Bastion and Fallout: New Vegas

Sometimes with game narrative it’s a simple question of where do you want to put the story in relation to the game mechanics. The method of delivery and its relationship with the game mechanics ultimately is going to define the overall meaning of the game. If the player has to process content to engage and understand what’s going on, you risk content degradation as their mind grinds away at the meaning, turning it into a system of mechanics. You might instead sneak the information into the background, maybe as a loading screen or audiobook to play while you go. But then it might be ignored or totally missed. Amongst these different formulas, Bastion represents a creative new technique: What if you shifted the majority of the narrative to a context-sensitive narrator?

It often illuminates a lot about how a system works by comparing one to another one. For the purposes of this essay I’m going to be comparing Bastion to Fallout: New Vegas as an example of a game whose content is an intermediary for the system, but I could swap New Vegas for Mass Effect, Deus Ex, Bioshock, etc. All of these games have a basic NPC narrative system: You talk to people, get information or quests, and then fight or stat-check for dialog options. None of those games tell their stories using any one technique 100% of the time. The departure from this setup is what makes Bastion such an interesting game.

The issue with intermediary content is that, over time, you just stop giving a sh*t about what all these people are saying. The NPC might be telling the most tragic story in the world, but the player’s motivation is still disrupted because they’re likely more focused on trying to resolve a quest. You click through the dialog, follow the compass, kill whatever is there, and report back for your reward. The dialog also falls flat because most of the time is spent explaining things. Walk up to an NPC and they have to identify themselves, tell you their motivations, and eventually ask you to do something for them. Almost all of the dialog is explaining the system, whether it’s how this New California Republic base is doing or who this important figure is in the quest. What’s missing here is character development — the moments where the person talks about their past and beliefs.

Bastion’s narrative takes the backseat. It’s completely possible to understand everything going on and plow through the game without hearing a word of the story. You could play the entire game with the sound off. In many ways, it reverses the formula of systems narrative by having the design slowly come to represent the content. I perform an action, the narrator elaborates. For the first few hours of play I tuned the narrator out. I didn’t recognize the weird lingo and nothing seemed to be going on except smashing things. By the end, I was more engaged with the story than I was the design.

What enables the transition is both the lack of repetition in the design and Rucks as an unreliable narrator. Every level contains a constant drip of new items and materials to work with. By the end of the game I was exclusively using guns instead of melee weapons, but it’s possible to go in any number of directions. The game design heavily restrains grinding: you cannot replay old levels and upgrade resources are limited. There is little to no repetition unless you initiate a New Game Plus.

In terms of story, the moment Zulf turns on Rucks you begin to question the information you're receiving. What started as kind of background mirror begins to become more intriguing as it distorts and ceases to reflect the player’s motivations. Rucks reminds us repeatedly of the importance of rebuilding the Bastion and collecting the various shards. The creepiness begins to set in as he explains how the various creatures are just setting up their own homes, but that it won’t matter because the Bastion will help everyone. By the half-way point, Ruck’s commentary begins to diverge from the player’s perspective. He is telling us things about ourselves based on our actions, but they do not necessarily represent how the player feels.

As a storytelling device, there seem to be pros and cons to placing most of your narrative in the background. The con strikes me as duration; I’m not sure the game could be much longer than the 6 hours it took for me to beat it. I could not have handled Rucks rambling much more and the game’s barrage of new weapons was turning into feature creep. I may be critical of New Vegas’s NPC system, but the game is certainly designed to last for hours. There are numerous forms of story-telling happening both spatially, in the background, and during NPC exchanges. You might learn about a quest involving Vault 34’s radiation leak through talking to NPCs, exploring the East Pump Station, or just stumbling upon the Vault itself. Wandering the wastes is a viable way to play. By the time I hit the 60-hour marker, I may be burned out on the quest format but I can just start exploring the unique sites at that stage.

The pro in Bastion's method is its ability to communicate background information. Take Zia’s backstory, for example, who was orphaned by the Caeldonians and lived as a social outcast. How much do you have to get across in order for me to feel empathy for her? I need to know what the ethnic conflict is between the Uras and the Caeldonians. I need to know how that impacted her life. I need to know at least a few specific cruelties she experienced that I can empathize with. And ultimately all of this has to make sense on an abstract level for me to project into it. The game explains all of this during an optional grinding level while the narrator drones out her past. It struck me as a vast improvement on Fallout: New Vegas’s method of having every single person explain the NCR/Legion conflict over and over.

