"Proper story's supposed to start at the beginning. Ain't so simple with this one...."
—-> Extremely brief aside: A lot of the time I’m going to want to talk from the view of the player. Sometimes that involves the use of pronouns. I’m going to use “he” exclusively here. I know, love, and constantly support the fact that girls play video games too. In the interest of clarity and brevity, however, I’m going to stick to “he”. Feel free to mentally replace “he” with whatever pronoun makes you most comfortable were you the one playing the game. SMOKEBOMB <—-
Winter break last year found me with a newly-earned Musical Director position and a lot of time on my hands. Between arranging new music and the various holidays I needed to find something to distract myself. The answer to my problem was fairly simple and may even be already evident to some – Gamer + Too Much Time + Winter Break = Steam Winter Sale! For an unbelievably low price I acquired the full Bioshock series, an in-development game called Particulars, Tower Wars, and one other game. A game that I purchased for $2.99, and that is now in my favorite games of all time.
That game is Bastion.
A friend recommended Bastion to me, but I never could have known just how much of an impact it would have on me. Not only is Bastion an amazing game and enjoyable experience, but the story is more complex and thought provoking than most books I read throughout high school. Despite the narrator’s haunting warning that opens the game, I’ll try to start at my beginning with Bastion.
After waiting for my sluggish internet to download the game, I immediately sat myself down with a mug of hot chocolate and booted it up. My first impression was of the art – Bastion is beautiful.
The art style uses a bright palate to paint exquisite texture throughout the scene, but mist encroaching at the borders gives a sense of mystery and intrigue. The pail and lantern in the foreground imply a setting somewhere between the medieval and the renaissance eras. The font is bold but has many interesting twists and branches off of the main letters. Finally, you may not have noticed, but the arch on which the title structure is supported is floating in mid air – its support pillars are not attached to anything. Other islands float in the background, solidifying the fact that, in the world of Bastion, things are for some reason floating. I assumed from the title sequence this implied the existence of magic, of some sort. I was wrong.
So press any key, start a new game. Here’s the first 15 minutes of the game (which I can show without fear of spoiling things because of how deep the game goes). Watch as far as you care to, though for the sake of things I’m going to discuss watch at least through the first two minutes.
My impression of Bastion as a joyous, magical setting was shattered from the very first low, discordant chord. The gritty narrator continues the feel with a quote that sets a mysterious and frightening undertone. Let’s break down that opening quote a little.
“Proper story’s supposed to start with the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one… “
So we learn a couple things: The narrator is (or believes he is) an experienced storyteller, this story isn’t any old story, nor will its recalling start at the beginning. Already we’re being thrown into a setting where the player is aware that there are details kept from him, to be filled in on the narrator’s whim.
“… Now here’s a kid whose whole world got all twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky.”
After quickly inferring that the kid mentioned is the only human on screen (and probably the main playable character of the game), the player immediately sympathizes with the kid. He’s asleep on a bed, a small piece of solid ground surrounded by a lucid, vast abyss. The kid doesn’t seem to know any more than us about why the world is this way, where he is or what happened. Setting the scene in this way does something very important for the game. Explaining what important idea this accomplishes requires a game design tangent. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to Bastion
Game Design Key Point – Main Character Empathy – One key thing to do when opening a game is make sure your main character is someone the player wants to be or to see progress (depending on the point of view). One example where this doesn’t go well is in Metroid Prime. [Disclaimer: I love Metroid Prime and will probably gush about it in a future post. This, however, is one of its few rough spots.] Very quickly after meeting Samus Aran, the infamous bounty hunter, we watch her stand still for a good three seconds while a bridge explodes behind her. This hurls you against a wall and causes you to lose all of your powerups. I (at age 14) was quite literally shaking the controller and yelling “MOVE” at the TV during this cutscene. This is a character who (supposedly) has lightning reflexes, has survived hundreds of near-death encounters and will go on to survive a thousand more. The idea that she can’t move out of the way of a slowly advancing series of explosions is forced and unconvincing, and a lame way to lose all of your abilities. It makes the player lose interest in Samus’ plight, and thus the plot of the game.
