On Bastion

So I didn’t like Bastion the first time that I tried it. It was last summer, I think, when the demo showed up on Live. I read all of the push about the game, about how it was beautiful, about loss and gain, and that the Narrator was adaptive to what the player did. All of that sounded great. I downloaded the demo, played the thirty minutes or so that was included, and then deleted the demo. I didn’t like that I fell off the bloody map trying to dodge cheap enemies over and over. I didn’t like my shitty hammer. I wasn’t good at blocking (this is a common thing for me across all games). I dismissed it and went back to playing whatever the hell I was playing at the time.

That isn’t the end of my Bastion story, though. Last week, Humble Indie Bundle V came out, and all my dreams came true. You see, I am cheap. Way cheap. It is super-rare for me to buy a game on launch day–I can think of three in the past year that I have purchased on launch (MF 3, ME 3, and Dear Esther). I will normally wait for some kind of sale to buy most titles, be they AAA or indie or whatever. Of the new Humble Bundle games, the only one I owned was Amnesia, which I played about ten minutes of and turned off in a joint boredom and complete terror. So I paid my $10 and went indie, getting Bastion as part of the sweet deal.

Maybe I’ve grown as a person. Maybe I like the PC controls more than I like the Xbox controller. In any case, something clicked with me this time, and I just spent four hours of my life playing through Bastion. I don’t have anything particularly amazing to say, but I do have some thoughts that I will enumerate below. I can say here, right at the top, that I liked the game. If all you want from this is my stamp of approval, [Y/N] text adventure style, then [Y].

As always, there are SPOILERS for the game here.

1. I was perplexed by this moment. It is fairly early in the game, maybe a quarter through. The Calamity, a disaster that destroyed an entire civilization, did so by fracturing the ground and reducing the citizens to ashes. The protagonist, known as The Kid, is searching for things called Cores in order to render The Bastion powerful. The Bastion is a giant machine-space that serves as the central hub for all the game’s missions. What sets me off about this is that the people, in their dying moments, thought that the Core might save them. It didn’t, of course, and in order to get to the Core the player has to smash through these ashes. Before this moment, the ever-present Narrator told you the names of numerous victims of The Calamity that The Kid had come upon. Smashing through these people would be difficult for The Kid, since he knew them, but for me it was merely another click in a series of clicks. I’m not invoking player action versus diegetic action to talk about why story is bad in games (there is too much of that shit already). Rather, this is a brilliant moment in the game’s design. The Kid, so enveloped by his mission, will do anything to get to the Core and make sure it reaches The Bastion.

2. The world is very much alive in Bastion. Nonhuman objects have agency and presence attached to both their physical, material being and their “spirit” or something like it. For example, Nellie is a skybarge who is very much treated like she is alive. She takes off and moves on her own, and when she dies in flames, the music gets sad. Nellie is a character as much as anything else. Similarly, a rail line in a later level is described in the same way. We talk about video games as being ways of telling new stories or at least allowing people to branch out into new narrative spaces–here is a game where nonhuman objects are given agency and action, in a universe where the physical laws allow that to happen. It is pretty special.

Additionally, there was also a moment of sadness about the nonhuman here. It is revealed in quarry level that the Cores and Shards are rocks with memories, and while it isn’t stated explicitly, I took that to mean that the power source of the Cores comes from the vitality of the stones. The inability to acknowledge that those stones might not want to live the life they have been sold into is interesting (and probably something for an object-oriented ethicist who cares about video games to cite as an example).

3. That said, there is some fucked-up logic going on in one stage of the game. When searching for a Shard, which is a powerful artifact thing, it is explained by the Narrator that the animals of the wilderness have decided to make their own Bastion. They need objects of power in the same way that The Kid does. So the player has to go in and take it from the animals, which really just means committing mass murder against them so you can steal an artifact that is, by all rights, totally theirs. This is the justification that that Narrator gives for the invasion (thanks to this script for the whole thing):

There’s no more mountains now…there’s no place left for the beasts of the wild to go. So they figure they’ll hold out right here, on a slab a’ mountain the calamity forgot. We only found their little lair ’cause they found themselves a little shard. The creatures of the wild, they’ve been buildin’ a Bastion of their own. but they ain’t yet prepared for any company. They even drag their children into this. Best things we can do for those beasts right now, is put ’em down. Quick and clean. Look at it this way, it’s either them or us…but if we win, they win too. Our Bastion is everybody’s game, not just ours. Unfortunately, there’s no explainin’ that to a simple beast. Those beasts been hard at work fixin’ up the place. They’ve rounded up their survivors just like we have. They’ve been searchin’ for cores and shards, just like we have. Maybe they’ve thought about turnin’ back, just like we have…we just really need their shard. Kid got it fair and square. He don’t need to keep tangoin’ with all those things. He’s done what’s best for ’em, don’t you worry…

4. That isn’t the only thing I felt was problematic about the story, though. As you get further along in the game, it is revealed that The Calamity was caused by an attempt to ethnically cleanse the world of the Ura people. They are essentially the indigenous group of the in-game New World. We find out through the Narrator that The Calamity was really an attempt to collapse the tunnel homes of the Ura people. Of the four characters who are in the game, two are Ura. The first one that The Kid finds, Zulf, seeks revenge after he realizes what caused The Calamity. He wants to make sure that it could never happen again, and he hopes to destroy The Bastion so that time could never be rolled back, which would also mean that the tragedy could never occur again. Zulf then becomes the villain, but I honestly didn’t understand. I totally think that if my people had undergone a genocide attempt that I would probably not want to roll back time to allow it to happen again. And again. And again.

5. The end of the game features two decisions. The first is a branch choice about the fate of Zulf: do you let him die or do you save him? I saved him. The second is a choice about the Bastion: do you want it to activate and roll time back to some time before The Calamity or do you want to blow up the Cores and fly away? I went with the second one. It seemed like the most ethical. It meant that the Cores were no longer slaves and that the technology that enabled ethnic genocide was lost forever.

I enjoyed Bastion. I think that it did a great job of blending gameplay and story together (I agree with Yahtzee on basically all points about the game). It was retro-feeling in its simplicity. I’m kind of worded-out now.

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