Subject: So I've been (re)playing Bastion (and want to bang on about Hades and Braid, too)
Posted on: 2021-06-28 02:47:32 UTC
"Proper Story's supppsed to start the beginning. Ain't so simple with this one."
In 2008, as part of the inaugural Xbox Live Summer of Arcade, Microsoft released a game called Braid, made by a single man by the name of Jonathan Blow (although he contracted out the art and licensed the music from elsewhere). Blow complained a lot about the certification process and said he never wanted to release anything on XBLA ever again, but that was after an opening week where Braid sold 50,000 copies and at a point Blow was making money off the game at an alarming rate, so it's possible he was lacking a little in perspective.
We're used to it now, but that was a big deal at the time. In 2008, games by single creators or small teams didn't do those kinds of numbers. And if they did, they were free flash games or something, not commercial products you made money off. Braid wasn't the first indie game to be a hit on Xbox Live—The tough-but-fair puzzle-platformer N+ had released earlier that year, and Castle Crashers released in the very same Summer of Arcade Event—but by virtue of its incredible sales and glowing critical reception Braid was seen as sort of the opening shot on the big Indie Renaissance that continues to this day. And while Xbox Live Arcade was a carefully guarded ecosystem and it could be tricky to get your game through the gates, it was a heck of a lot easier than getting onto Steam back in those days (crazy, I know), the tight control over releases meant that you were more likely to get attention when you launched, the size limitations were much more generous than Nintendo's comparable WiiWare system, and getting in meant advertisements for your game may well land right on the dashboard of users of the single most popular console amongst core gamers (read: people who owned non-Wii consoles) in the west. Under the circumstances, it's unsurprising that XBLA became the place to release your indie game if you could manage it, with developers lining up around the block to sign Microsoft's timed exclusivity deal in order to get in the gates. If you played games on PC, you probably remember this era for the fact that there are a lot of really amazing games by indie developers that got pretty terrible PC ports. Which you would buy anyways, because Xbox Live was landing instant-classic indie hit after instant-classic indie hit.
I'm prone to exaggeration, but this isn't one. Not every indie game of the late 2000s and early 2010s was born on XBLA, but most of the ones you remember were: Super Meat Boy, Limbo, Mark of the Ninja, Dust: An Elysian Tale, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Fez, BattleBlock Theater, and Spelunky, just to name a few.
But I'm not here to talk about any of those. I played a lot of them, everybody did, but I never owned an Xbox, and I came to them late. They don't hold any special place for me.
Well. Except for one.
"Ground forms up under his feet as if pointin' the way. He don't stop to wonder why."
The story of Supergiant Games begins right around the time that Command and Conquer was really starting to suck. Amir Rao and Gavin Simon were working at EA Los Angeles on Command and Conquer (it's not specified which one, but probably Red Alert 3 and maybe Tiberium Wars prior to that) before they finally made the decision to quit and go indie in 2009. Considering the next game on the docket for the C&C team, this was probably great timing from a I-very-much-want-to-stop-working-here perspective, but it's possible I'm just reading too much into thing. It was also great timing for another reason: As the 2010s wore on, indie studios would become more and more prevalent. Because they started when they did, the game that would become known as Bastion launched in 2011, when the very idea of an indie game was still kind of novel, and the market was a lot less crowded. It was much, much easier for a new studio to get attention.
Going indie was, however, a massive undertaking and a huge risk. The days when you could work as a game dev by day and moonlight competing with your employer were long gone. Rao and Simon saved up their money, moved into a house together (...Actually I think they might have taken over a room in one of their parents houses) and hoped to god that they'd have a success before the money ran out. Their plan was to make an action RPG where you'd actually build the world, with a lot of character customization. But while they had talent and experience that would help them design a fun game and program it, they couldn't do everything in their own. They contracted out some of the programming, got some rudimentary art assets, and set about searching for talent and calling in whatever favors they could. Former GameSpot editor in chief Greg Kasavin had done some producing work on C&C back at EA—he was pulled in as head writer. An artist named Jen Zee was hired, I believe, from a job posting to polish up the existing art and draw some new stuff. Amir's childhood friend, Darren Korb, had done modest work on TV and film and headed up an indie band, so he got called to do the soundtrack. Darren, in turn, had a friend and roommate, Logan Cunningham, who was an actor (he'd landed some minute background roles in a handful of small projects). When the team decided they needed some voicework for the game, Logan was a natural pick to audition. And when a female singer was needed, Korb got a collaborator, Ashley Barrett, to lend her voice. I'm listing and detailing all of these people because every single one's work and style would become a hallmark of Supergiant's games going forward. Zee's art, Barrett's singing, Cunningham's acting, Korb's music, and Kasavin's writing are as if not more important to the studio's success as any polish on the gameplay side of things, and they collectively form the distinct style and aesthetic that makes each Supergiant game feel... well, Supergiant. This is a company that makes stylish isometric action games with rich stories, vibrant artwork, beautiful music, and some of the most incredible and memorable voice work in gaming. That is their Thing, and it has been their thing from day one.
