Monday, February 3, 2014

Gaming Reflections: Bastion

Sometimes, after you finish a story, it makes you sit down and think. Ironically, it's not the stories with the explicit messages that do this to me. Elfen Lied just made me feel dirty (though the show's poor quality might have had something to do with that), and while I found Spec Ops: the Line emotional and powerful, it didn't prompt any further reflection from me beyond what the game itself said.

Bastion, on the other hand, was brought to what I think was a good, solid conclusion. It was just a conclusion that left me craving more rather than feeling satisfied.

Bastion is the story of a kid (known only as "the Kid") who finds himself as one of the only survivors of an apocalyptic event called the Calamity. His journey is narrated by an old man named Rucks, the only other survivor of his race. Rucks charges the Kid to help build the Bastion, a safe haven that has the power to undo the Calamity. The Kid also meets two other survivors of the Calamity, Zulf and Zia, who are members of the Ura race (as opposed to the Kid and Rucks, who are Caelondian). As the plot progresses, Zulf abandons the Bastion and leads the remaining Ura against it, after which the dark history of the Calamity and Rucks' involvement in it is revealed. The Bastion offers the possibility of hope, but also the possibility of more despair, and it is up to the player to make the decision of whether or not to actually activate the Bastion.

What makes Bastion such a powerful game is its narrative design. First of all, you play as the Kid, but the story is actually narrated by Rucks. Rucks has a rich, gravelly, soothing voice that I can only describe as "sexy cowboy." This choice does a lot for the game. It helps introduce the stylistic, frontier-style tone of the game from the very beginning. In addition, much of Rucks' narration is reactionary, with what he says based on what the Kid does rather than the other way around. Rucks is also able to use his narrative to seamlessly provide exposition on the world and what exactly is happening in an unobtrusive way. This choice allows for a structured plot while still giving the player agency. It puts control of the story in the player's hands and allows them to identify more strongly with the Kid--which is vital to Bastion.

The second thing that makes Bastion powerful is the world. The world of Bastion is visually dynamic, but the level design creates the feeling of a broken and empty world. This is partially because the world, as it is portrayed, is literally broken. As the Kid moves, the world begins to reform around his feet. It is filled with junk and rubble, and there are indications that it was a lush and rich world before the Calamity. In addition, there is an incredible sense of loss and emptiness. In the beginning, the Kid and Rucks are the only characters who show up at the Bastion. All other Caelondians are seen only as fossilized statues. When you encounter one of these statues the first time (and inevitably smash it), Rucks' response is a wry and darkly amusing "He always did want his ashes scattered in his bar." When the Kid actively goes searching for survivors, however, he encounters statue after statue. As you encounter them, Rucks lists off their names, followed by "didn't make it." The sense of loss is automatic, frustrating, and overwhelming. When the Kid encounters Zulf at the end of the level, he is in shock and near catatonic, meaning that even the survivor you do find is, in a sense, lifeless. It provides a very strong sense that you, as the Kid, are alone in the world, the weight of the future entirely on your shoulders. The feeling is a powerful one and allows players to understand much of the Kid's character solely through empathy.

This desolation and lifelessness provides great emphasis to the lively parts of the game. In contrast to the crumbling world of Caelondia, the Bastion is a solid place of hope, and it's easy to become very attached to it early on (in fact, revelations about the nature of the Bastion and the Calamity are accompanied by physical damage to it, making it appear more broken as our own perceptions of it begin to change). The Bastion is a broad example, but there are also two specific examples that come to mind. The first is when the player finds Zia. After feeling so alone in an empty world, the background music begins to shift. Rucks' narration fades out as the lyrics start. Suddenly, the BGM is not music, but a song, full of life. That's where the Kid finds Zia, alive and relatively well, playing harp by a pool of water. It feels like a huge success, rather than the Pyrrhic victory that finding Zulf was. The other specific example is when the monsters of the world begin creating their own Bastion. The player is fairly invested in saving the Bastion at this point, and it's heartbreaking to see the monsters attempting to create a safe haven when you know you'll need to destroy it for the greater good. To create life in a desolate world, you're forced to take it away.

In terms of the game's actual writing and plot, the story is full of themes of loss, regret, revenge, and hope. The Kid is a boy whose whole life has been filled with loneliness and hardship, even before he became humanity's last hope after the Calamity. Zulf's discovery of the Calamity's sinister history drives him towards anger and revenge. Rucks, as a man who had a hand in the Calamity, regrets his decision and is obsessed with the Bastion's potential to let him change his mistakes. And Zia, despite the hardship she suffers, is determined to move forward, doing what she can and holding out hope for a brighter future. These motives drive all the characters fairly strongly, and the Kid has to deal with all of them throughout the game. The Kid's loss and Zulf's vengeance drive much of the game's plot, as they have both experienced great loss, and that loss drives their vengeance later in the game. When Zulf's zealotry ultimately causes the other Ura to turn on him, the Kid is forced to make a choice: continue with his revenge, or abandon his ultimate weapon and save Zulf, leaving himself defenseless in the process. Interestingly, almost all players decide to save Zulf. They are rewarded with a scene where the Ura notice the Kid's decision and slowly stop attacking him. I don't know what happens if you don't decide to save him. I never made that decision.

The ultimate decision comes down not to vengeance or loss, but to Ruck's regret vs. Zia's hope. If you activate the Bastion, will the Calamity be prevented? There's a chance of it happening again, but is the attempt to prevent it worth that cost? Or should we just accept the past as it is, break free of the cycle of tragedy, and try to move on? The decision is left to the Kid, and consequently, the player.

All these themes, all these nuances of story--they're powerful because they're not explicit. They're lurking just below the surface, and while the game seems to take a definite stance on several of the questions it raises, it also invites the players to decide for themselves. Some characters aren't exactly right, but Bastion never gives you the impression that they're wrong. The game invites you to become the Kid and to make your own decision. I think that's the thing that left such a strong impression on me: that it invited me to question the choices I made, and then offer suggestions rather than answers.

To close, here's Zia's theme, since it's beautiful. Check out the rest of the soundtrack too, as it is equally marvelous.

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