Bastion and Storytelling (or One Good Reason Why There's Nothing Wrong With Games Being Games)
Bastion is a game every indie gamer should have, at the very least, heard of by now. It's that one game. The one your friends won't stop talking about. The one everyone on the internet seems to universally love. The one game that brings us all together and bids us to sing our songs of peace and love to the gods of gaming and wish for a plentiful harvest come next gaming season.
But why? How can a game be so revered by so many people? When games like Dear Esther (the "walk-through book") and Proteus (acclaimed for its ambience and "emergent storytelling"), games that seemed to shake the very definition of "video game" to the core have received at best an ambiguous response in gaming communities, how did a 2D brawler receive so much praise?
Here's why: Because gamers don't want to be guinea pigs. Gamers like to play games. They want to be told a story, of course, but the game should not suffer because of it. Video games, in the end, are just another medium of storytelling. It can be symbolic, or it can be direct, but it is a story nonetheless.Supergiant Games, creators of Bastion, understood that perfectly, and the end result was the paragon of immersive storytelling in games, even if there are some small problems to iron out.
Consider this a warning: This text contains spoilers for the main storyline, and those who don't know Bastion's main storyline will not be able to understand a lot of what is said here. I recommend that you play the game, or, at the very least, watch a playthrough before continuing.
The story in Bastion isn't explicitly shown--it's narrated. But not through disruptive text on the screen. The narration comes from a disembodied, weary, soothing voice. The player, shortly after starting the game, comes to know the voice belongs a character named Rucks. The Narrator never directly speaks to the player in the game world, which some may find odd. He is simply telling a story about "The Kid", and you're listening.
Proper story's supposed to start at the beginning
Right from the beginning, the game pulls all the stops to get the player ready for the later levels. There has been a Calamity, which apparently made the entire world rip itself apart and now the nation of Caelondia is no more. Rucks informs the player that cores (batteries for the Bastion, which were split between different cities to prevent misuse) are needed in order to bring the Bastion, the refuge for survivors of the calamity, to its full potential. It's all tastefully done, but where's the greatness I've heard so much about?
And here's where the genius kicks in. The first half of Bastion is just simple fetch quests. The player goes to a place to get a core, power up the Bastion, get a new building, and do it all over again. But these fetch quests are so stylized and immersive that the player simply doesn't realize it. The game could be just a simple Brawler, but the Narrator gives power to your actions. You're not just moving up the stairs to get closer to the core, you're "pressing on to higher ground." You didn't just accidentally fall off the world while walking, the Narrator was just trying to test you to see if you were paying attention by saying outrageous things.
Every level has its own story behind it, and even the monsters trying to kill you can seem charming at times when Rucks describes them. Along the way, the player encounters many artifacts and creatures, which become part of the Bastion's population. Needless to say, everything's peachy keen in the Bastion and you're ready to kick some monster butt.
Ain't so simple with this one
You also find two human companions with mysterious pasts: Zia the Songteller and Zulf, the Ambassador of Peace. They are both Ura, an ethnic group at odds with the Cael, to which Rucks and The Kid belong to. The Cael and the Ura had a big conflict some time ago, but it doesn't matter now. All is well. Until Zulf storms out in a fit of rage to God-Knows-Where, and leaves Zia rather disturbed. She won't say why, though.
The first half ends rather intensely, and the result is a new friend turning into a new enemy, the disappearance of the second survivor, a new goal, and the possible loss of some of your new friends you picked up along the way. Did the game just make you form a completely voluntary connection with a companion just to make you fight in order to protect it? You bet it did.
The second half of the game is bigger than the first.
For the second half, the player has to journey through many different environments, not just cities. And this time, not in search of cores, but in search of a cure to the Bastion's ailment. The game creates conflict and promises an explanation.
By this time, you're probably becoming bored of killing the same old monsters. So the game gives you new monsters with new mechanics to figure out, along with Rucks's delightful description of their weaknesses and strengths. But the new monsters here aren't just an excuse for content, they're designed to show the story of the world rather than tell it directly.
The fact that in the cities you were fighting soft, fluffy, creatures with varying sizes and out here in the forests you're fighting plants that shoot thorns, creatures with extra armor, and others that shoot fire gets the point across: life out here was not nearly as easy as it was in the cities. The Ura had it hard, and the Cael had it made for them. It isn't just the environments that are chaotic. The narration becomes more hectic as well.
Then the genius of the writer shows again.
Throughout the entire game, Rucks referred to the player as "The Kid". Why couldn't he just say "you"? Because Rucks wasn't narrating the story to the kid. Rucks was narrating the story to Zia, the Songteller. Why? Because it turns out Zia is hiding a dark secret: her father is responsible for the creation of the weapon that brough the Calamity upon the world.
As you proceed, you can't help but feel uneasy. Killing monsters is one thing, but towards the end you're left killing a good number of people. Rucks tries to describe it as your duty, something that needed to be done for the good of the survivors. It's nothing personal, but Zulf wants to kill you and you have to stop him. Never mind the fact that it was your government responsible for the Calamity, you never claimed to want it, so why should he want to kill you?
It is at this point in the game that most players had this realization:
The game has successfully managed to convey its message.
The entire game has one message. War is futile. Throughout the entire game, you're left wondering why this happened, and how it happened. In the end, it was all one government's plan to commit genocide, and the subsequent failure of the plan, that led to an apocalyptic world. And the killing didn't end there. The Ura sought retaliation. But retaliation against who? Against the Cael? Were they planning to stoop down to the level of the Caelondian government?
And after all that, when you sit back and look at it, the whole thing is just a pointless spiral into chaos. And this is what the game tries to tell you. When the Ura first attack, you fight back believing they are evil. Later, as you find out more and more about the Calamity, fighting the Ura starts to seem hopeless.
There is nothing wrong with games.
There's something wrong with the way we separate the story and the gameplay. Would this experience have been possible if Bastion had been a simple experimental game? Just a walkthrough story with narration? Could you translate the intensity and chaos of an in-game fight into words? Would you feel unease when "The Kid", this detached unrelatable character, kills people?
But on the reverse, what if Bastion had no voiceovers, and it was simple text on a screen as you killed monsters? Would it still feel as coherent? Would your actions have the same power if instead of a narrator you simply had text describing what you did?
What if Bastion had been one of today's mainstream games and had cut scenes telling us what happens between levels? Would it have been as immersive?
And this is why there's nothing wrong with games being games. While a lot of people clamor that we need to "think outside the box" and find new ways to tell stories and experiment, Bastion did just fine in the box. Because without the gameplay, Bastion is a good, surreal fantasy story; and without its narration, it's a cute game about falling off the edge of the world. Maybe before thinking outside the box, we need to find out its dimensions. It might be bigger than you think. And it might not be all that bad.
All pictures belong to Supergiant Games.