I’ll See You In The Next One | How Supergiant’s Bastion Creates Choices With Narrative Impact

Video games are driven by decisions. The primary thing that sets video games apart from film or literature is the level of interaction involved, and that interaction comes through making decisions.

These days, there are entire genres of video games dedicated to decision-making, like visual novels. Apart from that, making choices is still a core part of narrative-driven games in other genres.

Bastion

Bastion, the first game developed by Supergiant Games in 2011, is a typical action RPG on the surface. Beneath that, however, is a well-written story that culminates in two very charged decisions at the end of the game. The final scenes of Bastion have stuck with me since I finished the game a few months ago, and today, I’m going to take a closer look at what makes the game’s conclusion work so well.

Since I’m discussing the end of the game, spoilers for Bastion are below! I highly recommend playing the game for yourself first, but if you already have or just aren’t really a gamer, click to read on.

For those who haven’t played Bastion and don’t plan to, here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know about the story: an event known as the Calamity has shaken the city of Caelondia, leaving few survivors. The player takes on the role of the Kid as he seeks out stone “cores” to power the Bastion, a sanctuary for those who survived the Calamity. Along the way, he meets three other survivors: Rucks, a mysterious man who serves as the game’s narrator; Zulf, an ambassador from the Ura, a people who were once at war with Caelondia; and Zia, a young Ura girl who was raised in Caelondia by her father.

20.3
The survivors introduce themselves to each other. (L to R: the Kid, Zulf, Zia, and Rucks)

As the game progresses, Zulf discovers that the Calamity was created by Caelondia and was actually intended for use against the Ura. In other words, it was meant as a weapon of genocide “in case” another conflict arose. Upon learning this, Zulf destroys part of the Bastion and leaves to inform the remaining Ura.

20.11
After learning the truth about the Calamity, Zulf confronts Rucks.

The game progresses, and the Kid finds himself retrieving core shards in Ura territory in order to repair the Bastion. He leaves plenty of destruction in his wake, and the Ura blame Zulf for bringing the Kid to their doorstep. During the game’s final level, the Kid witnesses Zulf being beaten by his own people and left for dead.

It’s at this point that Bastion gives its players a choice: they can either save Zulf and carry him back to the Bastion, or they can leave him behind. This is primarily a narrative decision, but it also has implications for the gameplay. Rescuing Zulf would mean leaving behind your weapon. In other words, you would be defenseless, and you can be sure that the Ura aren’t going to let the Kid leave without a fight.

20.1
After finding Zulf injured and unconscious, players are given the choice between abandoning or rescuing him.

Abandoning Zulf is the more strategically sound decision. The game practically says so itself: “Zulf’s situation is hopeless and a distraction… All that matters is the safe return of the Shard.”

Not only that, but leaving Zulf behind is a reasonable decision given the story up to this point. After all, you saved him once, and he turned his back on you. Why should you help him?

Besides, Rucks has just informed us that when the Bastion is complete, it has the power to turn back time to before the Calamity happened. In other words, whether or not you save Zulf is a moot point. When you activate the Bastion, it will be like none of this had ever happened.

Given this information, leaving Zulf is the most rational choice. And yet it still makes the player hesitate. I can only speak to my own gaming experience, but I know that strategy wasn’t the biggest factor going into my decision. Yes, I knew that if I chose to rescue Zulf, I would be walking into what was almost certainly a massacre – but at least I could do so with a clear conscience.

 

20.13

The Battering Ram is a cumbersome but powerful weapon. Rescuing Zulf means giving that weapon up and being defenseless.

Given this information, leaving Zulf is the most rational choice. And yet it still makes the player hesitate. I can only speak to my own gaming experience, but I know that strategy wasn’t the biggest factor going into my decision. Yes, I knew that if I chose to rescue Zulf, I would be walking into what was almost certainly a massacre – but at least I could do so with a clear conscience.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the best at most video games. I love them dearly, but most of my strategy usually comes down to blindly hacking-and-slashing at enemies and sheer luck. I try to give myself every advantage I can. By all means, I should have held on to my weapon. But the more I thought about it, I just… couldn’t.

