Continuing in my trend of just posting papers from my classes with some minor edits, this is a paper I wrote for CMS.100 – Introduction to Comparative Media Studies as taught by Professor Fox Harrell. In it, I try to establish a theoretical framework to determine what we precisely mean when we talk about a game’s story and then use it to look at Bastion. At the end, I try to point out some general principles about how other games can follow Bastion’s example and tell a great story. This paper assumes no prior knowledge of the game’s story, so my apologies to any readers who know how it went and don’t need the rehash. All parenthesized citations are listed at the end of the paper, so feel free to check if you’re curious. I hope you enjoy the read, and please eave me some comments — I need all the criticism I can get!
In the final moment of Bastion, I sat for minutes unable to make a decision – even though it would not affect my gameplay in any way. The decision comes at the end of the game, and concerns how the characters’ stories resolve following the Calamity that started the game. While the outcome of this decision only changes the last four lines of dialogue, I was incredibly conflicted because I had come to identify with the story, the characters, and their destinies. Bastion is a strong example of game narrative because it brought me to treat its narrative like my own.
To determine exactly how Bastion achieves this, I draw insight from game studies and morphic semiotics to establish a theoretical framework. Game studies provide helpful language to analytically discuss Bastion, including Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals and Henry Jenkins’ Game Design as a Narrative Architecture.
In Rules of Play Salen and Zimmerman discuss games as a narrative, describing how the different elements of a game form a narrative system which informs gameplay while communicating conflict and uncertainty all at once.
In Game Design as a Narrative Architecture, Jenkins delineates four different lenses with which a player can interpret a game’s system: evoked, enacted, embedded and emergent narrative (explained further in the framework). Different games lend themselves to different lenses, and in Bastion evoked, enacted, and embedded are the most prevalent forms of narrative.
Lastly, Fox Harrell’s theory of semiotic spaces and morphisms, as explained in Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression, describes epistemological spaces through the use of four building blocks known as sorts, constructors, functions, and axioms (also explained further in the framework). This framework is especially suited to describing digital media because of the close relationships between the building blocks and the components of actual software, and makes it a prime candidate to break down the mechanics of a video game.
I argue that Bastion is able to draw in players so well because of its visually compelling exploration mechanic and responsive narrator. These elements give the player an engaging system along with making them feel like they are the protagonist rather than an observer of somebody else’s story. As video games continue to grow as a medium, developers are striving to create games with emotionally compelling narratives to complement their gameplay. By studying Bastion, I posit that we can get an idea of how to do that.
The key theories used in this argument are Jenkins’ four methods of classifying game narratives, Salen and Zimmerman’s discussion of games as narrative play, and Harrell’s theory of morphic semiotics.
Jenkins provides language that is useful for describing the difference between narrative elements gained from explicit exposition and action versus those gleaned from environmental details (enacted and embedded narrative, respectively). This allows, for example, independently describing the moment The Kid first meets another survivor from the tidbits the player sees as he explores, like statues of the deceased frozen in stone or tattered marketplace stalls. Both inform the game’s narrative, but are distinctly different methods of exposition.
Salen and Zimmerman’s analyses of games as narrative play describes games as narrative systems, where all elements of the game are narrative descriptors which interact and inform the player as a whole. A narrative system communicates more than just a story arc, encompassing a background for the player and world along with a context for the gameplay. This sort of thinking is very helpful when analyzing aspects of Bastion that are instrumental in the moment to moment gameplay, but are also tied into the lore of the game such as the tiles flying up beneath your feet. This mechanic is integral to how the game plays, but is explained in the lore as The Kid restoring bits and pieces of the world after the Calamity.
Lastly, Harrell’s work on morphic semiotics yields a framework within which one can easily draw contrasts between different approaches to game mechanics and determine the priorities of the designers behind them. A semiotic morphism is a mapping from one semiotic space to another, and two very helpful spaces to consider in game analysis are the game design space and the implementation space. For instance, an axiom in the design space could be, “The player should not fall off the map.” If the implementation of this axiom were that the player literally could not move past the edge of the map, that would suggest the designer wants the player somewhat protected from their own potential errors. On the other hand, if falling off the map forced the player to restart the level, it would communicate the exact opposite. By contrasting these, and many other, semiotic morphisms, Harrell’s theory allows us to explicitly discuss the articulated intentions of the designer.
