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Set Sail, Come Home

By (November 1, 2011) 4 Comments


Supergiant Games

Had it not been for a timely recommendation, I might never have played Bastion. At first glance I would have, foolishly, discounted it. As a reviewer and an academic, I am drawn to the evidently complex, the obviously mature and – shamefully – the biggest, most well advertised titles. Bastion, produced by seven-person developer Supergiant Games, with its hack-and-blast action-RPG simplicity, its 10+ ESRB age appropriateness rating, was almost certainly destined to slip by my notice.

Then the recommendation came, and when I pressed my friend for the reasoning behind it, I was told that its storytelling was ‘subtle’. Too subtle, in fact, to properly describe. ‘Just the art and the music and the story- everything’. ‘Subtle’ was the word. How could I not investigate?

“Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning.”

The truism only has power when, paradoxically, it’s untrue. The expectation, upon hearing or reading such a phrase, is that the order of narrative is about to be played with. And this, the opening line of Bastion’s persistent narrator – a smokey voiced old soul by the name of Rucks – proves no disappointment. Bastion is a tale with no beginning, and only one clear end, and in the process of its telling it undoes and remakes a world. Or does it remake and then undo the world? The specifics are difficult to convey. The effect is subtle.
Not that there is anything difficult to understand about the game itself. Bastion is a third person hack-and-slash RPG, a relatively simple game that involves navigating hazards while fighting groups of baddies, gaining levels and unlocking more impressive powers. The story is set in Caelondia – pronounced say-lawn-dee-ah – formerly a city of wealth and wonders, now a land torn apart. Worlds were destroyed, new worlds born, old prejudices and grievances played out on the too-often fatal stage of history. I set sail. I came home.

Taking on the role of the ‘the Kid’ – a white-haired, silent, stoic little protagonist – the player carves a path through the remnants of a shattered world, riding the winds from island to floating island, waging a war of survival while suspended over a lushly painted, cataclysmic landscape – the end result of the ominous ‘Calamity’, the disaster that sits at the heart of the game’s events. The Kid, motivated by the insistent narration of Rucks, gathers crystalline cores and shards, bringing them back to home base – the titular Bastion – to rebuild it, adding structures that expand gameplay: an arsenal allows for a wide selection of weapons, a forge lets you upgrade those weapons, a distillery provides ability-enhancing potables, a memorial allows you to complete tasks of remembrance to honor the many killed by the Calamity, a shrine to the gods invites deadly challenge in hopes of greater rewards.

The players can modify their gameplay style by selecting preferred drinks at the distillery, and choosing and upgrading the weapons in their arsenal: you can engage with enemies at close range with your hammer or machete, or keep your distance as you pick them off with an army carbine or even a mortar. Once you learn the basics of attack and defense it becomes more a matter of defining one’s own preferred gameplay style, one’s favorite brand of havoc. I, for example, took inspiration from the game’s distinct (but not exclusive) ‘Wild West’ flavor, favoring a pair of six shooters and a rifle as I braved the wilderness. On the level of enjoyable gameplay, Bastion delivers. Simplicity merges with variety, purpose with preference to create a game that, as its rating suggests, really can be played by anyone.

It’s by viewing it through this lens, that of the ‘everyone’ game, that the storytelling choices of Bastion become most interesting, most subtle. Typically the moral universes of games, especially those designed for the young, are simplistic, Manichean ones. Good guys are good, and you are one of them. Bad guys are bad, and that’s why you need to destroy them. More often than not, enemy characters are denied all but sparsest of subjectivities. The common practice of game enemies being undead – skeletons, zombies, ghosts – or other non-conscious and definitively anti-human beings – robots, insects, aliens, monsters – is an attempt to avoid the problems that would arise from fighting enemies who seem too human. This logic extends even to adult gaming, and film representation; what is the Nazi in Indiana Jones or Wolfenstein 3D but the non-human human, a human whose evil is certain enough to a player or viewer that killing them is not just permissible but morally necessary.

