There are enough reviews about Transistor to bury someone with out: that's a good thing, because it's probably one of the best games I've played all year. Seeing Supergiant Games go from being unheard of to being one of the longest lines at a convention to jump on is heartening to my American, loves-the-underdog sensibilities. Its been a month since this wonderful new game has come out, and the quote worthy snippets from gaming reviews are plentiful enough that I could bury someone with them.
One of the things I love most about games like this is not actually what they bring immediately to the table, but the small, subtle things that are added; the details, the minutia that you might not even notice it originally because it blends and makes a game feel so whole, like it should just be there. That if you took away that small detail, the game would feel almost empty, like there was just something missing that you couldn't put your finger on.
I want to talk about the humming in Transistor, and how that detail, that small, unneeded, unnecessary detail, made this game have a soul.So, as a quick warning, there is going to be some spoilers here; mainly, because everything in Transistor is connected to something else. Its very hard to talk about something integral to the game without starting to see the whole picture. Now with that said...
Music is a major theme - is the theme you could argue - of this game. In this cyberpunkish, dystopian styled future, you have to understand why music is so absolutely vital to both the initial action of the plot, and why it leads up to the swan song at the end. As you collect the data and records of the lost souls of Cloudbank, you piece together the stories of people like Wave Tennegan: a radio broadcaster who one day disappeared, the power of his social commentary diminished. How about a very different story, the one of Ms. Gilande, a historian and archivist that was dedicated to giving over her knowledge to allow people to make informed decisions as they looked to the future...well, until she vanished.
One of my favorite stories is of a public comedianand magician, who always pushed the envelope.
By now, there is a picture forming. By the time you unlock four or five functions of other people's data, you can see a pattern of social commentary; it was a pattern of commentary and forward thinking which was suddenly extinguished from a city that seemed like an almost utopia... that in fact, Cloudbank was very earnestly working towards being a real utopia. There are computers that connect to Cloudbank's main system throughout the game, where you can vote and comment on everything, where you can post your opinion...but yet, now things have begun to fall apart: the votes are not tallied, and no one responds.
You realize that the idea of voice as a concept is actually in play here. Many of the people who's lives are now in your weapon are not exactly musicians, but they all were commentators, people pushing towards something new, a way forward, dissenting voices. You can come to the conclusion that, through various monologues from the transistor or other snippets from the story, that Red was a threat because her music stirred something in people, even if she herself said she simply wanted to share her work with others. That this ability to cause change, to affect change and opinion, is considered dangerous by the antagonists of the game - unideal.
This is where the tragedy is. Yes, this is a game where a beautiful, apparently amazing city is destroyed and blanked out right in front of our eyes, were nameless hundreds, maybe thousands, die... but we've seen this before. We play video games, don't we? Games that involve the death of society and a horrible, apocalyptic end have been done over and over, and while it can sometimes wonderfully stun, it can all too easily become background. No, Transistor is wonderful because it allows the death and destruction to become background, to become plot, and lets you instead focus in on the intimate story of a woman, a singer, an artist, who has been silenced and is now alone.
Red has lost her voice. It was stolen, taken as data for the transistor...sure, her life was spared, but Mary Shelley wrote in Frankenstein that it is better to mourn the living than the dead. The hero of the story has lost her city, the love of her life, and her ability to express herself vocally, to try and communicate in a way that made her different. If you keep going with this theme of music, of silenced voices, the feeling of loss that this game carries multiplies.
But she can hum. She can put her lips together and breathe to make sound, to echo the wonderful, often tragic and melancholy music that carries throughout the game. She can no longer ever sing the words, to really let herself carry through the music and express herself truly; Red will never again see her wonderful city of Cloudbank, or hold her lover's hand again like she used to... but she can hum.
I can't get over how such a small detail so fully encapsulates a game. The simple act of humming, an act we usually might attribute to someone passing time while working, or bored, or simply doing it while they are happy, becomes such a mournful, heavy sound. It almost hurts to listen to, by the end of the game, and yet I keep doing it: I want to be involved in Red's, and the transistor's, story.
I had to put down the game for the last two weeks after finishing it the first time. I wanted to let it sink in, really get it, before I started recursion mode, and played through again with the real gravity that this game brings along with it. A month after its release, I'm ready. I can't wait to take a break from the fighting and hit the tab key, to do something that seems more like a pause than an actual play, and just listen to the music of Transistor.