To The Bitter End

Bastion - The Kid

A Cleansing Fire

In Bastion, you can’t go home again.

By Drew Toal • January 21, 2013

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.

Bastion

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

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.”

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  • caspiancomic

    You guys, I love Bastion to fucking pieces, oh God I love it so much.

    The ending to this game and its mechanically simple choice really put the screws to me, and I think that’s the result of a lot of little storytelling details in this game. Like, how the cast is equally divided between characters who would benefit from the reset (Rucks and Zulf) and those who would benefit from the evacuation (The Kid and Zia). Or, how Rucks’ narration becomes decreasingly accurate towards the end of the game (the script has Rucks deliberately set up the Kid’s final encounter with Zulf as some kind of climactic boss fight, and what you get when you finally meet him is actually quite pitiable.) Or how, besides her rendition of Build That Wall when you meet  her, you don’t actually hear Zia’s voice until the very end of the game- and she quietly and indirectly begs you not to choose to reset time.

    Fun fact: a lot of people believe that the evacuation is the “true” ending, and that if you choose the reset option, the Calamity just happens all over again anyway. This is supported by alterations to the script in New Game Plus- periodically during his narration the second time through, Rucks will stop himself and ask if he’s already told this part. The theory is that no matter how many time you reset, it never takes, and the Calamity always happens- the only way to break the cycle is to choose evacuation. Personally, I don’t subscribe to this notion, since I think it weakens the choice you’re given at the end of the game, but it’s an interesting idea all the same.

    • Cloks

      Man, the idea of a “true ending” in pop culture seems kind of reductive – they’re all endings, so why does one have to be more valid than the other? I think that Elder Scrolls dealt with this by folding every possible possibility into one and kind of ignoring the quibbly bits, which might be the way to do it in a continued universe.
      You’re right when you say it weakens the choice – if one option is fated than to pick the others becomes meaningless especially in a game like Bastion where there would be endless cycling until the “true ending” is reached. If I want a world that is broken and will continue to break I don’t want to know that eventually my choices are meaningless.

      • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

        Whether an ending is “true” or not ultimately comes down to the character of the protagonist. In “Dragon Age: Origins”, for example, your character is a blank slate. You define your character. You decide what choices s/he makes. Your choices dictate the ending, all of which are equally valid.

        On the other hand, some games have protagonists with very defined personalities. In Pandora Directive, for example, Tex Murphy has a pretty well-defined moral code. The player is given the freedom to deviate from that, and make Tex behave more evil or virtuous than he would otherwise, but ultimately there is only one “true” Tex Murphy. The “true” ending is the result of the choices that the “true” Tex Murphy would make.

        • valondar

           But in extra-game materials, the authorities behind them can decide what is and is not ‘true.’

          The player character in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is a blank slate whose moral compass, race, gender and relationship status are all up to the player.

          But by this point, via Star Wars canon and the Star Wars: The Old Republic game, the True Character is white, male, Light Sided, and chose Bastila Shan… pretty much the antithesis of my original KOTOR playthrough come to think of it.

          I’m generally leery of the idea of there being true or correct choices for games, as it sort of undermines the choices to begin with. I can sort of understand it with Star Wars since that setting requires a lot of fixed canon material and static storytelling – novels and TV shows and so on – but ideally the choices you make shouldn’t be invalidated like that.

          I believe in a recent comic book or novel though BioWare’s also done that with Dragon Age: Origin, showing… well, let’s just say a certain blonde haired guy is King of a certain country.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ChrisBrimstone Christian Brimo

       I played through it twice, with both endings.

      “The theory is that no matter how many time you reset, it never takes,
      and the Calamity always happens- the only way to break the cycle is to
      choose evacuation.”

      I really like this. The ending reminds me of a long running book series I won’t name, where its implied each time loop brings the ending closer.

      • DrunkPhilatelist

         i used to love those books… but eventually there was too much wheel, not enough time.

        • http://www.facebook.com/ChrisBrimstone Christian Brimo

           wait, you just spoiled me on the ending of another book series

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/K6WVTMKDY5INDXXDRUYTKVVL6I jimmy

      If you subscribe to the idea that new game plus is an extension of the main game, your choice becomes entirely irrelevant. The calamity happens again whether you evacuate or reset, since you can enter NGP through either choice. This could be an extremely cynical message, that society will develop to destroy itself no matter what we do, but I don’t think that fits the tone of the game. So I will stick to my naive belief that if I give Caelondia another chance they will do the right thing.

