Archive for Narrative

Bastion – Spoiled Rotten

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by trivialpunk

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.


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.


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!


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.

A Writer’s Aside: Horror, Perspective and Not Cocking It Up

Posted in All the Things, Creepypastas and General Writing, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello dear reader! I write to you from my death-bed today. Well, not literally. I’m just very sick. I don’t have Sherlock or my TARDIS back (PC and phone respectively), but I thought I’d upload some thoughts anyways, seeing as I’ll probably be sleeping through tomorrow. Today, we’re going to be talking about writing, so, if you’re not interested, turn away ye mortal beings. Hide thine eyes. Shit doth meetest the fan. Not really, but I thought I’d get your attention before I make three more up-coming announcements!

-I’ll be starting a new series I’m calling  The Humble Bundle Blitz! Look for it; I miiiiight be giving away some free games. Shh.

-I’m going to be picking out the games to go on my voting list for the next Letsplay in the series running parallel to Trivial Drunk Gaming, because I’d like something of me playing games while sober. You know, just so there’s more evidence than Star Fox. To help with that, either leave a comment or send me a tweet with a horror-themed game that you’d like to see me play. I’ll compile a short list of games I can record with my current tech and off we’ll go, next week, with the voting process.

-I’m thinking of starting a run of horror movie reviews, because I love them. It’ll be a summer thing, but I think we could have some fun with it. If that sounds cool, then drop off a horror movie favorite and I’ll give it a watch. It’s nice to live right beside an occult movie store. It’ll help expand my horizons and let me test the waters for this concept.

Alright, onwards! Unfortunately, again, I didn’t get to spot-light anything this week, because my laptop is a pain to read from, so I just did a lot of novel reading.

Speaking of novels, it’s probably not surprising that I read a lot, but it might shock you to learn that I do a fair bit of story writing. It doesn’t? Yeah, that was a bad call on my part, but not entirely unrelated. You see, what I did there was exposition. Air-quotes: Thanks, right? The reason I bring it up is because, today, we’re going to take a quick look at exposition, tense and perspective. These are little decisions that will rain fire and havoc on anything you try to write, especially horror.

The reason I say “especially horror” a lot is because it’s a tricky, deceptive muse. It’s heavily dependent on what your audience knows, what they don’t know, what they will imagine, what they can’t imagine, how they experience, what they experience, and why. There’s more to it, obviously, but those are the biggest hidden questions that writers need to answer. Horror experiences must be carefully cultivated; they’re incredibly easy things to mess up. One inch over the line can bring you from “extreme” to “campy” in no time. It’ll never be the same thing that ruins the experience, either. Then again, as writers, we can’t control everything. So, we write for specific audiences, to specific audiences, for ourselves, to ourselves, you get the pattern. In a way, horror stories are a lot like sex. They both rely on a certain degree of emotional stimulation. Maintaining those emotional arousal patterns can be key to a successful “story.” They can even follow similar narrative excitation curves. You can start out with a small amount of arousal or stimulation and build to a climax. You can build to one and pull back just before the edge (fake-out scares in movies are the worst!). You can get to a certain spot and just maintain an edge for the entire experience, the tension and agonizing denial being almost as effective as the pay-off. You can do multiple iterations of different story curves within the same session. Is this metaphor getting too elaborate? Tortured, even?

Whips and pains aside, it does the job of illustrating how important it is to cull and cultivate an experience with specificity. A dog staring at you from the edge of the bed is disconcerting, but a live chicken might be a deal-breaker, unless you prepare the ground-work beforehand. With that in mind, we can see the place of exposition. A lot of movies front-load their exposition, because they don’t have as much space as a novel to carefully slide it in. However, as we’re aware, you can tell a lot from a glance, a picture or a demeanor. Picture, thousand typewriter monkeys, etc. We’re not here to do a comparison but to look at what they have in common. That, of course, is sometimes doing it badly. Front-loading narrative exposition may be necessary, lazy, sloppy, whatever (pick the one that applies to a certain movie), but there’s a lot of information that can be told to us through action or omitted entirely. If you want an example, then watch That-Scifi-guy’s review of Zombie Apocalypse. There’s a ton of stuff they could have shown us while entertaining us; this goes double for Johnny Mnemonic. The opening to Dawn of the Dead (2004) is a good example of weaving a ton of exposition into a brief montage of shots that tell us an entire story in an entertaining way. More to the point, when it comes to horror, you want your audience interpreting and  experiencing as much as possible in a movie. Being visceral is one of a movie’s most commanding strengths. By the same token, you wouldn’t write the same story you’d show.

Look at Lovecraft or Stephen King. Most of the horror in their books come from cerebral ideas or vivid imagery. So, when you’re telling a story or explaining a scene, you want enough information but not too much. Text stories are mentally animated by the reader, so they’ll often have pre-baked concepts that you can take advantage of. That means that you can provide a minimum of detail and still get a good scene out of it. You don’t want to overload your reader with details; it will pull them out of imagining the situation and make them focus on the background. (If you need to do this to highlight an area, then don’t just mention it specifically.) For instance…

…echoed steps preceded him into the grey expanse of the warehouse. The sound struck out over the silent pool of blood. The candles. The contraption that held her aloft. It wasn’t until his footsteps quietly slinked back that Harry got a look at the scene. By then, it was too late…

It’s pretty pulpy, but it was written on the spot and illustrates my point. Words, like grey, echoed, and silent, paint the warehouse. Whether there are boxes at the far end or not is immaterial, unless it’s a plot-point or a red herring. Even additional information can be good, but it must have a purpose. Or, striking purpose out in favor of flavor, it must not be detrimental to the story. You see, the more time you spend on a mental area or idea, the more important it will seem to the story or the reader. The more it will be animated and gain salience. You can write whole pages describing a field if you’re Tolkien, and it might help expand the world, but it may also bog down your story. Don’t faff around too much. By the same Tolkien, you do need to faff around sometimes.

