Continued from Part 1.
Free Will and the Transistor
The program known as Royce Bracket attained free will at some point in his existence. In doing so, his beliefs were no longer governed by the Process as they were early in his career when he relished his engineering work. Rather, he was able to form his own long-lasting opinions. As Royce’s opinions diverged with those of the rest of Cloudbank, he began to notice the odd cyclical patterns in the people’s will. After sufficient investigation, he somehow entered into an enlightened state which enabled him to discover the Transistor and see physical manifestations of the Process.
Grant Kendrell was evidently another program which attained free will and faced similar problems understanding the patterns of the population around him. Once Royce (who is established as Grant’s friend) explained his discoveries to him, and then showed him the Transistor, Grant too became able to see the Process. Grant then conveyed these findings to Asher Kendrell who had also apparently attained free will prior to meeting Grant. Sybil Reisz’s background is less developed, but the same general events can be inferred.
What is the Transistor? From Royce again:
“The Transistor, what can it do? What can it really do? Well, um, it can build a bridge for example, that’s something… it’s good for more than just bridges of course. Why, it can make just about anything happen, really.”
“The Transistor was my conductor’s baton, if you will. A way to keep the Process in concert, in harmony.”
The Transistor controls the Process. Ordinarily the Transistor seems to have its own internal algorithms to direct its orders to the Process which causes the cyclical patterns noticed by Royce, Grant, and Asher. But when the Transistor is wielded by a citizen of Cloudbank in a certain manner (ie. using the Cradle), then the citizen has the ability to command the Process.
Coming into contact with the Transistor apparently causes individuals to enter some sort of mode of enlightenment by revealing the existence of the Process in an immediate, visual form. This enlightenment is mentioned a few times throughout the game. Royce is described as seeing “beyond the confines of the city into something more” and being “not entirely” himself when he discovered the Transistor. Asher’s first encounter with the Transistor is described as:
“One day the administrator took Mr. Kendrell aside to a place unlike any he’d seen before, and revealed to him something he never could have imagined.”
Note that while Red and the man can see the Process throughout the game, it is never mentioned (nor implied) that any of the other citizens of Cloudbank besides the Camerata can. This implies that both Red and the man went through the same enlightenment process as the Camerata members.
Whether or not Red and/or the man achieved free will by coming into contact with the Transistor is an open question.
An important issue of note is how Royce discovered the Transistor. One possibility is that Royce’s programing was sufficiently intelligent or sophisticated to break Cloudbank’s structure once he achieved free will. Royce comments that he discovered the Process by using “an awful lot of math,” which is something a political administrator like Grant or a reporter like Asher probably could not have done. Another possibility is that whoever runs the Cloudbank system in real life purposefully lead Royce to the Transistor. When Royce describes his discovery, he notes, “sometimes I think, I didn’t find it at all. More like the other ways around. You understand? Maybe it was looking for someone like me.”
If Royce was lead to the Transistor by the creators of Cloudbank, it opens up a whole host of questions which simply don’t have answers. Why did they do it? Why Royce? Did they grant the Camerata members their free will too? Regardless of these answers, the Camerata’s actions can still be evaluated within the context provided by the game.
The common reading of the Camerata’s ideology is one of elitism (as stated in Yahtzee’s review). They are seen as a group of coercive visionaries who want to restrict democracy so they can impose their own wills on Cloudbanks. But when Royce Bracket’s extraordinary discoveries, and their implications on the nature of Cloudbank’s existence are considered, the Camerata can be seen as a unique expression of free will in an otherwise deterministic world.
The Camerata discovered that the entire city of Cloudbank and its inhabitants lived by the will of a supernatural phenomenon. No one was free. Every art trend, every new administrative policy, every alteration of the city’s design was done at the behest of the Process rather than the people of Cloudbank. The inhabitants of Cloudbank were little more than slaves. Or rather, all of the citizens of Cloudbank were slaves except for the members of the Camerata.
In the words of Asher Kendrell (emphasis mine):
“When everything changes, nothing changes. That’s the Camerata’s creed, our mission. We love our city the way it is. We didn’t want to see it fade because SOMEONE OUT THERE didn’t like the color of the sky. Everything we did, everything we’re doing, is for Cloudbank.”
On a cursory glance at this statement, it is understandable to assume that “someone out there” refers to random citizens of Cloudbank who keep the city in its pointless cycles. But Cloudbank is ostensibly democratic. The color of the sky is determined by popular vote, so it doesn’t make sense for Asher to refer to “someone” when it is actually a plurality of individuals causing these problems.
Therefore, this statement can also be read as a reference to whoever built the Process, the Transistor, and all of Cloudbank. Additionally, “out there” could be read as “outside of Cloudbank.” There is no indication that the Camerata understands that they are in a digital world, but evidently they do understand that there is some entity which is or was commanding the Process besides themselves. This figure is essentially god to the inhabitants of Cloudbank.
Given that Royce, Grant, Asher, and Sybil are the only known citizens of Cloudbank who are aware of the Process and its influence, and they have the Transistor, the Camerata set out to end the pointless democratic cycles and establish an optimal long-term vision for Cloudbank. In Asher’s words:
“What good could four individuals ever hope to accomplish in this city with only their own four voices? Well, we found out answer, you have it right there, in your hands.”
