A Bastion of Emotion: DénouementAugust 27, 2011
So, this is part three, which means MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. That’s your warning.
So. Have you played to the end of Bastion? And then, did you play it again?
I was trying to think back to the last time the end of a game affected me the way Bastion‘s did, and the only thing I could come up with was the end of Klonoa. Klonoa spent a few stages pretending it was a game for kids, and then it killed off Klonoa’s grandpa and started torturing him in ways that would be cruel in an M-Rated game, never mind an E10. Still, even that game was affecting not because the story was executed well — if I’m being completely honest, it was a little ham-fisted and melodramatic — but because it went in a direction that was pretty much the opposite of my expectations. Klonoa‘s story succeeds not because it’s written well, but because it’s written differently than pretty much any other game of its ilk.
The end of Bastion offers the opposite experience. The ending, really, is projected almost from the very beginning of the game; even its central choice is projected early on: Sure, you can erase the past, but do you really, truly want to?
Bastion succeeds because it manages to make two seemingly simple binary choices feel utterly monumental. Primed by the experience of trying to survive a world in which it’s not clear that you’re the “good guy”, per se, the choice of whether you’re going to carry your once-ally-now-enemy Zulf home after he has been betrayed and left for dead by his people is a big one. It’s confession time: I left him facedown the first time I played, and proceeded to wipe out the rest of his people with my very big stick. I didn’t enjoy it, but Rucks assured me that all of the mayhem and death was okay, given that the goal here was to turn back the clock anyway. It was a means to an end, an end in which presumably all of the dead would be resurrected. Systematic genocide doesn’t seem so bad if there’s an undo button, I suppose.
But then, I didn’t push it. I wiped out an entire race of people, and then, at the urgings of Zia, the singer responsible for the first truly affecting moment in the game, I decided the world was better off without them. Partly, I think, this was to spite Rucks, who I was actually angry at for all but tricking me into systematic genocide; partly, it was the nagging suspicion that by erasing the past, I wouldn’t really be changing anything.
I think I messed things up for myself by doing this; not only did I remove any sympathy or empathy that I felt for my own avatar, but Brendan Keogh’s brilliant little Bastion blog post suggests that by not choosing to “reset the world”, I’ve removed much of the meaning from the New Game Plus mode’s clever little changes.
Still, by turning my character into a selfish git, I motivated myself to burn through the game again so that I could “make it right” the next time around. I have a hard time playing the ass in RPGs; I can’t even bring myself to insult the most ridiculous and irredeemable characters in dialogue-heavy Bioware games. Making the choices I did went completely against my normal mode of play, offering the drive to do it better the next time around. Little did I know how much better things would seem.
Carrying Zulf through the mass of hostile Ura may have been the most beautiful little experience I’ve ever had in a game. That the Ura would eventually stop firing — that an Ura commander would quite literally strike his charge down for firing — all while “Mother, I’m Here” plays, and we continue to hear Rucks’ narration, telling Zia that The Kid was probably in the process of destroying him once and for all…it’s thwarted destiny, it’s humanity, and it’s devastation, all in one convenient two-minute scene. It’s a wrenching scene, one that renders the choice of whether to restore Caeldonia almost meaningless.
I restored it. Only because I hadn’t before. But I sort of wish I hadn’t.
The ending is what we work for in a game. We want to see how the story is resolved by the writers and designers responsible for presenting it to us. Coming up with a satisfying way to close a game is a difficult thing, and a half-hour cutscene, while often interesting, often feels like a letdown, as if the power is being taken out of our hands for the game’s final moments. What Bastion does is give us a small choice that makes all the difference in our perception of what happened over the previous hours of play. Without its endings, Bastion is a good game, one certainly worth killing a few hours with; with its endings, it is a treasure.