(This article contains spoilers for the game Bastion. If you haven’t gotten around to playing this game, don’t read further.)
I will be to the first one to admit that I am not a “gamer”. I enjoy playing video games, and the culture that surrounds them is so welcoming and lively that I can’t help but be drawn in to the gaming world. Two things hold me back from diving headfirst into gaming. First, as a recently graduated English major, I lack the funds to buy each game as it comes out (This explains why I’m just now playing Portal 2–thanks Steam sale!). Secondly, as a recently graduated English major, I tend to spend more time with my first love, reading, than I do with games. Despite this (or maybe because of this), I devour the games I do play the same way I devour a good book: tearing it to pieces, discussing and pondering game mechanics, soundtracks, voice acting, and narrative. My experience probably isn’t typical, but I think that games deserve this sort of scrutiny when they offer such a wealth of material.
This is not to say that all games have same qualities as say, great literature. I don’t think that the hours my brother spent on co-op on Halo or Call of Duty imbued him with a greater understanding of the deeper themes and motifs of those series, or that my sister’s time playing Kirby’s Epic Yarn really gave her insight into the human condition. But I can’t help to compare games like Bastion to Shakespeare’s sonnets, because both are examples of artists with exacting control over their craft.
Bastion is a 2010 action roleplaying game from Supergiant Games, the first title from this studio. You play as the Kid, a silent protagonist who is directed by a stranger, Rucks, to collect fragments of a core that will help rebuild civilization after an unknown disaster befalls it. I could spend the rest of this article gushing over the beautiful art style or the kickass soundtrack, but I think that the writing and tone deserve more praise.
Tutorials, background information, and narration are (virtually) all delivered by Rucks, the stranger who gives the Kid his missions. His gruff narrative inspires levity and gravity, and his dialogue had me laughing and crying alternatively (“And then the Kid falls to his death. I’m just messing with you.” “Hey, Kid, get up. That ain’t funny.” ). But Rucks is practically the only voice you hear through the entire game. The isolation brought on by the end of the world is reinforced by the narration, a feat that not very many mediums can boast. Moreover, everything that the Kid learns is filtered through Rucks, a fact which becomes more relevant when the Kid learns more about the Calamity. The fact that the player’s missions have been dictated by Rucks make them implicit in his untruths. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Rucks is an unreliable narrator, but by the end of the game I was mistrustful of the things that he told me.
Ultimately, though, the thing that makes this game beautiful is that as the player of a silent protagonist, your experience really does matter in the game. The player always has choices. The player’s actions and connections to the people, places, and creatures encountered in the game shape the way that your playthrough happens. Even choices as simple as your weapons in an encounter speak volumes to your experience as a player. The game begins by giving the player a hammer, a tool that the Kid previously used as an instrument of building. By the end, the game offers the player the “Calamity Cannon”, a device whose sole purpose is destruction. The final choice in the game doesn’t ask whether you are a hero or a villain, but instead, what is valuable to you in this game (and in turn, the world). In choosing Restoration or Evacuation, the player is given a choice between the world, beautiful, deserted and empty as it is, or the last remaining dregs of humanity, twisted and corrupted and lovable as ever.
In closing, I’d like to share one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite novels, East of Eden:
Now, there are many millions who in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice.
Like Steinbeck’s character, I feel that the greatest things that games can offer us is choice: in our games, in our gameplay, and even within the narrative of our games.