There’s a bit of a built-in problem to Videodrone’s wide focus, but it’s one that I think any videogame analyst is going to face. Namely, you’re going to have to go over already tilled ground. Some games are going to be relatively un-examined — Verreciel from last week was a great example — and most very new games are going to be blank slates, outside of “should I buy this” style rating guides. So there’s definitely uncharted waters. But that doesn’t really free me from talking about games that a lot of people have written about. Games like Bastion.
Bastion is a textbook example of a game — like Braid or Cave Story — that encourages critical analysis off the bat. These games are independently produced, but with an eye toward playability. They don’t have the conceptual difficulty or mechanical frustration we saw in our iOS games, nor do they aim for the polish of a Triple-A title like a Call of Duty or a Final Fantasy. Generally low-res in spirit if not always in fact, and premised on simple mechanics that hearken back to older platformers, these indie games basically enter the market first because they are tremendously fun to play, and then second because beneath the playability, there’s some deeper artistic or philosophical statement.
For Bastion, the playability comes as an update of Zelda-style top-down platforming, as the camera swivels to a 2.5 person level, diagonally revealing the depth of the level while maintaining the spirit of the top-down spectrum. And like the Legend of Zelda that I’d argue inspires Bastion most, the game involves a lot of hack-and-slash, using ranged and up-close weapons to destroy enemies, surrounding areas, plants, etc, etc. So, the game at its core is about finding secrets, beating colorful enemies, and collecting shards that “rebuild” the Bastion, the central hub of the game that will ameliorate the “Calamity” that occurs just before the game starts.
The Calamity is where the artistry of the game comes in. Your character — the Cormac McCarthian “Kid” — wanders through an already destroyed world, not entirely sure where to go except forward. As you walk forward, pieces of stone, grass, earth, etc fill in before you, creating paths through the levels and onward through the narrative as well. The Kid’s ability to recreate the destroyed land around him is coupled with The Stranger’s or Rucks’ narration, which overlays the entirety of the game, often in past tense. So the game, despite being played in real-time, takes on the appearance of a painting being constructed bit by bit (helped along by the game’s fully painted backgrounds): the Kid has already done everything you’re doing, and Rucks is retelling it as you perform the recursive actions of his story.
Confusing as this may be, the game reaffirms the logic in its final moments, after the Kid enters the last area of the game. Rucks stops telling the story of the game, and simply begins telling stories to his audience, who we finally discover is Zia, one of the few survivors of the Calamity. It is at this point in the story that the Kid gets choices — first, whether or not to save the man who “betrayed” the survivors, Zulf, and second whether to “Restore” the world before the Calamity or whether to use the Bastion to “escape” and move to a new world together with the other survivors. Notable also is the introduction of a second voice, as we finally hear Zia’s voice as well. At the moment of the first choice, we are shocked into a present moment, as opposed to a reflective past, and we realize the monolingual, retrospective nature of the game in a flash. Bastion, despite being a videogame with clear win-and-loss conditions, is just a long, winding story told by a master storyteller.
In this way, Bastion hits on some of the themes we’ve been uncovering a bit in past Videodrones, specifically the ways in which games ape or emblematize different ways of consuming media. Sunless Sea was like reading, Starseed Pilgrim like writing, and now Bastion is like storytelling. I think this is probably not a coincidence. Independent games, particularly, are becoming more and more aware of their strange relationship to art and are responding to their literary forbears in much the same way that games like Mario Paint or Rez responded to visual arts. After all, making and telling a story are interactive arts in their own way, if also solitary. The single-player videogame form gives the illusion of communion with others — your friends in the Calamity — but ultimately gives as much companionship as does a blank Word document. Or, in the case of the storyteller, an expectant audience.
The nature of audience here is important, too, as Bastion keys in on the anxiety of games like Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line that the player is actually not doing a good thing. The Calamity, we find, was a weapon developed by Rucks and people like Rucks to kill of their ethnic enemy, the Ura, if need be. And the game directs you into killing off even more Ura in the interest of restoring the world that, it should be said, created the Calamity in the first place. It does not exactly inspire a lot of confidence, and the game is deeply aware of this. But Rucks first gives the Kid a sense of self-justification, and then follows with his own self-justification while he tells stories to Zia at the end of the game. It is only once the narrative is broken when the Kid is given choices that we realize Rucks is no omniscient narrator. All the flaws that are implied in the structure of his story are as much personal failings as narrative irony.
I think that this narrative irony is why Bastion is such a popular target for analysis. I’ll admit that I did not read up on what other people thought of Bastion, so it’s possible I’m retreading old ground. But like Rucks’ narrative as it loops back and forth — and there’s a very intriguing reading of the game I can make through the lens of Tristram Shandy if you want to get real crazy — new insights often appear to be older than they are, and vice versa. If Bastion teaches us anything about storytelling, it’s that it remains a communal practice even when the narrator is giving a monologue. The audience gives expectation, lives the story bit by bit, recreates it and ultimately extends beyond its boundaries, brick by brick. Whether this ends with an ethical revision of the narrative or the introduction of choice or both, Bastion certainly emblematizes the process, and it’s that that is so impressive about the experience.
Anyway, as Rucks might say, There’s more to say here, but ah well, we’re out of time. See ya for the next one.