Floating World

by Wardog

Like everyone else, Wardog has been playing Bastion.
~
Kid sits down, tries to write a review, but the words ain't coming.

Let's try this.

A silent, nameless, white-haired protagonist wakes up one morning in a bed in a shattered room floating de-anchored in a swirl of coloured space. “Proper stories supposed to start at the beginning,” growls a narrator reminiscent of the cowboy in The Big Lebowski, “here a kid whose whole world got all twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky.” A tap on the gamepad and the kid is out of bed. “He gets up,” continues the Narrator, “sets off to The Bastion, where everyone agreed to go in case of trouble.” There's nowhere to go except a door-shaped hole in the hole so that's where the analogue stick takes him. Coloured paving stones fly into a path. “Ground forms up to point the way,” comments the Narrator. “He don't stop to wonder why.”

So begins Bastion, an isometric action-RPG, available for PC or Xbox for just under a tenner. It seems to be the game everyone is talking about at the moment (even a surprisingly uncritical Yahtzee) and I can see why. There's lots to love about Bastion, from its gorgeous presentation to the elegance of its mechanics, and, make no mistake, I do love it. Best “just under a tenner” I've spent for a while.



In terms of gameplay, it's a fairly standard action-RPG. You run along, gathering up XP, and laying the smackdown on a variety of rapidly spawning enemies but the various places you visit, are sufficiently streamlined and differentiated that the experience never grows stale. Everything is beautifully detailed and carefully contextualised: you start to recognise the various creatures, and learn something of their background. The places, ruined as they are, all have their own history and the visual device of the forming and breaking pathways creates a atmosphere of change, variety and transience. And there are so many exciting ways of tweaking your character, spending your XP and customising your weapons that you're always finding new ways of approaching the game's challenges.

XP is a straightforward bar; every level allows you consume a new “spirit” created in your distillery. These have a range of interesting effects, as well as characterful descriptions and amusing names – my personal favourite being “Stabsinthe.” Over the course of the game the Kid acquires a small arsenal of weapons, ranging from his “old friend” (a big hammer) to a chaos cannon, all of which play slightly differently, and have a wide array of strengths, and weaknesses, and can be upgraded by collecting memory fragments, found by exploring the world and defeating monsters. You get a choice of two alternative paths per weapon, and a total of five upgrades, each requiring the appropriate material and enough fragments, but the game is wonderfully liberating in letting you change your upgrades around once you've paid the cost. This encourages experimentation and makes you genuinely fond of your equipment – since you're never just swapping one generic longsword of the badger for another generic broadsword of the piranha.

The Bastion serves as the main gameplay hub. From here, you'll explore the game map while bringing back the cores and fragments that allow you to build, and then upgrade, the various structures of The Bastion. The pattern is slightly repetitive, and the plot is basically a series of not very subtle MacGuffin hunts, but the pleasure of restoring The Bastion, and deciding whether you want to build a shrine or upgrade your forge, keeps the experience engaging. The emphasis seems to be very much on choice. You can choose to worship one of the Gods, for example, when you've built a shrine, which will make battles harder (in a variety of ways) but give you greater rewards. The point is, this offers you an extensive degree of customisation for your game experience, right down to how challenging, and in what ways, you want to make it.

The thing is, the gameplay is sleek and non-offensive, but at its heart its a straight-down-the-line action-RPG. You go places, you collect things, you kill stuff, you get more powerful, you make your equipment more powerful, you rinse and repeat. But there's been such an amount of love and attention poured into the game that playing is a constant delight. I absolutely loved the colourful, shifting world, the charming descriptions of pretty much everything you encounter, and the soundtrack is a little piece of a perfection all on its own, contributing such a lot to the mood of the game. There's even a song:



This song absolutely typifies Bastion: you have the juxtaposition of the country guitar and the Eastern strings, melding two unlikely traditions, deceptively simple lyrics underscoring a theme of racial division, and that poignant combination of beauty and melancholy, bitterness and hope.

