Games, Art, and Bastion: Getting It Wrong and Loving It AnywayBy brian longtin • Sep 9th, 2011 • Category: playing • Popularity: 14%
Games are the only art form where we can make a choice in the present, and feel for ourselves that very next moment where it becomes painfully clear we’ve made a terrible mistake. That’s something special. And Bastion gets it especially right.
[This topic is impossible to tackle without spoiling the ending, so if you have yet to play Bastion, let me just say that you probably should. It's a compact RPG with a meaningful, well-told story. It constantly gives you new toys to use and new challenges to face. It's beautiful to look at and the music is particularly memorable -- "Zia's Theme" alone prompted me to buy the soundtrack. If another XBLA game this year tops it, I'd be surprised. So, fair warning, let's talk about how it all plays out...]
If art is meant to convey or provoke emotion, then surely this is one way that games are unique among all other art (gasp, he said it!): we the players are free to make decisions, and then we have to live with them. Only games offer the firsthand experience of regret. Yes, a book or song or film can get us to empathize with someone’s remorse, even reflect on our own past errors. In a game, though, we can make a choice in the present, and feel for ourselves that very next moment where it becomes painfully clear we’ve made a terrible mistake. That’s something special. That’s an emotion only games can simulate so truthfully.
At the end of Bastion, I thought I was a hero. In most world-ending Christ parables, a character choosing to sacrifice himself for the greater good is the closest thing he’ll get to a happy ending, and as a player, I was ready to make that choice. I did make that choice. I wanted to be the good guy, the selfless guy, the legend; so I gave myself up that the world might be reborn.
At that point, I could have walked away satisfied. I’d enjoyed an excellent little game and my adventure was over. I saved everyone! Bad guys, vanquished. World, fixed. Right?
But I’m not normally a replay kind of guy, and the game was so well done I was curious about what the other, more selfish option led to (and admittedly, what the couple achievements I’d missed might be). Based on what I found, it would seem the alternate narrative is encouraged, subtly, by the game. Had I played through a second time, small cues would suggest that by saving the world, I’d just doomed it all over again. Helpless to prevent the Calamity, destined only to relive its aftermath, a replay would have suggested it’s better not to go back. That sacrificing oneself to return to some ideal past is foolish and naive, and life can only be lived looking forward.
The tricky part is, I totally agree with that as a human being. I don’t dwell. I try not to see the past through rose-colored glasses. I find people who call high school or college the best years of their lives incredibly depressing. Yet I’d never know the game wanted me to shake free of those traps without booting it up a second time. To get it “right” the first time, I’d have to choose what may seem counter-intuitive as a gamer — and less heroic as a character — the first time through.
As far as the games go, or films or books or any other stories for that matter, this was the first time the central meaning of a work wasn’t necessarily contained within that work. Some games (or novels or films) contain a twist at the end that make us realize what we’ve been assuming was “wrong” all along. I know I started out thinking I was doing those Little Sisters a favor by releasing them, just as I had to take down a Colossus or two before realizing who the real monster was. I pulled for Memento’s Leonard right up until the finish, and felt sorry for Verbal Kint just like he wanted me to. But in each of those cases, the work itself offers the realization that mistakes have been made to everyone who engages with it. That’s part of the thrill.
Bastion, not so. The ending offers no big reveal, no winking epilogue. Only by revisiting the work in its updated form do we get the full meaning. Only by seeing what’s changed in response to our actions — another trick only games can play — can we learn the true consequences of those choices. Save the world, start all over with the same problems and a disturbing sense of déjà vu. Move on with your life by evacuating, and get the final achievement (”The Beginning”) and walk away knowing what’s done is done.
Plenty of games offer branching stories, and I generally applaud that. It feels good to see choices affect my version of the story in a meaningful way. But most games also allow me save at any juncture, to go back and retry until I’m satisfied with the outcome. They don’t make me stick with my choices. For those games, choice is more a function of variety than meaning, leaving me to instill my own meaning in the path I take.
Bastion goes one admirable step further by making me commit to a decision and see it through to the end. And with this small adjustment, it drives home the emotional experience of regret all the more. It commits to its theme that there is no going back, no correcting the past, only moving forward and learning from our catastrophes. I made a mistake. I thought I could fix the world and I couldn’t. Now that decision, and this game, is something that’ll stick with me forever.