A few months ago, I finally had the chance to settle in and give Bastion the good ol’ first playthrough. Which, as it turns out, very handily gave way to the second and third as well. Planning a fourth as we speak.
I had heard tell of the Greatness That Was from the daily Ontological Geek office chatter. You know, in between sharing our favorite spots to pick up the most expensive evening entertainment while slurping Patron salaciously through our six-figure grills out of our exclusive autographed collectible Bob Barker teacups.
Now, when I’m given an admonition to Check Something Out by someone whom I admire, and whose opinion I respect, I take it very seriously. Read: I very seriously avoid even being near the recommended object. For, like, about a year. Then I’ll agonize over how everyone else but me is in the Know, which will manifest in a variety of snarky and subversive comments, cruel jokes, and touching myself very gently at night while bawling in hideous, despairing abandon.
Anyway, one day in fairly recent memory, I broke up with my girlfriend of three years. We had been planning on getting married. I was very close to her parents and was, in all, a very major part of her life. Some things had happened earlier that year to both of us, pretty bad psychological disturbances, which wound up infecting our relationship. Drove a wedge. It became evident that our troubles wouldn’t cease until we had Moved On quite entirely. So, very maturely of us, we did. Before we got married. And even though both of us had seen those omnipresent but shamefully retrospect-specific Signs, for – well, as long as we’d been together almost, it was still a shock to the core when the end finally came along. All in a day. Just like that.
A couple of weeks after the fact, my ubiquitous mix of detached boredom and intensely focused curiosity compelled me to sit down, download and play Bastion. At first, I was mildly resistant to its clunky controls and rather – at first glance – trite and contrived interface. But the conceit of persistent, dynamic narration, and very, very smooth gameplay kept me trudging forward. In a short time, I began developing a very deep, resonant emotional connection with the game. It seemed to strike me on a basal level. Animal, very nearly. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was that kept me playing.
The artwork was excellent, the story, sublime (very literally, in that it kept me yearning for more, even as it satisfied fundamental, subconscious desires). I became determined to parse my reaction to it, figure out what it was that made Bastion to special to me.
(Full disclosure: I had not felt such a powerful connection to a videogame since Mass Effect 3, which deserves its own article, and before that, Diablo 2, for psychological reasons about which I dare not speculate.)
Imagine my surprise and astonishment, when, while combing through the Ontological Geek archives in my quest to understand my reaction to Bastion’s narrative, I came across our very Editor’s (Bill Coberly’s) preferred interpretation thereof:“…Bastion can be understood at least partly as being about how to pick oneself up and move along after a horrible personal Calamity.”
We’re talking about video games as art, and therefore, frequently as literature, so we find ourselves faced with the irksome task of designating the critical form we deploy in their respect.
So far as my reaction to Bastion (and many other things) is concerned, I’m rather a fan of reader-response criticism. This critical theory holds that the evident meaning or truth present in a work of literature is wholly dependent on the receiver. The player’s (or audience’s, or reader’s) individual reaction makes for the cornerstone of any substantive thought concerning the poignancy, relevance, or truth of an artistic instance.
I like this because I’m selfish. Irrevocably so. Although I have grown up, and realized that much of the importance I ascribe to myself (and, for that matter, my fellow humans, in the Grand Scheme of things) is a chasing after of the wind, to a cosmic degree. I think that reminders of human insignificance have ethical importance generally, and so I try to remember my own on a consistent basis. But I still can’t help feeling, especially with videogames, that there is Something there for Me.
In short, I felt such a profound connection to Bastion because I felt I could identify, on a personal level, with the Kid’s trials and travails in the ruins of Caelondia. I felt myself wandering among the wreckage, wondering what to do. I saw a path before me, and couldn’t explain its origins or implications. But I followed it nonetheless. What I foresaw was none too promising, at the beginning. But as my determination persisted, so did my hope that what lay around the corner was something…grand.
So, I woke up one day. Saw that my whole world had gotten “all twisted.” Floating pieces, everywhere. Of me. Of my friends, my former social life (hard won, you see, as at heart I’m a loner). My most treasured mementos. Sacred relics.
I got up. Set off for the Bastion, the safest place I know. Along the way, I found myself having to face the remnants of my former life. Now, all undone. I heard voices, advice of a Stranger, knew that the straight-and-narrow would form underneath my feet. So long as I kept moving, It’d “point the way.”
I finagled my way through all of my emotional entanglements, back to the place from whence I came. Even before arriving, I knew that things wouldn’t be the same there, either. Many things had come apart. Even then, I saw a hint of wonder, true adventure. Exploration, the potential for something beautiful to rise from the ashes of my total emancipation from everything I once held to be constant and immutable.
I made new friends. Upgraded my inventory. Drank a bit. All of the self-medicating procedures the Kid employs to get through, and to do what needs to be done.
In the end, I chose to Evacuate. Created for myself a New Life by abandoning the old one. Gathered my survivors – those things and people, memories I chose to keep around. Detonated the cores – those heady personal commitments keeping me bound to my former sense of self. Attached sails to the Bastion – gave my life a sense of mobility and undetermined freedom, so that I could see where the winds might take me.
So far, the journey has been worth it. I don’t regret it. I don’t know if I could do anything about it if I did.
I confess that I’m a dreadfully sentimental fellow, at heart. But Bastion helped get me through one of the more difficult periods of my existence to date. I ascribe this to my own reader-response.
Because a reader has to have something to respond to. The developers of Bastion knew that their work would be open to manifold interpretations, responses, and criticisms, praise and, possibly, vehement repudiation. In so doing, they opened up the possibility for people to discover it, and find it life-changing, action-inducing.
I know I did. In fact, I’d even go so far as to offer a recommendation: if you, dear reader, have found yourself faced with the prospect of having to deal with picking up the pieces of your life, your very world, do me a favor. Give Bastion a try. Treat it as a sort of survival guide, an Aesop and introduction to that bootstrap-tugging we all must do from time to time, no matter what besets us. It worked for me.
One thing’s for sure. Calamities do come along, and when they do, we’ll only have ourselves to rely on, for a time.
But there’s always another adventure. Whether we chose to save or destroy, restore or abandon.
And it just might be better than anything you could have imagined.