Is this such a horrible goal? The Camerata discovered that their entire careers have been farces, that the citizens of Cloudbank don’t have wills of their own, and that their whole world is essentially run by an omnipotent and unknowable will. So they wanted to change that. The Camerata wanted to set themselves and the people of Cloudbank free. They wanted to create the great works of engineering, policy, and reporting which were never permitted under the regime of pointless repetition. The Camerata wanted to live by their own will.
The Camerata’s Plan
Contrary to their elitist reputation, the Camerata understood that they lacked sufficient knowledge and creativity to reform every aspect of Cloudbank on their own. Their membership consisted of a political leader, a reporter, an engineer, and a socialite. That’s a good start, but they hardly represented the full spectrum of professions which encompassed a city as creative and dynamic as Cloudbank.
Admittedly, it’s ambiguous why the Camerata didn’t go public with their knowledge or expand their network to recruit more members, especially given Grant’s popularity and Asher’s job. Grant’s profile states that he never wanted the membership of the Camerata to “exceed a number to be counted on one hand.” One possible explanation is that since Royce, Grant, and Asher (and presumably Sybil) all discovered the Process patterns on their own, Grant considered them to be special (that is, they all had free will, unlike the rest of the population). Or maybe Grant thought going public would create too many uncontrollable variables and derail Cloudbank’s future under the steady direction of the existing Camerata members (which admittedly would be quite elitist).
To widen their creative scope, the Camerata decided to use a peculiar function of the Transistor. The Transistor is capable converting Cloudbank citizens into “Traces” which have various functions particular to their… soul, for lack of a better word. In the game itself the functions manifest as combat moves for Red to use against the Process, but the same functions were implied to grant the Transistor creative capabilities for the Camerata’s eventual city transformation.
With Sybil’s connections, the Camerata started tracking down influential citizens and basically murdering them to absorb their Traces to make the Transistor more powerful. The Camerata definitely knew they were taking ethically questionable steps with their plan. Royce even admitted that “what we were doing was wrong, in the traditional sense, in the contemporary sense.”
This is the most difficult part of the Camerata’s plan to defend… but I think there is a case to be made that what they did is at least ambiguously moral rather than definitely evil.
The nature of death is complicated in the world of Transistor. There are apparently lots of different ways for people in Cloudbank to die which likely lead to different post-death experiences. There is another plane of existence known as the “Country” which people in Cloudbank can travel to, but cannot return from. According to Asher’s last words, it is also where people in Cloudbank go when they die by conventional means (Asher and Grant committed suicide, though they were later absorbed into the Transistor). The Country is likely another server outside of, or parallel to, Cloudbank, but there isn’t enough information to determine its nature beyond that. Meanwhile, many of the citizens of Cloudbank end up getting turned into raw data by the Process, which, given the nature of the Process, might mean that they just end up being smothered out of conscious existence like any dead person in real life would.
Finally, there are individuals who get integrated into the Transistor, which is most relevant to the Camerata’s plan. Royce describes the inside of the Transistor a few times:
“I’ve seen inside it. Had myself a little look. But I didn’t see much, didn’t see much at all. It was like staring at the sky.”
“Funny things about the Transistor, let’s see, you can get in but you can’t get out. How about that! You can get in but it’s a one-way street, a one-way road. It’s like the Country. You don’t just go for a visit, you go for good. The Transistor, I have no idea what’s inside it, really.”
“There’s these Traces inside the Transistor. Everyday people once upon a time, but now, well, not quite themselves. And they’re trapped. No walls in there, mind you, it’s just, they’re on their own. Listen close enough and maybe you can hear them. Some of them, I mean. The ones you know.”
So when individuals come into contact with the Transistor, their Traces are brought inside it and effect the Transistor’s functions. The relevant question to ask is: how bad is it in the Transistor? Are Traces conscious or just ephemeral essences (ie. some sort of streamlined computer codes) of the formal carnal beings? If there are voices, then that may indicate some degree of consciousness (Royce says they aren’t “quite themselves,” which isn’t quite “unconscious”). And if the Traces have functions which increase the Transistor’s creative capabilities, then it’s possible that the “integrated” individuals are still able to engage in creative activity, as they had done in Cloudbank anyway (admittedly this is a reach).
There are two speculative testimonies on what it’s like to be in the Transistor; one positive, one negative. Royce comments that he wouldn’t mind losing the final fight to Red because he’s curious as to what it’s like inside the Transistor. Even if that’s just Royce’s scientific curiosity speaking, he had more experience with, and knowledge of, the Transistor than anyone else, and still wouldn’t mind being trapped inside of it. On the other hand, Asher remarks that he would “sooner take an eternity in the Transistor” than be separated from Grant, who is implied to be his lover.
The bottom line is that the actual impact of being forced into the Transistor is ambiguous. Yes, the Camerata were coercing individuals into it, and that was ostensibly wrong, but it’s not entirely clear how bad it is inside the Transistor. It’s even theoretically possible that the Transistor is as pleasant as the Country, as implied from the brief glances we get during the final boss fight.
