Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Bastion Analysis - Part 1: The Power of an Ending


“The point in a journey in which there appear to be no more ‘directions,’ in which you can move ‘forward’.”

Stories, stories are all around us. Some long, some short, some emotional, some humorous, but all stories have their differences, and likewise, all stories have their similarities. Similarities, that which all stories share, those that are needed to craft a great narrative tale, things that you can find in each and every one of them. As an example of two of these qualities, all stories have a beginning, and all stories have an ending, and today I will be talking about one of those, the ending.

When it comes to stories, while the sum of its pieces and whole is important, and making every part as good as can be is essential, the endings of a story have always been my favorite part. The ending is what you see last, what sticks with you the most, and is what wraps up everything and concludes the entire tale.

But, this article/essay/something isn’t about why I love endings so much, this is about a video game. A game I played recently, that goes by the name of Bastion, and a game with one of the most unexpected endings I’ve ever seen. And as someone who loves endings, Bastion’s ending gave me the best final impression it could have given for the whole product. As a result, despite me not really being into the game, not greatly enjoying it, and somewhat forcing myself to get through for the majority of it, after I beat it, the curiosity and passion in my heart ignited like a fire, and I just had to do something about it, which led to this write up.

Not only that, but after completing the game, I went on to read so much about it online, its world, its characters, and I even went on to play through it a whole 2nd time, and maybe even a 3rd. Bastion as a game really represents why I love endings so much, because even if I wasn’t huge on the game before it, the result of that ending being so great had me fall head over heels in love with not just the ending, but the entire tale. When it comes to stories, the ending is always what comes to my mind first, because it is generally the part that the whole story was leading up to. So now, with the perfect example of this in Bastion, I’m going to talk about Bastion, and its entire tale, but more specifically, its ending, and why I loved it so so much, and won’t be forgetting it for a long long time.

As a result, the following is very spoiler heavy. Do not reading the below if you have not played and completed Bastion, as spoilers are everywhere. Part of what made Bastion such a great experience for me was how unexpected the entire narrative was, so I implore you to play through the game before reading the below, you will not regret it.

The Use of Choice in Bastion

First, let’s look at the technical aspects of the ending, without getting into the story just yet. And let’s start by going into how Bastion utilized its video game format to deliver its ending.

The significance of Bastion’s ending with respect to other endings, is its use of choice, something that is entirely unique to the art of video games. Because in video games, you aren’t simply reading or watching a story unfold, you are actually in the story, and many times are given a choice that can affect the story of the entire game. This is one thing that makes the video game medium so unique among others, and also gives it the most potential to say something about the player, say something about how they played, and what they chose to do. Unfortunately, so few games actually take advantage of this ability. Bastion however, is one of the few games that did, and is part of why it shines so so much.

But games have always had choices for players, and many games have had multiple endings as well, what makes Bastion’s use of choice and multiple endings so special? Well, Bastion you see, is a game in which its choices aren’t so black and white, where neither choice is right nor wrong, and where it was entirely up to the player’s decision, and nothing more.

Multiple endings are often featured in games with a basic linear scale going from the worst to best endings, which is defined by how many coins the player collects, or how fast they played, or something else. But the multiple endings tend to have a perfect ending, and some not so perfect ones, with the former being the preferred ‘right’ one. Bastion however, has multiple endings that aren’t simply perfect and imperfect, and also doesn’t determine its ending based on how well the player played. They are simply up to what the player chooses from their own moral compass, and what they’ve gathered of the game’s world and story.

This is also done in the choices of Bastion. Like the multiple endings, choices in games tend to be black and white. Often times games use choice to have a simple right and wrong answer, or a good and evil answer, where while there may appear to be a choice, it’s apparent that one of these is the correct choice that the player should choose, and usually will, regardless of their own way of seeing things. What makes Bastion’s use of choice and multiple endings so great, is that it has no right or wrong choice, which means the choice is entirely up to the player, and not about what choice they think they should choose, but what choice they truly think is the better and more right one from their own view of things. As a result, Bastion succeeds as a game that can teach the player about themselves, something you don’t see much in games nowadays, and it takes advantage of the video game medium in a very excellent manner.

