Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"I'm trying to undo it, remember?"

[This entire post discusses the story and endings of Bastion at length and in depth.  Consider this a spoiler warning.]

The revelations all came from Zia; she was my key to understanding Bastion.

Finding The Singer and realizing that her song was diegetic sound -- source music -- hooked me on the game enough to make me continue playing.  Her appearance was well timed; my patience with the tropes, the the mechanics, and the narration was beginning to wear thin.  In the moment, not yet having been introduced to the culture of the Ura or to the background stories of Zulf, Zia, and the Kid, I took her words to be metaphorical, and thought no more of them as I continued on my journey.  I focused only on the recurring melody, and on the existence of her voice in the void that was the world.

By the time I'd finished my first experience with the story and met The Singer again in a New Game +, I had the chilling, foundational realization that Zia's words are not only literal, but are in fact the lyrics to a protest song, or an Ura spiritual.  This beautiful, haunting melody is a message from the oppressed to their oppressors, heralding a coming war.

Understanding Zia's song, I then knew: Bastion was the prettiest and most charming game about othering, racism, and genocide that I will ever see.

As the Kid moves through the remnants of the old world in search of cores and shards, Rucks tells us bits and pieces -- as with everything in Bastion, bits and pieces -- of the history of this ruined place.  It's not "just" back story: the tale of how the Calamity came to be is the story, and it's vitally important.

Caelondia was built through expansion, and conquest, and war.  The city thrived above ground, on resources that came from Ura territory and Ura toil below ground.  As Rucks gradually lets the truth of the story unfold, we learn how the Cael and the Ura had warred before, and how the Calamity was only accidental in who it hurt. It was explicitly created to wipe the Ura out; as designed, it was a final solution with all the attendant historic horror in place.

The ultimate goal of the game, after all the history finally comes to light, is to make a single choice at the end: do we rebuild a society that would do such a thing?  Do we rewind to before the final war and put back the two cultures exactly where they were, one thriving explicitly through the oppression of the other?  Do we look at the crumbling ruins of the world-that-was, and decide that it deserved to go on as it was -- especially knowing that as all of this has happened before, all of it will happen again, no lessons learned?

Well, no.  That's a society that I just can't in good conscience rebuild.

And it has, quite literally, gone to pieces.

I would never have expected this connection to arise while writing about video games, but I admit that my view on Caelondian society has been heavily informed by hanging around with the Horde at Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog.  There's been a long discussion there, over the course of this year, on why "The Civil War isn't Tragic."  The rough idea boils down to: because the institution of slavery itself had been essentially a war, and there was only one way to make it end.  Creating the end of that massively unjust and unbalanced society was so vital that, in the end, it was worth the horrors it took.

Any reader is free to agree or disagree with that series of posts and that theory as you will; I won't argue or discuss it here.  The topic is far too deep, wide, and serious to be handled in a gaming blog.  (Comments here attempting to fight that fight will, regrettably, be deleted.)  But having read that perspective, I couldn't help but think of it when Rucks finally admitted the truth of what had happened in Caelondia, what kind of a culture it was, and how and why the Bastion came to be.  And having learned that perspective, I began to understand that Bastion stands at the edge of a chasm, looking into the depths and seeing humanity's worst crimes.

"Sure, our people caused the Calamity, but here we are now, trying to fix it.  That makes us different from our people now, don't it.  Shame the opportunity for civilized discourse is over.  Suppose old Zulf should have got to know us better.

"Maybe I should have trusted him, told him everything I knew.  Zulf, the Ura... they have every reason to be angry.  Beyond angry.  But when this is all over, it'll all be water under the bridge.

"I don't need to see what happened to the Ura.  I'm trying to undo it, remember?"

Rucks's narration blew me away.  I don't mean as a gameplay mechanic or as an artifice, although the concept was excellent in both senses.  I mean his actual words.  He is so kindly, such a welcome living, breathing, grandfatherly voice in the wild of the ruined world.  The allure of his calming, descriptive storytelling is, at first, impossible to resist.

After the conceit is firmly established, though, he stops describing everything the Kid does, and instead talks about everywhere the Kid is, bringing us the history and cultural importance of the places where cores and shards are hidden.  His steady narration, the spiritual lifeline of the game, proves to be untrustworthy.  He kept so much of Cael society quiet until circumstances forced his hand; what more might he be hiding?

By the time I heard him complain, "I'm trying to undo it, remember?" most of my sympathy toward him had evaporated. I very nearly heard his soothing growl add, "And I'm no racist, but..." to the end of his speech above.  Rucks considers the Ura to be a monolithic entity, while reserving the status of "individual" for the turned-to-ash Cael.  He blames them for ending "civilized discourse" despite himself having been an architect of the Calamity that was meant to be their genocide.

