among preset options presented in OVC Terminals scattered throughout the city. The most popular selection is put into effect ostensibly instantly and without source, as soon as polling closes. Royce Bracket (engineer and architect of fading popularity) reverse-engineers a formula describing the execution of changes within Cloudbank; this work brings him into contact with the myriad entities that actually perform the task of alteration, a legion collectively and individually referred to as The Process.

Royce’s interest in the Process is not purely intellectual. Cloudbank’s façade alters daily with every voting opportunity, with no feature beyond editing potential (not even weather patterns) – though, of course, the ballot options are limited to the framework provided by the administration of Traverson Hall. While his early work is popular, the short life of his creations frustrates the architect, inspiring him to produce avant-garde designs in the hopes that these might outlive his more straightforward municipal contributions. The bet fails, and public interest ebbs; his career in tatters, Royce rethinks what power underwrites change in Cloudbank beyond a democracy of prefabricated choices, leading him ultimately to The Process, and the puzzle of what could possibly control that.

That question of the nature of democracy in Cloudbank is rooted deeper than an engineer’s ambition. The game’s personnel files cite civil unrest going back twenty years but recently brought to flare by the music of our protagonist, Red. Riots break out at her concerts, despite her denial that her work is intended to be politically provocative; even so, she declines to offer any specification of what actually her musical intentions are, stating that the songs speak for themselves. After a resulting period of reclusion, Red emerges to give a one-woman show at the Empty Set venue in the center of town.

Like anything else in Cloudbank, the concert’s headliner is a matter of public choice.

IF EVERYTHING CHANGES
CAMER · ATA

CAMERA - late 17th century (denoting a council or legislative chamber in Italy or Spain): from Latin, ‘vault, arched chamber,’ from Greek kamara ‘object with an arched cover’

ATA - a plural suffix occurring in loanwords from Latin and Greek, forming nouns used especially in names of zoological groups.

Their creed, if everything changes then nothing changes, targets both the fact of change in Cloudbank and its source in simple majority voting. They want to change things for good, a double-entendre never clarified. Though their actions result in The Process running rampant over the city, killing or converting thousands into little white blocks, they issue a public apology in the city’s last hours, accepting responsibility for an apocalypse that was never their intention.

But I've been wrong about a lot of things here, I admit, all part of the job ... of having theories, being right sometimes and ... also, being wrong.



NOTHING CHANGES

Red’s individuality comes across first in the unusual nature of her choices, second in her refusal to explain them. Her personnel files describe her striking choice of two nontraditional specialty selections at Traverson Hall, Music and Linguistics, both connected to her talented voice. She is the first person on record to do so. While studying there, she focused on developing the nascent arts program, while simultaneously nurturing her own talent as a singer and song writer. Several pieces of Transistor's soundtrack are directly attributed to the character Red, though the player only hears them as a background weaving around her conflicts and choices, never as direct performances.

Certainly all sources indicate her songs as potent. She was consistently ranked in the top percentile of performers in Cloudbank, where ‘top’ means, naturally, most popular – one kind of testament to her artistry. Quite another testament is the effect that her songs actually worked on the crowds thronging her concerts; one of the first riots in recent memory sparked during one such performance, forcibly dispersed by Traverson administrators. One of the suspects rounded on Red, calling her a provocateur. Red denied that her work had the political intent he ascribed to it, claiming only that it spoke for itself. Her response to the incident was to retire from public view as she prepared new material.

It’s perhaps that very combination of artistic potency and reclusion that made her an ideal target for the Camerata.

Originally led by architect Royce Brackett and administrator Grant Kendrell, two old friends bent on changing the nature of change in Cloudbank, the Camerata was always intended to be a small set. Asher joined when his relationship to Grant reached sufficient intimacy, though his pet research project on the history of Cloudbank acquainted him with frustrating inconsistencies in the archives, making him naturally sympathetic to their cause of changing how Cloudbank governed. Sybil’s reasons for joining the group are the least clear, though she is specifically noted as adoring people, and perhaps that interest in others converted to a belief that changing the nature of choice in their city was in its citizens best interests. That said, she was perhaps the most key in orchestrating their maneuvers. The socialite knew everyone, was everywhere.

You see, after Royce discovered the Process, he also discovered an object that he believed could control it: the Transistor, a sword-like item capable of reconfiguring the city at the user’s whim.

When he unsheathed it from its Cradle, a structure uncannily like a larger version of the Transistor itself, the weapon could be inserted into other people, absorbing a trace of them, which equipped the Transistor with functions reminiscent of the style of the person absorbed. These functions had active usages, often attacks when used against the Process, which could be combined (one taking on a upgrade role and lending ‘flavor’ to the primary function), or set to have passive effects on the user’s abilities.

Though the player primarily encounters the Transistor as an instrument of combat against the Process, the Camerata hoped to use it as a way of retooling the city using the absorbed traces; rather than fighting it, they would direct it. Accordingly they were in search of individuals of distinctive style, who nonetheless would not be missed once absorbed by the Transistor. Sybil was integral in identifying both those who fit the description and tracking their whereabouts for the right moment to strike.

While maneuvering among Cloudbank’s elites for this purpose, Sybil became infatuated with Red. The feeling was not mutual. The singer responded with increasing distance, as did her companion, whom Sybil suspected poisoned Red against her. Perhaps primarily in the hopes of removing a romantic rival, Sybil misinformed the Camerata that Red would be alone after her concert at the Empty Set while rehearsing new material within the favorable acoustics, though she knew full well that someone else would be there. Perhaps it was truly revenge against Red’s response, because the target was always Red, and certainly the Camerata tried to strike her down.