To go into more specific details, Bastion showcases its ending in ways in which you can see there is no perfect ending. When you make the choice in how to end Bastion, you see pictures of the characters after the ending. If you pick the Restoration Ending, you see Rucks and Zulf happy to be back with those they love and their mistakes gone, while Zia seems sad and alone playing her instrument, and The Kid is back on the wall, for better or worse. If you pick the Evacuation Ending, you see Zia happy and full of life, Rucks even seems a bit happy about things, although in a bittersweet way, while Zulf is seen cutting food, looking sad about how things turned out, and The Kid falls asleep after his journey. It’s made apparent that there is no ending where every character is happy, and yet, there is none where every character is sad. Each choice has its pros and cons, but neither are perfect, meaning the player isn’t left to think what they should choose, rather, which choice they think is truly the better of the two.

But giving this choice to the player does more than allow them to think deeply about the choices and themselves, it also allows them to truly feel like this path they took is the path they chose. When I chose the ending I did, I felt like I really earned that ending, with all its pros and cons. That’s because I didn’t choose it because I felt I should, but because I truly wanted to and felt it was right, it made the ending feel so much more….well….real. Because that’s in many ways what life is like, it provides us with these gray choices, and we are to choose one and stick with it, and not ponder over what we should choose, since it’s not always easy to find. The effect of having the player choose from 2 gray areas, means that the choice itself feels more real and earned to the player, since they chose it of their own accord, and not because they thought they should. It helps the game to really stick with you. This is because in the end, it wasn’t about what you should choose, it was about what you chose all on your own. You didn’t get the ending the game expected you to get, you got the ending you chose.

This is made even more apparent too in the first choice of the game, in which you must save Zulf or not. For the sequence that takes place afterwards comes as a direct result of the choice you made, and as a result, it feels much more real and like there’s no going back. I remember when I chose to save Zulf, I walked around and checked that indeed, I could now no longer attack, and prayed I could find a way to get by enemies without attacking them. And while in some ways I wanted to change my choice, giving me that choice had the effect of telling me that there is no going back, and that you just have to push onward, regardless of what happens.

This is one reason why that incredible incredible sequence that takes place after you save Zulf felt so memorable and stuck so much with you. The result of giving you a choice makes you feel like you chose the wrong one as you get attacked by the Ura warriors, and that this is the end for you. It makes you try harder to avoid the shots and save Zulf, since you chose to save him, and it gets you so much more into that moment, which all leads up to that powerful powerful sequence in which the Ura warriors let you go. That scene would not have been as powerful or memorable as it was if you were not faced with a choice just before it, and is part of why Bastion is able to use choice so so well.

To go off of that, another way Bastion uses choice to make its experience memorable is how it doesn’t use choice. For in the game and story of Bastion, you are never prompted with a choice of what to do until its very ending. This means that you’ve always been playing on the linear path set for you, and it continues right up until the very last level. It makes the choices at the end hit you so hard and with so much surprise. In a linear game, having an ending with choices was the very last thing I expected to see, and was part of what made it so memorable. If you were given choices throughout the whole game, you would have thought the ending choices out the same way you did the first ones, just looking at it like another choice. But because Bastion had no choices up to its end, you’re taken completely off guard and not sure how to react to them nor which choice to make. The element of surprise is used to make you think about the choices since it is so unexpected, and is another reason the ending is able to be so unforgettable.

By not making the choices so black and white, and having the player actually think for themselves about what is right and what isn’t, Bastion allows the game’s ending sequences to feel more real and earned to the player. On top of this, by saving the choices for the very end of the game, and placing them right before powerful moments, the ending is able to feel much more memorable, and the combination of these all together is part of why Bastion’s ending succeeds so much in sticking with you, and making the entire experience unforgettable.