The story of Bastion, which I will shall try to explain without too much spoilering, concerns the mysterious “Calamity” which has led to the shattered world in which the Kid first awakes. As you progress through the game, your goals are simple enough: find survivors, restore The Bastion, stay alive. But the Narrator mixes commentary with memory so that the further into the future you get, the more you understand about the past. I've mentioned the Narrator already – you meet him soon enough, a old man called Rucks – and he is the primary mechanism through which the story is delivered and filtered. And it works astonishingly well, bridging the gap between ludo and narrative (ouch, can't believe I wrote that) in a coherent and cohesive way. Rucks tells you about the places you visit and the people you encounter, making the world, and its ruination, feel real, but he also validates and contextualises your in-game actions. For example, the first time I missed my step and plummeted off the edge of a path, he observed “And then he falls to his death. I'm just fooling” which made me chuckle and on subsequent occasions, he would throw out some circumstance-specific statement, such as “Kid had to watch his step in The Cauldron” or whatever.

He also makes your game-play choices feel like genuine in-world choices, as the narration seems to dynamically react to how you play. For example, early on you come to a crossroads while searching for one of the cores. I set off randomly in any old direction because there didn't seem any reason to act otherwise: “Kid figured heading down would take him to the core...” explained Rucks. I loved having my gamerish disregard transformed into strategy by the alchemy of narrative. Rucks will also comment on your weapon choices and combinations, and on your general approach to the game, among other things, which, once again, embeds gameplay in storytelling, providing a diegetic framework for the decisions you make. There's also an extent to which it functions almost as a meta-commentary on the tropes of gameplay. As I mentioned earlier, the first weapon you find in the game is your trusty hammer. And, like any action-rpg player, the first thing I did on discovering a weapon was run around in circles, mashing the attack button, until I'd pretty much smashed up every piece of scenery on the screen. “Kid just raged for a while,” said Ruck, darkly.

It is possible, of course, to overstate the value of this device. It is assuredly one of the most successful marriages of gameplay and story I've ever encountered, but not every game can be narrated by a whiskey-voiced cowboy. It's something that works beautifully in Bastion – and makes the game truly something remarkable – but it's not, y'know, the great gameplay/story revolution or whatever.

The other thing that took me by surprise was the decision that hit me at the end of the game. Actually, there were two but the first was a relatively simple one. The second, however, was so vast and morally complex that I actually had to put the gamepad down, walk away and think about it for a bit. That probably sounds either mad or pretentious, or mad and pretentious, but firstly I wasn't prepared to have to make a decision in a “simple” action-RPG and secondly the decision was literally world-changing. And I realised suddenly how much I had come to care for the four companions I'd met in this broken world. They are not voiced, they don't join your party, there are no complicated dialogue trees, or lengthy textual descriptions but somehow they'd become my friends. I was, when I finally made it, happy with my final decision. I don't think, on consideration, I would have done otherwise given the choice again (although, of course, I could always play the game again to see). But it has nevertheless haunted me for days.

I'm going to talk about this decision, and some of the game's stylistic choices, after a massive honking spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler warning. But if this is as far as you're going to read: I will simply urge you to the play the game. It's delightful. I would probably also recommend you play on Xbox, or with a gamepad, if you have the option since the diagonals are a killer.

So...

yeah...

spoilers...

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The Calamity comes about because the Caelondians (your people) basically try to genocide the Ura (some other people). Essentially the Caelondians come up with a device that will seal the Ura forever underground, except an Ura sabotages it and this causes the Calamity.

On a very basic level, the Caelondians live in the sky, the Ura live underground but there seem to be massively complex ideological differences underpinning all this as well. The Caelondians seem all into tech, and the Ura are more naturalistic, the Caelondians comercialise their religion, the Ura are offended by graven images (at one point you pick up an adorable Pyth plushie – Pyth being the bull-God of order and commotion, and Zulf, one of your companions, disdains it), and so on and so forth. The thing is, I think the Caelondins are very broadly meant to be associated with the the west and the Ura with the east. They way the Ura dress (long robes) and look (pale and dark haired) suggests this to me, as well as the slightly higher-pitched sound effects and the weaponry they use (like the naginata and the repeating crossbow). I don't mean to get my minority warrior freak on, but I think when you stylistically set up an east-west dichotomy like that you're opening a can of worms that you might not entirely want to be opened. Or rather that you might not be able to deal with appropriately within the limitations of a computer game.