Bastion on the other hand, refuses to hide behind such conveniences. The narrative voice doesn’t cover up the complexities of game violence – it highlights them. And the narrative voice is an integral element of the game’s story. Ruck’s voice pervades the game and provides commentary on and context for the player’s actions, often remarking upon events in a seemingly spontaneous way: if a player falls off the edge of the game’s terrain, Rucks might comment on how one has to watch one’s step. He is our only real source of exposition, the only voice clearly heard (outside of song) until the very end of the game, and this produces a sense of trust and reliance – storytellers are seductive like that.Yet, even as he praises the Kid’s heroism, even as he insists upon the necessity of the Kid’s (and thus the player’s) violence, Rucks routinely undercuts the moral simplicity of that violence.

An example: You arrive at Cinderblock Fort, the prison that once contained the city of Caelondia’s malcontents. You find a scrap musket, the weapon used by Caelondia’s marshals, an agency of state power that helped restore order after a war. At least the Marshals left the Kid a parting gift, Rucks says, referring to the weapon, Something the Windbags just can’t handle.  Something that’ll punch clean through their greasy hides.  The Windbags – gaseous, hooded, non-human workers who served as the backbone of Caelondia’s industry – are the most populous enemy in this section of the game. And as the eighth, ninth, tenth gasfella falls to your attacks, Rucks continues: Windbags ain’t much different from normal folks.  All they want is a warm place to stay and a decent meal.

Wait a second – whose greasy hide was I punching through again?

This is just one such instance – there are many more. And while at no point (save one) is there the option to forgo violence, the disconnect grows not just between violence and its objects, but also between violence and its justification. Rucks, white-mustached and nearly omnipresent, is a relic of an old world that was – for all his nostalgia – also rife with violence. Bastion is a kind of fantasy Western, and the story of Western expansion and pioneer expansion is also necessarily one of racial brutality and exploitation. While there is no Trail of Tears as such in the Bastion universe, there is a Wounded Knee. The Caelondians, arriving from the mysterious ‘Homeland’ and building the Rippling Walls – to protect us against whatever’s out there; the elements; the wilds; the Ura – soon found themselves embroiled in a struggle with the native inhabitants, the dark-haired Ura. The place of contention is Point Lemaign, location of a railroad that was pivotal to the accumulation of Caelondia’s wealth. Ever wonder how Caelondia became the richest city in the world? Rucks says, Two words: Point Lemaign.

Trouble is, they Caelondians didn’t exactly ask the Ura for permission to build the railway, and once the train started carrying resources from the wilds to the wharfs, it shook the earth all the way down to the deep burrows where the Ura lived. This is grounds enough for a war, one that the Caelondians eventually win, but the scars of the conflict persist in the trials suffered by the Ura characters the Kid meets. Zulf, the first survivor the Kid meets outside of Rucks, is a war orphan, who was raised by a Caelondian missionary and arrives in the city to preach peaceful coexistence – an attempt met with initial resistance from the Caels and distrust from the Ura. Zia, the second survivor, is a city-born Ura musician whose father – a brilliant scientist – is blackmailed into serving the city’s elite thinkers – the Mancers – when his daughter is tricked by a Cael suitor into a false elopement and then framed for treason. Both are figures marked by racial violence, and also being points of potential reconciliation – Zulf loves the city, even gets engaged to a young Cael woman, and Zia’s own tragedy came from her willingness to trust a Cael who seemed to appreciate her native culture. Their presence, and their stories – both told through a series of ‘Reflections’, narrations paired with waves of enemies that occur in the mental space of ‘Who Knows Where’ – raise the question of how to resolve cycles of violence, a question as old as civilization; or, rather, as old as one group dubbing itself civilization at the expense of another’s claim to it.

