There is no Problem with Transistor's Ending, it is just a Sad Ending: or, I've been Stewing for a Year on this
By Crembaw 21 Comments
Hi. Hey. Thanks for stopping by.
I have a few problems with this blog, and they've been stewing within me for a good, long year now. Predominantly I draw intense issue with your (@mikelemmer) statements regarding Suicide, but we'll get to that in a moment. I'd like to go play-by-play, so to speak.
(I should note, the formatting tools around quotations are a pain to use, and so I'll be using bold font to indicate direct quotations from the original post.)
Let's start here:
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.
There is no tonal dissonance. In fact, the tone is almost pinpoint-acute, just not the tone that people seemed to want the game to end on. Death in Transistor is, as in all things, a transition. Her lover's apprehension is clear: Brackett stated, in no uncertain terms, that the Transistor could not bring people back to life, and up until this point in the story the tool had been used as an implement of destruction. In the City's de-rendered state, overrun by the Process, it would seem that anyone who dies, is forever gone. But at the same time, the Transistor also possesses a clear, defined secondary purpose as a preservative tool. It can, in the City's defined reality, store both memories of places and people, as well as full-fledged conscious entities. There is no evidence that their existence within the Transistor is finite, or a limited perception, or that anyone-or-thing would emerge from whatever remained of the City in any sort of state that could harm the Transistor. It is, for all Red knows, the last and most permanent sanctuary, not just for her and her lover, but for all that they have managed to salvage from the City.
There's more to this, but I'd like to toss in another line you brought up. Specifically, this:
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.
This is a perfunctory analysis at best, and flatly reductionist at worst. You would do well to revisit your own description of the game's ending:
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?
Yes, they end up in the Country. The Country, which has particular significance in Transistor. It is a place that is referred to in a broadly metaphorical sense, as 'elsewhere,' as a place where people go when they disappear or have finished their work. A place where people go when they die. And they do die, because how else could the Transistor receive their memories, if not through death. It is here where the Transistor earns its name in a more apt manner as something other than just a fancy device. A Transistor (from 'transfer' and 'resistor') alters or reverses the flow of current between terminals, it is in its most innate meaning, a device of movement, change, and alteration over time. The developers were not blind to this. We are given, through visual cues, through design decisions, through language utilized, the distinct impression that the City is a world that is defined by technological progress, computer-driven imperatives. Indeed, its very name, Cloudbank, alludes directly to the recent trend towards Cloud computing, and not without reason: we are to believe that Cloudbank is somewhere that is distinct and Elsewhere than here. Cloudbank, by design, is built fundamentally from the language of progress. Progress is very busy, it is very messy, it is often very cruel. Progress, often, demands that the entirety of what was Assumed True be ripped apart and rebuilt from square one. What, then, is the Country? It is not so simple as an idyllic, naive, upper-middle-class impression that life in the old days was somehow better, more laid-back or so on and so on. What the Country is, at least in comparison to Cloudbank, is static. Immobile. Perhaps tinged by a color of nostalgia or naive perceptions about farm life, but nevertheless constant. The Country exists, even as Cloudbank is ripped up by its roots, either by its denizens or the onslaught of the Process.
The Transistor is a device of movement, built from the City of Progress, but they end up in the Country. Why?
Let's put that aside for a moment and consider the Process. How apt a name, for something which through mere existence represents Cloudbank as a whole. The Camerata thought themselves wise. They deemed themselves those with the true capability to discern Value, out of the chaos which the City of Progress brought. They sought out others to join them and, when snubbed, took them by force, in preparation for plans of a new city. A better city. A planned city. How precise, how careful their deliberations, how bold. How foolish. For if the Camerata were the Theorists, who thought they could determine upon which foundations the City had built its greatness, it was the Process that acted as the Praxis, the movers, the uncaring wheels that stripped it to components, and laid bare what in truth supported the City: stark, unmarked construction, endless seas of people, individual and equal through difference, strapped and confined down to identical bodies and plan-perfect forms, and the cruelty, the glowering egos which slid deep under the surface of its demagogues, and drove them to further and further expression of those traits. The only thing that seems to even have a slight chance of stopping them is the Transistor.
The Transistor is not a Weapon. It is not as rote as a nifty sword with gizmos that your dead aunt's rad memories taught to your sword boyfriend as sweet trixx. It is possessed, in many ways, of an almost supernatural power, even within the game's fantasy setting. Not only can it preserve the Dead in an accessible state, it can, flatly, be used to reconstruct entire worlds, as shown to Red and the player by Brackett near the game's conclusion. The Transistor is an item with an altogether distinct importance within the setting. Within the game's context, the Transistor is the Axis Mundi - the way by which the Mundane makes contact upon the Divine. And, like any Axis Mundi, the Transistor can not, may not instigate transgression without human interaction - for it is humans who must make the act at all, in the act of trying to reach the Divine. Here, the Mundane is Cloudbank. Though it may be interpreted as a 'digital city,' or a city that exists within a simulation, for the citizens it is very much the Reality that they experience daily. It is, in every sense, regular and basic. The Country is Divine. I mean this not in the sense that the Country, its immobility, its permanence, might have an inherent moral position above the idea of Cloudbank, but that it is perceived AS Divine by its citizenry. It is proverbial, it is somewhere else, it is attainable only in death. It is as Divine as Limbo may be to its inhabitants, or as Bigfoot may be to cryptozoologists. It is forever at the periphery, but always unattainable. And, like any Axis Mundi, the Transistor can not, may not instigate transgression without human interaction - for it is humans who must make the act at all, in the act of trying to reach the Divine and somehow cause it to conduct change upon the Mundane.