How the Choices and Themes of the Ending Connect the Entire Story Together

And now that I’ve discussed the more technical and objective parts of Bastion’s ending, let’s dive into other territory. Let’s not look at how its story was conveyed, let’s look at….the story itself, for the story itself is probably the best part of Bastion’s ending.  For in any story, an ending must have some kind of final decision, final obstacle, etc. to symbolize the main character’s journey and what they’ve learned on it. To take the themes of the entire tale, and give it all a nice final conclusion that wraps up and brings together everything. The magic of Bastion is that it doesn’t just do this, it does this with both endings and has the player be the one who took the journey and made the final decision.

The big final choice of Bastion is Restoration and Evacuation. Try and prevent the calamity from destroying the world, or leave the world to go to another. Go back to the past and try and change things with your old friends, or leave it behind to move ahead and find new friends. The central theme of Bastion I think, is time. It is about the Past, the Present, and the Future. You play in the present for the entire game, and at the end are given a choice of going back to the past, or ahead to the future. And this choice, this choice that seemingly comes out of nowhere, why was it there? Was it significant to the game’s world and story, and was its themes there since the very beginning? The answer to that is a resounding yes.

For while Bastion is a game played entirely in the present, it, like the present, is strongly affected by the past. The entire world is structured the way it is as a result of the past. You play the entire game learning more and more about the past and dealing with it. You are always learning more about the calamity, about the world, about its inhabitants, and overall, about how it all was.

Even though the story of Bastion takes place in the present, one could easily mistake it for taking place in the past, for you are constantly being told about it by Rucks, and constantly have it on your mind, while the present and future barely are. Even the characters can’t stop talking about the past. Rucks, who in many ways symbolizes the past, talks about it throughout the entire tale. Zulf’s actions that bring him to attack you are entirely motivated by the past of Rucks and his people. Everything you do in the game comes as a direct result of the calamity, and it is always there, always leaning over your shoulders, weighing you down.

And while the calamity is all about the past, the Bastion is all about the present. For we barely hear any past about the Bastion and how it came to be. The Bastion is the main objective of the entire game, or rather activating and powering it. With every core and shard the Bastion grows stronger, and the future somehow looks brighter. As you progress towards your goal in the present, the bright far away future seems closer.
But what is it that stands in your way? What is it that shows the most trouble in activating the Bastion? Why it is the past itself. The result of the Calamity’s beginning is what drives Zulf to destroy it, and is what drives the Ura to hurt the Bastion terribly. Because the past is always there and providing the great challenge for the Bastion, then it’s perfect for the final point of the game to feature the choice of saving the past, and fixing all the hurt that it caused that led to this broken present; of taking this great curse that has weighed you down throughout the entire journey, and wiping it all clean to start over for a better tomorrow.

The two choices presented at the end of Bastion, restoration and evacuation, what’s cool about both of these is that you could argue both had their themes littered throughout the main quest. I’ve already started with and said much on Restoration above. Restoration was about changing the past, something that you’re never able to do throughout the entire game, and something it seems  everyone wishes they could. Rucks constantly remarks how the calamity destroyed the present, and how he wishes he could have changed it. Zulf wants to get his friends and family back, his life back, and his actions against you are driven by his great feelings of anger that come as a result of him not just disliking the Bastion, but feeling helpless and unable to change things.

Even the lives of the characters all feature moments in which they wish they could go back and change something. The Kid to be at home more to take care of his mother and the money he got from the wall, Zia to see how she was being used by that stranger, and to help her father more, Zulf to….well, I’m not sure if Zulf would change his life at all, maybe when he was a child thief. And Rucks we don’t learn enough about his past to see, but it’s a constant theme throughout the entire game, being unable to change the terrible pasts everyone has had, but….can it be changed? Can this past that has hurt everyone be fixed?

