The Path Less Played: ‘Bastion’

Bastion’s isometric protagonist The Kid.

In my last column I talked about narrative within video games (indie games in particular) and the difficulty in implementing a good story which doesn’t conflict with the gameplay. I looked at some visual novels which had above average (for video games anyway) stories but sacrificed engaging gameplay in order to achieve this. In this column I will be looking at Bastion, a game by independent developer SuperGiant games which was released last year on PC and 360. The game was critically acclaimed and won quite a lot of industry awards. The way the story is presented in the game is really interesting as it manages to deliver an affecting story within a framework which doesn’t compromise gameplay.

At its heart, Bastion is a dungeon crawling game in the same vein as games like Diablo, and more recently Torchlight. The setting is a fantasy world which has very recently experienced an apocalyptic event called the Calamity. You spend most of your time exploring various environments, killing enemies and collecting various items in order to rebuild the titular Bastion, a structure that can repair the destroyed world. There is a basic levelling system and you can customise a range of different weapons and equip various skill boosting potions.

So far this all seems rather standard; however it has one element which makes the game far more interesting than your traditional dungeon crawler. The story is narrated in real time by one of the characters in the game. Every step of your journey the narrator tracks your progress, describes the world and provides context for your actions. This has quite big implications for both the game. The main one is that the story is delivered as a non intrusive part of the gameplay, rather than through cut scenes or reading dialogue. This makes the game feel more engaging and dynamic at a stroke; the narrator will react to what you do which makes the game feel so much more alive. The best part about this is that I found myself thinking about some of my actions in a new light after an insightful comment from the narrator. For example, at one point later in the game the narrator brings up the ethics of killing all the creatures in order to save the Bastion. He made a good argument but the thing that surprised me is that I’d hardly thought about this in all my time playing. Most video games don’t give you any justification for the genocides you commit; a glaring example is the Uncharted series. The Uncharted games are undeniably impressive, but I always find Nathan Drake a bit too happy-go-lucky for a serial mass murderer. The fact that the narrator tries to give you moral justification for your actions (although this is called into question later in the game) gives well needed context to the slaughter.

It also helps that the game is absolutely beautiful, the environments are highly stylised and colourful which is a welcome change from most post-apocalyptic games, many of which seem to be competing in a competition to have the most shades of brown in one game. There is a wonderful visual effect where the environments build themselves as you traverse them, and although this might just be a way not to have to render everything at once, it’s a subtle reference to the game’s theme of rebuilding. The narration also enhances these environments; throughout your travels the narrator will give insight on their past purposes and histories which makes exploring that much more enjoyable.

However much the narration improves Bastion, it does the game a disservice to say that this is its only good point. The gameplay is varied and challenging, there are a good range of different enemies and you can customise how the game plays in quite a few different ways. Also the narration would just be a gimmick without a good story to back it up. Thankfully the story in Bastion manages to avoid cliche for the most part; there’s no stupid good/evil dichotomy, most factions in the game seem to be trying to make the best of a bad situation.

The game also makes use of a compulsory autosave and doesn’t use save files, which has more interesting consequences than you’d expect. A few times in the game you are presented with a choice on how to proceed; usually in games with save files you can try every option for the best outcome, which completely negates the point of choosing in the first place. Choices made in Bastion are final and although they don’t form a big part of the game I’m relieved to see more games doing this kind of thing. Another game I played recently that deals with this kind of permanency is a flash game called One Chance. In the game you have six days to try and save the world from imminent apocalypse and if you fail you cannot restart. This kind of permanency is very unusual in gaming and gives far more weight to your actions than you would feel in most games.

I think what I like best about these kinds of games is that they really play to the strengths of the medium. A lot of the time I feel like modern games try too hard to be interactive movies when there are so many more possibilities that are open for exploration. Bastion is a remarkably simple game really, but it manages to revitalise a genre that seemed rather dated by virtue of one interesting mechanic combined with a well written story and high production values. I’m thankful that Bastion was so successful last year, hopefully we’ll continue to see experimental games get this amount of attention.

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