Game Design as a Narrative Architecture
In his paper, Jenkins describes four different approaches to how games can communicate stories to their players: evocative spaces, enacting stories, embedded narratives, and emergent narratives. They often co-exist in the same work, playing off of each other to tell a complete story. As he explains, game designers cannot simply tell stories, they “design worlds and sculpt spaces” (Jenkins 3) to speak to their players. This constraint requires the use of multiple avenues to communicate different perspectives on the narrative.
Evocative spaces in video games are used to tell stories in much the same way a ride is designed in an amusement park. By carefully crafting every aspect of the space, “every texture you use, every sound you play, every turn in the road” (Jenkins 5), the designer is able to create a specifically desired “feel” for the player. The “road” can have much more than turns in the case of digital spaces, such as Bastion’s flying tiles giving the impression of an unfolding world. The use of evocative spaces can also accentuate other forms of narrative and make them more effective. In Bastion, the artistic style goes a long way to communicating the feel of what the world once was before the Calamity left it in ruins.
The enacted story is what a player would traditionally consider a game’s narrative, where the player is directly causing or observing story events. This lens of viewing a game narrative splits into two separate levels, the goal level and the localized incident level. When viewing from the goal level, the player is prodded forward using a broad goal like saving the princess or collecting all the stars. While each moment might not be directly connected to making this broad goal happen, it provides a context for the gameplay between the critical moments where the broad storyline advances. Contrasting the goal level, the localized incident level is concerned with moments of “profound emotional impact” (Jenkins 8) that are not involved with the broad narrative but still communicate the core of the game. If one were to try and demonstrate a game of FIFA 2013 to the average person, an overview of the game’s season system and team management could be communicative, but not nearly as much as a video of two friends playing in the ten seconds immediately before a deftly made a goal. Game narratives are like any other, in that the perfect slice can often explain the entire work.
As a slice can often summarize and communicate the whole, game designers can also craft embedded narratives which use small suggestions to expose entire events for players. In an embedded narrative, the designers constructs “a palace of memories” (Jenkins 9) where each element in the environment suggests a prior element of the narrative. For instance, in the Valve game Portal the player comes across a hidden room filled with insane scribbling on the wall expressing fear of the AI personality GLaDOS who is conducting the tests the player is running through. This embedded element cements the decidedly sinister tone of GLaDOS in the player’s mind. This is vastly more effective than having GLaDOS simply drop hints that she will try to kill you, increasing the player’s sense of suspense in each interaction with the AI.
Similarly, a designer can communicate the seriousness of an event by having it change the game world. If the player has seen a certain environment many times throughout the course of the game and it is destroyed, seeing the wreckage can be even more impacting than viewing the event itself. This is the principle of embedded narrative – a static element in the right place and time can make for a much more effective story than a simple statement by a character. The principle is used to great effect in Bastion, as all storytelling beyond the narrator is completed by letting the player explore the ruins of Caelondia. By showing how the beautiful world has been ruined, each piece of rubble and clearly transformed element tells the game’s story.
Lastly, Jenkins describes emergent narratives as a class of game storytelling wherein the designer, instead of trying to tell one specific story, gives the player a set of clearly communicable tools and situations and leaves them to see what happens. Given almost total freedom and a large toolbox, players are able to craft diverse narratives of their own choosing. However, emergent narrative is not a major element of Bastion and is not worth exploring further in the scope of this paper.
Rules of Play
Salen and Zimmerman discuss many aspects of game design in their text, but our argument will focus on their writings about games as narrative play. In this lens, each aspect of the game is now viewed as it serves to construct a narrative. The authors echo sentiments heard earlier from Jenkins when they say that “game narratives can be embedded or emergent” (Salen & Zimmerman, 26-7), differentiating between narratives that are crafted by game developers and explored by the players versus those that are enabled by game developers and then emerge from the players. They also describe aspects of games that are shared with all narrative, like conflict and uncertainty.
