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.