So I chose to take Zulf with me. I thought for sure I was about to die – and at first, I almost did. As the player and Zulf slowly make their way to the exit, the Ura fire down on you. But as you keep going… they stop. You make it back to the Bastion with your lives intact.

This walkthrough video shows what happens when you choose to rescue Zulf instead of abandon him.

The choice of whether to save or abandon Zulf is quickly followed by the second and final choice of the game. As it turns out, the Bastion actually has two functions: it can restore the world to what it was, or it can be used for an evacuation. Rucks explains it this way:

If ever the Monument blew out, and we couldn’t repair it, we could still…evacuate. First, we’d round up as many folks as we could carry. Next, we’d detonate the cores, then take off. Away from here.

Zia and Rucks leave this decision up to the Kid. Unlike the earlier decision regarding Zulf, this choice won’t affect the gameplay. No matter what you choose, it’s the end of the game. You’re choosing how you want the story to end. And it is just a story after all, isn’t it? It’s just a game. In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter which one you choose?

20.2
The second choice allows you to either turn back time or use the Bastion to leave in search of a new land.

But yet again, you find yourself hesitating. Yeah, Bastion is “just a game,” but in that moment, it feels like more than that. Your earlier choice cemented the gravity of this situation in your mind, regardless of what you chose to do. You either risked your life to save a man, or you left him to die. Bastion has successfully convinced you that its characters are more than just collections of pixels with pre-scripted dialogue. They are people with their own stories and lives. And you have the power to change them.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered: How did they do that?

The main way that Bastion is able to humanize its characters is by taking time to flesh out key details and rewarding players for seeking out those details. This mainly happens through a series of optional game segments, where players fight through waves of enemies for experience and currency. Between each wave, they learn more about a particular character’s past.

20.12
You can learn more about character backstories through optional levels that take place in a dreamlike world called “Who Knows Where.”

Through this, we learn that Zulf relocated from Ura territory to Caelondia to advocate for peace between the Ura and Caelondians. There, he fell in love and proposed to a young woman – the night before the Calamity happened.

Now we see that the Calamity took everything from Zulf, not only in terms of the people he loved, but it also shattered his faith he had in peace and goodness. We still might not like it, but at least we can understand why he would abandon the Bastion. After all, he probably felt abandoned by the city he cared about.

20.10
Zulf with his sweetheart, shown if players choose the “Restoration” ending.

With Zia, we learn that she was a lonely child who was told little about her heritage, and that her father was forced to be a part of the project that caused the Calamity. So when we ask her for advice before activating the Bastion, it makes sense that she would tell us:

If I could go any place I wanted, I’d stay right here. We could go anywhere in the world.

And:

Any moment I’d want to live again… happened after the Calamity. Not before.

20.9
Zia “before” the Calamity. Though a talented musician, she had a lonely life.

As in any story, every moment counts. You can’t waste time going through each character’s entire biography, and so writers have to choose carefully what they reveal to the audience. We don’t get a complete picture of either Zia or Zulf, but what we do learn is enough to give Bastion’s final decision so much weight. We’re not choosing between two abstract options; we’re choosing between allowing a man to return to the life he loved or allowing a girl to continue living the life she’s always wanted.

Ultimately, this final decision conveys what I believe is one of the main themes of Bastion. It asks players what they think is better: to go back in time and simply hope that things will be different, or to move on and actively choose to create a world where such tragedy will not happen again? There is no right or wrong answer, but whatever decision you make will continue to sit with you long after you’ve put your controller down.

Of course, in real life, we don’t get these kinds of choices. We don’t get to go back and change things, we just have to keep going. We play around with questions like “If you could change your past, would you?” but they are not heavy questions.

Because it is a video game, Bastion is able to turn the hypothetical into the actual. It is no longer a question of what you would choose, it’s about what you did choose.

So then we watch the credits roll, listening to the bittersweet words of “Setting Sail, Coming Home,” and we see glimpses of what the character’s lives are like after whatever decisions we made. And we ask ourselves: If I could do it all over again, would I do anything differently?


Have you ever played a game that asked you to make difficult decisions? What stories have stuck with you long after finishing them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Until next time!

One thought on “I’ll See You In The Next One | How Supergiant’s Bastion Creates Choices With Narrative Impact

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s