essay, video games

Who are you talking to?

[Note: spoilers for Bastion.]

In a bid to get away from Oblivion for a while, I decide to check out a game I had heard much about out of last E3, Bastion. From GiantBomb to Weekend Confirmed, this game had been praised up and down as something great to check out, a must-buy for the Summer lull that was coming and a game that was highly innovative.

Two aspects were praised more than anything else: the auto-generating world and the narration. Before I get into the spoken word, I want to spend a moment on the world-generating: it’s not procedural. That much I can tell. The world is not being created afresh each time but is actually, for lack of a better term, being drawn a few feet in front of the character as he moves. As long as he is moving toward an edge, the path will be made. But only if he moves and it is available. Most of time, the path will be nebulous until the character approaches the edge and the next area appears. Sometimes, backtracking is needed to find which edge is the right one to follow to get to the goal. In that way, each step is a mystery that allows the player some sense of choice while also leaving room for the tension of the moment-to-moment play. Good job there.

The narration is a whole ‘nother beast. It’s delightful. The game, via the in-world narrator, will tell the player what the character just did in the world. For example, as soon as the game starts, the the narrator says that “The kid wakes up” and that “The kid’s world got twisted, leaving him on a rock in the sky”. As soon as the character moves toward the only doorway, the narrator continues “He sets off for the Bastion, where everyone agreed to go in case of trouble”. In one of the best moments, I directed the character to walk off the edge of one of these platforms in the sky just to see what would happen. The game had a case for that too:  “And then he fell to this death… I’m just foolin'” right as the character appeared back on the platform with some reduced health.

The narrator seems to know just what will happen to the character, sometimes right before The Kid, the player, does. In several cases, the narrator will talk about the situation in an area and tell the player indirectly where to go. And then he went over there, as a paraphrased example. The rough voice serves to tell the story and highlight exposition at the right moment to the player. In another great example, The Kid gets knocked out by some plants and the player must direct the character through a twisted dreamworld. Throughout the entire encounter, the narrator is humming. There is a constant though not too annoying noise. Once out of it, the narrator tells the player that The Kid never spoke of what he saw when he was knocked out. Huh. The narrator can only talk about things The Kid told him about? It was that last encounter that prompted me to ask a question that had not occurred to me till then: when is this story being told?

It’s true that the narrator seem to know about the situation than The Kid does. Or does he? That was something I began to wonder about. Exactly when is this story being told? Is the narrator reading a story or some sort of journal that was put down from the experiences of The Kid during this journey? Is the narrator making up the story and speaking it to someone in another place and time? Both of those theories would work except for the fact that the narrator appears in the game too.

Once The Kid reaches the Bastion, he meets The Stranger. It is this mysteriously named character who is narrating the story — which I know only because he tells me. The person serves as the exposition giver as the character then sets to retrieve pieces of the core. Returning with these provides opportunities to create buildings in the Bastion, which now serves as hub to reach out to other parts of the world to adventure and find more core pieces. It was during one of these adventures that The Kid finds another person, The Survivor.

On every loading screen between major areas in the game, the screen shows the character in a jump pose to represent the fact that the character is using the skyways, the main form of transportation in the game driven by wind. For the early parts of the game, the loading screen just consists of this picture and then the loading bar itself, a line of runic characters. After several of these screens, I gave up trying to translate the runes but kept them in mind as the game progressed. Later, additional tips for playing the game appear alongside the character picture. In fact, it was good that I was reading through that information each time as I spotted something very interesting upon finding The Survivor, the loading screen told me this: “The Survivor agreed to return.”

That little bit of extra exposition caught my attention. If the narrator, this Stranger, was serving as the main fountain of information in the game then why should the game tell me something via the loading screen? Which one of these sources is more important? Is one of them a primary source and the other a secondary? Is the loading screen, although not narrated, something that I should trust more than the narrator himself? What if the narrator is unreliable? That, more than anything else, was a terrifying prospect.

What if the narrator, whom I have begun to rely on more and more, is actually lying to me? My perception of the game world is based on the narrator, nearly solely so. He keeps telling me things about the world, some of which is also in the loading screen. If I can’t trust the narrator and the loading screen, who can I trust? I have taken it on faith that the actions of The Kid, my actions, are actually what is needed each time. That killing off these creatures — wonderfully named scum-bags and gas-bags — and taking the cores is a good idea.

In fiction, the term I have most often heard expressed for describing the layer of interpretation between the narrator and the work itself is psychic distance. It is the label I have used most in my own analysis work to depict the point at which the narrator is speaking. In most fiction, the psychic distance is very close. The person telling the story is speaking from either their mind, in the moment, or immediately after things happened. However, some authors use this distance as a way to build tension in the story via the use of a tense that is not in the present. In Bastion, the voice is not always speaking in present tense. Any use of the word “then” betrays present tense.

It occurred to me that if I could not trust the narrator then I must determine from where he was telling the story. If he was speaking to me as the player from the far future, then he already knew what happened to The Kid. He had to have recorded via either his mind or on some physical media that he was referencing from it a later time. If the psychic distance was close, that is, he was telling the story right after the player had ended a segment of the game, then that did not make sense. I just saw all of those things happen, why tell me again about them? No, the answer must be from the process of this Stranger gaining access to information from The Kid at some point in time.

The Stranger is based in the Bastion. And The Kid travels. Does that mean that The Kid, unbeknownst to me, is telling this person what he did each time he went out into the world and, as I said, this Stranger is keeping track of it? Does that mean that The Stranger is told everything after the entire journey is over? Or, more on the end of the extreme, knowledgeable of The Kid’s actions is available to this Stranger at any time. That he is, in fact, narrating the actions of The Kid as he makes them. If that is the case, then, as was stated earlier, he would have to be talking to some other than the player.

The question that arises then is naturally this: who is he talking to? The narrator has knowledge of the player’s actions via The Kid. This knowledge, along with details that the player does not have, means the narrator knows more. Setting aside how the Stranger gains this knowledge, then he has to be speaking to some other than the player. There is no reason to tell the player what action they just did. No narrative reason anyway. So, who is the narrator talking too? Don’t get me wrong, I find it delightful. But I am confused about who the narrator is speaking to.