The End of the World (Part 2)

Turns out a lot of people actually enjoy reading my stuff. Whodathunkit? That said, the comment I’ve received from the most people has been “I didn’t read the heavy video game stuff but….”. What you choose to read of my posts is of course up to you. That said, I try to put everything I discuss in simple terms such that it is accessible to everyone. I suppose what I’m saying is perhaps you should give the heavy analysis a bit more of a chance. Maybe you still won’t like it, but maybe you will. Finally, to this point, I’m going to do a rotation of the topics I mentioned in my first post, meaning after this post I’ll do a few that aren’t about video games (maybe).

So back to Bastion. If you haven’t read part one, give that a quick review to catch up. From part one it is already common knowledge that I love Bastion and think the plot is amazing complex and one of my favorites of all time. Discussing it further, however, would edge too close to spoiling the game. Instead, I’m going to touch on some of the more subtle points that make Bastion incredible that a less ambitious game would have either ignored or executed poorly.

First up is Bastion’s score. Bastion features magnificent musical track that complements the game design and defines the tone of the game as a whole. Overall, the score is an interesting blend of western instrumentation and themes with the addition modern sounds. This creates a unique feel of a modern world that is unstable and gritty like the old west. Every song throughout Bastion was chosen to convey a specific tone upon the player to emphasize the narrator’s words and the settings the player is exploring. I’m going to write a bit about what I feel these songs are communicating, though because the first two are without words there is plenty of room for debate. Because there’s nothing to watch in these videos (just audio), set them to play while you continue to read.

First up “In Case of Trouble”, the main theme of the Bastion. It is the song that plays while you are home at the Bastion, where you return to after every level of the game:

Initially, in the game, the song has a more limited instrumentation, but as you progress through the game the bastion theme becomes more and more filled out – the version you are hearing is the final, completed song. Each added instrument is a new personality, cooperating with the others in its own rough yet harmonious fashion. The song speaks of hard-earned progress and human resilience against all odds, a fitting theme for the Bastion. It makes no reassurances about success in one’s toils – the frequent minor chords injected into the song warn of future challenges. But more than anything else, as the number of instruments grow and the base deepens, the song about the power to make the right decisions even when they are difficult, and the power to change one’s own fate. Right or wrong, good or bad, it’s all up to you.

Next is “Twisted Streets” – the exploration song, which plays while you run through new areas.

The song begins grimly – the strong downbeat of cymbals on the first beat of every other measure accompanied by snare rolls throughout is reminiscently of a funeral march. Winds play along to with the darker notes, reminiscent of good times lost, with harsh pads combining to form terror. The song is about suppressed implications. The kid has a job to do but every passing ruined town burdens him further, mixing sadness at what was lost with horror at what has become.

Finally, one with vocals. This is “Build that Wall”, Zia’s theme.

The song speaks of two people – the singer, digging a hole, and some other person, building a wall. Many times, the singer alludes to the failure of the other person – “one day that wall is gonna fall” and “some day those tears are gonna spill”. The lyrics are very aggressive towards the other person: “so build that wall and build it strong ’cause we’ll be there before too long”, but the music doesn’t match. The singer knows that conflict is coming, but doesn’t rejoice or speak to her party’s strength. The lilting tone and simple plucked tones lament what will soon come to pass. At the same time, the singer expresses no emotion that would indicate the possibility of peace – all of the verb tenses imply certainty. Cities will be built, walls will fall, tears will be shed, and there’s no way to avoid any of it.

Overall, Bastion’s music is powerful and an ever-present force in the game. It conveys a number of emotions, but one is notably missing from the entire score: Happiness. There is accomplishment and pride, but all emotion throughout the game is accompanied by an undercurrent of remorse and regret. You’ll learn more as you play the game, but take my word for it that as the game progresses it is impossible for a character or the player to feel purely, simply happy about any turn of events.

Next let’s look a bit at the level design – the core level mechanic in Bastion is that the level assembles itself as the player walks along it. The first extremely clear benefit of this mechanic is that the player is never at a loss of where to go – just follow the self-creating path. Second, this mechanic lends itself to very narrow and uneven levels – terrain can follow any visual pattern because there is no surrounding terrain to connect it to. Finally, wide open areas gain significance. Where in other games narrow areas are more dangerous because of the possibility of being pinned down by enemies, wide open areas in Bastion are far more dangerous because they contain far, far more enemies, and every so often bosses.

