How Bastion Blends Narrative With Play
by Andrei Filote
[Many games support their narratives via cutscenes and other non-interactive channels, but Supergiant Games' Bastion finds a way to work storytelling into its very core.]
Narratives and video games have always gone hand-in-hand. Even simple games like Pong find a way to tell their own stories, as players create their own experiences based on what’s happening on screen. Stories in games often emerge from the way we interact with them, but even decades after the medium’s inception, we still don’t have a solid consensus on the best ways to craft interactive narratives.
An exhaustive discussion of these methods will likely entertain scholars and designers for decades to come, but for now, it’s worth taking a look at a few examples that in my mind demonstrate a seamless union of gameplay and narrative.
How does narrative come about in a videogame? In essence, it all comes down to the way the brain assimilates information. Based on the way we process visual information, images lead automatically to narratives. This is convenient for games because — like movies — they are all pictures strung together in sequence! It’s important to note because that we often separate writing, dialog or story from play, but in reality they are as tightly interdependent as the two sides of a single coin. Since a videogame exists as a virtual environment, our perception of that environment and of what takes place within it automatically creates a story.
Many games today try to get the player to experience a written, pre-defined story on one hand, and on the other a series of interactions with the virtual environment, which create other, more spontaneous stories. Usually these two halves are kept separate by a series of constraints, whether technological or philosophical, so that we often experience them alternately (one section of gameplay leads into a corresponding cutscene and so forth). This creates a bit of a problem: proper storytelling is never addressed; as the stories that emerge during gameplay or cutscenes have little or nothing to do with each other. Thus, the whole experience becomes divided: One part is a game, the other is a movie contained within the game.
But despite this common problem, there are games that have found ways to work around the constraints of non-interactive cutscenes. One of the latest is Bastion.
Interactive Storytelling: Three Examples
The three instances we will be looking at are all underlined by the use of suggestion, a technique which is supremely suited to videogames but often ignored. It seems almost foolish to make use of something so understated in a medium that has a tendency to celebrate explosions, but the attention-demanding nature of videogames actually lends itself very well to suggestion.
While you are distracted with the challenges of the moment, something entirely different may unfold beneath the fabric of the immediate, creating ulterior motivation and providing new context to otherwise obvious actions.
1. When violence mirrors narrative
Violence is often a vehicle for play, but when the user spends most of his or her time physically destroying opponents, combat tends to become trivial, and it tends to lose significance in terms of storytelling. The critical subtext provided by Bastion’s use of suggestion changes all of this.
Consider first the game’s array of weapons. The progression in their technological advancement reveals the increasingly warlike aspect of the society of Caelondia. We witness a hierarchy of needs: to build (the hammer), to defend oneself from the environment (spear, bow), to dominate the environment (fire bellows), to combat other societies (carbine, musket), to dominate those societies completely (mortar, calamity cannon), to unleash the end-all weapon itself — the Calamity.
The progression follows the development of the story and its themes. The more destructive your weapons become, the closer you get to learning the truth about the equally destructive conflict between the City, founded by colonists who seek to exploit nature and harness its forces, and the Ura, who still live in a world of inviolate divinity.
It’s a remarkably simple history of a society’s violent deeds. As the colonists penetrate the new continent, they trade hammer for bow for musket for cannon. The Calamity, with its ability to sunder mountains and render any living being into ash, is a surreal nuclear weapon. It is also the logical extreme of the arms race and at the same time the ultimate guarantee against defeat. It’s fitting that the game take place in the backdrop of the Calamity, because in attempting to reverse it the Kid has no choice but to come to terms with the reality of its deployment. Having just escaped it, he is embraced by it.
2. Contextualizing the enemy
Your enemies are neither anonymous nor without motivation. They occupied different roles before the Calamity and must now scramble to rebuild themselves. Their efforts come into conflict with the Kid’s, whose goal of rebuilding the Bastion is, according to the narrator, a victory for everyone. Whether we can trust the narrator is one thing, but this justification suddenly provides a sharp counterpoint to the killing of the sentient creatures who are attempting to create their own version of a safe haven.
The realization that your enemies have as much right to survive as you is a critical part of the game and is present most obviously in their opposition to the Kid, in their struggle to organize, regroup and rebuild, looking clearly to path out a future in a world which must recover from apocalypse. These are clearly the efforts of someone who has something to gain and to lose. The Windbags, a lower social order now displaced but inheriting a ruined city; the Ura, whose survivors focus their grief into vengeance, though not so much as to forget honor; the Peckers — birds with a “post-calamity superiority complex” — who are a humorous if irritating addition. Each are clearly acting on their own motivations, and are willing to use their resources to accomplish their goals. In so doing they are simply mirroring the Kid’s actions, and are being just as definite, as resolute.