However, the coercive angle of the Camerata’s plan is a big deal, especially since there is another confounding factor. The existence’s of Red’s function in the Transistor, as well as Royce’s before his death, indicates that Traces can be put into the Transistor without “integrating” (ie. killing) the individual. It can be inferred that Red and Royce’s Traces were part of the Transistor because both had been inside the Transistor in some manner. Red lost her voice in Sybil’s Transistor attack, and Royce had a “little look” inside the Transistor during his research. While Grant and possibly Asher had also used the Transistor, neither had been inside it and therefore their Traces had to be manually collected by Red after their deaths (it’s unclear whether or not they ever did reach the Country).
This means that the Camerata probably could have built their powerful Transistor without coercing individuals into the Transistor. Why they didn’t is a mystery. It’s possible that fully integrated traces are somehow stronger than non-integrated ones, but there is no evidence of this based on Red and Royce’s Traces in the game. The other possibility is, again, that the Camerata wanted to keep their membership small for a variety of already listed reasons, and reaching out to individuals to get their Traces would have vastly complicated their plans.
The Ethics of the Camerata
With all of that said, on the charges that the Camerata coercively attacked/kidnapped/murdered over a dozen individuals, and therefore should be utterly morally condemned regardless of their goals or other actions, I think the Camerata still have one strong defense.
If my description of the Camerata, the Process, the Transistor, and Cloudbank have been correct thus far, then the members of the Camerata are the only individuals in Cloudbank with free will (at least before Red and the man come into contact with the Transistor). In that case, everyone else in Cloudbank is essentially an automaton, a hollow shell, a puppet automatically acting out orders from an unseen force. Such entities should not be considered to be legitimately conscious. They do not have sovereign wills and they do not make decisions for themselves. In that sense, how are they different from the roads, bridges, and parks of Cloudbank which are likewise controlled by the Process?
By this line of reasoning, coercing a citizen of Cloudbank into the Transistor is no morally different from “coercing” a pencil into one’s pocket. Neither the citizen nor the pencil are conscious beings, even if the former has such an appearance. Therefore, any action upon either entity is morally permitted.
There is some evidence that the Camerata explicitly believed in this argument. Near the end of the game, when everyone in Cloudbank except for Red and Royce are either in the Country, in the Transistor, or Processed, Royce remarks:
“The Process can’t be stopped, can’t be stopped. However the Process could be impelled to simply go away. Take its business elsewhere. And we’ll be well enough alone. As for the town, we’ll have ourselves a blank canvas. And as for the Transistor, we’ll have ourselves a brush.”
This is an odd frame of mind to understand. Even if Royce managed to get the Transistor back and set about remaking the city as he had always wanted, Cloudbank would have a population of two (or three counting the sentient man trapped inside the Transistor). Why would Royce care about gaining control over an empty city?
It can be inferred that Royce (and the rest of the Camerata) had already figured out that everyone else in Cloudbank had no will of their own. Thus Royce was not only unconcerned with their deaths (or transferences to the Country) but actually excited that he would now be able to work on Cloudbank without obstructions. Recall that Royce was an engineer and architect, while Grant was a politician and Asher a reporter. The latter two’s professions involve dealing with people, Royce’s did not. Given that nearly everything about Royce suggested a tendency towards isolation, including his bio, his job, his solo sabbatical to study the Process, and even his speech patterns, being alone with the city of Cloudbank to express his artistic vision may very well be the best possible outcome in Royce’s mind.
This doesn’t mean that Royce wanted everyone in Cloudbank to be consumed by the Process, nor does it necessarily excuse the Camerata’s “murder” spree. What is does indicate is that Royce and the Camerata had a radically different view of the world than most people in Cloudbank or real life do.
During the final battle, Royce admits that “what we (the Camerata) were doing was wrong, in the traditional sense, in the contemporary sense.” But the Camerata had discovered that the traditional and contemporary societies which had conceived of the traditional and contemporary ideas of right and wrong were working off of false premises. The traditional and contemporary view of the world was fundamentally wrong. Therefore, so was the traditional and contemporary view of morality.
The bottom line is that the normal conceptions of ethics used by most people in everyday life do not apply to Cloudbank. As soon as the Camerata discovered the Process and its control over the city, they discovered that their fellow citizens were not sentient beings, but mere extensions of some other force in the universe. Given that the immorality of coercion and murder is typically predicated upon the notion that beings with free will should be permitted to be free, and that the Camerata discovered the rest of Cloudbank’s inhabitants did not have free will, there was nothing wrong with the Camerata’s actions.
Admittedly, much of my argument is speculative. Transistor’s narrative is so vague, and its details so sparse, that speculation is a prerequisite to comprehending the game’s story. Yet I stand by my analysis. The members of the Camerata found themselves in a situation which is impossible for us to accurately conceive of, and unknowable to experience for any sane person in our world. Their actions were extreme, but justified by a radical, yet accurate conception of their own reality. Within the right framework, the Camerata can be seen as Cloudbank’s and Transistor’s tragic heroes rather than its villains.