They failed.

HEY RED, WE'RE NOT GONNA GET AWAY WITH THIS, ARE WE?

BREACH & CRASH

Precisely according to Sybil’s machinations, Red’s companion stepped forward when Grant Kendrell flung the Transistor towards her, sacrificing himself. Though his trace is successfully absorbed into the Transistor first, creating the function Breach(), ensuing events are far less clear due to three bizarre behaviors on the part of the Transistor: only Red’s voice is absorbed into a trace, Crash(), leaving the remainder of her person intact; ownership of the Transistor moves from Grant to Red, leaving her able to command it; and seemingly of its own volition, the Transistor teleports both girl and sword far from the bar, to the edge of the river, where the game eventually concludes.

We never know the source of these errors as players; if our silent protagonist puts it together, she never tells. It’s clear that none of the Camerata expected this behavior, and also clear that Red was not their first victim, so presumably there had been a pattern in place that grounded their anticipation of what occurs when the Transistor pulls a trace. In her memory, Red abruptly appears by an OVC terminal casting blue-light on dappled water, wearing the golden gown of weaving folds and feathers that first decorated her posters, the same one she performed in. She is breathless while she inches towards the voice of her companion, who does not immediately realize that he’s been extracted from his body and now emits each word via a blue pulse of the Transistor. “Could use your help, I know this looks bad... Hey, say something already, will ya? Say something already.” he says, until: “Oh no.

Even this scant information – or perhaps the fact that information is scant – isn’t clear from the game’s beginning. Someone asks, “We’re not gonna get away with this, are we, Red?”, and then we see Red, donning her lover’s dark jacket, her gown ripped to reveal the slim band of skin above her stockings, the Transistor seemingly aware that it is no longer the man on the ground – somehow also aware that Red cannot speak any longer. (Sartorial details matter. Red's outfit is borderline indecent, and yet importantly it also provides a range of movement impossible in her stage costume, and furthermore appears to be of her own crude fashioning given what she had. Yes, she takes her place among the many skimpy-outfits of women in videogames, but the circumstances of that choice frame the way that Red has to deal with the larger, more pressing problems. It also highlights that Red is embodied, in contrast to the fate of her partner.) With the Transistor’s encouragement, she pulls it out of her lover’s ribs, an action the game requires before you can move forward; it is entirely optional to take stock of the shreds of her dress a few feet away. Possibly this, too, is a puzzle, since we never see her cut it off, and as said the Transistor is still embedded for her to tug, so she couldn’t have used it.

In many ways Transistor is a game of deliberate holes; the very premise is one. Why the sudden shift in the rules of the universe?

Put another way: why was there a breach of the rules?

That appears to be the major clue in the mystery. The first functions slotted into the Transistor are traced to our protagonist and her lover - both referencing unexpected failures.


BREACH
EXTENSIVE, PENETRATING
ACTIVE: Pierce Targets with great force across long distances.

UPGRADE: Accelerate most Functions, raising their range and velocity.

PASSIVE: Gain more planning potential in Turn().

CRASH
DISRUPTIVE, RELIABLE
ACTIVE: Harm and disrupt nearby Targets exposing vulnerabilities.

UPGRADE: Cause most Functions to stun and disrupt Targets.

PASSIVE: Gain damage resistance and immunity to all slowing effects

A breach is an unexpected violation, often in terms of a security measure, and a crash is usually a response to an overload. We know that her beloved was struck down first, so Breach() was a function available in the Transistor, possibly even something they attempted to wield against Red.

You could speculate that the breach in breach is a breach of the Transistor’s rules. That might explain why Red was recognized as its user, and why it failed to fully absorb her trace, as well as why they seemed to skip across town – why wouldn’t geographical or spatio-temporal rules be breach-able, too? But Red’s own function, crash, could also explain both the change in location and the abort of her trace’s absorption. If the Transistor is what controls the things that write the world, then forcing the Transistor to crash might incur something like a ‘reboot’ of digital Cloudbank, starting them off in a slightly incorrect location, with ramifications for the remainder.

But then, the claim that the Transistor has rules that govern it is puzzling. It seems to be the thing without nature, because functions allow it to take on any nature – its nature is is to be nature-less, in other words, able to accept any possible function, except that it directs the Process to follow whatever instruction it receives. (Later, Royce comments on the Process as an ethical thing that follows rules - but of course: "...Rules can be changed.") That suggests that there are no rules to be breached, that there is no way to overload it.

A breach is also a gap – or the making of a gap. That seems closer to the ‘plot hole’ we’re lookin’ down, and also closer to the primary use of Breach() in combat as a long-distance ‘beam’. Crash(), in contrast, exposes vulnerabilities in its target, ideally combined with some other attack. Since the only part of Red drawn into the Transistor was her voice, you might think that the function captures the potency of her voice, and perhaps what it did was exploit a vulnerability in the nature of the Transistor.

One of the frequent puzzles of the game is how to separate what can be attributed to Red and what can be attributed to the man in the Transistor, and the explanation for the start point of the game is no exception. Was it their love? Did her partner refuse to absorb all of her, and override the rules of the Transistor? (A little late, pal.) Is it because Red had always refused easy assimilation, either to the political intents of concert goers or the suggested selections at Traverson Hall?, causing a crash? Is it because without him, she couldn’t go on?

No clear answer. We’ve worked with the available information for a little while and gotten nowhere.

That’s a theme of the game, too.

