Bastion – Spoiled Rotten

Well, here we are again. It’s always such a pleasure. Welcome back to part 2 of our look at Bastion, the action-RPG from the lovely developers over at Supergiant Games. The first part of this literary tongue-bath looked at the art-style of Bastion and how its aesthetic assisted… nay, was an integral part of… game-play. If you want to take a look at it before you read this one, then it’s the post directly before this one. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by linking to it. Today, we’re going to look at Bastion’s story, as well as some of the game mechanics and game-play features that added an extra punch to its narrative. It’s going to be an avalanche of spoilers, though. So, if you haven’t played Bastion, and I very much suggest that you do, then save this post for a rainy day. That, or go buy and play it. It’s worth your time. If you don’t have the time, then I hope you enjoy my look at it! Maybe if you close your eyes and let your imagination take over, you can explain to me how exactly you’re reading with your eyes closed.

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We begin the story of this isometric hack-and-slasher with a boy’s bedroom floating in nothingness. The hauntingly epic voice of Logan Cunningham begins to narrate the tale. Here we see the first example of the combination of narrative and game-play integration that will become the staple of your Bastion experience. Nothing further happens until you move the control sticks. Then, your character, The Kid, will wake up and get to his feet in response to your movement. This will trigger another piece of exposition from the narrator. At triggered points, the narrator will break in with an explanation of what you’re doing or with subtle directions to your next objective (Occasionally assisted by giant blue arrows). However, they’re not fourth-wall breaking most of the time, because the game is framed as a third-person perspective story. So, it makes sense for him to be recounting your actions. By keeping the story tight and the levels small, Bastion is able to ensure that you’re never quite without direction or observation. Of course, the narrator isn’t omniscient, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

The events that trigger a bit of exposition are varied. There’s one part early on when you get your first weapon and fight your first monster that illustrates how these triggered exposition flashes can bring you into the story and make you feel like you’ve got an effect on events. In the area you receive the weapon, there are a lot of boxes and assorted bazaar paraphernalia. If, after the fight, you stay around to test your weapon on the scenery, the narrator says, “The Kid just rages for a while…” However, if you don’t, then that line is never spoken. Doesn’t do much for those of us that just moved on, but if you stuck around to wail on things, then it only added to the world and your sense of immersion within it. It’s also a good example of the developers’ understanding their players. They knew that if they handed you a weapon, then the first thing you would do is take your curiosity out on the surrounding scenery. So, they wrote it into the narrative. This is one of the advantages of linear game-play. If you plan far enough ahead, then you can make your players feel like they’re having an effect on things, being allowed more freedom, than even most sandbox game can allow. Or, should I say, especially most sandbox games. That genre’s getting out of control, guys.

Other than brief moments like that, the exposition comes before, after and between combat sections. By keeping the wording succinct, punchy and symbolic, Bastion manages to let you enjoy a deep narrative without being distracted from the game-play. It doesn’t shout important lines at you when you’re trying desperately to keep your eye-sockets pick-axe free; it makes sure that you understand what’s going on. You’re aware of the stakes, so they become a part of the experience. By becoming a part of the experience, they alter the game and make you think about the implications of the events and your part within them. This is the kind of immersive, linear story-telling that Far Cry 3 and BioShock: Infinite got so right, but without the first-person perspective. I think this demonstrates quite heartily that you can use a directed story-telling method in any modern linear game without sacrificing immersion, even if you’re not playing as a 5’9” camera on legs.

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Let’s come back to that standing up thing again, because it’s soooo fascinating. Well, actually, it is. When you’ve got a limited number of actions and animations, then you’ve got to pick and choose carefully which ones you want to employ. Then, you’ve got to use them effectively to tell your story. Far Cry 3 has a massive range of available animations, and they could make new ones on the fly, but Bastion reaches back through a long-standing tradition of communicating through simple sprite movements. One of my first memories of something like this was in Mario RPG. At one point, you were asked a question and then responded by jumping. It seemed like an enthusiastic hop and came to perfectly describe Mario’s personality, despite the fact that it was one of a very limited range of available animations that he did. I mean, Mario jumps. That’s like… his thing. The Kid, however, gets tossed around a lot, either during travel or by falling off of ledges, so his thing is standing up. It’s quick and simple, but it’s also very effective.

