About two weeks ago, I finally managed to sit down and play through Bastion, an excellent indie action RPG developed by seven-person studio Supergiant Games that was released in mid-July. It’s an excellent game, and if you haven’t already played it, you should. It’s now available on both Xbox Live and Steam for about $15, and is definitely worth the price. It’s certainly not perfect, but nothing ever is, and it is definitely good enough that it can be recommended wholly without disclaimers or qualification. Fundamentally, it’s very good, and you should play it. It’s almost certainly better than what you were going to be playing anyway.
Since I was struck by just how darn good Bastion was, both as an enjoyable game and as an excellent piece of interactive storytelling, I was seized by about a dozen different ideas for Ontological Geek articles.
What I have settled on to write about today is one of the ways that Bastion manages to be as completely unique as it is. Much of what makes the game interesting is the way in which it unifies various disparate elements which might, at first glance, seem to be irreconcilable, and then uses that tension to produce a better work of art than they would have made had they chosen more obviously-compatible elements. To help shed some light on how this works, I’m going to draw briefly some from the aesthetic theories of Alfred North Whitehead.
First, in case you’re unfamiliar with Bastion, watch this trailer to get some idea what the game is about:
(A Small Part of ) Whitehead’s Theory of Aesthetics
I’ve mentioned Whitehead before on this website, in a discussion of scope, but in case you don’t remember that, in Whitehead’s schema, aesthetic value is derived from taking disparate elements (concepts, characters, musical tones) and working them into harmony with one another. A given work of art has more value (i.e. is “better”) the more harmony it produces, which stands in direct relation to either how many different pieces are harmonized, or how wildly different the pieces in question were.
There is a great deal more to Whitehead’s theory than this, but I think it’s an excellent starting point for a discussion of Bastion, as I think that much of the game’s unique appeal stems from its excellence in doing just this. To help show this, I’m going to look at three separate sets of apparently-contradictory elements which Supergiant Games managed to weave into a harmony.
The first and most obvious thing is the contradiction between the game’s art style and the maturity of its tone. The art style conveys a sort of childlike, fairy-tale, storybook quality tone. The characters (even the one with the mustache) all manage to look sort of like children, with disproportionately-large heads and rounded features, and the game’s color palette consists almost entirely of very bright, warm colors.
The art is certainly beautiful, but it stands in sharp contrast to the game’s tone. It would not be reasonable to refer to Bastion’s story as “dark” or “gritty,” but it is certainly very mature. It is, fundamentally, a story about what to do after a great catastrophe, whether one that is literally apocalyptic or, in a metaphorical sense, more personally so. Further, the game is full of parallels with such weighty real-world themes as colonialism, exploitation of natural resources, and even the use of nuclear weapons.
This is a pretty sharp contrast. If you had only seen screenshots for the game, you would probably assume the game’s story to be fairly straightforward good versus evil, relatively black and white, to match its storybook art. Similarly, if I described to you a game which managed to touch on the treatment of indigenous peoples by imperialist powers as well as raise questions about the nature of regret, you would probably assume such a game would have a more traditionally “mature” art style.
It would be very possible to make a game which tried to be both of these things and failed miserably, but something in Bastion makes the contrast between the art style and the tone wonderful and not distracting. Some of it may, of course, be the exceptional quality of both sides. One might be a lot more willing to put up with cognitive dissonance if all the pieces are at least well-done.
Nevertheless, I would suggest that the real reason these disparate elements come together in harmony is not any individual quality of either element, but rather a third element which bridges the gap between them. I suggest that it is the game’s narrator who provides a sense of continuity between the storybook art and the mature themes and plot.
The narrator, an old man named Rucks, is ubiquitous throughout the game. Hardly 30 seconds go by without Logan Cunningham’s wonderfully raspy voice commenting on something the player has done or advancing the story, and it is both the writing behind the narration and Cunningham’s excellent performance that bridges the gap between the art style and the themes.
The narrator tells the story, and never shies away from commenting on the serious implications of the city’s past, but he does so in a way that fits right in with the art style. The narrator’s friendly, colloquial manner of speech endears him to you and reminds you of listening to your grandfather tell you stories before tucking you in at night, even as he talks of serious things. His voice hardens and becomes somber at times, but it never loses that storytelling quality, thereby ensuring that the game’s apparently contradictory styles are brought into perfect harmony, making the game far more interesting and unique than it would have been otherwise.
Bastion’s soundtrack, written by composer Darren Korb, has received a great deal of acclaim, and rightly so. You can listen to and purchase the soundtrack here, and I strongly encourage you to do both of those things. Korb rather eccentrically described the soundtrack as “acoustic frontier trip-hop,” and if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, we probably shouldn’t be friends.