THE ROAD TO NOWHERE

Like our friend speaking in the Transistor, who calls himself Mr. Nobody when his corrupted data is reviewed, this is a story filled with holes. The Camerata were trying to change Cloudbank ‘for good’ – but the game maintains the double meaning of that expression. Were they trying to prevent the city from changing? Or were they concerned that the sources of those changes did not actually serve public interest? Were they trying to take choice back from a concealed oligarchy, the source of the archival ‘inconsistencies’ mentioned in Asher’s background? A hole: beyond the Camerata’s belief in their decisions being morally grounded, we never know exactly what they hoped for beyond a better city.

Still, they were willing to sacrifice fellow citizens in its pursuit; after Royce found the Process, he also found what could control it. A hole: how did he uncover the conversion of citizens into traces and functions? Nonetheless, he did, and began to harvest those both distinctive and flighty. With those citizens loaded into the Transistor as functions, they could begin to override the OVC systems’ polling mechanisms, likely skip them entirely.

Sybil fell in love with Red, who rebuffed her; the organizer’s response is to time an assassination attempt with the presence of her current lover after her show at the Empty Set. A hole: how did Red end up by the river, suddenly able to wield the Transistor, her trace data intact beyond her voice? Nonetheless she did. She pulled her weapon out of her boyfriend, sawed off her dress, and went out into the city.

They meet the Process within moments. Relations are immediately hostile. A hole: why did the Process begin demolishing Cloudbank after Red's aborted absorption, rather than any prior trace absorption? They begin to work their way from their current location, at the edge of Goldwalk district nearest the district of Fairview (across the river, currently inaccessible). Occasional OVC terminals dispatch news and potential options – even pizza delivery. As these news dispatches cover the Process, Red attempts to leave responses, which are marked to be posted pending moderator approval.

Initially the Transistor takes their adventure to be one of escape as they weave through the beautiful city dotted with worrying white patches; he terms their enemies ‘creeps’, ‘young ladies’, ‘jerks’. They view a cluster of posters with her face on it, revealing to the player through his immense sympathy that she was once a singer and now lacks voice. “Turn around,” he says, as she stands and looks and looks, and the game offers the option to do so with a click of the left mouse button. As they encounter the traces of individuals apparently struck by the Camerata, he guides her towards a garage of motorcycles, advising her to follow a road, do not take that left. She turns left, prompting him to ask her why; with no possible answer, he asks that she just not let him go. The player is invited to accelerate the motorcycle, an action with no impact on the remaining exegesis of their current understanding of who the Camerata are and what they want.

They fight their way to the Empty Set, the very same place that they were assaulted, resulting in the loss of her voice and his body. She hums WE ALL BECOME in front of the unoccupied seats, while the memory of the Camerata’s attack and his sacrifice plays out in Red’s memory. As it recedes, the spotlight limns a 98% Processed Sybil, who apparently never left backstage after Red was struck, cuing the track IN CIRCLES and the rage of Sybil. When defeated, the Transistor is somehow able to communicate with her trace, uncovering the location of the remaining members. They gain access to a backdoor, a floating location possibly once in Sybil’s possession. Hopping on a boat, they head towards the Highrise area. As you aggregate traces, and as you use them in different ways, the Transistor loads personnel data on their history and selection by the Camerata - and though our Mister Nobody comments on this data, it's unclear what the source of these files are. Archives? Camerata notes? His own understanding?

At some point, the game instructs the player to press the Q-key in a processed field, allowing Red to twist the Transistor in the air in an act of petty telekinesis.

The Process is increasingly prevalent as they weave through the byzantine network of bridges and lifts and towers. It even seems more evolved, moving from single cells to organic, even humanoid versions of itself, all with specific powers. Stopping at her apartment, Red drapes his jacket over the Transistor to eat cold pizza, and a prompt invites you to left click in order to finish up. As they exit, the Transistor remarks that Red has locked the door behind her.

As they work their way forward, they are attacked by the tail of the Spine of the World, a Cloudbank landmark now Processed and sentient. Whenever it is near, the Transistor grows incoherent and eventually speechless. When Red views an OVC terminal, she assures him she will break the heart of whatever is doing this by typing– which she does. She also realizes that none of her messages to the OVC moderators have gone through, or at least been approved.

They proceed to Bracket Towers, where two members of the Camerata have sealed themselves inside. This happens to also be the building that stores the city’s archives, now increasingly corrupted from the interference of the Process. While they find the two necessary switches to deactivate the firewall (a literal door, of course), Red encounters messages left by Asher Kendrell in the terminals for her to find to which she responds by asking him precisely what they wanted if not this, telling him at last that if he wants her help he needs to explain everything. (She also discovers a public apology written by Asher on the Camerata’s behalf.) Increasingly, Asher references that Grant needs him, and isn’t doing well. By the time she clears the firewall to reach their hideout, the two Camerata members, Grant and Asher Kendrell, have committed suicide in front of crude chalk drawings of the Transistor and tubes of Process cells. Asher’s last message is, “See you in the Country,” a place referenced frequently in the game as a place you can go to but never return from, and Red responds in kind. See you in the Country..

Red busts one such tube, and rides flying cells of the Process, who return her to the very water bank that the game begins at. A proxy, bearing the face of the final Camerata member, Royce Bracket, greets her. He invites her to Fairview for a truce. She uses an OVC terminal to paint a bridge into existence, and crosses over into a highly Processed area with MC Escher-style architecture, the proxy commenting all the while on various features of the Transistor and the Camerata’s plans, though it’s unclear if this is pre-recorded, as no interaction with the proxy is possible. As Red jumps from one room to another, Royce says – “and that is the true nature of the Transistor.” A hole. The Transistor asks for a repetition that is not granted, though examination of encrypted OVC terminals reveal Royce’s plans scattered throughout Fairview. “I've no idea what's inside it, really. Had myself a little look, but I didn’t see much, didn’t see much at all. It was like looking up at the sky,” Royce says. Moments later: “But there is no way out of the Transistor.” A hole? Still, even if it doesn’t quite make sense, this is the largest repository of information the game provides on the Transistor itself. Evidently Red hearing her lover isn’t a unique property – if you know someone with a trace in the Transistor, you can hear them. (Interesting, then, that Sybil never speaks to Red once her trace is recorded. A hole?)

