[ARCHIVE] Game Design: Bastion and Storytelling

I’ve been in the process of moving over stuff from my old site to this blog, so here’s an old blog post that I wrote in January 2012 about Bastion. It’s a little bit dated, but still cogent to the game industry in general.

I beat Bastion for the first time on Sunday and I noticed some things about it that I think can be interesting to anyone interested in games in general as well as storytelling, hence the title of this post. So, in a nutshell, here’s what I feel makes Bastion awesome, and how I think it could be applied to other games.

Gameplay. The exact definition is always iffy, but it’s basically what people usually buy games for, whether it’s a dignified and slow-paced puzzle gamer or a adrenaline-based first-person-shooter, gameplay is key. Some is more deep than others, but it’s a matter of taste. However, I found that Bastion hit something in all schools of gameplay, with some fast and twitchy running, rolling, and rampaging, but counterbalanced by exploration, clever tactics, and challenging enemies that encouraged strategy over frenetic massacres. Bastion may be very simple when it comes to gameplay (the “rules” can be summed up as dodging or blocking enemy attacks while retaliating with your own and remaining on solid platforms), but there’s several things that make it even more interesting. For one, there are areas that require the player to move quickly and gracefully whether in a fight or not, traditionally sections where bits of the floor fall out from under the main character while they are being forced in one direction. There isn’t much challenge in either part of the rules, but combining the two can be interesting. Similarly, who the player is fighting has an impact. Squirts are one of the first foes, and are relatively slow, simple, and weak. Anklegators, however, lurk underneath the ground and strike with stealth (and in the level the player encounters one, it strikes from tall grass) or speed, doing devastating damage; this essentially provides a forbidden area without requiring time criteria or an infinitely scrolling level on which to fight the boss. It is this mix of both easy and hard challenges that makes Bastion fun to play- in Who Knows Where the player can hear the story of the characters as told by the primary narrator while dodging foes and trying to stay on a relatively large arena (which can be challenging, since some foes remove bits of the floor).

The storytelling, however, is what keeps a player coming back to Bastion. I’m going to define storytelling a bit more broadly for video games than in traditional senses; storytelling in this context is everything. Every last aspect of Bastion makes up its story- the challenges the player faces, the art and settings they see, the music and sounds they hear, and, of course, the narration make up the story. There’s a reason Bastion received such great reviews, and it’s because everything is storytelling. Bastion has a Metacritic score of 86/100 for its Xbox version and 87/100 for its PC version, which is considered to be almost “Universally Acclaimed” by their standards (an arbitrary classification, but an important one). Games that are considered classic like Deus Ex or Fallout have a value of 90 and 89 respectively, so Bastion is rated pretty close to what are considered deities in the video game pantheon, and falling in the top 7% or so of games. There’s several reasons for this-its graphics may not be terribly demanding on video cards, but they still immerse the player, giving them a sense of connection to the storyline. The music stays in a coherent feel and moves the players through the story-some of the music also plays an active part in storytelling (Zia’s theme, for instance). The challenges and narrator are the directly obvious story- the narrator provides a recap of the player’s actions as well as describing events the player does not directly see, while the challenges are the player’s way of driving the story.

I found it very interesting that in Bastion, the game is almost entirely linear. There are only a handful of story-relevant actions; the rest of the game is entirely linear with various sidepaths that usually do not impact anything other than completion (i.e. going off on a dead end to gather a memento, which is used to gain additional bits of information from Rucks, the narrator, and Zia and Zulf, two other characters in the story. The interesting thing is that I found these mementos to be more valuable than upgrading the character-Bastion succeeded in telling a story that was valuable to me. I consider that a mark of a good game. Sure it’s what’s considered a progressive game and it may not have a billion hours of play-I’ve logged 18 hours and

I would say that if you buy one game this year, buy Bastion. Of course, it’s not the most expensive game, clocking in at fifteen dollars, but it’s got something that I feel a lot of AAA games lack-being a game that tells a story. Sure, most games “have” a story, but how many are a story? I believe that Bastion’s superiority over many games is derived from the fact that it is a story, rather than the fact that it tries to tell one- it just lets the player discover the story through their own actions.

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