Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bastion: A Review and Some Further Thoughts on Choice and Inevitability

Firstly, I wrote a review of Bastion for Paste Magazine. You can read it here, and perhaps you should before you read the rest of this post so I don't have to repeat myself. But if you don't feel like it, here is a run down: Bastion is an utterly beautiful and melancholy game that makes you care for a world that no longer exists. There. That should be all you need for the rest of this post. Also, the rest of this post will contain spoilers for both Bastion and Grand Theft Auto IV so perhaps don't read on if you are yet to complete Bastion at least once.

At the end of Bastion you have to make a couple of choices. The first one is potentially heartbreaking, but not relevant to what I want to say here so I won't go into any details. The second one is what I am concerned with here. At the end of Bastion you can choose to do two things: either rewind time to before the Calamity ripped the world to shreds, or use the Bastion as some kind of airship to fly off and find new lands. However, both have consequences. If you rewind time and 'unbreak' the world, 'you' will cease to exist anymore. The Kid, Rucks, and Zia will have no memory of the post-Calamity world--something that would be hard enough to give up if Zia did not admit right towards the end that she has only ever known happiness since the Calamity. Further, there is no guarantee that people will not make the same mistake and simply cause the Calamity all over again. The consequences of continuing on, of using the Bastion as an airship to fly off into the sunset is two-fold: firstly, obviously, it means the Calamity will never be undone. Ever. Secondly (and more vaguely), the world around you will be irreversibly damaged as you take off. Or something. The game is not overly clear on this point but it seems to me that all the beasts and Ura in the vicinity will be destroyed by you choosing to fly off on the Bastion to find new lands. Perhaps I misread this, though.

It was a hard choice to make and, ultimately, I did not feel as though I had 'completed' the game until I played through it twice and made each choice. The first time I decided to turn back time. At that point, it was the obvious choice. Having heard so many stories about the pre-Calamity world from Rucks's tales, I needed to save it--or rather, to give it a second chance to save itself.

The second time through, when I played "New Game Plus" (which is essentially a new game where you keep you experience and weapons and the enemies get more difficult to reflect this), it was clear that this was not a distinct, 'other' game. The continuation of my character as well as some slight, clever changes in the narration made it clear to me that the Calamity had happened again. So on this playthrough, it made sense to make the other choice, to move forward into the future and not to stagnate in the past. It was bittersweet, of course, as it meant saying goodbye to the world I had wanted to visit for two generations of myself now, but it was filled with a sense of hope and optimism. There was me, Zia, and Rucks, and we were going to explore a brave new world.

The beauty of this was the the utter gravity of my choice to say goodbye to the pre-Calamity world was painfully apparent largely due to my previous playthrough. Because of that playthrough, I knew that turning back time yet again was inevitable. We often say that videogame narratives are about being able to answer the "what if" question. "What if I did this, not that." Bastion answers the question brutally by making you see that what happens is not pretty and then asking you to choose again.

Of course, the flaw of this is that not everyone makes the choice in the order I made them. I feel as though the game is attempting to set up the choices to be made in that order by trying to tie you down to the world with Rucks's sweet, sweet voice, but some players will certainly choose the future their first time through. This, then, destabilises the meta-narrative that, for me, ran through both playthroughs. It's a weakness of the story that i feel Bastion was trying to tell but one that is in no way new to videogames: the player will rarely do what the storyteller wants them to do.

Only one other game felt as incomplete until I played it twice and made the different choice: Grand Theft Auto IV. Rockstar's games always have that inevitability streak, but never has it hit me so hard as it did in Grand Theft Auto IV. Towards the end of the game, Niko makes the choice to either work for a man that previously betrayed him (and make a lot of money) or to kill the man for vengeance (and make no money). His cousin, Roman, wants him to take the money. His girlfriend, Kate... well, she doesn't want him to get revenge, but she doesn't want him to take the money, either. Either way, Niko has promised himself, his cousin, and Kate that this is it, that he will get himself out of this sink-pit of crime once he does this One Last Thing.

So the player makes the choice. Long story short, if you take the money (what Roman wanted you to do), then Roman gets shot dead at his wedding; if you take revenge (what Kate kind of wanted but not really) then Kate gets shot dead at Roman's wedding. The way the narrative progresses, both endings make sense based on the choices you made, and both leave Niko devastated at the end of the game's narrative.

The first time through the game you think "what if". What if you had just taken the money? Kate would still be alive. What if you had walked away? Roman would still be alive. So you play again; you make the other choice; and Niko simply loses someone else he loves. It kind of makes Niko Bellic one of gaming's few tragic characters. The utter helplessness of the situation he gets himself in becomes all the more apparent when you make a different choice and end up at a similarly dark conclusion--if you can call an aimless existence in a foreign city with the specter of a loved one haunting you a conclusion.

Neither of these games do this inevitability-through-choice perfectly. Bastion's hinges on makes choices in a certain order for the full impact to hit the player. Meanwhile, many people had enough trouble getting through one complete game of Grand Theft Auto IV, let alone two. But it is something I would like to see games exploit more often.


Mr Ak said...

Sadly, Bastion looks to be almost unplayable on my crappy old SD television. But yeah, agreed. I'd also say that the nature of the inevitable choice in GTA IV is why that game is so much more closely related to noir film than LA Noire was. You own the choice and the consequences (even if they're inevitable).

Brendan Keogh said...

Mr Ak:

"You own the choice and the consequences (even if they're inevitable)."

Could not have said it better myself. In fact, I explicitly didn't say it better than that!

Drew said...

I made the same choice on my first playthrough that you did and much for the same reasons that you listed.

I wasn't clear on what the consequences were for doing so but it seemed the entire game Rucks was telling about what a fascinating and worthwhile place the world was before the Calamity and so I thought I needed to give the world a second chance as you put it.

As soon as I made that decision I immediately regretted it--what is to keep another "calamity" from happening again in the "new" world?

So that decision made me think about the importance of history and relationships and the importance of learning from both.

Anyway, I appreciate your post, I expected to like Bastion (and I did) but I didn't expect it to make me think as much as it did.

moonkid said...

I made the other choice at the end of Bastion, and I agree that overall it does weaken the narrative. I did start the new game+, but haven't felt compelled to get very fair through it.

But I was never going to choose the other option. I guess it's just part of my personal philosophy that there is no going back - reliving the mistakes of the past will always compound those mistakes. Maybe that's also why I rarely replay videogames.

Eyvah Ehyeh said...

Maybe there are some changes in the narrative for those who take the second options as well? I doubt that they will make as much sense though, or as gripping.

Thomas said...

It's funny on your evidence I would have made the opposite choice to you both times.

Because it's natural to try and avert the calamity if it's possible, but if it's not possible it's because time has been reset and people do the same things again. So when the Kid reached the Bastion he'd choose to reset. Forever. In trying to save the past you would kill of the future.

But when you played through again and things were different, that means there's hope, if you keep on trying then one day maybe the calamity will be averted. And since you don't age you lose nothing by trying and trying until you get it right or things change to the point where you decide to let the future continue. At least you would have tried.

But i agree the game agrees more with your logic and your playthrough

Unknown said...

Just finished, it for the first time and I chose to Evacuate. Restoration didn't feel like a solid options, mostly because Rucks said himself he didn't know if it would work, for all he knew they were already groundhog daying it up and trying to save a world bent on destroying itself (well, a society anyways).
Evacuating just felt ultimately more positive,.