It is not through the Axis alone that humans can make contact with the Divine. In Death, we also slip the bonds and move into the Country, the realm of the Divine.
By the game's end, there is no Cloudbank, anymore. Every building has been rendered to its absolute core, every either killed, turned into architecture, or reduced to automatons driven by mere memory. Brackett states, in no uncertain terms, that the Transistor, for all its power, cannot raise the dead. By stepping into the Transistor to fight him, Red reached into the Divine and claimed sole ownership of its implement. And now what?
Nothing she can do will ever bring back Cloudbank. It is the City of Progress. There is no backwards, there is only forward. Her goal, of reuniting with her lover, is unattainable through the power that the Transistor gives her over Cloudbank. So, she stabs herself with the Transistor. As I articulated earlier, there is nothing tonally dissonant with this. Her world is gone. She can create a new one, or she can take a risk and hope to be with the person she loves.
What happens after she stabs herself is ambiguous. Perhaps, in the act of Suicide, she served as the last of many sacrifices, and transformed Cloudbank into the altogether new Country that we experience at the end. Perhaps the Transistor is in actuality a holy device, and she as well as the item's other inhabitants reached it together. Perhaps it is all a simulation, being simulated within another, grander simulation. It's up to interpretation.
Now that's out of the way, I'd like to actually get what's got a bee in my anus.
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.
Where do we begin?
To be honest, that first line provoked me to write this whole response. Suicide is an insanely complicated topic. There are a huge array of reasons why someone might consider it, what some would consider suicide, and whether or not it is a moral or ethical act. Reducing it to being inherently selfish and despairing is, regardless of the low level of tact you would need to make such a statement, an enormous disservice to anything further you might have to say about the topic. There's a whole bevy of words used by society at large to try and goad people both into and out of suicidal thinking, and those two words happen to land smack-dab in the bingo chart. It's the kind of language that actually makes talking about suicidal thoughts with anyone other than trained professionals or incredible empaths supremely difficult, because every society has these preconceived notions of what provokes, exacerbates, in some cases *deserves* the emergence of such thoughts. There's decent reason to believe that a good number of suicide attempts happen just based on sheer, heat-of-the-moment, uncontrolled thought, even in cases where the people involved had no history of suicidal thoughts or mental illness, or had managed to get them under control. But that doesn't mean that intentional suicides are inherently despairing or selfish actions, either. In cultures with strong notions of familial honor, martial traditions and/or an omnipresence of death, a good number of suicides are undertaken by willing participants, and a good number aside are forced upon victims through fear or indoctrination.
All talk about the nature of suicide aside, as I think I made plain above, Red DID find a way to stop the problem. It is, time and time again, through terminal entries, little back-and-forths they have, and memories the narrator shares, that Red and her lover are pained, overtly, by his death an encapsulation within the Transistor. Saving Cloudbank is not Red's goal. It was never Red's goal. She felt empathy for those suffering around her, and when she could she saved either the people or their memories, but the story's through-thread was, from the moment the game said 'GO,' to get the two back together again. The ending would have us believe she accomplished this. I can't convince you that the setup was good or adequate, but there was setup and there was a clear reason for her choice, even if you didn't like it.
Even worse, it encourages an act that is horrifying in real life.
Nobody is going to commit suicide over Transistor. Just based on personal experience, and discussions with others who deal with it, they're going to do it because it seems like the only option, or at least the only one that will bring them peace. Hiding a video game or railing against it for trying and possibly failing to include a complex topic is not going to help anyone.
Look, I'm not a smart guy. I dropped out of college. Half my stuff is based on remembering the bits I was barely able to absorb. But to be honest, I'm really fed up. I'm tired of things sitting on the surface level. I really don't think Transistor was THAT great, but it deserves more than the less-than-cogent 'the problem with...' posts that keep getting slung about regarding it. I'm not saying you have to always do a deep reading, every time. That would be tiring, obviously. But this is not hard stuff. It just takes a few more seconds of thought about things. Not every ending has to be a sing-song, happy ho-hum ending. You don't have to LIKE sad endings, either. I'm just tired of this - this perfunctory moralizing. We all have strong opinions, there's no shame in it, just...
Well, I dunno. I said my piece. I probably preached like a lunatic, but I feel better for it. Thanks.