“Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning. Ain‘t so simple with this one.”
I’m noticing a trend in independent releases over the past couple of years. More developers are opting to use an 8-bit/16-bit aesthetic for the presentation of their games. The look and feel of these throwbacks is often used as a well crafted intertextual (albeit, nostalgic) nod to past generic tropes. Supergiant Games’ Bastion adds a modern polish to a traditional style.
Bastion invokes the gameplay and three-quarter top down camera angle of the hack and slash dungeon crawler that we have all been playing since the release of Baldur’s Gate but it goes well beyond an homage to the Infinity Engine. The game redefines what the genre is capable of and integrates the mechanics into the narrative. The stylistic pieces that make up the action RPG become tools in the developer’s kit. Generic tropes are evoked as the basis of gameplay before falling away to reveal a world pulsing with imagination and creativity.
The most striking thing about Bastion is its instability. The lack of a stable center is at times temporal, spatial, and political. The player controls “The Kid,” a silent protagonist forever moving between environments and slipping in and out of dreams. The universe forms around him as he moves. A narrator explains the story through voice over as it happens. The end goal is piecing together past events leading to the ruin of Caelondia. Progress is marked incrementally by reconstructing pieces of the Bastion, a ruined area within the city of Caelondia. The underlying force to everything Kid does throughout the game is based around his desire to construct a stable world.
The heart of the game still involves goal oriented exploration, acquisition of items, and hoards of enemies to bring down. What it changes is the level design and method of narration. The traditional dungeon crawler involves exploration on an isometric map with pre-rendered backgrounds. Unexplored areas on the map are blacked out and only become visible as the character moves toward them. Bastion plays with and ultimately updates this style. The game removes the map entirely and the world is formed around the character as he moves through it. With this change, exploration is no longer just an act of uncovering, but an act of building. The prerendered backgrounds are still there but the drab monochromatic palette of so many Diablo clones is replaced by vibrant hand painted environments created by graphic artist Jen Zee.
The strength of storytelling in Bastion keeps the narrative centered on The Kid. He is a character with a very human goal. In the past, the genre has called for a main character that acts as an empty container meant to be filled with stats and skills. The Kid defies generic shortcomings by coupling a unique leveling system with simple, focussed motivation. The motivation is reinforced throughout the game by the singular narrative voice. Through succinct, evocative expositions, the narrator shapes the reality of Bastion alongside the core mechanics used for interacting with the world. The cinematic cutscene as well as the flowchart based dialogue choices are nowhere to be found and the story is told through the complete presentation of the game.
There is no disconnect between diegetic actions and narrative. This is a wonderful approach to storytelling that could not be accomplished through any other medium. This simple fact, more than anything else, is what makes the game stand out from everything surrounding it. Bastion is very aware of how video games work as a medium for storytelling and it is constantly playing around with conventions. It pushes the shortcoming to the side and dives head first into the form itself.
Since I dragged my feet in getting this blog off the ground I had to wait for the January 31st release date to play Proteus. In the three days spent exploring the edges and limitations of the immersive world, a dialogue has popped up around the title asking one very big question: Is it a game?
I’m curious as to what it is about Proteus that prompts this question. It contains a beginning, middle, and end which play out in a coded interactive world. What it lacks (in the traditional sense) is a clearly defined narrative, any semblance of an evaluative system, and guidelines. Playing through the game is an exercise in undoing the conditioned association of any greater purpose with the actions of the player.
Goals, achievements, points, etc. are all restrictions that get in the way of the ecstatic immersive experience. These traditionally defined structural elements work to constantly remind the user that the experience is artificial. When the hindrances are stripped from the structure, what’s left is a world of expressive and spatial freedom.
So what does the gameplay consist of? The player takes control of the character essentially as he (or she) is born into the environment. Through a first person perspective the eyes open to reveal a hybrid two-dimensional/three-dimensional world of ambient and melodic sound. Every object within the world comes with its own individual music cue layered into the existing track. In essence, the user exists in a world of oscillating radio frequencies and each object is its own individual theremin antenna.
That isn’t to say that the environment simply happens around you. The player interacts with and alters the world. Space is navigated both visually and aurally. The existence of the player in the world is what shapes it. This is the game and its message in a nutshell. Any scrutiny over terminology of classification is a result of failure to realize the impossibility of static definition.
The different music cues prompted by each object all contribute to a soundtrack that is at times, barely held together. The effect is not one of chaos or dissonance, but of loosely structured harmony. The lens flare effect that occurs when looking at at the sun is accompanied by a single synthesizer chord. Frogs have a unique melody as they hop. Flies bring to mind the sound of a swarmatron used playfully to calm.
This harmony is where I took the “response to nihilism” title from. The lack of unified meaning or greater purpose found in the game could just as well have been portrayed as dissonant, chaotic, and terrifying. Instead, Proteus chooses to put forth an environment in which these ambiguities are embraced and seen through a tranquil lens.
I understand that Proteus may sound pretentious but I can assure you that it is anything but. At the end of the day, Ed Key and David Kanaga have developed a profoundly moving piece of programming that everyone should experience.
My New Year’s resolution for 2013 is to play more video games. To some, this may sound like an excuse to put off more pressing matters in favor of escapist fun but it’s something I have really struggled with the past few years. More than just the new demands put on my time as a mid twenty-something, my inability to lose myself in digital worlds has been inhibited by my own negative view of the current state of the industry.
Additionally, a paradox of the modern connected world is that I have become conditioned to complete everything at breakneck speed, I miss the details. Somewhere along the line, I suddenly began approaching video games in the same way. I now frequently find myself rushing through games, never stopping to thoroughly examine the details of the robust worlds created by developers. Since coming to this realization, I have changed the way in which I play. This change, interestingly enough, has carried over from virtual worlds to my day-to-day life. It has positively altered the ways in which I interact with the world around me.
Aside from the effect of modern culture on the way I interact with games, the myriad of simplicity that frequently tops the bestseller lists, along with the disturbing amount of shovelware has left me soured. But with a burgeoning culture of indie game developers putting out heartfelt labors of love and established companies like Atlus, Valve, Bethesda, and Capcom, etc. releasing beautiful titles that go beyond genre archetypes and work outside of reskinned regurgitations of existing game engines, I realize that it is my own pessimistic, cynical view of the industry that is keeping me from some truly beautiful experiences.
More than anything, this is a means by which for me to write through my issues while examining the ways in which video games allow humans to communicate and know. It is also a way to keep me honest to my resolution. With no shortage of content to experience and write on, I’ll be updating as frequently as my schedule allows.