The Message is in the Music: How Bastion’s Storytelling Surprises Us

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In Bastion, you, as the Kid, are thrust into a world that has largely been destroyed. In silence, unaccompanied you make your way through a decimated city in search of, well, anything.  This search turns out to be fruitless, and so you a hop a ferry and leave the city limits.

As you venture onward to Prosper Bluff, you are greeted by the multitudes of hostile creatures that now reign supreme in the rubble that was once your home. You hack and slash, used to the violent routine now, making your way forward. Yet suddenly, something surprising happens. Distant chords strummed on the strings of an acoustic guitar can be heard over the breeze blowing through the reeds of the marshy wilds. As you continue to wander a voice chimes in. A human voice.

Up to this point you’ve fought through an entire city’s ruins alone. Everything around you is utterly destroyed, the only living things the countless monsters that test your blade. But then out of the darkness you can hear a hint of what once was. Harmony amidst the chaos. A reminder of when things were once whole, and a kindling of hope that things could possibly be saved. Drawing ever closer, you begin to make out the lyrics of the song:

I dig my hole you build a wall

I dig my hole you build a wall

One day that wall is gonna fall

Gon’ build that city on a hill

Gon’ build that city on a hill

Some day those tears are gonna spill

So build that wall and build it strong cause

We’ll be there before too long

Gon’ build that wall up to the sky

Gon’ build that wall up to the sky

Some day your bird is gonna fly

Gon’ build that wall until it’s done

Gon’ build that wall until it’s done

But now you’ve got nowhere to run

So build that wall and build it strong cause

We’ll be there before too long

You discover that the song in actuality serves as a grim warning — a war song. The song reassured you, made you feel safe but now hints that the same terrible mistakes might come to pass once again. But despite the song’s troubling message, you carry onward eager to learn more about the woman who dares to return music to the wasted world.

Prosper Bluff is a powerful chapter in Bastion. A stand out song from the game’s soundtrack moves the story forward without forcing the player to pause play to read a journal entry or watch a cut scene. Instead, story progression is mostly dependent on the level design.

As videogames continue to struggle to mature, the role story plays in games remains a hot topic. Games that rely on shooting up endless people in between story events are often criticized for their unchecked manslaughter, sacrificing a believable story for gameplay. Uncharted is often cited as an example of this phenomenon. At the same time, we have Heavy Rain, or its successor,  Beyond Two Souls, which have been criticized for their heavy reliance on — at times mediocre— story, leaving players with more of an interactive movie experience than an actual videogame.

Bastion does not rely on the typical gameplay > cinematic > gameplay> repeat formula that many games still default to. Although the  remediation of cinema is still present at some points, Bastion is notable for moving a step beyond this standard practice. Bastion shows that we can successfully create games that combine other forms of media, such as music, with the uniquely interactive nature of videogames to create something truly special.  bastionimage

At the early stage in which we encounter Prosper Bluff, the music is important, that much is clear. But rather than letting only the music tell the story, the player is required to progress through the level for exposition to occur. The level and the music rely on one another to convey a message.

As you start out, you are too far away to make out the words of the song, but the music leaves the player desperate to find its origin. At the song’s source is a person, a companion. A benevolent presence in the otherwise inhospitable wilds. Yet as your desperation brings you within hearing range, you begin to realize all is not as it seems — the song is telling you a story of the people who made the world the way it is today.

Alone, save for mentor Rucks, you are tasked with restoring the last stronghold that might foster life. Bastion emphasizes our human desperation and will to survive despite the direst circumstances, even as we blindly put our own existence at jeopardy time and again over what are, in the grand scheme of things, trivial conflicts.

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The song in Prosper Bluff foreshadows what will become a prominent theme in the game. “Build that Wall,” as a sort of battle hymn, tells us that the few survivors have not forgotten the events prior to the Calamity. There is a seed of potential for renewed fighting. This time, however, you are in control, you try to move forward. As you find Zia, the musician, for the first time, you find out her people once might have been your enemy. Can you work together to rebuild, or will lingering tension create new walls between you?

Prosper Bluff, on a small scale, subtly and creatively tells the story of Bastion, a story of hope for healing, but a warning against repeating history.

 

  • An

    This was beautiful.