Friday, December 30, 2011

GOTY 2011: Bastion

I've contributed to a few year-end best-of lists this year, including two for Paste (one for traditional releases, one for mobile games), one for Kill Screen (it'll be up on the site in January), and even the community vote at Gamers With Jobs. Had Bastion been released in a mobile format, it would've topped all four.

No other game released in 2011 felt as coherent to me as Bastion did, as well-executed in all phases of its design. This game demonstrated a singularity of purpose I didn't encounter elsewhere, with the possible exceptions of Portal 2 and Dark Souls. But unlike those (terrific) titles, Bastion appealed to both my head and heart. That's not surprising given the thoughtfulness and talent of the team at Supergiant Games, some of whom I was fortunate to meet at PAX East last year.

Below I discuss some of the reasons Bastion was my favorite game this year. But since they get into serious story spoiler territory, I've hidden them behind the break. If you haven't yet played the game, please do yourself a massive favor and hold off reading until you've finished it (preferably twice!). In Bastion, far more than in other narrative-heavy games, the element of discovery and reflection is incredibly important.

Ready, Kid? Let's go.

In no particular order, here are the reasons I found Bastion so remarkable.

1. It's a pretty post-apocalypse. Jen Zee's art creates lush, vibrant landscapes and stylized characters reminiscent of Jim Henson productions. As in Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal, you get the feeling that although this world is strange and magical, it is internally consistent: everything belongs where it is. Environments are varied, but in ways that serve the story, not simply for the sake of having a "snow level" or a "train level." Ryan Kuo's review describes the art in splendid detail, so check that out for a more thorough discussion. But I also think it's notable that Bastion's art creates a fairy tale atmosphere without sacrificing uniqueness or emotional weight.

2. Tension between (re)creation and destruction. Caelondia has quite literally fallen apart after the Calamity. The conceit of the world reconstituting itself under The Kid's feet is a brilliant approach to guiding player navigation and exploration, but more importantly, it's a constant visual reinforcement of your goal of rebuilding his world. Yet Bastion is an action-RPG, so naturally you spend most of your time smashing stuff. You kill many enemies that either once were human or are still human; when you discover the cause of the Calamity and your people's own culpability in it, fighting the Ura feels just like smashing pieces of the world you're trying to rebuild. There's thus a constant tension between creation and destruction that is remarkably reflective of the story's main conflict. Not many games integrate story and mechanics in such a powerful and focused way. Supergiant clearly understands how to exploit genre conventions to meaningful ends.

3. That voice! Logan Cunningham's virtuosic performance as narrator Rucks goes a long way toward selling the story and world without interrupting the gameplay. This is another example of Supergiant just getting it: despite the central role of story, the player is in control at all times. Turns out you can tell a great story while also delivering a great play experience. In Bastion, Rucks is telling the story, but not driving it. The constant narration could very easily have become irritating, but the dialogue is so convincingly written and delivered that it becomes its own reward; every time I played I cranked my TV's volume and shushed anyone else in the room so as not to miss a word. Yet like the conflict with the Ura, the narration cannot be taken at face value. On my first playthrough, I didn't pick up on all the subtle hints Rucks was dropping about his own role in causing the Calamity. In my New Game+, I was amazed how much more resonance the narration acquired with my knowledge of what was going to happen. It's a testament to the strength and nuance of the writing that a game as "authored" as this becomes even fresher on a second playthrough.

