Bastion – Unspoiled

This week, I sat down to play a game from my list of “Have to’s.” You know the ones, like Portal, Amnesia and SpecOps. The ones people won’t stop going on about. It’s rare that I’m disappointed by one of these games. In fact, with the exception of SpecOps, I’ve usually ended up playing them through in a sitting or two. I tried doing that with Skyrim and almost failed a class. I also ran dangerously low on snacks, but that’s another story altogether. My point is that this week, I span-up Bastion and gave it a go. And, in stark contrast to the way this usually goes, I finished the game in one sitting, then decided to play it half-way through again. Then, I slept and finished it for a second time. So, if anyone was wondering where I went for that couple of days. Yeah, that’s where. By the end of the second play-through, I had so many notes covering the four-page spread I keep by my computer that it looked like the scribbling of a mad man. In truth, that’s kind of what it was. I’d lost it, fallen absolutely in love with the game. At the end of the experience, though, I looked back and couldn’t figure out exactly why.

It wasn’t exactly ground-breaking. I’ve played games with better combat. Better graphics. More nuanced stories. I was flummoxed. So, I loaded it up again. I realized, while playing through for the third time, that I’d simply been suffering from a broken heart. I couldn’t see the positives of it, because this game isn’t something you can just pick apart and expect to hold up. Every element of it has been polished and placed with care. Like a well-made BLT, it was the combination that elevated it. In combining so well, it had created an atmosphere that drew me into its world. Once it was over, though, that world ceased to be. Then, like a rejected cultist, I was forced to sit outside and think about what I’d done. What I’d done was spent 16 hours playing a 7 hour game (give or take, depending on whether or not you do replay + and finish all the challenges). I’d lost myself in the world, but I couldn’t get that part of me back. So, all I wanted to do was criticize it.

So, that’s where we’re at now. Part of me is forever lost in Bastion. However, maybe with enough analysis and a couple snippets from its truly excellent soundtrack, I’ll be able to get through this without crying. More than the once I already did. If I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to take a page out of Bastion’s manual and rebuild myself from the shards of the game I get by killing… windbags… Does that mean I have to commit to brevity? No, that’s never going to work. Oh well, roll the dice. I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to go over everything I wanted to without ruining your experience of the game. So, I split the post in two. This one will focus on its art design and some of the game-play mechanics that interact with it. Next post, I’ll talk about its story-line, narration (<3) and the mechanics that interact with that. Then, I’m going to load up a good old-fashioned horror game and cleanse this warm-fuzzy feeling from my cartilage.

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Let’s get a little background first. Bastion is an isometric hack-and-slasher with customizable difficulty from Supergiant Games (Published by Warner Bros.) that emphasizes rebuilding your shattered world from the remains of your once-great civilization using a powerful Deus Ex Machina. As you wander through the levels, the world forms underneath your feet. However, it’s only reformations of structures and places that once were, so there are edges to it that you can fall off of. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “An isometric game about platforms that float in space that you can fall off of? That sounds like a nightmare!” And yeah, it really could have been. Knowing your precise positioning in a game like this is crucial. They didn’t have much margin for error. One tiny step in the wrong direction could have made this game an absolute pain to play, but Supergiant pulled it off without a hitch. It’s quite an accomplishment! So, let’s talk about how they did it.

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Open up the picture in a new tab. It becomes quite large, so you’ll be able to see exactly what I’m talking about. Supergiant had a couple big challenges with this game right off the designing board:

1. Creating a fleshed-out, atmospheric world with limited levels on platforms that were easy to navigate, even as they were forming up underneath you.

2. Making the characters fit into the world, while still allowing them to be easily discernible for the more hectic portions of combat.

We’re going to use that one picture as our primary example for now. Like much of the game, it features a central platform connected to others by bridges and smaller sections that appear under your feet. It’s pretty easy to tell where the edges of the larger platforms are in this one, but I want you to appreciate with me for a moment how fantastic the art in this picture is. How incredibly detailed it is without being cluttered. For the most part, it’s those details and differences that let you know where the edges are. Between railings and embossments, it makes sense from a design stand-point. That’s how you would make a bridge. That understanding helps us to define those boundaries. It’s also intuitively ergonomic. The center of each area is where most human interaction would take place, so things like barrels and benches line the outside. That all being said, it also happens to be perfect for combat.