When discussing conflict, the authors note that one of the key elements for designers to consider in the perception of a game’s narrative is “how the conflict in your game is narrativized.” (Salen & Zimmerman, 26-12) By making the internal conflict present in each moment of the game deeply entwined with the narrative, each action taken by the player is perceived as an advance in the narrative. The authors go on to note interactive fiction theorists tend to visualize a network of bubbles containing static content connected by arrows to simulate ordering, but this structure ignores what is happening during the arrow – the core mechanic of the game (Salen & Zimmerman, 26-13). For a player to be invested in the story, the core mechanics have to be strong enough to maintain interest between each round of plot development.
The discussion of game narratives goes on to discuss how the spaces game designers create influence the stories they tell. Given the freedom with which a designer can create a virtual space, using varying degrees of dimensions, visual fidelity, or even crafting impossible spaces, the designer can make a space which serves a story perfectly. This power requires that the designer carefully consider how their game will be presented, as it influences their narrative toolset. Elements like the color palette, camera perspective, and level scale can completely change the player’s experience and must be carefully considered by the designer.
Following from the concept of tools, the authors go on to explain the concept of narrative descriptors as any game object or element that can communicate narrative. When a player is trying to determine their next in-game action based on the narrative, they rely upon “a representation that helps players understand the activity of the game within a larger narrative context.” (Salen & Zimmerman, 26-25) This is a very broad category, including anything from the game’s opening cinematic to the UI design. These elements combine to form a narrative system, which follows from games being systems themselves. One of the key differences between games and other media is narrative comes from interaction with a system rather than a controlled arc, and this interaction has to simultaneously provide context for the moment-to-moment gameplay as well as background for the player and the world they exist in.
As a final point, the authors also mention how games can be discussed, replayed, and relived in conversations among friends to add further narrative depth to the system. Games are unique in that two players can have an entirely different set of interactions, whereas two viewers of the same movie might have differing opinions but still have seen the same things. With the potential for different solutions to problems, distinct story paths, or alternate outcomes, games are in a unique position to have each player’s experience reflect the mindset with which they approached it. This becomes incredibly important in Bastion’s final moments, as the game gives the player the reins on the final choice which informs the entire experience. Notably, the game does not allow for many choices that alter the actual game’s storyline while it is played, but the final choice completely determines the context in which it is understood – a very elegant narrative device.
Harrell’s theory of morphic semiotics studies how representations convey their meanings to their intended viewers. By studying the relationship between the signifier (or representamen), signified (object or concept), and intrepretant (context), morphic semiotics allows for the creation of a relational method of describing meaning. The theory splits into two broad topics, semiotic spaces and semiotic morphisms.
Semiotic spaces describe signs, although in a more general sense they are epistemic spaces – capable of describing anything from a stop sign to the concept of time (Harrell 131). A semiotic space, more importantly, can also hold composite signs built from other signs, such as the elements of a computer interface which are built of a variety of text, image, and other components. This nesting makes semiotic spaces a modular tool for analysis of computing systems and illustrates their usefulness.
Within a semiotic space, there are four types of components: sorts, constructors, functions, and axioms. Their names hearken to similar terms used in computer science, reflecting the ease with which this tool can be applied to digital systems. To demonstrate this, I created a diagram of one potential semiotic space to describe Bastion or potentially other games. Each component has multiple potential sub-categories or examples, but these could easily be chosen differently to reflect different aspects of the game or to examine it from a different level.
Sorts describe the types of possible elements, without referencing their content in any way. In Fig.1, Bastion’s sorts are divided based on how they are combined to produce elements in the game. Sorts are basic building blocks, and can be combined like other components to produce new sorts. The key is that sorts are describing basic classes of entities, not the entities themselves.
Constructors are the ways that specific signs can be combined to form new ones, enabling modularity of signs. Looking at Fig. 1, we see that constructors take in basic sorts but can also use combined elements, such as combining a player with the cannon to create a new element with different movement and damage properties from the original player.
Functions take in a sign of a specific sort and then return relevant information about it, such as the health of a character or the number of enemies remaining in a level. These functions can take information from any aspect of the space, and in the context of games often exist to inform the player of something important.
