Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Games I Liked in 2011, Part Three: “Discovery”

It's been a little while, but we're still rumbling along the trail of games I really liked last year; I'm still illustrating each post with a set of posh felt-tips, and WWE All Stars is still the Greatest Videogame of 2011. But we'll get to that.

Bastion
Wheeeeeeeeeeee
A unique voice. It’s something that’s all too rare in videogames – style, look, and feel all adding up to a coherent identity that feels new and vibrant.

It’s what made Portal so special. It’s something Valve are good at, actually – look at the way TF2 built a uneven but hilarious world around a multiplayer team-based shooter. It’s the reason why people – thinking back to Psychonauts, and Grim Fandango – are excited enough about this new Double Fine project to donate three and a half million dollars towards its creation. Ico and Shadows of the Colossus have their own voices. So does World of Goo.

It’s not a long list. At best, each year will produce a fistful. Of the games that came out in 2011, Bastion’s voice came through loudest.

Which is impressive, given that Bastion is basically a tarted-up Diablo clone. It’s an action role-playing game (ARPG), which means you walk your little guy – in this case, the adorably tough, pudgy Kid – around the screen, picking up loot and clicking on baddies to make them explode, so you’ll get some experience points.

It’s even more impressive given that Bastion takes place in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, perhaps the most played-out setting in 21st Century pop culture. But the pleasure of Bastion is that it treads so close to the familiar, and then tweaks and builds on it, or introduces something completely new.

That’s obvious from the moment you set eyes on it. Bastion’s squishily-proportioned, anime-eyed characters are set against  delicately painted backgrounds. It’s beautiful in the way only game’s manuals used to be.  All of which complements a fairly unique style, which lifts a little from steampunk – it certainly shares the same unhealthy preoccupation with cogs – but equally from the illustrations in children’s books.

That combination, deconstruction, and recombination of familiar elements run through every part of the game. Not least, you know, the actual game bit. Familiar tropes are expressed in a fresh way. The rewards from levelling up turn into a brewery of switchable tonics; difficulty modifiers into a shrine to the gods; Achievements into sketchy notices, pasted on a monument to the dead. Into each and every corner, the game squeezes lore and history and, most of all, personality. They feel like a natural part of the world.

Wheeeeeeeeeeee
But they also work very neatly as parts of the game. I never felt the need to turn on any of the shrines, to make the game harder, but each unlockable modifier finds something more interesting than just “more enemies” or “less health”, and can be combined as you see fit. The way that the ground rises up beneath your feet as you explore levels is an an elegant solution to the item-rich tangents each level offers. It can be easy to lose track of where you’ve wandered already, but here, there’s a simple test – does that path lead into fresh air? Then it’s not one you’ve already trodden.

(Unfortunately, that fresh air is something you’re going to become quickly acquainted with – playing on PC, with keyboard controls, is jarringly inelegant. You see the world from a Sims-esque isometric angle which, coupled with the four directional options presented by W, A, S, and D, makes moving diagonally near-impossible.)

But it’s also a subtle hint towards the game’s thematic underpinnings. From the very first moment, as the Kid rubs his eyes and gets up, his first footsteps narrated by a mysterious voice, the world is being created right in front of him. Bastion is all about storytelling.

That mysterious voice, for example. Which belongs, it turns out quite quickly, to fellow survivor Rucks. Living on the titular chunk of earth, he provides the game with its narrative drive. And its narration. Like a kind of ethereal John Motson, he gives a running commentary throughout, in the most handsome bass rumble of a voice. He says things like:
Bastion Rucks sez 1
Rucks provides exposition, making his words the reward for progressing, taking the role often filled by experience points and levelling up, providing a reward for progressing.

Or Rucks reacts to your choices, big or small. It’s one of the things which Human Revolution missed from the original Deus Ex, actually – that sense of feedback. After a mission, you’d get congratulated on taking the sneaky route, or chastised for sneaking into the women’s toilets back at base. So little decisions, like which pair of weapons to equip, will get a fitting comment:
Bastion Rucks sez 2
Or Rucks nonchalantly hands out tips, giving a little nudge in the right direction. Or just provides colour.

It all works to consolidate the storybook feel set up by the visuals. It’s like playing a fairy tale. But, as in all the best fairy tales, there’s a hard edge to Bastion. As becomes clear in the final act.

As the story lays all its card on the table, the storytelling motif is turned on its head, to remind you how blurred are the lines between telling tales and telling lies. The wait, as lines are fed drip by drip, becomes torturous. Pauses are perfectly spaced. Vital “but…”s are left hanging. And a rather leisurely game suddenly shifts to frantic. It’s that end-of-book feeling, as you race over words – or in this case, click desperately through fights – to find out how it all ends.

Bastion isn’t a skinny game, but not a single element of it feels wasted. Everything threads together into one extremely neat whole. Elements borrowed from elsewhere and streamlined – the Bullhead Shield, which is hardly original in its ‘time the button press just right to counter’ mechanics, but is smooth and satisfying, and deserves an essay of its own. Stuff I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a game before – the way a climactic level plays with montage to give the feel of a long journey.

World-building which is never pushed in your face, leaving gaps to be filled by your imagination and real-world history. The music, which I don’t love as much as others seem to, but is sparkling and brilliant and well-used.

And then, that voice.

By which I mean the tangibly weathered voice that belongs to Logan Cunningham, who plays Rucks. But also the one that belongs to the game itself, or developers Supergiant Games, perhaps. Playing Bastion feels like discovering a major new talent, inventive and thrilling. It could be my favourite game of last year. Could’ve been, sorry – that title has already gone to WWE All Stars.
Wheeeeeeeeeeee

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.