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Bastion is a gorgeous game, but the silky smooth narration brings it together.
I know I’m an entire year (and then some) late, but I beat Bastion last week. It did so many interesting things that it got me thinking…
Great narration in recent years has become much more common, and a few games have truly gone above and beyond in quality. The first that come to mind are Bioshock’s Atlas and Portal’s GLADoS. Bastion gives us a narrator that isn’t just high quality, but also being the most important character to the story. The narrator of Bastion (Rucks) forms the spine of the game. He gives the player every goal, piece of context, and a million interesting little details of the world. In the same way that the ground flies up to meet your feet while exploring the post-calamity world, Rucks fills in the details of the old world as you stumble across bits and pieces of it.
Something as trivial as smashing stuff gets a quip from Rucks.
Rucks gives his personal thoughts on most everything, which in turn gives the player not just factual details about the areas but a taste of the world. Mass Effect can give me a codex entry about the Turians and their sense of honor, but talking to one is what conveys it the most. And that’s what the Rucks’ commentary feels close to: having a personal conversation with a character. This conversational nature builds a sense of familiarity, and that is what makes it most effective when his reliability bends.
Most of Bioshock isn’t narrated, but it’s through the narration that a large chunk of the story is told. That and violence against monsters and children.
When looking at Bioshock’s narration as a tool for world-building, it’s nearly the same as Bastion. By telling the player about his (fictional) wife and kid he makes the story personal, and takes a scenario that would otherwise feel impossible and makes it seem almost believable. At the same time it isn’t just Atlas’ narration; it’s also the audio logs left by mostly unseen, auxiliary characters. Instead of an omnipotent narrator, the audio logs give you dozens of different characters, each with their own place in Rapture with a unique opinion and perspective. The logs are essentially diaries containing the character’s most personal thoughts, so we have no reason to distrust them. Atlas’s communications are always through the same radio as audio logs, so players implicitly trust all things audio, which gives the twist more meaning. They built your trust so they could shatter it.
GLADoS is almost always lying, but in her lying we learn more about her and Aperture Science.
Turning attention to the next game, Portal, we see that the fiction-building is much less pronounced, yet still evident. Similar to the audio logs GLADoS gives the player context. At the end of the game she tells you about how she killed all the staff with “a deadly neuro-toxin”, and the finale song gives us hints about the world outside of Aperture Science, saying “When I look out there, it makes me GLaD I’m not you”. In typical Valve fashion we’re not told anything concrete and everything is a cryptic riddle. Despite the vagueness and unreliable nature of GLADoS, she builds the same background as Bioshock’s audio logs. The world of Aperture Science is much less characterized and detailed relative to Rapture, though Portal 2 expands on this and relies on additional voice-over to add even more backstory and context with the inclusion of Cave Johnson and his recordings. When looking for a twist like that of Bioshock, being nearly thrown into an incinerator stands out. After four hours of telling the player to keep testing and that cake is imminent, incineration wasn’t expected.
Same as Bioshock and Portal, Bastion spends the whole game telling the player one narrative which makes the contrast all the more shocking when the narrative flips. Atlas revealing he’s Frank Fontaine, GLADoS leading you into an incineration chamber, and Bastion’s Rucks showing his bias in a negative light.
Even though squirts are a relatively minor enemy, Rucks has a lot to say about them.
At one point you’re searching for a magical crystal that can bring The Bastion back to life, but a group of animals has somehow fashioned it into a bastion of their own. After collecting the crystal and fighting animals that to that point were non-hostile, Rucks’ narration slowly shifts as the level progresses. It’s clear he’s lying to himself, that he knows that it isn’t right to steal these animal’s crystal but he keeps pushing you on anyways. “It’s us or them,” “They probably don’t know what they were doing anyway.” This level stands out so strongly because the rest of the game Rucks is so sure, so steadfast in his comments.
The twist in Bioshock is so surprising because, to that point, Atlas had been your only constant, your only “rock” in the game that hadn’t been driving insane. GLADoS before she tries to incinerate you seem to just want you to keep testing, and nothing more. Rucks up to that point is a force of accepted good, a force of salvation and restoration but here we see his hesitation and regret.
Elika is your constant companion, so losing her for a level you still had to play would have been devastating.
Another example that springs to mind is 2008’s Prince of Persia and a missed opportunity. Elika, your companion, is an integral part of the gameplay as both one of your four primary attacks and your double jump. Removing her for a section would have given pause, and made me truly appreciate her. Granted, she dies at the end, but you bring her back and don’t experience any real gameplay without her.
Most important to this formula is establishing a baseline, something the player can rely on. So many developers don’t seem to understand why twists are so remembered. It’s never just being unexpected. Really, this whole thing boils down to me taking notice of great game design and extrapolating and explaining it and why I think it works. Hope you people found Bastion as interesting as I did!
An example of how NOT to do a surprise. Sudden, out of nowhere, about a character you didn’t hardly know, and most importantly FUCKING STUPID.