Thursday, August 18, 2011

Creation vs Destruction in Bastion's Narrative

Here is where the world was simultaneously created and destroyed.
A lot of what has the gaming community chattering about Bastion is the role of its narrative in the gameplay. Many critics of the relationship between story and games see them as one slapped onto the other, rather than having an organically joined structure. Rucks' narration of the kid's journey is often merited as the 'right way' to do story in a game, however there a strange tension between the storytelling and gameplay that could be read as narrative dissonance (or, at least, further analyzed to view a more realistic application of the techniques present in the game).

To out my personal feelings before diving into criticism, I thought the game should have been titled something similar to Rucks. The Bastion is merely a plot device that serves as a tool for something else, but it isn't the main idea of the story; as well, the kid could be pretty much anyone (being optimistic, I chose to see it as a critique on the stereotypical adventurer rather than the developers being lazy, though that took some self-convincing). Rucks controls the player's experience as well as the relationships between all of the characters; the game leaves questions open about him, leaving the player to turn off the game wondering about how they feel about Rucks' actions. His pleasantly stylistic narration is overbearing and steals the spotlight, and that (as I will argue later) makes the ending ineffectual when his narration stops. This is definitely not a slam overall on the game, I enjoyed it and it was worth my money; I just wish to extract more worth out of it rather than setting it up to be a paragon of gaming.

Ultimately, I noticed a strange ambiguity concerning the themes of creation and destruction in Bastion right from the beginning; the player is told the Calamity has everything destroyed, yet this is the beginning of a story, Furthermore, the setting is falling apart except for where the kid steps, where the path is actually being created before him. On one hand, this could be a representation of the continuing detonation and rebuilding of Caeldonia that is implied by Rucks before the player gets to choose the ending, giving the player an off-kilter and chaotic feeling to carry with them throughout the game. However, gameplay doesn't reinforce this reading, rather, it communicates a more bleak path of destruction. I found it ironic that as Rucks extemporaneously created the story, the kid was destroying everything in his path; there were so many unnecessary destroyable objects in the way of the goal, that it made me wonder if the kid was doing as much damage to the city and its people as the Calamity did.

This makes the juxtaposition of the creative mechanics at the Bastion seem either incredibly in line with the narrative, or at odds. The Bastion is used as a focus for the player's goals as well as the means to further launch more destruction through an armory of weapons, upgrades, and challenges inspired by the gods. But this is all really fruitless, because as the story points out, there's little effect the order of your buildings have on anything (and this is reinforced by nothing at all being changed when you switch around the order of the buildings, as well as there being an optimal build for New Game+). It's possible that the kid has done the same exact thing an infinite amount of times beforehand, and to learn that after it was damaged just before you completed it (twice!) adds in a bit of despair.

Now all of this doesn't sound so bad for a game to produce, it actually reveals a complicated depth that lies below very simple and intuitive gameplay. I felt like I had things to work out right up until I had a choice in how the story was ending. My intervention isn't determined by anything except for my interpretation of the events; not Ruck's, or Zia's, Zulf's, and definitely not the kid (he doesn't really have one it seems). Instead of furthering this volatile interaction of creation and destruction by activating the Bastion and instantaneously creating a New Game+ for the player (who can then go on to stop the cycle) and give the player a meta-viewpoint on what just happened, the choice of what to do with Zulf and the Bastion opens up the moving parts of a game that you rarely had to stop and think about much. There is no more narrator, no more certainty, and it almost feels like a different game. For me, the game lost all of its energy right after the last return to the Bastion (though, I nearly groaned out loud after being presented with the choice to save Zulf). The reason why, in hindsight, all of these elements seem so out of line, because the player is called into the sort for the first time and asked to sort things out. Why now, when the story is at it's most intense? Especially with a lame still image at the end? The game was fine with recognizing its own metafiction, but to then double the meta undid a lot of the organic-feeling elements (the weapon training grounds did as well, but they were covered up enough in lore that I forgave it).

Because the game wasn't about choice at all, my journey through New Game+ revealed how the creation vs destruction elements felt very arbitrary and not integrated into the gameplay. The narration seemed more of an aesthetic choice, building up the Bastion was an illusion of involvement, and the mindless destructive nature of your avatar (yes, I said it) becomes embarrassingly apparent.

1 comment:

  1. For the most part, I felt that this game took an innovative idea, the organic narrative, and tried to work this into an RPG in a more-creative way than mainstream games have done. I think that, for my first time seeing it in a game, it was successful. Also, the game was pleasantly short in comparison with more recent RPG's, so it is no surprise that it possessed many of the elements one sees in a short story.

    If I were to summarize the game with an analogy, I would say that it is like a box of Legos, with a kid assembling them according to some manual, and a robot which smashes them to bits after the kid decides what to do with the Lego people. The conclusion is whether the kid pulls the plug on the robot as he places the people the second time around, or not (he didn't know what to expect the first time around). Some kids just want to see everything get smashed to pieces again while others might be saddened by this.

    Playing this game is like being that kid, and yeah, sometimes kids take the Lego people and teach them to use an ax or their little bows, so the training grounds were totally in line to me.