Through my second playthrough, the New Game + that I undertook mainly to write this piece, I actually grew quite angry with Rucks.  The Kid is frustratingly passive in a sense; he must do simply what he's told to do in order for the game to advance.  (The Stanley Parable this ain't; you can't defy your guide.)  In collecting the items he needs to rebuild the world, though, he's destroying everything that's left of it.  The player is behind a one-man massacre against the ruined species that just want to be left alone to evolve or die.

When the targets changed from spike-shooting mutant flowers to Ura defenders, I wanted out.  I desperately wanted to go back to the Bastion, pick up Rucks, shake him, and yell, "THIS IS NOT ALL RIGHT."  I wanted to make him understand that the Ura were people, and that I was slaughtering men and women who were mainly trying to defend themselves from the disaster wrought upon them by the Cael.

The Narrator's slow reveal of the underlying story does serve a purpose, however.  My initial take on the game world turned out to be a very privileged one: on finding Zulf and Zia, I mindlessly assumed that they'd be cool, that since the world had gone to shit we could all work together in peace, and that everything would be fine.

I vastly underestimated the degree to which the Ura had been a repressed minority in Caelondian society, and as a result I completely failed to consider Zulf's perspective (or that he even had a perspective) and understandable resentment until the story blew it up right in my face.  Of course, Bastion does this to you intentionally: the only knowledge the player has comes from Rucks.  He's a member of the dominant, privileged class, as it were, and so he naturally relates the tale from the dominant perspective.  The story gives insight into the Ura through Zulf's actions, and his departure from the Bastion was the first moment when I started to understand the game.

Despite all of the personal tragedies, despite the undoing of society and of the world itself, the worst epiphany in Bastion was the realization that the "right" choice -- if any could be so called -- leaves a horrible trail of innocents in the Kid's wake.  Even knowing full well that rebuilding won't work, that this is a cycle of history doomed to endless repetition, it's so very tempting to absolve the Kid of his guilt, as Rucks longs to be absolved of his.  It would be so nice to rewind time, to have every Ura death undone, to have had the rampage through the Tazal Terminals never have happened.

Alas, "easy" and "right" are seldom the same.

In the end this colorful, artistic, cheerfully colorful, brief, isometric game manages to be one of the most serious games I have ever played, addressing some of the world's deepest problems.  Without being preachy, Bastion outright manages to lay bare the perils of a culture built on privilege, othering, racism, and hate.  I don't know what, if anything, the four survivors can actually rebuild after sailing away.  Maybe they will be immigrants to an as-yet-undiscovered country, or maybe they will keep sailing, and never land.  The fundamentally broken society from which they came has ended, but their experiences live on.

I like to hope they learned, and lived, and loved.


For another discussion on racial implications and allegorical theories, see Mattie Brice's Diversity Watch: Bastion (and read the comments).


  1. OK, I'm dead surprised that you've not gotten any comments on this. I didn't because I hadn't actually finished the game until last night, and I knew I was going to have to in order to have anything worthwhile to say about the post.

    I had a slightly different reaction. I don't see the Kid as having much guilt to be weighted down by beyond the issues soldiers have had to deal with since there have been soldiers. The Kid doesn't actually know most of what Rucks is saying. The reason you don't get to go back to the Bastion and tell Rucks to f*** off sideways for what he's done, is because the Kid doesn't know any of that. All the Kid knows is the basics, what he's heard in the direct interactions with Zia, Zulf, and Rucks back in the Bastion, and a handful of other places. There's a good argument to be made that up until the Kid's final return to the Bastion the entire narration is Rucks "telling stories" to Zia while the Kid is off on his long trip out to the Tazal Terminals for the final battle. If there's anyone with a lot of guilt, it's Rucks.

    The first real moral decision that the Kid has is the choice of saving or leaving Zulf after seeing the latter's erstwhile allies stab and leave him for dead because "the shard is too important". Before then, whatever the Kid's opinion of the Ura was before the calamity, after it they were trying to blow up his only refuge and kill him. Until that point, from the Kid's perspective, Rucks is an utterly reliable guide. Even Zia's "report" after being rescued from the Ura she went off with willingly doesn't change the situation much. Whatever wrongs the Ura have suffered and are seeking righteous revenge for, he's not morally obligated to stand down and let himself be killed, his only refuge destroyed, etc.

