The Illusion of Control in ‘Transistor’

Who’s in charge in Transistor? Maybe nobody.

This post contains spoilers for Transistor

Transistor is a story about people struggling to maintain control over an ever-shifting situation. Everyone in the game, be they heroes, villains, or the average citizen, are fooled into thinking that they have exerted a lasting influence over others. Diversity somehow finds a way to trump their efforts, even the efforts of the person holding controller.

Cloudbank, the game’s high tech cityscape, makes promises of power and influence to its citizens, but it does so in a way that is both limited and prone to arbitrary decision making. On the surface, the city seems like a democratic success; “users” can vote on everything from city planning projects to the weather and the winners get to see their plans enacted. In reality, this capricious mass has a hard time staying focused on any long-term structural change. Votes go back and forth and random pieces of architecture make for odd juxtapositions.

More importantly, the various voting terminals around Cloudbank show that freedom of choice exists only within a narrowly defined field of choices. Shall the sky be blue or blue with some clouds? Who’s you’re favorite singer? Here’s a news report that is clearly being spun by a shadow set of administrators. Make a comment, and it will disappear to be moderated. Choice is always present, but efficacy is absent.

Transistor’s antagonists, the Camerata, take a different tactic towards control. They fashion themselves as an elite intelligentsia who can guide the larger population towards a world whose beauty is derived from order and deliberate actions. In the pursuit of this authored world, the Camerata attempt to take control of the Process, the mechanism that allows for the Cloudbank’s continual reshaping process. It turns out to be an impossible weapon to wield and what starts out as an attempt to standardize morphs into a script that homogenizes the city, stripping it of its character and people.

The Transistor, a tool used to keep the Process in check, draws its power from some of the diverse citizens of Cloudbank. Outstanding athletes, influential civic leaders, and talented artists stand out from the crowd and represent a potential alternative to both the chaos of unchecked populism and the dullness of state-sanctioned culture. The Transistor is where the player finds their opportunity to exert control.

On a practical level, the Transistor lets you fight the Process’ strange robotic army in literally hundreds of different ways. Each techniquethat you gain can be stacked as an active, secondary, or passive ability. All this makes for a highly customizable experience that will lead some people down the path of a brawler while others turn into a cyberpunk wizard. Watching other people play is fascinating, as huge differences in game speed and battle tactics arise from the ability system. Transistor’s systems allow to you fashion the game to your tastes.

Like the general populace and the Camerata, your control is undermined. In this case, this disruption comes from Red, the game’s protagonist and lead vocalist. Red’s songs permeate Transistor’s soundtrack, but the game opens with her voice being taken by the Camerata. At this point, it’s easy to slip into the old video game habit of viewing her alongside some of the classic silent protagonists in games. From Link to Gordon Freeman, the lack of a voice has traditionally been an invitation to treat the character like a vessel: fill them up with the personality of your choosing and treat them as both a physical and emotional avatar.

Transistor does a good job of luring you down this path. The Transistor sword itself acts as a narrator that frames plot points in a way that makes it seem like the player and Red are the same person. During cutscenes, you can step on the throttle of your motorcycle or make your boat skip off the ways. These don’t have any mechanical impact, but they do make it feel like you and Red are acting as one. Add these subtle things to the obvious freedom of battle tactics, and it’s easy to think that you and Red are making joint plot decisions.

That is far from the case. After beating back the Process and dispatching the people that murdered her partner and left his essence stuck in the Transistor sword, Red is faced with a choice: try to rebuild and re-inhabit the city or start anew somewhere else? Red chooses neither, and despite the protestations of her partner and any objection from the player, chooses to enter the Transistor to be with the man she lost. Suddenly, the sense of control you have as a player is undermined by a character you realize had a motivation throughout the entire game, but because of her voice could not articulate it.

Like the citizens of Cloudbank and the Camerata, your sphere of influence has real limits. Power ebbs and flows and assuming that you can dictate others’ actions makes you as naive as those voting for the weather. The Camerata couldn’t institute an aesthetic dictatorship and Red’s partner couldn’t stop her from sacrificing herself. You have the chance to play around with her weapons, but ultimately Red’s final choice is her own and the concept of total control is revealed to be a temporary illusion.