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Gameverse | March 29, 2017

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Red’s lack of choice explores concept of agency in Transistor

Jesse Tannous

transistore3_610Readers beware this post and the articles I link to contain spoilers for the game Transistor, if you haven’t played it yet go do it!  Moving on…

Recently, while preparing for an interview with Supergiant Games Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett I came across an analysis of Transistor written by freelance writer Nissacam.  Nissa pointed out several aspects of the game and dug heavily into the lyrics of Transistor’s soundtrack to support her analysis that the game was an exploration of agency.

Nissa did a pretty fantastic job of piecing through the songs “In Circles,”We All Become,” and “Paper Boats,” to help support her interpretation.  The problem then was finding how the songs, “The Spine,” and “Signals,” fit into this reading.  What I found surprised me and offered an understanding that not only is Transistor an exploration of agency, but that Red herself seems somewhat aware that she is a character in a game.

First, let’s look at “The Spine”

It’s just skin and bones,

Nothing inside

Sleeping alone,

Fingers tied

Themselves in knots around the heart

It beats in time

The placement of this song within Transistor’s opening minutes as Red stares at posters of herself plastered on a city wall is telling.  This song isn’t describing the enemy encountered later in the game like the title of the song might suggest, but is actually how Red sees herself.

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

She understands the inner workings, or spine, of the world she is inhabiting, which, I suggest is not necessarily Cloudbank, but refers instead to the constructed world of the game itself.  This changes in the next chorus line and persists throughout the rest of the song.

I see the spine of the world

You know it’s mine,

Twisted and tied

The shift to “you” suggests that Red speaks directly to her audience, the players.  This idea of Red acknowledging her position as a construct doomed to repeat the same cycle starts to make more sense within the lyrics of “Signals.”

Step out beyond the edge and start the motion

Look out below, I know there’s no decision

Just collision

It’s all arranged

Red actively calls out the audience, and developers, by acknowledging that she has no capabilities of causing change in this world.  This idea comes to its ultimate fruition in the ending as Red appears to take her own life despite the fact that she is granted the power to remake Cloudbank.  She was already conscious of the fact that nothing can change this world anyway, and that she was destined to return to her lover from the start.   If there was any question left that Red knew she was without actual agency look no further than the very next stanza.

Too late for me, no reason to recover

If I should choose to rise I’m still descending

Never ending

I fall

I fall

The part that makes Red’s realization chilling comes later in the song.  Despite knowing that she has no control over her actions or the world she inhabits, she still defiantly declares that she does have choice and wants no part of the system she is trapped in.

Take a look on and follow everybody

I won’t become a number in the system

Zeroes and ones

Not me

Not me

While she doesn’t truly have choice, she is given the appearance of choice by fulfilling actions that counteract the wishes of other characters, or in the case of the ending, what most players would expect or desire.

The beauty of a game like Transistor is that it opens itself up to many interpretations with the level of detail given to each aspect of the game.  The same evidence given here could be used to support a wholly different claim given the right context.  With further research who knows what sort of hidden meanings could be subtlety implanted within the narrative.  While I feel like I’ve answered this question suitably enough for me, I’m still left with many.

Like why during Sybil’s fight does she begin singing “In Circles” in place of Red?  Or why do we never see the Transistors face and what could his jackets insignia refer to?  In the end, that might also be part of the point.  To quote “In Circles.”

It’s not when you get there, it’s always the climb.

  • JunWasHere

    Never looked into the songs too deeply, happy to learn of this finer interpretration.

    Transistor had a substantial more subtlety imbued in its design (compared to Bastion), which is bittersweet as it calls to question whether those benefits outweighed the detriments to the game.

    I look forward to Supergiant Games’ next title. It’s sure to be equally fantastic with some other twist to delight and surprise.