Simulated City: Supergiant’s Transistor at 10

Games Features Transistor
Simulated City: Supergiant’s Transistor at 10

Sometimes the past is more cyberpunk than the future. 10 years ago we all still used DVDs and I had my parents’ CDs on an iPod Classic. Need for Speed came out, and the second to last Hunger Games movie. Some weekend in May 10 years ago I downloaded the second game from the independent studio Supergiant, whose promo art combined the art nouveau of the roaring ‘20s with holographic screens and USB swords, and all I knew about it was it was called Transistor.

Supergiant’s Amir Rao called Transistor “a sci-fi love story with more tactical pleasures.” Its story is impossible to describe without spoilers and hard to explain even with them. You play as Red, a singer whose voice has been stolen and whose bodyguard / boyfriend has been stabbed with a sword-like device called the Transistor. He merges with the sword and his voice accompanies you as you hack through synthetic robot enemies to try and stop those responsible. As it turns out, you’re also trying to stop the Process, the thing generating those robots and also absorbing the city of Cloudbank.

The combat involves going into turn-based mode and lining up different abilities you then push a button to execute. Each ability can go in active, passive, or supportive slots, changing the nature of the other abilities around it. As I’ve argued before, when you go back to older Supergiant games you can see the afterimage of Hades haunting everything. But you can really see it in Transistor’s combat, where instead of getting randomly generated abilities that map to different buttons, you assign them yourself and make one of three thousand possible combos.

But neither story nor combat are the heart of Transistor. Just as each Supergiant game iterates on the previous, each one has a different purpose for returning players. I replay Hades for the dopamine of unlocks; I replay Pyre for the story and Bastion for its ending. Transistor’s strength is its atmosphere. Cloudbank feels more like a city than a real city—like a dream. Your trials inside it are as much about Red’s relationship to the city as they are about the romance that displaces it.

Cloudbank is the stage on which Red sings and the arena where she fights. Battles take place in the overworld, on the same architecture you walk on. Designers faced the problem that large buildings block the player’s view of Red and so all the buildings in the foreground needed to be half height. This has the side effect of making one of the most visible parts of the architecture the floors. And honestly, I could write a whole article just about the different floor textures. The materials—green bricks, circular blue glass, and smooth gold and black tile—become the stage you walk and fight on, and the Transistor drags behind you on them, kicking up sparks.

Throughout the game, all the architecture gets eaten up by the white Process, turning all the half-buildings into Brutalist shapes. The game’s last villain calls this a “blank canvas,” meaning that Red has the chance to remake it with the paintbrush that is the Transistor. But she’ll have to do it alone; the Process, and every living thing it ate, is gone.

The fate of the beautiful architecture you weave in and out of to traverse levels contrasts Red’s eventual absorption into the Transistor. The Process incorporates everything into itself, resulting in the loss of identity as you turn into the white mass (literally, into the reconstituted city). The sword leaves the physical body behind in Cloudbank, but leaves the mind safe (or trapped) inside the Transistor forever. Throughout the game, you have to put people through the second to avoid the first. Ultimately, uninfluenced by the player, Red chooses the latter for herself, too.

In contrast to Red, the Transistor’s story is less about decisive choices and more about coming to terms with his fate separated from a physical body and trapped in a sword. Do you think anyone else is in here, besides me? he asks while you’re descending a red-lit staircase that, up until tonight, probably supported the steps of young partiers and businessmen walking between upscale bars. In the city, the player is asking themself the same question. Each time you come across a person, they’re almost dead. You absorb them into the Transistor, gaining their power and (it turns out) their soul. There are only four characters talking face-to-face in the whole game: Red, the Transistor, and two of the Camerata, all of whom are in the sword by the end. Everyone else is either a voice recording or a text description in your story files. Most of the characters, in other words, are environment.

Even the Red of two hours ago, whose concert posters line the walls, becomes an environmental fixture. She’s a superstar, but what’s a superstar in a city without people? One of the scariest moments in the game is when you open up a UVC terminal, the computers that let citizens vote on civic issues like changing weather or bridge-building, and see a notification that 10,000 people have disappeared. Red types out “is anyone there?,” and of course there’s no reply—the terminals will go offline soon, anyway.

While Red and the Transistor are still together in the end, no one else is there—not the city they love, or the people they know. Walking back through the mostly Processed first area in the game’s final act prompts the Transistor to remark on everything that’s gone, from flatbread delivery to the weather system. This is reflected back at you by the ending villain, a scientist who created the Process to be a robotic servant, who says, “I guess I grew weary of it… things changing all the time.” The Process is a horrible mistake, a genie’s bargain with strings attached. It also prompts the question of whether Cloudbank, a place where citizens can vote on everything from the color of the sky to their own fates, is treading the same line by creating a paradise infinitely subject to human desires.

Transistor is a love story between the only two people left alive. It’s not surprising this launched a thousand Red cosplays and moodboards (it came out in the Tumblr era, after all). Red acts, the Transistor reacts. You fight, he narrates. The team setup adds to the romantic tension between them, which the credits reveal was either already realized when the game began or came to pass when it was done. It also creates the strongest narrator-player relationship of any of the studio’s games, where the Transistor’s voice is a constant comforting presence and he’s not just narrating the story, but being affected by it.

The sadder, secondary love story between Red and the city ends instead in tragic separation. This is why the relatively happy ending always landed for me with some bittersweetness. The shops, bars, and apartments that were your home are traded for a different paradise that is much less characterful. All the people you stabbed—uh, saved— are in the Transistor still, but as far as the end credits are concerned it’s just Red and her boyfriend homesteading in infinite space. 

Is Cloudbank really a simulation? Is the “country” inside the Transistor Cloudbank’s version of Heaven? Even on a replay, the game will never give you an answer. But if you want to look for one anyway, you can “recurse” into Transistor an infinite number of times, returning the sword to your lover’s body and yourself to the beginning of the game. The ending song’s “magnets pulling from different poles” and “river that always finds the sea” can be reinterpreted from their obvious romantic meaning to apply to Red’s relationship to Cloudbank, and the player’s relationship to Transistor: you always find your way back, even after 10 years.

A good story is reborn and reproduced like a replicating code in the heart. Playing Transistor now is almost like looking at an old picture of a friend. I can see how the studio has changed its approach, but what I see more are the features that have stayed. Appreciating Transistor in retrospect also means appreciating Supergiant’s employee retention—all seven original employees are still at the company. The recent success of their Hades II early access proves what can come out of letting people think about ideas together for a decade plus. It’s easy to say material conditions can’t be separated from art, but hard to find such a direct example. 

Replaying Transistor and thinking about it again has been joyful; in a just world we’ll all be doing the same with Supergiant’s next game in another 10. Maybe a game about the bittersweetness of memory will always be best experienced in retrospect. The worst thing about Transistor is that it ends; the best is that you can always start it again.

Emily Price is a former intern at Paste and a columnist at Unwinnable Magazine. She is also a PhD Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Twitter @the_emilyap.


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