Notably, this is a challenge that games have to face that other entertainment mediums (books, movies) don’t. Even if you don’t like the main character in a novel, you can’t re-write his or her dialog. The very best you can do is put the book down and give up. You can’t re-write the scripted plot of a video game either, but you feel that you are the one leading it. When you have a book in your hand, the plot is set out for you the reader in a very visible fashion. Were you to flip to the final page, you would read the end of the plot, no questions asked. From the very moment you pick up the book its progression is set. In good, non-open-world games, the player moves the main character through the plot in a way that should feel natural and justified. He should feel as though he as the main character is leading the plot, not a hopeless puppet who is straining against his boundaries at every turn. Good luck convincing your player to advance the plot by playing your game (a task that may take quite a lot of effort on the player’s part) if they don’t like where it’s going.
Bastion, however, hits this nail right on the head. From the very first time the player meets the kid, you need to see him succeed because you share a common goal: to understand. Both the player and the kid need to know why the world is a mess of floating pieces of earth and stone. In only two narrated sentences, Bastion forges a bond through the fourth wall that persists through the entire game. You, the player, are the kid. With all of his desires, fears, and determinations.
Back to the game! If you watched the video, you’ve noticed that there’s a few seconds where nothing happens. Though the narrator has fallen silent, the music continues playing. This is because, though the player hasn’t realized it yet, the cutscene has ended, seamlessly transitioning into the game itself. Nothing will happen until the player hits any of the arrow keys, at which point the narrator continues…
“He gets up. Sets off for the Bastion, where everyone agreed to go in case of trouble”
Looks are deceiving: This isn’t a cutscene. The narrator is continuing to narrate, even though the game has begun. He’ll continue to narrate the kid’s actions throughout the game, occasionally adding his own input. To my knowledge, no game before Bastion has ever been narrated in this continual and complete fashion. One more thing that makes Bastion unique.
As the player begins to move to the right – there’s nowhere else to go – ground shoots up from the bottom of the screen to form a pathway. The narrator acknowledges this, showing that it’s a real part of the universe, not just a design style. Continuing along the path nets the player the Cael Hammer, the first iconic weapon of the game. The swing animations do a wonderful job of showing off the hammer’s weight and unwieldiness, but also its brutal power. A little further in, and we get two key pieces of plot information from the narrator:
“He sees what’s left of the Rippling Walls – years of work undone in an instant… In the Calamity”
The first isn’t shocking, given that the name of the current location was briefly floated over the screen at the start of the game. These are, apparently, the rippling walls. Even that, though, deserves study. Walls are only built when there is need to keep something, or someone, out. Our kid is on top of the wall – thus likely a member of the society that built, maintained, and enforced it. It was a long and hard task to build the wall, and now it’s in shambles.
Because of the Calamity.
For some reason, something somewhere went seriously seriously wrong. Wrong enough that massive wall built over the course of years is now floating chunks of stone in the sky. Wrong enough that the kid, a occupant of that very wall, is left alone on its remnants with not another soul, living or dead, in sight.
How? Why? If you weren’t empathizing with the kid’s need to know, to understand, to seek an explanation: You are now.
I want to stop here for a couple reasons, chief among them being length. I also want to give anyone who is interested a chance to play the game for themselves. I can analyze all I like about my love for Bastion, but the greatest beauty of a video game is that you can only truly experience it if you play it for yourself. It’s available on Steam right now for all major computer operating systems and has mild hardware requirements. I’ll resume in The End of the World Part 2 some time this week. Unlike this analysis, in part 2 I’ll be taking a more broad look on how the narration, music, and level design define the feel of the game and are intertwined with the plot. I won’t be giving any more plot past this opening sequence because I don’t want to spoil anything at all for would-be players.
All I’ll say is that the end of the game involves two choices. The weight of the world rests on the kid’s and your shoulders.