A Bastion of Emotion: Things that LastAugust 7, 2011
This is the second of a three-part series on what exactly makes the Xbox Live Arcade game Bastion one of the most affecting video gaming experiences since video gaming could be, you know, affecting. The first part mostly steered clear of spoiler territory. This part will do no such thing; if you’re playing Bastion, and you’re going to read this, I hope you’re getting close to the end. SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.
“The Kid” wakes up in a (presumably his) bed, surrounded by nothing. He gets up, as narrator Rucks helpfully tells us when we move the joystick for the first time, and he begins to rebuild the world. As he runs from place to place, the world appears under his feet. Fulfilling as this sounds, however, discovering and rebuilding the world of Bastion is a transient experience until you actually arrive at the Bastion itself. Your travels have a lasting impact on the Bastion, an impact you can see every time you return. You amass pets, trinkets, and buildings that help you prepare for each of your journeys into the world that once was.
The pets seem like the least important things there. A miniature gasbag (a “squirt”) spins around in a circle when you interact with it; an anklegator understands basic commands like “come” and “stay”. They serve no immediate or obvious purpose, existing only as toys in the tiny little hub town that you happen to be building.
Even so, it’s the pets that prime you for what’s to come.
There’s a reason that the storytellers over at Supergiant games have you wake up alone: When you’re alone, you haven’t had the chance to build an allegiance to anything. Bashing away at the many destructible parts of the world doesn’t feel like a problem, because it’s not your world at this point, it is simply a world. That goes double for the creatures in that world. “Self-defense”, you’ll plead, if pressed. They’ll kill you if you don’t kill them. And yet, sometimes, they become friendly. Some of them you can reason with via a special “attack”, turning them on each other. Eventually, a squirt becomes a pet, brought back to the Bastion for the sake of some semblance of company.
Here’s the point at which things begin to get complicated. Once you’ve domesticated a squirt, going off to destroy hundreds of other squirts is like owning and loving a dog at home while yelling things like “10 POINTS FOR LASSIE” when you’re a passenger in a car headed straight for someone’s beloved collie. There’s a little bit of sympathy for them all of a sudden, a twinge of “I’m sorry” as you hack them to powder. Even old, wise narrator Rucks contributes to this feeling, telling us at one point that these beasties “ain’t much different from you and me.” Not only can they be domesticated, they are slowly revealed to us as beings with feelings, and eventually motivations, and the sense that we are participating in a sort of systematic genocide only bubbles closer and closer to the surface.
Still, at least the baddies at the beginning of the game have the good grace to disappear when you kill them.
(…and I’m going to make you click on something here to see the rest, because now we’re well into spoiler territory.)
Eventually, the Kid finds that there is a not-insignificant number of people left in the world, even after the “Calamity” that the kid is, through his travels and the construction of the Bastion, trying to reverse. These people come to believe that the Kid must be stopped, that the Kid’s people can’t be brought back into this world, and they actually have pretty good reasons for this belief.
So they take up their weapons and try to kill him (you).
A funny thing happens here — you, as the Kid being attacked, have few reservations about doing to a fellow human being the same thing that you did to the beasts that roamed the wilds of Bastion‘s world. You hack away at the attacking human, cutting him down like just one more gasbag. And then he lies there, lifeless, until you make the Kid walk away.
Eventually, you start to face more humans than beasts as you make your way toward finding the final pieces of the monument that powers the Bastion. And all of them do attack you. You kill them, and they just lie there. They don’t vaporize, they don’t disappear into the ether. They just lie there, these other humans who simply wanted life to go on as it is. Rucks at this point is egging the player on in his narration, trying to convince everyone that life will be better for these hostile humans as well once the Bastion is completed; the dead will be brought back, the world will be more than the shell it has become. At this point, the player is not so sure.
The player continues to kill off the hostile humans anyway, because this is a video game, and killing the enemy is how the story unfolds. You still feel a little bit sick while you do it.
Both examples of persistence in Bastion‘s world — both the persistence of the pets at the game’s hub location and the persistence of these enemies out in the wild — tear at the player’s will to continue, just a little bit, though not enough to slow the player down on the way to the ultimate objective. The developers know this, and while they may intentionally inspire guilt, they stop short of inspiring disgust, because they want the player to finish the game.
What they are doing is priming the player for an endgame made suddenly more devastating by the simple, seemingly inconsequential design decisions that came before it. When the seed of doubt is planted, the stakes for the game’s conclusion feel exponentially more significant.
…and we’ll talk about the end next time.