The thing is, there's plenty of evidence that the Caelondians were not so great actually. As a Caelondian, Rucks' narration generally communicates nostalgia and affection, and a yearning to go back to the way things were, but there's plenty of darkness in there too. There's a general suggestion of moral and social decay, and the lives of the Kid, Zia and Zulf have been far from happy in the city. But both as a westerner, and as the gamer behind the Kid from Caelondia, the Ura are portrayed as being, in many ways, profoundly other. Of course, you transcend this perception of otherness through your friendship with Zia and Zulf but there comes a point when you go up against hordes of interchangeable Ura, waving naginata at you, and I genuinely felt like I'd been sent forth to kill the nasty foreigners. I don't know if it was meant to be making me deliberately uncomfortable but I would have been more at ease with the moral message if there'd been less of a real world race correspondence. As a game about racial division it's interesting and at least reasonable subtle (since the cultural hostility is deep and endemic and nobody at any point says how much they hate those white-faced Ura), but as a game about how we should be nicer to Japanese people it's a bit embarrassing. I just think it's inherently problematic to use stylistic markers associated with the Western perception of the East to denote “the exotic other.”

The Ura, incidentally, are trying to stop you from restoring The Bastion and, once Zulf discovers the truth about the Calamity, he betrays you to rejoin his people. It's hard to really blame Ura for being a bit pissed off about the proposed genocide, but, again, I felt the moral pendulum started swinging a bit awkwardly at the point at which, once their plan fails and you overcome them, they turn on Zulf and attack him too. Those foreigners, eh? No loyalty or honour. Again, I understand that the situation is meant to be morally ambiguous, with good and bad on both sides, and the tragedy being ultimately a very human tragedy of individuals making mistakes rather than a specific villain ruining the world – but, once again, that ambiguity would be more meaningful if hadn't ended on a gigantic cop-out. Having Zulf's own people turn on him when things go wrong essentially undermines his motivation for trying to save them in the first place. Also, this leads to the noble-hearted Caelondian saving the Ura from his own treacherous people.

The reason Rucks is so eager to restore The Bastion is because it contains a fail-safe device that essentially re-sets time, putting everything back to how it was before the calamity. But, you also discover, The Bastion has one other function: it can jettison the city core, transforming it into a sort of fully functional floating city that could take you anywhere. The choice you face, therefore, is putting the world back to the way it was, saving thousands upon thousands of morally degenerate genocidal racists (or “lives” if you prefer) or live in the world as is, with your new found friends in your floating city. Okay, I've been slightly harsh on the morally degenerate genocidal racist score: there is no real evil in Bastion, just mistakes, humanity and bad choices. The point is, it's a city full of people, and there's no evidence the Calamity is an inevitable consequence of, well, anything . Also, on the eve of the calamity, Zulf had just proposed to the woman he loved (a Caelondian) so going back to the past would not be a future without hope or happiness for some, perhaps for many.

I have to admit, race concerns aside, I found this decision genuinely fascinating. It came slightly out of left field because the fluid, emergent form of the game in general hadn't led me to expect a sudden either/or, but it was embedded so well in the context of everything preceding it, that I was stymied. I've been reading around in the Internet since I made my decision and one popular (but stupid) opinion seems to be that it's about personal selflessness, putting the needs of others above your own, saving thousands of lives at the cost of maybe three. How Peter Molyneux. Thankfully, I believe the decision is much more interesting than that and, in the end, I jettisoned the core. I will not lie: love did play a part in my decision. I wanted the Kid to be with Zia, and Ruck and Zulf. But one of the major themes of the game seemed to me to be the importance of memory: Ruck's narration, the act of constructing memorials for the lost, the literal collecting of memory shards to upgrade your character, and, of course, the constantly shifting, reforming and re-shaping of the world itself. From the old ruins, come new paths. This is how the past shapes the future. And if we do not remember the mistakes we have made, then we are doomed to repeat them.