    • Lawliet_Jayson

       I don’t think it weakens the choice at all. The thing is, the game never actually gives you a choice. Despite what people may believe, it all comes down to learning the history of the Calamity and the Bastion. If you listened to the narrator and you understand how exactly all this came to be, there’s no way in hell you’d choose Restoration. No right minded person with the correct information would make that choice.

      Bastion’s ending wasn’t about choice. It was about learning from the past to make a better future. If you didn’t learn that lesson and picked Restoration, new game plus was putting you in the same situation story wise because the Calamity happened again. If you picked Evacuation, you essentially learned what Supergiant Games was trying to convey the entire time.

      There is no “true” ending. But there is a right one. Leaving the past behind is the right ending. Which is also why I left Zulf behind. He was stuck in the past so he essentially was the past. He wanted to be with his girl. If you left him there, he probably would have died and in a way, was reunited with his girl after death. It was mercy. Because if you saved him, he would have been sad the rest of his life. If you picked Restoration, he would have ended up losing his girl again in a never ending loop of emotional pain. Leaving him behind to die only seemed right.

      Rucks was more of an open minded figure in the end, so he didn’t necessarily represent the past like Zulf did. Zia essentially represented the future. So, picking Restoration made Zulf lose his girl again, made Zia lonely, and an entire country pretty much be obliterated a second time. That’s not a choice that should be made.

      Giving you a choice was simply a way of testing your knowledge.

  • http://twitter.com/joeyheadset joeyheadset

    I’m not a big video game music guy (most games I turn the music off and listen to podcasts or something) but the soundtrack to this game was just exceptional.  The end song in particular, how it perfectly entwined the song’s two major musical themes in a gut-wrenching duet.  Damn game had me tearing up at the end :/

    • fieldafar

      Proud owner of a signed Bastion OST CD, I agree. Lovely music.  I haven’t listened to every track on there, though.

    • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

      Just seeing the words “The ending of Bastion” made the end theme start playing in my head. My personal award for Best Video Game Soundtrack All Time is largely uncontested, although Hotline Miami made a spirited lunge in its general direction.

      • http://twitter.com/HttpLovecraft Http Lovecraft

        Though one could argue that Hotline Miami is all/mostly licensed tracks, and therefore just cynical artlessness.

        • valondar

           You could say the same thing of Pulp Fiction though.

          ..what? You could!

    • majnun99

      I don’t know this game, but I want the soundtrack now

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/K6WVTMKDY5INDXXDRUYTKVVL6I jimmy

    I have to say this game really got to me at a few points, more so than any game I can recall has. (spoilers ahoy!) The point in which you have to progress by destroying the statues of former Caelondians as Rucks repeats “didn’t make it” after their name over and over is just astounding. Or the level in which you have been killing all of these animals up until that point, only for Rucks to point out that they are trying to survive just like you are, by finding these shards, and reveal Rucks to be someone completely absorbed in guilt over what he has done, and willing to do anything to undo it. And oh yeah, the ending, no more needs to be said about that walk with Zulf on your back. I hope I’m not just being melodramatic here…

    • Mistah Chrysoprase

      Funny, I had assumed the “statues” were actual mortal remains, flash-petrified Pompeii style by the Calamity.
      Which is SO much more cheerful.

      • http://www.facebook.com/dmaclennan2 Darren MacLennan

         They are. That’s what the Calamity did.

  • Staggering Stew Bum

    According to my Steam stats, I have played Bastion for ’1 minutes’.

    So I’d be about near the end, right?

    • Captain Internet

      Strictly speaking you’ll be on your second playthrough and just grinding for achievements. 

      That’s no way to live.

      • Staggering Stew Bum

        I had the house to myself over the weekend and I spent it grinding for achievements in Dishonored and Mass Effect when I could have been doing something constructive like watching pornography.

        I am fully aware that this is no way to live.

        • Captain Internet

          Well… yeah, but both of those games feature books and relationships, so they’re well ahead of Black Ops 2. And unlike pornography they don’t lead to post-orgasmic despair and depression.

          Or do they?</i?

        • DrunkPhilatelist

           @Captain_Internet:disqus  post-orgasmic despair? i think you might be doing something wrong. or is that a catholic thing?

  • fieldafar

    Seeing the article headline is making me want to continue playing this. But now I already feel sad in anticipation of the ending… 

    • valondar

       It’s a great ending. But then, it’s a great game. I picked it up over the last Steam sale, and it’s honestly one of the best things I grabbed then.

  • zhousheng
  • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

    Bastion is just a tour de force on all fronts, and while people here have expounded on it’s other key features (music, story, etc) I would love to highlight what made the game a standout for me from the moment I first saw a screenshot way back in 2010; the art style.