Similar to Bastion’s narrator, the radio in New Vegas comments on our actions via Mr. New Vegas’s radio show. It’s not as frequent or immediate, instead serving as a random reminder of something we’ve done in the game. Often this will feature interviews with the people we’ve affected or met, reinforcing the characterization of the NPC and the impact of our actions. It shifts the focus away from the player, unlike Bastion’s constant litany of explaining your actions. The background feedback in New Vegas can never disconnect from the player’s fantasy, because it’s never about you. Bastion’s feedback almost inevitably must disconnect; you couldn’t ever draft enough dialog to cover every single player action. Instead, as in the story, Rucks ceases to be an accurate narrator as he reveals his own prejudices and biases.

Clint Hocking coined the term "ludonarrative dissonance" to describe when what you’re doing in the game doesn’t really reflect what the story says is going on. Over the years, this has proved to be a bit of an impossible standard. Inevitably, game mechanics assert themselves, and the game’s story becomes less important as a motivator compared to gaining a level or grabbing that next powerful item. Fallout: New Vegas doesn’t so much solve this problem as it doesn’t really care. There is so much to do and see in the game that numerous players are accommodated. Bastion, as the smaller game, has a different solution. It lets the narrator completely diverge from the player and makes its points with that dissonance.

Comments

I dig the way that both terrain and narration get pulled up in response to player's actions in Bastion. I'm not far enough to know for sure what I think about the narrative (I'm getting shards now, so maybe I am.)

Fascinating; thanks for this essay. Based on what you're saying, I wonder if Bastion's reactive narration is a one-trick pony, much like Bioshock. As you point out, there's only so much unreliable narrator you can take before you tune that out, too. On the flip side, most attempts at a reliable narrator will be thwarted not just by game mechanics, but by player will: who are you, Designer, to tell me what my character is thinking or feeling? Such a narrator can help you slip into a new character's skin ("The Kid rages for a while"), but sooner or later you're going to want to inhabit that skin, and it'll get too crowded for two of you.

There are strains of this unreliable narrator device in the case of Torment (both the Nameless One's scribblings to himself, and his companions' statements, are suspect) and in the extreme, GLaDOS, who became reliably unreliable.

I haven't trusted a narrator in at least a decade, personally. Those jerks can't tell me what to believe!

I think you're letting the techniques used get in the way of seeing the real difference between the two games.

One game is completely linear, one is almost completely nonlinear. That's the only way Bastion works, the only way that the narration can be context-sensitive without being repetitive or confusing. For a while in the 90's, "nonlinear" was the buzzword for gaming, and it has shown itself in open-ended games like Fallout, where the "main quest" actually occupies only a small portion of the content most people will explore.

Linearity is good for storytelling. Bastion and Bioshock both made good use of it, one distinctly verbal and one distinctly visual.

Open-endedness makes for terrible storytelling: you simply can't anticipate what the player already has seen when you compose dialog or monologue, not without a lot of work to build 'player experience trees' or something. That makes for either lots of repetition ("What is the NCR?") or confusion. (I like the 'confusion' option myself: trying to figure out the rules for an environment is one of the fun things in gaming.)

I think the best games are the ones that embrace this limitation: whey they want to be telling a story, they linearize and remove all choices. When they want to be open-ended, they remove the narrative and provide a playground.

Nathaniel wrote:

I think you're letting the techniques used get in the way of seeing the real difference between the two games.

A difference of opinion. I think LB views the linearity of Bastion as a function of the narrative method.

As a narrative device, I prefer the unreliable reader to the unreliable narrator.

Padmewan wrote:

On the flip side, most attempts at a reliable narrator will be thwarted not just by game mechanics, but by player will: who are you, Designer, to tell me what my character is thinking or feeling? Such a narrator can help you slip into a new character's skin ("The Kid rages for a while"), but sooner or later you're going to want to inhabit that skin, and it'll get too crowded for two of you.

I don't know if I can completely agree with that, but being a console gamer my background was founded on JRPG's which focus heavily on pre-defined characters. You can still have choice in games that, for the most part, are linear, after all.

For example, Chrono Trigger. I know some folks are playing it for the first time on DS around here, so I'ma use spoiler tags.

Spoiler:

The protagonist, Crono, dies by the end of Act II (if we are trying to shove the game into a three act structure, that is). The player is able to take two different directions. They go on an optional quest to bring Crono back to life, or they can continue on with the story. The game rationalizes either action, but you're rewarded for optionally saving Crono.

