It's been about a week since I've finished Transistor, and I've taken the interim to think about its ending. As I said in my review, "The ending provokes confusion instead of satisfaction", and it's not just because everything isn't revealed by the end. Please note that in discussing this, I will spoil the entire ending, which might ruin the entire game for you. (Also spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line, Mark of the Ninja, Casablanca, and Seven Pounds.)
You have been warned.
Last chance: turn back now to avoid spoilers!
When I finished Transistor for the first time, Red got the power to rewrite the city, but instead committed suicide with the Transistor so she could be with her lover. From my Internet research, this seems to be the only ending to the game. My initial reaction was mood whiplash; I had just beaten the game! The Process was eliminated! I could rewrite what they had erased! And then suddenly, despite her lover's (and my) protests, she kills herself. Credits roll as her lover breaks down over her body... cue a romantic song, and... wait, it ends with a picture of them in the Country? And they seem happy? What? How did her lover go so quickly from begging her not to do it to being glad she did? That dissonance clashed with the emotional tone they were going for. Sure, the lovers were reunited, but I wondered if I should be happy for it. I honestly thought I had gotten the bad ending somehow.
I wasn't the only one who felt that way. A blogpost in the Transistor Neogaf thread stated bluntly, "Red is *puppy* selfish... killing herself on the Transistor rather than repairing the city (which she showed she could do with minimal effort) or bothering to check for any other survivors despite the protests of the Transistor him/itself just came across as short-sighted to me." This is not how you want your audience reacting to the sympathetically-portrayed protagonist at the very end of the game.
More problems cropped up as I thought about it. I had just won the final boss fight to escape the Transistor... and then Red immediately goes back into it? What did winning that final boss fight accomplish, then? Looking further back, what did we accomplish, if anything, in the game itself? Nothing is saved as a result of our actions, and the moment we have the power to save something... Red doesn't use it. She gives up. She gives up and kills herself to be with her lover.
Suicide is an inherently selfish and despairing action. It is not something we react to well. It, like rape, requires hefty writing chops and a good deal of setup to pull off well. Transistor does not have this. Although 2 other characters committed suicide, Red never seemed to entertain notions of it. She always seemed driven to find some way to stop the problem. This causes her suicide to seem completely out of left field. Spec Ops: The Line, for everything it forced you to do over the course of the game, at least set up the disastrous consequences of the protagonist's decisions and his mind cracking so suicide seemed like a viable choice. Mark of the Ninja, another tragedy game, had the choice of suicide at the end, but also compared it to the alternative of going homicidally insane (wonderfully illustrated by the hallucinations you experience during the final stage), which made it more of a heroic sacrifice.
Sacrifice is something we like to see in our protagonists. The ability to put aside our own desires, including love, to accomplish something greater is a classic trope. Casablanca wouldn't be half the movie it is if the protagonists didn't give up their love for a greater good. Ebert put it well: There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick, and indeed that is one of the endings that was briefly considered. But that would be all wrong; the “happy” ending would be tarnished by self-interest, while the ending we have allows Rick to be larger, to approach nobility (“it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”). You could say the same for Transistor: the "happy" ending is tarnished by self-interest.
Even worse, it encourages an act that is horrifying in real life. It reminded me of a review of Seven Pounds by Film Brain: when he reveals the ending of the movie says killing yourself to donate your organs is a good thing, he goes ballistic and rips it apart. In his commentary, he revealed the reason why: a relative killed himself, and the thought a movie would encourage such behavior infuriated him.
The ending of Transistor is the sci-fi equivalent of committing suicide to be with your lover in heaven. Sure, Shakespeare ended Romeo & Juliet the same way, but that was a tragedy, and Romeo & Juliet are implied to be idiots for going that far. What's the implication in Transistor? What are we supposed to take away about Red? The more I look at it, the less I like what it's saying.