Bastion’s antagonists are not evil. Nor do they rush blindly to their doom. Most of the time they are the natural world, or the lesser part of society, or a different society altogether.
They are all, undeservedly, subject to the violence of an invader: You. It is important to spell out this achievement, because Bastion doesn’t simply spill out hordes of automatons for the player to gun down. It provides context for its antagonists, which helps the game become something more.
3. The Shrine
The Shrine as a concept executes a perfect marriage between two separate needs: one, strictly narratological, to explain the faith of the Caelondian people, the other, a function of gameplay, to enable higher difficulties. Both of these are achieved through the act of praying. Prayer itself exists on two levels. The first level is that of the interface, which tells us, the player, who we are invoking and what we are getting for our trouble (enemies hit harder, faster, etc). But in the story proper there is no interface, and from the Kid’s perspective there is no user: His prayer is an act of pure faith, and like swinging his hammer, it’s no make believe. He makes a decision, reaching out into the unknowable to ask for something.
What does he ask for? We never know. What we get is difficulty, trials, and tribulations, all of which constitute one thing: Punishment. Is it too far a leap to guess the Kid believes he deserves to be punished for the crimes of the past? We can only wonder, but wondering is in itself both reward and achievement — to have created characters who own their lives and act on their experiences, who, in short, live every moment as intensely as we do, as though they have broken away and now live independently, occupying a space we have the privilege to touch. That is the goal of any narrative, whether it comes in a game, film or novel.
These considerations can only be made through the use of suggestion, through those silences and whispers which tell us enough to get by, but which conceal an entire world left to the imagination. Beneath the surface of its beauty, behind the lush color palette, beyond even the physical world which comes together spectacularly at the player’s feet, Bastion is a game of ethnic conflict, even of genocide, and of many, many mistakes.
An exceptional element: The narrator
Plenty of video games have used narrators to support their storylines, but there has never been one quite like Bastion’s, which is all-encompassing, and reactive to the player’s actions.
Because Bastion’s narrator reacts dynamically based on the players actions, the development team at Supergiant Games needed to make sure that each of his lines fit the context of the situation, matched the tone of the player’s actions, and even fit within the game’s narrative. With even a slight deviation, a single false step, the grave, melancholy Narrator could have turned into a hilarious accident. But Bastion made no such mistake, and its narrator manages to encompass both scripted plot and a player’s naturally arising story.
While it spends much of its time reacting to the player, Bastion’s narrative goes far beyond just describing his or her actions. As players work their way through the game, we not only receive clever exposition, but find ourselves in a position better and better suited to judging the narrator himself, who with every spoken line reveals as much about his own person as about the world.
It’s also easy to see how the entire device could be construed as a gimmick, a peripheral part of the whole exercising an interest useful for little else but marketing. We could envision many different forms of this system, even one in which the player might be able to deactivate the narration entirely. But that’s not the case here. To uproot the narrator would be to cripple the game’s very spine, removing in one violent pull any and all meaningful motion. We are not dealing with a system parallel to others (weapons, upgrades, etc) but are facing up to the carrying structure of the whole narrative. It is the essential core of Bastion’s experience.
Like the Shrine, the narrator works on multiple levels. He reveals to us the world as we advance through it, but he is not omniscient, merely working with information he has managed to acquire retroactively, sometimes conjecturing, sometimes just guessing, other times becoming defensive or proving to be simply clueless. There are times, such as during the endgame, when he works openly within the greater frame of the story being told to entertain two people simply waiting for the” End,” though we do not realize this fact until we have come face to face with the here and now of the narrator, which has always been the player’s destination.
The endgame is where everything changes. Players pass the point of no return. Something is lost forever, and not just the possibility of choice, but the illusion of it. The story is revealed to be precisely that, a convenient reconstruction drawn out of memory and guesswork. Where we have been working from the easily decorated past we have come into the uncertain present. We reach what is simultaneously the source of the story, and the end of it all, the heart of the Bastion. The narration then ceases, ridding the speaker of his divinity, and we come into the full force of the immediately real. Then it’s time to make a choice. (source:gamecareerguide)