There’s a portion near the very end of the game, after the climax with Zulf, where you travel back to the Bastion. After the game finishes loading, we find The Kid sprawled out on the grass in his normal fashion, but something’s very different. He was clearly hurt by that last encounter. He’s tired; it has been an extremely draining adventure with almost no time for a proper rest. He’s weathered it all, but you can only handle so much. His body is beaten. His mind taxed. You try to get him to move; his body responds sluggishly, lifting him slightly. But, he collapses. The screen fades slightly. The narrator gives a heart-felt, “Come on, Kid. Get up.” You try again, and he moves a little further, but the effort is too much. He collapses again. The screen fades a bit more. The narrator’s heart is breaking. You give it another go and slowly, achingly, you bring The Kid to his feet. It’s not a lot. It’s just the same animation you’ve used throughout the game to get up with a couple alterations, but it’s used to great effect. It’s also a big part of what we know about our character: he always stands up. Him struggling with that tells you exactly how taxed he is. It’s elegant and engaging. Bam. There’s no half-cocked joke here. This is how you use your mechanics.

Let’s talk choice for a bit. Bastion isn’t a game about building a character around a set of moral choices, but it does a good job of communicating who The Kid is through a couple of key junctures. It doesn’t change anything about the overall game-play. That’s okay. The story is our primary means of engagement. So, let’s start with the climax with Zulf. When you go to wrest the last shard from the hands of the Ura, you end up wiping out waves of their people. This, understandably enough, they aren’t happy with. Far from only blaming you, they also don’t take kindly to the man who led you here, who taunted you into attacking. The man who also tried to warn you away from the Bastion to save your life. So, they assault him. You find him on the ground, broken body bleeding, close to death. At this point, you’ve got a kick-ass special weapon. It’s a blessed bull battering ram with the power to literally rain fire from the sky. Zulf needs help, though. You can’t carry him and fight at the same time. You have to make a choice. Do you pick him up or leave him to die? (Remember that point about omniscience? This is where the narrator’s knowledge runs dry. He has no idea what you do here, so the choice is left up to you.)

If you don’t pick him up, you use your amazing battering ram to fight your way home. After the final fight, you arrive back at the point I talked about with the standing up mechanic. However, if you choose to pick him up, then an entirely different thing happens. You still run through the same gauntlet, getting fired at from all sides, moving slowly under the weight of Zulf’s body, trying desperately to stay alive, but something happens. Eventually, the Ura begin to fire on you less and less. Finally, near the exit, one of the Ura kills the last remaining soldier still firing at you. Clearly, that guy was committed to your death, even as the rest of the Ura honoured your commitment to Zulf. Your commitment to saving what you could. Putting your body on the line for your ideals. Between the music and the pacing, the sentiment and the story it tells through simple symbolism, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the game. Following it up with the scene where The Kid is trying to stand up brought me closer to tears than I’d like to admit on the internet. That is, it brought me to them. It’s incredibly memorable.

What makes it so effective? It follows the video game adage: do, don’t show. You can feel the slow, desperate struggle of The Kid as he walks through the gauntlet because you’re moving at that pace. You can almost feel his health bar dropping, and, by the middle of it, you can’t help but feel that you’ve made a horrible mistake. This is how your life ends. There’s nothing you can do about it, except try to carry on. You might say that you could put Zulf down, but that’s not who The Kid is. See what I was saying? Excellent character development. What are the motives of the Ura? Well, the Ura are basically a quasi-samurai-like race. So, I’m tempted to say they’re moved by your sense of honour. Either they’re given an order not to kill you, or they all believe in their way of life enough that they draw the same conclusion about your actions and cease attacking. It could be both, even. But, you still represent a lot of evil deeds to them, and more losses, so it’s easy to understand why that one guy keeps attacking you. To him, you’re a monster. Then, when he’s put down, it’s either because he is disobeying orders or because it’s the only way he’ll stop attacking you. Couldn’t have been easy. One life for another. It’s a harsh world. A harsh culture. A harsher lesson.