Game Design Key Point: Terrain Graphic Contiguity. The terrain in Bastion is special specifically because it is so minimalist. Almost all of the generated terrain is walkable, and every bit of terrain receives extra focus as it moves into place from below the screen, perfectly suiting its surroundings. This is something that many designers forget – players notice when things look out of place. For an example of this, let’s take a look at the terrain of the Pokemon series.

Ruby/Saphire (GBA, 2002)
X/y (3DS, 2013)

In Ruby/Saphire (on right), everything is blocky and square aside from you, Prof. Birch, the Poochyena, and Birch’s bag. Therefore the terrain looks contiguous, with nothing out of place. Contrast this with the screenshot from X/Y (at left). Nintendo made a very conscious effort to make the terrain more real. The path curves well, the shrubs and trees are fairly well drawn, and the wild grass look like real ferns, though notably a bit too symmetric with one another. However, one thing is drastically out of place, and attention is drawn to it right away – the hills on the right. No dirt hill is an even 60 degree slant with perfect line divides drawn across it. It’s not the fact that these hills are so far off reality – clearly the hill in ruby/saphire, the brown line in the middle, is less accurate – it’s that the hills in x/y are the only thing that still looks unrealistic after the graphics update, and are now hilariously out of sync with their surroundings in terms of realism and quality. Players are willing to tolerate any level of graphic complexity – see the resurgence of pixel art games as of late – but seeing inconsistencies within a game’s graphics is like an un-sanded and un-painted edge on a piece of furniture. It speaks to a designer’s laziness in not finishing the feel of the game, even when that wasn’t the intention.  Designers have to be careful when asking for a graphics update, because performing an incomplete upgrade can do more harm than good.

I regret that I cannot talk more about Bastion’s plot, because it wouldn’t be fair to any who want to play the game for themselves. Therefore, that’s all for now. I’ll be back soon with something non-game related.


The End of the World (Part 1)

"Proper story's supposed to start at the beginning. Ain't so simple with this one...."

—-> Extremely brief aside: A lot of the time I’m going to want to talk from the view of the player. Sometimes that involves the use of pronouns. I’m going to use “he” exclusively here. I know, love, and constantly support the fact that girls play video games too. In the interest of clarity and brevity, however, I’m going to stick to “he”. Feel free to mentally replace “he” with whatever pronoun makes you most comfortable were you the one playing the game. SMOKEBOMB <—-

Winter break last year found me with a newly-earned Musical Director position and a lot of time on my hands. Between arranging new music and the various holidays I needed to find something to distract myself. The answer to my problem was fairly simple and may even be already evident to some – Gamer + Too Much Time + Winter Break = Steam Winter Sale! For an unbelievably low price I acquired the full Bioshock series, an in-development game called Particulars, Tower Wars, and one other game. A game that I purchased for $2.99, and that is now in my favorite games of all time.

That game is Bastion.

A friend recommended Bastion to me, but I never could have known just how much of an impact it would have on me. Not only is Bastion an amazing game and enjoyable experience, but the story is more complex and thought provoking than most books I read throughout high school. Despite the narrator’s haunting warning that opens the game, I’ll try to start at my beginning with Bastion.

After waiting for my sluggish internet to download the game, I immediately sat myself down with a mug of hot chocolate and booted it up. My first impression was of the art – Bastion is beautiful.

Bastion's Menu Screen

The art style uses a bright palate to paint exquisite texture throughout the scene, but mist encroaching at the borders gives a sense of mystery and intrigue. The pail and lantern in the foreground imply a setting somewhere between the medieval and the renaissance eras. The font is bold but has many interesting twists and branches off of the main letters. Finally, you may not have noticed, but the arch on which the title structure is supported is floating in mid air – its support pillars are not attached to anything. Other islands float in the background, solidifying the fact that, in the world of Bastion, things are for some reason floating. I assumed from the title sequence this implied the existence of magic, of some sort. I was wrong.

So press any key, start a new game. Here’s the first 15 minutes of the game (which I can show without fear of spoiling things because of how deep the game goes). Watch as far as you care to, though for the sake of things I’m going to discuss watch at least through the first two minutes.

