From the moment they showed up in my Steam library, I knew they’d be trouble. She was a redhead, a diva, with a stolen voice and a look of determination on her face. He was, well, a talking great sword. Yes, you read that correctly. The game is Supergiant Games’ Transistor, and if you had told me by the end of it I would be totally in love, I might have scoffed at the idea. Clearly, I was wrong. I don’t want to call this a review of Transistor. Frankly, there’s plenty of those online, many of them better written. They go into the fine details of the combat system and level design. Instead, I want to talk about the star-crossed pair who carry the weight of the narrative given to me.
Transistor takes place in a city called Cloudbank and centers around Red, a famous musician who shortly before the game’s beginning has lost her voice, her lover, and found a conspiracy that threatens the world as she knows it. The story is film noir with a twist; the two mains are a Man of Action and a Femme Fatale, in this case, the Transistor and Red. Shortly before the game’s start, both are victims of circumstance at the hands of the mysterious Camerata. After being saved by her lover (an act that leaves his soul or ‘Trace’ trapped within the Transistor), it is Red who takes charge to uncover the plot.
Hoisting the massive weapon with clearly all her strength, she delves into the mystery at the heart of the attack that’s left her voiceless and her boyfriend a ghost in a machine. The two travel together, trying to piece together why the shadowy Camerata organization wished to harm Red in the first place. With my protagonist silent, it is the Transistor who relays new pieces of information to the player. He tells you how the combat system works, indicates which enemies are bosses instead of common mobs, and provides verbal clues about where to go to progress through the story.
What made me adore the two of them was his method of delivery — always full of encouragement to Red, occasionally sprinkled with regret over being unable to do more. He declares his love for Red. He ‘holds’ her coat during a pause in the action and cheers when she orders his favorite pizza (not that he can eat it). The mobs of enemies you fight are all named by the Transistor and reflect his disdain; they’re called things like ‘creep’ and ‘jerk’. Hardly imposing terms, yet that’s the point. He is trying, in his own way, to make these enemies less intimidating. Lacking his own fists to beat them with, he works to build your own self-esteem.
The Transistor also voices his worries about his fate, and when the game takes a darker turn, implores Red, “Look, whatever you’re doing, do me a favor; don’t let me go.” It was such a refreshing change. Typically in RPGs or other story-driven games, it is the female character stuck to spouting encouragement or being the catalyst for the main character’s actions within the narrative. I’m accustomed to seeing a female character and pondering what terrible fate awaits her, meant to spur me on. To hear Logan Cunningham’s voice deliver these snippets of encouragement so tenderly added to how unique Transistor already felt.
Red wasn’t the Damsel in Distress, she was a damsel at this point causing a lot of distress, and rightly so frankly. I loved it, and I loved how openly affectionate her boyfriend was, never doubtful of her capabilities. Rather than despair over his predicament and add to Red’s dismay, he throws himself into the role of stalwart support.
Being silent, Red’s options for responses are limited but no less emotionally charged. She sighs, she hugs the circuit board sword, or uses computer terminals to type responses. The player can even press a button where to make Red hum along to the game’s soundtrack (Red’s body of work incidentally), one hand gently placed on the Transistor. The function adds another layer to the overall experience; during the game’s darkest moments, I stopped to hum fairly often.
It felt like the thing to do — by then, I had learned much about what was happening in Cloudbank. The city was abandoned, and my enemies had grown more numerous than ever. It felt right to give these two lovers a moment of quiet where he can sit and listen to her for a beat or two, as he surely had so many times before. Then it was back to the fray, clear-cutting a path through the mindless mobs to finally solve this case and uncover the real mastermind behind the plot.
I didn’t have good feelings about what was waiting for us, and I had long stopped hoping there would be a reverse solution for sword boyfriend’s predicament. I could imagine the one-voiced conversations about this new arrangement, about how feelings were the most important thing that mattered. Nothing changed except appearances. Nothing had changed, yet everything had changed. Because now I was sitting here in front of my monitor, tears rolling down my face. I pressed to hum just one more time.
I love you so much, Red. You know that, right? It’s true. It’s true. It’s true…
– Logan Cunningham as the Transistor