Genre vs. Story: Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bastion

MAJOR BASTION SPOILERS BELOW. You’ve been warned. Bastion as a story is about a group of people trying to put their world back together after a terrible calamity destroys nearly everything they know. The plot gradually becomes more complicated, forcing the characters to confront the sinister underpinnings of the past world, causing many of them […]

MAJOR BASTION SPOILERS BELOW. You’ve been warned.

Bastion as a story is about a group of people trying to put their world back together after a terrible calamity destroys nearly everything they know. The plot gradually becomes more complicated, forcing the characters to confront the sinister underpinnings of the past world, causing many of them to question whether or not it’s worth saving. Ultimately, the game seems to ask whether it’s a better idea to try to restore a flawed but familiar past or abandon it and look forward towards an unfamiliar but possibly better future.

Bastion as a game is about killing monsters. A lot of monsters. Some people too, towards the end.

I mentioned back in my first Bastion log that the gameplay was extremely simplistic – basic action RPG stuff. While the story of the game gets deeper as you move through the levels, you learn everything you’re going to learn about the gameplay by the time you reach the Bastion (barring a few poorly-placed last-level gimmicks). Bastion’s moment-to-moment gameplay never adds anything to the story and in some cases even detracts from it (it’s hard to feel like you’re doing anything to fix the world when every level in the game is worse off after your visit than it was before).

Bastion is hardly the only game to exemplify this phenomenon, which developer Clint Hocking calls Ludonarrative Dissonance (Ludonarrative dissonance in Bioshock: The problem of what the game is about). It’s not even the most egregious – Hocking invented the term to describe Bioshock, and the Uncharted series is famous for portraying its protagonist Nathan Drake as a snarky, lovable rogue-type character in the cutscenes between the parts where he murders large numbers of enemy soldiers. But Bastion doesn’t get a pass simply because one of its major flaws is so widespread.

If the mechanical genre of the game was the only thing causing this dissonance in Bastion, I would probably have been fine with it. I’m okay with killing a lot of things in an action game or shooter even if that doesn’t necessarily gel with the game’s story, because that’s how action games and shooters work (not sure what thinking that says about me). But what really bothers me is that the game didn’t offer me many choices until it’s very last acts. I noted in my first post on Bastion that the game gives you reasons to be suspicious of Rucks early and often, but in-game you’re never able to challenge him or go against his wishes until the very end, when he recommends using the bastion’s power to restore Caelondia at the cost of erasing the survivors’ memories of the calamity.

Bastion does, however, offer you the choice, if only at the very end, and it’s one of the game’s most memorable moments. For all its faults in this regard, Bastion actually manages to leverage the pull of gameplay concerns versus story concerns once or twice in the game, and the results are incredibly compelling. For me, one of the most powerful moments in the game comes when you find Zulf bleeding out in the final level, betrayed by his countrymen for giving you cause to go to war. Here you are offered a choice – follow the ludic instincts the game has been drilling into you, abandon Zulf (who’s already betrayed you once) and try to fight your way out, or follow the ideals of the narrative and try to carry Zulf out at the cost of your ability to attack. Admittedly, I didn’t spend too long on the choice (I’ve saved Zulf every time) but it was an incredible moment, and it made me kind of disappointed that the developers hadn’t given me more chances to defy the mechanics.

But all things considered, I’m glad they threw a few in. The glimpses of what the game could have been with more gameplay and story integration were well worth it.

They’ll be Here Before too long: Racial Conflict in Bastion

The world that Bastion sets up is defined in large part by the conflict between the Caels, the builders of the Bastion, and the Ura, a people native to the continent that live beyond Caelondia’s walls. That conflict broke out into open war fifty years before the events of the game, when the Caels built […]

The world that Bastion sets up is defined in large part by the conflict between the Caels, the builders of the Bastion, and the Ura, a people native to the continent that live beyond Caelondia’s walls. That conflict broke out into open war fifty years before the events of the game, when the Caels built a railroad to haul ore and spices out of the “wild unknown,” unwittingly treading onto Ura territory in the process. The animosity between the two peoples runs deep – the Caels built the rippling walls around their home city to keep the Ura out. Ura that move to Caelondia or are born within it are not allowed to leave, as the city’s leaders believe they will leak Cael secrets to the Ura military. And a major part of the Ura character Zia’s backstory is the suspicion and mistrust she received at the hands of her Cael classmates.

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Bastion’s setting is fantastical, but the Ura/Caelondian conflict is very reflective of historical colonial narratives and other games that seek to exploit them. To some degree, it even shares the problems that games like Colonization have in limiting the performativity of native peoples (in this case, the Ura). Rucks’ narration details a significant effort by the people of Caelondia to “tame” the wilds, and use walls to keep the parts that could not be tamed (like the Ura) at bay. In fact, our main character, the Kid, had a job maintaining the walls that kept the Ura out. The first named Ura we meet is othered almost immediately – his clothing and complexion are wildly different from the Kid and Rucks – and he later becomes the game’s main antagonist. And we learn less about Ura culture than about Cael culture, mostly because Rucks knows much less about the Ura than he does about Caelondia.

This last bit of knowledge, however, is more of an indictment of Rucks and Caelondia than any reflection on the Ura. In fact, very little of what we learn in the game paints the Caels in a more positive light than their neighbors. This is the primary point of difference between the colonial narrative in Bastion and similar ones in Colonization and CivilizationBastion features a fairly heavy-handed critique of the imperialist paradigm. Nearly all of the setting’s conflicts were caused by the Caels – the Ura/Caelondian war began when a railway built by Caelondia disturbed several underground Ura cities, and Zulf’s attacks on the Bastion in the game’s present are his reaction to the game’s major plot twist. The twist in this case being that the Calamity was the result of a Caelondian doomsday weapon invented to wipe the Ura off the map backfiring on its creators. The nameless Caelondians who unleashed the calamity are the only characters in the story presented with no sympathy at all – the only one we even learn the name of was the man who attempted to sabotage the weapon to prevent its activation. Zulf is eventually revealed to be a tragic villain trying to get revenge on the people who took everything from him.

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Bastion is, of course, a fantasy game. But that doesn’t mean the parallels it draws with the real world can be ignored. In this year especially, a story about a bunch of colonists who built a wall between themselves and their neighbors, and how badly things went for everyone involved, deserves some attention, even if the ideas it presents have been explored in other media.