Supergiant Games’ brand new XBLA title Bastion has a lot of things in its favor. Fantastic visual style, great music, and what many will consider its greatest strength, its narrator. Logan Cunningham’s performance as Bastion’s narrator is pitch-perfect.
Cunningham augments the style and tone of the game, and really helps Bastion set itself apart from its peers. But I can’t help but feel that Bastion’s greatest strength also contributes to one of its biggest weaknesses.
Bastion (and technically Cunningham too) tells the story of the Kid as he wakes up one morning to find out that his world and the city of Caelondia has been destroyed by something called the Calamity. As the Kid wakes up, the first thing we hear is the narrator telling us that this story “ain’t so simple.”
Throughout the game the narrator reacts to what the player does as the Kid. However, many of these lines are all tightly scripted, so it’s not so much a reactive narrator as a tightly scripted one – one that somewhat offers the illusion of true interactivity.
Because Cunningham’s performance is so strong, I have a feeling that this will cause many to overlook certain narrative flaws. For example, the nature of a narrator is to tell a story, but video games are an interactive medium. If anything, they are much better prepared to show a story, and at their best, they allow players to do a story.
Let’s look at a more specific example. If in a book it’s considered better to show something to the reader through character action and dialogue, then in a game it’s usually better to have a player experience something through gameplay rather than watching it in a CGI scene.
When it comes to Bastion you have the narrator telling you what’s happening on screen – which is fine because the player is already responsible for those actions - and what’s going on in the characters’ minds. Rather than letting the player make their own assumptions, the game tells them things that, in my opinion, would be better off making part of the gameplay.
In an interview on Bitmob, Bastion’s creative director Greg Kasavin says that they wanted to create an “empathetic main character.” But how empathetic is the Kid? To me he was just an empty avatar. I never really cared about his feelings or how he reacted to the Calamity. And really you only learn about his story when you play in the optional arenas.
While the arenas may work from a gameplay standpoint – they give you an opportunity to hone your skills and earn experience – they are a terrible vehicle for storytelling. You’re trying to survive against waves of increasingly difficult enemies in a confined space while the narrator reveals probably some of the most interesting bits about Caelondia’s and the Bastion’s history.
The gameplay during these sections doesn’t mirror the narration. You’re trying to fight twenty waves of enemies while the narrator is talking about the Kid’s parents and what he did before the Calamity struck. Not only is the dissonance between player action and narrator hard to wrap your head around, it’s also just plain hard to pay close attention to what the narrator’s saying while you’re in the fight of your life.
In another interview on The Daily DL, Kasavin says he wrote roughly 60,000 words for Bastion. For clarification, that’s roughly the length of a short novel. However, “a large slice of this is all back story content mostly for my [his] reference to inform the rest of the writing.” And in all honesty that kind of shows during gameplay. In fiction writing, back story tends to be exposition or the “telling” category from my examples up above. While even though some of Cunningham’s narration doesn’t technically qualify as exposition, because of the nature of a narrator, it all becomes exposition.
Bastion becomes a game of contradictions. On the one hand, its gameplay is more than solid and the art and music are both fantastic. But on the other hand, its coolest feature both helps and hinders it at the same time. The narrator undeniably adds to the overall “flavor” of the game if you will, while at the same time subtracting from the narrative’s impact. I wanted to hear more of Cunningham’s lines because they were so well delivered, but at the same time I also wanted to experience some of what he was telling me for myself.
I honestly can’t decide what to make of the inclusion of a narrator in Bastion. It both works and doesn’t. I simultaneously want more and I want none. No matter how you might feel about the narrator and how he functions, Supergiant Games needs to be commended for taking such a stylistic risk with their first game.