This post is part of a larger series on system narrative and uses several ideas from it. A version was posted January 5th that, after doing some edits with the GWJ forums and arguing on reddit, has been revised heavily. The revised version can also be found over on their excellent website.
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 comparingBastion 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 ofNew 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.