When they arrive at Royce’s workshop at last, Red proceeds through a series of walls, nearing a giant Transistor-appearing structure that Royce calls the Cradle. (“I thought that the Transistor was truly unique,” Royce says later, followed by, “but that’s the thing about theories, being right and also … being wrong.”) Since the Process ran rampant after it was removed from the Cradle, Royce believes that placing it back will impell the Process ‘to go away.’ Embracing the Transistor, Red places it back, while the Transistor assures her that it will see her again.

Stay with me. Stay with me.

The world fades. As the white clears, both Royce and Red find themselves each armed with a Transistor in an arena with a series of capsules and giant Transistors scattered off in the distance; pausing the game reveals people inside those capsules, and stalks of wheat and natural scenery around them, perhaps suggesting that this place is the oft-mentioned Country. “There’s only one way back that I know of,” Royce intones, acknowledging they’re someplace else and somehow it’s because they ‘flew close to the flame.’ “But it is … unpleasant. So let’s get it over with.” He attacks, and Red bests him, which causes his Transistor to evaporate.

Light flashes, and there's Red on the Bridge to Fairview constructed by her sword, the area now partially Processed. Touching certain columns returns them to statues of men and women with outstretched hands, their fingers never meeting. The Transistor expresses interest in reworking the city, as Red hums and clears away the Processed blocks on his body. “That’s not me anymore,” the Transistor says, puzzled as Red embraces the sword. The music builds, and she sits beside the body of her lover, flicking the sword in the air using the same petty telekinesis mechanic the player was instructed to use early on - except she pulls into her heart instead of her hand while the Transistor begs her not to. As her head lolls onto her lover’s shoulder, the game cues the credits, showing scenes between Red and a faceless man as he guards her from snapshots, as she writes and he brings her coffee, as they dance, until at last you see him standing in a country scene. Red fades into view beside him.

“Hi.”

“Hey,” says Red, her single line in the game.

Should you play again, the game invites you to begin a recursion. Now blue blurs zip around you as you relive the same adventure, roughly the size of our heroine. The first time it was our faceless companion that greeted you as Red donned her jacket, saying, “We’re not going to get away with this, are we, Red?” This time, it’s Royce. Another hole?



THE MUSE

Several pieces of the soundtrack are directly attributed to Red. Though we never see her perform - she seems to be incapable of any vocalization beyond a sigh or a steady hum - those songs wrap around particular moments in the game, providing interesting contrast to her apparent motivations and those described within the stanzas.

When you speak I hear silence
Every word a defiance
I can hear, oh I can hear

Think I'll go where it suits me
Moving out to the Country
With everyone, oh everyone
Before we all become one

You tell yourself that you're lucky
But lying down never struck me
As something fun, oh any fun
Stabbing pain for the feeling
Now your wound's never healing
Til' you're numb, oh it's begun
Before we all become one, oh

Oh we all, we all become one
Oh we all, we all become one
Oh we all, we all become one
Oh we all, we all become one

Stop grieving, start leaving
Before we all become one...
Run!
Oh, we all, we all become...
WE ALL BECOME

This is the first song we encounter, initially played during Red’s first return to the Empty Set. The Transistor describes how he’d thought that the whole world loved her after her performance until the Camerata’s assassination attempt, prompting her to now step up to the lone microphone on the stage and hum, the only vocalization she remains capable of. That humming fades as Red’s recollection of events emerges, timed with ‘We All Become One.’ The limelight encircles her; the Camerata fling the Transistor; her companion steps in front of her; from spotlight to sacrifice, Red’s eyes are wide, shell-shocked.

Each song has a nuanced involvement between the first-personal speaker and both some specific other and a generalized ‘everyone.’ Here, the latter is encountered with terror and anger; ‘WE ALL BECOME ONE’ ain’t no peaceful kumbaya, it’s about the little death of assimilating into a crowd, or the more literal flight from the destruction of the process, which renders what it touches into endlessly reconfigurable little white blocks.

More interesting is the ‘you’ she addresses. It could be interpreted both as an affirmation of hearing her lover and so still connecting with him - or as the Transistor’s every blue word being a reminder of what she lacks and he lacks. As the song progresses, that ‘you’ becomes less distinctly someone else, and more like the universal ‘you’ employed in expressions like ‘you just never know,’ equivalent to ‘one just never knows,’ perhaps tellingly paired with increased repetitions of WE ALL BECOME ONE. No long clear whom she’s speaking to – or on behalf of – as she notes and refutes the desire to count herself lucky for having gotten away with what she has, how the wound cannot heal.

As so much in the game, we never get a timestamp for any of the songs. Is this song somehow the product of Red’s mind as she rethinks the events of the night? Was it a prescient composition prior to the game’s events? No data, damn it.

IN CIRCLES

Immediately following the recounting of the night’s events themed with ‘We All Become,’ Red discovers a 98% processed Sybil center-stage behind her, triggering 'In Circles’. Because this is exclusively heard during the boss fight with Sybil, the lyrics seem well matched to their failed love affair as it plays out in the battle; Sybil babbles about their relationship and the attack repetitively, while Red’s voice asserts that she won’t save her. Won’t, not can’t, not shouldn’t.

