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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I Dig My Hole, You Build A Wall

Listen, this might be the wine talking, but Bastion is a damn incredible game from a lit crit perspective. I mean, for one thing, look at the-- [WHUMP]

Oh, shit, sorry, watch your step there.

Yes, I had Lord Humongous punch some holes in the floor for ambiance.

Yes, this is my fifth glass, why do you ask?

Anyway, that's not important. Listen, I think the endless argumentative back and forth about whether games are art to be totally dull. It's a dumb argument that I frequently find myself disgusted with largely because people's definitions of art are so overtly tied to their own conceptions of what is Superior Culture--and, by extension, their own cultural superiority. This is nothing new. Compare Roger Ebert dismissing games to the New Critics or the Reader Response theorists dismissing film. It's all about taking your chosen medium and saying: "THIS shall lead humanity to truth and beauty!" What's coded into that, however, is the intrinsic understanding that those speakers are the gatekeepers to truth and beauty.

Basically, they're playing a critical game, and they're playing to win. It's a zero-sum game. Isn't there a hilarious irony there, that those who disparage games are themselves simply engaging in a wider competition for relevance?

But the game doesn't have to be zero-sum. It doesn't have to be winner/loser.

In fact, that's one of the major lessons you should come away with after playing The Bastion.

But wait, wait, I'm getting ahead of myse--[whump]

WHO PUT THAT HOLE THERE?!

Anyway, let's entertain for a moment the argument that games might not be art. In particular, let's examine one of the arguments from a scholar I greatly respect, FILM CRIT HULK:

HULK DEFINES ART AS SOMETHING WHERE THE THEMATIC MESSAGES (EVEN IF THOSE MESSAGES ARE AMBIVALENT) ARE THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THE PRODUCTS INCEPTION AND IDENTITY. THIS IS NOT TO SAY AN ARTISTIC FILM CAN'T HAVE AN EQUALLY COMPELLING PLOT, ACTION, MARKETABILITY, OR WHATEVER THE HECK. BUT THE GRAND POWER OF THEME REIGNS SUPREME. WHICH MEANS ART IS ABOUT THE CONSTANT CONTROL OF THEMATIC MESSAGE IN ALMOST EVERY SINGLE ASPECT OF THE PRESENTATION (AGAIN, EVEN IF THE MESSAGE ITSELF IS AMBIVALENT). ART IS EFFECTIVELY "SAYING SOMETHING" OR PROVOKING AN INTELLECTUAL RESPONSE WITH EVERY FIBER OF THE PRODUCT.

....

AND THAT'S THE DAMN PROBLEM WITH VIDEO GAMES. THEY OFTEN HAVE TO BE GAMES. THEY HAVE TO DIRECTLY SERVE THE PLAYING EXPERIENCE AND YOU KNOW WHAT? MAYBE THEY SHOULD. MAYBE GAMES CAN NEVER BE TRUE ART, BECAUSE IN ORDER TO BECOME ART IT WOULD SEEMINGLY HAVE TO BECOME AN "UN-GAME." AND DOES THAT RUIN THE POINT? MAYBE IT DOES.

Now, no offense to Mr Hulk, but I simply don't agree with his definition of art. I come from a far more aesthetically-oriented background, and while theme is important there, I am much more interested in aesthetic structures as a key to defining art. And yeah, I tend to define art broadly as anything that operates according to scientifically grokkable principles of perception and sensation. That's a net that encompasses just about everything. You can see why I might find this argument kind of, well, fucking boring.

But he's making a great point here, even if I don't totally agree with his attaching the weighted word "Art" to the ideas: theme is hugely important to the best pieces of art. The best works of art have a content beyond the aesthetic, that tugs at the soul. I don't think even the postmodern critics could really bring themselves to totally disagree here--the idea of A Text's Meaning is just too totally engrained in our critical tradition.

And it's a huge problem that most games seem totally uninterested in thematic self-examination, because it's a tragic waste of a medium that has huge potential for thematic expression.

So, when something like Bastion comes along, I get rather excited, because here's a game that actually uses the gameplay to express a theme.

If you've played the game, you probably already know what I'm talking about, so I'll just jump to the point. Obviously, spoilers abound from here on out.





You don't have to save Zulf.

In fact, mechanically the game has primed you not to. It's given you a giant battering ram that can one hit kill anything, its pitted you against countless foes, and, through Rucks and his ends-justify-the-means narration, it has encouraged you to see your slaughters as necessary evils for a greater goal. And you can go on believe all that. You can believe that the ends justify the means and fight through the Ura, abandon Zulf, and continue the cycle of violence...