To get from place to place, the bridge platforms form up in front of you in relation to your walking and rolling speed, so you’re never stepping out into thin air. It’s designed well enough that you soon get a feel for where you can and should not step. If you’re right at the edge and one isn’t popping up, then I’m sorry to say that nothing’s going to be breaking your fall, except perhaps the ground. I’m not even kidding, when you fall off the side, you get blasted up by a wave of tamed wind that thumps you right back on the platform again. Face-first. The wind-taming narrative mechanic is actually brilliant here, because it gives the game an excuse for getting you right back up on the platform and provides you with a primary mode of travel between levels. That way, they can stay disjointed but accessible. The timing of each fall is short enough that it doesn’t become frustrating, but it stills punishes you by taking away some of your life and breaks your combat flow a bit. It’s a lovely balance. They also give you quite a bit of leeway when it comes to being “on” a platform. You’re basically wearing snow-shoes.

For those of you that pay attention as psychotically as I do, you’ll probably have noticed that the picture features four different art styles crammed into one. Well, I say crammed… but that’s because it sounds better than masterful combined. I feel like I’ve worshipped enough for one day. The background is a beautifully detailed, high-definition watercolour. The platforms look a little more computer-rendered, but bathe in the same static art-style as the background, relying on shading detail and simple animations to bring them to life. The Kid, and the other characters you interact with, are a little more dynamic again, constantly moving to help them pop out of the background. At the very foreground of the screen is a screen-saver like effect. In this particular picture, you’ll notice leaves on the screen. They and other objects, like feathers, drift straight down to give you a thematic sense of the level. It’s kind of like how liquor commercials always feature really attractive people. They have nothing to do with the actual product, but it’s an encouraging association.

These different art designs are wrapped together by their placement. More detailed movement takes place closer to you, adding another layer to the fore-shortening perspective tricks that make up isometric geometry. They all also share a common pallet. The platforms are slightly different designs based around the same theme with colour-schemes that alter only enough to let you know they’re different platforms. Nothing bleeds into the next thing, but they’re also quite unified. Talking about pallet actually brings us neatly into character design. For this we’re going to focus on The Kid, as opposed to the stock-samurai, the tooth-paste creatures or the old guy, so let’s get a look at him…

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There he is! Sombre little guy. Now, let’s toss in one more landscape shot just for good measure.

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Notice again the criss-crossed boards and crumbling walls that define the edges. Now, take a look at The Kid. He’s got white hair (yes, they address it), darker skin, a red scarf, dark-brown boots, grey-green armor and a dark shirt. Now, look at the environment. Each and every colour on The Kid is echoed in the environment. There are hints of white everywhere and accents of red all over. The boards are similar to his skin and the lanterns reflect his armor. Without being too obvious about it, they’ve made us intuitively aware that he’s a part of this world; he belongs there. Look at his trade-mark weapon: The Cael Hammer. The handle is his hair, the head is his skin, the end of the handle is his armor and it’s even accented with a red slash. It’s basically him, but like… a hammer.

Of course, all this palette resonance might have made him difficult to see and, in an isometric game, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where your character is facing at a given moment. For hack-and-slashers, these things can be devastating, especially for the block-shield-counters. That’s why The Kid has an asymmetrical design. You’ll notice that his shoulder plates and glove stand out, so you can easily tell which direction you’re facing in terms of left or right. For forward and back, there’s a big, bloody hammer to assist you. However, there’s more to it than that. Look at the details and you’ll notice that every point on his body is accented by a bit of white/grey: hair, wrist-wrap, boots and shoulder. In combination with the dynamic quality of his idle and run animations, you’ve got the perfect recipe for a pseudo-point-light-walker. Our brain is very good at reading patterned and biological motion in these cases, and Bastion takes full advantage of that to let us see where we are in relation to the things we’re bashing over the head. Or cutting open. Or shooting. I’m not going to judge you for your combat preferences. When you run, you also leave tiny dust clouds behind you to let you know what direction you’ve come from. This, alongside a static-dynamic camera, is a big help in creating a realistic sense of motion.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got to say for the art direction in relation to game-play. The rest of it is basically going to be you applying what I’ve hinted at here to understand how the game’s art makes its mechanics more tenable and its world richer. Creating depth and atmosphere can be difficult, but if you unify everything, from the palette to the design, then you’ll have an easier time of it. Every part of a game is going to influence every other part when it’s experienced by the player, so its important to keep unity in mind during development. That’s why everything in Halo is so bloomy-shiny. That and, you know, the engine. Geeze, will you look at the time? We’ve still got plenty of space. Let’s talk combat.

