TLF/AIP Scorched Earth: Bastion (Part Seven) and Narratives of Oppression

28 Mar

This week’s TLF post is my second-to-last in the As-I-Play Bastion series, and it marks the point when I began to realize just how political (and serious) a game Bastion actually is. If you follow me on NPC Gamer, you will know that I made a general Bastion post there a few weeks ago which talks about this in greater detail (including the ending), but if you’re following along in the whole As-I-Play series, you might want to wait to read that one until Part Eight goes up (in two weeks).

I gained a significant appreciation for Bastion in those final play sessions because they went somewhere I did not think they were going to go–somewhere that videogames generally choose not to go because it violates one of the most basic fantasies of gaming: the player as the righteous hero. In Bastion, the player is the hero of the narrative, but in the last few hours of gameplay, the developers undermine not the Kid so much as the veracity of the whole narrative itself, calling attention to the dual problem of prejudicial justification and narrative oppression.

It’s the latter that I think is ultimately one of the most important conversations that we ought to be having, but which we typically do not, for a variety of reasons. First, we have a tendency to dismiss the power of narrative, saying things like “it’s just a story/movie/game/tv show/novel,” and assuming that because it’s entertainment, it has no essential ideological influence or value. This is just about the biggest mistake we could make, in terms of recognizing what shapes the way we think and talk about the Big Things. Narratives–in all their forms–create, perpetuate, and undermine the status quo in powerful and vital ways, and it is very important that we are able to recognize this.

Second, we create narratives which very often serve to reinforce a dangerous set of self-aggrandizing fantasies on both the personal and the national (even international) levels. Bastion recognizes this, roping its players into a story where they are the hero in a story being told to them (via Rucks). This is true of every videogame in existence: the player-character is the hero (sometimes the anti-hero) of the story, and we participate in the fantasy that story tells by living through the avatar with which we are presented.

Sometimes, as in Bastion, in BioShock, and in BioShock Infinite, among other games, we play along with this fantasy narrative only to be told that we are not, in fact, the hero. Instead, we are an anti-hero or (more rarely) a villain or a tragic hero, fated not to save the world but to fail or to destroy it. Even more rarely, we encounter what we have in Bastion, in which not the hero, but the very form of the story itself becomes suspect.

In Bastion, Rucks is our narrator, telling the story of what we do (in a way that is emergent, so that it changes based on the player’s choices, down to things like breaking boxes or falling off the edge). Late in the game, however, it begins to become apparent that at least part of the narrative is out of our control–we don’t have a choice about doing some things, and Rucks’s excuses for why we have to do other things fall horribly flat. There is dissonance between the idea of playing the hero and the story itself which becomes increasingly apparent as Rucks tries to justify the unjustifiable…

All of which leads us back to the game’s core criticism of the kinds of narratives we tell ourselves about who we are and where we came from, at least in the US. Our narratives are self-serving and exclusive (I’ve talked about this before), and set us up for no only failure, but corruption. What Bastion makes clear, at least to me, is that we need to be careful about who tells our stories, and about who controls the way those stories are told.