Bastion: Thermodynamics, Entropy, and the Physics of Fantasy

If you’re at all a follower of indie games, you’ve probably at least heard of Bastion—the isometric, hack-and-slash RPG from Supergiant Games that quickly after its release in 2011 went on to become one of the most popular and acclaimed indie games of all time. While known for many things, Bastion’s most distinctive component (for most gamers, at least), is likely its stellar art design and soundtrack, which together create one of the most memorable environments I’ve ever explored in a game. Its combat as well is cathartic and fun and occupies the perfect difficulty level for such a game: never easy enough to feel vestigial, but never hard enough to become frustrating. In every mechanical and artistic aspect (not to mention its fantastic writing and ear-wormy narration), the praise is well-earned; Bastion is a fantastic game, and—if you’ve never played it—well worth the time and money.

But as the title of this post might suggest, I’m not here to talk about Bastion’s already well-catalogued merits as a game; I’m here to talk about its writing, and, in particular, how its plot is secretly about physics.

Now let’s take a journey down the rabbit hole.

First, a bit of background. No doubt you’ve heard of Newton’s Laws of Motion and have some notion of the physical rules and limitations that govern the natural world. You may have even heard of the First Law of Thermodynamics (though you’ve more likely heard it referred to as the Law of Conservation of Energy), which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed in form.

Here, however, it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics that Bastion’s plot revolves around, and to understand it we need to talk a little more about energy. In popular culture, energy is usually thought of as a tangible thing—as electricity arcing through the air, as a force-field surrounding an object, or as bright red flames shooting out of a superhero’s palms. But in physics, that’s not entirely correct; energy is actually a quality of a system, not an entity that exists by itself. In particular, it is the capacity of a system to do “work,” or, in simpler terms, to change in some way.

The Second Law in Thermodynamics describes the process of such work; it states that the total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time. Entropy is, in a physical sense, a measure of the organization of energy—in other words, as energy is used to alter a system, it becomes less and less organized. More highly organized forms of energy include that stored in chemical or atomic bonds; the least organized form, and the eventual end-state of all energy, is heat.

Now, where Bastion really comes in is in the second half of that law: the isolated system. If a process is kept in a vacuum, entirely alone, its entropy will only ever increase. However, we can decrease entropy locally by various methods—mainly by bringing in other sources from outside that system (like eating food, which our bodies then convert into other forms of energy).

If you’ve played Bastion, you might now realize where I’m going.

At the beginning of Bastion’s plot, you wake up in the ruins of a city called Caelondia in the aftermath of the Calamity: a world-scale apocalypse that wiped out most earthly life and left most human settlements and structures as piecemeal ruins hovering high above the ground. As an unknown voice narrates your journey, you make your way to a mysterious, floating apparatus called the Bastion—a place to which the citizens of Caelondia were told to flee after such a disaster.

Once at the Bastion, you’re directed by the owner of the voice, an older man named Rucks, to go and collect “Cores” from various Caelondian (or formerly Caelondian) outposts, all of which have also been reduced to fractured, levitating ruins inhabited by various monsters and wild beasts. This forms the main objective of Bastion: finding such Cores and returning them to your hub, where you insert them into the Monument and further power up the Bastion’s functions.

However, as the story progresses, Rucks tells you more about the Cores (and later Shards). They are, in short, a kind of natural power source. They continually produce energy (which we’ve defined as the ability to enable change), and contain “memories” of “The Land that Was”—the world destroyed by the Calamity. Before, Caelondia had used them to generate the city’s power. Now, they hold the wreckage of that destroyed world together.

And when you take them, those ruins fall apart.

Bastion is unique for a stage-based indie game; while many in that mold are platformers that encourage replayability with collectibles and secrets, Bastion’s levels literally collapse as soon as you take their cores. Every time you bring a core back to the Bastion, you cause another part of the world to crumble into an energyless mass. In other words, you increase entropy in one part of a large system (here: the world) to decrease it in another. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form—or moved from place to place.

Then, late in the game, you learn the true function of the Bastion: it was constructed in case of disaster by Caelondian scientists to act as a kind of reset switch. If powered up to its full potential with all the world’s cores, it can effectively reverse time—erasing the present world and restoring it to an earlier state (just as one might try to fix a malfunctioning computer by restoring it to a previous disk image).

Or, in essence, by collecting all the world’s energy to a central location, the Bastion can decrease local entropy to the point where it can recreate a world that used to be.

Now, as far as we know, this would be impossible to do in our reality; while increasing local entropy is fairly simple (a common example of such a process is a refrigerator, which uses electric power derived from highly organized forms of energy to prevent the decay of chemical bonds in food), we could never increase local entropy enough to recreate a more-organized world (to do so, we would have to take energy from outside the world—thereby going outside the isolated system). But as a thought experiment, it’s quite interesting. If we could draw energy from… somewhere else, what would its limits be? How much would we be able to increase local entropy? How much could be changed about our existence if we could reverse the direction of entropy—an underlying physical factor in things like aging, decay, and death?

All this is to say that while, in art, things like physics may be viewed as irrelevant outside the realm of hard sci-fi, their ideas can be quite compelling if melded into an emotionally-compelling story. Bastion couldn’t survive on plot alone; its aforementioned art design and complex, well-drawn characters are just as instrumental in its excellence as its storyline’s foundation in thermodynamics. But at the same time, for a game that ostensibly inhabits the realm of post-apocalyptic fantasy, its concepts of the transferral and transmutation of energy are grounded in a significant scientific concept. Ultimately, Bastion is a testimony that even fantasy has physics, and that science-fiction videogames don’t always have to depict a grim, cyan-soaked future saturated with nanobots, cybernetics, and transhuman augmentation.

No—sometimes, they might just be colorful explorations of what could be possible if we were to bend the rules of our reality: to take a step outside our bound, formulaic world and build our art on the strange, wonderful physics of fantasy.

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