The Storytelling of Bastion: Another Look

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I’m replaying through Bastion. Don’t ask me why, it’s like that stereotypical pop song where the dude who’s hasn’t thought about that one girl in years calls her up at 2am, only instead of calling girls I’m smashing things up and listening to the sexiest narrator this side of Sam Elliott.

Proper story's supposed to start at the beginning... got any sasparilla?

Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning… got any sasparilla?

 

If you don’t know anything about the game, you should just go buy it given the fact that it’s one of the top 10 in an extremely long list of games I’ve played. I’m serious, I’ve played hundreds and hundreds of games, and this is one that I’d happily replay until the sequel comes out. 

There’s gonna be a sequel, right? Right, guys?

Anyway, the core of the game’s storytelling is a brilliantly voiced narrator by the name of “Rucks.” (See image 1: old moustachio’d guy on left.) Your actions trigger different snippets of monologue: you fall off the edge, he says, “The kid can’t be too careful up there.” You get hit, he says, “Baddie got a piece of the kid.” (You’re “the kid,” if you didn’t notice). There are a ton of variations on the things Rucks says, and the things that cause him to talk are surprisingly varied. In fact, quite a bit of the fun of the game is figuring out what you can smash or do (or not do) to get that sexy chocolate voice to whisper more sweet words in your ear. Whether it’s finding a secret pathway, or getting through a battle unscathed, or switching out a weapon as soon as you get it (“It just ain’t the kid’s style. He sticks with his old trusty shotgun instead.”)… there’s a pretty heavy layer of storytelling that permeates the game and helps you suspend your disbelief long enough to really enjoy it.

But there are two parts of this storytelling that I really want to delve into (possibly for the second time? I can’t find an old post I did on Bastion but I was sure there was one). The first is the tutorial aspect of the game. Games suck at tutorials, we’ve been through this. It used to be that the controls and frameworks were simple enough to tell the player “Hey, go!” and then they could kind of get the hang of it, but now, it’s all “Follow this guy,” “Press A repeatedly to strangle from behind,” “Kill hookers by following the button combination flashing on the screen.” My particular favorites are the games that STOP and flash a message until you click some arbitrary “OKAY YES CAN I PLAY NOW” button.  I did a post on tutorials. We’ve been through it. Let’s move on.

Far Cry 3 might be tongue-in-cheek... but I don't know anymore...

Far Cry 3 might be tongue-in-cheek… but I don’t know anymore…

Bastion tutors the player brilliantly: the narrator basically gives you the lowdown of how it happens. The key for using your shield pops unobtrusively up, and then Rucks says, “The kid knows if he gets that shield up at just the right time, those baddies won’t know what hit ’em.” And all of a sudden, you know that there’s an element of timing in your blocking skills, and that timing your blocks correctly gives you a greater advantage against enemies than simply blocking alone. Bang. Consider yourself tutored, fool.

The actual structure of the game tutors players wonderfully as well, by giving “training areas” that have weapon-specific tasks for you to complete, giving greater rewards the more quickly or efficiently you complete them. There’s also a lot of lore attached to each area; the people that used whatever weapon you’re using (but died in the apocalypse that you survived) used this area to train, and only the best could do whatever it is you’re trying to do. Before you reach that pinnacle of skill with the pikes, swords, hammers, guns, bows, etc. you’re fighting with, the narrator says something like, “The marshals used to modify their weapons to squeeze the most juice out of every shot.” All of a sudden, it says “Hey, this challenge is kind of tough, it might be easier if you upgrade your weapon.” The game tutors you, and keeps tutoring you as often as you need it, and never makes you think twice about what you’re learning.

Now, the other aspect of the storytelling is the lore. We’ve been through the lore of Mass Effect and Deus Ex, where you have this “lore” page that always has new entries because you wanted to play a game, not read a novel. Mass Effect tried to circumvent the horribly boring boring-ness of their boring stuff by recording truncated versions of their “important” lore, so you can now process it even MORE slowly! Hooray!

No dice with Bastion. First, it artfully guides you through ruined landscapes that “you” (your character) remember from before the apocalypse, narrating your thoughts and memories as you go along. The character knows what happened, but you’re piecing it together. The other, more important lore aspect of the game comes through in “Who knows where,” a place you can go to at any time while you’re not in a level.

“Who knows where” is a dreamworld-like place where you fight waves of mobs in increasing difficulty for cash. Sounds brilliant already, right? After each wave, Rucks tells a part of a story. There are several different “Who knows where” arenas, and each tells a different story. On my first playthrough, I thought it was kind of cool. On this playthrough, I think it’s inspired by genius, and here’s why.

Pavlov.

Wasn’t he the guy with the dogs and stuff?

Yes. Pavlov showed the way our brain responds to stimuli by training his dogs to see that they’d get meat when he rang a bell. After a while he’d ring a bell and they expected meat even though there wasn’t any.

You fight enemies, you get money (but you also get story). And by tying the two together, the player inexplicably wants to get to the next part of the story, even if that particular wave won’t give them money. They make the story a reward. Not only are the monetary and lore rewards tied together, but the story really IS a reward. I was a little upset in my first playthrough because I couldn’t get through all the waves and hear the story. Instead of defecating it into a lore tab in your menu, Bastion puts it high on a mountain and asks, “Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to hear my sexy chocolate voice explain to you how it all began?” The most important lore stories are compartmentalized in these “Who knows where” sequences, but they engage and interest the players so much that they can’t help but pursue what essentially is a glorified version of what Mass Effect did to their lore. Two sides of the same coin, voice-acting out what you want the player to know. ME did it badly. Bastion nailed it in every way possible.

Folks, it’s been a long run already. 63 blog posts and countless comments, views, shares, likes, and rotten eggs being thrown at me, but I would like to thank my readers. I look at how I was analyzing and deconstructing games back when I started (“Nice graphics, fun to play! Woohoo!”), versus how I’m looking at them and breaking them down now… I’ve come a long, long way in understanding game design. So, if you’ve been a reader since the beginning or this is the first time you’ve ever seen this blog: thank you! You’ve made me a better gamer and a better writer. I’m looking forward to the next 63 posts. See you Monday!

~AG

P.S.: Don’t forget to follow me if you enjoyed what you’re reading!

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About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on November 1, 2013, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. OoOoOo~ Congrats on the possible partnership! Thanks for faithfully blogging each week. 😀

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