“This isn’t a vote…it’s a choice – The Man in the Transistor

I just finished Transistor last night. Yeah, I’m a bit behind the times, that happens pretty regularly. Some random thoughts stuck in my head, including spoilers:

There are lots of things that are implied without being stated. Cloudbank is almost certainly a society of uploads. Its exact relationship with the physical world isn’t clear, partly because its residents don’t seem to think about it much. They may not be aware of what they are, or may just not find it remarkable anymore. Death doesn’t seem to mean the same thing to them that it does to us, but it’s not specified why.

That quote at the top is probably my favorite line from the game, and the implied dichotomy pretty much sums up Cloudbank as a city. Everyone has a vote, in everything. Even the weather on any given day. But the impact of your vote is indistinguishable from zero. Everyone has a vote, but nobody has a choice.

I’ve seen dystopian fiction before, but Transistor is delightfully subtle about it. For most of the game, the only indication that they’re trying to make a social point is the occasional terminal where you can vote on weather or city planning or who’s going to headline the act at the local theater; and they will dutifully record your vote, and note that the current totals are 124,212 for and 58,443 against or whatever, so yeah, you’re a drop in the ocean. The economist’s argument against voting is right there to see, but never mentioned. The tyranny of the majority rules.

Cloudbank looks so much like a utopia that I could easily picture someone missing it. It sort of reminds me of The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect (note: if you are easily squicked do not follow that link). Everyone is free, everyone has a say, but nothing they do or say matters. The most important thing they have to vote on is what color the sky should be this week. Everybody is bikeshedding. Forever.

The villains of the Camerata had a point, I think. Their crime was noticing that after killing Moloch, there wasn’t much left to do but bikeshed for eternity. So they decided to exercise their own agency, and build a better world with a bit more permanence. Of course they did it from a generally evil ends-justify-the-means perspective, but that’s why they’re villains.

The latter parts of the game emphasize this from a different angle. You do eventually see choices, as the Man in the Transistor notes, when Red gets what amounts to root access to the world. Or rather, Red gets a choice. You, the player, don’t. Now you’re the one who thinks you run the show, you think you have a blank-slate silent-protagonist on your hands, but oops, she’s actually got her own plans. You don’t even get a vote.

This is the polar opposite of Bastion, the team’s previous game. There, they gave you choices and challenges that mattered and forced you to own the results; here you get it rubbed in your face that your choices are illusory. I approve.