In which I pen a small piece about Transistor (with spoilers)

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WARNING: Major plot spoilers for Supergiant Games’ Transistor follow. If you haven’t played through the game yet, don’t even think about reading this. Go play it. Form your own opinions about how it goes together. See the ending. And then, come back and read this post.

Transistor is a terrific game. I recently picked up its PS4 incarnation, playing through twice and obtaining every achievement in two short days. I quite enjoyed it, finding its gameplay and story excellent, albeit with weaker pacing and storytelling than Bastion. This surprised to me, because Transistor has a far deeper and more personal story to tell than its predecessor.

As folks reading this will know, Transistor’s narrative is one part love story and one part dystopian retelling of the story of Babel. It succeeds in its use of narrative devices: I loved using terminals and function trace data to explore the game’s world and history. But, its retelling falls short of a complete picture, requiring a great deal of technical knowledge and reading between the lines to fully “get it”.

What follows, then, is my reading of their narrative. While non-authoritative, I think this will be helpful to people who’ve played through and were more than puzzled by the motivations of Red, the Camerata, and the Process, by what Cloudbank actually was, and as to why Red’s decision to enter the Transistor was so meaningful to the story.

This will undoubtedly substitute some official elements for my personal head canon. I believe the terseness of the narrative even intends this. I’ll try to call out these cases when I can.

Red’s Motivations

Red is a direct victim of the actions of the Camerata. Before the game opens, her romantic partner has taken the eponymous Transistor blade to the gut to protect Red. Grant Kendrell is later seen having cast the blade at her in a cutscene, and a trace file reveals that this was the event in which she lost her voice, speciously implying that it was uploaded into the Transistor itself.

Red’s initial motivation is purely revenge. This is explicitly given by voice of the Transistor and indicated by her donning the unnamed male lead’s jacket (shown in many depictions of her, including her sprite, in promotional materials, and in the ending credits) and taking up the Transistor blade to fight the Camerata. Through her actions and words in terminal comment data, we see an exceptionally strong female lead that always has a plan, is always true to her (written) words, and whom is determined to see the Camerata and the Process stopped.

Over the course of the game, we see her develop through a hero’s journey. And once it is complete, she shocks the player by impaling herself on the Transistor blade after having just fought a battle to escape it. This feels like a missed opportunity, a rushed decision on the part of Red, that we’ll touch on later.

The Camerata’s Motivations

For the entirety of my first playthrough, I was left with this fundamental question: what the hell were the Camerata trying to accomplish? We’re given small bits of dialog and text describing their motivations and actions, but these initially fit together jaggedly, as if someone had spun up a classic “these people are bad” narrative, then spurned the player to battle droves of enemies to see the straw-man villains fall to pieces.

I think this is a failure of pacing and player empathy. Too many elements critical to the story, inclusive of most of the Camerata’s motivations, are hidden behind character encryption data and specious in-game clues. It makes sense once you’ve read all of the data, but most players will complete their first game wondering just what Sybil, Grant, Asher, and Royce were on about in the first place. Sure, there are these hints that they wanted to stop the world from changing (thus unleashing The Process), but… why?

After going through all of the character trace data, the player receives a clearer picture of just what happened. The Camerata’s mission was actually the brainchild of Royce Bracket who, after a longstanding career as the architect of Cloudbank, attempts to design a computer algorithm that could predict and construct structures on its own. This initially meets failure, but after his disgrace, he settles on an algorithm that leads him to discover the Process. It’s subtly hinted that this came from another computer system, perhaps from someone else’s codebase entirely, derived by or borrowed from his designs for a single organism that could replace his role as the architect of Cloudbank.

The Camerata then seek to use the Process to rearchitect Cloudbank programmatically, believing the people would understand their vision and their actions. Their approach uses the ends to justify the means. But, as we see, this does not go as planned.

The Process

Royce and the others discover that the Process can rewrite Cloudbank into whatever image they choose, but before it can do this, they must seed it with the right data. Essentially, the Process is an imported machine learning algorithm that must be trained to provide desirable results. In the world of Cloudbank, these data are people.