Well, the entire game is about that. It’s about changing the past by forging bonds with old enemies. Getting animal friends at the Bastion, befriending 2 Ura that you normally wouldn’t do as a result of your race and pasts. The entire game is about changing the past to forge a better future, or at least, trying to. But inevitably, it seems to all fail. Zulf rejects it when he learns of the past (which seems to never stop haunting you), the Ura turn on you as well, and the animals even begin making their own Bastion, it seems like no matter what you do the past cannot be changed, and the fighting will never stop. And with that in mind, it makes perfect sense that, with Restoration, the happy ending you’ve fought for for so long is finally achievable.

Finally that which we wanted is in our hands, and all that fighting seems worth it, because now the past can be changed, and now we can undo all the wrong that was caused by the calamity, the wrong that has been weighing us down the entire time. In some ways it ties in with a theme that if you never stop fighting, you can find that ideal place you’ve searched for for so long. Sounds like the sort of thinking that populates Western society actually. It’s a nice theme, to never give up, and never stop fighting, no matter how much you’re worn out, and it make sense as an ending, and yet……

It’s implied that when this ending is chosen, the calamity happens again. The past repeats, and the truth is that the past truly is unchangeable…or so it seems. Because of this, many think that the Evacuation ending is the true ending, while Restoration is the wrong one. But I don’t know about that…I feel like, both endings are a chance, a risk. Restoration is a risk of the past repeating itself or not, while Evacuation is a risk that you’ll be able to find a new better world out there or not. We’re never actually told if the Evacuation ending leads to our heroes finding a better world, that was the risk that was left unsolved, it’s up to our own speculation. The fact that it goes unsolved though, while Restoration’s risk does, could lead one to seeing Evacuation as the way to go, but still, I think both are equally right in their own way, and it’s part of why I love Bastion’s endings so much.

So with that in mind, let’s now move on to the Evacuation ending. Actually….before moving on to the Evacuation ending, let’s first talk of the other big choice in the game. For while it’s a bit more obvious that the choice of Restoration vs Evacuation has been laid in the foundations of the game’s narrative, what of the other choice? What themes did that present, and were they in the game too?

In enters the choice of Zulf, to save, or not to save. It’s easy to think at first that this was a less important choice, and perhaps odd one to have. It seems like the player should choose the option to save Zulf, and it’s not as ambiguous as the evacuation restoration choice. That being said, the more I thought about this choice, the more I realized that its themes were in fact laid out throughout the entire game. While the restoration evacuation choice deals with time, and choosing the past or future, the Zulf choice deals with grudges, forgiveness, acceptance, and friendship.

Friendship is an interesting thing. Something so deep and integral to our lives that we can’t help but find it talked of in various stories. And Bastion’s no excuse, in fact, I thought it used the themes of friendship in a very good manner, such that you can relate it to the friendships we go through in our everyday life. For in the same way that friendships can start strong when you find someone with similarities, someone you can connect with, this is also what happens in Bastion. When you first encounter Rucks, Zulf, and Zia, there’s a strong happy feeling. A feeling of hope; a feeling that it’s going to be okay, because you found someone; a survivor like you, someone who lived through the calamity, and someone you can relate and connect with. The birth of the friendship between the 4 main characters is a beautiful pure thing, and is how many friendships start off in the world. When you find a way to connect, everything seems all right, and it feels like there will be many happy times to come with each other.

But then…discord arises. As you get to know someone, often you or the other learn something that troubles them; something that they don’t like, and something that drives a wedge between the two of you, and leads to one of you leaving the other. This is also what happens in Bastion. When Zulf learns the truth about who Rucks is, and his relation to the calamity, he goes berserk and cuts ties with everyone. When Zia learns that what Zulf says might be true, she has to go see for herself, and couldn’t see The Kid or Rucks again until she learned the truth. The entire friendship slowly begins to break between the four.