Sometimes, you want to pull attention to something, so you over-describe it a bit more than you would otherwise. Sometimes, you want to pull attention away from something else, so you add in red herrings. Doing this is surgery, though. You don’t want to end up with an obvious one. We’ve all watched movies with obvious-trolls or even just scooby-doo episodes. The reverse is almost as bad, though. Opting for no detail, nor red-herrings, has what I call the scooby-doo effect. Scooby put a lot of effort into cramming a mystery into 20 minutes, but it also gave birth to the Obvious-troll (mentioned above, it’s just the guy who obviously didn’t do it but is made to seem suspicious) and the obvious-perpetrator. As an artifact of their formula and their lack of time, Scooby could only introduce a few characters, so the laundry-list of perpetrators was pretty small. There was almost no guess-work. Still, that’s better than the other cardinal sin…

“It was Gerald all along!” …. “Who?”

Sometimes, you just need to put a face to a crime or atrocity. Sometimes, you don’t, but that’s different story types, and we’re off the beaten path. No, we’re talking about red-herrings and alternate narratives. Alternate narratives are my favorite way to insert a red-herring into a story, because they allow for a minimum of information with maximum red-herring effect. Basically, you build your central story, then you add in just enough details to make another narrative possible. It makes all the information you provide pull double-duty, because, if you pull it off, it can work for either case. You can even use alternative narrative to give away information you want to keep secret, but you can do it in such a way as to support the alternative narrative, thereby hiding your original purpose. Below did this very well. For a more immediate example, the candles from my story blurb can be used to provide occult over-tones. But, what if you found out that the power was out? What if you found out that they cut the power themselves? What if the place housed candles? Flashlights and lanterns? What did the contraption do, anyways? How you answer those questions, and in what order, will create another story entirely. It’s a way to provide information but keep your audience guessing. I have a lot more I want to say, but it’ll have to wait, because we’re talking about tense now.

Past tense, present tense and future tense, that is. A lot of writers seem to have trouble with this; I know I do. So, I use a handy set of questions to help me get started on what I should use… What’s my framing device? When is this occurring? How do I want my audience to imagine this? When I imagine it, how is it going down in my head?… It’s a short list, but the answers to these questions are crucial. If your framing device is someone’s memory, for instance, then you might consider past-tense to reinforce that and keep the excitational narrative in the moment. Or, if you want it to seem that the person is re-living the memory, and make things in the memory more immediate for your reader, then you can use present tense. If you want to have a person remembering something, but standing at the beginning of events from their memory and looking forward, then you can use future-tense. The language will act as metaphorical representations of your device and, thus, your story. It will reinforce itself. The next two questions relate to the first. Obviously, you’ll probably have to flip tenses a few times as you move around in time and perspective, but there’s probably a general line to your story that will require a commitment to one of those tenses for general information. The last two questions are also related. In many ways, you are your own audience when you write. It helps to get up and come back to work at a later time, because it gives you a fresh perspective. It also encourages a look from both a production (first pass) and a reception (revision) stand-point. If you can see the scene while you’re writing it, but you can’t imagine it from the information when you’re reading it, then you’ll need some revision. A common problem writers run in to is that they have trouble separating what they know from what their audience knows. So, something that can seem really obvious to the writers is still too obscure for the reader, because the reader lacks the relevant knowledge to make the connections necessary to illuminate the writer’s idea.

Of course, I’ve just described writing with an alternative narrative, so that whole thing pulled double-duty, too.

I’m running out of steam here. Tooooo much coughing. So, fiiinally, let’s talk perspective. Namely, First, second and third-person perspectives. Part of this feeds back into the tense questions; first-person perspective works with present-tense to provide a really immediate experience. This shit is happening now. First-person perspective also tells a much more personal story, because you can provide the reasoned thought and emotions behind actions. You can also close off other characters by limiting exposure to them and interjecting first-person impressions and thoughts about them. You can muddy the reader’s own perspective with that of the character’s perspective. Second-person is a bit trickier. It’s not without its uses. It allows you to speak directly to the reader and tell them about their actions. It also allows for an interesting level of reader-character insertion. Third person comes in omniscient and limited-omniscient forms. Limited-omniscient is useful for telling stories with a lot of jumping around, but it allows you to keep some things secret by limiting how much you can examine any one character’s motivations, thoughts or actions. Omniscient is a scary beast. It allows for the full exploration of any and all characters, but the possibility is also the obligation. Leaving out specific people or events from the gaze of the reader is telling, but, if it’s done properly, you’ll never know it happened at all. You can also muddy the waters with alternative perspectives on events and leave out an individual for red-herring purposes.

As you can probably tell, I’m treating these different portions of a narrative as gating mechanisms for information and as mechanical representations of the ideas they’re attempting to convey (ie. immediacy for immediate, jarring, in-progress events). They’re more than either of those things, but they need to be looked at that way for part of the writing process. They also deserve special attention from horror writers, because the world of a good horror story is a strictly-controlled, well-represented place. Remember, what your audience knows is their perspective. You want to pull them in. Incongruencies, stock characters, obvious plot-lines, poor exposition and jarring transitions in tense will damage all the work you’ve done in crafting your story. So, answer these questions with care. They seem really obvious, but, if you get that work out of the way, then you can enjoy putting the rest of the blocks snuggly in place.:..’..:.::

Cute Cat With Glasses

Pretentious writer cat thanks you for your time! I’ll get back to some of this stuff later, when I’m not a walking zombie with a keyboard. Take care! See you on the other side.