[25 September 2011]
Bastion is a thought-provoking game. Even as you hack and slash through enemies, debating which weapon combination is best and experimenting with new Secret Skills, its thematic depth sneaks up on you just enough for you to realize that it’s there. Before, of course, pouncing on the player at full force at the end. You’re faced with two major choices in quick succession that can drastically change the tone and meaning of the ending, but what’s most impressive about these multiple endings is how thematically consistent they are. They all feel like natural conclusions to the story.
The story of Bastion revolves around a world-shattering disaster, the Calamity, which leaves the city of Caelondia and its neighbor in ruins. There are a few survivors, namely The Kid, who ventures out into the new wastelands looking for cores, which can fix the titular Bastion, a mysterious safe-haven that might fix the world. Along the way, The Kid meets Rucks, an old man who narrates this story, Zulf, a traveling ambassador of peace from the neighboring nation of Ura, and Zia, a lower class Uran who’s trying to survive in a nation that’s suspicious of her people.
As you play, you’ll learn that Caelondia and the Ura used to be at war. The war is over now, but doubts, suspicions, and fears persist. Caelondian scientists then come up with the perfect way to guarantee peace: kill all the Ura at once. An Uran scientists forced to work on the project turned the super weapon on its creators and destroyed the entire world instead of a single nation.
Keeping this back story of a failed genocide in mind, Bastion is about how people react to a world destroyed by war. Rucks, as someone who feels partially responsible for the Calamity, feels only regret and longs to set things right. Zia, as someone who had a sad and miserable life beforehand, sees the new world as an opportunity to create a better life. Zulf, as someone who once encouraged peace between the two nations, sees the disaster as a personal betrayal of everything that he stood for and seeks a violent revenge.
Rucks and Zia
Rucks and Zia represent regret and optimism, respectively, and this is what the final choice comes down to. Do you use the power of the Bastion to turn back time, fixing the world and any personal mistakes, but with no guarantee that things won’t just play out the same way again? Or do you use the Bastion’s power to escape Caelondia and travel anywhere, not that anywhere is any better than here. Whichever choice you make feels like an appropriate climax to the story because each idea and each emotion is represented throughout the game by its corresponding character.
We never learn a whole lot about who Rucks was before the Calamity, just that he was one of the scientists working on the Bastion. While he didn’t create the weapon that caused the Calamity, he clearly feels guilt by association. He wants to reset the world with the Bastion and accepts that this means that the Calamity might happen again. That’s a risk he’s willing to take because he can’t stand seeing the world this way. It represents a personal failure on his part to stop what he should have seen coming. It’s a selfish motivation, but his selfishness affects the entire world. He’s so driven by guilt that he believes the only proper way to save the world is one that also placates his guilt. We learn all of this over the course of the game, so by the time that you have to make that big choice, you’ve heard plenty of evidence to convince you that this is what you should do.
On the other hand, Zia systematically lost everyone and everything that was important to her in the world-before, so she has no desire to experience that over again. Her mother died in childbirth, her father was mostly absent, she was bullied at school due to her ethnicity, her father kicked her out when a boy she brought home insulted him and she tried to run away but the boy told authorities she was selling secretes, so she was arrested for treason. In sharp contrast to all of that, there are moments in the game that show the four survivors talking and smiling; Rucks even describes them as a family. Zia has more in this new world than she ever had in the world-before. Like Rucks, her motivations are selfish, but she’s selfish in a way that represents a universal theme: the hope for a better life.
This is what Rucks wants as well, of course, but it’s clear they have very different opinions of what constitutes a “better” life. Rucks wants what was. Zia wants what is.
Both viewpoints are treated equally throughout the game, a commendable achievement considering that Rucks has the extremely unfair advantage of being the narrator. Thankfully, Rucks never takes advantage of his role to prop up his view as somehow superior. He’s only retelling this story, he doesn’t speak for the other characters, and he doesn’t try to. At one point near the end of the game, when he fully realizes just how much Zia wants things to stay as they are, he says:
You’re wondering if there ain’t some other way out of this mess. It’s all right, I can tell. But why would you even want another way? Unless, unless you wanted to stay here. With us. Well, that’s sweet and all, but I don’t know if I can stick around.
In this moment, he could have dismissed Zia’s desires as foolish, and since he’s the narrator, his voice would be given authority over her’s, but this doesn’t happen. He disagrees with Zia, but he does so from a very personal perspective. He can’t stay, and he doesn’t want to. He helps validate Zia’s optimistic view by not dismissing it with his power as storyteller.