It works because Korb knows when to use which elements: when to quietly strum at a banjo, when to raise the stakes with low bass beats and a driving rhythm, when to emphasize Eastern or Middle Eastern harmonies or instruments, and when to do all of the above at the same time.
The soundtrack is fantastic on its own, but it’s particularly interesting to look at in the context of the game itself. A good soundtrack isn’t just composed of a bunch of good songs, it actually serves to make the game better by creating the right feel and tone, and it is here that Korb’s soundtrack really shines.
Korb creates a unique feel for the game by marrying all the different styles together. It creates a feeling of both familiarity and foreignness, and flows freely between them, ensuring that the player is never complacent, since he or she is never entirely sure what is going to happen next. Since this is also what the game itself wants, the soundtrack helps to reinforce the game’s overarching themes.
The game’s protagonist is only ever referred to as “the Kid,” a title of affection given him by the narrator, who, despite learning the Kid’s name halfway through the game, prefers to keep it secret from the player.
Rucks’ reluctance to tell the player the Kid’s name indicates that the title is important, and I am sure it partly exists to lessen the distance between player and protagonist by removing the obstacle of a proper name. That said, I think the interplay between Rucks’ insistence upon referring to him as “The Kid,”when coupled with the increasingly-weighty and difficult tasks he asks of him, points to another set of contrasting themes.
There are any number of places one could go with this topic. One could talk about the differences between Rucks and the Kid in terms of old age and youth, or of how the Kid can symbolize renewal for lands shattered by the Calamity, but all I want to talk about right now is how the title is, at first glance, fairly inappropriate, and how that apparent tension helps any and all of these possible themes work.
Rucks points out towards the end of the game how strange it is that everyone is waiting on the actions of a kid, and he’s right. It is the Kid that pushes forward most of the game’s narrative, that has to make the really hard choices towards the end of the game and suffers the most personal trauma throughout. So, why do Rucks and the rest of the characters allow the Kid to do all the heavy lifting?
Because he may be the Kid, but he’s not really a child. If the game explicitly states the Kid’s age, I missed it, but Rucks mentions at one point that the Kid served five years on the Rippling Walls as a guard, so it’s unlikely he’s really a child any more. Even if the Caelondian military accepted recruits as young as the British Navy once did, it’s unlikely he’s less than 18 or so. He may even be older than that — Jen Zee, the artist, rendered all the characters with round, child-like features and large eyes, so it’s difficult to tell simply by looking at him what his age is.But even completely apart from his physical age, the Kid isn’t a child because of the way he handles the Calamity. This is the true source of the tension in the protagonist — he isn’t a child, but he looks like a child, and the narrator calls him such.
So, why does this work? Is it simply sloppy writing or the traditional video game trope where the main character happens to be a little kid as a holdover from when games were primarily children’s toys?
I don’t think so, because that tension allows for a number of beautiful and interesting moments and opportunities for myth and/or symbolism in the game. It could, for instance, be interpreted as a general comment that old idea-makers (Rucks) can never be anything without the young go-getters at the front of their movements. It could be interpreted as primarily local and character-driven, and could thus be understood simply as Rucks patronizing (in a pleasant and gentle way, to be sure) the Kid and failing to realize that it is the Kid that is truly the most mature.
But I think the interpretation I like the best is this: If Bastion can be understood at least partly as being about how to pick oneself up and move along after a horrible personal Calamity, then perhaps each of the characters can serve a metaphorical role in that journey. Perhaps Bastionends up showing that after some horrible catastrophe, even if you have an excellent ability to reason (Rucks), a good heart (Zia), and the best intentions in the world (Zulf), it is only if you can summon up enough dogged perseverance and sheer stubbornness, enough desperate, bullheaded will to survive, that you will make it.That infuriating, desperate refusal to give up is the Kid. He may make mistakes, and certainly does a lot of damage to the world around in him in his push for survival, but he makes it. He restores the Bastion to safety despite being the Kid, and does more for the survival of those around him than any of the others.
I have no idea what, exactly, Supergiant Games was trying to say when they named the protagonist. What I do know is that in so doing, they created a good enough work of art to support all, some, or none of the above interpretations.
That’s the sort of thing that the tension between Bastion’s elements produces: it causes the player to dig down deeper into the game. It makes him or her want to spend more and more time with the game, thinking about how it works and why the developers might have chosen to construct a game out of so many diverse elements.
Each time the player is confronted by a collection of elements that would sound jumbled and confused out of context, he or she is drawn deeper into Bastion’s narrative and atmosphere. Each element of tension serves to enhance Bastion’s unique style and to provide a great deal of food for thought.
Whitehead would have been so very proud.