    Bastion came out in the height of the “Grey is Good” design period of this generation and it’s beautiful kaleidoscope of colors, not to mention its fluid animation, made the game a wonder to behold.  The painted promo materials for the game are also fantastic and truly mirror the game in a way that very little concept art does.  Compare the concept art for Skyrim to the game and while it evokes the same theme, their mountains were never that perfect, and there is always slight differences.  Bastions art was integral to the game’s feel and it shows in details such as the temple or the weapon design.

    Bastion’s world doesn’t feel completely based off any one culture or time period but it carries lots of flourishes that reference other genres (most obviously Westerns) and give the whole world an unique, but authentic, feel.

    In closing, Jesus Christ this game is gorgeous.

    • His_Space_Holiness

      That’s actually been a major sticking point for me when buying games. I like the idea of big RPGs like Skyrim and Dragon Age in principle, but too often I get a look at the art design and think “Is this a world I want to spend that much time in?” Dragon Age in particular got to me, as I quit after wiping out in the big ending battle and realized that I just didn’t care whether the world ended or not. And then I got all excited for Kingdoms of Amalur to come out, because my God, it had color!

      • valondar

         Odd. Skyrim and Dragon Age and let’s say Witcher do look kind of generic, but to me Kingdom of Amalur looked like the most generic most uninspired elements of the increasingly formulaic genre had gained sapience and made a game when nobody was noticing.

        I just want fantasy RPGs to not think they need to be goddamn generic northern European faux medieval fantasy Tolkein wannabes all the damn time.

        • His_Space_Holiness

          Yeah, that was Amalur’s problem all along, wasn’t it? It looked pretty, but didn’t bring anything new to the table. I was just psyched for an RPG with a color palette other than brown, gray, and more brown.

  • GaryX

    There’s something to be said about how “satisfying” this game makes the world building around you. It’s weirdly just very fun to run around and see pieces fly up and together.

    I really wasn’t as taken with the game as some people at first–in terms of gameplay, it doesn’t do anything particularly unique–but the way the whole thing comes together represents one of the most complete experiences you can have in games this generation which is really saying something in a generation where portions of games are increasingly locked out as paid content. 

    Also, I chose “evacuation.” Fuck that reconstruction shit.

    • Asinus

      I bought it on Steam and got my money back for it. It said it supported “game controllers” or “game pads” or something, but it only supported the 360 controller. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that I could work around it, I just didn’t like paying 15 dollars for fairly significant missing functionality. It really looked like a game I’d want to play on the TV (and it still does), but it’s not available on PSN (and I just don’t want to have to set up 3rd party wrappers to play a game I got from Steam. Trying to play an old GLIDE-only game? Sure, I need a wrapper for that. Trying to play a modern game sold for windows by a major distributor? No. That’s bullshit). 

      It still seems pretty cool. I tried playing the web-based version, too, using Joy2Key and it just didn’t play right. Maybe I need to rotate the controls 45 degrees or so. 

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    I honestly can’t remember what I picked – the decision just kind of jumped out of nowhere at the end and had no real ludic ramifications (either way at that point, the game just ends), so it didn’t really stick with me at all. I better remember being kind of put-off by that design choice than what I actually did with it. It felt kind of weird, like “Conglatulation! You have beaten the game! Please select ending A or B.”

    I do remember choosing to save the traitor character, as that was a choice that actually had in-game consequences and shaped the denouement of that level, which was cool.

    • caspiancomic

      Incoming kneejerk reaction to perfectly valid criticism!

      Although the ending of Bastion is essentially selected from a very small list, I think that was a deliberate design decision on the part of Supergiant. Bastion’s every facet was very purposefully designed from the ground up, and although it isn’t obvious about it, it features many of the hallmarks of modern gaming after being given a slight twist to have them better suit the contours of the game, or simply to experiment with what those hallmarks mean and how they can be implemented.

      For example, the game’s “difficulty” settings are expressed through optional, individual modifications to the game’s mechanics rather than through discrete difficulty settings- you can choose to activate enemies that deal double damage, or who move twice as fast, you can disable health drops, etc. All these things can be toggled on or off in any combination between missions to better personalize the game’s difficulty- difficulty settings redesigned.

      Or, the game’s level system, which is designed similarly. Instead of just gaining a boost to your stats with every level, you instead gain access to additional slots you can fill with unique upgrades that change your style of play. Maybe you want to increase your chance to crit when at full health, or survive one attack that would otherwise have killed you, or have your health restored every time you attack an enemy. Not just +2 to DEF, +4 to ATK with every level- leveling redesigned.

