Ellis Powell is a graduate of the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in social sciences. She wrote her thesis on the use of video games for presenting ethnographic research, and in her spare time, she continues to pursue the potential that games as a medium have for representing social forces and systems.
Indie developer Supergiant Games’ Transistor (2014) is a brooding yet beautiful cyberpunk-noir story that features Red, a woman struck mute by a shady elite organization, and her companion, the disembodied voice of a man emanating from a futuristic USB-drive-slash-broadsword.
Red’s muteness places her squarely in a long tradition of silent video game player characters who exist less as integral parts of their personal stories, and more as hollow interfaces for players to project their will into the game’s world and narrative. However, as I will discuss in this essay, Red is not merely a vessel: rather than simply turning her into yet another silent protagonist, the loss of her voice becomes a powerful ludonarrative device. In this way, I argue that Supergiant uses Red as a tool to reassign the player’s sense of agency within the game. Without Red ever having to say a word, the game gives her what feels like a “voice” – a sense that not only is she separate from the player, but that she is in fact willfully defying them. Although this approach might sound alienating, I argue that its execution deepens the complexity of the narrative, and raises important questions about the roles that players can take in game narratives. I begin by discussing those roles and existing theories of how players connect with characters, as well as how they perceive their agency within game worlds. Then, through a close reading of an early, tone-defining scene, I showcase how Red’s subversion of player expectations highlights the complicated ways in which player agency – and even machine agency – are perceived.
They Took Your Voice
(Cinematic pans over a poster of Red; we cannot see her face)
Transistor: I’m so sorry, Red. They took your voice. I couldn’t stop them. But we took something of theirs.
The inciting incident of Transistor is what initially defines its protagonist: Red’s voice has been stolen. As far as the player is concerned in the first moments of the game, Red has become a silent protagonist, and a silent player character, complete with all the expectations and assumptions embedded in that archetype.
In order to experience a game’s world, players must have access to some sort of interface which allows their actions to be projected into that world. That interface could, in the broadest sense, be called an “avatar.” Avatars range from abstract objects (like the paddles in Pong), to models of humans or creatures with simulated personality. Among those avatars that could be considered “characters,” there is a wide spectrum of characterization. Luca Papale (2014), citing Francesco Alinovi, defines these characters along dimensions. An “a-dimensional” character is one whose personality is absent; any characterization is created from scratch by the player, or at least heavily defined by them (Papale 5).
Silent player characters like Red are generally – though not always – of this a-dimensional type, and for the most part, that is how players expect them to be. Obviously no avatar, be it a character or not, is entirely absent from audience expectations; as Chris Alton (2017) points out, even the most blank-slate or abstracted form of avatar invites some sense of embodiment, or of taking on a role in the game’s world; it cannot be reduced to a mere vehicle or set of in-game abilities. But by denying silent player characters a voice – in the sense of an actual audible voice or visible textual dialogue, as well as in the sense of self-expression and personality – developers provide a player character that will hopefully invite “projection,” which occurs when “the player … makes personality, values, and choices flow into the avatar—which might or might not reflect the player’s own” (Papale 4).
Theoretically this projection gives the player a more direct sense of involvement in the story, not as a character that the game wants them to mimic, or “identify” as, but as a version of themselves that is capable of acting within the game world through the interface of the player character (Papale 2). The fewer explicitly stated personality traits a player character has, the less conflict there is between the intent of the player and the projected intent of the player character. Take for example Cyan, Inc.’s classic 1993 puzzle-exploration game Myst, in which the player is intended to be able to act directly within the game’s world with practically no mental adjustments to their circumstances, personality, or abilities. Myst’s player character, the Stranger, is no more familiar with Myst’s world than the player is.
Many reviewers and commenters have pointed out that projection onto an a-dimensional character like the Stranger creates a greater sense of immersion in a game’s world, as well as a greater sense of ownership over the player character’s accomplishments. One description of this phenomenon can be seen in James Paul Gee’s (2003) discussion of “projective identity,” in which the player both “projects” their values onto the player character, and treats the player character as a “project” molded by the player’s goals in the game world. Rather than feeling sympathetic, understanding, or impressed by their characters, the player is instead able to feel that they are the ones who truly acted in the game’s world, as the blank player character had no agency or personality to speak of in the endeavor. The sense of agency, rather, was the player’s.
Agency at its most abstract level can be defined as “having an effect”. If something or someone can affect the world around them, they are “agents” of change. But this isn’t usually what people mean when they talk about having agency. Agency as it is popularly discussed and conflated with player choice has a reflexive dimension to it. What’s important isn’t the raw ability of the player to create change within the game – practically everything a player does while playing a game is creating some type of change. What matters is the player’s perception and impactful understanding of the changes they’re making. Player agency is not inherently meaningful, but is instead made meaningful by the game’s story and design. Although narrative in games is sometimes seen as coming at the cost of a player’s sense of agency because story events limit the changes a player can make, richer narratives in fact offer more opportunities to enhance and complicate a player’s sense of agency or choice (see Joyce 2016).
You Turned Left
Despite Red at first appearing to be a silent protagonist whose every move is controlled by the player, she is not, ultimately, an a-dimensional character as the player would expect. Red’s silence is an invitation to player projection only insofar as that projection can be violently rebuffed. Transistor draws a distinct line which defines Red as a character with a personality and the appearance of an agency separate from that of the player.
What does it mean for a game, a machine, to create a feeling of agency? As much as games may react to a player’s inputs, and as much as players may personify games or equipment (e.g. “Stupid game made me lose!”), few individuals believe that the game has agency in the same way that they do. This is not because the game has no effect on players, but because, as mentioned before, there is no meaning, feeling, or significance in the game having agency. Transistor, on the other hand, takes control from players and ascribes meaning to that seizure of control.