Bastion launched in 2011 as part of that year's Xbox Live Summer of Arcade. It was met with critical acclaim and a reasonable level of success, which meant Supergiant got to stay open and make more videogames (never a sure thing in the indie world). And in 2020, they released Hades, the roguelite isometric action-RPG sensation that took the world by storm with its rich story, vibrant artwork, beautiful music, and some of the most incredible voice work in gaming.
I'm really, really happy Hades is getting the success it that deserves, but I'm also slightly annoyed that the rest of the world didn't pay attention sooner because Supergiant have always been amazing. See, I don't enter this story here. I enter this story in 2012, at the tender age of 11, when, with a freshly built Linux PC (uruk's very first incarnation, although that wasn't what I called it at the time—yes, I name my computers after people and places from mythology), when I payed $7 for the Humble Indie Bundle V. I feel like people don't remember what Humble used to be like, now that it's sold out so hard, but back in the days when Steam for Linux was an impossible madman's dream that would never happen in a million years, the Humble Bundle was not only a great way to pick up a bunch of the hottest new indie games for a bargain, it was the lifeline for Linux gamers, because every game in every bundle would get a Linux port of some kind. Honestly, I mostly bought the bundle for Psychonauts, but when I played Bastion for the first time, I knew it was something special. Even though my video card was so bad thst the game ran so slow the hammer was useless and unfun and all the walk cycles looked like they'd been designed for moon gravity. I couldn't tell. It was awesome.
However, I never beat Bastion as a kid. My save file was wiped when I was pretty far in, so I sorta fell off. And so, with 100+ hours of Hades under my belt, I set off to do what child me didn't and replay Bastion. This time, to finish it.
"He lands on a Breaker's Bow, and it ain't broke."
Bastion has fairly immediately aged badly in one respect: it runs like garbage. Screen tearing, framedrops in a game with visuals that don't warrant it, it's not unplayable, but coming back from Hades to this it's rough. The other thing that's a little rough is the artwork. It's still beautiful, and vibrant as ever, but Supergiants later games kind of outshine Bastion in this respect, and while it absolutely holds its own on style, there are places where it feels rough around the edges.
Mechanically, the game absolutely holds up, though. If you're coming from Hades, it's fascinating, because a lot of elements of Hades kind of have their origins here (speaking as someone who came to Hades from Bastion, it kind of felt like Supergiant were going back to their roots in a way). You'll see elements of Hades' Stygius in Bastion's Cael Hammer, and as a Varatha user it didn't take me long to get back into the swing of things using the shorter-ranged but similar War Machete. Coronacht is almost just straight-up the Breaker's Bow, and Exagryph bears a striking resemblance to the Fang Repeater. There's no direct analogue for Aegis, as Bastion's Bull's Head Shield is always on the player and has the sole offensive capability of reflecting damage if you press block riiiight at the instant the attack comes in. Nor does Bastion have any exact analogue for Malaphon. It does however have a lot of weapons with no analogue in Hades, like the Dueling Pistols, the Scrap Musket, the Army Carbine, the Brusher's Pike, the Flame Bellows, the Galleon Mortar, and so on. But even when the weapons you use are nearly identical, there are a lot of differences in how Bastion plays that mean the games feel very different. Hades is a roguelike, Bastion isn't, and Bastion replaces the whole random boons system with a much more in-depth customization system. As you gain levels, you gain passive buff slots, and each weapon can be upgraded five times, which each weapon level having two different buffs that can freely be swapped between when you choose your loadout, so depending on your upgrades a weapon can feel very different. While Hades gives you one weapon with a main attack, a dash attack, and an alt fire, a cast ability that can be changed by boons, and a super powerful call ability on a meter, Bastion lets you hold two weapons at once, each with a single attack, as well as a shield and one special skill, which can only be used three times before you need get more of the item that refills your meter. Bastion also gives you limited healing items that you can have on-hand, while in Hades healing is a lot harder to come by. Bastion is a slower game with a short dodge roll, Hades is a faster one with a longer evasive dash. None of these are good or bad changes. They're just different.
