A Review of ‘Bastion’, or, A Problematical Design Philosophy

Bastion is an ‘action role-playing game’, it was recently released for download on the PC and Xbox Live Arcade, and despite the extremely positive reception its been receiving I’m pretty sure it has no soul. I think I might have enjoyed myself for much of the time I spent with it, but it also left a pretty hefty amount of bad tastes in my mouth. I think my main problem with the game itself is the design philosophy it clings to. And I say design philosophy, but I suppose I’m using the term rather loosely here: it’s not a specific set of methods or guidelines for making videogames, but instead its a general attitude towards making videogames. I’ll talk about that attitude in a moment, but for now let’s back up and return to the beginning.

So, ‘action role-playing game’, for whatever that distinction is worth. An action role-playing game, or action-RPG if you like (or ARPG if you are mad for unsolicited acronyms), is a loose semi-genre of videogames that brings together the statistics and levelling nature of many role-playing games with the smashing-things-up of more action-based games. In other words: in Bastion you, the player-character, run around fighting enemies using just a few buttons on your controller or keyboard, and in doing so you earn experience points, useful items, and the occasional new skill or weapon. It’s simple stuff: you can carry two weapons and one special skill, and you have a steadily growing choice of melee and ranged weapons with different kinds of attacks. These weapons are mapped to individual buttons/keys, as is the special skill, and you can also block using another button, with a well-timed block countering the incoming blow. That’s pretty much it as it goes. The RPG-side of things means as the game goes on you can upgrade your character and weapons to be faster, stronger, and indeed harder and better. These upgrades to the weapons do allow you to customise your approach to some extent, but while you can choose to make a slightly stronger sword or a slightly faster one it rarely feels like a choice with any real impact on either the way you approach battles or the experience as a whole.

It’s all rather competent for the most part, if uninspired. It’s just like a lot of other games that aren’t really good enough, and neither the level-design nor the enemy-design do very much to raise it up. The different types of enemies either just run at you swinging in slight variations or sit there shooting at you in other slight variations. And the fantastical locations the game takes place in, while visually distinct, don’t offer any tweaks to make combat more interesting. All the different environments are really just different wallpaper jobs covering up the same narrow corridors and open arenas. If there had been more than a slight variation in the behaviour of different enemy-types, and the game forced you to change your tactics once in a while, then Bastion could have been far more interesting. But there isn’t, and it doesn’t, and it isn’t.

I should mention that there’s also a sort of home-base on which you can bit by bit build and upgrade different types of buildings: a forge lets you modify your weapons using the currency and items you collect, a shrine lets you increase the difficulty of the game in different ways for an experience point bonus by praying to certain gods, and so on. And while this is an interesting idea it’s not really used in any kind of complex or interesting way. It seems to promise, at first, the ability to build and customise an interesting and useful home-base, a la Skies of Arcadia, but it really just turns out to be a case of having the choice to unlock x slightly earlier than y, or y slightly earlier than x. To an extent the home-base in Skies of Arcadia is similarly limited when you get down to it, but there you’re offered enough variety, and it’s presented with enough warmth and character, that it feels like the home of your group of rag-tag sky pirates. And in Bastion your base never really feels like anything other than the central hub you are required to return to for a spot of busywork in between levels. It doesn’t feel like your home, even a makeshift one, and that’s a missed opportunity.

Why has it been praised so highly then?’ I hear you not ask. Well, that’s because it really is quite impressive in terms of many of its ancillary features. Bastion is set just after a cataclysm that ripped up the surface of the earth, leaving the pieces left to hang there in the sky. See, Bastion takes place on floating islands in the air – the remains of a once prosperous city-state. And as your character, the nameless, silent young man referred to simply as the kid, moves about the world pieces of the ground float up to meet you. It’s hard to describe but it’s rather wonderful in motion as pathways and staircases construct themselves steps ahead of you, or fall away threateningly only a few feet behind. There’s also no denying that the world itself is colourful and imaginatively designed. The art-style is well-realised, and the environments all look and feel markedly different, as well as often strange and magical. Finally, the last real achievement of Bastion is the story and the narrative techniques it employs: throughout the game the actions of the kid are described by a husky deep-voiced narrator as you act. So, for instance, as you deal the killing blow to a powerful enemy the narrator may comment ‘Kid sends it packing, doesn’t even take a scratch’, or as you’re running from a collapsing platform he may say something like ‘Kid doesn’t hang around, he knows he has to keep moving’, and so on and so forth. It’s actually very effective, especially when it’s not simply commenting some minor thing you as the player are doing; the narrator gives you background information on the world, the few characters you’ll meet in your travels, and tells you what you should be doing, all without intruding into the experience of playing the game in an artificial manner. The story itself, a tale of trying to survive and potentially undo the cataclysm that irreparably damaged the world and killed so many of its inhabitants, is also rather solid. Almost moving at times, even. As we come to the end of the game things do become very interesting in terms of the narrative (though the combat you’re constantly thrust into never really evolves), and you’re even given a few opportunities for making real decisions that affect how the rest of the game plays out (read: which ending cinematic plays). This is all fairly INTERESTING, but it could do a lot more, a point I’ll raise again in a bit, and quickly, I promise.