And yet the same theme also applies to Red’s relationship with the civil unrest of Cloudbank. When accused of instigating revolt with her concerts, she both said that there was no political intent and that she would not speak further on what the exact intent was. This is a song about refusing to rescue someone that the speaker nonetheless recognizes is hurting. Like the song prior, there seems to be a strong desire to separate oneself from others, perhaps specific and general others. Importantly: without apology.


I hear you buzzing,
a fly on the wall
In through the window
and up through the hall
Flying in circles,
just trying to land
I see you hurting,
I do what I can

But I won't save you
I won't save you

Maybe you're looking
for someone to blame
Fighting for air
while you circle the drain
Never be sorry
for your little time
It's not when you get there,
it's always the climb

But I won't save you
I won't save you

I won't save you
I won't save you

It's just skin and bones
Nothing inside
Sleeping alone
Fingers tied themselves
In knots around the heart
It beats in time

I see the spine of the world
Sparkle and shine, light the inside
I see the spine of the world
I know it's mine
Twisted and tied

You always go
Walking on coals
Walk away slow
Feel the fire
Light your way to me
My siren song for you

I see the spine of the world
Sparkle and shine, light the inside
I see the spine of the world
I know it's mine
Twisted and tied
I see the spine

So come with me
We'll fly right over, right over
Watch it break
If we get closer, much closer

I see the spine of the world
Sparkle and shine, light the inside
I see the spine of the world
You know it's mine
Twisted and tied
THE SPINE

The Transistor is able to record a trace of Sybil, which provides them with information on the location of the remaining Camerata members. Red races towards them, mounting the Highrise Towers on her way – and eating delivery pizza. As she does, they encounter ‘the Spine’, which appears to be a processed landmark of Cloudbank now sentient and actively hostile towards them. Proximity to the Spine has a curious effect on the Transistor, making his speech increasingly incoherent and muzzy. Whenever the creature’s prodigious tail spikes through a wall, you can hear a screeched ‘GO AWAY’; as the Transistor fights for consciousness, it repeats ‘I love you, I love you.’

Of all the tracks in the game, this one puzzles me the most. It’s obviously timed with the battle against the Spine, but this is also the first glimpse of speaker identification – she sings that the twisted and tied Spine of the world is hers. This may be a reference to her decisions at the close of the game, but it might also be the sort of ‘mine’ we say as a threat against intended targets.

The way she addresses ‘you’ here is notable because she references both its attempts to walk away and a return to observe the breaking of the spine, with a little sadism lite: as ‘you’ walk on coals, she invites you to walk away slowly, feel the pain of the fire of those embers, and let that pain insist on return back to the speaker. It’s cruel, but this depending on how you interpret her identification with the spine, it’s also a song about the speaker being broken into pieces after being twisted and tied.

One of the distinctive elements of Red’s work is a willingness to be ugly, in sense of being self-centered without apology. She does not want to be merged with others; she will not save you. This is a deep contrast to the way we ordinarily find women in stories, who are often automatic caretakers, lovers, mothers, emotional annexes to their male companions. This, too, a place where what Red says is carefully, and not maudlin in the usual ways romantic women are: come back to me, because it will be painful for you if you don’t; watch this fall apart. An order, not a request, not an admission that she wants her lover there but an instruction to follow.

Despite that, the specific narrative moment is both fierce and tender: Red is shaken as she ascends the Tower, and tells the apparently malfunctioning Transistor that she is ‘going to find the thing that is doing this and break its heart’; when she vanquishes the spine, she does exactly that, descending through the fleshy remainder of its head to shove the Transistor in the beating center; afterwards, she kneels with the sword spread in her palms, waiting for it to speak again. When he thanks her, she stands.

PAPER BOATS

Armed with a fully powered Transistor, able to rewrite any processed blocks, Red comes to the corpse of her lover. Humming, she brushes back the Process, the Transistor noting that there is an ‘error’ here; while he goes on to describe the work they could do in restoring the city, she embraces the sword, and lays down beside the body. Guitar strumming gradually builds in intensity. At the game’s close, Red chooses to flick the Transistor upward, as she has in any number of idle moments thus far – the game is careful to teach you how to toss the sword with a quick tap of the Q-key – but rather than catching it in hand, she buries it in her chest.

Cue this lovely, romantic song, about the inevitability of the attraction between Red and her beloved. Again, there is subtlety; much of the language here points to that attraction as beyond control, asks the beloved to try to escape it, says together they ‘can run but not hide.’ Is it a dare? See what happens if you try to leave me, I will come find you. Or is it a rueful reflection on the helplessness of her choice and the results it has for her? Yes, I’ll always love you, and it will always cost me. Try to leave, for my sake.

There is something about the ‘will’ here, an active verb. It is her choice, even if she has no power to change the circumstances that make that so. A perfect accompaniment to Red’s decision in the decimation of her world, every possible hope for resurrection eliminated. And, notably, the sole place that any accompaniment to Red's voice takes place; as the song builds to its close, a male voice joins in.

That a song that characterizes her love and actions as helpless is timed at the moment when Red has the most power she has at any point in the game is especially worth consideration, one of many counterpoints between Red's apparent motivations and the ones she actually vocalizes. It depends on what you make of those last seconds. Does she meet her lover in the afterlife - or in whatever plane the Country occupies? Did she know she would, as she pulled the Transistor downward? To quote Red: hmm.