However, I don't think this is providing room for these people to be YOUR CHARACTER as the player. I think the intent is that the characters WOULD save Crono, but if you, the player, aren't interested, then you can just go ahead and skip it and the game will rationalize it. This just means the writers make room for what the players would do. Never do the players take ownership of any of the protagonists, not even Crono himself (any sense of ownership of Crono was lost the second he grabbed the pendant and volunteered to be sucked into a God-knows-what after a blonde girl he just met).

The way I see it, if it's going to be MY character, then the game needs to structure itself like Dragon Age: Origins. Otherwise, it's not my character, and I'm just along for the ride.

I feel like Bastion is a lot like Chrono Trigger. Even if the protagonist himself is silent, his actions are given purpose by the narrator.

Let's take the first time you walk up to an Ash person in the game. The narrator informs you of who he was and how The Kid knew him. Out of curiosity, I smashed the person to see if I'd get any treasure. The Narrator then spat out "The Kid never liked him anyway". It made me chuckle, but it managed to keep the character defined in the universe in some way. It still wasn't my character, it was the story's.

I have no real control over The Kid in terms of story. Just in combat, really. Therefore, The Kid is not my character.

Bastion’s narrative takes the backseat. It’s completely possible to understand everything going on and plow through the game without hearing a word of the story.

This is one problem I have with this game: the narration seems completely disconnected from the actual world in which I'm interacting. That can be successful if the interaction loops are fun enough, but I think fails here because the interactions are so shallow and the core mechanics are so basic (my interaction with the world is essentially limited to "kill dudes like you did in Zelda: ALTTP in 1992.")

Yeah, sure, the narrator tells me about the cool weapon the kid picked up, or how he used some sweet moves to kill a dude. Or how he scored a shard. Or whatever.

But... these are just side effects of basic mechanics that I'm using in a world that does not feel like a real place. The narrator will at times tell me about a location, tell me about its history, but when I actually go there almost none of what he said is reflected in the gameplay. I'm just slashing through a series of enemies and moving through very same-y corridors.

You can try to write off a part of that to Bastion's world being post-cataclysm, but even as the world falls back together it assembles itself into something that resembles nothing real.

A lot of games have this problem; Mass Effect, for example, with its cordoned off little corridors filled with chest high walls. But Mass Effect places those little things in the context of a world that seems credible. I know when I get past chest high wall land there's a sweet space station or something cool on the other side, and I can buy that. But in Bastion, everything feels synthetic.

Compare this to FO:NV - a game world that feels alive and dead at the same time. You have two entire worlds superimposed on each other; one dead, but still extant in some ways, one alive, and rebuilding on the ashes of the old. As a place, it's a hundred times more compelling than Bastions self-assembling corridors full of generic monsters.

I must be nearly alone in not liking Bastion. I've tried, several times now, to like the game - but I can never move very far. I think I "get" it, and there's an undeniable charm to its presentation, but I simply can't commit myself to the world. The narrator seems to promise something interesting, but game mechanics themselves are so same-y and uninteresting to me that I just get bored and give up before the story can advance.

A lot of games have this problem; Mass Effect, for example, with its cordoned off little corridors filled with chest high walls. But Mass Effect places those little things in the context of a world that seems credible. I know when I get past chest high wall land there's a sweet space station or something cool on the other side, and I can buy that. But in Bastion, everything feels synthetic.

I'd give you "constructed" and "fantastical," but I don't know about "synthetic." But I could understand if "imaginary" = "fake" to some people.

ccesarano wrote:

The way I see it, if it's going to be MY character, then the game needs to structure itself like Dragon Age: Origins. Otherwise, it's not my character, and I'm just along for the ride....
I have no real control over The Kid in terms of story. Just in combat, really. Therefore, The Kid is not my character.

Fair enough, and my own statement was a little bit Devil's advocate on my own POV - I actually like predefined characters over "blank slates," though I think for a game as for literature there's always room for interpretation. When I read feedback on games, though, I do see that some players push back on those predefined characters -- or maybe that's changed; I don't see (or look for?) that kind of feedback as much anymore.

gore wrote:

I must be nearly alone in not liking Bastion. I've tried, several times now, to like the game - but I can never move very far. I think I "get" it, and there's an undeniable charm to its presentation, but I simply can't commit myself to the world. The narrator seems to promise something interesting, but game mechanics themselves are so same-y and uninteresting to me that I just get bored and give up before the story can advance.