Lastly, axioms dictate a set of constraints upon the forms a sign can take in the semiotic space. In a sense, axioms are bounds defining the edges of space dictating what can and cannot happen. These axioms have to be clearly defined such that signs are unambiguously constrained.
The other half of morphic semiotics is semiotic morphisms. Semiotic morphisms are mappings from a source semiotic space to a target semiotic space. The goal for a semiotic morphism is generally to preserve as much information as possible, but often some is necessarily lost. Semiotic morphisms are the key to the use of morphic semiotics, as they allow for the comparison of two different semiotic spaces, determining what was kept and why. Specifically, semiotic morphisms can be judged on how they preserve levels of transferred signs, priorities of each sign, constructors, functions, or axioms. Each is a separate lens through which a semiotic morphism can be viewed and judged, letting us determine which aspects of the game design the developer took the most care to transfer into implementation.
To analyze the quality of Bastion’s storytelling, we need to analyze both the plot itself and the narrative system through which it is communicated. While the narrative system incorporates every aspect of the game, this discussion will restrict itself to the two key elements described earlier: the flying tile mechanic and the response narration.
The Kid wakes up in a shattered, floating world, as the narration opens: “Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one.” Rising from his cot on a now floating island (Fig. 2), he follows instructions given by a gravelly voice known as The Stranger and finds the Bastion, seemingly a pile of debris and overgrown shrubs. The Stranger explains that the Bastion was Caelondia’s last resort to be used in case of total catastrophe, like the one The Kid just walked through to get there. He explains that the “Calamity” had shattered the world, damaged the Bastion, and that he and The Kid were the only people to have survived and made it to the shelter– however, with the power of Cores the Bastion could be fixed.
Cores are stones found in the Burstone Quarry which used to keep the lights on in an entire City district and were also recording everything, all the time. (Bastion) The oldest of these Cores were a living record of the world, and their power could be used to rebuild the Bastion. As The Kid begins to retrieve Cores from the ruins of Caelondia, The Stranger tells him of the feud between Caelondia and the Ura, their longtime enemy, which led to the Calamity.
On these missions, he meets two more survivors: Zulf, an ambassador of the Ura left stranded in Caelondia after the Calamity, and Zia, the daughter of an Uran scientist who had fled to Caelondia. Upon meeting Zulf, The Stranger finally introduces himself as Rucks. As The Kid is collecting the final Core, Zulf goes missing and the Bastion is damaged. Rucks explains that Zia had kept her father’s journal which was written in Uran – Zia could not read it, but Zulf could. It explained that the Calamity was caused by a Caelondian weapon, designed by Zia’s father against his will, to be used against the Ura in case they ever violated the uneasy peace the two nations had agreed upon. However, Zia’s father was so horrified by the prospect that he sabotaged the weapon such that if it was triggered, it would misfire upon those who used it.
With this knowledge, Zulf ran from the Bastion to the Ura homelands to tell them what had happened. This marks the first major advancement in the goal level, where the player has achieved the first goal presented to him (gather all the Cores) and is given a new goal based on events in the first phase (find Shards – small, one-time use, pieces of Cores – to fix the Bastion). It is also in this act where Rucks begins to insinuate that when the Bastion is fully operational, it could be used to fix the Calamity.
In the second goal phase, the Kid travels through the wild finding Shards and also has to save Zia after she is taken by Ura invaders. After the Kid saves her, he ventures into the Ura homelands to retrieve the final Shard. He finds Zulf being beaten to death by his own people, blaming him for leading The Kid to them. The player then chooses whether to save Zulf and bring him back to the Bastion, or to leave him to his own. Upon returning with the final Shard, Rucks presents The Kid with the decision which defines the story of the game.
