Diversity Watch: Bastion

As a sort of closing thoughts on my time with Bastion, I’m curious as to how I can further my agenda of promoting diversity in games, or seeing how games are an artifact of a culture’s stance on diversity. This isn’t meant to scold Bastion by not fulfilling their quota of minorities, but letting it speak for itself.

Race and Ethnicity

For all the fear that the industry has about touching the topic of race and ethnicity, Bastion pushes the topic out there and lets the player interpret it. What is disheartening is how easily players can overlook this tension and participate in the usual brand xenophobia (and anti-environmentalism at that) that is produced from video games. Bastion makes use of race to draw on the player’s cultural understanding of them against us, of a nation against savages. The Ura draw on the qualities of the Far East (they even live in the East) to act as markers when juxtaposed against the kid and Rucks’ racial features; they have paler skin with dark hair, superstitious about a pantheon of gods, move around the map sharp and quickly (reminiscent of ninjas), and Zulf’s personal item is a hookah. This wouldn’t be so noticeable if Rucks and the kid weren’t depicted as very western (bulky males, caucasian facial features, imperialistic culture, science-orientated), however it goes a step further and marks them as very American. I was personally shocked when I first heard Rucks’ voice and then confused when I saw him; the voice actor was particular in using a tone and diction that is reminiscent of African-American (I use this term to identify a specific group of people, not to be PC) local color stories. So when I saw that Rucks was depicted as caucasian, my rationalization was assuming the team was looking for an aesthetic that was patently American. Following this line of thinking, I’m sure someone can come up with an interesting interpretation of seeing the US against its eastern anxieties (most of the Middle East, China, North Korea) in Bastion. However, that’s not my goal here; it’s possible that those with a differing ethnicity than the canon American one would be able to identify with the wrong done to Zulf, but it would be a difficult claim as you kill more and more Ura to get to your goal. Rucks’ excuse for killing all these people is flimsy and ethnocentric, as I could imagine a different reaction if Caeldonian lives were the ones at stake (or maybe they are, and that’s why it’s easy to kill Ura).

There’s also the tucked away issue about Zia’s liminal status when it comes to her ethnicity; she was raised in Caeldonia, but her race is of the Ura. There are mixed messages with the plot point of Zia running off to meet Zulf, and the implications of him claiming her as an Ura. It is unclear if Zia ever felt a sense of belonging, though this might be implied by the very subtle hints of the kid’s affection towards her.

Gender and Sexuality

The game assumes heteronormativity and doesn’t make any grand statements about gender. Bastion follows many traditions in this genre; the main character is a young male who identifies as a (conventionally Western) man and uses many typical props that suggest masculinity. There are some neat twists on the weapons in the game, but they are the same from every other: every type of gun you can think of and a bunch of melee weapons that require strength rather than anything else. One of the upgrades for the Bastion is a distillery which indicates that the kid is drinking throughout his adventures; I have nothing against drinking, but it is a common trope of masculinity to be a hard drinker, and this cannot go unnoticed if the main character is continually called ‘the kid.’ I find it problematic in an abstract way when boys in video games are assumed to have weapon and combat competency, or at least how prevalent this type of character is in video games. Rucks reinforces these expectations by the actions he points out the kid doing; I remember feeling a little put off when there was a quote of the kid having a sort of affection for one of his guns (I think there’s multiple references like these for the musket). There is little room for any other expression or identification of any other type of masculinity other than the gamer hegemonic one.

Zia’s representation as the sole woman (I’ll assume female as well) seem more to be in service of contrasting the kid’s masculinity. The (typical) emphasis on her beauty is slyly done by hearing her song and voice before you meet her. The sequence attributes the usual qualities to Zia before we even meet her; delicate sounding, beauty in an ethereal sense, a rare sight, something to chase. Rucks’ narration during this sequence is ambiguous during the first play-through as the player doesn’t know who he’s telling the story to (I assumed he was tell me the story), and it prompts the unaware listener to admire Zia as an aesthetic. Also, seeing that her personal item is a cooking pot… It doesn’t seem like Bastion is trying to leave behind any molds.

Something interesting is at work, though, when comparing the two aesthetics invoked, as they seem rather gendered. Zia’s song seems to be the audio translation of the visual representation of the game; I look at Bastion and see something beautiful and delicate. But Rucks’ narration, the only other voice of the game, gives the aesthetic more grittiness, enough so it isn’t alienating to the type of character the kid embodies. My personal observations of the themes at work in this game sprout from details like this, and I’m sure an interpretation waits to be read there.