The Mancers, it turns out, address just this question, but rather than embrace Zulf’s doctrine of co-existence, they concoct a diametrically opposed plan. To avoid future war, you must destroy your enemy utterly, they reason. So they plan to do just that: devise a weapon that will blast the Ura burrows from the depths of the earth up to the stars. This weapon, designed in part by Zia’s father, is the cause of the Calamity. Had it worked as intended, the Cael’s and the Mancers would have had final victory, at the cost of genocide. But Zia’s father sabotages the device, and rigged it to blow up in their faces, as Rucks puts it. Rucks has known all along – he’s held out on us, and on Zulf as well – however understandable his reasons might appear, the game’s entire ethical character hinges on this fact. All this time Rucks has insisted that the Bastion be completed, that it is the key to undoing the Calamity, and that all actions taken in the name of finishing it are thus justified. Our Bastion is everybody’s game, he insists. Yet the purpose of the Bastion becomes tangled as soon as we understand that it was really an escape clause built in case the Calamity went awry – which it did. No simple cure, no convenient miracle, the Bastion is part and parcel of the Mancers’ plans.

The Bastion is a back-up plan, in the most literal sense. As Rucks later reveals – only once he is ready of course – the function of the Bastion is to turn back the clock. He knows this because he designed it. Made to contain the City and the World Before the Calamity in microcosm, upon activation the Bastion will recreate that world perfectly, bringing everyone who is dead back to life – including those the Kid has killed on the path to restoration – and restoring the lives of the survivors as they were before everything came undone. Rucks, with a characteristic nostalgia, opines on the beauty of this mechanism. What if you could do it all again? Wouldn’t that be fine? Yet when pressed on whether or not undoing the Calamity will also prevent the chain of events that brought it about in the first place, he has no certain answer. The problem with a world reset button is that you can’t exactly test it, as Rucks points out.

If you do choose to reset the world – and it is a choice the player is given – you get your answer. The credits roll, the end theme plays, and we are treated to pictures of the characters back in their old lives. We see Zulf with his lovely young bride-to-be, Zia with her harp before a rapt audience, the Kid hard at work on the Rippling Walls, and Rucks, pouring over diagrams with an incomplete Bastion monument behind him. Which is to say: history repeats itself. The Bastion is, as we’ve established, a reaction to the Mancer’s genocidal plans, and this last image of Rucks once again at work tells us that the Calamity is similarly under development.

The cyclicality of events is driven home by the game’s replayability – your second run through the game is a sequel to the first. The story makes this clear – Ruck’s narration contains little symptoms: I feel like I’ve told this story a million times, he says during a second playing. And maybe he has. It is impossible to say if the first game was even, itself, the ‘first’. A proper story starts at the beginning, but the narrative Rucks draws us into has no definitive beginning, nor any certain end, only eternal recurrence, a cycle of crisis, conflict, and violence that reproduces itself endlessly.

But not quite. There is another option – evacuation. The Bastion can also serve as a vessel, a means of transit that the Kid and his companions can ride through the shattering of earth and sky, across wide seas and maybe even back to the homeland. This option finds its most eloquent support not from Rucks – whose narrative authority is so complete that he typically speaks for the other characters – but rather from Zia, who finally gets to speak for herself outside of song. Every moment I’d want to relive happened after the Calamity, she claims, not before.

It would have been more elegant for me to let history repeat and then, having learned from my error, chosen evacuation in my second playthrough. My ideological leanings, however, made me instantly embrace Zia’s preference. The old world is dead, torn apart by violence that was inherent to it – the eternal recurrence tells us that much. Caelondia’s history is, indeed, a nightmare from which the Calamity serves as the wake up call. Rucks’ attitude is essentially conservative, even reactionary: undo the damage, bring back the ‘good old days’, as if those days weren’t fraught with conflict and exploitation, as if the Calamity were some fluke or mistake rather than the historically necessary result of those conflicts and exploitations. Rucks is an old man, and perhaps embracing a new world seems too much for his frail heart, but Zia knows better, and so should we. The reward for her bravery is not ‘The End’ – the achievement that marks the choice of restoration – but rather ‘The Beginning’. That is, after all, where proper stories start.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.
I am indebted both to the team of Supergiant Games, whose speedy reply and cooperative attitude is precisely what one would hope from an independent gaming company, as well as to Imag, the transcriber whose site The Bastion Story is my source for all textual quotations.


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