*Full spoilers for Transistor follow*
Supergiant Game's 2014 offering Transistor keeps subverting my expectations with its narrative. Even now, on my third playthrough, I am still invested in the story because of how off-beat it is.
The following are the three most noteworthy subversions.
At first glance, the narrative of Transistor appears to be sorely lacking and unnecessarily vague.
However, a closer look reveals that every aspect of Transistor's design has been carefully crafted to provide nuggets of information that add up to a mostly whole story. This includes not just obvious narrative elements such as character dialogue and the interactive environment, but also song lyrics, song titles, description of every function (skill), and description of enemies.
Even with all of this information, ambiguities exist. This appears to be a calculated move by the creators. By leaving only a couple of narrative gaps, but major ones at that, they have managed to galvanize the fandom into discussing the possibilities.
In a way, Transistor shares this characteristic with Dark Souls. However, I would argue that the story is a major selling point of the former while it is optional in the latter. This is what makes the search for answers so compelling in Transistor. It is also what creates the frustration when the answers are elusive.
It may not be frequently stated, but the word “love” has a strong background presence in this game. Yet every instance of love plays with the conventions we hold in our minds.
Most prominently, we have Red and Mr. Nobody. Unlike other games, it is the man who is "wounded" and "taken away" at the start of the game, kicking off the narrative. His suffering prompts the woman on her quest to “rescue” him.
Their adversity is highlighted by the physical manifestation of their love: he who used to be the stronger physical presence is now only a voice in the Transistor, while she who expressed her love through her voice and songs is now mute. This agony in no small part contributes to Red's final decision.
The second unconventional pair are the Kendrells. It's not in every game that we encouter a gay, married, inter-generational couple that are in love till the bitter end. The game neither calls special attention to them, nor does it hide their relationship. Huh, imagine that.
Lastly, but not any less important to plot, is Sybil Reisz's unrequited love for Red. With function descriptions, with background music, and with gameplay, Transistor gives us the skeleton of Sybil's story. It is a story of passion, betrayal, and redemption after death. We are free to fill in the details ourselves.
*Final warning for end spoilers.*
Video games love a good apocalypse. The player-protagonist may be charged with stopping the catastrophe. Or they may be asked to survive in the cruel post-apocalyptic world.
But rarely does a game carry the nihilistic dread of the apocalypse to its ultimate conclusion: the end of all sentient life. Transistor is happy to fill this void for you, leaving you staring at another type of void entirely.
The Camerata want to create a wholly new world. Red and others want to keep it exactly the way it is. In the confusion between the two, the Process is left unchecked for just long enough to destroy everyone except Royce and Red.
No, don't get your hopes up. Those two do not survive the game either.
I'm just going to go cry in a corner until I feel better.
All in all, Transistor's narrative subverts our expectations by (a) withholding information, (b) having unconventional romances, and (c) being an unapologetic tragedy. And it's a better, more distinct game for it.