This post contains spoilers.
Actions speak louder than words.
It may be a cliché, but it definitely holds true with indie game developer Supergiant Games’ 2014 sophomore release, the sci-fi action role-playing game Transistor. The game is set in a gorgeously rendered futuristic city named Cloudbank, whose districts are being devoured by a strange technological force called the Process. Players take the role of Red, an unyielding singer-turned-heroine who has lost her voice under mysterious circumstances. She is accompanied by the eponymous Transistor, her giant talking sword, which—surprise, surprise—she has also acquired under mysterious and tragic circumstances. Together, they go searching for answers from the Camerata, a shadowy administrative organization in Cloudbank.
The silent protagonist is nothing new in role-playing video games. In fact, he—and it usually is a he—is somewhat of a feature, especially within the genealogy of fantasy and sci-fi role playing games. Meant to be ‘everyman’-type heroes that the ‘typical’ gamer can relate to, a silent protagonist allows for deeper immersion into a richly developed speculative world. With a silent protagonist, interactions with non-player characters and participation in game events aren’t sullied by a reaction from the player character that the player disagrees with.
Many games nowadays still reflect this in their development. One only has to glance at a list of the most popular speculative games to find customization options galore. These range from whichever races occur in that particular fantasy world to a choice of preferred weaponry or battle style. Usually, this is a step up from the ubiquitous white male hero; female protagonists remain a rarity, however. When player characters do have a distinct personality and point of view, they are almost always male.
Given this history, it can feel disheartening to find Red deprived of her voice from the very start of the game. In its place is the Transistor (voiced by the talented Logan Cunningham), the voice of her male companion who has been absorbed by the sword. He compels the player to move around as Red, calls out to her, and lays out an initial course of action: flee the city. His narration fills the space left by her missing voice throughout the game, and by reacting to events and commenting upon the rich scenery, he renders Cloudbank familiar to the player.
The guiding narrator is not a new feature, either; often, the hero needs instruction on their quest through an unfamiliar fantasy land, and using a wiser narrator character as opposed to disembodied text onscreen better retains the player’s immersion. Gamers grow used to following the cues of the trustworthy narrator, who directs them to the next significant plot point. In some ways, it is the narrator who is really in control, with the player character’s agency ceded to the narrator’s greater knowledge.
Transistor takes all this and tosses it out. In an effort to keep Red safe early in the game, the Transistor guides her to a motorcycle, their intended escape vehicle. “Take the second right. Do not turn left. And, thanks for the lift.” Moments later, he is taken aback. “You turned left.” And so Red has, in a cutscene without the player’s input. Of course she turned left. She’s the hero now, and despite being voiceless, that one action has established her agency as distinct from the Transistor’s narrative guidance. It is a joy to play a woman character who has her own agency and makes her own decisions in a genre that is sorely lacking in nuanced female protagonists. But the Transistor is not the enemy here—he has a close relationship to Red, which is slowly revealed as they travel together, and he tries to support her as she confronts the Camerata.
What is harder to notice, especially during one’s first play through the game, is Transistor’s subversion of traditional narrative tropes. Here is the unlikely hero: a woman, a singer, voiceless but not powerless. The narrative voice of Red’s companion primes the player for a quest to save the city. The Transistor doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows who does. So begins the journey through Cloudbank to find the leader of the Camerata, Grant Kendrell. There is a blink-and-you-miss-it subtlety to Grant’s relationship with Asher, his second-in-command and lover, who pleads with Red to understand their good intentions in unleashing the Process. As the player proceeds ever closer to the heart of the city and encounters a few other moments of LGBTQ representation done right even as the world goes wrong. The build-up is immense, and the narrator’s commentary primes the player for a revelation.
Instead, the player is shocked when they break through the barriers and discover that Grant and Asher have already chosen to commit suicide, averting the expected boss fight at the top of the tower. Up until that moment, the Transistor is still calling the Camerata liars and cowards. It is only afterwards that he admits he was wrong about them. Red’s reaction is inscrutable. The way the game is set up, it’s easy for the player to think that her goals are the ones described by the Transistor. The overall theme is the same: find some answers. The Transistor remains convinced that they’ll “sort all this out.” But Red has her own plans that aren’t readily apparent. And it becomes clear in the end that this game is not another hero-saves-world role playing game, and all because of the way the protagonist is written. In the final scene, the player is taken completely by surprise as the only scripted ending takes over and Red acts on her decisions.
The heart-wrenching ending seems, initially, to make little sense, especially after all that the characters have been through. Proceeding through the game with certain expectations of how things will go, and encouraged by the familiar but not entirely accurate narrative constructed by the Transistor’s narration, the player is likely to miss cues in Red’s actions and words that foreshadow the end. Upon taking a step back, however, it becomes clear that the expected ending would have been antithetical to the game’s theme. Despite losing her voice, Red’s perspective is revealed in the words she types at terminals and in the song lyrics of the masterfully integrated soundtrack. In the end, she speaks most powerfully with her actions, which go uncontrolled even by the player.
The game is about many things, but one of its main focal points is the power of voice, agency, and individuality, and resistance to being subsumed into a featureless whole. Red’s voice permeates the game despite her role as a ‘silent’ protagonist, and her choices are valued on her own terms. Nobody and nothing—not the Transistor, not the expected grand narrative, not even the player—can take that away from her.
With its unapologetic protagonist, uncannily beautiful setting, and deep engagement with complex themes, Transistor is a prime example of video games as art, and displays the transformative potential speculative worlds have for shedding light on our own world.
-contributed by Victoria Liao