Of course that's just my take. It's deliciously arguable either way. And it's possible that I'm just over-compensating for the unbearable guilt of having sacrificed thousands of imaginary people to fly around a world with my friends: the cowboy, the singer and the survivor.

Either way, it was deeply refreshing to play an RPG in which I neither defeated a villain nor saved the world.
~

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~
Comments (go to latest)
valse de la lune at 06:39 on 2011-09-07
I'll post more thought on this later; like you I found the ending quite moving and I have Many Thoughts about Bastion. But--what did you think of Zia getting a voice (literally!) to speak with only at the very end, when hitherto you only heard her in the song and the narrative is entirely shaped by Ruck?
Wardog at 09:11 on 2011-09-07
I, too, found the ending very moving - and I've been thinking about the game a lot since I've finished it, which is comparatively rare for me.

I wasn't actually mad keen on Zia getting a voice, it was a bit sudden and incongruous and I felt it impacted too much on the final decision. I mean it seemed to setting it up to be Rucks versus Zia, and whether you want to save lives or shack up with a girl you fancy. I mean I think there are many interesting philosophical reasons to jettison the core; because it Zia's life was sad before is not necessarily one of them.

Looking forward to your thoughts :)
valse de la lune at 14:01 on 2011-09-07
It's kind of irritating that she finally gets to say something for herself and it's mostly to confirm her role as a kinda-sorta designated romantic interest.

Anyway, about the Ura, I'm... very touchy about fantasy analogues for racial minorities, for obvious reasons--and doubly so when the analogue in question is so fucking pasty I thought they were vampires. It's intellectually dishonest and doesn't read to me as anything like a serious attempt to tackle the issue of colonialism. The final bits where they show up to do their noble savages thing made me really angry (what the hell is this even supposed to be? A mix of Roma and what, Zulu warriors? They didn't read as Chinese to me; the style of dress is way off; see Zia's head scarf. If, however, they were meant to be an East Asian analogue, well, I'm going to mail Supergiant rotten fish). It's out of place for such a cute game and I wish the author(s) hadn't taken this angle at all. Please writers, unless you have the intelligence and perspective and insight of say Octavia Butler, stop it right the hell now with the race thing. Stop it forever. Fucking Minority Warriors.
Wardog at 15:41 on 2011-09-07
For what it's worth, I don't think they were specifically trying to write an East versus West thang. I mean, it's clearly just a fantasy story with a racial division theme, not somebody trying to be insightful about the west being a bunch of big meanies.

I did, however, read the style of the Ura as being faintly Japanese but that could just mean the racist here is me - the way they dress suggested kimono, they seem to fight with nagainatas, and everything you learn about their culture suggests that it's quite Mysterious TM and Ritualistic.

I mean, for God's sake Kyra, it's just a game, and it's cuuuute, so I could have totally over-reacted but I just worry that every time a text wants to mark exoticism or difference they, consciously or otherwise, reflect perceptions of real world difference.

I mean they could have made the Caelondians bears and the Ura moles, y'know. Or whatever. I just sort of felt they were heading towards Cowboys Versus the Japanese without really being aware of it.

Loved the game though, loved it.
valse de la lune at 16:22 on 2011-09-07
No, I'm not exactly commenting on the Ura bouncing off what you've said--my remarks are based on my own reactions (i.e. I don't think you're overthinking this etc), and the combination of "marginalized people" and "noble savages" hugely puts me off. Without that I could have liked the game without reservations. :/

I must say that the PC port was pretty well done, with higher-res art assets for PC resolutions and everything.
Wardog at 16:50 on 2011-09-07
Like I say, it's really not my place to point at depictions of other races and made loud minority warrior comments; I just felt a bit uncomfortable and, as you've pointed out, the whole noble savage thing on its own is the ick.

