If you like video games and you haven’t played Bastion yet, I highly recommend you go play it. (It should take around 8 hours, so if you’re as busy as I am I’ll forgive you if you don’t.) That said, I’m going to try and keep the spoilers to a minimum, so you should be fine to read the rest of this post before you do.
I want to compare Bastion to Transistor, its sci-fi follow-up from Supergiant.
At this point, I have to confess that I never beat Transistor. I played it for about four hours before I got bored and decided I could find a better use of my time. So take my opinions with a grain of salt. The point of this post is to try and explain why I enjoyed Bastion so much more.
Both games rely on the narrative device In Medias Res, opening somewhere in the middle of the story, then gradually revealing the exposition throughout the rest of the game.
I think this is the key reason why Bastion piqued my curiosity and delivered a compelling story, while Transistor made me feel totally at a loss while enacting a series of meaningless events.
I think there are several important factors for creating a compelling game story using In Medias Res:
- Aligning the knowledge of the player character (protagonist) with the knowledge of the audience
- Ensuring that the audience understands the player character’s motivations as early as possible
- Limiting the amount of characters the audience must meet in a short stretch
- Using primary gameplay elements to convey details of the setting (as opposed to optional or secondary gameplay elements).
By applying these criteria to both games, we can start to understand why I felt how I did about the two games.
Bastion’s protagonist is a kid who slept through the apocalypse and must attempt to restore civilization with the help of the few other survivors of the so-called Calamity. The Kid is a very relatable protagonist because his knowledge is almost as limited as the player’s: he must explore the ruins of his homeland in order to make sense of what’s happened, just as the player must connect the pieces before they start to have a solid grasp of the story’s plot. What’s more, the game immediately starts to develop his character through its constant voice-over narration. These two factors give the audience a stronger connection with the protagonist, and thus a higher degree of investment in the unraveling story.
After playing about 4 hours of Transistor, I couldn’t honestly tell you who the protagonist is, or anything at all about her motivations. This disparity between the characters illustrates my point really well. The beginning of the game tells the player almost nothing about Red’s identity or motivations, and the player is expected to play a substantial portion of the game before they understand why they are performing any of the protagonist’s actions. This kind of dissonance between the player’s knowledge and the player character’s knowledge could potentially be used to great narrative effect, but in Transistor it only serves to frustrate and confuse. You shouldn’t expect players to continue playing your game for more than a couple hours without any revelations of the greater story behind their actions in the gameplay, especially in a game so obviously focused on narrative.
After the Kid, Bastion only has three other characters, who are gradually introduced as they are discovered one at a time. Each character has a fairly simple backstory to understand, and their personalities are adequately conveyed through limited dialogue and their participation in the story.
Transistor has 14 non-player characters (according to the wiki) who don’t participate in the story directly (from what I’ve seen) and whose backstories and personalities are revealed piece by piece through cryptic bits of bio text unlocked by using special abilities. This is incredibly frustrating, because these snippets reveal almost nothing about the characters on their own, and the player is forced to view the entire cast as a meaningless list of mysterious figures for much of the game. I really can’t stress enough the importance that the player understand at least some of your characters’ motivations from the beginning. If they don’t, the player has no reason to care about anyone in your story, except the player character for the default reason that their success in the game is linked to the player’s success. The greatest failure a story can have is when the audience stops caring.
The third technique for using In Medias Res well actually appears in both games to some extent (though more in Bastion in my opinion), but it’s a much broader subject and really deserves a post of its own. Maybe I’ll return to discuss it another time. For now, I hope this analysis at least makes you think about these games and what they can teach us about In Medias Res storytelling.