This post is part of a series examining the relationship between videogames and the tragic form–today’s topic is the action-RPG Bastion by Supergiant Games.
MAJOR SPOILERS for Bastion follow–as before, if you haven’t played it yet I recommend you do so before reading this post.
Bastion is somewhat unusual for a tragedy in that it begins after an apocalypse: the Calamity. The world is already destroyed. An entire people practically wiped out. The very fabric of the continent ripped apart. What more damage can be done? How much worse could one kid with a hammer possibly make things? How can the player make a tragic mistake, if the game’s biggest mistake has already been made before the player shows up?
A hint to the answer lies in the narrator’s very first words–the player’s first exposure to the world of Bastion (quoted in the caption for the above image). Like much of what the narrator says, his meaning doesn’t become clear until the player has experienced more of the story. Rucks, despite his fatherly demeanor and good intentions, is the very epitome of the unreliable narrator. Some of his words are misleading, some of his words are biased, and a few of his words are outright lies–but the most dangerous words are the ones he withholds. It is this withholding of information, by both Rucks and the game itself, that leads to the tragic mistake which ties the Kid and the player back to the game’s opening tragedy–the Calamity.
Rucks may be unreliable, but he’s (at first) the only source of information about the world and the Kid’s situation that the player has. The player has no choice but to trust him, and listen to him, and follow his advice. The world the Kid finds himself in is one of survival–of doing whatever it takes to stay alive and turn back the clock on the Calamity. The game’s design and the narrator both encourage the player not to worry too much about consequences–it’ll all be fixed once the Kid completes his quest, they assure us. In fact, the game actively rewards the player for wreaking as much additional destruction as possible–whether with XP for killing every living thing they see, or with fragments (the game’s currency) for smashing everything else to pieces. Even retrieving the cores from each level–the ultimate objective of the game–results in the levels’ total destruction: without a core or shard to stabilize them, the areas fall apart and cannot be revisited. The Kid is pretty much a one-man Calamity himself.
By the time Ruck’s role in the Calamity is revealed, the player probably already suspects that he is hiding something. By now they know for sure that Rucks can’t be fully trusted–but they no longer have a choice. The player and the Kid have already destroyed too much and worked too hard to just turn back, and the trail of destruction they have left behind them only serves to push the player harder to find the last few shards and repair the Bastion. So they push forward into the Tazal Terminals, slaughtering human beings now instead of monsters and plants, pushing themselves further and further down the path of no return. When Rucks finally reveals exactly how he plans to fix things, and what the consequences will be, the Kid and the player have committed a minor genocide of their own, wreaking a path of havoc and destruction through the few survivors of a race that was, after all, only trying to defend itself.
It is in the wake of this slaughter that the final choice is presented to the player: go along with Rucks, turn back time, and risk having the Calamity happen all over again? Or follow Zia and forge a new path, with the full weight of the Kid’s actions weighing on the player’s shoulders? It’s a Sophie’s choice, of course–there is no “right” answer (though there may be a right answer for some). Both choices are tragic in their own way, and both choices, in their own ways, are inevitable. If you choose to escape, you leave behind a world devoid of life, even worse off than the Calamity left it. If you choose to undo the Calamity and start over again (perhaps literally, in the form of a New Game +), you directly implicate the Kid in the game’s original apocalyptic tragedy. Thus, even though the tragic mistake at first seems to occur before the player takes control, the game sets the player up to create a new tragic mistake of their own, either in the horrors they perpetuate on their quest to fix the Calamity, or in their decision to take back those horrors in exchange for simply doing the whole thing all over again–perhaps indefinitely.
Thus far, the games we’ve looked at have relied on limited information to induce the player into making the tragic mistake. In Don’t Look Back, the player’s mistake is simply playing in the first place, but there’s no indication it’s a mistake until the ending. In Bastion, the player knows what the mistake is from the start, but isn’t told how they’re involved in that mistake until the ending (at which point their decision determines the nature of their involvement, but doesn’t alter the tragedy itself.) Is it possible to get the player to make a tragic mistake, even if they know it’s a mistake when they make it? Can a videogame tell a tragic story without irony and without withholding important information from the player?
Up next: Shadow of the Colossus
Previously: Don’t Look Back
 In an interesting contrast to Don’t Look Back‘s emphasis on the unattainability of the “lone wolf” hero fantasy, Bastion maintains the Kid’s status as legend but deconstructs the glamour of that role, showing him to be a tragic rather than enviable figure.
 The Sophie’s choice is a common tactic in tragic videogames to ensure that the story remains tragic despite the player’s intervention–but it risks removing the fatalism that gives tragedy its power. If the choice feels like it doesn’t matter, there can’t really be said to have been a mistake when things go wrong. Bastion avoids this problem by presenting the player with a choice that is difficult, but still meaningful–the game’s two endings are both certainly tragic, but they are very different. The player’s choice thus matters quite a lot, if only to them.