Saturday, July 30, 2011

I dig a hole, you build a wall

Bastion was the first game for this year’s Summer of the Arcade on Xbox Live. I love Summer of the Arcade - previous years have brought us Limbo and Braid, as well as Shadow Complex and Castle Crashers. Like all those titles, Bastion has become one of my favorite games of the year.

I will now take a second to politely inform you that major spoilers for Bastion follow. It’s a new game and the ending has become one of my favorite endings, so be warned that I am about to discuss the glorious ending in all its wonderful detail. If you haven’t finished the game yet, I’d suggest not continuing much further!

One of the great things about Bastion is the structure. On its surface the plot is a traditional “find the four magic MacGuffins”. If you played the game with the volume muted and subtitles turned off you could have a lot of fun, but it would be just another RPG. The combat is smooth thanks to a very agile roll that lets you dodge and pop up behind an enemy. The weapons are responsive and distinct with plenty of room to upgrade and customize them, and you have lots of control over difficulty beyond a simple Easy/Medium/Hard selection. The narration and music serves up so much, though, that it completely transforms the game.

You start off alone in a literally-broken world, with a disembodied voice narrating your actions. As you proceed, you find a trinket belonging to a lady-friend, implying she did not survive. Shortly after, you find the source of the voice. Another human! You are not alone after all! As you continue to travel, other people’s survival is hinted at: as one level collapses, the Narrator implies another human must have grabbed the MacGuffin. This implication is untrue in this case, but shortly afterwards you discover Zulf in The Gardens, where you must slip through winding alleys full of corpses embalmed in stone. The Narrator reads off the names of each of the deceased and a short sentence about what kind of people they were. This is another humanizing touch. It constructs a world and places Rucks and The Kid in it in relation to other people. Even smashing each statue to bits gives The Narrator a chance explain The Kid’s actions in relation to the world around him; in this case, anger and remorse that these people are gone and can never come back, even if their statues remained intact.

Finding Zia is even more heart-wrenching. The level’s music is nothing more than a looped melody in a minor key with some daunting lyrics (“One day that wall is gonna fall”), yet also some resolute and hopeful lyrics (“build that city on a hill”). The lyrics match the game’s motifs. The Shifting Walls are where The Kid starts the game, destroyed utterly by the Calamity, and The Bastion is being rebuilt by The Kid. As you return to the Bastion with Zia, the narrator even quotes the song back at her, “We’ll be there before too long”.

The Singer’s Song

This is all the first half of the game, which establishes the previous world and The Kid’s connections to it, giving the player plenty of opportunity to realize the human aspects of the story. Most games are content to just put a ruined building up and an audio clip or codex entry saying how sad it is, but Bastion gives a name and a face to almost every one of the dead you meet here. The few people you meet are never the ones you want to see (you can ask Zulf and Zia about the woman’s hairclip you found - the answers are not optimistic), but they are so sparse and important that you’re glad to see them anyway.

The second half of the game changes tone with the discovery of the Calamity’s origin. The Narrator doesn’t focus on human cost; he develops a steely edge as you leave the city and explore The Wilds. He draws comparisons between animals seeking MacGuffin #2 and the residents of Bastion about how both are just trying to survive, gathering around MacGuffins for comfort, and then says that the animals have to go if they stand between us and survival.

Or the penultimate act, where you track down the Ulra. Humans! Who exist! Remember how exciting that was in the first half of the game? Well, now you have to kill them. All of them. Rucks explicitly says it’s time for you to finish “what the Calamity started”, i.e. genocide. The game spends so much time building up the human aspect of this world, but Zulf’s discovery of the Calamity’s purpose looks at the inverted side of that equation. Humans are important and lovely and wonderful and we miss them when they’re gone, but they’re also scheming, paranoid, jealous, greedy warmongers. Now you are personally forced to put “vengeful” on that list too, otherwise you can’t turn back time to prevent the Calamity. As the player, I actually felt heartbroken about each and every Ulra I had to put down even as I felt compelled to keep going.

In the final level, this conflict comes to a head when you can either forgive Zulf or abandon him. To forgive him means to stop perpetrating the cycle of violence. To abandon him means keeping yourself armed and well-protected against the people who attacked you. I haven’t finished my second playthrough yet, but I chose to forgive. I picked up Zulf’s body and dragged him back to Bastion.

As you do, the Ulra continue attacking you while this song plays – calling back to Zia’s song, but altering it heavily to reflect the tension:

The End song. I don’t know the title.

The game mechanics are slightly modified at this point. The health bar and health potion trackers are gone, although the screen still flashes and fades out when you take damage, and the “Press Y to heal!” tip comes up above The Kid’s head. This makes you feel besieged, anxious and helpless as you can’t retaliate when carrying Zulf, although why would you, now that you’ve chosen forgiveness? Yet the lack of explicit indicators implies the exact number of health potions you have is no longer important, encouraging you to use as many as you need in order to survive as long as possible. The payoff is when the Ulra finally understand what you’re doing and stop attacking, silently watching as you prove the fighting is finally over. Now it’s time to see if you will restart the cycle, or embrace this broken, but promising new world.

nb: I’d be out of my mind if I didn’t give a shoutout to my blogger buddies who served as a sounding board for my opinions on this awesome game. So thanks Brendan and Kris who both came into my self-serving G+ thread to talk about their impressions of the game.