My impression of Bastion as a joyous, magical setting was shattered from the very first low, discordant chord. The gritty narrator continues the feel with a quote that sets a mysterious and frightening undertone. Let’s break down that opening quote a little.

“Proper story’s supposed to start with the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one… “

So we learn a couple things: The narrator is (or believes he is) an experienced storyteller, this story isn’t any old story, nor will its recalling start at the beginning. Already we’re being thrown into a setting where the player is aware that there are details kept from him, to be filled in on the narrator’s whim.

“… Now here’s a kid whose whole world got all twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky.”

After quickly inferring that the kid mentioned is the only human on screen (and probably the main playable character of the game), the player immediately sympathizes with the kid. He’s asleep on a bed, a small piece of solid ground surrounded by a lucid, vast abyss. The kid doesn’t seem to know any more than us about why the world is this way, where he is or what happened. Setting the scene in this way does something very important for the game. Explaining what important idea this accomplishes requires a game design tangent. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to Bastion

Game Design Key Point – Main Character Empathy – One key thing to do when opening a game is make sure your main character is someone the player wants to be or to see progress (depending on the point of view). One example where this doesn’t go well is in Metroid Prime. [Disclaimer: I love Metroid Prime and will probably gush about it in a future post. This, however, is one of its few rough spots.] Very quickly after meeting Samus Aran, the infamous bounty hunter, we watch her stand still for a good three seconds while a bridge explodes behind her. This hurls you against a wall and causes you to lose all of your powerups. I (at age 14) was quite literally shaking the controller and yelling “MOVE” at the TV during this cutscene. This is a character who (supposedly) has lightning reflexes, has survived hundreds of near-death encounters and will go on to survive a thousand more. The idea that she can’t move out of the way of a slowly advancing series of explosions is forced and unconvincing, and a lame way to lose all of your abilities. It makes the player lose interest in Samus’ plight, and thus the plot of the game.

Notably, this is a challenge that games have to face that other entertainment mediums (books, movies) don’t. Even if you don’t like the main character in a novel, you can’t re-write his or her dialog. The very best you can do is put the book down and give up. You can’t re-write the scripted plot of a video game either, but you feel that you are the one leading it. When you have a book in your hand, the plot is set out for you the reader in a very visible fashion. Were you to flip to the final page, you would read the end of the plot, no questions asked. From the very moment you pick up the book its progression is set. In good, non-open-world games, the player moves the main character through the plot in a way that should feel natural and justified. He should feel as though he as the main character is leading the plot, not a hopeless puppet who is straining against his boundaries at every turn. Good luck convincing your player to advance the plot by playing your game (a task that may take quite a lot of effort on the player’s part) if they don’t like where it’s going.

Bastion, however, hits this nail right on the head. From the very first time the player meets the kid, you need to see him succeed because you share a common goal: to understand. Both the player and the kid need to know why the world is a mess of floating pieces of earth and stone. In only two narrated sentences, Bastion forges a bond through the fourth wall that persists through the entire game. You, the player, are the kid. With all of his desires, fears, and determinations.

Back to the game! If you watched the video, you’ve noticed that there’s a few seconds where nothing happens. Though the narrator has fallen silent, the music continues playing. This is because, though the player hasn’t realized it yet, the cutscene has ended, seamlessly transitioning into the game itself. Nothing will happen until the player hits any of the arrow keys, at which point the narrator continues…

“He gets up. Sets off for the Bastion, where everyone agreed to go in case of trouble”

Looks are deceiving: This isn’t a cutscene. The narrator is continuing to narrate, even though the game has begun. He’ll continue to narrate the kid’s actions throughout the game, occasionally adding his own input. To my knowledge, no game before Bastion has ever been narrated in this continual and complete fashion. One more thing that makes Bastion unique.