But…not all friendships end like that do they? Some continue on, some are able to fight through the hard times and grow stronger, some are, after being broken down…reconstructed, and that’s exactly what happens at the end of Bastion. For close to the end of the game, The Kid fights his way through the Ura, not for a shard, but for Zia. You fighting to save her symbolizes The Kid’s want to reconstruct the friendship. Zia of course, willingly joins The Kid to return to the Bastion, which shows her also choosing to stick with their friendship and work on saving it, despite them not being together for a while.

But what if you want to save a friendship, and the other person isn’t sure they want to? What if they even seem to hate you? In enters, the big climax of this entire progression of friendship, the choice to save Zulf.

I always loved the contrast between the 2 times you run into Zulf to save him. Both times Zulf is helpless, has lost everything, and couldn’t be more of a broken dead man. And yet, even though he is the same in both situations, you are not. The first time all you knew about him was that he was a survivor like you. But the next time, you now know his past, and what he’s done to hurt you, the difference isn’t Zulf, it’s you, and your knowledge of his character. Suddenly Zulf, who seemed so similar to you when you first found him, now seems like he couldn’t be more different from you.

The contrasts don’t stop there too. There’s a large one between the saving of Zia and the saving of Zulf. Zia wants to return with you, while Zulf does not. Zia has done nothing to hurt you in the past, while Zulf has hurt you not just a little, but very greatly. You were planning on saving and bringing back Zia the whole time, while Zulf…

The final choice with Zulf is asking many questions. It’s asking, how far will you go to reconstruct a broken friendship that might seem beyond repair? And are you willing to forgive? Are you willing to let the past be the past and forget about it, to forge old bonds again? And of course, now that you’ve gotten to know Zulf and who he is, can you save him knowing the evil things he’s done to you and your friends? Or…to look at it from a different perspective, can you still abandon him, knowing that once again, he’s all alone, even being abandoned by his own people now?

Choosing to save Zulf I think, says a lot about The Kid. It says that he’s not just incredibly strong physically, but also mentally and emotionally, and that he will go to the end to save the bonds he has with others, and to save the lives of those who need saving. It is showing first hand, the kind of strength that is needed if one wants to maintain a friendship with someone for a very long time. But more than that, it shows that The Kid is choosing to let the past go.

For you see, he could have left Zulf to die. He could have seen that, he’s done him a lot of harm in the past, and that he deserves his fate, he could have held a grudge against him, in the same way Zulf held a grudge against the Bastion, but….he didn’t.

A friend of mine recently pointed out something to me; something very significant about the choice of Zulf. For just before you get to the choice in the final level, you get the final weapon in the game, the battering ram. When you get the Battering ram, Rucks says something along the lines of the weight of the calamity being on your shoulders. As you start using it, and see how much it slows you down, Rucks also details your entire situation, saying how much has happened, and how important it is to activate the Bastion, and what choice to make. While the narration is played, and you use the Battering Ram, Rucks says something along the lines of “Heavy, ain’t it?” There’s a clear connection being done between the two, to show that the Battering Ram represents the weight of the calamity, and the weight of this big choice that awaits you. It represents the past, and all the bad it has done, and how hard the past can weigh you down, if you let it do so. And….if you choose to save Zulf, what happens to the Battering Ram?

It disappears. It doesn’t just fall off your shoulder, it actually disappears, turning into nothingness. Choosing to save Zulf, I think, is a metaphor not just for friendship and forgiveness, but for letting the past go. It is knowing that Zulf has done wrong to you, but letting it go, and not letting it stop you from being his friend. And most of all, it represents The Kid taking the weight of the calamity, the weight of the past itself, and tossing it aside, in order to use his strength to carry the weight of the present, the weight of the future, and the weight of Zulf. Choosing to save Zulf is essentially The Kid saying that the past is the past, and that he’s not going to dwell on it and let it weigh him down anymore. Instead, he is going to move on and carry the broken present onto his shoulder, and find a way to repair it, into a bright future. Carry the broken present on to a bright future, doesn’t that sound…familiar?...