It's also fascinating to see the origins of other Supergiant staple gameplay elements and smaller parts of Hades. Players coming from Hades will recognize the Shrine as a predecessor to the Pact of Punishment, a way for experienced players to make the game harder for themselves and increase reward. The memorial and its rewards-for-achievements system pretty clearly became the Fated List of Minor Prophecies. And while Hades has no weapon levelling system, the ability to freely swap between two different bonuses for each upgrade level is more than a little similar to the way Hades' Mirror of Night works.
And there's one other element I've been... deliberately edging my way around while I talk about the gameplay.
"Sure enough, he finds another. He finds me."
What defines Bastion more than anything else is Logan Cunningham's performance as Rucks, the somewhat grumpy narrator of your adventure. He's an ever-present companion, telling your story even as he fills in worldbuilding. And while Bastion is brimming with personality from the graphics to the soundtrack, Rucks... manages to still be something else. Just listen to his introduction to the soundtrack. And that doesn't convey it all because the really impressive thing is that there are hundreds of unique lines of dialogue that can trigger on all kinds of different things you might do, all of which really make it feel like Rucks isn't reciting a story, he's telling your story, the story of the game that you are currently playing. If there is one thing you remember of Bastion, Rucks is probably it. He's shown up in DotA2 as an announcer, and his narration was explicitly parodied in SAO Abridged (warning: NSFW).
Although since I mentioned the introduction to the soundtrack... I should talk about that. Darren Korb described it as "accoustic frontier trip-hop." I would describe it as "exceptionally catchy and listenable." I got the soundtrack with my copy of Bastion, and it's been a mainstay of my study playlists for over half a decade. It mixes heavy use of samples and electronica with acoustic elements to give that southern, bluesy Vibe that permeates the music. "In Case of Trouble", the sort of main theme, is the defining track in terms of aesthetic, but there are too many standouts for me to pick just one. "Bynn the Breaker", with its heavy electronic elements and slow, methodical rhythm, "The Sole Regret", with its contemplative, strings-driven melody (may or may not be guitar... it's hard to say). "Terminal March", a perfect boss theme with the kind hard-hitting "waves" to it I like in that sort of song. "Faith of Jevel", an incredible contemplative track. "Slinger's Song", which brings all those southern influences to the fore (Korb's said Led Zepplin was one of his influences, curiously enough). "Spike in a Rail", "Brusher Patrol", "The Mancer's Dilemma", the heart-wrenching "Mother, I'm Here" (designed as a possible in-universe funeral song)... I wanted to list the highlights, but I've gone and rattled off half the soundtrack. I feel like that's a recommendation in and of itself. The soundtrack is on most streaming services and can be bought through Steam, Bandcamp, or most other places music is sold, and it comes as highly recommended as the game itself.
The astute who have already listened to this soundtrack or played the game might have noticed I left a song off the soundtrack that seems to deserve a place there.
That was by design. Because that song is special, and it stands apart.
"So build that wall, and build it strong"
I'm going to talk about the story of Bastion now. I'm... trying keep things vague, and not reveal the main plot, but I'll be spoiling side and background elements here. So if that bugs you... you might want to skip this part.
If you're paying attention, you can usually Just Tell when a work cares about its worldbuilding. There are clues the work gives you. The biggest one is when the things you don't question about the setting are explained. Bastion an action RPG set in post-apocalypse where the city-state of Caelondia (and possibly the world) has been destroyed by an unspecified magical Calamity, that's thrown the whole world into the sky. The ground materializes under your feet as you walk, but the streets are twisted, many of the people turned to stone, and everything is... off. It's a lonely world, but the rich art and writing (With Rucks telling you a little bit about all the people you meet) make it feel lived-in, like there really was something here that was destroyed. A lot of other games would have the Calamity summon... zombies or whatever. But Bastion justifies its combat in a different way: The enemies you face aren't zombies. They're animals. Scared, hungry, frightened animals. Service creatures, common pests, and later on dangerous wildlife as you venture further beyond the city. They won't even all attack you. This is a brilliant touch. It makes sense, it contributes to the lonely atmosphere, and it's all around excellent. But eventually you do face other people. I don't want to spoil how or why, suffice to say they more than have their reasons to want to kill you. But once again, the game does something brilliant. When you defeat any enemy in Bastion, the sprite fades away, which is common in videogames, as it saves resources. Except humans. Humans fall to the ground, dead. And their bodies stay there. To remind you of what you've just done. This isn't Doom. Your fight isn't glorious. You are doing it because it's you or them. But they are not bad people. They are hurt, and scared, and angry, and their deaths make this already fractured world lesser.