  1. Unfortunately, I didn't quite believe in that part of the ending. After you kill more than a hundred of their brothers and sisters, the Ulra stop attacking you and let you go because you're selflessly rescuing *one* of them, someone they consider a traitor no less?

    Yeah, right.

    Just a small blemish on an otherwise perfectly pitched experience, though.

  2. yeah i can dig finding that out of place. although in the game's defense they don't stop attacking right away - they only stop after it's apparent you will no longer retaliate now that you have what you came for. their decision to stop attacking is as much about making a conscious decision to break the cycle of violence as your decision to save Zulf is.

    Although this does remind me of another hole: Are the Gasbags sentient? They seem to be the only actors who you are cleared to slaughter without too much remorse. They even populate most of the training fields. Yet they hold positions such as "foreman", they have names, and they have clothes...

  3. Ah, getting goosebumps again just thinking of the ending.

    I was so focused on not-dying (I was assuming I still had a limited number of potions as I was dragging Zulf away... that I still felt like I could die is brilliant design on the game's behalf) that I didn't pay attention to the fact that the  Ura stopped attacking me. That gives it even more potency.

    I think another thing Bastion did superbly was to give every party a justification for fighting and for doing what they did. I *hate* stories with Bad Guys who fight Because They Are Bad. No one is bad. Everyone is a good guy from their own perspective, and Bastion realised that. Of cause, Bastion was able to express this with some simple exposition over the gameplay thanks to the narration, but it worked splendidly.

    What it meant was that it makes sense to me that the Ura would stop trying to kill me, and it made sense that they were trying to kill me in the first place. I, too, felt like I owed each murdered Ura an apology in a way I felt in few other games.

  4. one more thing I noticed: The Ura are the only enemies that leave corpses behind when you kill them. 

  5. I also chose forgive. One thing I noticed was that after all the Ulra stop firing at you, one of them resumes fire only to be struck down soon after by a superior standing behind them. Perfect addition.

    As for why the Ura stopped firing, I agree, they were amazed at the player's selflessness and courage (corny, but fine considering the moment), the fact that the player is carrying an enemy Ura through arrows and gunfire, even after betrayals and genocide.

    Another little thing I liked was if you go to Zia with the harp she dropped earlier, Rucks asks Zia if she dropped it on purpose, to see if the Kid would go after her. I have to say, even though Zia never even utters a word until the very end, I had a bit of a crush on that girl from then on. Yes, yes, a videogame character no less. I know. Still, a good touch on their part I think.

    Relating to gasfellas: it's hinted at in the game that all of the animals have some form of sentience; they collect cores, rally together and search for survivors, and ally with the player under certain circumstances. Birds have a superiority complex. Only the plants and turrets seem to have a lesser sentience. So yes, I think even the gasfellas have sentience is the game.

    Loved the whole experience. Already almost done with my second playthrough. I would like to inquire the developers as to why they chose Gods as dealers of difficulty in the game. Are they all agnostic? :P I kid.

  6. but squirts are used as target practice by the navy :| (which I guess is a weak justification of why Rucks never even mentions wholesale slaughter of gasfellas - Caeldonia views them as tools or pests, not as sentients.)

    Nels over at Above49 suggests the gods are giving you Herculean tasks ( which is a pretty useful way to think of it.

    also since I'm linking: totally kicked my ass in looking at some of the undertones and themes of the game. He argues that Zia isn't as sympathetic as you and I experienced. I didn't have a "crush" on her but her backstory (and Zulf's, jesus) were both p compelling arguments for forgiveness and moving forward. Then again I am philosophically predisposed to those sorts of things. 

  7. Zulf's was my favorite by far, in a sad sort of way of course.

    Definitely an interesting way of looking at those aspects.

    As for the slaughter of Gasfellas and whatnot, you could say it's in self-defense. If you walk up to them, they will try to kill you. They're also looking for cores and shards, so it's a 'necessary evil' to kill them when in the end you have the option to bring them all back anyways, if you chose to undo the Calamity. Same would go for the creatures of the wild and the Ura.

    Yes, yes, I know. A 'crush' on a fictional and digital character that doesn't even talk until the end is childish.

    Zia shows acceptance at the whole debacle, as the people who created the Calamity are all dead anyways, including her father. It's the perfect way to undo: you still take your hits and learn from the mistake, but you can rebuild whatever and wherever you want. Zulf on the other hand, is still at the anger stage of depression. His wife-to-be exploded into ashes right before his eyes. Zia didn't have to see any of her loved ones die right in front of her.