...Or you can decide that this is not a zero sum game.

Now, what makes this moment so great isn't the moment itself. The moment is just the manifestation of the game's themes. This is an important thing to keep in mind, and it's another thing I'm going to steal wholesale from FILM CRIT HULK: the moment is a tangible detail. It's what we can point to and say, "AhHA! There it is, the major themes of the game present in one of the only two deeply meaningful choices in the game." But it only works because the game has been priming us for that moment since practically the beginning.

Think back to the scene in the hanging gardens when you walk around destroying the ashen statues of the citizens of Caelandia, while Rucks names EVERY DAMN ONE. When you find out that Caelandia caused the Calamity through their Dr Strangelove-style Doomsday Device, did you remember those scenes?

Think back to the fight between you, as the Kid, and the beasts of the wild, who are trying to rebuild their world by constructing their own pseudo-Bastion. Did you notice how hollowly Rucks's reassurances rang? And did you make sure you killed all the enemies--did you clear the area? Or did you notice that some enemies could be evaded rather than killed? Did you realize that you were making a choice then, a choice just like the one you make with Zulf--to either spare or destroy your enemy, even though you were both working toward the same goal?

Oh, and how about the way you have to battle through hoards of enemies in order to learn not just your own past but the pasts of the other characters? Sure, you got lots of those little fragment things as a reward, but weren't you also fighting to understand? And weren't two of the people you fought to understand part of the race of your enemies?

And that's just the way the gameplay encourages you to consider the complexity of your actions. Since we're already working from this idea that every fiber of the game has to be tuned to a theme, let's look at some of those other elements.

The Music! I'll come back to some of this more specifically later, but this is a huge part of the game's process of breaking down the barrier between you, as player, and the Ura, your enemies. Rucks introduces the soundtrack of this game, and he introduces it by saying that you get used to life after the calamity, but that he misses three things:

1. Not having to watch your step (which you can probably relate to by now, no?
2. "Well... nevermind."
3. The Music.

We are given to understand that the background music in the game is not an external thing, but an actual recording of Caelandian songs. That's incredible, to begin with--the idea that you're playing the game literally listening to a tangible reminder of all that you've lost, and the world you can't go back to. But what makes this even more fascinating is the fact that several of the songs come not from Caelandia but from the Ura! Yet, they have a similar sound to them. This is, of course, an important choice aesthetically, but it's also a really interesting commentary on the fact that the Caelandians and the Ura are not so different after all.

In fact, one of the most stunning moments in the game comes from you following Zia's haunting song, an "old standard" of the Ura.



That song, and that singer, is another of the keys holding the game together thematically and symbolically.

Because that sad, sad blues song is about the destruction of Caelandia's wall by the Ura.

There's so much to unpack here it's almost overwhelming. For one thing, it is a blues song, sung by an Ura. Blues is the sonic language of the down and out, the music of the oppressed and the ignored in society. This is particularly relevant when sung by Zia, but if it is an "old standard" as Rucks claims, it suggests symbolically that the Ura see themselves as oppressed by the colonists from the West. It's not just a song of anger, it's a song of deep, deep sorrow and paint. It's a song sung by a people who have lost too much.

The song sets up the Shimmering Wall as a symbolical barrier between the two civilizations: dividing them literally across space, separating them in ideology (I dig my hole, you build a wall--the two cultures are going in opposite directions, even!), and standing as a reminder of what was hinted to be a rather unpleasant war. Now, hold on to that thought about the wall, I'll be back to that in a moment.

What's more, I don't think the tone and the lyrics are at odds, as others have suggested. Rather, I would suggest that you can read the lyrics in two ways: out of context and in context. If you read them out of context, they've very threatening and militant, angry, ready for revenge for the oppression of the Caelandians. But if you read them in the context of the song's actual tone, they take on a quality of wishfulness. Zia, after all, is trapped behind the wall. She tried to escape misery beyond it but was betrayed. When she sings "Someday that wall is going to fall," after the fall of Caelandia, she must be so tragically conflicted: this is what she longed for desperately, this is what she prayed for, and yet... look at what the result was. It's absolutely heartwrenching.

So. We've got a song that can be read in two ways--as a threat and as a deep longing for the breaking of a Berlin or Gaza Wall that stands as a monument to suffering. Basically, these are the two choices presented when you find Zulf: a continuation of violent reprisals, or a breaking down of the barriers that cause pain.