Closing Thoughts

More could be said about age and and ableism, but they seem to just exist in the game and don’t really complicate the matter. Rucks has an interesting role as an elder, but turns out to be a threat of a harmful culture rather than an agent on his own. There is also no indication of transgender, intersexed, or asexual people, though given this allegory to America overall, it would be interesting where such characters would fit in.

Creation vs Destruction in Bastion’s Narrative

A lot of what has the gaming community chattering about Bastion is the role of its narrative in the gameplay. Many critics of the relationship between story and games see them as one slapped onto the other, rather than having an organically joined structure. Rucks’ narration of the kid’s journey is often merited as the ‘right way’ to do story in a game, however there a strange tension between the storytelling and gameplay that could be read as narrative dissonance (or, at least, further analyzed to view a more realistic application of the techniques present in the game).

To out my personal feelings before diving into criticism, I thought the game should have been titled something similar to Rucks. The Bastion is merely a plot device that serves as a tool for something else, but it isn’t the main idea of the story; as well, the kid could be pretty much anyone (being optimistic, I chose to see it as a critique on the stereotypical adventurer rather than the developers being lazy, though that took some self-convincing). Rucks controls the player’s experience as well as the relationships between all of the characters; the game leaves questions open about him, leaving the player to turn off the game wondering about how they feel about Rucks’ actions. His pleasantly stylistic narration is overbearing and steals the spotlight, and that (as I will argue later) makes the ending ineffectual when his narration stops. This is definitely not a slam overall on the game, I enjoyed it and it was worth my money; I just wish to extract more worth out of it rather than setting it up to be a paragon of gaming.

Ultimately, I noticed a strange ambiguity concerning the themes of creation and destruction in Bastion right from the beginning; the player is told the Calamity has everything destroyed, yet this is the beginning of a story, Furthermore, the setting is falling apart except for where the kid steps, where the path is actually being created before him. On one hand, this could be a representation of the continuing detonation and rebuilding of Caeldonia that is implied by Rucks before the player gets to choose the ending, giving the player an off-kilter and chaotic feeling to carry with them throughout the game. However, gameplay doesn’t reinforce this reading, rather, it communicates a more bleak path of destruction. I found it ironic that as Rucks extemporaneously created the story, the kid was destroying everything in his path; there were so many unnecessary destroyable objects in the way of the goal, that it made me wonder if the kid was doing as much damage to the city and its people as the Calamity did.

This makes the juxtaposition of the creative mechanics at the Bastion seem either incredibly in line with the narrative, or at odds. The Bastion is used as a focus for the player’s goals as well as the means to further launch more destruction through an armory of weapons, upgrades, and challenges inspired by the gods. But this is all really fruitless, because as the story points out, there’s little effect the order of your buildings have on anything (and this is reinforced by nothing at all being changed when you switch around the order of the buildings, as well as there being an optimal build for New Game+). It’s possible that the kid has done the same exact thing an infinite amount of times beforehand, and to learn that after it was damaged just before you completed it (twice!) adds in a bit of despair.

Now all of this doesn’t sound so bad for a game to produce, it actually reveals a complicated depth that lies below very simple and intuitive gameplay. I felt like I had things to work out right up until I had a choice in how the story was ending. My intervention isn’t determined by anything except for my interpretation of the events; not Ruck’s, or Zia’s, Zulf’s, and definitely not the kid (he doesn’t really have one it seems). Instead of furthering this volatile interaction of creation and destruction by activating the Bastion and instantaneously creating a New Game+ for the player (who can then go on to stop the cycle) and give the player a meta-viewpoint on what just happened, the choice of what to do with Zulf and the Bastion opens up the moving parts of a game that you rarely had to stop and think about much. There is no more narrator, no more certainty, and it almost feels like a different game. For me, the game lost all of its energy right after the last return to the Bastion (though, I nearly groaned out loud after being presented with the choice to save Zulf). The reason why, in hindsight, all of these elements seem so out of line, because the player is called into the sort for the first time and asked to sort things out. Why now, when the story is at it’s most intense? Especially with a lame still image at the end? The game was fine with recognizing its own metafiction, but to then double the meta undid a lot of the organic-feeling elements (the weapon training grounds did as well, but they were covered up enough in lore that I forgave it).

Because the game wasn’t about choice at all, my journey through New Game+ revealed how the creation vs destruction elements felt very arbitrary and not integrated into the gameplay. The narration seemed more of an aesthetic choice, building up the Bastion was an illusion of involvement, and the mindless destructive nature of your avatar (yes, I said it) becomes embarrassingly apparent.

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.