[extensive spoilers for both Transistor and Bastion]
It’s hard to put a name to the relationship between Transistor and Bastion. Is Transistor a successor? A spiritual sequel? A sister game? The relationship between the two is similar to that between two Final Fantasy games, where thematic and aesthetic similarities belie core gameplay systems that are, once you look past the superficial, startlingly different. It’s a style of kinship between two games that seems rare nowadays, when most studios would rather make a series of explicit sequels than toy with any kind of variation on a theme.
Regardless of how one describes it, the games are closely related, and yet strikingly different from each other in a number of crucial ways.
I see the spine of the world
Sparkle and shine light the inside
I see the spine of the world
I know it’s mine, twisted and tied
The same voice speaks to you throughout both games, but, while in Bastion he tells you the protagonist’s story as a third-person narrator, in Transistor he’s a close friend of the character you play, Red, and is directly addressing her with each line. This difference places you, the player, as the main character, instead of as an external force driving her – and yet, in the end, Red seems as much as cipher to us as The Kid of Bastion ever was, and we’re left to only know her through her music, and rare appearances of personality, just as the people of Cloudbank must have known her. By placing us more intimately in relation to the protagonist, the fact that she still feels a stranger to me seems more jarring than it did in Bastion. They say the Camerata stole Red’s voice, but now how can we even tell what she was trying to say?
Though it feels like the game never makes good on the intimacy this relationship promises, it captures something else: The sense of one last wild ride, one last night, as the world is dismantled in place. It feels like a single important event, told in exactly as much detail as required, perhaps not in real-time but with little in the way of editing. Because of this continuity, as compared to the hub-world structure of Bastion, Cloudbank feels much more like a real place – which, I suppose, is appropriate, since Cloudbank is a living world in its death throes, while Caelondia is a dead land being reborn. Cloudbank falls apart, devolving into white noise and nonsense as you pass, whereas nothing at all is left of Caelondia at all until pieces of it are drawn back into place by The Kid’s presence as he passes – a concept which is reprised at the end of Transistor, when Red wins the ability to remake the remains of Cloudbank. But in both cases these piecemeal restorations are insufficient, only capable of restoring fragments of the world for nostalgia’s sake, and more drastic action must be taken. If we are ever to move on, to truly live again, to do anything besides rearrange furniture on the Titanic as she rests at the bottom of the sea, we must leave the world we’ve destroyed behind and begin anew – perhaps only to begin the same cycle again.
Maybe you’re looking for someone to blame
Fightin’ for air while you circle the drain
Never be sorry for your little time
It’s not when you get there, it’s always the climb
What strikes me as strange is that even though the framing of Transistor is so much more character-based and intimate, the impact of Bastion’s characters is much more personal and the characters themselves better defined. Though The Kid is so generic he’s never even given a name, Rucks, Zia, and Zulf are compelling characters, even if you seldom directly interact with them. Rucks’ guilt for the calamity he caused, combined with the naive optimism that believes he can solve it in much the same way he caused it, is a disturbing reflection of contemporary techno-utopian ideals. Zia’s innocence, and slowly growing realization of the lies underpinning the world she grew up in should, I would think, be easy to identify with for anyone who’s seen the hypocrisy of those in power and the nationalistic rhetoric they declare to be sacrosanct. Zulf’s anger is all of our anger – at the countless betrayals of society, turned inevitably, as anger always will be, into a monster that strikes indiscriminately, always seeking blood. No one in Transistor feels nearly so real – there are no signs of human habitation in Cloudbank at all. Though we all should be able to sympathize with the Camerata’s desire to preserve their legacy, and their guilt at causing unspeakable destruction in the name of that preservation, they always feel cold and distant – and, though we sympathize with Red’s attempts to salvage what’s left on principle, it’s not clear what even remains to salvage. Even Caelondia has the ashen remains of its inhabitants, but Cloudbank, at least after a couple of traces of life early on, has nothing but the buildings created to serve the people who are no longer there. What world are we supposed to be saving? It feels like walking through a museum the day before it’s scheduled to be demolished.
