Technically Not Indie Time: Bastion (part 2)

[Read part one here]

I have now finished Bastion, and my opinion of the game has only improved. The second half did not disappoint and the ending is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. I recommend it in the highest terms. After I finished the game I read some pieces that others had written about it and was surprised to find that many players are turned off by the graphical style. I personally think Bastion is gorgeous, but if you are not a fan of the visuals I strongly urge you to try the free demo available on Steam (you can also purchase the full game there). It seems that many players who did not think they would like the game based on its looks actually ended up loving it.

I’m going to spend some time discussing the game’s narrative design, which I will try to keep as spoiler-free as possible. But the main point is that if you haven’t played Bastion yet, you really should. Here’s that Steam link again. You can also play the game on Xbox Live Arcade.

OK, let’s talk about the narrative.

As I said in part one, the real reason to play Bastion is to experience its world and story. The gameplay is solid too, but it’s nothing revolutionary; what’s really interesting about Bastion is the clever use of narration coupled with strong writing and visual design. So while you’re running around and hitting enemies, there’s a much greater import to it than you’ll find in other games.

The narration is really the key here. Voice actor Logan Cunningham is fantastic, but, crucially, so is the writing and pacing of the dialogue. In a recent interview (WARNING: Interview contains spoilers!), Bastion writer Greg Kasavin discusses how the narration allowed the storytelling to match with the player’s pace. Rather than interrupting the game with lots of text or cinematics, the storytelling happens during play, and even reacts to the player’s actions as they occur. Certain critical pieces of narration are triggered by reaching certain points in the game’s levels, but the writing is such that the pauses between these lines never quite become awkward, so if the player is taking a lot of time before moving on, that’s fine. I was waiting for a moment when the narration breaks down; not only did this moment never come, but the use of narration actually gets even more imaginative and effective in the later parts of the game. As a result, I found myself really caring about the characters and events in the game, and still thinking about them days after reaching the excellent ending.

This got me thinking about the debate over narrative in games which has become more prominent lately. A lot of developers are arguing that games as a medium should be supporting different kinds of narratives than we see in other media. For example, a lot of games today tell linear stories, which are quite similar to films or books. You begin the story, are funneled through a linear plotline filled with action and excitement, and then reach the end. Games like the Half-Life or Modern Warfare series work in this way. The aforementioned developers would argue that this is not an effective use of the interactivity inherent in games. They would point instead to other recent games, like Minecraft or maybe even Dwarf Fortress, which provide simulated worlds in which the player is free to create his or her own stories. And these stories really can be just as compelling, if not more so, than the ones pre-written for linear action games or role-playing games; if you don’t believe me, just read a few Dwarf Fortress diaries.

Of course, I am simplifying this debate; clearly there are many games that lie between these two styles. But the prevailing argument is that user-generated narratives and emergent gameplay will reveal the true strengths of games as a medium for storytelling.

But then there’s Bastion. Bastion has a linear story, with the exception of a few choices the player can make. And yet, Bastion would not work nearly as well if it were a film or a book. If Bastion were merely well written, then perhaps it would. But Bastion’s narrative is more than well written, it’s designed to include the player in events, even if those events are prescribed. The player truly feels like a participant rather than an observer. It’s a lot of little things in combination that make this work: the way the narration responds to actions that the player makes, even if those actions have no impact on the overall plot. The way the narration enables exposition without ever taking control away from the player (you’d be surprised how critical this is!). And some of that more imaginative use of narration that I can’t talk about for fear of spoilers. These things make the player feel like part of the story, an active contributor with a personal stake in the world, rather than someone merely following the tale.

Cynics would say that this is just an illusion, but that’s the thing: all games are illusions. They’re colored lights moving on our screens and sound waves coming out of our speakers. The only thing that matters is how good those illusions are. I think that Bastion proves that the interactive nature of games can be used to enhance traditional, linear narratives to great effect, drawing the player into the story in a way that can’t be achieved in non-interactive media. This may seem more subtle than examples of user-generated stories, but it’s important that we don’t lose sight of it. User-generated content is great, but I think those that argue against linear narratives in games are wrong; the best ones, like Bastion, are just as worthy examples of the potential of games as a medium as Minecraft is.

Anyway, enough about the narrative. Before I wrap up, Bastion’s soundtrack deserves another mention. It’s so good that I immediately went and bought it after I finished the game. In part one I discussed the influence from westerns, but there’s also some electronic stuff and eastern motifs in there that create quite a mix. And of course, it all fits the game perfectly. Very well done.

Finally, I have one last point about the gameplay. I’ve been saying that the gameplay is not the reason to play Bastion, and that’s true, but it also sells the gameplay a bit short. While it isn’t as imaginative as the other elements in the game, it’s very solid. When I was reading other pieces about Bastion I saw that players couldn’t reach any consensus about their favorite weapons. This is a testament to how great the design is; each weapon has its own characteristics but none is obviously superior; they simply serve different playstyles. I experimented with many combinations before settling on my favorites at the end of the game, but others had completely different picks. The upgrade system lets the player really tweak things for their favorite playstyle too. Enemy encounters stay fresh as the game progresses, never sticking to one thing long enough to become stale. Plus there are plenty of optional challenges and bonuses to pursue for those so inclined.

In summary, Bastion really is excellent. It’s most notable for its narrative and audio design, but those less interested in the story will find solid core gameplay as well. It’s beautiful, memorable, has a really great ending, and it will make you care about it in a way you’ve likely not experienced in a long time, if ever. And it only costs fifteen dollars. You owe it to yourself to play it.

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