The Game Boy: Why Bastion Succeeds Where Most Games Fail Miserably

Maximum PC Staff

Note: This week's entry contains major Bastion spoilers. If you haven't played Bastion, I recommend that you skip to the third page. Also, while we're at it, warning: This week's entry is three pages long. I may have gotten a bit carried away. If you hate words, I recommend that you skip to the part where you buy Bastion.

Bastion is about moving forward. With every step you take, tiles of all shapes and sizes rise up to meet your footfalls. What lies ahead may be uncertain, but one way or another, you'll make it. Occasionally, you'll encounter former citizens of Caelondia – now frozen in ash, dead to the world in all but appearance. THOCK. The Kid's hammer reduces them to powder in an instant. The Kid presses on – without remorse, as though his old friends and neighbors were no more important than a random crate, shrub, or similarly minor impediment. Meanwhile, Rucks – the narrator – doesn't bat an eyelash, instead opting to list off a factoid or two about the deceased-turned-dust-clouds before dispassionately sweeping the whole incident under the rug. It's all in the past now, and the past only gets in the way.

Bastion also offers flashbacks, but not in the traditional sense. The narrator attempts to spin a tear-jerker of a yarn while you stave off increasingly difficult waves of enemies. Before long, though, it becomes nearly impossible to do both. So, pick your poison: Will you listen to wistful tales of days gone by or fight to make sure you live to see another day? At first, this seems like a perplexing and fairly frustrating design choice, but – intentional or not – it drives home a point: Past or present, there's always a battle to be fought. And if you don't fight? Well then, you die – simple as that. The creatures you're killing all throughout your journey could very well be the last of their kind. But it's either them or you. You have to press forward.

And then there's Zulf. When he discovers the true method behind the Calamity's seeming madness, he's driven to bury the Bastion, a device capable of re-weaving the very fabrics of time itself. He wants to move on. So Zulf decides it's necessary to strike down anyone standing in his way – you included. It's better, he thinks, than the alternative. But he fails utterly – just like the Calamity before him. Even so, more people die because of Zulf's choice. Many more. Out of all that, though, comes one incredible moment.

Zulf is ultimately stabbed in the back by his Ura clansmen, and you can either charge in, stare them straight in the eyes, and send each and every one fearfully fleeing into early graves, or you can drop your weapon, pick up Zulf's barely breathing form, and carry him to safety. It's your call.

Zulf, though, is heavier than a small, pale twig of a man has any right to be, and the Kid struggles to heft his apparently dense girth. So you stumble into a room full of Zulf's countrymen, muscles snapping, crackling, and generally doing their best impression of a bowl of Rice Krispies under the strain of Zulf's weight.

The Ura immediately open fire. It's too late to turn back, though. You can only move forward. So you get shot. A lot. Swigging health potions like cool, refreshing water in a desert made of wasabi is the only way to stay alive – and even then, death's door is only centimeters away from slamming into your face. Still, you press forward. Nothing will stop you. Nothing can stop you. And that's when the Ura realize what's going on. Slowly but surely, they lower their weapons and watch as you limp past. One tries to fire again. His superior kills him in cold blood. You escape as the Ura look on in unison.

You return to the Bastion. Finally, you can restore it. You can start over. You can kill the Calamaity before it harms a hair on anyone's head. Or can you? Rucks isn't so sure. Maybe  you'll just drop the ball again. Maybe you're already stuck in one big, misery packed infinite loop. Suddenly, Zulf's motivations make sense. As the flashback segments revealed, Caelondia was wealthy, sure, but not the greatest place. Its people and social structures -- while not necessarily evil -- wronged the Kid, Zulf, and Zia, and oppressed the Ura. Why bring back that ?

But the Bastion can burn out its battery with another feature. It can fly away. It can take your dysfunctional little post-apocalyptic family wherever you want to go. The answer, then, is obvious: You keep going. Away from all the violence. Toward a better future. Or maybe a worse one. It doesn't matter. You move forward. A lot of people screwed up. Now it's up to you to set things right.

Bastion is about looking back. For Rucks' sake, the game's named after a device created to take the entire world back in time. Tiles of all shapes and sizes rise up to meet your footfalls. They're chunks of the old world – pieces of the past deciding the destination of every step you take. Occasionally, you'll encounter former citizens of Caelondia – now frozen in ash, dead to the world in all but appearance. They're a sobering reminder of the thrumming society that you used to be part of. You smash them, because The Kid doesn't want to remember. But he can't help it. And all the while, the narrator fills in the blanks, ensuring that every little detail lingers in the front of your mind.

About half-way through the game, the Kid falls into an extremely surreal flashback. Rucks' voice still comes through – albeit quiet and distorted – but it's finally the Kid's thoughts that are doing the talking. “He has the nerve to flash the shield he stole ,” says the garbled narration. “Would you look at what he did to poor old Rondi the bartender?” And finally, the kicker: “The Kid succeeds were the Calamity failed.” The Kid doesn't want to be here. While obligation propels him forward, guilt and sorrow hold him back. Hell, for all he knows, creatures he's killing all throughout his journey could very well be the last of their kind. But he presses on in hopes that – ultimately – all of his damage will be undone.

