Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bastion: I'd like to say I'd never forget him. What he's done. What he's doing. I surely would.

I'd like to say I'll never forget him, or what he's doin'. What he's done. I surely would.
Can I talk about Bastion for a bit? It's been on my mind lately. Partly because Transistor is coming out in the near future, partly because it's got one of those soundtracks that's stayed on my iPod long after I've uninstalled the game, and partly because of a thing somebody said, but I'll get to that at the end.
A lot of people have talked about the things that make Bastion a beautiful and polished game with a strong cult following – the hand-painted art style, the narration, the music. (The beat-em-up gameplay is absent from that list – Bastion is admittedly much more about the window dressing.) What I want to talk about is the favorite moment I had personally while playing it, which was toward the end of the game and was something that caught me completely off guard. This means SPOILERS AHOY; if you haven't played Bastion, I'm going to be spoiling my favorite part of the game for you, so if you'd prefer to perhaps have this fantastic experience someday instead of just reading about it, you should stop reading now.
So me and the Kid land in the Tazal Terminals. Just when we thought we were done making the Bastion whole, our old friend Zulf decided his true loyalties were with his people, the Ura. He sold us out to them, helped them wreck the Bastion, and fled here, the Ura homeland, and he's got the shard that we need to fix everything. I'm getting a little tired of the repetitive gameplay. The Kid is getting a little tired of killing everything that moves. But here we are, pressing on, doing this one last thing, because the guy we pulled out of the ruins of the Calamity decided he wanted to undo everything we've been working for. Gods dammit, Zulf. You better hope we don't catch up with you.
The Ura put up a good fight. They hit hard and move fast. And the whole Ura nation put together is no match for us. We've been through too much at this point to be stopped by anything as small as an army making its last stand. Block, strike, shoot, it's just reflex, and all the enemies blur together like so many blades of grass beneath the blades of a riding mower. The death cries are a little disconcerting, though; nothing else we've been killing screams in terror like that when it takes the long fall down. The Tazal Terminals seem to stretch on forever, and we just want to grab that shard and get back to the Bastion, the only little piece of home we have left in this shattered world.
There was never any doubt that when we found Zulf there wouldn't be much of a fight. But when we find him, his own people have already done the job for us. Seems they blame him for leading the Kid to their doorstep and slaughtering them wholesale; they turned on him and left him for dead. Zulf, you poor dumb bastard. Now, we've been inside Zulf's dreams, and we have some inkling of what he's been through in his life. It's been nothing but one long struggle to find someplace he fits, and every time he thinks he's found it, it all goes to shit. When he made the decision to ditch us for the Ura, he'd just found out that our people were the ones who caused all this mess and ruined his life; reckon he was feeling pretty betrayed himself, did something rash, and it's not like I've never done anything in such a situation that I've come to regret. So when the game gives me the option to have the Kid try to rescue Zulf or leave him be, I don't even see it as a choice. C'mon, you idiot, I'm done here, we're going home, and you don't get a vote. Try not to bleed out on the way.
Picking Zulf up causes the Kid to set down his weapon. And as the Kid trudges toward the exit, the Ura show up and start shooting at him. Okay, I think, no problem. Plenty of healing potions in reserve, and there's some cover, so the name of the game here is going to be keeping that cover between us and them as much as possible, and if we do that right we'll get to the exit before we run out of potions. For a while that's how it goes. I'm optimizing the Kid's path to minimize exposure to enemy fire, conserving the healing potions by using them at the last possible moment, this should be cake. But now there's less cover, we're running low on potions, and the exit is noplace in sight. Doesn't seem right.
The soundtrack has changed from fast-paced synth music to a somber acoustic song. I've never heard Zulf's voice before, but I recognize it instantly. “Lie on my back / Clouds are making way for me / I'm coming home, sweet home,” he sings, voice tinged with something between wistfulness and bitter irony. I don't know if he means coming here to rejoin his people before they turned on him, or going back to the Bastion with us, or if this is him dying and heading into the bright light. Shit, that was the last potion, and there's nothing left to hide behind now.
At this point, the part of my brain that's playing the game is pissed off at whoever designed this part of the level, because this seems like bullshit. How am I supposed to get through here with no cover? Was picking Zulf up somehow the “wrong” choice? At the same time, the part of my brain that's in the game, the part that's the Kid, is pissed off at the Ura. I could kill every one of you, and you know it, but you can see damn well I'm not trying to. I never wanted to come here, I never wanted to hurt any of you, I just want to take Zulf and leave, because even though he betrayed me, he's one of the only people alive I can count as a friend, and I ain't leaving him for dead. The whole situation is so frustrating that I almost reload a save, but I keep the Kid stoically marching on even as his health drops, and I think, well, I'm going to push it as far as I can, just to see exactly how bullshit it is, and the Kid is thinking just STOP already, you assholes, I'm done fighting, and right then is when the bullets stop and everything gets quiet.
It takes my brain a second to process. All of the Ura just watching their most terrible foe walk past them. Letting us go to salvage what we can. Guess they've had enough of this bullshit too. One of them didn't get the memo and he takes a potshot at us, and his countrymen smack him down. And we make our way back to the Bastion in peace.
Leigh Alexander said recently that games are about feeling powerful and about you getting your own way, and that's what Bastion set me up to expect. Through the course of the game you get more and more weapons and upgrades that make you a more efficient killing machine, so naturally you progress through harder and harder fights that make you feel powerful when you overcome them. After it was all done, though, the single thing that makes Bastion stick out in my mind most was that unexpected moment of ludonarrative consonance when I put myself in a position of feeling completely powerless and frustrated, and it worked absolutely perfectly for the story that the game wanted to tell.
It's not uncommon for a game developer to catch lightning in a bottle early on, only to spend years trying to do it again, so I'm managing my expectations for Transistor. I don't really expect there'll be a moment in that game that I'll still be thinking back on years later as if it was a thing that actually happened to me. Supergiant has built up enough goodwill from me with their first game that it's going to be a day one purchase regardless.

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