The fourth discrete area the player enters in Transistor leads off into a cutscene. Red gets on a motorcycle and, against the wishes of the man in the Transistor, she takes a left turn off the highway. The player cannot change this; the game does not allow them that level of control over the story. But this moment of automated action on the part of the game’s systems is given a special significance through how the player’s lack of agency is contextualized.
[(Map loads, showing a motorbike highlighted by the game’s HUD)
Transistor: That’s our way out.
(The player moves Red towards the bike and selects it)]
The player can wander around some here, but the game will not allow them to run out onto the highway without the bike, nor will it allow them to backtrack. The game, through the voice of the man in the Transistor, urges them forward.
[Transistor: Ok. East 64 on-ramp, five blocks down, take the second right. Do not turn left. And…thanks for the lift.
(Screen cuts to black)]
The player doesn’t really know what the man is talking about here, but they can assume that he’s giving directions that they will need to follow. At this point the game has taken control from the player and is transitioning into the cutscene.
[(Cinematic loads in which Red is riding the bike down a highway)
Transistor: ….Hi. You turned left. Thought we were going to skip town. We’re going back there?
You’ve met these things. They do not have a sense of humor. They will track you down, wipe you out, and take whatever’s left of me back to those two-bit Camerata pieces of trash.
Look, whatever you’re thinking, do me a favor. Don’t let me go.
(Cinematic ends with Red accelerating offscreen; screen fades to black)]
The cutscene loads and it quickly becomes clear to the player that they aren’t going to be turning in any direction, as it appears to be a side-scrolling animation. As if in response to the man’s question – “We’re going back there?” – the option to accelerate even faster appears. However, no other inputs have any effect. Then, the man begins speaking again. “You turned left,” he says. Here is where the game’s control of itself is crucial: if the player had made this turn, or even seen it occur, they might come into this scene thinking “I sure did!” But because the machine made this choice and took this action, what the player instead thinks is something more like, “I did?”
In addressing a silent character that the player had likely assumed to be a-dimensional – a tool for projection of agency – the man in the Transistor seems to be talking directly to the player. But the player didn’t take the action in question; therefore, in ascribing intention and will to that action, the man in the Transistor gives the machine’s action, not the player’s action, a sense of agency. In fact, even when the player is allowed to exert a sense of agency, the only action available during this cutscene – accelerating the bike – serves merely to push Red further and faster towards her goal.
The man in the Transistor reinforces this reassignment of agency in the next two lines: “Thought we were going to skip town.” “So did I!” the player might be thinking. They would not have even assumed that Red had a thought process for them to be locked out of, and yet now they both see that it is there and understand that they have no access to it. Suddenly, Red is an individual with something that feels like will. She has a goal that the player is not privy to, and she has an intent that the player has no control over. The player is locked out and pushed back, their sense of projection replaced with, above all, curiosity about the enigma of a character they’ve been traveling with. The surprise reversal of the sense of agency leaves players off-balance and more receptive to the narrative developments that will come, as well as more engaged in who, exactly, Red is supposed to be.
While it’s important to note that this type of sharp separation might push a player away, the game does its best to complete the narrative realignment by building an association between the player and the equally baffled man in the Transistor. In the same moment that the man’s narration outlines Red’s agency, it opens its arms to the disoriented player. The man’s questions feel justified – they feel what’s running through the player’s head. The player may have lost their a-dimensional projection protagonist, but at least they know they aren’t alone in wondering about her motives. As much as the player may control Red’s movements and combat, they are, on a personal level and in their sense of agency, far more aligned with the passive, confused, concerned voice of the man providing commentary.
Any pushback on the player’s sense of choice or agency in the game can thus be ascribed to Red – what are her goals? What is her intent? These things can be read from the very limitations that the machine of Transistor places upon the player. Red consistently defies orders and defies expectations, and sometimes, too, she defies the player. In the beginning of the game, she does not let the player avoid the turn. This is echoed at the end of the game, when she does not let the player save her life.
There’s a lot more that could be highlighted about how this game builds Red into an actual character, and how it reverses the standard use of a silent protagonist. I choose to focus on this early moment because I think it sets the tone for something that only continues throughout the game. It’s emblematic of the way that the player’s feeling of agency – or lack thereof – can itself be manipulated to tell a compelling story that doesn’t sink to the level of “narrative violence” (e.g. forcing players into morally reprehensible actions and then punishing them for it).
It is because of this reassignment of agency that, when the game’s tragic final moments roll around, the player can face them with the understanding that they are not a part of that tragedy. The player does not own Red’s story. All of Red’s decisions – including her final one, to impale herself on the sword that took her companion’s life – are her own, and they can be appreciated as the consequences of her understanding and desires.
Alton, Chris. “Experience, 60 Frames Per Second: Virtual Embodiment and the Player/Avatar Relationship in Digital Games.” Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association, vol. 10, no. 16, 2017, pp. 214-227.
Gee, James Paul. “Learning and Identity: What Does It Mean to Be a Half-Elf?” What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 51–66.
Joyce, Lindsey. “Assessing Mass Effect 2 and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Using Collaborative Criteria for Player Agency in Interactive Narratives.” Considering the Sequel to Game Studies… Papers from Extending Play Conference, Rutgers University, NJ, bonus issue of Journal of Games Criticism, vol. 3, 2016.
Myst. Windows PC version, Cyan, Inc., 1993.
Papale, Luca. “Beyond Identification: Defining the Relationships between Player and Avatar.” Journal of Games Criticism, vol. 1, no. 2, 2014, pp. 1-12.
Transistor. Windows PC version, Supergiant Games, 2014.
**All videos and images included in this essay were recorded by the author using her personal copy of the game.