Exploring the World You Create

Yes, Pontifus recently wrote about Bastion. I finally got around to finishing the game myself because I wanted to read what he wrote. And his piece is very good, but probably in a different direction. I’m going to take the (doubtlessly more obvious) route of talking about how Bastion is about fantasy. And if you haven’t played yet, the piece will be spoiler-free until the end, where I will insert large, easy-to-see warning tags, so you can read up to then and stop, if you’d like.

Bastion’s a fantasy, or a science-fantasy, or what have you. Its basic plot is that the main character – identified only as “the kid,” wakes up one morning on the Rippling Walls to find the world seems to have ended. The game is narrated by a character you meet, named Rucks, to an unknown third party (unknown most of the way through – if you get as emotionally invested as I did, even this small revelation will be startling and compelling). The Kid’s job is to put the world back together, from the bastion, a safe place that survived the Calamity and has the power to reinvigorate the world.

If you didn’t read Pontifus’s post (it’s spoiler-laden, so maybe you had a good reason not to), I should tell you that there is a strong theme of American frontier life here. You can get six-shooters and carbine rifles, along with pikes, hammers, machetes, and a mortar. No sword, no wonderful, magical weapons. Just simple explorer gear, carefully maintained. Even the weapon leveling system is simple and fascinating – the item you need to level up the pistols is “Something Greasy.” You’re simply sitting down and cleaning, then oiling the gun. Something necessary with a pair of pistols you found out in the woods. Get them perfectly clean and oiled and the weapon is max leveled.

Rucks creates a wonderful sense of history without making the narrative saggy. He hints and tells outright, but never too much, always just a little too little. I wanted to know a little more, all the time, but never needed to. Pikes were favored by the Brushers, responsible for hacking into the brave unknown, while Hammers were used closer to home, for defense and building. I stuck with a machete for a long time, and found the pike my favorite melee, coupled with the pistols (fast-shooting six-guns), then the fire bellows and lastly the carbine.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about, though it’s good on its own. Taken only with what I’ve said, Bastion is an excellent fantasy. It creates a wonderful world and lets the player explore it without shoving it all down the player’s throat. The characters are excellent renditions of familiar archetypes, and the combat is entertaining, though if you do get a copy don’t play the whole game with only one set of weapons. It will get a bit old if you do that. However, it won’t let you – you’ll get the weapons in levels, usually with no way to change back, though sometimes an arsenal shows up.

What did I want to talk about, though? Aside from the narrator, I think Bastion’s probably best known for how the world rises up around the character as you move through the level. Bits and pieces appear from nowhere as the power of the City Crest the Kid bears summons, out of his and everyone’s memory, the corporeal reality of the spirit of the place. Each level, each region you go to, comes back as you remember it, and as Rucks remembers it while narrating. Creatures appear, sometimes having survived the Calamity even when the places they inhabited didn’t. The Kid forces on raw chaos an imprint of past order and the survivors rush in to live within it once he’s done.

That’s the pure stuff of consuming fantasy. The nature of consuming any movie or game or book is that the reader explores into it, creating as he or she goes a path of their own, noticing what they notice on the sides. Ever read a book and wonder why no one likes a certain chapter, or go to a movie with someone who doesn’t remember who a character is after seeing her ten times? They’re noticing different things from you. You are each imprinting your reality into the “chaos” of the narrative – the secret is that the narrative isn’t really chaos, but controlled story-stuff, shaping your imprint as it goes, while allowing it to be wholly your own. So the Kid mirrors the action of the audience, which is stronger in fantasy than any other place, because the reader explores the setting itself, not just the practical setting. Nothing can be taken for granted in a fantasy, and so until you see evidence that people mate to produce children you “explore,” you wonder what could possibly let them have children. (Of course it’s not usually that radical, but stories can and have created that kind of uncertainty).

HERE BE THE SPOILERS! DON’T PASS “GO” IF YOU HAVEN’T BEATEN THE GAME

I mentioned that The Kid imprints the city on its shattered remains. He also did this before the game started – he was stationed on the Rippling Walls when the Calamity hit. He was responsible for protecting the boundary of the city, where it lay on the shore where the settlers had landed from the old country; he was also given the most responsibility for patrols. The Kid, remember, was the only person to do two tours on the Walls. He was the expansion force, and it’s startlingly clear and sensible that he is the one that can bring the city back, put the world back the way it was. Of course the Kid survives when few others don’t: his force of will was already sharpened for this precise task. The Kid’s will allows him to explore the Calamitous countryside and shape it his own way, in the end. The two choices at game’s end are heartbreaking.

I’ll tell you what I did, of course. I saved Zulf and evacuated, heading off to explore the rest of the world. I was already emotionally charged when I found Zulf lying beaten, so I couldn’t possibly have left him behind. And I genuinely thought I might die in trying to save him. I thought the game might end with the Kid and Zulf being killed by that gauntlet. I used up all my potions and struggled to find the shortest route around. I wasn’t sure, even when I hit the skyway, that the Kid would survive. And after that I couldn’t allow things to go back to the way they were. Because we had made them better. That’s the question that Bastion confronts the player with: is it the world itself or the path, the improvements we’ve made, that matter to you? It offers a visceral, fork in the road confrontation that lets the player litmus test him or herself. Bastion exhibits to the player how the player explores the fantastic. If you try to move toward the future and focus on the paths that could lie around every corner – satisfied with the hints and pieces left lying in corners and the dusty memories of old men – decide to evacuate. If you want to find every single thing, know it all, be responsible for uncovering what’s waiting, start up the Bastion engines.

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