Bastion doesn't feel like it came out in 2011, because according to The Masses, videogames didn't do political commentary in 2011. It's never been more clear how untrue that was when Bastion has the third survivor you find come along singing this. "This" is "Build That Wall (Zia's Theme)", and it is the best song on a soundtrack I just spent a whole paragraph praising. And it is a war song, a threat from one culture to another. And the easygoing melody belies a bitterness that comes a long history of percieved injustices and fights between one culture and another. The Caels, who came to this land across the sea, and the Uras, who live underground, had only ended the war between each other a short time before The Calamity struck. It was a war born from... seemingly mutual resentment and cultural incompatibilty, but more directly from very real theft. The Caels took Point Lemaign as their own and set about running a railway to get the natural resources back to the city. As Rucks himself put it, they "didn't exactly ask the Ura for permission."
The singer of that song is Zia, a Caelondian-born Ura girl. She never knew her people. And although the war had ended, Ura refugees and their descendents inside of Caelondia weren't permitted to return to the Tazal Terminals. Too much concern that they might bring back secrets with them, see...
I don't think it's exactly hard to draw parallels. Nor do I think Greg Kasavin is particularly subtle about his sources of inspiration for this particular tale (I mean, I don't know, I've never asked him, but I feel like the real world influences aren't hard to guess). But the historical influences and the care and humanity the everyone is portrayed with gives Bastion a weight that most fantasy settings don't have, without taking away the fantasy aspects. This world is undeniably alien. I want to see what a day in Caelandia or the Terminals, pre-Calamity, would be like, because I know it wouldn't be like anything on earth. But at the same time, I can absolutely believe in all the events here. I believe all of this could happen. Of course I can. In a sense, it literally has. I just didn't expect a silly videogame where a man with a southern accent tells you what you're doing to remind me of that.
"Now here's a kid whose whole world got all twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky..."
In some respects, Bastion is about the apocalypse. It's about building anew when the world comes apart. In some ways, it's an anti-war story. It's about fear, and aggression, and the pain of injustice and mutual lack of understanding between people and cultures. Is it a great work of literature? No, but it's got substance to spare. All of these themes and ideas are present in the worldbuilding, and there are more ideas you can grab onto.
But I think the central story of Bastion, the story of the specific characters you control and interact with, isn't about any of that. It's about regret, and about the past. What do you do when something terrible happens? What do you do when your world falls out from under you, and everything changes? Do you try to hold onto what was, try to make things right, even if it's impossible... or do you let go, and try to make the best of what is, even if it means giving up on what could have been?
But that's just one interpretation. I strongly suggest you draw your own conclusions.
Y'know, it's funny. I started this by talking about Braid. And that's a game that's been lauded for how "deep" it is, by critics. And honestly? I've always kind of hated Braid. I found its gameplay tedious and frustrating, and its writing had you stop and read literal books full of overwrought text and metaphor. The critics talked up that writing. Said it was full of substance and meaning. But it always seemed like a load of pretentious guff to me. Maybe I'm not smart enough. Maybe I'm not well read enough. Maybe it's Just Not My Kind of Thing and one of you who has played Braid or will play Braid will tell me I've got it all wrong, and Braid is actually an amazing game. It's sure easy enough to pick up and play, but if there's really some kind of particularly deep meaning to it (other than telling you not to be a creepy possessive weirdo about your girlfriend, which is a noble enough message I suppose), I never got it. Then again, I got bored and gave up halfway through because the puzzles just weren't fun to solve for me.
But I loved Bastion from the start. And when I came back to it, I found more to love. More to think about. A narrative with weight about characters I can care about because they're real and human. I have always held that the greatest art isn't impenetrable, or complex, but rather simple, accessible, and engaging, while still having real substance and meaning, and Bastion is better at being that than Braid ever was. Maybe it's not as deep, or whatever. But I got more out of it, personally.
'course, that's just my opinion. I encourage all of you to see for yourselves.
If you're interested in trying the game, Bastion is available on Mac, PC, and Linux through Steam, GOG, and the Humble store, as well as being available on the Xbox 360 (if you can still buy games there), the Xbox One, Playstation 4, PS Vita, Nintendo Switch, and possibly the iPad, although I have no clue if that vesion is still available. As previously mentioned, its soundtrack is available through most streaming services, as well as Bandcamp and other popular music storefronts, and many game stores as well, such as Steam and GOG. In some places, you are given the option to buy the soundtrack and the game together at a discount. I recommend this.