Sometimes in life you are given a choice. That choice can be significant and life changing, or simply on what type of filling you would like in your sandwich today. Bastion (2011) offers both. Many simple choices concerning your preference of weapon – call it play-style flavour – and a couple of major choices. Significant not just for your character, but for the entire world of the game. The following may contain minor spoilers.
In terms of the game’s narrative structure, we are dealing with a typical piece of video game storytelling. It is essentially a hero’s journey that follows the five-act dramatic structure. The main character Kid wakes up in a much changed world, discovers what has gone wrong, and takes it upon himself to rectify it. The dramatic arc can be seen below:
Let us first touch upon a central point; this classic narrative structure, and the use of the hero’s journey, works excellently as a foundation for interesting narrative exploration. And Bastion does explore narrative interestingly.
Video game narratives tend to focus on either characters or the world. Is the world in place simply as a backdrop for your characters journey? Then this is a game about the characters. And vice versa. That is a simplified version, but covers the basics. Bastion, I would argue, hangs in the balance between the two. It explores Kid and the people he meets, such as Ruck, Zulf, and Zia. But also explores the world, how the Calamity came about, and what may be done to fix it.
Usually in this type of game I would expect particular emphasis on the characters and their journey together. However the developers, Supergiant Games, have gone to certain lengths to ensure that the emphasis is not on the characters alone. The protagonist’s name is merely Kid, and so he remains a bit of a mystery. Even though we learn partly about his past, the lack of an actual name may achieve one of two things. It either detaches us slightly, limiting the player from connecting with the protagonist, or it leaves space for the player to project him or herself more into the character of Kid. This comes down to individual experience – as is so often the case when discussing narrative experiences. The game is also narrated by Ruck, with many passages told in past tense, suggesting that whatever we are playing has already happened and a final predetermined outcome is inevitable. Should the player accept the inevitability of coming events, it allows for us to pay further attention to the world Kid inhabits – looking and listening for clues that can explain the present and future states of Caelondia (World name).
In other words, the narrative devices used in Bastion allows the player freedom to take particular interest in Kid and his companions, or in the world and its former (and current) inhabitants. In order to understand this choice we need to jump all the way to the ending of the game, and the main narrative choice the player is offered.
Bastion is by no means a long game, and it does not supply full back-stories to any of the characters, but tidbits of information – just enough to leave an impression of who they are and what motivates their actions. Enough to establish an emotion connection to their situation through the rising tension of Act 2, leading towards the game’s climax. Word economy is appreciated in writing, and I likewise appreciate storytelling economy in video games, i.e. telling what needs to be told to achieve certain goals, such as an emotional connection to the world or the characters, or establishing the antagonist and his/her motivational drive. Bastion succeeds in this regard in my opinion.
Suddenly that final choice seems very significant. What are you going to do? Save the world and restore the lives lost to the Calamity, but lose the relationships you have built with your companions? Or leave the world in its seemingly ruined state, and let Kid keep his new companions? This choice feels huge in a dramatic sense, as it invites the player to imagine the consequences – which is also why you will see a slight rise in tension leading up to the resolution in the model above.
I chose the latter of the two, and let Caelondia stay as it was. It was nice to think that I allowed Kid to continue his journey. I don’t know everything about these characters, and have no clue if they will be happy with my choice in the future. But giving them a chance, after establishing a small emotional connection to them throughout game-play, felt like the right decision. Or, at least the more interesting decision, as one could definitely and rightly argue that the right thing would be to restore the world. However, the game also manages to ask if it is a world worth restoring. If all indicators point towards the inhabitants making the same mistakes all over again, genocides included, would you save it?