Diversity Watch: Bastion

As a sort of closing thoughts on my time with Bastion, I’m curious as to how I can further my agenda of promoting diversity in games, or seeing how games are an artifact of a culture’s stance on diversity. This isn’t meant to scold Bastion by not fulfilling their quota of minorities, but letting it speak for itself.

The main characters of Bastion greeting each other in a circle. The oldest and youngest males have tanned skin and white hair, while the young girl and adult man have paler skin with dark hair.

The main characters of Bastion greeting each other in a circle. The oldest and youngest males have tanned skin and white hair, while the young girl and adult man have paler skin with dark hair.

Race and Ethnicity

For all the fear that the industry has about touching the topic of race and ethnicity, Bastion pushes the topic out there and lets the player interpret it. What is disheartening is how easily players can overlook this tension and participate in the usual brand xenophobia (and anti-environmentalism at that) that is produced from video games. Bastion makes use of race to draw on the player’s cultural understanding of them against us, of a nation against savages. The Ura draw on the qualities of the Far East (they even live in the East) to act as markers when juxtaposed against the kid and Rucks’ racial features; they have paler skin with dark hair, superstitious about a pantheon of gods, move around the map sharp and quickly (reminiscent of ninjas), and Zulf’s personal item is a hookah. This wouldn’t be so noticeable if Rucks and the kid weren’t depicted as very western (bulky males, caucasian facial features, imperialistic culture, science-orientated), however it goes a step further and marks them as very American. I was personally shocked when I first heard Rucks’ voice and then confused when I saw him; the voice actor was particular in using a tone and diction that is reminiscent of African-American (I use this term to identify a specific group of people, not to be PC) local color stories. So when I saw that Rucks was depicted as caucasian, my rationalization was assuming the team was looking for an aesthetic that was patently American. Following this line of thinking, I’m sure someone can come up with an interesting interpretation of seeing the US against its eastern anxieties (most of the Middle East, China, North Korea) in Bastion. However, that’s not my goal here; it’s possible that those with a differing ethnicity than the canon American one would be able to identify with the wrong done to Zulf, but it would be a difficult claim as you kill more and more Ura to get to your goal. Rucks’ excuse for killing all these people is flimsy and ethnocentric, as I could imagine a different reaction if Caeldonian lives were the ones at stake (or maybe they are, and that’s why it’s easy to kill Ura).

There’s also the tucked away issue about Zia’s liminal status when it comes to her ethnicity; she was raised in Caeldonia, but her race is of the Ura. There are mixed messages with the plot point of Zia running off to meet Zulf, and the implications of him claiming her as an Ura. It is unclear if Zia ever felt a sense of belonging, though this might be implied by the very subtle hints of the kid’s affection towards her.

Gender and Sexuality

The game assumes heteronormativity and doesn’t make any grand statements about gender. Bastion follows many traditions in this genre; the main character is a young male who identifies as a (conventionally Western) man and uses many typical props that suggest masculinity. There are some neat twists on the weapons in the game, but they are the same from every other: every type of gun you can think of and a bunch of melee weapons that require strength rather than anything else. One of the upgrades for the Bastion is a distillery which indicates that the kid is drinking throughout his adventures; I have nothing against drinking, but it is a common trope of masculinity to be a hard drinker, and this cannot go unnoticed if the main character is continually called ‘the kid.’ I find it problematic in an abstract way when boys in video games are assumed to have weapon and combat competency, or at least how prevalent this type of character is in video games. Rucks reinforces these expectations by the actions he points out the kid doing; I remember feeling a little put off when there was a quote of the kid having a sort of affection for one of his guns (I think there’s multiple references like these for the musket). There is little room for any other expression or identification of any other type of masculinity other than the gamer hegemonic one.

Zia’s representation as the sole woman (I’ll assume female as well) seem more to be in service of contrasting the kid’s masculinity. The (typical) emphasis on her beauty is slyly done by hearing her song and voice before you meet her. The sequence attributes the usual qualities to Zia before we even meet her; delicate sounding, beauty in an ethereal sense, a rare sight, something to chase. Rucks’ narration during this sequence is ambiguous during the first play-through as the player doesn’t know who he’s telling the story to (I assumed he was tell me the story), and it prompts the unaware listener to admire Zia as an aesthetic. Also, seeing that her personal item is a cooking pot… It doesn’t seem like Bastion is trying to leave behind any molds.

Something interesting is at work, though, when comparing the two aesthetics invoked, as they seem rather gendered. Zia’s song seems to be the audio translation of the visual representation of the game; I look at Bastion and see something beautiful and delicate. But Rucks’ narration, the only other voice of the game, gives the aesthetic more grittiness, enough so it isn’t alienating to the type of character the kid embodies. My personal observations of the themes at work in this game sprout from details like this, and I’m sure an interpretation waits to be read there.

Closing Thoughts

More could be said about age and and ableism, but they seem to just exist in the game and don’t really complicate the matter. Rucks has an interesting role as an elder, but turns out to be a threat of a harmful culture rather than an agent on his own. There is also no indication of transgender, intersexed, or asexual people, though given this allegory to America overall, it would be interesting where such characters would fit in.

About Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.
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6 Responses to Diversity Watch: Bastion

  1. TheLaquidara says:

    I read this on your blog late last night and found it rather insightful. I had a bit of a hard time keeping up with the story with the game with my first play through. The thing that really stood out to me when reading your article was the realization of just how much gender and racial politics I missed. Makes me want to go for that New Game Plus run even more.

    There’s not much I can add, but if anyone is curious about the people behind the game GiantBomb.com has a series of videos called Building the Bastion that shows the core team in action. Gives some interesting insights of the directions and decisions behind the game. (Kinda surreal that they’re actually pretty close to me)

    • Mattie Brice says:

      I’ve just taken too many Sociology classes for my own good :P I was excited to find something about race and ethnicity that wasn’t too far of a stretch.

  2. DocDre says:

    Good writeup. What was interesting to me about Rucks is that the narrator IS African American (check out their website). Even with the graphical depiction of Rucks as an older Caucasian male, i still prefer to mark him as an older Black man because that’s what he sounds like to me as well. Doing so slightly complicates the story of hegemony and assimilation that Bastion gestures at, but not enough to make it any more coherent.

    • Mattie Brice says:

      I saw that the voice actor was, at least, not fully caucasian, however, it was the diction and specific tone that mattered more to me. Thinking Rucks as black would mean all of their race was most likely black, which I don’t think stands up with the rest of what we know of them. What this reminds me of are a couple of studies that show white men appropriating iconic black and hispanic (typically from hip-hop and rap culture) to appear more masculine, since black men are often depicted as hyper-masculine. That would make sense in the context I created here.

  3. Good post, one of the interesting tensions about Bastion is that its masculinist identity-politics are tied to a non-US geopolitics. There’s evidence in the storyline to suggest a postcolonial reading: Ceylondia = Ceylon, the British name for Sri Lanka (Ura = Tamil, Caelondians = Sinhalese). We’re given multiple hints by the narrator:

    “The old world’s finished. But the new world’s just getting started. A lot of things need fixing up in this world. And we can start right here. Before he gets to work though, he pulls out the Ancient Spices and hands them to me. Folks voyaged across the Boundless Sea to found Caelondia. It was good living here for a while. Kid takes a small break before he leaves to find another Core.” (transcription from game)

    The new worlds created by colonialism (at the price of destroying the old), the spice trade, the transit space of the Indian ocean, the tragedy of the South Asian Partition, the legacy of a vicious and tragic postcolonial war over what the postcolonial state will look like — all of the pieces fit. (No coincidence that one of the founders of Supergiant, Amir Rao, is South Asian). I’d argue the latent masculinism of the storyline is tied to its investment in a postcolonial nationalism, which can’t really offer answers to the crises of postcoloniality or neoliberal immiseration.

    Still a very fine game from a superb team, hopefully their best work is to come.

  4. Paul Scott says:

    On my first playthrough, I think I read the game much as you do here. (Of special note was my embarrassment at being surprised when the “african-american” voiced character was revealed to be a scientist, despite him expressing technical knowledge about the Bastion through the *entire game*.) I think it was interesting that the American/Eastern dynamics aren’t thrust in your face from the beginning–they sort of trickle out until you finally come face to face with the rest of the Ura and you have your, “Oh. Hmm…” moment.

    On my second playthrough, things shifted a bit for me though. When I played the game the first time, I did my best to avoid breaking as many of the human bodies as I could. The second time through though, I guess I wanted to see if Rucks would say something about it, so I took my hammer to the owner of The Sole Regret. He did comment, something about the owner wanting his ashes spread there. With thoughts about the Western/Eastern divide fresh in my mind, something about the word “ash” being associated with these bodies frozen in time triggered memories of the images I’ve seen of the famous “atomic shadows” of people and objects burned into the walls and ground amongst the rubble in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombings.

    After that… for that second playthrough, I couldn’t help but read the game in that context. In retrospect I guess that should have been an obvious lens to view the game from given that the game is about a city/civilization destroying Calamity, and maybe it’s so obvious that everyone else is doing that but I haven’t really read anyone comment about it. I don’t think it’s strictly allegorical, but it becomes a new means of entry into an otherwise overwhelming and difficult-to-approach topic. In this context, I think the racial/ethnic stereotypes and even the vague jingoism serve a purpose: by associating Caeldonia with America and the West we experience an inversion of the Hiroshima narrative, waking up one day to see their (our?) Western city as nothing but shadows and ruins. But then at the end, we find out that the inversion is only partial, and that it actually is the West’s own Calamity blown up in our backyard. I know that there is certainly no shortage of post-atomic-apocalypse media set in the US, but most of that tends to be Cold War influenced, and I think this is much different.

    Anyway, I don’t want to push the whole thing too far; Bastion is certainly a thing unto itself, and to whatever extent it may be influenced by Hiroshima or atomic weaponry in general it is definitely more than “just an allegory”. But if you’re talking about race and ethnicity in the game, I think it’s a view worth considering.

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