Rucks explains that the Bastion has enough energy to turn back time, fixing the Calamity and reverting the world to what was. However, the Bastion can also use that energy for a very different purpose – to blast off and take the survivors to someplace new. The player is given the choice to try and reclaim the beauty the Caelondia once was, or to erase its existence for good and go somewhere unknown. You’re given counsel by both Rucks and Zia – the former wistfully telling you just how beautiful Caelondia really was, the latter that the only times she had ever been happy were after the Calamity. The player’s choice results in different final monologues from Rucks, and the ability to begin a New Game+ with all of the skills and weapons unlocked from the first play-through. If the player chooses to restore the Old World, Rucks hints that the Calamity will happen once more – the game ends with Rucks saying, “I’ll see you in the next one…” and should the player to begin a New Game+, the new story opens with the same line.
Looking upon the story as a whole, the two central conflicts are between the player and the Calamity, and between the Caelondians and Urans. The conflict between the player and the Calamity is clearly more integral to the game, as it is the motivating element which began and drove the story. The Bastion was only ever needed because of the Calamity, and the Calamity also made it harder to rebuild the Bastion after it was damaged – partly because the world was falling apart, and partly because the Calamity is what made all the remaining creatures of Caelondia hostile. The conflict between the Caelondians and Urans, on the other hand, is rarely ever dealt with explicitly by the player – Ura enemies are only fought in the last two levels of the game, and the only story contact with the Ura is with characters who are relatively friendly to the protagonist.
Bastion narrativizes the conflict with the Calamity much more than that with the Ura, as the vast majority of in-game action is focused on undoing the effects of the Calamity. While the Calamity was a response to the conflict between the two nations, the game’s structure makes the player see the Calamity as the true problem and the conflict between nations as a tragic disagreement where neither party was ever truly right. This cements the idea that the Calamity is the true evil of the story, and the only true solution is to make sure it cannot happen again – neatly playing into Bastion’s final moments.
The final decision is a piece of storytelling that only a game could offer. By presenting evacuation to a new land and reversion to the old as equal options, Bastion is able to legitimately leave the pivotal question of the game to the player, making the story reflect each person who plays it. Using Salen and Zimmerman’s language, this is a powerful moment because it makes the interactive role of the player a narrative descriptor.
Other mediums often try to pose a question to the viewer, such as when movies end with an ambiguous shot (Inception from 2013 being a great example), but no others are able to have the viewer actually answer it. By asking the player to answer the question themselves, Bastion becomes an example of truly interactive storytelling. Additionally, by making the choice so meaningful, the game divides its players by their perspective on the choice and gives them the opportunity to discuss how they related to the story and why they chose as they did.
Bastion also distinguishes itself among games through its use of subtle messaging, instead of simply giving the player a mirror to see their own opinion or directly stating that of the developers. The question is left deliberately uncertain, and the developers take care not to make their view the clearly correct answer. However, through hints telling you that the Calamity was doomed to happen again, the developers say the desire to recover beauty already lost is fruitless and that the only way to break the cycle is to seek something new.
Visually Rich & Dynamic
With Bastion’s story examined, the discussion of its narrative system can begin. The first visual characteristic of Bastion that gives players high response is the “flying tile” mechanic. The majority of the level is off-screen when the player begins, leaving a view to the sky beneath. As the player walks towards where a tile should be, it flies up from the sky and joins with the tiles that are already present. An example of the player walking down a path the tiles rise to his feet as he runs from an enemy is shown in Fig. 3. This mechanic achieves the aim of player identification and immersion in multiple ways, along with being very helpful for gameplay.
Salen’s discussion of game spaces is highly relevant here, as Bastion makes very good use of its space to tell the story and immerse the player. By combining the isometric view and painterly graphic style with the flying tile mechanic, Bastion has a view of the sky that is normally not possible in an isometric game and increases immersion by crafting a more complete visual field. The tiles also create a sense of an unfolding world, where the player decides how it unfolds. Specifically, the mechanic increases player identification by making each level a semiotic function of the player’s progression through it. The player sees as much of the level as they have explored, giving exploration a sense of enacted storytelling.
Examining the game’s semiotic space, the relationship between the player and the level geometry is a compelling example of Bastion making an aspect of the game typically unresponsive to the player a function of their input. In most games, the greatest degree of level responsiveness is allowing the player to destroy it, only adding to the effect that the player is intruding on somebody else’s world and not exploring their own. Making the player feel like they are creating the level through their very desire to explore it increases identification with the world itself.
