15 things videogames can learn from Bastion

, | Game reviews

Microsoft’s annual Summer of Arcade program starts tomorrow with the release of Bastion, which is the first in a series of four eagerly anticipated titles and one Kinect game. I don’t envy those other games for following Bastion. It really is an ingenious piece of work.

A friend of mine said about the movie Hanna that it should be taught in film school. He didn’t like it as much as I did, but that was his way of saying that he recognized its genius regardless of how much he liked it. And while I have no such dispassionate regard for Bastion — I really love this game — I do think it should be taught in, uh, game designer schools. We have those now, right?

After the jump, 15 things videogames can learn from Bastion

Less is more
Don’t come at me with a bunch of fantasy names and kingdoms and whatnot. You may think you’re Game of Thrones, but you’re probably not (exception: The Witcher 2). Bastion has exactly three named characters and two nations. Then there are some nifty creature names, all memorably descriptive rather than nonsense fantasy, and some similarly clever weapon names, and some gods who will affect the game in very real ways. NPCs exist, and you’ll sort of meet some of them, but they’re introduced obliquely, sometimes through the names of levels. Bastion isn’t shy about using proper nouns, but it knows to use them judiciouisly. The main characters, their relationships to each other, and what they do take up very little space. The story that exists in Bastion is simple and memorable. This is a game with a small but effective narrative footprint.

Words matter
Good writing is partly the economy of how much or how little to write (see above). But it also takes an appreciation of words: “He lands on top of a breaker’s bow, and it ain’t broke”. It takes an appreciation for cadence: “Of all the plants to survive the Calamity, it had to be stabweed”. It takes an appreciation for how words fit together with each other: “The Calamity took everything from almost everyone. It took almost everything from everyone else”. If you listen to Bastion, if you read its snippets of text, it will reward you.

Unfold evenly
Bastion knows how to dole out its gameplay. The game you’re playing at the start isn’t the same as the game you’re playing half way through, which isn’t the same as the game you’ll be playing at the end, which also isn’t the same as the game you’ll be playing on your second play-through.

Make every creature and weapon unique
I stopped playing Shadows of the Damned, a recent combat game set in its own funky universe, shortly after I earned a new gun. Well, “new” gun. It was just a stronger version of the shotgun I already had. That’s not a reward. It’s filler. Once that happened, I wasn’t the least bit curious about finding the next upgrade. Well, “upgrade”.

In Bastion, every weapon, and every skill, and every creature, has it’s own vocabulary. They each have their own way of interacting with the world and with each other. There is no point when I was given a new weapon that was merely an upgraded version of an old weapon. There was no point that I met a red version of a creature that was simply green in an earlier level. There was no level 2 fireball. Bastion is a game that constantly shows you new things that are truly new.

Make everything useful
Bastion encourages you to play with every one of its weapons by providing a challenge and a commensurate reward for each weapon. As you’re bopping along playing the story levels and finding weapons, you’ll open special challenge levels for each weapon. These challenges might be difficult. Possibly impossible. But what Bastion gradually reveals is that you can configure each weapon in different ways as you upgrade it. And for the most part, you will discover a configuration that lets you get first place on any one of the challenges. Your reward is a skill for that weapon you would not otherwise get. So while you may not personally be interested in using the brusher’s pike, or the fang repeater, or the Cael hammer, they have their place in the overall scheme of things.

Bring a song
Like any relationship, a videogame needs a song. The song you discover in Prosper Bluff is utterly sublime.

There’s more than one way to bring a world alive
“Living world” usually means there are a bunch of NPCs running around, and maybe a day/night cycle so the shops close for a while. But can’t it also be the opposite of a static world? If Bastion had just plopped down its graphics before you got there, it would have had a very different feel. But for most of the game, the pieces of the level fall into place as you draw near, so an otherwise static but lush 2D world feels newborn and vital. That bush wasn’t there a moment ago. Then you saw it drop into place, along with floor tiles, columns, some flowers, and a few other bushes. Level geometry in Bastion is made of verbs instead of nouns.

This also makes it easy to find your way. If you’re not sure where to go, just poke around until the way starts building itself in front of you. That’s how you know where you haven’t been. Bastion doesn’t have a map because it doesn’t need one.

Waste not
If you find a health potion that you can’t use because you’re at full health and you can’t carry it because you’re fully stocked, pick it up for an xp reward. It’s a very small detail, but having left behind hundreds upon hundreds of health potions in my career as an RPG player, I love this touch.

A hub can be more than a hub
Bastion takes its name from the hub where you choose your weapons and decide which level to play next. But over time, it turns out it’s not just that.

Let me manage my own risk/reward balance
The dirty little secret about Demon’s Souls is that it really isn’t that difficult. It just lets you manage the risk/reward ratio yourself. You are the master of your own difficulty level. When you died, it was because you made it that hard. Similarly, Halo lets you find skulls to jigger the difficulty level when you replay levels, making them as hard as you want them to be.

