Despite the outpouring of great reviews and press surrounding Bastion when it was released this last July, I never would have picked it up if one of my friends hadn’t gotten to it first. As I walked past his door a slow, lolling melody caught my attention and drew me in. I knew even before The Stranger’s voice remarked on the artwork constructing itself on his screen that I had fallen into a world that would not let my imagination go any time soon. Supergiant Games is the mastermind behind Bastion, a team of seven highly-successful creators whose goal was “to make games that spark your imagination like the games you played as a kid”. In the process of accomplishing that goal, they managed to create an example of how the unique aspect of interactivity in video games allows for a different kind of narrative and experience.
One of the most basics lessons beat into a budding writer is to show the action as much as possible rather than telling it, resulting in a very different story despite how subtle the change really is. In Bastion, the narrator tells you the events of the story, effectively dismissing this very basic rule from the get-go. While incorporating elements of foreshadowing and tone into the story, effectively complimenting the mood for each environment you find yourself in and adding emotional complexity, The Stranger distances you from the game by existing as an omnipresent character. This implies that either The Stranger is all-knowing and the story is happening in the present, or he knows so much because the events have already happened and you are playing through the past. Keep in mind that in any medium there is a fourth-wall separating the audience from the piece of art, and in some cases it is broken as a little surprise, or for humor.
In gaming, the fourth wall is blurred quite a bit. You are no longer the passive audience member taking in what is occurring on the screen– you are a part of it. Sometimes as a kind of god, other times as a victim of fate. However, as with many other sophisticated aspects of video games, the unique nature of this fourth wall is ignored. In Bastion it is embraced. The Stranger seems to be talking about the actions to you, or to someone else, as if you were both tucked deep into a campfire night trying to pass the time. However, he actively comments on the decisions you make, at the pace that you choose. The game plays as one extended cutscene– or rather the game becomes the story, and the story becomes the game. The player’s interactions with the world are the narrative, put into words by The Stranger, and the two are entwined in this way rather than artificially separated. Its perceived linearity is decisively split as the game draws to a close, re-framing the experience and the way in which the entire narrative is viewed.
Since Bastion featured a cohesive soundtrack, consistently strong artwork, and immersive game play that stood well on its own, the narrative was strongly supported by an environment that mirrored its every mood and move. By the time the catharsis of the game is reached, there exists sufficient sympathy and interaction between the player, the ‘outsider’, and the narrative that the player undergoes their own Calamity as the ending is placed into the context of the rest of the game. The preconceptions of every character and event that occurred thus far is now destroyed and can only be understood again by piecing it all back together again. The most obvious reason why Bastion was successful at pulling off this unique narrative was the presence of The Stranger as your companion throughout the story. Bastion succeeds because every aspect was carefully crafted to fit together as a cohesive structure. There wasn’t overemphasis on one part of the game, whether that be gameplay mechanics or visuals, at the expense of the rest. It is a small, complete, work of art that provides a unique experience worth exploring. With any luck it will set the bar a little higher for other game developers and artists to take what makes video games unique among art and experiment with it. Or at the very least get developers and gamers alike talking about it.