These are all things you understand intuitively through the game-play. You don’t have to sort it out in your head. You can just look at the deeds of the characters, the Ura, whose actions are all expressed within their normal game-play animations mind you, and say thanks. Thanks for understanding and giving me a chance to make this right. Simple and effective story-telling that’s executed so beautifully that my mind almost revolts at calling it “simple.” Yeesh, I’m going to have to pick a truly horrible game to hate on next week or you guys will think I’ve gone soft!

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That brings us to the final moments of Bastion and the choice that defines the game’s meaning. Up until the 9/10’s mark of the game, the narrator is speaking as if to you, using a third-person perspective voice. Then, as you enter the final level, you find out that he has been talking to Zia, the singer, this whole time. He’s been telling her the story that you’ve been playing through during the moments leading up to when you get to activate the Deus Ex Machina. You see, a great cataclysm tore through the land and shattered the world. Thus the floaty platforms and ash-statues. It’s an allegory for nuclear war, obviously. Well, actually, just for the apocalypse. The Bastion, the structure you’ve been rebuilding, can take the memories stored within the Cores of the City and the shards of the Wilds to and use them to restore the world. The entire world. You can jump the clock back to before the apocalypse. It’ll never have happened. However, in the closing level, the narrator reveals that, while he designed The Bastion, he was never able to test it. Even if he had, there would be no way for him to know if it worked, because he would be reset to before he knew the results of the test. That being said, there’s no way of knowing whether The Bastion has already been used or not. Even if you undo the apocalypse, there’s no way of knowing if it will happen again… or not.

In the final moments of the game, the narrator turns to you, addresses you directly, and asks you to make a choice. Do you wind back the clock to the way things were before or use The Bastion to evacuate and start a new life in a changed world? This may seem easy — you prevent the apocalypse, duh — but it’s not. You see, an apocalypse is just a great change. It’s a sweeping reordering of the current world. Bastion asks you to consider if setting things back to the old order is really the answer. It suggests that, perhaps, the structure of that world was what brought it to its end. After all, in the old world, you’re an orphan without a cause. The narrator is an inventor working for the City. Zia is a peasant girl. Zulf is, well, he’s doing fairly well. In the world changed by the cataclysm, you can forge something new. Will you be able to learn from the mistakes of the past or do you not feel like you can make that choice for the millions of lives that The Bastion will restore? You might realize, then, that it’s not just the people that are to blame for the cataclysm. It’s also the world they live in. You might even be able to change something if you wind the clock back, but you won’t have any memory of the events you’ve struggled through. This world, your new family, will be undone so that the old one can re-assert itself.

Will it make a difference? Or, will you end up back at the cataclysm? This is suggested by the New Game Plus option. You start back at the beginning and the first words of the narrator take on a whole new meaning, “A proper story is supposed to start at the beginning…” Where, though, is the beginning in the story of The Bastion? It’s a time loop, a paradox.

Using this framework, Bastion also asks us a couple of other hard questions. Is setting things to rights (Read: the way they used to be) justification for doing ill now? Is it okay to murder someone now because they’ll be resurrected by the time-loop? What happens to that justification if you decide to evacuate? You’ve got so much blood on your hands. Can you possibly just move on from that? If that justification is so flimsy, so reliant on a future promise, is it any justification at all? Is it an excuse for forwarding your own morality? There’s an uncomfortable truth about the way we tend to look at the world in the narrator’s words, “Don’t let anything you’ve done get to you. You can save all these creatures here and now.” “Save” is an interesting term here. The Cores represent the memories of the past that hold the world in place the way it is, but that raises a greater existential question. Are you saving those creatures or just a copy of them? Yeah, the Cores may be great big USB sticks for the God-puter, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not still deleting the original file. Or, is it the original? There’s no way to know.

This is the narrative that unifies the game. It’s complex, tragic and unfair. It asks questions that we can’t possibly answer and explores morality through intuitive choices that aren’t easily made once you think about them. By the way, if you save Zulf and choose to evacuate, then he’s in the closing credit pictures with you, escaping on The Bastion. If you don’t save him, well… There’s no ticket to the past. I’ll close with a quote from the narrator, Rucks, that plays if you choose the evacuation option:

“You could have undone the calamity itself, but, instead, you want to stay in a world like this… we can’t go back, but I guess we could go… wherever we please.”

Don’t be afraid of great change. You can choose to move forward.

That’s how you tell a fucking story.

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