4. Powerful moments. The story is well-paced throughout Bastion, but what really stuck out to me were a few genuinely poignant moments—story beats where there's a bit of a pause to highlight emotional impact. Two resonated in particular. First, there was the moment you discover the Singer, Zia, the first other survivor aside from Rucks. That alone is interesting, because until that moment it wasn't clear if there were indeed going to be more characters; suddenly The Kid's journey became a little less solitary, and thus his motivations become a little more complicated. But it was Zia's song, the simple, gorgeous blues riff "Build That Wall," that was the turning point when I started to connect emotionally with the game. I started thinking about my play experience differently, focusing more on what things meant than what I was doing. Then there was the rescue/abandonment of Zulf, after he's been wounded by the Ura. I can't express how effective this scene was. You either pick up Zulf's dying body and carry him through a gauntlet of Ura firing projectiles at you, or walk that same gauntlet alone. But in both cases, I adored the moment the Ura stopped firing at me: you could see them recognize the futility of their revenge, their realization that more death would not bring their world or people back. The player's lack of control in this sequence (you can't counter-attack) is an elegant reinforcement of that motif; it's as if The Kid is choosing to suffer this abuse as penance for the Caelondians causing the Calamity. As in any good fairy tale, the themes are universal despite the fantasy setting. This allows Supergiant to experiment with storytelling without sacrificing accessibility. And that ending! I can't believe they pulled off a conclusion that both wraps things up in a satisfying way and encourages you to immediately fire up a New Game+.

5. Evocative music. Darren Korb's score is not only one of my favorite records of the year on its own merit, but also one of the most musically evocative game soundtracks I've ever heard, serving just as crucial a role as the art in world-building. It's built on bluesy, drop-tuned acoustic guitar riffs, with occasional flourishes of banjo and sitar over fuzzy, driving drumbeats. A few memorable melodies in Phrygian mode add a vaguely Eastern flavor. All in all, the effect is at once familiar and exotic, as a fairy tale world should be. And it's so well-suited to the rhythm of gameplay that I have a hard time listening to the music without picturing moving through the game world, or wanting to pick up the game again.

6. Tight controls. One of the nicest surprises about Bastion is that it supports its many narrative, artistic, and musical ambitions with finely-tuned controls. I can't speak to the PC version, but on XBLA the game handled as smoothly as a luxury car. Although the aiming can get a little wonky for a few ranged weapons, especially the Calamity Cannon, the game is very responsive otherwise. Frankly, this was a huge relief for me, since given what I knew about Bastion prior to release, I wasn't sure how well it would handle as, you know, a videogame. But to my great delight, it's one of the few games I own that controls so well that I actually want to pursue combat challenge rewards. When your main point of comparison in terms of control fluidity is the Batman games, you've done well.

7. Accessibility/difficulty balance. Bastion is easy to pick up and play, with an intuitive, attractive UI. Yet one way it avoids becoming another clickfest action-RPG is with its novel approach to difficulty. Applying buffs to enemies to increase experience gain is interesting enough, but it's in combining these modifiers in different ways that this system shines. Doing so compels you to try out new weapon combinations and strategies, an important feature for a game with a generous selection of weapons. Weapons and abilities are expertly balanced, keeping the player feeling powerful but not overly so. The upgrade system feels natural as well, allowing you to use found items and currency to improve your equipment, but not overwhelming you with a million crafting options. And like everything else in Bastion, both the difficulty and upgrade systems are incorporated diegetically. The conceit of the idols to adjust difficulty is particularly elegant, since it allows for more world-building without hammering the player over the head.

8. Restraint. Other RPG developers, please take note: sometimes less is so, so, so much more. Bastion does not waste the player's time (or, just as importantly, attention) with reams of arcane lore. Item descriptions are a few sentences long at most, with oblique (at best) references to past events. Because of the narration, a full picture of Caelondia emerges without the need for obnoxious audio logs or in-game text. This works primarily because Rucks' lines are written and delivered in a naturalistic style that provides exposition without trespassing into cataloging. Keeping the backstory oblique also enhances the fairy tale atmosphere, letting the mystery and ambiguity of the world shine.

So there you are: my pick for Game of the Year, 2011. It's not, erm, stretched out over multiple posts this time around. (You're welcome.) But for the many ways Bastion demonstrates a thoughtful, emotionally affecting integration of storytelling and gameplay, it's my top choice.

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