      The game’s ending follows a similar “reconsidered” logic. When you think of endings in games, you so often think of “good” and “bad” endings, or “true” endings, or endings that must be somehow “earned.” Some games buck the trend- Silent Hill 2′s terrific ending system was mentioned last week somewhere in the comments- but for the most part, endings are segregated from one another, and each unique ending must be earned by jumping through usually opaque, and sometimes totally arbitrary hoops. With Bastion, Supergiant cuts through the bullshit and allows the player to choose for him or herself what the most satisfying conclusion is to the story they just experienced- endings redesigned.

      (Apologies if I come across as prickly at all. I just really love this game, I don’t mean to be confrontational about it.)

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        I agree that those various machinations were interesting, as was their ambiguity. That there’s no “right” way to level up, and that each of those totem upgrades came with a handicap, provided the player with an ongoing series of non-trivial decisions that had a direct bearing on the gameplay and which reflected the attitudes and habits of the player.

        This contrasted a great deal with the jarring ending choice, which was mechanically stark and binary, and had no meaningful consequences for the player. It did maintain nominal ambiguity in terms of its narrative role – within the story there was still no clear “right” choice – but unfortunately I didn’t find the game invested me enough in that world or story for me to care.

        So after playing this game riddled with interesting granular little inventive subtle mechanics and choices, I’m suddenly presented with a climax/choice that is a.) not fun to execute (“click on this rectangle or this rectangle”), b.) has no meaningful consequences for me as the player, and c.) held no real stakes for me.

        I found myself paralyzed at that screen, not because it was such a challenging, morally-complex quandary, but because I found that game had put me in a situation toward which I was completely apathetic. Nothing I had done up to that point had prepared me to make that decision or to feel invested in it. It felt a little like they had run out of money and time and just had to wrap things up hastily.

        Bastion does some interesting things with mechanics and interactive narrative – it’s a pretty good game, though obviously I’m not as enthusiastic as you are about it – but the ending felt like a real misfire to me both mechanically and story-wise.

        • valondar

          You see I think the game does establish that choice as meaningful in that it devotes most of Rucks’ narration in the final level to explaining the consequences to either action, but also because I’d become emotionally invested in this strange, barely elaborated on game world which at first glance seemed to have all the nonsense logic of a Mario title in its world building (a quality it frankly retains even as the narration deepens it just a little bit). The cautious ambiguity of Rucks’ slow spoonfeeding of information and the effectiveness of the Kid’s flashback and dream, etc., Bastion had been very good at pulling me into its logic. I’m used to involving story games basically throwing a small novel’s worth of dialogue at me, but Bastion’s relative economy of spoken words and noticeable gaps in information really clicked with me.

          So yeah, in game terms all the choice does is decide which set of painted images, music and narration. But at that point I was sold on that.

  • http://www.avclub.com/ B.K.

    I rarely champion the idea of playing a game on “Easy” , but I’ve encouraged several of my friends to do so with Bastion. The basic hack and slash nature of the levels doesn’t add much to the experience so automatically regenerated when I died also didn’t seem to detract from the story for me. If anything, it made the game flow more cinematically and made “The Kid” feel more like a hero.

    I loved this game.

  • Effigy_Power

    This seems like one of those games someone would take a beating for for claiming that maybe they didn’t really get into it and also the music was at best okay. Sort of like calling “Breaking Bad” contrived on the AV Club.
    The praise for it is so universal and strong that one would have to be downright suicidal to criticize its repetitive gameplay and boring assortment of enemies. Seriously demented, in fact, to ever utter the sheer thought that Bastion was in fact fine, but not world-shattering.

    A fool who would ever do this. I certainly wouldn’t dream of it.

    • http://www.backloggery.com/colliewest Colliewest

      Bastion took me almost a year to get through because the gameplay was, for want of better words, a bit crap.

      The music fit the game but I wouldn’t want to listen to it out of context.

      What I really liked was the art design and the way the story was told. After countless AAA cutscenes of creepy mannequins drooling hackneyed exposition out of their dead-eyed yet manic faces it was really refreshing to see a different approach, and have it done so well.

      I think that this is where a lot of the huge amount of good will comes from. 

  • billwill

     http://al.ly/a56

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=579674289 Morgan Filbert

    I took two things away from this article:

    1. I must play Bastion

    2. Drew Toal and I have the same tastes in breakfast cereal

  • K. Thrace

    I am testing something.  Just ignore me.