However, that’s not the only choice that you have to make in the game. You also have to decide what to do with Zulf after he betrays you, and this decision is the climax of a parallel theme that also develops throughout the game. If Rucks and Zia represent different reactions to the end of the world, Zulf represents what caused the end of the world: the cyclical nature of violence.
Resetting or escaping the Bastion is really about whether you’ll stop or continue that cycle of violence and what you do with Zulf reflects on the larger issue of the Uran/Caelondian war. You find Zulf hurt in the last level, and you must decide what to do with him. If you agree with Zulf that revenge is appropriate, then you’ll leave him to die and continue to exact that revenge on the rest of the Ura, slaughtering them on your way to the final shard. If you disagree with Zulf and forgive him, that forgiveness represents an end to the war. So, you’ll carry his wounded body out of the Tazil Terminals, and the rest of the Ura will let you pass without conflict.
What’s most interesting about Bastion is how its two final choices play off of each other. Rucks and Zia talk about the new world as something to be sad or optimistic about, but that regret and optimism is often couched in acts of violence: The animals are also trying to build their own safe haven, but since they’re using a shard of the Bastion, the Kid must destroy their bastion to rebuild his. Rucks justifies this idea by saying:
Look at it this way: It’s either them, or us. But if we win, they win too. Our Bastion is everybody’s gain, not just ours. Unfortunately, there’s no explaining that to a simple beast…We just really need their shard; kid got it fair and square. He’s done what’s best for ‘em, don’t you worry.
Rucks is talking to Zia throughout the game, and his reassurances that the Kid is doing the right things suggests that Zia is troubled by that violence. Rucks believes that such violence is okay, since he thinks that the Kid will reset the world, but Zia wants things to stay the same so there’s no proper justification for her. Every combination of the ending choices has you agreeing with one or more characters about what’s best for the world: Rucks’s regret over past mistakes, Zia’s hope for a better future, or Zulf’s desire for revenge.
If you choose to kill the Ura and reset the world, then you’re allying yourself with Rucks and Zulf while disregarding Zia completely. Killing the Ura is an act of revenge, and you’re continuing the cycle of violence that Zulf fell into, therefore justifying his own battle against the Bastion. If you can have revenge, so can he. To then excuse this violence by resetting the world brings you right in line with Rucks, suggesting that it is okay to kill the animal’s bastion, the Ura and anything else, as long as the world gets reset and erases all these mistakes.
If you kill the Ura and escape the Bastion, you’re again agreeing with Zulf that revenge is appropriate, but you’re also agreeing with Zia that the future might be better than the past. You’re taking Zia’s optimism to the extreme, since killing the Ura is the ultimate rejection of the past. When resetting the world, there’s an implicit belief that this time the cycle of violence will end and that the new world will be a better place.
If you leave the Ura in peace and reset the world, then you share Zia’s optimism, but Rucks’s regret is stronger, and Zulf’s desires are ignored. Since revenge isn’t an issue this time, your acts of optimism take the form of forgiveness: You save Zulf and stop the cycle of violence, so the world should be a better place. However, such peace isn’t worth the destruction of the world. Even though the war is truly over, things should still be reset.
If you leave the Ura in peace and escape the Bastion, then you think that Zia is the only character worth listening to, ignoring both Rucks and Zulf. Again, since revenge isn’t an issue, your forgiveness for Zulf represents a want to create a more peaceful world, as does your refusal to reset things. This is probably the happiest ending, but like all things in Bastion, “happy” just means “bittersweet” since most of the world, including the animal kingdom, remains ruined. It’s a happy ending for the few that survived.
All these endings work because they’re all variants of the same idea: how people react to catastrophe. It helps that the character making the final decisions is a character that we don’t know, the Kid. Since he’s a silent protagonist we never get a sense of his personality and no choice can be out of character if we don’t know his character. It also helps that the two big choices are only presented at the very end. This allows the many themes to develop over the course of the game before leaving it to the player to finally decide what it all means.
This is not a game that has had its story shoehorned in near the end of the development cycle. Instead, the game is built around the story. Rucks’s narration is activated when you pass a certain point in a level or when you perform a certain action, and while he talks, there’s nothing else in the level that could activate another bit of narration. You can’t interrupt Rucks because you can’t cover the distance between activation points before he’s finished. The level is designed to let Rucks speak.
The game is, quite literally, built around the story. It’s this careful planning that makes Bastion an excellent example of how to properly handle multiple endings by allowing all of the choices to actually make sense.