Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Unfinished Business: Steam Sale Backlog - Bastion

[Unfinished Business is a feature where I take an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it. THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE GAME.]
I feel like I should be more enthusiastic about Bastion than I am: it is a game with a great deal to recommend it and only some niggling control issues (in the PC version, at least) on the downside. Its hand-painted visual style and gently engaging soundtrack fuse a colouring book vision of a fallen utopia to the sounds and iconography of a frontier Western. As graphical technology slowly flattens out and developers scramble to include the latest lighting or physics effect to prove their game's superiority over its rivals, it's a welcome relief to find a game focusing so strongly on its artistic, rather than technological, identity.

The in-game narration is another neat touch, lending a trace of hope to the otherwise melancholy tone. In many end-of-life scenarios, books and stories are treasured as links to a better past, providing hope that such good days may come again with old mistakes learnt from and repaired. Bastion has the player creating their own story, setting out a legend of how the world came to be repaired following a fall, rather than how it reached that point. It's a subtle framing device, putting an original slant on a well-worn concept.
Where most post-apocalyptic stories tend towards wistful nostalgia, telling their viewers to appreciate what they've got and do their best not to destroy it, Bastion's approach from the opposite angle - the rebuilding process - is more forward-thinking: when everything has been lost, is it really wise to try and recreate the past, and all the follies that caused it to go so badly wrong, or take a risk on a new, unknown future? The narration, provided by an in-game character called Rucks, suggests that at some point, there will be people around to hear the Kid's story, implying his quest to rebuild his society was a success. The wisdom of this goal is brought into question once the history leading up to the Calamity is revealed: it was not a natural event, but a result of a super-weapon developed in a war between two territories with an unexplained mutual hatred.

The protagonist, Kid, belongs to the Caelondian people (as does Rucks), while two Calamity survivors he encounters, Zia and Zulf, are Ura, later revealed to be the Caelondians' sworn enemies. Until their peoples' past animosity is revealed, there's no malice in the relationships between the characters. Zulf is stand-offish, but all appear to be working towards the same goal. Once the truth has been revealed, buried anger reignites, and sets about trying to destroy what remains of the Caelondian world once and for all. When he returns home, with the Kid in pursuit, he's attacked by his own people for bringing a now-legendary Caelondian warrior to their doorstep. The Kid, at that point, can either rescue the man who tried to finish what his ancestors began, or leave him to die at the hands of his own kind.

Choices in games rarely amount to much beyond a calculated risk-reward ratio, but the player's decisions make no difference to how Bastion unfolds. This doesn't make them meaningless, however: the game is constructed to build up to a single climactic choice, whether to reboot the universe or create a new world, which itself only leads to the player being presented with one of two sets of images for the end-game scene. By removing any gameplay reward, players' decisions become solely about their reactions to a particular event and everything leading up to it. There are no new weapons or hidden abilities, just an answer to a question of how you would react if presented with a choice between living in a beloved past or taking the leap into the possibilities of the future. There's no suggestion one decision is better or worse than the other: the only outcomes presented are distinctly short-term, with the Kid either enjoying his recreated society or looking out over a new world. When developers talk about decisions having 'meaning' in their games, it's usually in a gameplay sense (aka different rewards or story paths) or in terms of how they see the consequence of the player's choice. Bastion's developers are brave enough to let players define the outcome of each decision with minimal interference. It's a hands-off approach to storytelling impossible in any medium other than gaming.

The narrative is admittedly angled towards taking the latter option: Zulf's actions shows how easily people can slip into old habits, even when there's little present need to do so. His rage is based entirely in the behaviour of people long dead, as he had shown little animosity until that point towards Kid or Rucks, whom he didn't despise because he didn't know that history expected it of him. When the narrator ponders whether a rebooted universe will succumb to the same fate, he admits uncertainty. It is the player's actions, in deciding whether to save Zulf for example, which give the final choice definition.

If the player leaves Zulf for dead, the Kid has willingly retreated into the same them-and-us mindset as his ancestors. Whether he builds a new world or recreates the old one thus becomes moot: any new society founded by a man with the same weaknesses as those which destroyed the old one is just as likely to fall: might as well reboot and at least enjoy the beauty of Caelondia at its beautiful prime, even if it will eventually end in disaster. Should the player save Zulf, the act of reconciliation allows the possibility of unification for former enemies.The two choices are made independently - the player can save Zulf and then reboot the universe, or let Zulf die and create a new world - but it is the player who defines how each affects the other, rather than the developer-set conclusions offered by the likes of BioShock.

Despite its artistic merits, I can't get as enthusiastic about Bastion as a game. The range of weapons is terrific, each with their own strengths and weaknesses rather than providing straight upgrades to previously acquired kit, allowing players the freedom to tailor their playing style without outside interference. The controls are problematic, requiring greater precision than WASD offers to navigate Caelondia's narrow pathways without tumbling into the void, but surmountable with practice. The need to point the mouse in the direction of an enemy to target them also feels niggly, but again, less of an issue over time.

Perhaps it is that, outside its stunning aesthetics, the game never offers any truly standout moments: there's plenty of fun to be had and a passable amount of variety in what the game asks you to do, but no particularly memorable boss battles or tasks ingenious or challenging enough to provide much satisfaction upon completion. I remember the philosophically-minded storytelling and beautiful visuals, but almost nothing of the game itself. Unlike Braid, a game with a similar aesthetic and experimental narrative style, there's little sense of the gameplay contributing to the thematic depths in any way, so much as providing an entertaining but shallow diversion en-route to Ruck's next piece of commentary or a new artefact discovered. Beneath the magnificent trappings, Bastion's RPG platformer mechanics are refined but conventional, far from world-ending but too reliant on the habits of the past to feel like the forge of a new gaming path.



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