Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sometimes, You Build the Bastion ...

and sometimes, well, it builds you."*

(*I haven't finished the game yet, but if this quote or something like it actually appears in the game, I'm high-fiving Greg Kasavin the next time I get the chance.)

Bastion demonstrates some of the best things about "Single A" games. It's simple but not oversimplified ("elegant" seems a good term). It's beautiful without requiring bleeding edge rendering tech. It makes decisions that fly in the face of conventional, big-budget industry wisdom but ultimately produce a much better game. It was made by a small team that clearly cared about creating a holistic, purposeful experience.

And it could not be a $60 retail game (or doing so would require fundamental changes that would ultimately make it a lesser game). Like Braid, World of Goo and dozens of other unusual independent games, Bastion is a success story for both the distribution model of Single A games and the audience that has grown up to support them. I see Supergiant very much as kindred spirits and their success is absolutely fantastic to see.

But what's also so enlivening is how it's clear that Bastion is the game Supergiant wanted to make. There's love in this game and it shows. This wasn't just turning the crank on another annual franchise, or a crude copy of another game's success. Rather than discuss it broadly, here are four seemingly small but actually very significant characteristics that, in aggregate, make Bastion work so well.

Small Details: When The Kid blocks a fire attack with his shield, the fire particle transforms into water. This effect is completely unnecessary. A simple "tink" sound effect would have been totally sufficient for communicating that the block was effective (as it's quite obvious when you're being hit or not). But it makes the game feel tangible and real. There are countless tiny details like this, including various moments in the narration where it's clear the game is listening for a very specific set of circumstances to play a particular line. Again, it's hardly necessary and I imagine a lot of teams would have scuttled the details at the first sign of looming deadlines. That Supergiant made these details such a priority, especially considering how small of a team they were, is remarkable.

Embracing simplicity: Bastion manages to be simple without being condescending. Given their loose action-RPG structure, it's very easy to imagine the temptation to add the usual complexities- a modal inventory, skill points, complicated weapon choices that differ only in minute detail, etc. Having made an action-RPG or two, I can confess that the kind of graceful elegant Bastion manifests is not easy to achieve. And again, it's the small details that make the difference. Whenever you run over an HP potion but you're already full, it automatically fills up your HP bar. If that's also full, you get a small XP reward instead. This encourages players to not agonize over item pickups or backtrack halfway across a level for a potion that was "left behind" after one of the stock was finally used. This decision, and many more like it, keep the game moving and flowing gracefully, without the character spreadsheet micromanagement that bogs many RPGs.

Less is more: Much has been made of Bastion's narration, so I won't dig into this too much. But what's commendable is in two narrated sentences, you've more to think about than in the five paragraphs of dry, dead exposition that characterize the world building in most games. Supergiant realize that games almost always work best when enough information is provided to engage the player's imagination, without providing so much it becomes oversaturated and drifts into autopilot. You're left curious, wondering what's going on. It's a wonderful minimalism and keeps the game moving without feeling shallow.

Grind ain't grind: Normally, I find micro gameplay goals pretty distasteful, usually because they seem like arbitrary (and obnoxiously obvious) padding. Bastion's work for me though, at least partially because they're quite a bit into the game and integrate into the game's aesthetic. You aren't nailing three creatures with a single arrow because the game arbitrarily told you to do so, it's memorial for the city's archer wardens, The Breakers. Again, it's a small thing, but it makes it obvious Supergiant actually took the time to think out those goals and bring thme under the same tent aesthetically as the rest of the game, instead of just slapping in a crude pop-up UI that says "4/15 Complete."

Similarly, the game's difficulty is managed by the player in a very interesting way. You can turn on optional difficulty modifications that change various facets of the enemies. I've only seen a handful so far, but they're relatively diverse, not just swelling them with HP or more damaging attacks. Being successful with those options activated provides a bonus of XP/currency, but they're totally optional. And they're also given an aesthetic treatment of being Herculean tasks undertaken in honour of the gods, not just checkboxes on a level load UI.
Bastion is absolutely worth your attention. It's a game that manages to hit all the details and become far more than just the sum of its parts. You can get the game or download the demo right here. Or, if you're waiting on a PC version (as I am with another Summer of Arcade release, From Dust), hopefully Supergiant will be able to release that version soon. But really, if you're at all passionate about unusual games that value a tight, purposeful and holistic experience over a laundry list of features, give Bastion just a bit of your time. I'm sure it will be worth it for you, for Supergiant, for other developers of Single A games like myself and for the audience that wants these kinds of games to exist.



Blogger Dhinanta Aloke said...

Second this. It's a fantastic game!

August 2, 2011 at 11:44 AM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

Third, a fantastic game. I played it at my friends house and fell in love with it. The narration of the game adds a level story that most games lack. I am picking this game up once I finish through the games I got in this years humble bundle. Great post!

August 3, 2011 at 9:33 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Dhinanta, Gaming in Public Great to hear it's getting such a positive response across the board!

August 4, 2011 at 8:01 AM  

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