Lost in the Woods: “The Last Bastion” and the Power of Robots

Overwatch, Blizzard’s juggernaut team shooter, is a game with very little narrative but well-known for its world and characters. The secret has been that instead of baking a ton of those crunchy bits into a game that is largely about competition, they’ve released several, fully animated cinematics since they announced the game two years ago. Overwatch itself is visually beautiful with an obviously talented animation team, but it’s their cinematics team that takes those brief expressions and fleshes them out. The shorts themselves range in tone from goofy to serious, but always give a whimsical Pixar-esque touch to the heroes we know so well. Their emphasis has been less on pushing forward story beats, but rather giving insight into the character’s origin stories and motivations, as well as the world they inhabit.

The most compelling of these is “The Last Bastion”, one that follows Bastion, an E-54 siege model Omnic automaton. The short is full of magic, with bright scenery and movement, deliberate and well-chosen sound design, and smart editing. However, its real strength is the tightly wound narrative that could exist independently of the game itself, a feat given that the cinematic is 7 minutes long and contains no dialogue. It’s not only a smart story but one that buried itself deep in my emotions.

The short finds us watching the lost and solitary robot being woken up in the middle of the forest by a small, yellow bird and finding the world very different from, presumably, the last time they were active. It’s a rebirth of sorts, the robot pushing out from under an overgrowth of plant life. It’s evident that some of the AI’s old protocols are still active but the real emotional grist is watching them struggle against who they are now versus what their programming is still calling for them to do, which is to continue on to the nearest city and presumably cause violence. This theme has parallels to other characters in the game, the cyborg ninja character Genji in particular: being used as a weapon is emotionally destructive.

It’s this internal conflict that also imbues the narrative with a very evident PTSD metaphor. A woodpecker hammering away on a tree startles Bastion and they revert to turret mode in defense, destroying everything in the way, including a nest that the small yellow bird was building on the robot’s shoulder. In another moment, Bastion has a literal flashback to a battle scene in which we see thousands of robots just like them battling against humanity (including Reinhardt, one of the game’s tank heroes) in the field they’re standing in. The immediate pathos of the situation was not lost on me or other people, as many people took to social media to talk about how moved they were. It was surprising to see something as simple as this story present the idea that being “broken down” by your life’s experiences didn’t ultimately mean you were a lost individual. The poor robot even reaches out to the other silent, broken units lying fallow in the field to heal them, a mark of their compassion. Bastion might be driven by the madness of his programming, but is not beyond the capacity to help others. This is reinforced again when they are then pulled back from their directive by the small yellow bird’s simple entreaty to rebuild its nest; it is something who sees their goodness underneath the violence. It’s such a simple gesture, but it works.

The hopefulness of this renewal keeps everything from being too sad, and representing this happy ending is Bastion’s newfound friend, Ganymede, as the bird is known, who shows the robot that life can be more than destroying things. It’s not surprising that it’s a creature of the woods, since Bastion’s passage through them highlights nature’s resistance to this post-Omnic Crisis world. The bird feels like the final redemptive stroke for Bastion’s confusion, as the two of them end the cinematic walking back into the forest. This idea that nature is the ultimate nurturing force, especially to robot-kind that is posed as destructive and endless, is a little weird in this time of climate change, but it works here. It’s clear from Bastion’s wonder about the splendor around them that creates a peace they have not known, which is a sharp contrast to the war we see a glimpse of in the flashback.

This is the why the cinematic rises above being just a cute animation to become something a lot more universal. While the others have action-filled plots, or are obvious cuts of the game’s in-world meat being tossed at the hungry audience, Bastion’s short speaks to something that all of us can relate to, regardless of what is being presented as lore.

This story is short and yet it says so much with the time it’s given. I wondered how it could do that for the longest time. The cynic in me says that the ability to make an audience relate to a robot’s feelings is easier than a human’s, and in many ways it is, but this isn’t a negative. Bastion’s emotions read plain on their display — red and blue — and are easier to surmise. It’s a simple binary, which is different from how we operate as people. When we imbue a person with emotions, even if they are similar to us, the hurdles to get over in order to empathize with those feelings is oddly numerous. But a robot (much like an animal) drifts out of the structures we’ve built around our hearts to keep other people out, and cuts right through. We can see ourselves in a more kinder way than we usually do as we relate to our own struggles, all because we see a robot struggling with those things. The things we consider acceptable levels of misery feel unfair when we put them inside a machine that didn’t ask for this, the burden of feeling.

I’m both a survivor of and a child of a survivor of trauma. PTSD runs heavily in my family. I don’t think it’s a hard stretch to imagine why something like this might resonate deeply with me, particularly because my dad is a veteran. Unlike the other cinematics that Blizzard has given us, I am not entranced by the story and characters being meted out to me because I’m a fan. I am emotionally compromised by the idea that Overwatch contains themes and stories, hidden behind the typical team shooter that is the actual game, that tell me that I’m okay, that I’m not a monster. Jeff Kaplan, the game’s director, has long professed that this world is one of hope, and this was one of the first times that I actually believed it — not just as an fictional ethos, but about myself.

Bastion’s journey through the woods and their own programming might be simple, might ring a little too mawkish for the hard-hearted, but I found their struggle comforting, as someone who has a tough time forgiving herself. We, robots and humans alike, might be dysfunctional, but we try so hard. It’s time to recuperate, to retreat into the forests of our own forgiveness, and of others who care about us.

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Editing for this essay was courtesy of Tyler Colp.

This essay was made possible by the members of my awesome Patreon.