You're not alone! I feel much the same way; mostly I played to game to experience what is and might be possible in terms of narrative devices.

wordsmythe wrote:

I'd give you "constructed" and "fantastical," but I don't know about "synthetic." But I could understand if "imaginary" = "fake" to some people.

Well, I don't even agree that it feels fantastical or magical. I just think that it feels like a bunch of monster corridors glued together, with maybe a unique story element or item placed in them.

I mean, at their core, that describes so many video games. But they don't always feel like that to me, for any number of reasons. Maybe because the game has systems other than combat, or because my character has interesting personal interactions in the spaces, or because the the corridors are more expertly disguised...

When I look at Bastion, though, I find the undeniable charm of the setting and narration to be a rather thin veneer on top of rather bland systems and linear, repetitive gameplay.

I know a lot of people feel very differently about the game. It may ultimately be that I find the combat loops themselves horribly unsatisfying, which detracts from my ability to immerse myself in the world in a more meaningful way. I just keep thinking "ok, I need to kill all these guys in this corridor, then I get a plot reward" - somebody who enjoys the combat systems might simply lose themselves in that enjoyment, and the plot rewards flow more naturally.

Maybe it feels less like a corridor to me because I'm constantly exploring to make sure I didn't miss some side path. Also, corridors have walls along the edge, not cliffs.

But I think i get what you're saying.

Good stuff, enjoyed the article. Guess I better play my copy of Bastion now.

Maybe I never cared about the believability of the world because I never thought of the game in the same manner of Mass Effect or Fallout: New Vegas. When I play Bastion, I'm imagining a world where 3D gaming never came about. No N64 as we know it, no Playstation or Sega Saturn with "fancy" 3D polygons, etc. Just plain 2D graphics on a more advanced system. Whatever system, in this no-3D universe, that came after the Super Nintendo, that's the system Bastion was on.

So I tackle it with the same massive suspension of disbelief of SNES. So what if the world just pulls together into something that doesn't look like a real world? It's fun.

I guess that depends on how much mileage you get from the combat, though.

I know a lot of people feel very differently about the game. It may ultimately be that I find the combat loops themselves horribly unsatisfying, which detracts from my ability to immerse myself in the world in a more meaningful way. I just keep thinking "ok, I need to kill all these guys in this corridor, then I get a plot reward" - somebody who enjoys the combat systems might simply lose themselves in that enjoyment, and the plot rewards flow more naturally.

I think you hit the nail on the head. I was startled to discover my buddy, a fan of 3rd person hack n' slash, never played a God of War game. When I lent him my copy and asked what he thought, he told me he hit a wall and didn't really care for it, much like your experience with Bastion. Something about the platforming mechanics and the lack of camera control didn't sit well with him, so it soured the experience despite everything the game gets right.

ccesarano wrote:

I guess that depends on how much mileage you get from the combat, though.

That was my issue with Bastion. Try as I might, I couldn't get into the combat.

I also seem to be alone in finding the Narrator incredibly, game-breakingly annoying.

Then use Portal and Portal 2 ("Portals").
The device is not narration, but the level of dynamic response is very similar.

If you find a secret niche that belongs to Ratman, or die in Co-Op mode, or take too long to solve any given puzzle, Glados reacts accordingly.

Portal 2's Cave Johnson goes back to the FO:NV type of narration. You have pre-recorded messages you can't change in any way (or the illusion you can, like Glados passive-aggressive menagerie of remarks).

What I think makes Bastion and Portals such a great story-driven experience is how dynamic your actions affect the context of the story, not the lack of dialog options. You don't have Noble, Snarky or Aggressive remarks to chose from like you do in Dragon Age 2. If you solve a puzzle you get one dialog line among many, if you kill Bastion's enemies easily, you get a comment along those lines. It's the intimate reaction to your actions that make you feel the center of attention and important.

Portals would be a boring physics-based puzzle game if you muted the game. It's the dreading feeling of a machine losing it's sanity that makes Portal so enjoyable. It's the feeling of confronting and defeating the egomaniacal Glados that drives you through the 1st half of Portal 2.

I am among the many that enjoyed Bastion, and I agree; liking the gameplay is essential. My brother had a really hard time with the enemies and got frustrated with the game: paying attention to not dying limits your attention on the narration.

I found Glados' and Weatley's context-sensitive comments in Portal 2 very annoying, as well. I prefered Portal 1 where Gladis largely shut up during the levels so you could solve the puzzles in peace. Maybe I just really hate characters yakking over my gameplay.

Or maybe you hate fun!

No "maybe" about that one. I'm just figuring out what else I hate.