Seconds march into the past
The moments pass
And just like that they're gone
The river always finds the sea
So helplessly
Like you find me

We are paper boats
floating on a stream
And it would seem
We'll never be apart

I will always find you
Like it's written in the stars
You can run, but you can't hide
Try

Like the moon that makes the tides
That silent guide
Is calling from inside
And pull me here and push me there
It's everywhere
Hanging in the air

We are magnets pulling
from different poles
With no control
We'll never be apart

I will always find you
Like it's written in the stars
You can run, but you can't hide
Try

I will always, always find you
I will always
I will always, always find you
I will always

I will always find you
Like it's written in the stars
We can run, but we can't hide
Try

I will always find you
Like it's written in the stars
We can run, but we can't hide
Try

I will always, always find you
I will always
IF SOMETHING CHANGES
THEN SOMETHING CHANGES

I named this site Vox Populi, the voice of the people, with a sense of irony. If you've read any of the foregoing, you'll know that not only does she physically lack a voice, Red explicitly declines being that voice for Cloudbank, either as its premier musician being co-opted by insurgencies or as the last woman standing, able to paint the town, well, Red, when she is left with the Transistor and a blank city. She's an interesting character. Importantly: a female one.

Sometimes there's a puzzle about how to make games 'feminist', or perhaps more simply and commercially, how to make them appeal to women. Putting women in the games is part of it, but there is no feeling more nauseating than encountering someone superficially like yourself and yet handled so poorly, so vapidly, that it makes you ashamed to be like that character. The puzzle, then, is how to write women that women could identify with. Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight featured women in all the roles that you often find men in, and men in the roles that you find women in; that is, women as heroes, as villains, as shopkeepers, as boss fights, as monsters, as non-player characters, as friends, and men as to-be-rescued, as information dispensers, as window dressing. There is nothing explicitly woman-oriented in the game beyond a mere swap of gender. That's one kind of response to the puzzle, and not an unsuccessful one - but it doesn't make me think hard.

Transistor, in contrast, has a complicated arrangement of gender and sexuality. True, the protagonist is female, but also a silent and underdressed woman. There's homosexuality, but it's hinted rather than stated - yet it's a game of hints, so these don't stand out as uncourageous, so rather their understatement seems to suggest that the world of Cloudbank is one where this choice appears not to need further justification or elaboration, that the characteristic is so normal as to be transparent. There is also a non-binary character in the game, an archivist approached by the Camerata. Though some argue that the man in the Transistor also lacks gender identification, he uses male pronouns when speaking of himself, and it seems polite to follow suit. Thus, we have a man without a body telling a story about a woman, who cannot speak, but is deliberately show-cased as embodied.

Does that arrangement make it feminist, or not?

Does the story-teller matter more than the subject of the story?

In the 1960's, Ellen Willis thought about the feminist-identifying folk musicians that she hated, and the raunchy Rolling Stones that she loved, and wrote:

And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated — as good rock and roll did — challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation. Similarly, timid music made me feel timid, whatever its ostensible politics.
ELLEN WILLIS

One of the most instructive parts of watching Mad Men is noticing how the men and women change their minds, particularly on socio-political matters. There is a fashion to opinion, even those on race and sex. Suddenly hemlines are higher; suddenly racism is something Pete Campbell is against. There are few instances where characters confront their beliefs and revise them, even though those beliefs seem to change. Sometimes I wonder similar things about the vogue that environmentalism and food politics currently enjoy. Right now, I wonder that about feminism. Is it a very good time, or a very bad time, to be a feminist? Those who are vocal about social justice no longer seem to be underdogs, even if those meant to be served by social justice still are. Joss Whedon, playing Joss Whedon and someone interviewing Joss Whedon, asked himself, So, why do you write these strong female characters?, and responded, Because you’re still asking me that question. It's a significant response to a significant question, and it is also significant that this question is only imagined. And yet: Gamergate. And yet there are so many moments when playing a game, or reading books, or walking by bars in the dark, when I find myself unable to do anything except think of myself as a woman and unable to be comfortable with that fact.

This doesn't contradict Ellen Willis's point that sometimes, whatever the apparent intentions of a work, what actually makes me feel like a real human being and a woman isn't intentionally feminist. Similarly, merely stuffing women into a game doesn't seem to make that game more feminist. Somehow, the experience itself ought to be feminist.

So what have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that points not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough.
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
TOM BISSELL

There's more to say about what makes the experience of playing Transistor feel feminist to me, but one enormous part is the ending. I said in the beginning that the puzzle was how to create characters that women could identify with - but the moment when Red raises the Transistor above her heart is a moment that defied my ability to identify with her, because I was pressing every fucking key I could in the hopes of stopping her. As Bissell put it, the game points a finger at the person playing Red in those final moments, namely, that I am not her, that she is a character whose choices are ultimately independent of my preferences. There is a pinch in feminism about whether, when you make claims about what all women's lives are like, you are silencing them in the process. This would be a pinch in a feminist game, too. If it involves presenting a woman as a specific character, how do you present that woman in such a way that women who have differing races, classes, dental histories, sexual orientations will see themselves in her specific choices?

Oddly, I think it is powerful to present a woman who defies identification. If the problem with identification is that you extrapolate the specifics of a character you identify with in harmful ways, then I think the ultimate characteristic Red offers, as said, is that she is someone, and to be someone is to have a specific life all your own.

Beyond the ending, the play style itself offers something existentialist-y juicy. I'm from the world of turn-based role-playing games, where improvement means improving the character: you get experience points; you get better; the character has characteristics it didn't have previously. The character becomes more skilled, while the player does not; even the boss fights don't involve a substantially different challenge than the most menial monster. Again, Transistor succeeds here, because though the character acquires abilities throughout the game, the player remains challenged. There's two prongs to that challenge: in order to learn more about the world, you need to employ the functions you acquire in all three combinations, as active powers, as upgrade that flavor active powers, and as passive buffs to the character. And, at the same time, these functions are being overloaded and so lost at every turn, so that the player herself has to figure out how to adapt to work with what she has right now. Carrot and stick, as it were.

