Agency and the Inevitable: Bastion

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.

Proper story's supposed to start at the beginning.  Ain't so simple with this one.

Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one.

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.[1]

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).[2] 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

Notes:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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3 Comments

Filed under Art, Games, Series

3 responses to “Agency and the Inevitable: Bastion

  1. captainsakonna

    A very thoughtful and interesting article! It’s perhaps most interesting to me in how different your overall feel of the game seems to have been from mine (which goes to show how complex Bastion is). While I agree that the game has tragic qualities, I don’t think of it first and foremost as a tragedy, nor of the Kid as a tragic figure.

    The Kid is a destroyer, but he’s a creator and preserver at the same time. This is strongly symbolized by the way the pieces of shattered land rise up and re-form under his feet. The fragments that he gathers by breaking things are used for new works at the Bastion, making him less of a demolitionist and more of a salvager. The various weapon training grounds encourage him to learn the skills of Caelondia’s many guilds and prevent them from being lost. And while the player is rewarded for killing and breaking, he’s also rewarded for these constructive and retentive tasks (the Memorial being the most obvious way that the game lauds them). The way I saw the Kid, far from being a one-man Calamity, he was a one-man Civilization on the march — and for me, Bastion was fundamentally about building, about picking up the pieces and making something of them no matter how bad the situation is. That doesn’t mean I think everything the Kid ends up doing is necessarily right, not to mention nice. I’m not of the “anything is okay in the name of Progress” mentality, and there are times when the game’s narrative could be interpreted as pushing one in that direction. But I didn’t get the impression that the character of the Kid was *defined by* his more questionable actions, or that they dethroned him from the status of a hero who can be at least somewhat admired.

    I also got a slightly different idea of the ending than it seems you did. I don’t think it’s supposed to be guaranteed that the Calamity will happen again indefinitely if you reverse time — it’s more that there’s no guarantee it *won’t* happen again. Rucks doesn’t want to turn back the clock just to keep things locked in an endless cycle in which Caelondia sometimes exists; he wants it in the bare hope that something might happen differently this time through. It’s still a tough choice for the player. In fact, I think it’s rendered even tougher by the fact that you don’t *know* exactly what the results will be if you choose that option. If you go back and redo, you might just be perpetuating an endless loop out of which no progress will ever be made … but if you choose to evacuate instead, you’re permanently giving up the possibility of a restored timeline in which the Calamity never happens again.

    Again, none of this makes the game not tragic, but the themes of hope and rebirth shone out more than the tragedy for me as a player. Rather than walking away with the notion that I’d been lured into a terrible mistake, I finished with the sense that I did the best I could under poor circumstances, and that something good could rise from the ashes. Rose-colored glasses? Maybe.

    • Great point about the uncertainty of the “reverse time” ending, I hadn’t fully considered how that uncertainty does indeed make the choice more rather than less difficult. My feeling of the images that are shown during the credits for that ending, and particularly some of the hints seen in the New Game + mode, is that they strongly imply that nothing changes if you rewind time–but this is certainly open to interpretation! As I mentioned, the choice may be easier in one direction or another depending on who’s playing–that is one of the great things about this game. Even if you don’t read the ending as necessarily tragic, the fact that the player takes ownership of their ending means that it’s possible to read the game as a tragedy no matter which choice they make.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • captainsakonna

        I’ve played the “normal” game through twice, but haven’t done New Game + yet. It gives you new information?? I’ll have to try this …

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