Indeed, the very theme and reasoning behind choosing to save Zulf can also be used to choose the ending of Evacuation. In this way, I like to think that the 2 final choices are linked together. For you see, why would you save Zulf if you are just going to start over and restore everything? And why would you let Zulf die if you plan to stay in the present and begin rebuilding things? Choosing to leave Zulf to die shows that you cannot let the past go, therefore, when given the choice, the only way you could see to end things is to try and change this past you cannot get off your shoulder. But choosing to save Zulf, choosing to toss the past aside, is the same reason one would naturally choose to evacuate, as they have let the past go, and want to instead rebuild the present world and friendships they now have. And you see, this is how the themes associated with the evacuation ending were present throughout the entire game, just like restoration.

Remember what I said earlier? That the calamity in many ways represents the past, while the Bastion does the present? Well, what were you doing for the entire game? Were you trying to find the truth about the calamity, and find a way to reverse it? Possibly, but at the same time, you were trying to save the Bastion, you were working to repair the broken present the calamity gave you the entire time. Throughout the entire game the Bastion grows, gaining new structures constantly. You even get animal friends as you progress, slowly but surely, this small home called the Bastion begins to reconstruct, and begins to have life again, even after the effects of the calamity.

And what’s more, you are putting aside your differences the whole time for the many other creatures out there. Even though they’re animals, you take them in as your company. Even though Zia and Zulf are Ura who have fought with the Caelondians, you happily welcome them back to The Bastion, not caring of their differences, nor their pasts. The entire game, you are putting the past aside to work on building the future, and the entire time, all the great conflicts caused in the game come from not letting go of the past. Zulf left when he discovered the past of the Bastion and Rucks and the Caelondians, and had to do something about it. Zia left when she learned of this too, and wanted to learn the truth. But when they let go of the past, and chose to not let it get in the way of the beautiful world and people that are still out there, they were able to come together and build a bright future, the future of Evacuation.

When you complete Bastion, and see the credits roll, you hear this, beautiful song that combines both Zulf and Zia’s songs into one. I always thought that meant something; the fact that Zia and Zulf are not singing separately, but now together. I think it goes well with the ending to save Zulf and Evacuate. It helps to show that, the two have grown close, grown to become one, to become friends, and it stands as a symbol for the four characters and their friendship. They are growing to stick together as they leave to a brand new world, not as four different persons, but as one great family.

To Conclude

When I first played Bastion, after lots and lots of thinking, I chose to save Zulf, and I chose to Evacuate. I didn’t realize what it was saying about me at first, but as I thought about it, I realized that the choices present in Bastion were choices I’d faced many times in my life, when I have to choose between going back to the past to try and fix things, or letting it go and moving on to new things. And when I looked at how many websites I’ve been to in my online life, and how many times I’ve moved in my life, and learned to let go, it became incredibly clear to me that Bastion’s choices would only have been made the way I did if I had the life I’ve had, and it said something about me. Coming to understand why others would choose the other options was fun and interesting as well, but more than that, learning why I played the game the way I did, was an incredibly meaningful and satisfying experience that this game provided me with, and I will forever love it for that reason.

But that is just my personal subjective way of playing the game, there are also good arguments for choosing Restoration after all. Bastion’s ability to have a spectacular ending that offers you a choice based on your entire experiences up to that point, does an incredible job of making the entire thing memorable, and more than ever, helps you to pay attention to everything you do, and how everything connects together with you. It’s a wonderful thing you don’t see that often, and gives Bastion one of the greatest endings to a story I’ve ever seen, and ever will. Thank you Supergiantgames, you sure hit it out of the park with this one.

If you enjoyed this, and want to read more about how Bastion’s endings are both right and both connect to the entire tale, I highly recommend this excellent article:

Stay Tuned for Part 2, which will be roughly half the size of 1 (thankfully)


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