Bastion: Greater than the Sum of its Parts

Plot, music, mood, characters, gameplay – there are numerous ways game developers can manipulate these elements to create a compelling experience. Many series can attribute their successes to individual components shining above the rest of the industry. The impressive gameplay in Devil May Cry, engaging characters from Persona, and brilliant plot twist seen in Bioshock are all examples of individual game components contributing a significant amount to the game’s success. What makes Bastion special is the way each of these components interact to create the impression of a dynamic world. I’ll be looking at how different components of the game interact with the characters to breathe life into the game’s world, Caelondia.

One of Bastion’s strongest features is Rucks, the narrator. He is dynamic in the way that he speaks in response to how you, the protagonist referred to as “the Kid”, behave in the game, commenting on your actions and reacting to the environment around you. It only took a short time for me to start trying things just to hear him talk, as he was fantastic to listen to. But it wasn’t just his gruff voice that made him compelling, it was also what he said. He’s clearly familiar with all the areas you go to, and with the people and parts that make them up. He’ll make a quip about the vessel you’re riding on, or a jab at the enemies you’re fighting. This continuous stream of information encourages the player to compare what he sees in the world to what he hears from Rucks. The only iteration of the world the player is familiar with is what’s left of Caelondia after the Calamity. Thus, through interactions with the narrator, the player can begin to obtain the perception of Caelondia as once a living, vivid world.

The Jawsons? Grady senior, Grady junior? They didn't make it.
The Jawsons? Grady senior, Grady junior? They didn’t make it.

Once you understand that Caelondia was home to many people, you’re hit with the emotional weight of the game, realizing that all its residents didn’t make it. You’re presented with people that Rucks or the Kid may have known personally. The harsh reality of what happened to Caelondia comes crashing around you, and you can truly empathize with what Rucks and the Kid have lost. This is proper world building, combining Rucks, the narrator, and the plot to create a world with depth beyond what you’re immediately exposed to. You understand that there is history to the world, and that the world itself was valuable to the people who lived in it. It tells a compelling story, giving a reason for Rucks and the Kid to fight. Without the narrator interacting with the environment as he does, Caelondia might have been just another post-apocalyptic world.

The main characters: Bastion, Rucks, Zia and Zulf (counterclockwise)

It would be impossible to talk about Bastion’s success without mentioning the music. Darren Korb, the composer, used a unique theme combining wild west and fantasy. The wild west base gives Caelondia personality, yet the fantasy portion lets us know this world is far from typical. Most importantly, the music manages to give insight into the characters’ pasts and develop the history of the world. Zia and her song, Build that Wall, are a fantastic example of this. This song is presented as soft and sad sounding, but the lyrics of the song convey aggression. Listen to the song here!

I dig my hole, you build a wall
I dig my hole, you build a wall
One day that wall is gonna fall

Gon’ build that city on a hill
Gon’ build that city on a hill
Someday those tears are gonna spill

So build that wall and build it strong
Gon’ build that wall up to the sky
Gon’ build that wall up to the sky
Someday your bird is gonna fly

Gon’ build that wall until it’s done
Gon’ build that wall until it’s done
But now you’ve got nowhere to run

So build that wall and build it strong
‘Cause we’ll be there before too long

The juxtaposition of how it’s sung and what she’s saying leaves you with the feeling that something’s off. It’s then that you tie this song to the fact that Zia is an Ura, a race the Caelondians defeated in a past war. Race tension is an important theme in the game, and this song sheds some light onto the results of the war. While it is explained that in recent history tensions have somewhat stabilized, this song alludes to the opposite. A song like this being passed down from generation to the next means the Ura haven’t forgotten what’s happened to them. Even if Zia herself never shows hostility and sings the song sweetly, we know the Ura people are still thinking about their defeat.

A slow, sweet song plays as you find her at the edge of the Prosper Bluff.

Near the end of the game, Zulf (the Ura ambassador) attempts to destroy the Bastion, which could restore Caelondia. The remaining Ura people are quick to help him to do so, attacking alongside him. Simply from listening to Build that Wall, we can infer the motivations of Zulf himself, and his people, as explained above. Because the game’s music played off of Zia’s character, we know why the enemies strike. You know the Ura are waiting, remembering, and that they’ll be there before too long. You might resent them for attacking, or even sympathize with them for their hardship of losing a war, but the depth of the Ura’s motivations wouldn’t have been apparent had Zia not sung her song.

Bastion is indeed greater than the sum of its parts as the components of this game synergize to improve the overall experience. Paying special attention to detail in this game results in a deeper understanding of character intentions, plot development, and the vibrant past of Caelondia. Like pieces of a puzzle, the world pieces itself together giving us one of the best instances of storytelling gaming has ever seen.

One comment

  1. I’ve never played Bastion, yet despite its absence in my life I can attest just how good the soundtrack is despite having not heard it. I can’t stop listening to the music this guy contributed to Transistor. Another game I’d strongly recommend playing.

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