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You didn’t think I was going to talk about a hack-and-slasher without at least mentioning the combat, did you? The things I’ve mentioned about the environment are inversely applicable to the enemy models. They share almost none of the same palette as The Kid, so you don’t really confuse the two. They’re mostly blue-green. However, their palette, again, reflects the environment, while small accents of brown reflect The Kid. They also move in very different ways. The ninjas dash. The gasfellas float. The scumbags… skid. So, you’ll never really lose yourself in the fray, no matter how cluster-fucky it gets. Biological motion. Yee-haw.

All of the weapons experiment with difference aspects of the combat engine. Some of them do great amounts of damage at large distances very slowly. Some quickly do a lot of damage at close range. It’s the standard play with the variables of range, speed, damage, influence on enemy placement, armor-penetration and personal manoeuvrability gambit. It’s pretty effective, too, because the levels you find each weapon on are designed to showcase their usefulness. Of course, you can switch back before too long if you don’t like the style. Each item also comes with its own training ground that you can use to improve your skill with the specific features of a given weapon. Do well enough and you’ll unlock items or special moves. Oh yeah! Each weapon also comes with its own special move that you can equip one at a time and use. They draw from a small pool of uses, but you can increase that pool by equipping Spirits. You know, like liquor but magically formulated to improve your dexterity, in stark contrast to the way spirits usually affect you. Different liquors have different passive buffs and you can equip up to ten at a time, one for each level you gain. Weapons can also be upgraded to improve and compensate for their various variable features to further fit your own personal combat style. So, combat-style is quite customizable. Each level of weapon upgrade makes you choose between one buff or another. So, you can make a really middle-of-the-road weapon or pimp yourself out for doing one thing really well. You can always change your mind for no cost at any forge, though, so you’re free to experiment.

You must be thinking that, between levels, spirits, weapon upgrades and a full range of customizable combat-styles, your enemies aren’t going to be able to stand much of a chance. You’d be mostly right. The base-line enemies are still challenging, though. They’re not going to give you a run for your money, but you’re not going to be so bored that you fall asleep mid-session. HOWEVER, you can upgrade their combat abilities, as well, by evoking the power of the Gods. One of the later buildings you unlock allows you to evoke the various idols of the Pantheon of the Gods of the old world. Each idol you evoke gives you a small money and exp bonus, but also provides your enemies with increased capabilities. You start out with only one, but you can unlock more through play or buy them at the store. It’s a sort of free-market Godconomy, if you will. So, if you’re ever feeling cocky, then take on fast, damage-resistant, randomly reflective, self-healing, occasionally invincible, heavy-hitting, enemies that injure you when you collide, don’t drop health tonics, damage you when they die and slow you with each hit. You might not be stopped in your tracks, but you’ll definitely be frustrated. Then, try the final, unlockable, Game-plus gauntlet with all those on. I assure you, it’s a challenge.

So, that’s Bastion. There’s lots more to talk about, but I think you should experience it for yourself. Next post, I’ll be talking about how its mechanics and narrative coalesce to create an immersive, or at least interactive, experience. It’s going to be a raging spoil-a-thon, though, so read at your own risk. I urge you to play the game first. It’s cheap and well worth your time. I promise you. Also, use an X-box controller. It’s just better. Take care and I’ll see you on the other side!

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