I played on Xbox from the comfort of sofa - the graphics were lovely enough it probably didn't do it justice, admiring them from the other side of the room.
valse de la lune at 17:09 on 2011-09-10
One more thing: I can't be the only one who's put the ending theme on repeat and listened to it like a gazillion times, right?

:'(
Wardog at 22:51 on 2011-09-10
Guilty.

I was listening to it while writing the review.
Bryn at 17:18 on 2013-03-19
Look, new thing!

Female protagonist is a nice change, especially in light of some points raised about Bastion's use of gender. I hope they do as good a job writing for this character as they did for the guys in Bastion.
Wardog at 14:39 on 2013-03-23
I am super excited for this. I loved Bastion.
http://lalunatique.livejournal.com/ at 02:04 on 2013-10-22
Confession time: I found out about Bastion through this article and played it just so I could get past the spoiler alerts. (Of course the game itself sounded appealing, otherwise I wouldn't have minded being spoiled.) The story is short and sweet, and gameplay was hugely enjoyable. The final choice left me boggled and thoughtful, too.

I also chose to dump the core, for several reasons. Like you said, without memory people will just make the same mistakes. Rucks himself admitted there was no guarantee the Calamity wouldn't happen all over again. And if it wasn't the same chain of events it would be something else, given the hatred that existed. The way I saw it, the least-worst choice in this utterly crapsack situation was to preserve the memories and mistakes of the four fatally flawed failures on board the Bastion so they can travel around telling people to avoid the pratfalls they and their civilizations made.

In the end I just didn't buy Rucks' idea for the eternal reset button, and I hated how it served as justification for the Kid's slaughtering countless creatures and people. With this ending they're all going to have to live with what they did--Rucks for being complicit in the Calamity in the first place and for cheerleading the Kid through the killing fields, Zulf for seeking mindless revenge in the shattered remains of his world, Zia for her selfishness in not giving a shit about the countless people who died, and the Kid for the destruction he caused to no account. I hope it hurts them all. I hope it hurts good, because pain is the only natural and moral reaction to all they've seen and done.

Perhaps paradoxically, I also wish all of them good lives, lots of adventure, companionship, and love. I hope their mistakes have made them wiser, and I hope they'll spread that wisdom to others so not only they but the world can grow and learn.

As an Asian woman I give my Official Minority Stamp of Approval to the awful handling of race and gender in Bastion, wonderful as the game and story are. The Ura did in fact strike me as Asian-influenced--their culture seemed interesting and I would have liked to learn more, but this external view didn't do much other than exoticize them in the tired old tropes. Also I really could have done without having to mow through hordes and hordes of them. At the end of all that, rescuing Zulf for me was more about tiredness than anything else; I wanted my Kid to be tired of all the death and destruction when there had been too much of both already, and no longer caring if he died without the almighty Ram (not the first Ura invention in the game to be appropriated by Caelondians.).

Also, Zia. Ugh, Zia. The character, together with Zulf, managed to combine Racefail and Genderfail into a giant ball of suck. Because obviously the males of the Other Culture (plus females who are not really characters but interchangeable, disposable sprites) are threats to fight against, but the females are harmless and docile love interests. OBVIOUSLY. At the very least she wasn't kidnapped, but it also seems (though it was vague) that she managed to get herself locked up anyway, because everyone knows Those People will turn on their own at the drop of a hat. I felt like throwing my keyboard across the room from the offensiveness of it all, all the more because the overall story is compelling and engaging--my frustration was all the greater because I'd gotten hooked, whereas if the story had alienated or bored me I would just have rolled my eyes.

So thanks for introducing me to this great, thought-provoking game. I might have spent too many hours of my life fiddling with the keyboard and mouse controls and given myself repetitive stress injury, but with the increased blood pressure from some aspects of the story, my body was probably tricked into thinking it was getting a much-overdue workout.
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