Throughout both games there are common themes. A world destroyed and reborn, possibly just one step in a chain of eternally predestined rebirth – predestination, as distinct from fate, being dictated not by some external deity but by the terribly predictable clockwork of human nature. If the calamity is reversed, there will be another calamity. Even if a new society is built withIn the Transistor, there will probably be a new Camerata to struggle against the currents of change within it – and, in both cases, who even knows how many times it’s happened before? How many times have the people of Cloudbank been digitized, one level further down? Do these people have physical bodies somewhere, in some distant and forgotten Earth, left far behind for an infinite-deep dive into simulated realities? Or is it turtles all the way down? In Bastion we’re given the choice to continue or to break these cycles. We’re given the choice to forgive Zulf or abandon him, we’re given the choice to move on and look for a new home or fight against our pasts and deny our future. In Transistor, though, we’re locked into our predestined paths, a destiny in between regression and progression, a rebirth couched in and defined by the circumstances of death – death and rebirth, stagnation through unceasing change, forever.
Step out beyond the edge and start the motion
Look out below, I know there’s no decision
It’s all arranged
Both games, in the end, are creation myths. There’s an underlying theme of how societies communicate with and are comprised by art, how the act of creating a piece of the real world and a piece of art converge, whether we want it to or not. While this message is more explicit in Transistor, it’s presented more persuasively in Bastion: Though we are told that Red is an influential artist, we’re never led to understand her influence; it was never clear, to me at least, how her music reflected or was reflected by her society. In Bastion, we are introduced to Zia a short way into the game, and she and her music’s relationship to the world tell us a great deal about how her personal history and the history of Caelondia and Ura are intertwined.
First we find her sitting alone in a ruined land singing a song – and, at the moment, we don’t listen too closely. It’s just a song. Yet, as the plot progresses, as we come to learn of the great war between the Ura and the Caelondians, the history of the song becomes clear: It is an explicit threat, from one nation to another, that their protections won’t be enough, that they will lose everything. Zia isn’t thinking about that when she sings. She just sings the words, words she probably learned before she even knew what they meant, without realizing that those words were written from the same hatred that caused the ruin within which she sits. But Zulf knows: He grew up with this hatred, and spent most of his life fighting against it, only to succumb to it at the very end. This is poignantly accurate to the way art and culture intersect: Children learn old songs, songs so old that often their parents and grandparents don’t know where they came from. Yankee Doodle was a song made to mock American soldiers before and during the American revolution, which was then appropriated by the American soldiers and used to mock the British; It was not always a Tiger that was caught and released in Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe; and Ring Around The Rosey, though it is probably not, in fact, a song about the plague, could just as easily have been.
It doesn’t take ages for meaning to be lost, either, for strange and unsettling messages to be repeated uncritically, coded hatred pretending to irrelevance, eluding the understanding of those who repeat the words. Sometimes, as soon as the words are said, some weight of meaning is already hidden. Though overtly racist and sexist rhetoric have fallen out of vogue, it is common and easy to code the same sentiment behind words that are less obviously dehumanizing. Art is a beautiful expression of the culture it emerges from, but by the same token every toxic component of that culture is brought to its surface. Even as Zulf sought to build peace, even as Zia grew up in Caelondia innocent of the hatred of her ancestors, that hatred was borne forwards, through the songs she learned, and others like them, that were taught to Caelondian children. It shaped their world, just as similar sentiments shape ours.
Think I’ll go where it suits me
Movin’ out to the Country
With everyone, oh everyone
Before we all become one
I had hoped that Transistor would play with these ideas more, especially since the protagonist is herself a singer, performed by the same artist as Zia, and is presented as one who is influential within Cloudbank, but I never felt that this aspect was fully realized. Maybe it’s just that Cloudbank’s immediate past is one of peace and prosperity, and less likely to produce the kind of scars that bleed into music, or maybe the sentiment is more abstracted than the explicit threat of “Build That Wall”, but I never understood quite what Red’s music was meant to say about her society.
Reading over what I’ve written here, everything I’ve said seems to compare Transistor unfavorably to Bastion – and yet, that’s not how I feel at all. I like them both equally. However, what I love about Transistor is the confidence and skill of its aesthetic and execution, while what I love about Bastion is the universality and poignancy of its ideas. Together, though, these games are more than the sum of their parts, riffing on similar ideas in slightly different iterations. I can only hope that whatever comes next from SuperGiant games is able to marry Bastion’s empathy and insight with Transistor’s confident execution of aesthetic and gameplay details. Wherever they choose to go with their next project, I look forward to seeing it.
I see your star
You left it burning for me
Mother, I’m here