Tensions in Bastion 1

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 Tone

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 Kid

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.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!

One thought on “Tensions in Bastion

  • Wombat of Doom

    I should men­tion that it is very prob­a­ble that we will see a lot more about Bastion over the next year or so here on this web­site. I know both Matt and myself are par­tic­u­lar­ly fond of this game, and there are a lot of great things to talk about.

    I think I’m going to wait until the game has been out longer, though, so as to ensure more of the audi­ence will have played it and so I can talk about some of the game’s best moments with­out spoil­ing any­thing.

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