Games are often left unfinished. Sometimes they’re too difficult, too vast, or too repetitive to see all the way through to the closing credits. To The Bitter End is The Gameological Society’s look at those endings that are worth fighting for—or at least worth reading about.
There’s nothing that can’t be improved by a disembodied narrator. Extra points if the voice sounds like it belongs in a Topeka saloon circa 1882. I once pitched Gameological Holy See John Teti a video idea to prove this theory once and for all. The footage would consist of me doing tedious, everyday Drew Toal things; drinking coffee, eating Red Berries Special K, cautiously deciding between laundry detergents at my local bodega. Drooling on myself while taking a “flash nap” in a kitchen chair. The catch is that the whole thing would all be narrated by Logan Cunningham, the voice actor behind Bastion’s cowboy-philosopher storyteller. Cunningham’s voice work in Bastion is the perfect mix of Sam Elliott and Mean Joe Greene, bare bones and reassuring. I hoped he’d jump all over the chance to narrate my daily series of mindless tasks. It would be hilarious, I said.
But perhaps Cunningham’s voice work isn’t meant to be exported out of Caelondia, the sundered realm in which Bastion takes place. It’s a voice meant for tumbleweeds and melancholy and doomsday weapons, not a guy sitting around his one bedroom apartment in sweatpants, eating stale butt ends of wheat bread and angrily shaking his fist at Drudge Report headlines. Rucks (Cunningham’s character) is a teller of tales, an end-times prophet and snowy-haired cheerleader who bears a resemblance to Mark Twain. If the Mayan apocalypse had come to pass, he’d be one you’d want to survive and tell the tale to humanity’s ragged descendants as they huddled around pale fires and cooked irradiated squirrels for Sunday brunch.
Bastion puts you in control of a character known simply as “The Kid.” As the game begins, you wake up alone, in a crumbling room. (Picture the worst hangover you’ve ever had coupled with the Hokkaido earthquake of 1730.) Well, you’re not quite alone. Cunningham’s voice cuts in, quelling the disorientation and panic the Kid is undoubtedly experiencing. “Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one. Now here’s a kid whose whole world got twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky.” You try to move around. “He gets up,” the voice immediately notes. That was strange! (But maybe you start to understand how great it would be to have your every move recorded in this fashion.) As the Kid walks in the only available direction, a walkway rises from the ether. “The ground forms up under his feet, as if pointing the way. He don’t stop to wonder why.” The Kid doesn’t wonder about much of anything.
And so you’re off, to rebuild the Bastion—a sort of mobile, airborne town-slash-time machine—and somehow put things right. Rucks exists both in the game, as a resident of the Bastion, and outside of it, as a voice telling the tale as it unfolds. It’s unclear whether Rucks is recalling events after the fact, but it always seems as if he knows more than he lets on. Under his tutelage, the Kid travels to different planet-fragments and collects pieces of an energy source that Rucks assures him can power the Bastion, and even undo the “Calamity” that near-obliterated their once beautiful world.
As the game unfolds, it becomes clear that this Calamity was the result of nationalism, xenophobia, and war—the handiwork of a weapon meant to wipe out an entire people. It was devastatingly effective. But only the dead have seen the end of war, as I learned from the opening credits of Black Hawk Down, and we know the Kid is still breathing. Some of the enemy also survives. Before the Kid can collect all of the shards he needs to power up the Bastion, he is betrayed by one of his own, and the Caelondians’ ancient enemy attacks, damaging the Bastion and rekindling old grudges.
Well, by now, the Kid is a little riled up. He was willing to let bygones be bygones, putting aside the old hatreds as everyone just tries to survive best they knew how in this broken new world. But they wouldn’t let it alone. To acquire the final shard of time travel fuel and end this feud once and for all, the Kid goes straight into the lion’s den. He’s a whirling dervish of destruction, smashing his way through enemies and obstacles alike. He goes beyond even Rucks’ second sight. “I can’t hear him at all anymore. He’s too far away. But he’ll be alright.”
Bastion isn’t a game that incorporates much choice. You go to a realm, smash everything in sight, and recover a shard. So it comes as a surprise when, on the final level, you come upon the prone form of a former ally who sabotaged the Bastion and fled back to his own tribe. His countrymen are apparently pretty unhappy with his inadvertently bringing the destructive power of the Kid into the remnants of their homeland. It’d be like if I put a hurricane magnet on my roof and then boasted about it to all my toughest neighbors in the projects down the way. But the wounded ally is still alive, and the Kid is faced with a choice: leave him for the vultures, or put down his weapons and carry the traitor to safety.
It’s a strange moment to introduce a life-or-death option. Ultimately, though, carrying a former buddy to safety is too intriguing a path to ignore. So—in my playthrough, at least—the Kid puts down his weapons, slings the body over his shoulder, and walks through the final gauntlet of enemy warriors. To paraphrase Manowar, the Kid has burned the bridge behind him and there’s only one way home. Burdened by the body, the Kid progresses slowly, even as enemy arrows rain down on him from all quarters. No way they make it through this hellish onslaught.
But then the arrows slow to a trickle. Then they stop altogether. Moved by the Kid’s act of selfless heroism, these blood-crazed warriors—who just moments ago wanted nothing more than to use the Kid’s head as a soccer ball—allow the hobbled pair to pass unmolested. I, too, am moved. Not since Swayze carrying an inert Charlie Sheen out of the shit at the end of Red Dawn have I seen its like.
It’s the first world-changing choice you have to make, but not the last. Even as the Kid is on the verge of completing his people’s delayed genocidal imperative, Rucks is still yammering away, talking about the dangers of a temporal do-over. (“There’s one problem with a place that sets things back to a bygone time. You can’t test it.”) There’s also the Bastion’s secondary function: Instead of undoing the Calamity, it can fly away and make hay of the new reality.
Undoing the Calamity has, to this point, been the undisputed goal of the whole quest. But now that the moment is here, it’s surprisingly difficult to just send things back to the way they were. The Kid, Rucks, and the rest of the gang are really thriving as post-apocalyptic outlaws. It’s their Troy’s Bucket moment. Hell, for all we know, the Kid was a juvenile delinquent in his former life. Now, he’s a hero.
As for Rucks, just as his soothing baritone would be wasted on narrating my life, so would it be once he got back to his day job at the Caelondian Apple Genius Bar: “Your iPhone warranty doesn’t cover water damage, but it’ll be all right. C’mon, keep your chin up.” You can hear it in his voice: He has retold the old stories for long enough. It’s time for Rucks to narrate the sequel. My choice is clear. The Calamity was a necessary evil, a cleansing fire. As usual, Rucks has the last word: “We can’t go back no more. But I suppose we could go wherever we please.”