However, the Process integrates these variables differently from what the Camerata intended. What it provides is a depiction that overfits data too generically, too uncleanly, converting people into architectural blocks and creatures used as workers in its system. They make a critical mistake: using their sole administrative editing tool, the Transistor itself, to perform each upload. By inadvertently losing it to Red, they lose control of the Process and lose the ability to alter its behavior.

Everything that follows is simply execution of a naive machine learning language that can arbitrarily modify data. It is not dissimilar to a virus, undirected except towards its initial motivations (which include claiming Red, for reasons undisclosed) and those of protecting itself.

Cloudbank

But why would the Process work against human beings? What is this computer world and why does it somewhat resemble or own?

Simply, this world is perhaps one end state for humanity. It implies the technical transcendence of human beings uploaded into a computer system, in which much of its lexicon is borrowed from earlier terms used in 70s, 80s, and 90s computing. The rest is implied scope, and disclosed to the player only in its social implications.

The Transistor

Red carries the Transistor throughout the game. Later, she obtains temporary superuser and administrative powers, perhaps from Sybil’s credentials and as an override for the sole logged in user in Cloudbank. This shows off some of the neat constructive features of the Transistor that she does not initially have access to.

To stop the Process, Royce uses the Transistor to open a pocket dimension for himself and Red in protected memory, perhaps the operating system, of the blade itself (evidenced by the presence of all users in containers during the final battle). Once he and Red are safe inside, he performs an administrative override, terminating all processes in Cloudbank, including what we know as the Process. This indicates that the Transistor has special protections that prevent this from affecting it, perhaps as trivial as running as the root user.

What happens next makes less sense, however. Royce stages a battle with Red, claiming that only one individual can return to Cloudbank from within the Transistor. This indicates that he has set up some form of elaborate hack, perhaps using a virtual Transistor blade as a callback function, to return to Cloudbank. Why he does this is a mystery, though it is strongly implied that this is his hubris and his last attempt to eliminate Red.

Once free, Red is now the sole user logged in to Cloudbank. And she has the power to rebuild it all from scratch… but chooses not to do so.

Red’s Decision

With all the power in Cloudbank, Red instead chooses to impale herself with the Transistor blade, uploading her consciousness into the same shared memory containing her romantic partner. The Transistor blade provides a pastoral setting for them reminiscent of “the Country” that she, her partner, and presumably the other characters uploaded into the blade, may inhabit. Cloudbank itself is left to run idle, and life begins anew amongst the survivors within the Transistor.

I feel that this is a missed opportunity, both for Red and for the narrative. Specifically, at the end of the game, I would have liked the choice for Red to use the Transistor to restore Cloudbank or to upload herself. This would have represented the dichotomy of responsibility and love, and it would have constructed a far more nuanced and interesting “choice” to offer the player.

A further stinger would have been nice here: every “recurrence” of the game represents this end-state for Cloudbank happening again. If Red chose to upload herself, it is shown that what happened to Cloudbank recurs, either outside or within the Transistor itself. If she rebuilds Cloudbank, the events of the game repeat themselves. But, alas, we are left with this one forced ending.

In summary: the game’s narrative all makes sense in context. The Camerata were an organization that did not understand the wrinkles of machine learning, and released a premature algorithm onto a population unprepared to it because of their clandestine actions. They paid dearly for it. As did Red, who suffers over the course of the game, denies Royce the power to rebuild Cloudbank due to his irresponsible behavior, and ultimately chooses to upload herself to restore the life she wishes to live, reclaiming both her voice and her relationship with the man in the Transistor.

It is an odd story told in the hushed whispers of encrypted data. And while the storytelling is more fragile than I feel it should have been, it’s one I will continue to come back to. Because I, for one, liked it.

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One thought on “In which I pen a small piece about Transistor (with spoilers)

    Satisfied Reader said:
    January 3, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    As my name implies, I find myself thoroughly satisfied by your interpretation of Transistor’s story. I did not pay as much attention to the tidbits of information scattered around the game as I should have, and suffered for it. An ailment remedied by this article. Thank you for it.

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