2011 was an unparalleled year for indie games, but I only had eyes for one. Bastion. The Binding of Isaac, The Stanley Parable, To the Moon, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP were all critical darlings, each of them paved the way for hundreds of experiences to come. It was also the time when Humble Indie Bundles were my sole approximation to what was happening in the scene outside the mainstream lens, serving as curated libraries to discover and explore new worlds.
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Spoilers for Bastion, Transistor and Pyre to follow.
One of Bastion’s biggest standouts is the way the story unravels itself, told in cycles that the player navigates over and over. Bastion always returns to the same place, but it’s never stuck in it. We’ve seen this time and time again with Supergiant Games, most recently with the superlative Hades, but this is an ethos that started ten years ago with Bastion.
As soon as the narrator spoke the first few lines of many, I was intrigued. When I heard Zia sing ‘Build That Wall’ in Prosper Bluffs, one of the corners of Caelondia, I knew it was something special. It was the first instance where a game made me stop in place, and just get lost in the moment.
With Cael Hammer and Dueling Pistols, I cleared a tide of enemies as I slowly rebuilt the Bastion under the promise of reversing the Calamity – a catastrophic event that had destroyed Caelondia’s streets and most of the townsfolk that used to inhabit them. I was equally angry and sad when I found out it was the same people that had triggered the apocalyptic event.
The Calamity was a weapon targeted at the Ura, a human race that had fought a war with the folks at Caelondia decades before. After a failed genocidal attempt to prevent this from happening again, only a few remnants of the world survived the consequences. And we’re caught in the midst of things, trying to put this fractured world back together, amend for past mistakes. And at the end of Bastion’s story, you’re given the choice to do just that. But an alternative presents itself: what if you carry on instead?
I didn’t get to know the answer to that question until many years later. During my first playthrough, I chose to undo the Calamity. This meant forgetting every experience the Kid had lived through, in the entire course of the game — including his memories and the faces of the people he met. I was satisfied with that ending back in 2011.
It wasn’t until I returned to the main menu and started New Game+ out of curiosity that I realised what had truly transpired. One of the last things the Narrator tells you before the restoration is that ‘he hopes to see you in the next one’. I wasn’t expecting to hear those words in the background when I started NG+. I wondered how it was possible for them to fall into the same mistakes again. But perhaps this was the second chance for the Kid to set things straight. He had retained a reminder of what was to come out of the previous cycle, now living as a fuzzy voice in the back of his mind. We, as the player, can act upon it. But I didn’t understand this until much later on.
The decision to undo the Calamity followed me across all three future games from the studio. When Transistor came out in 2014, I was curious about how the story would unfold. Red’s journey through Cloudbank had nothing to do with Kid’s at first glance, but I knew I wouldn’t know for certain until I hit the end credits. To my surprise, there was no choice to be made. Red had already made her mind before then. But when I started New Gam+, the first line of the game from the Transistor was spoken by someone else. A shift in the beginning had once again changed everything.
Transistor goes one step further from Bastion’s initial idea, altering both gameplay and narrative beats. The environments are affected sooner, the tutorial is glitched for a brief sequence, and one of the boss encounters takes a grim turn, altering what we hear of the character as well as a distortion in the song in the background. Both games have a lot in common — the foundation set by Bastion is tangible in almost every corner — but there’s no alternative here to prevent the cycle from beginning anew.
But what if the cycle was part of the story from the very beginning? This is showcased in Pyre, where characters are trapped in a mythical purgatory. Here, the so-called Liberation Rites grant the protagonist triumvirate, The Nightwings, a chance to compete for freedom. Both they and the opposing trio choose one person of their groups to fight for absolution each time. The victor gets to return home, while the rest stays until the next Rite. For them, the cycle continues.
Looking at Supergiant’s track history, the roguelike Hades was an obvious next step. After witnessing what the three previous games had achieved with their stories, I was hesitant, but I gave it a try anyway, and I’m glad I did. Hades is a narrative playground where Supergiant was able to give it all once again, freeing the developer from the confines of a linear structure. This sprawling underworld is free to loop back again and again, as the story grinds onwards.
Looking back at Supergiant’s back catalogue, you can see how all games return to Bastion. You can find traces of Kid’s journey anywhere from Cloudbank to the House of Hades. There is always a protagonist willing to stop at nothing to accomplish their goal who, at some point, faces a point of no return. There’s always a main character that goes above and beyond to try and earn a second chance, but finds that past decisions don’t take long to catch up to them. The protagonist – and you, as a player – keep borrowing time until you realize being stuck in the past prevents you from moving forward.
In Transistor, you’re already at the point of no return, and can’t do anything to change Red’s outcome in the story. It is, after all, hers. In Pyre, you first act carefree about your decisions, knowing the cycle will always begin anew. But it’s in the moment where the curtain is lifted and you face reality that your decisions all fall onto you at once — the ones that came before, and the few you have left.
Hades, then, is about carrying on despite what the cycles present upon us. Everyone gets to live with their actions, and actually deal with the consequences. But that doesn’t mean you can’t continue forward, to try and amend them, no matter how many times it takes.
Ten years later, I understand Bastion’s message. We don’t get the chance to undo past actions, despite how much we wish to go back and get lost in a moment again, even knowing that it will inevitably come to pass once more. Cycles may begin and end — but there’s always the next one.
Diego Arguello is a freelance writer and occasional contributor to NME. You can read the rest of the Remastered column here.