‘Bastion’: Putting Character Back into Indie Arcade

For the past few years now, Xbox Live Arcade has used their “Summer of Arcade” promotion to introduce gamers to strong, uniquely conceived work from the indie scene. 2008’s Braid sparked an undeniable change in how mass audiences saw “art” games, which (along with thatgamecompany’s Flower) became chief arguing pieces for and against Roger Ebert “can games ever be art?” debate. 2010’s Limbo followed up this act by referencing the Gothic tradition of silent cinema and leaving a strong aesthetic impression — as well as speculations whether 2D, sidescrolling platformers featuring big-headed man-children were the flavor du jour of this console generation’s indies.

2011’s Bastion, the debut title of Supergiant Games, proves that at least one of those above elements is optional. Its protagonist is still superdeformed and quiet as a mouse, but we’ve swapped side scrolling for isometric action-RPG gameplay and traded in Braid‘s big blocks of text and Limbo‘s semiotics sans language for a memorable, chatty narrator and plenty of item descriptions and backstory. In doing so, Bastion becomes far larger than either of those games, not simply by providing a strong narrative but by giving us characters to care about.

Bastion is a Western the same way that Firefly is a Western, likewise, a Sergio Leone film or Stephen King’s Dark Tower. It is a grandiose science fantasy with a rustic twang steeped in the mythic Old West. But it is also something far beyond what the genre may imply.

Central to the game’s conflict is the Calamity, the catastrophic event which literally tears reality asunder. The Bastion referenced in the title is a bomb shelter/Eden 2.0 with the power to reconstruct the world from its ashes, something the player then sets out to do. You encounter other survivors along the way, including the game’s narrator, who has more of a connection with the Calamity than he initially lets on. The strongest part of Bastion‘s story is how each member of its small cast bears meaningfully on events, especially as the game delves deeper into issues of expansionism, race, and war.

In addition to choosing the order in which structures are rebuilt in the Bastion, players can set up their own challenges. Gameplay, while at first blush rather simplistic, is admirably well balanced for the variety of ranged, heavy, and melee weapons that you acquire, all of which can be upgraded and further customized. Each weapon has a story as part of the culture from which your character hails, as well as “Proving Grounds” where traditional users of those weapons honed their skills before the Calamity. Only the shrine, where players invoke various religious idols to power up their opponents in exchange for better EXP and drop rates, feels a little disconnected from the world building which otherwise affords this game something close to perfection.

On our forthcoming podcast dedicated to the subject, I speculate with other members of the Moving Pixels crew whether Bastion is a game that can be expanded upon. In my view, one of the endings the player may choose from certainly suggests this, but ultimately adding even one thing more to Bastion‘s ensemble would be one thing too many. Some games provide a touch of characterization that leave you wanting to know more; Bastion is one in which my imagination had no trouble taking flight to fill in the gaps. From Rucks, the fatherly yet unreliable narrator, to Zulf, a traumatized but driven ambassador from a foreign land, the entire cast is rendered beautifully in the game’s painterly cutscenes and afforded a rich texture by the writing.

Bastion may be a strangely alien frontier but the campfire recollection of Rucks’s drawling oration (which adapts to the player’s actions), the folk elegance of Zia’s music, and the sheer wealth of little details populating the world all tap into a vein of the Western that is much deeper than cowboy hats and desert badlands. It reaches to the heart of myth. The Calamity Kid stands up right next to the likes of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan, and the developers know it.

But Bastion‘s truest beauty is in how dark it becomes and how subtly it draws the player into that darkness. If the West had been won by nuclear war, this is how it might have played out in one’s nightmares. And yet it is so charming, so colorful, so cute with its chibi character designs that we might sooner expect something on the level of Spirited Away, not Grave of the Fireflies. But grim it is, though the game is always careful to provide you with just a glimmer of hope for a happy solution, well, for some definitions of happy.

As an aesthetic experience, from visual design to world building and music, Bastion is second to none right now. It is definitely this year’s stand out indie title, which proves once again that good things come in small packages. What Bastion provides, head and shoulders above either Limbo or Braid, is a narrative you can wade neck-deep into — and get carried away in the current.

RATING 9 / 10