It’s been described by several critics as essentially a victory of style over substance, as although the core of what you do in the game is pretty simplistic and not very inspired it is, as a whole, lifted up by the sheer excellence of these other parts of the game: the art-style, the story, the interesting use of voice-over, and the quite frankly brilliant soundtrack. I would say that, yes, these aspects of the game do lift it up to a level where it’s worthy of attention. I don’t think anyone would really be paying attention to this game if it weren’t for these things. And that’s fine: putting emphasis on creating an interesting interactive fictional world over mechanically interesting systems (such as a well-realised and strategically diverse combat-system) is a perfectly valid choice. What I have a problem with is that all the creativity and effort in making this game has gone into parts of the whole that do not distinguish videogames from other mediums.  And this is the problematical design philosophy I take umbrage with. Many people, both game designers and critics, think that in order to make videogames better we simply need to pour creativity, time, and money into these areas. How do we make better games? We make them look better, and sound better, and we make the stories in them more interesting. But this is not enough – the one thing, the one thing, that distinguishes videogames from other mediums is interactivity, nebulously defined though the concept may be, and we can’t forget this when we try to make better games.

What you do, as a player, in Bastion is unoriginal, uninspired, and it’s not enough to make all the other parts of the game sing in order to try to compensate for this. Don’t get me wrong, a game’s art-style, use of sound and music, and narrative are often very important, and can raise games up to a new height. I’m not one of these people who consistently say that games can’t or shouldn’t focus on telling stories, or that the only thing that matters is interactivity. I just get frustrated when I play a game where the things I do in the game are simply things designed to keep my thumbs busy while I wait for the next piece of story, or the next impressive vista. And that’s what Bastion is: it’s an interesting story and impressive approach to art and music wrapped around a Rubik’s Cube, by which I mean that the core of the game, the gameplay (I promised myself I wouldn’t use that unhelpful, rubbish word), is simply something you absent-mindedly play around with without any real engagement while you sit there being wowed by music, the art-style, and the presentation of the narrative.

Let’s take something like Dear Esther, Dan Pinchbeck and team’s half-life 2 mod. Dear Esther is essentially a barren environment that the player walks through while cryptic narration is played intermittently. One of the great things about this game/mod, aside from the fact that it lays claim to the title of BEST VIDEOGAME STORY EVER, is that it has the confidence to just tell you its story without trying to find something to keep you busy during the telling. Bastion doesn’t do this: it wants to tell you a good story and show you some lovely environments, but it’s worried that you’ll get bored if it doesn’t throw some button-mashing combat your way. I don’t know: I don’t like this.

So I guess what I’m saying is that you have two choices: (a) focus on the story, the art-style, the music, whatever, and have the confidence to make these things both meaningfully interactive and extremely interesting without feeling like you need to hand me a Rubik’s cube so that I don’t get bored, or (b) give me interesting systems, interesting interactions with the game, be they combat with enemies, conversation systems, or whatever. These are obviously not mutually exclusive, and they overlap: tell me a story, but if all I’m doing is listening to a story without having any real interaction with the world of the game then you’re failing. I don’t think it really makes games much better as a medium if the only improvements being made to games are in their non-interactive stories, or their art-styles, or their soundtrack. Give me an interactive fiction or don’t give me a fiction at all, I suppose.

There is so much potential in Bastion’s setting: rebuilding after an apocalypse. Please just task me with finding survivors, or actually making meaningful decisions in how to build up my hub/settlement, and so on. Don’t just allow me to build a forge before a shrine or vice versa: give me choices that lock out other choices, that have narrative consequences, or that have dramatic and interesting consequences outside the story. And at least put a little more effort and thought into giving me combat that doesn’t always devolve into attack-block-dodge-run-attack. But the combat is just to keep you busy. And so is the home base-building system, and so is the bland upgrade system, and so is pretty much anything else that could possibly occur as a result of your input as a player.

Finally, these choices you make at the end: giving me a binary choice (admittedly a rather intriguing one) that immediately results in one of two ending cut-scenes is not really that wonderful after all, in case any game developers are reading, which seems probable. So many game developers seem to think that by lumping in some choice, most often a ham-fisted ‘moral decision’, at the very end of an otherwise entirely linear game they are being very interesting. Sometimes it can work, but here it just highlighted how great a game Bastion could have been if it offered interesting choice and consequence throughout. As it is the choice given to you here, and in countless other game endings, feels like the choice to change the channel from one television show to another. In other words: choice it is, interesting it may well be on occasion, but interactive, much less meaningfully interactive? Well that it ain’t.

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