RPG Club Plays Bastion: Week 1
In light of last month’s release of the much anticipated Transitor, we decided to take a second look at Supergiant Games’s debut release from several summers ago: Bastion.
“Kid just rages for a while.”
The dynamic nature of Bastion‘s narration is up for debate–he doesn’t comment on what you do much after the first couple areas–but that doesn’t defeat his impact early on. The Kid wakes up alone on the wall. You break stuff, because you’ve played a videogame before and that’s what you do.
And the Kid just rages for a while. It’s a great line, and a perfect introduction to the narrator, because it makes us question the voice speaking to us. It makes us judge our actions in a different light. The trouble with silent protagonists is getting the player to identify with them, or to remain one apart from them.
Two of the best silent heroes of videogames, Crono and Gordon Ramsey, from two of my favorite games (Chrono Trigger and Half Life) aren’t great protagonists. I never know what Gordon Ramsey’s thinking, and I’m pretty sure it’s not what I’m thinking (it’s probably like Freeman’s Mind). Crono definitely doesn’t think what I do. Bastion, meanwhile, in one line, distinguishes you from The Kid, while also making him you. You control him, but his motivations aren’t your own. You do something out of habit, and he rages. You possess your agency, but The Kid will make it his.
Jessica has already taken a solid look at the Bastion soundtrack, but I can’t do an RPG club post without mentioning music – especially for Bastion. Due to a save game SNAFU, this is my third playthrough (but my first of “New Game Plus”). Of course, this means I have a pretty solid foundation in the game. I know the levels, where to find the things, and more or less what lines go where – which means if my attention isn’t as drawn to the unfamiliar stuff, I can start to really pay attention to the music.
Obviously, I love it, it’s really well done, everything about it is puppies and unicorns -it’s everything I love in a soundtrack. Sure. But what I want to focus on is how unique the songs are, and how well they tie to the surroundings. Listening to the album now, I was hoping that each song would bring to mind the specific level it graced.
Honestly, for the most part they don’t. Mostly, it’s fleeting impressions and feelings each brings back. “Twisted Streets” feels firey hot, and destructive; red colours and angry squirts and windbags. “Spike in a Rail” is just me and The Kid, getting shit done (and caring not for the destruction left in our wake). “The Mancer’s Dilemma” makes me sad; partly because it makes me think of the backstories revealed in the dream sequences, partly because it just sounds sad.
That’s basically it; independent of each song’s composition (which is excellent, of course), I’m emotionally tied to every one. The tracks with words hit me harder, for obvious reasons – but every track on that album gets me all wrapped up in the feeling of Bastion. I get introspective and quiet, and when I do talk, it’s with a gravelly twang. The soundtrack draws me in, and I love it.
I’ve never played Bastion before, but I have heard a lot about it. It’s been hard not to, as people haven’t been able to keep it off their lips since its release almost three years ago. People rave about the art, they gush about the combat, and the dynamic narration has inspired dozens of copycats.
But, honestly, I’m not seeing it so far. I don’t…get it. It’s not bad by any stretch, but instead of something worthy of such a grand reputation, I see a game that’s trying way too hard. Bastion‘s opening act is the video game equivalent of a kid trying their damnedest to appear like a cool adult–a gawky amalgamation of different ideas mashed together without even a hint of irony.
The main character is known only as The Kid (when he’s clearly not a child) and is apparently nonplussed about the nebulous apocalypse that has destroyed his world. The floating stone pathways created before him aren’t just a neat art choice–that’s actually what comprises the world. You get powers by hitting up a bar and drinking alcohol! The narrator spouts Cool Guy observations in his deep Cool Guy voice.
It’s a very by-the-books approach thematically, as though all the concepts were found in a manual and checked off one at a time. And just like a kid trying to seem grown-up, the show is quickly wearing thin. Action RPGs shouldn’t have to try so hard to prove themselves, they’re already the coolest member of the RPG family. Hopefully Bastion finds the confidence it needs soon and drops the shtick before I start keeping track of my eyerolls.
I really hadn’t realized just how similar Transistor and Bastion are. From their stories (vague and contextual) to their combat systems (weapon slots augmented by upgrades and bonuses), not to mention the audio-visual presentation, both indie action-RPGs share enough in common to be fraternal twins.
Except that for a number reasons, most of these conceits seem to just work better in Bastion than in Transistor (note: I love the idea of Transitor more than I loved the actual game).
When Bastion starts, both the player and The Kid are on an even playing field, learning about the Calamity and what exactly is going on at the same time. The mystery builds tension because the player is in on it, unlike Transistor which merely adds layers of confusion as its protagonists mumble ominously sweet nothings to one another while the player is left out in the cold.
The fact that the narrator is speaking more to the player than The Kid helps with this. I feel like I have a direct line into Bastion‘s world through the old man that I didn’t have with Transistor. In addition, the former’s “hub-and-spoke” world design offers a way of exploring and returning to its many spaces that helps anchors me to them over time. Rather than dash from one fanciful water color vista to another, Bastion encourages the player to run down lose ends and interact with the environment.
I’m sure smashing stuff will get old soon enough, but for now the destructible environment just adds to the feeling of a place with weight and fantastical gravitas. Hit something in Bastion and it breaks, a truth that reverberates between gameplay and narrative until something thematically rewarding starts to emerge (more on this in a subsequent week).