Bastion is a 2D top-down action game with a strong focus on narrative. In it, you control a little chibi boy known only as “the kid” as you explore the richly beautiful yet disturbing environment around you. The game begins with the kid waking up on a floating rock in the sky and a mysterious narrator talking as you play the game. As you run around and explore, chunks of land fly up and come together underneath your feet. The effect is very striking and certainly piques one’s interest about the strange world the game takes place in.
The narrator points out that the eerie void and floating land are the aftermath of some disaster he calls “the calamity.” And in Caelondia, the ruined city where the kid lives, there was a safe haven where everyone agreed to meet in case of trouble: The Bastion.
|Right out of the gate, everything seems bad.|
Supergiant Games actually pulled back the curtain and allowed news site Giant Bomb an unprecedented look at the development of the game. Typically, the public doesn’t see a game until it’s polished and pretty, but anyone can go take a look at what Bastion looked like before an artist was even hired for the team. I definitely recommend checking out the video series for anyone interested in what it’s like for a small team to make a project like this.
Bastion benefited greatly from having a small core team of only about 4-5 people. From start to finish, it feels like a product that had very specific goals in mind, and a small team of people each working on a singular goal and nothing else. For instance, virtually all the visuals in the game were created by a single person, Jen Zee, which leaves the game with a very cohesive yet creative and unique visual style. I believe that the larger the team of artists there is working on a single game, the more generic the game’s visuals will become, since each artist will strive to homogenize their ideas in an attempt to make it blend together with the rest of the project.
|It’s hard to believe that all these assets could be generated by one person, but Bastion has made me a believer in the idea of giving everybody on the team an enormous yet singular task for the project.|
The main reason I wanted to do a case study of this game, though, is the strides it takes in narrative driven games. Video game stories are terrible. But every now and then, a game comes along that seems to figure out what makes storytelling in video games a fundamentally different art from other mediums. Chiefly, and perhaps most obviously, that the player is interacting with the world and can make choices. Bastion is a game that realizes this and constantly gives the player the opportunity to make choices. They don’t always have a direct impact on the story, but the game does a good job of acknowledging that you made a choice and commending you for it. Making you feel special about it. Let me give some examples.
There was a huge amount of dialogue written for the narrator that I mentioned above. He is used as a tool for acknowledging the choices that the player made. There are many games that give players freedom to do pretty much whatever they want, but don’t actually provide any feedback when you do things. Take the popular sandbox game Just Cause 2, for instance. You, the player, might decide to steal a military jet and kamikaze it into its own military base. The game totally gives you the freedom to do that. But the delicious irony of that act is hard to appreciate when the game itself doesn’t appreciate it.
So the team at Supergiant attempted to predict actions that the player would take, and use the narrator to tell the player that, “Hey, I noticed that you did that.” The first weapon you acquire in the game, a hammer, is placed amidst plenty of debris ripe for the smashing. If you hang out there and bust it all up before moving on, the narrator chimes in, “Kid just rages for a little while.” Players probably don’t even realize it, but standing there and breaking everything in sight was a choice that they made, and giving players consequences for the choices they make, even if it’s something as small as a comment made by the narrator, makes all the difference in the world. Moments like that are peppered throughout the entire game, and even though you aren’t always making choices that are going to rock the foundation of the world you’re playing in, it makes the story feel much more organic.
|The narrator will also keep you informed about the places you’ll go and the enemies you’ll encounter.|
For the size of the team and the scope of the game, there is a staggering amount of writing that was done for Bastion. Supplementary backstories, world lore, even the hints on the loading screen never seem to repeat themselves. This gets back to my previous point about small teams with specific goals. If you have only a handful of people working on a game, and one person’s job is to just write, you can bet that there is going to be a lot of writing in the game. There are no stupid video game contrivances to be found in this game like there are in so many others. All elements of the story and game world were thoughtfully considered and accounted for in game, something that sadly can’t be said for many video games.
But to only praise and analyze Bastion’s story-telling would be a disservice, because the combat is both deep and refined. Somebody somewhere spent a lot of time balancing all the weapons and abilities available to the player, and it paid off. The combat in Bastion is some of the tightest you’ll find in modern video games, and it also feeds back into the idea of the player making choices.
|Combat is intense and satisfying.|
There are a ton of unique weapons in the game, but the player can only take two with them at a time. In between levels, you can visit the armory to change your loadout, and when you do, the narrator will always have something to say about the choice you made. Every single combination of two weapons in the game invokes a comment from the narrator, usually praising you on your excellent choice. Of course, this would completely fall apart if any of the weapons was obviously “the best” choice, but it was all so carefully balanced that everyone has a different favorite weapon. Both the choice of weapons and the way they inform the way you engage in combat are choices that the game asks you to make, and when the narrator pats you on the back for the decision you made, you can’t help but feel a little special.
Bastion is a huge success, beautifully crafted in all ways. Thanks to a small team, specific goals, and appropriate scope for the game, Bastion is easily able to hang with the giants of the industry. Everyone could stand to learn a thing or two from this game, and I hope that developers take some cues from Bastion’s triumphs. I would be one happy kid if there were more games like this in the world.
Bastion is available for $15 on Steam and Xbox Live Arcade. Do not hesitate to pick it up.