February 28, 2012 by boudadi
Greg Kasavin and his team at SuperGiant Games put a lot riding on their debut title, Bastion. As is the case with most independent developers, the first game can be the last if it fails to do something new and inventive. Of course, I would likely not be talking about it if it did not accomplish just that. Few other games blend narratology with ludology quite like Bastion.
Bastion’s core gameplay is all fairly standard, a 2D isometric action-adventure game with light RPG mechanics. The player receives a number of different upgradable weapons and skills to defeat enemies and solve puzzles with while progressing through fairly linear levels. The plot, when broken down, is not too different in terms of video game tropes. The player controls The Kid on his quest to restore the land’s last safe haven, The Bastion, through the guidance of The Stranger after a mysterious event destroyed everything and killed (nearly) everyone. While not groundbreaking, the gameplay is fast, fun, and rewarding and the plot is a serviceable take on the hero’s journey. And yet, Bastion earned critical praise and considered one of the most unique gaming experiences in some time. The reason? The narrator.
The game employs a seemingly emergent narrator, in the form of The Stranger, from start to finish that narrates what the player is doing as if telling the story to an audience. Lines are rarely, if ever, re-used, and react purely to the players actions. Use The Kid’s hammer to attack a group of enemies results in one comment, using a different weapon will result in a different one. Even seemingly mundane or inconsequential actions, like standing still for a bit or destroying a piece of the environment, will add to the dynamic narrative. Likewise, the game does not force your actions into creating a canon plot. A moment that stuck out to me was during one of the game’s boss fights. The Kid was up against a very challenging giant sand-alligator-thing, but the level’s exit was reachable even without defeating it. After fighting it for quite a while (and almost defeating it), I ran over to the exit, not expecting it to work until the boss was gone, but it did. The narrator then continued his narration without a hitch saying how The Kid fought long and hard but ran away to live and fight another day. I could have gone to the exit immediately, stayed to finish the fight, or anything in between. Regardless of what I did, the narrative would reflect that through both the gameplay and the story. It all comes together to create an almost surreal experience.
The player can get lost in the narrative while playing and blur the lines between the gameplay and the story. Since the narration provides the only source of story beats, the portions of narration that exist for plot exposition and those that exist as a reaction to the player’s actions become one. This addresses a fundamental flaw in video game narratives that seem to be brought up again and again in academic circles: how do you make an effective narrative that does not clash with player actions. A common criticism with video game narratives is that they do not embrace their very nature as games.They divorce narratology from ludology. An issue that even with over thirty years of video games has yet to find a perfect solution. By having the gameplay, or the game’s ludology, directly impact and, in a sense, create the narrative, Bastion brings a new approach to how video game stories are presented. An unfortunate drawback is that the idea of a dynamic narrator was executed so well here that it may be unlikely that other games will use the convention, lest they come off as rip-offs.
That’s not to say the narration is perfect. Gameplay may alter the play-by-play of the narrative, but the overall story stays fairly constant. Bastion has one beginning and one end. However, combine the narration with the game’s tight gameplay, amazing soundtrack, and beautiful aesthetic design, and you have a prime example of an experience that can only be achieved through the video game medium. Whether or not Bastion will be a pioneer for a new wave of player-driven narrators or just a singular example of merging narratology with ludology awaits to be seen.