After a semester of frustrating academics while studying abroad, the spring of my Junior year in college I decided to enroll in my first philosophy course. Something about the liberal arts grandiosity of a course entitled “Death and the Limits of Representation” piqued my interest. The teacher was a wiry, fiercely energetic man with a staggering fluency in the lexicon of critical theory—words that I struggled to type correctly on a page, let alone pronounce. “Aporias, by Derrida,” he said one morning to a mostly hung-over classroom, “beginning at the end.” We stared blankly as he leapt into his seat, eyes darting back and forth. “Well, come on guys, you can see some of the problems here.” Another pause. “All of what we read sees death as the end of something,” he restlessly fingered the stubble on his chin. “So how do we do this, begin at the end?”
It’s a weird question, a disturbing one. In video games, the fact that you die constantly is a peculiar area of inquiry that has not received enough attention from critics and game developers alike. Games that address this unique dilemma fascinate me. Yet being nerdy and academic, I’ve always enjoyed games that don’t shy away from being characterized as too intellectual. This, however, usually led me to impenetrably dense fantasy RPGs that spent more time explicating lore than telling a good story.
From its first moment, Bastion announces itself as something unusual. “Proper stories supposed to start at the beginning,” an omniscient voice with the gravelly intonations of Tom Waits tells you, “ain’t so simple with this one.” RPGs often begin as gingerly as a first date, as if you and your player character are both trying to decide if you can spend ten to two hundred hours together. Bastion opens on a small room floating amidst a warm, fiery darkness. A small boy with a shock of gray hair and anime-inspired androgyny lays asleep on the bed. Bastion literalizes the player’s hesitance; the boy is not even given a name, referred to simply as The Kid. It’s unclear how to take the next step, how to begin a story at its end, when nothing lies before you.
“Ground forms up under his feet as if pointing the way,” the narrator continues as you venture outward through a door opening into apparent nothingness, “he don’t stop to wonder why.” It is your first step into the spontaneously forming world of Bastion, the first step away from the narrator’s recreation of events. Playing games allows you to be more reckless than in normal life—I probably wouldn’t walk off the ledge on Riverside Park expecting the Hudson to spawn rocks at my feet—but the incoherence of Bastion’s terrain makes every movement uncertain, every action liberating for its impermanence. You step forward in the wrong direction expecting a new path to reveal itself and plunge into the world below. “And then he falls to his death,” the narrator laments, a surprising waver in his voice as you see the kid fade into spectral obscurity. Then he suddenly slams back into the ground, having plummeted from the sky above. “I’m just fooling,” the narrator adds wryly.
Most reviews of the XBLA version of Bastion mentioned the narration as a clever twist that resuscitated the tired gameplay of hack-and-slash action RPGs. There are many things I could mention here—the excellent voice acting, airtight gameplay mechanics, beautiful art direction, and clever, self-consciously gritty writing. Taken together, all the wonderful elements of Bastion’s design and art direction felt like I was playing through a rugged, shifting mosaic. It’s as if Cormac McCarthy tried to write the screenplay for a Miyazaki movie, down to the level of the kid’s titular role from Blood Meridian. But there is something more interesting that takes place in Bastion, something that occurs in the space between your player actions and the narrator’s recollection of events.
John Carmack, one of modern gaming’s founding fathers, once said that stories in video games matter as much as stories in pornography, a point that Heavy Rain’s creator David Cage opposed in his self-conscious effort to push the medium forward. Exposition delivered in cut-scenes, like the flimsy conversations that somehow justify spontaneous orgies, are usually perceived as a reward or hindrance (depending on your perspective) to the actual gameplay. While most games that centralize their quality as “narrative” games today emphasize branching, interactive storylines and player agency, Bastion takes a unique and innovative approach.
The narrator tracks every movement—prodding you with jokes when you’re too clumsy, complimenting deft fighting skills, and explaining the history and significance of the worlds you traverse. There are gaps in this storytelling—the surprisingly intricate, micromanaged decisions you have to make during combat don’t bear that kind of iteration. But as the game wears on, the distance between your choices and his understanding become glaringly apparent. At the end of the final level, you are given the option to rescue one of your former comrades (a man named Zulf) or leave him to his death. The narrator wants him to die, wants vengeance for his treachery earlier in the story. And given his gravelly-voiced, jaded perspective, the thought of compassion is beyond him. Saving Zulf is an ironic choice, then, and the narration continues oblivious to your act of tremendous forgiveness. This moment is muted and intense as you carry Zulf’s body through a sea of enemies, suddenly unable to resort to any of the standard movements of attack or evasion that you have spent the rest of the game mastering.
Bastion’s ending doesn’t capitalize upon this powerful scene. But this may be a symptom of design imperfections nobody has really figured out. The tragic fact of most “narrative” games is that, for the most part, they require the player to withdraw from the “action” of the story to enter into dialogue. This triggers a spontaneous shift in perspective for the player, one that is disorienting or simply boring. Games where the story is integrated seamlessly into the gameplay, I imagine, are few and far between. With the narration in Bastion you are playing through the story as it is being told, living history and memory as it is being constructed.
How do you tell a captivating story, after all, when you are faced with the demand to maximize player agency? In an interview for Kill Screen magazine, Bastion’s writer dismissed the idea “that games should be fully open-ended and allow players to create their own stories.” The game itself feels as if you are both compelling and resisting the designs of the narrator even as he foretells them. After returning from the final level, he prods the kid to stand up and complete the story. “C’mon, that ain’t funny. Now get up,” he says, starting to sound frustrated at your incompetence.
You don’t have much of a choice to not finish his story once you do stand up. The only way to fully create your own story, I suppose, is to stand up from your seat and leave the characters of Bastion in suspended animation. It’s a sign of the excellent writing and engaging gameplay that you want to explore each possible ending, no matter if any or all of them rub you the wrong way. While it certainly sticks to its story, it invites you to resist it, to read the text of the game in different and discursive ways. But, after all, isn’t this where good stories are made, in the faults and cracks that open into memory? “The past,” the narrator sighs at one point, “the only good thing to come out of the past is history.”