In 'Bastion', Narrative's Stranglehold on Life and Death Is "Jus' Foolin'" with You
Bastion's narration establishes a suitably oppressive mood that is as richly textured as the game's visuals.
Note: Mild spoilers ahead.
I seem to be seeing cowboys everywhere.
As I continue to go through Stephen King's The Dark Tower series (now up to book four, Wizard and Glass), I'm beginning to draw parallels everywhere I look. On that front, it's difficult to look at Bastion, the latest XBLA darling to join the ranks of Braid and Limbo, and not feel some resonance with the rustic, science-fantasy setting of Dark Tower. Both couch themselves in the mythic post-western of Sergio Leone. Both depict a world that has physically as well as metaphysically come apart at the seams. And both address the inexorable fate of their protagonists.
My full review is still forthcoming, but in the mean time, I'd like to spend today talking a bit about what many would consider the most distinctive part of Bastion -- its "dynamic narrator," Rucks.
Rucks is with the player from the moment they begin the game. "He wakes up," he provides as the first line of his narration, as the player nudges the analog stick and the Kid rolls to his feet. Rucks chronicles the Kid's traipsing through the detritus left of his world, gathering a weapon, a shield -- and then, almost inevitably, plunging off the corner of some tricksy walkway into the abyss. This, too, Rucks announces with the same matter-of-fact tone.
And then the Kid plummets onto the walkway again from above, losing a chunk of his health bar. Rucks amends playfully, "Jus' foolin'."
Thus, the player gains an important lesson in mortality. But more than that, she is jerked into a sudden awareness of what we could most charitably call the game's narrational safety net -- and perhaps less charitably, its narrational leash. Death is possible in Bastion, but it is difficult to achieve. Even in the event that death does occur in an area, the Kid is merely warped back to Home Base and the bad end that he was just met with is excised as another of the old man's tangents.
In some respects, this seems to be business as usual. As noted by Nick Dinicola, death in games has a tendency to be boring. Braid allows players to rewind from their mistakes. Limbo lingers on its final screen after an untimely death to reveal where the player went wrong. Replenishible health, multiple lives, and continues are all such standard features in many games that we may take them for granted. What Bastion adds to the experience is incorporating these concessions to death's boredom as a stylistic feature. It is not merely longevity, superhuman healing, or recorded backups -- the narrator, via the player, just got the story wrong.
A character that can’t die is a standard trope of gaming that’s boring at best and kills any tension or excitement at worst, but solutions are uncommon. Bringing attention to the disconnect between the character and their world provides fodder for satire, but beyond writing in a literal limbo, narrative justifications are limited in the medium. Personally, I’m more interested in games that embrace their hero’s immortality, using it as a tool to advance character and plot (Nick Dinicola, "Death is Boring: Immortality as Character Development in Video Games", PopMatters, 21 July 2011).
While I'm certain Dinicola will be providing his own reactions to Bastion at some point, I can hazard a guess that its treatment of death is very much in line with his prescription here. Bastion's safety net (or leash) incorporates player immortality into the fabric of the story via its narration.
All this runs the risk of making the game sound viciously linear, as it can indeed feel sometimes. There are multiple major decision points in the latter act, however, which are likely to prompt a healthy round of discussion in critical circles. (Some, I'm sure, have already been written.). Moreover, I would hardly call Bastion's short leash a necessarily evil restriction of player privileges. On the contrary, Rucks's narration establishes a suitably oppressive mood that is as richly textured as the game's visuals. This tone only grows darker and more menacing as the story progresses and Rucks, as we might expect, becomes increasingly unreliable and distant from the player -- in a few cases, even openly hostile.
It wasn't long at all until I felt like I was being held captive by the narrative, rather than engaging with it. I have known scripted cutscenes that have felt more interested in player agency than this. Rucks's narration quickly began to unnerve me, which was fitting. In fact, going by colleagues' reactions on Twitter, I noticed something was amiss with the story much sooner than most. Yet instead of poisoning the game for me, it felt darkly enthralling to be unsettled in this way. Determinism in Bastion has neither the embarrassed gestures of a game trying to sweep its blatant player bias under the rug nor the slipperiness of Dark Tower's concept of destiny, ka, which acts similarly -- as a conceit for the audience.
And that's what is truly strange and wonderfully entrancing about Bastion: that it can be so openly for an audience, and so explicitly unfair, and still be as charming as it is. Let's press on for the Tower, sirrah -- or New Game Plus, at least.
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