By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm
Each facet of Bastion's gripping literary narrative can be matched with Limbo's lack of overt narrative -- characters, sounds, settings, visuals -- as it if was created to be the anti-Limbo. And each game can singularly make a case for being wild and forward-thinking; for sliding a sharp knife through the status quo of other, larger games with which they compete. I want to walk you through a critical analysis of these two games to see how their small, offbeat stories are representative of the video game medium's most thoughtful creations. And of its potential to deliver stories in the full scale of narrative styles.
(Warning: spoilers throughout...)
Limbo is directly influenced by the German Expressionist movement of the late silent film era. The dark, ethereal overtones deliver an ominous atmosphere -- a dangerous forest littered with inexplicable evils, misshapen industrial structures, dreamy creatures with bad intentions sprawled across a black and white digital canvas. This short clip is pulled from F.W. Murnau's silent classic Faust, which sports themes of God and Satan, purgatory, and the tragedy of compromised innocence. And while the subject matter between the two narratives don't align, the aesthetics of such films have been appropriated to the seventh generation of video game consoles. Limbo was manufactured to be something like a subconscious hallucination, and its visuals provide an untrustworthy, uncertain environment for us to negotiate.
Bastion fleshes its narrative tone through anachronistic audio to supplement the plushness of the landscape. The story of The Kid is conveyed through narrator Rucks' frontiersman vocal timbre, with the diegetic crashes and creaks of the world he explores. The music, however, is rarely sourced within the world itself. It is matched up to each situation like a cinematic soundtrack -- moments of epic battle being punctuated by rollicking guitar riffs and moments of sentimentality with warm strings. For a small game, it strives to push into the realm of the epic; it is verbose and the cues of the music make it feel very much like an ancient story set up to be told, rather than one to be discovered.
Limbo is minimalist; its sounds are designed to rebel against the player, like the world against the boy. It coerces your experiential fortitude, backs it into a corner, and so sharply contrasts the regular silence that when the landscape comes alive, its presence is felt like that of a giant, lurking spider. Glass shatters as if it came from within your ear, while the creatures of the land exude sounds embellished to the point that tension is created. You react to it like you would if you witnessed a corpse shake with rigor mortis. The closest Limbo gets to a soundtrack is the drone of some mechanism, hostile and clandestine, warning you against pressing onward. And when you trick your way past the low decibels, it's back again to the silence. Silence that offers no relief.
On a mechanical level, Bastion is an isometric action RPG with light dungeon crawler elements. The bulk of the action relies on button mashing and timed attacks, with droves of enemies dotting each world. The Kid is a somewhat customizable character, and we are allowed to add small amounts of uniqueness to his robust personality. The combat scaffolding is basic hack-and-slash technique, where actions are taught through heavy-handed tutorials. But where Bastion separates itself from the pack is in the spots where the combat is part of the story -- Rucks dictates our enemies' movements and motivations, and imbues them with personality. When we destroy a great beast, the narrative gives the beast's life due reflection, and comments on the nature of living in this new Caelondia.
Limbo is a directional joystick and two buttons. Those are the only tools we have to control The Boy through the treacherous lands. But outside of the simple control mechanic, we are forced to understand the game's frenetic physics program that dictates the way shapes fall, objects slide, and bodies interact with the environment. And we must do so without any help. Limbo is a puzzle-platformer, where we force our character to die numerous times before understanding how to complete a stage. It is the archaic style of "trial-and-error," puzzle solving in video games, and it forces us to witness the very terrible fates of our protagonist. His death each time, though, results in a fresh scene and no true penalty.
Rucks, Bastion's wry narrator, spills the story like he's telling it from memory. The game respects the tradition of spoken word, and provides a persistent narrative that keeps the events of the story at the forefront of the gamer's mind. He is voice acted so perfectly, with such a natural cadence and consistent vernacular, we can feel years and hurt behind his gruffness. This offsets a common issue that games encounter with narrative driven games -- distracting gameplay that mutes a story's nuance. Rucks omnipresence takes the burden of remembering the story from the shoulders of the gamer, and threads the gamer into the story with "dynamic narration," a function that allows Rucks to comment on what is happening with The Kid as it happens. The Kid slips off the edge of the floating world, Rucks mentions it. The Kid succumbs to a Gasfella's wrath, Rucks tells the kid to brush himself off as we press "Continue." And all the while, we're learning and discovering the history of the place, told forthrightly, as we're meant to hear it.