In some ways that's just a good game, but I think it's interesting to consider it at the level of experience.

... every human being by definition struggles with what she calls 'ambiguity': she is both a subject (a self-conscious being capable of moving beyond what nature and the world give to her, including her desires as they stand) and an object (an embodied being with characteristics, a style, appetites, and a history, all of which invite the judgment of others. It is fashionable these days to reject the dualistic, Cartesian metaphysic of the human being. But both Beauvoir and Sartre -- convincingly, in my opinion -- understand the subject/object split not as a mere fact of ontology, as Descartes is at least ordinarily taken to have argued, but more as a phenomenological dilemma. In other words they are interested not so much in claiming that the dualistic picture is true as they are in drawing our attention to the fact that our experience is one of dualism, or more precisely, of a tension between our drive to transcend ourselves and our drive to cement our identities in ways that we and others will find ceaselessly praiseworthy.

...Beauvoir claims that from time immemorial human beings have on the whole found a certain satisfaction in exploiting inherently non-normative biological facts to split the difference when it comes to the painful existential fact of human ambiguity: men, according to this way of thinking, will be the subjects and women will strive to be objects. I put the idea in this odd way to bring out what Beauvoir identifies as the incoherence of this plan: to "be" something, once and for all, is precisely not to be a subject; and to strive to be an object is precisely to demonstrate that you aren't one.
Beauvoir on the Allure of Self-Objectification
NANCY BAUER

What Bauer is talking about is the way that gender is often a temptation to see one in a particular existentialist light: men as subjects who do and accomplish praiseworthy things; and women as praiseworthy objects, who acknowledge the praiseworthiness of male deeds. One of the great nuances of both Bauer and Beauvoir is that it isn't a black and white thing - the temptation goes both ways, but in general, historically and presently, women simply are more tempted to seek out opportunities to be praiseworthy objects. In so doing, they're making a mistake, just as Bauer noted, because to seek anything is not to be an object.

I think about this when I think about my preference for games that involve character skill more heavily than player skill. Is that that old temptation coming out? Playing Red, wielding the Transistor, I felt that even at the level of game mechanics, I felt like I was a real human being and a woman - but I wasn't the woman in the game.


TOGETHER AGAIN?

This was supposed to be to be an homage to Red's loyalty in a response to the Badass Bitches Challenge for the Winter of 2016/2017,: If by my life or death I can protect you, I will. Funnily, frustratingly, the more I re-acquainted myself with the game, the less obvious it was to me that Red's last act is one of love. Her lyrics are unabashedly ugly - by which I mean that love is linked to loss of control, that total unity is discussed as a kind of death, that her confidence in her lover's return is the pain it would case him to leave, that she won't save you. Beautifully sung, naturally, but one wonders if canonically what made Red such a stir in Cloudbank is the cynicism her songs hold for connecting to anyone.

You could contest those lyrics with her expressions regarding the Transistor, in particular that giggle and gasp when they are reunited posthumously. They are always exquisitely loving, deeply domestic despite the inhumanity of one of the partners - and always emphasizing her embodiment over his absence of one. She eats. She uses the bathroom. She leaps through the air. As she does so, she gives him a glance over a mouthful of his favorite seafood special, or arches her brow when he gives her the permission they both recognize as unnecessary to dash to the ladies' room, or smiles open mouthed as he spins in her arms. Though she never says she loves him, she does tell him that he's all she has in a bit of hasty typing at a OVC Terminal, and she kills a building-sized serpent that was blanking out his mind - and whenever the world appears to fade from view the first thing we see is Red on her knees, staring dead into the center of the blade, waiting for it to speak again.

Why, then, does she choose to die?

That's your first hint that something's alive. It says no.
Catherynne M. Valente

"Incomplete" is the central motif of Transistor, where that means being denied access to inner workings. We never find out everything about the world, and what evidence we find (largely through the wandering asides of Royce Bracket) underdetermines a theory of how Cloudbank works. Our understanding of the world is incomplete - and our understanding of our girl is incomplete, because no one anticipates Red's waterside suicide, and yet didn't she lock her door, didn't she type see you in the country?

Could be a deathwish. Perhaps her speeding away from Goldwalk towards the Empty Set was really Red hoping that someone would do what she could not, and perhaps besting Royce was her real defeat, the moment when she realized she'd have to do it herself. That's the puzzle: why beat Royce, only to die at your own hands?

Except everything about her biography, every situation she's presented with, strongly emphasizes that Red is not here to be handled by other people. She told the rioters that her songs weren't their goddamn political anthems. The woman that waited first to comfort her and then to kill her ends up under Red's chipped stilettos. The journalist that advertises his coterie's good intentions is denied the assurance he angles for; instead, she tells him that she'll help him only after he tells her everything. And even Royce, who wanted to strip her of her weapon so that he could paint the town in his image. When she leaves Bracket locked in another world, there was only one person left, a narrator who wove her every action into his interpretation. Is that, too, being handled? Was that what Red couldn't bear any further? When she told him you're all I have, was that her motivation to fight, or was it really an uncomfortable position for a woman unwilling to bend her will to the desires and perspectives of others?

And yet, as I said, her voice caramelizes with delight when she sees him again, as she extends a hand under an endless summer sky. That doesn't appear to fucking square, nor does her lingering embrace of the sword, nor does her choice to curl around him, head lolled on his shoulder in her last breath in the dead city.

