Inaugural Post! A personal favorite – Bastion!
Bastion is a game that evoked some emotional responses from me, a feat that very few games have pulled off in my lifetime. I felt loneliness, sadness, joy, anxiety, despair, anger, mirth, and hope, all while playing this quirky little indie game. Bastion came out in the summer of 2011, so it is fairly recent. It received a lot of praise and awards, and actually deserved the vast majority of them.
Bastion has you play as The Kid, a boy or man of indeterminate age, although the game leads me to believe that he is between 19 and 25. You explore a jumbled up and mostly ruined world that is now in pieces and floating in the sky following an anomalous Calamity, and you journey to find survivors while trying to protect the Bastion, which is the last remaining safe place for humanity. However, for a ruined world, you may find that it is exceptionally colorful. All of the art in this game is hand-painted, and that stuck out to me as unique and cool, a very nice touch. It isn’t fair, though, to deride bigger budget games for not doing this, though, because Bastion is a much smaller game in scale than most of the mainstream games of the past few years, and also uses an isometric point of view and fixed camera angles. It is important to note that this little bit of beauty and originality wouldn’t work for most games. This is something I will be saying a few more times in this review.
Whenever I hear people talk about this game, they almost always mention the fabulous voice acting. The main VA (and in fact, the only one for the majority of the game) is a man named Logan Cunningham, who voices a man named Rucks, your guide and constant friend throughout the game. He dynamically narrates what happens to the Kid, while the Kid stays quiet and focuses on fighting the hordes of people, animals, and a few things in between that are out for his blood. It seems to most people that this constant narration is love-it-or-hate-it, but I found it to be so interesting and refreshing that I couldn’t imagine disliking it.
A side product of this solo narration, by the way, is an almost complete lack of cutscenes throughout the entire game. This is a positive idea, and I feel like they didn’t even plan it that way. The game just shows and tells you everything you need to know while you play it, and the control is almost never taken away from you. You lead the Kid everywhere, even just around the Bastion to choose upgrades and customize your weapons. Again, it is important to note that this little bit of beauty and originality wouldn’t work for most games, mostly due to the fact that recording all the possible audio for Bastion is a far less exhausting task than recording all the possible audio for, say, a Final Fantasy game, and yet still avoid cutscenes.
The gameplay is simplistic, but definitely not simple. You have to be quick with your dodges and strategic when picking what combo of two (out of a pool of eleven) weapons you want to take with you. In showing this game to my friends, I noted that almost everyone had a different favorite combo, and I think that’s a great sign, because it means the game supports almost any attack strategy you might want to use. Besides just picking your weapons, though, each weapon has 5 different upgrade choices, allowing for someone to, for example, have a Scrap Musket focused entirely on knocking enemies away, rather than murdering them. So while this game is easy to learn to play, there are plenty of choices to keep you occupied. Even the Bastion itself gives you options of what structures to build first, and then later, upgrade. This allows you to focus on the bonuses you want first, and different people can choose entirely different paths.
Choice is important to me as a gamer, and I think it should be important to you too. If you aren’t given any choices, how can you put yourself into the situation and enjoy the temporary suspension of disbelief this game is offering you? Not that linear games can’t be fun, but I just think it’s better when you can decide how to approach a problem, even if the final result is always the same.
The music is possibly the best part of Bastion, each track reflects the world around you and the situation at hand. The game ‘s soundtrack is actually available for purchase, and it is some of the best video game music, and in fact music in general, that I’ve heard recently. You could definitely do worse. Now, I’m not a professional on music, and I can’t say I have a lot of experience with real critical analysis of it, so I’m going to have to skip that part. All I really want to say is that I don’t listen to hardly any other video game music OUTSIDE of the actual game, so this is unique to me. Also, Zia’s song and the song during the credits were amazing works of art, and made the credits better than even Portal’s, at least for me. The music is part of this world, and almost every single song is a winner. Once more, it is important to note that this little bit of beauty and originality wouldn’t work for most games, as some games need those rock or techno-based adrenaline building tracks to keep you in the action.
So in the spirit of fairness, let me touch on a few issues. First, I do think that Bastion is better than most of the games than came out last year, but I have to say that it is entirely different when compared to those games. Indie games can always go farther from the beaten path, it’s a product of having less expectations and more freedom in creativity. This doesn’t necessarily mean than the game is GOOD, however, and I think we can all acknowledge that there are plenty of bad indie games. Rather, Bastion is so great because it’s fresh, and original, and harkens back to a time where games could be easy and fun to play without weighing down the player with long cutscenes, samey action, drab gray and brown art, and stilted dialogue. Bastion has a very tangible richness to the setting, the world is fleshed out by every object and inhabitant, from memorials, to alcohols, to weapons and even miscellaneous items the player can find, like hair pins and chalk drawings. The game is good because the makers had a vision and followed through. Any gaming company can do that, yet so few make it to that envisioned finish line without straying off course, and that’s the real tragedy of ANY creative work, not just video games.
Next, I do need to say that Bastion is not without flaws, and I have to at least point them out to keep some credibility. The game is short, sadly, and can be very difficult when nearing the end. Some enemies do feel somewhat “cheap”, such as the flocks of tiny birds that kamikaze into you from off screen with no warning. Many of the challenge courses feel like a chore, due to their difficulty and need to be repeated if you finish one second too slowly. Luckily, those are optional. Finally, it is almost impossible to talk about the most important parts of the game while avoiding spoilers, so I have whited them out. You can highlight them to read them.
The ending of Bastion is a point of contention amongst many fans; you are basically given the choice to turn back time to before the Calamity, but no one would remember this, and people would likely continue on the exact same path, and end up causing the Calamity again. The other choice is to take the Bastion and disable this time-rewinding power, and fly the Bastion around the world, looking for survivors.End Spoilers.The characters in the game will try to convince you one way or the other, and the choice is up to you, so I won’t go into it any more than that. What I really want to say, and this is really the whole focus of this blog, is that this choice – repetition or freedom – is analogous to what we see in video game production today. Freedom in creativity comes at a cost, usually resulting in decreased faith in a project that doesn’t follow the the mold for maximum profits, and lower funding, meaning less time, or resources to work on the project with. This can result in a gem, but commonly ends in a failure, either creatively or commercially.
The flip side of this is continuously making the same games over and over, with only minor differences, and ultimately ending up at the same place. These games can be fun too, but afterwards you may feel like you’ve seen it all before (do I even need to name names?). Bastion is an example of a design that built a world, and filled it with living beings, and cultures, and music, and color, and lore, and so many other things that made it feel real and new and exciting. All of the feelings this game made me feel were from things that happened in the game, except one: hope. The hope I felt was from the existence of the game itself, it gave me hope that other creative and talented people would make their games, and they would be as enjoyable as Bastion. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s part of an industry that could use more like it.