RPG Club Plays Bastion: Week 2
Having played Transistor so recently, it’s no surprise my thoughts about it were affected by Bastion. Namely: Transistor fails at the thing that Bastion did the best, which was provide the player agency while not removing any from the character.
The Kid has a life of his own. Red does, too. The difference is that the player meshes with the Kid more. The Kid’s some guy who lives out on the fringe of civilization, who never belonged to Caelondia, He has no recollections of the world before the calamity; if he does, they’re not but fragments. He jives with the story being told: The Kid knows about as much as we do, and is driven by the desire to help fix a world he doesn’t know.
Red, meanwhile, knows too much. Something that’s not a problem in other fields of art becomes one here, because Red exists as a character separate from the player in myriad ways. Her motivations don’t line up with the player. Her recollections, neither. She knows more than we do. This creates awkward situations where the game’s twin protagonists try to convince you to care about something, but end up only sounding cool.
The Kid, meanwhile, there’s a grit to him. We can empathize with him. Not because of what he represents, but because his experience–having little to do with Caelondia–places us in a similar boat. Even when the game zooms out to tell us more about him, it feels like he’s learning this stuff for the first time, just like us. That’s a helpful attribute when playing a videogame, and Bastion has it in spades.
I love the difficulty system in Bastion. The game itself has a base difficulty that cannot be modified, and should work for every player (namely you don’t select “Easy” or “Hard” at the beginning of the game). However, for those who want more challenge, they can “invoke the gods.” The game, with its rich story, also has a full pantheon replete with 10 deities. Each has their own story and style, and once you find (or buy) their idol, you can let them make your life more difficult.
Instead of some system that just makes enemies more numerous, more hardy, and more dangerous, this lets you customize your game style. Want enemies to hit harder but not have better armor? Invoke Yudrig. Want them to regen health over time? Micia. 10 different idols, each associated with their own deity, and each lets you customize the game to be more difficult the way you want it. It’s a clever mechanic, relatively well integrated into the story, and I love it so much.
This was a bad week for me. Between a full schedule, a series of fires needing attention at work (including one literal fire), and a bevy of personal issues assualting me at home, the last few days have been less than great. Try as I might, I couldn’t get myself into a good mood to sit down with Bastion. “I don’t want to start playing while I’m crabby, I’ll just evolve into something worse,” I thought to myself. But the RPG Club is one of my few obligations that I take seriously, so Thursday night, at a peak of exhaustion and self pity, I booted up Bastion.
The game started, The Kid returned to the Bastion as a heap on the floor, and I let him stay there for a while.
At first, I just wanted to see if the narrator would make some lame comment about The Kid taking a rest. But when nothing happened after a minute, I started thinking about why there’s even a “laying on the ground until you move him” animation for the main character. I suppose the designers thought it added a neat layer of realism or weight to the world. After all, traveling by skyway doesn’t seem like a carefully thought out system for safety.
Until you rouse him, The Kid stays still, breathing quietly with his face in the dirt–not exactly the typical show of strength you’d expect from a hero. And yet, crazy as it seems, that one little animation made me feel much more connected to this big-headed protagonist. He’s having a rough day, too.
The narrator may tell us at times how The Kid sees ruined structures or remains of people he knew and feels…feelings about them (it’s a little vague), but Bastion does little to actually show us how these events affect him. Rather than mourn the past, the plot seems to celebrate the opportunity for new creations among the destruction…except for when The Kid returns to the Bastion, the one time he takes a second for himself. The weight of the world is literally on his shoulders, and sometimes he needs to let it all fall away to keep himself intact.
I get that.
As time goes on, I find that I enjoy gaming design’s eccentricities and incidental conventions. And Bastion is rife with them. From the little, glistening gems hidden in its destructible objects to the many levels that call out to be played through and explored over and over again, Bastion caters to the sensibilities players have developed over decades of gaming.
Beyond the game’s penchant for reveling in the basic building blocks of action RPGs though, and more importantly really, is how expertly Bastion balances them. The Kid moves fast, but not too fast. The time to swing a weapon or unload a bolt is labored without lagging, giving combat a sense of weight without it feeling unresponsive or sluggish. And best of all is The Kid’s roll.
A staple of the genre, with floppy haired protagonists tumbling through dungeons for as long as I can remember, Supergiant Games handles it better than most by grafting the animation onto an acceleration curve that leaves the maneuver feeling more like a true dodge than practical mode of continuous travel.
Mario games have been platformer standard bearers for generations because of the basic calculus which underlies its running and jumping. Similarly, Bastion is more than just a beautiful, highly stylized re-imagining of the isometric Legend of Zeldas and Secret of Manas of yester-year. Bastion is special in a number of other ways I’m looking forward to discussing in the remaining two weeks we have with the game, but if not for the fact that the game still fits like a well worn glove, it would not be nearly so easy to embrace them.