I think Red decided that power was not enough, despite the fact that she declined every opportunist's attempt to wrest it from her, and I think she decided that love was not enough, because she was not enough as she was. She was willing to die for her lover, but she wasn't willing to live in an empty world for him. Possibly she figured out a loop-hole in their situation. (‘The Transistor has some strange qualities, some peculiarities. For example if you use it to, say, take somebody's life, it'll take you away. Wherever you are, it'll take you away.’ A clue from Royce?) I don't know. She might not have known, either. I don't even know if I've described her decision aptly, and I think that's important, the not-knowing.

What Red does isn't for me. It might be for a certain man. But then, it might not be.

The privacy of Red's mind is both a kind of power and a kind of inhumanity, just as her lover's total narration is a kind of power and inhumanity - a privacy whose depth we realize only when she does something that defies the story that only one person has been telling. Both the clues to the Transistor's nature and Red's desires were incomplete, but they were there. You need both. Had we no clues at all, through the textual evidence of her songs and her actual in-game writings and action, that final choice would veer into the inhuman, irrational, dramatically flat. It's a powerful thing, to show a character that you can recognize as sentient, capable of communicating, but also not surrendering their every thought to you, committed to objectives different from your own. It shows separation, a counterpoint to the Transistor's early comment that they're together again, sort of.

MOVING OUT TO
THE COUNTRY

Here, I want to suggest further places to go, both as a shrine and as a visitor. Above, I made an allusion to the sexuality of the villains; there I said that the understatement of the romantic relationship between the Kendrells, and between Sybil and Red, were positive features, because that understatement implied the normality of non-heterosexuality in the world of Cloudbank. Sometimes I think that's a strength in speculative fiction: we show people a way the world could be, and the strength of that portrayal may help in actually bringing about the desired outcomes. But sometimes that ellipsis between where we are and where we ought to be can feel like a harmful impatience. Instead of someone feeling recognized in a present piece of fiction about a future possibility, they feel skipped over. This goes both for the understated sexuality that informs the story as well as the persons of color within the cast - it's hard for me to tell whether the omitted focus on these features is a helpful normality ... or not.

In further work on Vox Populi, I'd like to confront this, as well as discuss why we make the assumptions we do about the story. Much of the latter I hope to ground in tropes from detective fiction and cyberpunk. In fact, I don't think Transistor is cyberpunk, but I think that the tropes from the two genres inform our expectations of what is true in this story, and what the point of the story is. One review of the television series Six Feet Under, which followed a family's operation of a small town funeral parlor, noted that part of the strength of that show was that ordinarily when we encounter death in television, it's part of a police procedural, where the fact that someone has passed is mitigated by the solution of the mystery -- and in Six Feet Under, we stay with the fact of the corpse, it's never solved. A lot of the punk in cyberpunk is that our anti-heroes are real do-it-yourself-ers because the systems of the world are flawed, held in the hands of distant powerful conglomerates, so they operate outside of them. Often such works advocate hope that one person could confront the whole system and rip it down. Neither type of story, the solution of a mystery upon the discovery of a corpse, nor the heroic individual versus the massive system, is the story in Transistor, but we expect it to be. I think that's interesting.

Someday, I'll get there.

In the mean time, I should introduce you to my lovely affiliates.

CIRCLES
VALKYRIE

CIRCLES
Though currently a fanlisting, Rems will soon expand Circles() into a shrine - which I'm honestly super looking forward to, because Rems has quality fucking taste in shrines, and I'm tapping my foot until her Old Kingdom tribute is completed. I found the first hour of FFXIII irritatingly on-the-nose and so never finished it, but her tribute to Serah has tempted me to take another look by revealing the great depth of a character that I would have likely written off. Her work often involves a thorough excavation of thematic concerns while clearly (and sympathetically) outlining the underlying motivations for the characters that operate within those themes, and I look forward to the light that will shed on Red and the Transistor.
VALKYRIE
Lethe is a constant inspiration and wonderful friend; her work is always showing me how it's done in multiple senses. (Even the current layout was heavily inspired by her jaw-dropping In Another Dream.) Both Rose and Red make unpopular choices that drive the narrative of their respective games -- even as those games center the perspective of male characters loved by these women, men who do not approve of their choices. Though neither character is alone for much of the actual gameplay, they both have a sense of being solitary figures, both because of the choices they make and because of burdens foisted on them unfairly, and without any opportunity to pass it on. I can't rival Lethe's fascinating and thorough investigation of Rose from every possible angle, but I am proud to share her love of a badass bitch.

I'd love to make further connections with other affiliates! Looking for silent protagonists, science fiction loners, women warriors, foiled love stories - and anyone who gets the final say.

RECURSION

If you've read any of this: thank you. This site wouldn't here without a lot of support from Lethe, who spammed kind words, kept me twitter accountable, and generally made me feel like it was worth doing, nor would it be here now without the Badass Bitches Winter 2016/2017 Challenge. It was coded in Notepad ++ (christ do not look I need to revamp it badly), with a neat CSS triangle quotation block effect from Nicholas Gallagher. All of the fonts are from the free Google offerings, excepting Prisma, which inspired the White Stripes-esque offering you find in front of you now. The microphone icon came from Freepik.

I've reached a point where I know there's more to say about Red and her journey and the slick-as-fuck setting it takes place in, but I want to go some time without saying it. I'd love to connect with affiliates who feature similarly singular heroines, so please hit me up if you'd be interested. Hit me up even if you just want to holler about videogames and feelings. Especially feelings.

EMOTION
AMASSMENT
BADASS BITCHES
WEBMISTRESS
LINK BUTTON