Unwinnable Weekly Issue #6 includes a piece I wrote about the indie game Transistor, a game about which I previously blogged on here. In that entry, I mentioned that the ending had upset me, but I didn’t go into detail because I didn’t want to spoil anything. But my article for Unwinnable does talk about the ending, and I’m going to talk about it here too, so if you don’t want spoilers stop reading now!
So the ending of Transistor was very upsetting to me, for a lot of reasons. In my Unwinnable article I argue that Red’s suicide at the end signified, not just her love for the man in the Transistor, but also her total defeat at the hands of the Process and the cybernetic posthumanism (or anti-humanism) they represent.
But that was far from my first reaction. My first reaction to seeing Red stab herself with the Transistor was a very visceral horror. I was so upset that it was almost enough to make me dismiss the entire game outright. As I started to parse my feelings I began to identify not one, but several lenses through which I was understanding Transistor.
My initial negative reaction to Transistor’s ending is because it triggered me in a very personal way. As a person on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, I used to struggle with invasive thoughts about stabbing myself with knives. They started when I was a teenager, before I understood them, and I thought they meant I wanted to kill myself. For months I lived in fear of my own thoughts and feelings. I know now that I was never suicidal, that these were just invasive thoughts typical of OCD, but seeing anyone stabbed in cold blood with a knife or sword still triggers that old dread in me.
After that first horror, the end of Transistor disappointed me because it felt like yet another example of a trope that is really starting to get old: the female hero who deconstructs the “victorious hero” mythos by being deconstructed herself, i.e. paying the price of heroism with serious violence on her body. The Hunger Games’ Katniss, especially in the later books, is the postergirl of this trope, but videogames have plenty of their own fridged and battered women, as Leigh Alexander wrote in her article “What did they do to you?: Our women heroes problem.” Yes, these female characters often operate as interesting critiques of the archetypal “hero’s journey,” and many male characters serve the same critical purpose, but at the same time women so rarely get to be a simple, straightforward “big damn hero.” More often, they’re forced to compromise, to eke out bittersweet endings at best, and always to bear the scars of their ill-fated attempts to have it all. I certainly don’t mean that we should have happy endings and rainbows in all our stories forever and ever, but it’d be nice to see more things that aren’t Disney movies where the lady protagonist wins the day and goes home happy. But that is a problem with the action genre in general, and Transistor is not responsible for it, nor is the game obligated to address it.
As I was thinking about gender roles in video games, I thought about how in Supergiant’s first game, Bastion, the Kid (a male character) doesn’t necessarily get his happy heroic victory either. But in Bastion, the kid lives. And more than that, he gets to choose his ending. Players get to choose. I couldn’t choose for Red to kill herself or not in Transistor. I thought next that this lack of choice was why the game’s ending upset me. In other games that end in suicide, like Dear Esther or Every Day the Same Dream or, sometimes, The Stanley Parable, players have to come to the decision to throw themselves over a ledge, and then actively control their characters to do so. At least in those games I was pushing the buttons. In Transistor, Red will always stab herself with that sword, no matter what I do.
Well, I then thought, maybe it’s selfish of me to think that I should be able to decide Red’s fate. After all, she’s not The Kid. The Kid was silent because he had nothing to say. He was a cipher, a vessel for gamer agency. He had no voice because he never had a voice. Red, on the other hand, had no voice because her voice was stolen from her. And even then she still expressed herself in what small ways she could, like typing out her feelings in the comments section of the news articles accessible in the terminals scattered around Cloudbank.
Why should I get to decide what Red does? She was never mine.
Now that I had worked through my own feelings, I could start thinking about why she (and Supergiant) had made the decision. To understand it, I had to take a step back and look at the larger concern of the game: What was Red trying to accomplish? What is the Camerata and the Process, and why did Red oppose them?
That’s when I remembered this book that I had read (and by “read” I mean “skimmed”) in college, called How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics by N. Katherine Hayles. I found it on my bookshelf, started reading, got really really excited about all the awesome stuff in this great book that I now regretted having merely skimmed in college, and eventually wrote “‘We All Become'” for Unwinnable (named after the song Red sings in the game).
The above text is a modified passage from the first draft of that article, which I ultimately decided to cut from the finished piece. Sharing this passage now feels kind of like opening up an avenue for people to dismiss my posthuman criticism because I “took it personally” or got “too emotional.” But I cut the passages about being triggered by Transistor from the final piece because they didn’t support my argument about Transistor‘s posthumanism, not because they were an unworthy topic of analysis. Transistor‘s ending affected me in a very strong way. That’s a win for Supergiant Games, and it’s something that I, who still wince sometimes when I see people holding knives, have every right to discuss.
My desire for victorious women heroes is also legitimate. But again, I’m not going to assign any kind of blame on Supergiant for a pervasive issue in American pop culture, not when Red already represents an exciting step forward for gaming’s slowly growing Lady Protagonists Club (or when it’s entirely possible to read Transistor’s ending as victorious, which I, as I explain in my posthumanism article, do not).
And my desire for control–my expectation of control, even, and my distress when that control is taken from me–also merit consideration, I think, particularly in light of Brian Crescente’s article in Polygon today entitled “Video games trick you into thinking you’re in control, and that’s bad.” Do any videogames ever give us even a modicum of control, or is it all just an illusion?
So these are my full thoughts on Transistor.