But Bastion builds this idea into the first play-through with its shrine, where you can slot various icons to different gods, each of whom makes the game more difficult in specific ways. And each one you slot increases the amount of money and experience points you earn. When you die, Bastion always gives you the option to restart the level with or without your difficulty idols slotted. You are the master of your own difficulty level. When you die, it’s because you make it that hard.

Avoid inflation
When you first finish Bastion, you’ll have basically unlocked half of the stuff in the game. If you liked the game okay, you’ll feel just fine stopping here. But if you really dug the game, you’ve still got plenty of stuff to unlock and discover. Bastion keeps you hungry, which isn’t the same as keeping you unsatisfied. On my first play-through, there was never a time I didn’t want more of what the game was giving me: money, xp, skills, idols, drinks. And on my second play-through, there was a great sense of enjoying the game — as hard or as easy as I wanted it to be — while filling in the blanks with what I couldn’t afford on my first play-through. There was a gratifying sense of “okay, now let’s see what this does…”

How you talk to me matters
I hate that so many videogames have subtitles turned on by default. My brain reads subtitles in a very different way than it listens to voices. Ideally, you should have a compelling enough voice that I want to hear it instead of just quickly read it. For instance, the narration in Bastion.

Bastion’s narrator will comment on what you’re doing as you’re doing it. When this happens, and when it seems like it came from a choice I made, I feel like the narrator is paying attention to me. He’s not a canned voice playing out a script, like Cave Johnson in Portal 2. Instead, he’s talking directly to me, and we have a relationship, like GlaDOS. But unlike the carefully scripted Portal games, where GlaDOS speaks right on cue and the same way every time, Bastion’s narrator notices things that won’t necessarily happen all the time. He says something about the specific pair of weapons I chose at the armory, or about how I’m out of health potions and vulnerable to a specific monster, or how I’m taking so much time clearing out stabweed. The narrator is not just a recorded voice. He’s here, with me, watching me, commenting on what I’m doing, talking to me in a way that reaches beyond some guy in a sound booth reading lines. It’s one of the most startlingly human innovations since LA Noire’s facial expressions.

Voice actors should be more than just good
Game developers consistently underestimate the role of their voice actors. Because it’s not enough that a voice actor is good. There are plenty of good voice actors reading dialog serviceably. The more important point is that the actor and the writing must connect. Casting is arguably just as important as talent. For instance, Bastion’s writing by Greg Kasavin and Bastion’s voice acting by Logan Cunningham are both good, but most importantly, they elevate each other. This is a writer/actor synergy every bit as remarkable as Erik Wolpaw with Ellen McLain, or Tim Schafer with Jack Black, or Amy Hennig with Nolan North and Emily Rose.

Dream sequences are a delicate thing
Duke Nukem Forever did a dream sequence that broke the basic gameplay model. It was clever, but ultimately tedious. For an example of that sort of thing done right, go to Jawsom Bog and dream your way to an ordinary campsite. It’s brief and delicate, but pitch perfect.

A good game is exactly as long as it needs to be
I hope one day I’ll work on a videogame, maybe as the producer or the PR guy. Because I want someone to ask me “How long is the game?” I hear this question all the time at press events and in interviews, and I understand the intent behind it. It’s an easy bullet point that sounds as if it actually means something. But the problem with Duke Nukem Forever taking only six hours to finish isn’t the fact that it takes only six hours to finish. And LA Noire drinking up fifty hours doesn’t make those fifty hours meaningful. A game’s length is almost entirely beside the point without considering far more important factors. I have never heard a movie’s running time, the number of pages in a book, or the number of notes in a symphony advertised as any sort of standalone bullet point or value judgment.

So one day, I want a chance to answer this question. Because when I imagine my future as the producer of Game X, giving a demo to a bunch of press dudes or being interviewed on a podcast, and one of them asks me “How long is the game?”, I will reply, “Why? Do you have to be somewhere?”

Granted, it’s not nearly as clever as I think it is, but I just want a chance to use that line.

I heard someone ask “How long is the game?” at the Bastion booth at E3. At the time, I had no inkling Bastion wasn’t just another cute platformer. Developer Supergiant, all four or five of them as near as I could tell, was answering questions and letting people play the early levels. Of course, they’d planned to answer that question, because they had an easy answer. Basically, it came down to an experienced player getting through in a few hours, but your first time taking six to eight hours, and something about replay value, and yadda yadda yadda.

But, really, a game made as well as Bastion is exactly as long as it needs to be. You can get through Bastion in an evening or two. Or you can challenge yourself with the idols that let you tailor the difficulty level and corresponding reward. Once you’ve gotten through the story, you can decide whether you like Bastion enough to flex its New Game Plus mode, which is where it lets you loose to play with all its toys however you like. Beyond that, you can work on your high score on the Who Knows Where stages, experimenting with different weapon configurations and skill combos to work on your place on the leaderboard, either against your friends or the internet at large. You’ll even get to hear more of the story the farther you get.

So the answer to how long Bastion is is only partly “it’s exactly as it long as it needs to be”. The more complete answer is that it’s exactly as long as you want it to be.

5 stars
Xbox 360