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.