Tuesday, October 18, 2011

-REVIEW: Bastion-
no longer a stranger

Developer: Supergiant Games
Release: $14.99 (PC, XBLA)

I’m no stranger to storytelling by strangers, but this is stranger still

I’ve already argued this once before, but narrative in games is a necessary evil at this point. Narrative as it is commonly known isn’t real narrative in games, it’s an external, imposed narrative that is actually secondary to the narrative of the gameplay itself. I won’t go into it more here because god knows I’ve written darn near enough about it already (but it’s relevant here, so I suggest you brush up on the argument I’ve made if you’ve never read it. And you will probably disagree!). The point I want to make here then is that Bastion does in fact make the best attempt in recent history to bridge this inherent chasm that exists in all modern games.

And it does a pretty darn good job of it.
Simply put, Bastion is a Diablolike. It’s not a roguelike, which is what Diablo is, but it’s a Diablolike, which means that its focus is on character progression and story as opposed to randomization or item hogging. I also say it’s a Diablolike because Diablo is particularly item-hoggy, which Bastion tends to avoid. Its story remains isometrically fixated upon the Kid, a nameless youngster with chalk-white hair and a talent with weapons of every kind. You’re smartly thrust into a gameplay from the very beginning, with a forgiving, yet dynamic introductory level that does an adequate job of fleshing out the primary mechanics with which you’ll be operating with.
The most notable thing here though isn’t the smart level design or the beautiful art (which it is, beautiful). What will immediately catch any veteran gamer’s attention is the narrator’s choice of words. They are words, firstly, but more importantly they are relevant words. Not relevant in a traditional sense, but in a more real one. Adam Saltsman posted about contrivance and design recently and mentioned the idea that all games necessarily employ contrivance as a way of “tricking” the player into investing in the world ( and yet another good example of these “true lies” or “false truths” in gaming elements is discussed here). The necessity of these contrivances have traditionally been dealt with in a number of ways, but in Bastion I believe it’s been done the best: the narrator narrates you.
Before proceeding with that particular aspect, I need to note that other than this single innovation, Bastion is unspectacular in terms of gameplay. While it does have an ample variety of weapons and a thoughtful (but not restrictive) means of balancing your access to them, by and large Bastion remains merely above-average in most respects. What places it in a greater category, narrative excluded, is its approach to art and aesthetic, of which there are few games which have used color and hand-drawn assets as effectively. It’s a beautiful game to behold, but only a rather standard game to play. It’s a good piece of design.
Now, what pulls this above-average game into “must-play” territory is the narration. The key difference in Bastion, and thus its primary hook, is the fact that the narrator dynamically adjusts his narration to fit your actions in the game. While it sounds great, this vague approximation easily overstates the actual impact of this element. It’s hard to be equanimous about it largely because it is a very new way of narrating, and thus our descriptions emphasize its novelty and not necessarily its impact. So here I’ll try to be clear: Bastion’s narrator is a step in the right direction. It’s not the be all-end all of games narratives, but the way that the narrator is used is perhaps best put as “non-contrived”.
Even though all of the Stranger’s lines are undeniably scripted, the elegance and ingenuity with which they are triggered is the key to the magic. Supergiant games knows players as well as it knows games, so while the game itself is (once again) a fine game, it is propelled into new heights and is using this knowledge of players to genuinely push the general element of play there too. This is what video games are capable of. This is the type of vision and foresight that modern technology can take advantage of. To be sure, it is no substitute for a real-life dungeon master that indeed narrates your every move and consequence with humanly accuracy, but it is a single, giant step in the right direction.
For fear of spoiling anything, I won’t copy phrases used within the game. Just know that when you play this game, there will be moments where you may find a smirk crawl uncontrollably from one cheek to the other, or hear something so…authentic that your eyes gape in unison with your mouth. And eventually, as these moments continue to surprise and delight, you will find yourself doing what you normally do in any good video game: enjoying yourself, and not really caring why.

Bastion: for the good of all things good, that things may get better.