Isn't it interesting, then, that Zulf is the character that crosses over the barrier--he moves between Caelandia and the Terminals--and the Kid is the only person who has ever spent two rounds of duty on the Walls?

The Kid is the guardian of the barrier of suffering.

Zulf is the ambassador who seeks to cross it.

I must have had far too much to drink, because I'm seeing double here: these two characters are opposites of one another!

And, if I cross my eyes and squin--[WHUMP]

...If I do that, I fall through the floor again.

But more importantly, I see that double image reverse itself.

Think about it. The ambassador of peace turns on his old ideals after learning of the evil perpetrated by Caelandia. He becomes the new perpetrator of pain, and jealously guards the last crystal shard you need just as Caelandia jealously guarded its own riches.

But the Kid...

Aah, here's where we go back to that choice again, and why I think this game is so thematically brilliant. See, if we complete this doubling (and don't ask me to cross my eyes again, I heard you snickering the first time) the Kid has to take up the position of Ambassador--he has to move beyond the symbolic barrier between the two civilizations. And he can. He certainly can.

But you have to be willing to do that.

You have to personally be willing to see past Zulf's betrayal to his underlying pain and humanity. It's all on you, Kid. The game has been constantly making you wish that you could find a better way, and now you've got it.

In essence, the game demands that you decide not just to save that one person, but whether you believe that we can find a way to coexist and break down the walls between us.

Wow.

And what is our reward?

Well, it tells us we were right. The Ura stop firing eventually. You didn't have to fight them after all. In fact, the one Ura too stupid or too vengeful to stop firing is actually <i>struck down by his superior officer</i>.

And we also get a song that is called Zulf's Theme. Only, I don't quite agree with that name. In fact, given what we know about the Kid's backstory and his relationship with his mother, and given the fact that you and Zulf are both on the verge of death by the end of the level... yeah, I think this is your theme, too. Let's give it a listen:



The two characters share a pain, and through that shared pain they can find a way forward, a way out of war, a way out of the suffering that comes from a lack of understanding.

And that's what we get when we get to the final song:



If Zulf's theme is also The Kid's theme, as I've suggested here, then what does it mean that this theme is blended with Zia's song here? Well, I would suggest that it offers the possibility of a shared understanding, a bridge between cultures, and a symbolic coming together of the different symbolic qualities of the characters.

Plus, it's gorgeous. So, you know, there's that going for it as well.

Basically, the game is deconstructing itself in the Lit Crit sense: you've got two binary opposites embodied by two antagonistic characters, and those binaries are, in the end, flipped on their head. It's a beautiful thematic move in a beautiful game.

There's a lot more that I could dig into here, lots of holes in this analysis, as it were, but I think you've had enough of my wining for now. If you haven't played the game, do it. If you have, let me know what you think.

Oh, and keep digging that hole through the wall. Let's see if our bird can fly.

[WHUMP]

...Not yet, it seems.

The wine joke is accurate to reality! Does it show? Oh, if you want further reading on Bastion, check this out. It's good article stuff. You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

4 comments:

  1. I really need to beat this game. Luckily, I don't mind spoilers. Also, luckily, in my current mental state, I probably won't remember this by the time I get to the end of the game. Yay state-dependent memory!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This game is a great example of meaningful gameplay choices, so I can only fully endorse the article. Most games that claim they have CHOICES lay out the choices (and often their consequences) out plain to see in text menus. Here you are making the choice in gameplay, without all that much information in advance and often no consequences (which is also nice, because games play up the "each action has consequences" angle too much).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an interesting point. It always bugs me when a choice that affects game stats is presented as a character choice, because often where I would typically take the character is actually sub-optimal in gameplay terms. The fact that the choices have next to no stat effects frees it up conceptually.

      On my third play through, though, I intend to kill as few enemies as possible... that WILL have an effect on the gameplay, but it's a very personal choice and one that makes a lot of thematic sense. After all, it's only because I'll have played through twice before that I'll have the liberty of avoiding encounters that way.

      Delete
  3. I should get a profile. I'll do it when I'm done marathoning the archives though.

    I don't remember how I played the game, so much, but I remember that I couldn't bear to leave Zulf to die for the first... four? five? playthroughs I did. Eventually I took up the ram for nothing more than the completionist desire to see and do everything.

    There was barely anyone left in that world, after all. But would I have saved a nameless stranger?

    ReplyDelete

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