Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bastion: Arthouse Gaming Joy

Seems like most of my gaming time this year has been on the indie scene, at least if you ignore that whole "World of Warcraft addiction" thing I had going on. It's not to say that there haven't been great mainstream, big budget titles around, just that I've found myself more enticed by the choppier waters of small development teams for most of the year, largely due to the siren lure of regular Steam sales. "Indie" is a big category, and somewhat hard to define, including breakout one-man hits like Minecraft, to games produced by fairly large teams aiming at the cheaper end of the market. All that really seems to link them together is the broad cost of the game, a digital distribution model, and a pleasingly common desire to take a bit more of a risk than the typical "man shoots gun at aliens" blockbuster games seem to want to.

Sometimes the risk is just to make something with a smaller sales base - open world building games like Minecraft and Terraria are never going to be selling out at Tescos, for instance - others are genre-mashups like Sanctum and the just-released Dungeon Defenders, and some are just flat out arthouse games.

Like Bastion.

At heart, Bastion is a pretty simple game. You move around linear levels that unfold in front of you, using either a ranged, melee or special attack to dispatch enemies of a fairly narrow range of types until you reach the end, kill a boss encounter and then head back to the hub world. You pick up cash that can be used to upgrade weapons, unlock additional items and features, and gain exp that lets you equip more power boosting tonics. Each level you complete lets you add another building to the hub world and later upgrade those buildings. Um. Thats about it.

What makes Bastion special? Well, like so much else, it's the execution.

First of all there is the look of the game. Bastion is gorgeous to look at and the screenshots I've got don't really do it justice. Everything has this hand-painted look to it, which is delightful, and as you move around the levels they literally build themselves in front of you, a simple yet evocative way of showing you the path onwards. Sure there isn't a lot of mob types but they're likewise lovely to look at and fit well into the environment. Everything is lush and vibrant and like playing through a painting, which is quite an acheivement.

The second is the voice-over. The game is narrated by one of the NPCs, with his lines keyed to what you are doing on the screen - not simply where you are, but if say, you fall off the edge, he'll comment, or occasionally break stuff, he'll comment. Not sarcastically, just gently, and wisely (which is ironic, as it turns out) and slightly comfortingly, and crucially he never repeats himself. There is however enough dialogue that it feels like he's talking to you constantly, as you move through the levels, and I've no idea how they balanced it so well, but they did. The kid's story is told cleanly and elegantly and yes, the game is pretty linear but it flows. If you're going to have a game on rails, these are the sort of rails I'm happy to be on.

These all tie together to make the final strength of the game, which is simply that it makes you care. The story is simple, but like the design and voice-over that simplicity is a strength, and has a power to it that at the end, when faced with the ultimate decision of what to do with the fate of the world, it feels meaningful even though all you're really choosing is which cutscene to watch.

I've used the term "arthouse" because really it's the "art" of Bastion that makes it work. It is a fairly simple game in many ways, and mechanistically there really isn't anything you've not seen before, many times. But the packaging transcends that - the skill in this game is that delivery; the art work, the music, the storyline, makes it a game that in some ways isn't interested so much in the gameplay but interested in telling you a good story that you care about.

And the joy of the indie gaming sector at the moment is simply that you don't get experiences like Bastion anywhere else.