The Best Video Game Ever: “Bastion”
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on the Best Video Games Ever. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, please click here.
The spoilers in this post are encoded with ROT13, if you want to contribute spoilers in the comments, please do the same.
The question of “are computer games art?” has become a topic of interest in cultural circles of late. The most famous (or perhaps infamous) contribution was that of the late Roger Ebert who argued that games can never be truly art. Now before we go any further, we need to define our terms. for me art is about a distinct emotional and aesthetic experience – art may well be a pleasant pastime, but its more than that, it moves you, and in a way that’s a little different to anything you’ve encountered before.
Using that as my definition, I am convinced that computer games are art; not all of them, any more than all movies are art, but some games are definitely art. This post is about one of those games, a game that is art, and whose artistry is tied up in its nature as a game. That game is Bastion.
Bastion is a third-person isometric action-RPG, in which you play The Kid (not an actual child, it appears to be a nickname), a soldier on The Rippling Walls which protects Caelondia from their on-again, off-again enemies the Ura. One morning, The Kid awakens to discover his homeland is … gone, and he’s alone on a tiny island floating in the sky. He knows that in case of trouble (and The Calamity, as it is known in-game, certainly qualifies as “trouble”), everyone is supposed to head to the Bastion. And so, alone and suspended in endless void, The Kid does the only thing he can do.
He gets up.
The Kid’s arrival at the Bastion is just the beginning. He meets there an old man named Rucks, who serves as the game’s narrator (more on that later), who shows him what he needs to do to restore Caelondia. During that quest, he will meed new fiends, but the secrets discovered along the way will shake him as hard as the Calamity itself did.
Why do I say Bastion deserves to be considered art?
First there’s its aesthetic. Eschewing the polygons uber alles approach of a AAA game, it uses a painterly aesthetic that is quite unlike anything I’ve seen in a game before (see my previous link for some examples). But the visuals are only part of the richness of the experience. I cannot praise sufficiently the genius soundtrack, composed by Darren Korb. It ranges from the Western-inspired Spike in A Rail, to the utterly manic Terminal March (this one is used as boss music, so you quickly come to think of it as the “shit just got real” theme). But the soundtrack isn’t just auditory adrenaline, it captures the quiet and emotional moments of the story as well. I recall one Gamespot reviewer saying than when Build That Wall first played in his game he just … stopped for a minute because it took his breath away. And at the climax of the game (which I’ll discuss below) Korb managed to produce some of the Saddest Music Ever.
But Bastion isn’t just a game with art in it. The gameplay itself has artistry to it. One of the central theses of Bastion is choices and their consequences, and there is no finer medium than gaming to explore this theme. It starts right at the beginning – the game doesn’t start until The Kid gets down off his bed, and it’s the player who makes that happen, rather than just being an action in a cutscene. And choice is woven into the story. They way the lost pieces of Caelondia rise up to meet your steps, but along the paths you actually walk, create a subtext through out the game that your actions can literally shape the world. In a strange way, the thing that makes it feel like this is your story, and not one you are simply watching is the narration. Logan Cunnignham voices Rucks, who is both a character in the game and its narrator. An d they do a good job of anticipating what you’re going to do, and have a line for Rucks ready to use if you happen to do it- everything from “Kid just rages for a while” to “And then The Kid fell to his death … nah, only foolin”. Cunnigham’s narration makes Bastion what it is (if you’ve played the game, I dare you to read those two quotes without hearing them in Rucks’s voice), and in a weird way having all your actions described from outside makes them seem more like yours. The constant narration and commentary make it seem like the game is reacting to you, rather than the other way around. Sure it’s mostly illusion, but isn’t illusion an integral part of art?
The crowning moment pf the game though is when you make two big choices. The second changes the face of Caelondia, but the first choice is much more gripping. If you have any interest in playing this game (and if you’re a gamer, you should) I urge you not to read the ROT13’d spoiler below:
Nsgre lbh svtug lbh’er jnl vagb gur Hen fgebatubyq, lbh pbzr npebff Mhys, jub orgenlrq lbh rneyvre jura ur qvfpbirerq gur Pnynzvgl jnf pnhfrq ol gur zvfsver bs n Pnrybaqvna jrncba bs znff qrfgehpgvba.
Vg frrzf Mhys’f pbhagelzra ghearq ba uvz, naq ur’f yrsg oyrrqvat bhg ba gur tebhaq, naq juvyr Ehpxf fcrphyngrf nf gb gur tenaq onggyr lbh zhfg or univat lbh unir gur pubvpr, yrnir uvz gb qvr naq svtug lbhe jnl bhg. Be qebc lbhe jrncba naq pneel uvz onpx gb gur Onfgvba gb or urnyrq. Vg vf guvf frpbaq pubvpr gung fubjf lbh gur gehr cbjre bs guvf tnzr. Gur jrvtug naq ohyx bs Mhys’f obql cerirag lbh sebz nggnpxvat, ehaavat be qbqtvat. Lbh unir ab pubvpr ohg gb cybg sbejneq nf na nezl bs Hen jneevbef puvcf njnl ng lbhe urnygu. Svanyyl, jura vg frrzf qrngu va varivgnoyr, gurl whfg fgbc. Va n fprar n yrffre tnzr jbhyq znxr vagb n phgfprar, gur Hen jub jrer nggnpxvat lbh fgbc naq jngpu va fvyrapr nf lbh pneel Mhys gb gur rkvg. Jura bar bs gurz cnavpf naq fgnegf fubbgvat ng lbh ntnva, ur vf dhvpxyl fznpxrq qbja ol nabgure Hen.
Nyy bs guvf unccraf nf n erthyne cneg bs gur tnzr jvgu lbh gur cynlre fgvyy svezyl va pbageby. Naq gur jubyr juvyr gur jbeyq’f fnqqrfg zhfvp V zragvbarq nobir vf cynlvat.
When I played through the second time, I wanted to see what happened if you took option 1. But I couldn’t do it, and that above all else is why Bastion is art.
Bastion is available for PC, iOS and Xbox 360.