Additionally, it provides a very subtle way of telling the player where they have already been and which direction they should go in without necessitating a map. Viewed through the lens of Harrell’s semiotic theories, having the world communicate itself to the player reduces the number of sorts required to understand the game. Since the player is already looking at the world, this visual effect kills two birds with one stone and sidesteps the need for a level map. This makes acquiring the knowledge more intuitive, and lets the player digest the narrative with fewer cognitive barriers.
The flying tile mechanic is also well-made because of its integration into the internal lore of the game. One of the developers, Amir Rao, explains that the mechanic was created first for gameplay reasons – trying to see something sky-like and forego a map – and then became deeply ingrained in the narrative system. (Jeriaska) As Salen described in her book, the game space dictates the narrative toolbox available to the developers and Bastion distinguishes itself by how closely it integrates its toolbox with its narrative. The central conceit is that the Cores and Shards scattered about are the only things keeping the world together, and nearly everything else has fallen away. The Cores contain the “memories” of all Caelondia, but it is The Kid walking through that forces them to “remember” the necessary parts of the world which the Calamity destroyed.
The game also uses this tie-in with the lore to “reverse the polarity” of the semiotic function and strengthen the player’s association between themselves and the level. When a player finds the Core at the center of a level, picking it up will often start a reaction making the level fall apart. The level is once again a function of the player’s actions, but now it is being destroyed and the player is forced to run for their life.
The player does not need to be keenly aware of the flying tile’s relationship with the internal lore as they proceed through the game, and can easily treat it purely mechanically and not examine it further. However, if we consider the two semiotic spaces that are Bastion’s universe and Bastion the game, this semiotic morphism between a required mechanic and the precepts of the universe demonstrates a high priority placed on communicating a sensible world. This completeness creates a seamless experience for players considering the game to any depth, again adding complexity and richness to the narrative system.
The other element helping the player to identify so strongly with the story is the responsive narration system. The narrator is the most direct source of exposition, and its implementation as a narrative descriptor can completely change how a game is perceived. Unlike most games where the narrator exclusively exists to deliver scripted content, Rucks comments both on story events and on the activity of the player. If the player starts hitting walls to test the destructible scenery, the narrator will comment on The Kid smashing things for no reason. During battle Rucks will make sideline comments about the player’s performance, positive or negative. The narrator communicates what is about to happen via the story script, what is currently happening by responding to the player, and what has happened by adding small quips about events and places as they are encountered.
This system is incredibly effective at helping the player identify with the story for multiple reasons. Using the semiotic lens, this narration accomplishes a similar function as the flying tile mechanic by making the narrator a function of the player. This is incredibly important because it makes a much broader portion of the gameplay an instance of enacted storytelling. The narrator effectively defines the story, so having the narrator respond to the player makes each player choice and action seem like a part of the game’s story. This counters other games where the player feels like they are performing dummy work until they can get to the next moment where their gameplay affects the narrative. In Bastion the player is still aware that the story has a series of “goal moments” advancing the narrative, but the act of moving between them seems like a part of the story because the narrator is describing it – and more importantly, describing the player.
In other games, having the narrator comment on player action can oftentimes be more annoying than immersive (Crackdown’s oft maligned narrator comes to mind), however, so it is important to note how Bastion specifically implements its system well. The writers of Bastion explicitly strove to keep lines short, never repeat phrases, and only narrate the “sub-text” of the game. Subtext here refers to things that are non-obvious to the player. A monster dying or a hammer being found is part of the text – saying the hammer is The Kid’s lifelong friend is subtext. (Kasavin) The narrator exists to add information and depth to the play experience, with zero redundancy. Through this constraint, Bastion uses the narrator for embedded narrative.
As the player travels the levels, Rucks adds in little snippets of memories, wistful comments about different sights or people he once knew. His voice adds another layer of narrative for the player, through non-essential information that colors the environment you see and contextualizes details placed by the developers. To maintain an immersive and congruent world in-game, the narrator is also not a disembodied voice. While The Kid and the player don’t see him very often, they always know he is back at the Bastion with the other survivors, telling their story. This maintains internal consistency, one of the most important priorities for the developers (Kasavin) and a key part of helping the player identify with the story.