And then there's Zulf. When he discovers the true method behind the Calamity's seeming madness, he's driven to seek out revenge against those responsbile – you included, if necessary. But he fails utterly – just like the Calamity before him. Even so, more people die because Zulf can't let go of the past. Many more. Out of all that, though, comes one incredible moment.

Zulf is ultimately stabbed in the back by his Ura clansmen, and you can either charge in, stare them straight in the eyes, and send each and every one fearfully fleeing into well-deserved graves, or you can drop your weapon, pick up Zulf's barely breathing form, and carry him to safety. It's your call.

Zulf nearly ruined your chances to fix everything once, and he'll probably do it again. Besides, what's one more despicable deed? The Kid's already got gallons of blood on his hands. It's all for the greater good, he tells himself. So he strides into a room full of Zulf's countrymen, muscles snapping, crackling, and generally doing their best impression of a bowl of Rice Krispies under the strain of a weapon thrice his size.

At this point, it's a matter of same song, different verse. You or them. The Bastion or them. Even though the Ura have overwhelming numbers on their side, the Kid's gigantic new toy makes dealing with them seem like child's play. You kill them all in cold blood. You escape as glassy, frozen eyes look on in unison.

You return to the Bastion. Finally, you can restore it. You can start over. You can kill the Calamaity before it harms a hair on anyone's head. Or can you? Rucks isn't so sure. Maybe you'll just drop the ball again. Maybe you're already stuck in one big, misery packed infinite loop. But you've come so far, hurt so many, destroyed so much. There's nothing left. Caelondia may have wronged and oppressed the Kid, Zulf, and Zia, but it's still better than this .

The Bastion can burn out its battery with another feature. It can fly away. But where will you go? And why? The answer, then, is obvious: You press the giant “REDO” button. You've been chasing the past this whole time, but you could never quite catch it. Well, here you go.  A lot of people screwed up. Now it's up to you to set things right.

So, which of those interpretations is right? Simple: both. I originally wanted to write a big analysis of Bastion, but instead, I wrote two. They're both equally valid for me, though, and that's key. For many reasons (narration, innovative usage of music, etc), Bastion is the type of story only a videogame can tell. However, the biggest of them – in my eyes – is that it can so effectively put me in two entirely different, largely opposite states of mind. Bastion can shift the ideals and motivations behind every action I perform, and – more importantly – it can make me believe in them.

Plenty of other games provide multiple paths, moral choices, and all that  – and some of them even let you be a freaking Jedi. So what makes Bastion better? Well, foremost, those other games do a remarkably bad job of making me feel like both sides of the coin are viable. BioShock's “saintly savor versus Hitler mixed with Satan mixed with Hitler again” approach to saving Little Sisters is the most infamous example, but other big names are equally guilty of choice-based laziness in their own ways. I mean, don't get me wrong: I love Mass Effect. But sometimes, it's a bit too easy to see BioWare in the background, tugging on the strings to make conversations and plot threads go in a certain direction regardless of your choices.

What reallly makes Bastion work, I think, is its consistency. The game's by no means perfect, but I reached the end of both playthroughs, and everything added up. There was no “Now waitaminute ...!” moment. Generally with these things, the devil's in the details. Something stands out as nonsensical or completely glossed over. Here, though, there was no devil – just tons and tons of attention to detail.

In such a young medium, there's a lot to be said for that. Too many games hastily scrawl “consistency” at the bottom of their priority lists before breaking out the fancy calligraphy set for things like “bigger explosions” and “more totally rad slow-mo during the first level.” So we end up with games that are frontloaded with mind-blowing moments – mostly to draw players in – only to lose steam en route to typically miserable non-endings. (Think BioShock, Bulletstorm, Knights of the Old Republic II – the list goes on.)

Bastion, on the other hand, feels as though it's been carefully crafted. It's deliberate and smart in almost everything it does. Narration's perfectly placed and almost never repeats, the game ends exactly when it needs to, and it leaves just enough open to interpretation. On top of all that, Supergiant avoided the temptation of throwing in a bunch of tiny, superfluous choices just for choice's sake in favor of two incredibly meaningful – and therefore, powerful – moments. So I guess what I'm trying to say is...

Bastion is about restraint. Modern game design is frequently about throwing in everything, the kitchen sink, and a moral dilemma that ponders whether or not the greatest kitchen sink of all... is man . More guns. More powers. More characters. More choices. More sequels. More, more, more. Bastion, though, does exactly what it needs to. Then it ends. Really, though, for all the time I spent on this article, I don't even think it comes close to doing Bastion justice. Go play it. Experience it for yourself. Love it or hate it, I guarantee that you won't find anything else quite like it.

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