    The first place he would get any inkling would be when he finds the Calamity Cannon. It may not say "Calamity Cannon" on the tin, but the "deletion" of things (in a way that reminded me of balefire from the Wheel of Time books) that it hits screams "playing with fire" in the Frankenstein sense. It wigged me out (and was awkward) so I got rid of it when I got to the Arsenal (and Rucks adds to the narration that the Kid chose to put away the power of the Calamity). The fact that its upgrade items are called "Something Wrong" says something. When you find the dying Zulf, then the kid really does have a stark choice. Go down the Rucks path, thinking that Zulf got his just desserts for his betrayal, or take the humbling route and save him, walking slowly through a gauntlet of Ura that continue to open fire on you, and you have no defense against. I blew all my remaining health potions and was nearly dead before they stopped shooting (though I expect that was semi-scripted, I did worry that I was going to get killed before reaching the skybridge). Even then, the Kid doesn't know the scale of what Rucks has been hiding until he gets back, places the last shard, is told what the true purpose of the Bastion is, and is given the choice. 

  2. Mmm.  I've heard a lot of feedback (mostly good, even when disagreeing, which makes me happy) but, as you note, not much in the way of comment.

    I don't know how the Kid actually feels about it.  I can't, really, because the only head I the player ever get into is that of the Narrator.  I don't know if it matters how the Kid himself feels about it.  It's not like a sprawling epic where we the player need our in-game avatar to have some kind of consistent, plausible, or interesting motivation.  The Kid goes where we point him, and we point him where the path assembles.  Rucks tells us what we're doing, and it's as simple as that.

    But the effect that the Kid's main lack of agency -- and the import, then, of the two decisions that he can make -- is, I think, pretty significant on the player.  At least, it was on this player.  As you note: why wouldn't the Kid do certain things, or act a certain way?  He's a product of his society, which fell apart, and there's no narrative reason why he shouldn't want to meet others and help put it back why it was.  Rucks, after all, is the one with the knowledge of what was really going on.

    But while the player navigates The Kid, the player hears Rucks.  It's an interesting and obviously intentional disconnect between avatar knowledge and player knowledge.  I'd bet someone else out there has written rather a lot about what goes on in that space.

  3. I guess Rucks beguiled me or else I just wasn't as observant as I should have been; while playing I didn't regard the Cael and the Ura societies as so entwined or intrinsically unequal. I thought they'd had a war, the Cael had won, and had taken hostages (Zia, Zulf and the other Ura trapped in Caelondia)  and imposed penalties on the defeated enemy; I didn't see the Ura in general as a slave population whose rebellion had been suppressed. When Rucks talked about the Calamity as a tool to see that another war was never necessary, I saw it as if the US had decided to launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the USSR or vice versa, not as maybe more equivalent to the Third Punic War when Rome obliterated the remains of an already subdued and enslaved state to keep it from ever rising again.

    I decided my Kid was a good guy and made what I thought were the moral choices: save Zulf and undo the Calamity with the hope of resetting the clock to the time when the opportunity for civilized discourse wasn't over, give old Zulf a chance to get to know us better. I did keep hold of the Calamity Cannon because I'm a terrible shot and with the Cannon that's not a problem. 

    I did have almost exactly the same reaction to Zia's song.

    Anyway, this game is marvelous and I thank you kindly for it and I look forward to playing again with your analysis and Stephen's in mind. 

  4. I came out of my first round with a feeling of unease, but wasn't able to really put it into words (these words) until I went through the NG+ and could listen more carefully.

    Anyway Galleon Mortar FTW.  Learning to use shift to defend and to aim was a big help, too. ;)

  5. Are you there? Who Knows Where is a lot more fun with five turret friends chirping and blasting along at your side.

  6. Ok, I've completed my NG+ playthrough making opposite decisions (let Zulf die, fly away from it all to repopulate the world with Zia and Rucks) and I still don't see the Cael as quite the tyrannical superpower that I interpret your writing to indicate you see. It still doesn't seem clear to me that the Ura were an enslaved people on the order of Helots or America's chattel slaves. Definitely Caelondia was a rising power and apparently a bully; they'd fought and won a war with the Ura. But despite the unraveling of some of pride and nobility in Cael institutions through Rucks' later narration, when I chose to allow the Calamity to have happened I felt guilty, like not restoring the Old World was the selfish choice. In TNC terms, it still seems that the Calamity was a tragedy because (unlike the Old South) I'm not convinced the Old World of Bastion deserved and needed to be destroyed. 

  7. Not that it means much now, but I'd like to point out that apparently the Calamity only vastly affected the Caelondians and the Ura. Apparently there's still the Boundless Sea and a great amount of the world spared by the Calamity, and Rucks seems to express his excitement in seeing the homeland. I'm not certain how far the Calamity reached upon its impact, but it's possible that there are still many other populated areas spared from destruction.

  8. Again this entire comment is based on conjecture. I guess. Maybe?