Following analysis of Bastion, the element that seemed to contribute most to its immersive and identifying qualities was the expanded responsiveness to the player, specifically in the narrator and level. Bastion pushes the normal bounds of responsiveness by having the player directly control The Kid but also indirectly control the narrator and the level. These two elements are normally “off-limits”, aspects of the game for the player to explore and view, but not interact with. The “flying tile” mechanic alters this formula such that the player controls the character who then affects the world around him, increasing the amount of visual feedback the player is receiving for their actions. The narrator also gives the player a greater range of response to their actions, and is implemented well-enough that the response is always constructive to the experience. Game narrators are typically static with either scripted story lines or obviously canned responses to player action. By including convincing responsiveness in the narration, Bastion makes the player feel like the story is adapting to, and therefore about, them.
Based on this, one potential goal that the game designers behind Bastion might have started with was to create a game with a story that fosters player identification by adding mechanics to make the game respond in more ways and more often. This is notably different from games that offer a large number of binary choices, but are too static and make the player feel like they are traveling someone else’s path. Bastion offers no plot-based choices in its core storyline, but is able to make the player feel like it is their own story through its strong responsiveness.
By making more narrative descriptors semiotic functions of each player’s unique experience, games can increase the effectiveness of enacted storytelling by making the player’s unique actions a large part of the story they hear. Specifically, adding elements which are tangential to the game’s core story, like commentary from the narrator on a grave the player happened to stand next to, can help players identify with the story as whole without limiting the designer’s ability to expose the narrative. The goal of the designer should be to expose the narrative such that the player has no less freedom than they do in normal gameplay, and that the method of exposition varies in non-essential ways to incorporate the player’s moment to moment actions and choices.
Looking back upon the theoretical framework and analysis used, there are many avenues to further explore. For one, the theoretical framework mostly drew upon two sets of game theories, those of Jenkins and Salen. There are naturally other perspectives on game narrative that are worth analysis, and pursuing them could possibly lead to other useful insights.
Additionally, the scope of this paper only includes Bastion, which constrains the scope of insights found. Each aspect of the game, not just the ones discussed here, is executed well and has some contribution to the player’s experience. Elements of the game not within the scope of this paper, like the painterly art style or fleshed-out internal universe, could also play a large role in why players identified with the game. A future expansion on this could examine other games that are known for having either very strong or very weak stories, perhaps from different genres to lend a different perspective.
Bastion is an engrossing tale that takes the player through the question of whether it is better to recover beauty that is lost or to try and discover something strange, new, and wonderful. The flying tile mechanic helps engross the player in the story by making the instantiation of the level a function of the player along with integrating tightly into the game’s backstory. Additionally, the responsive narrator heightens the sense of identification by adding details to the player’s experience of the story based on their moment to moment actions. It also carefully keeps from bothering the player by only adding in valuable, non-obvious information to the narration.
Through the use of game studies and morphic semiotics, the added benefits of these two elements can be described analytically and generalized to other games. The use of narrative descriptors that are tightly responsive to player action, as opposed to letting players affect the plotline occasionally, makes the experience of the story as a whole much more engrossing and helps the player to identify with the protagonist. While quality of implementation is important to achieve this, involving players more intimately in the game’s narrative system improves the quality of the perceived story and ultimately produces a better game. By successfully implementing each of these points, Bastion manages to create an experience that the player identifies with, is emotionally affected by, and will remember for quite some time.
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- Bastion. PC, Version 188.8.131.52. August 16, 2011. Supergiant Games. Warner Brothers Interactive.
- Harrell, D. Fox. Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression. MIT Press, 2013.
- Jenkins, Henry. “Game design as narrative architecture.” Computer 44 (2004): s3.
- Jeriaska. “Interview: Storytelling Through Narration In Bastion.” Gamasutra. UBM Tech, 8 Aug. 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
- Kasavin, Greg. “In-Depth: Writing Bastion.” In-Depth: Writing Bastion Comments. Supergiant Games, 26 Oct. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2013.
- Salen, Katie. Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. The MIT Press, 2004.