Limbo's narrative structure is diametrically opposed to Bastion. The absence of a narrator forces us to interpret what we see as we see it, and as we encounter new stages of the game, we see them through an unadulterated lens. Bastion's deliberate narration makes us feel like we're discovering the story for the first time, while Limbo's lack of narration makes us feel like we're discovering the world for the first time. The only hint we have about the evolution of the story reside within the game's tagline: "Unsure of his sister's face, a boy enters limbo." From there, our emotional odyssey dictates what we believe to be certain.
The story of Bastion is the story of Caelondia, The Kid's homeland. The mystical world is a character in itself -- existing, almost breathing, outside the realm of what we can see. It has deep backstories that become apparent as Rucks shares stories from his travels through the different locations. At its heart is the derelict Bastion, the ailing heart of humanity. We interact with the Bastion because we are given the power to rebuild it, and our actions directly propel the narrative forward. In each surrounding place we visit, we're reminded by Rucks that it is familiar to us, but augmented by The Calamity's hand into something foreign. Nature resists us, but we reside within the ecosystem. Each place has a distinct history, and is defined by its elements. We soldier through worlds of fire, sea, and jungle, each new section handing out bits of story to us that slowly coalesce into a realized, layered world.
Limbo's nameless boy is an opponent of nature. He is chased by its dwellers like red blood cells healing an infection. Those beings he meets are motivated by something unknown, though we can speculate that they are the embodiment of just about anything. Depending on how we interpret the game -- be it a dream, the space between heaven and hell, the mind's response to depression and grief -- Limbo's world can manipulate itself to support that interpretation. For instance, it could even be viewed as humanity's passing through time: from where we interact with the natural earth, and then the construction of industry, and finally the future where the actual physics of reality can be changed. It is as deep or as shallow as the imagination of the player.
Though The Calamity wiped out the bulk of human life in Caelondia, a few key characters develop throughout the story. Bastion's hero, The Kid, is the vehicle we use to discover the world. He was created as an empathetic character, not one we wish to be but one we wish to see succeed. His tuft of grey hair shows that, while we know him as The Kid, the trials of his life have forced him to meet adulthood prematurely. He's not spectacular by any stretch, but we know him as resilient and curious and courageous. He is small and mighty.
Rucks is also a tangible character within the game. We don't learn much about him directly, but his personality and history are conveyed enough through his ever-present voice that by the end of the game, we see him as a reflection of everything before us. He is also a mentor to us, providing thoughtful insight into the challenges we face and decisions we have to make. He is a window into the Bastion's heart, and we experience it through him.
Zulf and Zia, to characters from a distant tribe, traipse in and out of Bastion's main narrative, but their existence is fundamental to the events of The Calamity, and to the decisions that you, as The Kid, must make as you reach the end. Though their initial discovery gives you hope for more survivors, you come to understand just why they have survived, and the burden and history that each carries. Both carry a tremendous emotional weight by the time the story concludes, and our knowledge of them forces us to choose how we plan to finish it, and how it will impact them.
There are two characters in Limbo -- The Boy and his sister -- and they represent "character" in the loosest sense of the word. The Boy is a manifestation of the search, while his sister remains an elusive, lifeless being throughout; she is the basic objective and the reason for the adventure. The only distinguishable features of The Boy are his white eyes -- which are the brightest lights in the whole game. They signify his "life," though we only know them as his motivation, which is to continuously search and not wander.
The Boy meets other children on his quest, but with no chance of ever making a connection with them or understanding where they've come from. Instead, he is forced to dispatch them using his environment, or they will stop him from finding his sister.
Literal vs Figurative In Narrative
Both Limbo and Bastion are, at their core, fantasy stories about redemption and salvation. There is a great divide in how these themes are explored, with Limbo operating as a purely figurative journey, while Bastion is rooted in the literal. They each exemplify their end of the spectrum to an impossible level -- it is so difficult to discern what exactly Playdead wanted to elucidate when they created Limbo, and Supergiant's tale is actualized by constant exposition and the description of events as they appear before us.
This is where the strength of the video game medium truly shines. We're given two adventure stories about unremarkable children set inside ruinous places, searching to restore something that has been lost. But because of the aesthetic interactive nature of video games, themes of loss, fear, and reconciliation can be conveyed to us in contrasting methods. They resonate with our innate proclivity to sympathize with one another, with that resonance being heightened by the character of the worlds we reside in.
And what we feel, as we finish the stories, is the rare and peculiar feeling of being spoken to by a video game. Not just that we've managed to interact with the games themselves, but that by enveloping our creative minds and motor functions in the mechanism of the game, they've interacted with us on a deeply emotional level. And only in the way good stories are able.
Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.