I tend to dislike the “sandbox” story camp and its claims that games should (or can) let me choose story paths that will impact the world of a game in meaningful ways.
With very few exceptions, a video game is a closed environment. Everything that can possibly happen in a game must be hardwired into it by a programmer. Maybe I will write a separate article someday explaining in more detail why I believe any attempt to integrate user input into game stories in meaningful ways will forever leave an artificially flavored taste in my mouth.
Today, I would rather celebrate the only time in a lifetime of gaming that I have ever yet eaten the words of that last sentence.
Bastion tells the story of the Kid. He is never given a name, and he never finds a voice. The only two story-altering options the game allows you both occur only in the last ten minutes of the game, and are not choices of words to say, but of actions to carry out. I’m going to ignore the second choice the game allows you at the very end of the game and just talk about the first choice today. I would venture to say this choice is the less often talked-about of the two.
In the last stage you are given the choice whether or not you will leave a man to die. Choose to leave him, and you may. You can leave the last stretch of the game with your prize and go home to watch the credits roll. I think maybe only a few people have ever chosen this option on their first playthrough. Great, because what follows if you choose to leave him is plain (and I want to say boring, but the gameplay IS still fun).
But for the vast majority of you who choose to take him, what follows becomes one of the single most moving scenes I have ever seen in a video game. In just three to five minutes following your choice, the world of this already vibrant and amazing game takes on a completely new twist of life. You manage to provide redemption and resolution to three major parties in the game, one of which you would never expect. Part of me wants to break down every detail of this short segment’s game design, but I would rather make you go play through it yourself. And if you’ve already played it and think I’m overreacting, go play it again, this time paying attention to every detail of its storytelling.
By choosing to save a man’s life, you recognize the humanity of your villain in a way back-stories and explanations-of-why-he-went-evil can hardly do. Your hero solidifies himself as a man of greater-than-normal character. Furthermore, the Cannon Fodder of the game (Yes, I mean the nameless enemies you have been wiping across the floor of the stage) tell this crucial moment in the story. The cannon fodder enemies stop and recognize your protagonist as the hero he is, and they in turn come to life in an opportunity no other game has ever offered them.
I could write anthropology papers on what this game says about cultural divides and racial wars within society. I could write psychology papers and sociology papers on the class of people that followed their leader only to find he was a misguided fool who brought their doom upon them.
Now, going back to this closed environment that I mentioned earlier. This series of possibilities and sequences of code and data transmissions some group of game developers set in stone and sold to you in a closed, predetermined package. This game, despite being pinned down as a permanent, fixed product, now becomes a living world with real people and you awaken to their humanity in what I might call the most meaningful plot twist I have ever seen in a game.
How many third class SOLDIERs in Final Fantasy 7 did you slaughter without blinking an eye? How many hundreds of clones of Yoshi have you punted off his own stage in the original Super Smash Brothers arcade mode without even thinking how pathetic his cry was as he plummeted to the abyss where his character model exploded in a playful burst of death? And here in Bastion you are given cannon fodder that live and breathe and bow down in respect to your protagonist to—I daresay—make him the hero of his world.
What am I getting at?
This one choice offered to you the player in Bastion takes a tropic plot twist and makes it so much more. Bastion is not the first story you have ever seen where a good guy spares a bad guy’s life. Bastion is not even the first game to ever offer the player the choice of sparing a man’s life or not.
But the fact that this single choice is the crux of everything the game has been building up to makes it all the more plot defining.
What I’m getting at here is the concept of potency. Bastion’s choices matter because they are so few and so methodically planned out. They didn’t have to spend countless hours programming outcomes of choices. They didn’t have to get into the exponentially more complicated quagmire of trying to figure out how a progression of player-made choices should combine and interact with each other.
They programmed two outcomes to this one choice. And because of that limitation, you the player gain so much more soul from that choice’s outcome.
Again, I want to close expressing my wonder that the medium they chose to deliver the raw, emotional outcome of this choice is not any one of the game’s main characters. Perhaps it’s even more important that it comes not from the game’s narrator everyone so rightfully loves and raves about.
No. Here, the cannon fodder tell climax of the story. The cannon fodder recognize you as the hero and make you feel like you really are one.