As the player begins to move to the right – there’s nowhere else to go – ground shoots up from the bottom of the screen to form a pathway. The narrator acknowledges this, showing that it’s a real part of the universe, not just a design style. Continuing along the path nets the player the Cael Hammer, the first iconic weapon of the game. The swing animations do a wonderful job of showing off the hammer’s weight and unwieldiness, but also its brutal power. A little further in, and we get two key pieces of plot information from the narrator:

“He sees what’s left of the Rippling Walls – years of work undone in an instant… In the Calamity”

The first isn’t shocking, given that the name of the current location was briefly floated over the screen at the start of the game. These are, apparently, the rippling walls. Even that, though, deserves study. Walls are only built when there is need to keep something, or someone, out. Our kid is on top of the wall – thus likely a member of the society that built, maintained, and enforced it. It was a long and hard task to build the wall, and now it’s in shambles.

Because of the Calamity.

For some reason, something somewhere went seriously seriously wrong. Wrong enough that massive wall built over the course of years is now floating chunks of stone in the sky. Wrong enough that the kid, a occupant of that very wall, is left alone on its remnants with not another soul, living or dead, in sight.

How? Why? If you weren’t empathizing with the kid’s need to know, to understand, to seek an explanation: You are now.

I want to stop here for a couple reasons, chief among them being length. I also want to give anyone who is interested a chance to play the game for themselves. I can analyze all I like about my love for Bastion, but the greatest beauty of a video game is that you can only truly experience it if you play it for yourself. It’s available on Steam right now for all major computer operating systems and has mild hardware requirements. I’ll resume in The End of the World Part 2 some time this week. Unlike this analysis, in part 2 I’ll be taking a more broad look on how the narration, music, and level design define the feel of the game and are intertwined with the plot. I won’t be giving any more plot past this opening sequence because I don’t want to spoil anything at all for would-be players.

All I’ll say is that the end of the game involves two choices. The weight of the world rests on the kid’s and your shoulders.

Prologue – The Smartest Finch

I came to the realization a few months ago that I should have a blog. My rationale looked like this:

  1. I have opinions about things
  2. I like to talk about things I have opinions about
  3. There are certainly people who don’t like to hear me talk
  4. Maybe, though, there are people who would like to hear me talk
  5. I should write stuff down somewhere where people can read it, but don’t ever have to
  6. Therefore, I should start a blog

A good friend of mine was an experienced blogger and encouraged me to toss my thoughts into the internet abyss as well. I regret that I didn’t start this sooner, but better now than never.

In the interest of wasting as little of your time as possible, I’m going to outline what I plan on discussing on this blog. If none of my chosen topics attract your interest, you can simply turn back and never come here again. If that’s not the case, then stay tuned! Some things I plan on discussing in the blog are:

  • Games. Video games, board games, and real world games. Well designed games and poorly designed games. New games and old games. Games that change the way you look at the world, the way you think. Games that affect you at your very core and leave a lasting impact. All kinds of games, really.
  • Learning, Teaching, and Learning to Teach. The fine line between being respectful to your students and being honest. Knowing when you don’t know.
  • Music. How to convince a group of ~15 college students to give up many hours a week so that once a semester you can get 200+ people in an auditorium to sing at and tell dirty jokes to.
  • Computer Science and Economics. What I love, and what I really, really don’t.
  • Life, in general. All of my interests aside, I’m still a person going through life like you. Sometimes it rains, and sometimes it pours.

Don’t worry, there will be plenty of pictures throughout, so if you’re reading it aloud you’ll have to turn the computer so everyone can see.

I’m going to close with how I picked the name of the blog. For as long as I can remember the phrase “It’s Just a Game” was extremely annoying to me. I heard it whenever I tried to think identify places where the rules were weak or unenforceable, or when I took a game too seriously and competitively. I heard it sometimes from my parents, rarely from my peers, and very often from my teachers and extra-curricular leaders.

One particular case that stands out in my mind is a game my biology teacher ran in 7th grade to model eating patterns of different finches. In the game we were all crowded around a tub full of corn kernels, kidney beans, and marbles. The goal was to personally remove as many items as possible from the tub in a set time limit, where each item had a different point value (corn = 1, bean = 3, marble = 7). The restriction to make the game interesting was that you could not touch the items in the tub except for with a black binder clip. We were allowed to choose what size (small, medium, large) binder clip we wanted to use, and we all received exactly one.

The intention of the game was that the size of binder clip you chose determined what kind of item you had to go for – you couldn’t open a small clip large enough to get a marble, and the corn kernels wouldn’t stay in the large clip long enough for you to get them out. Additionally, clipping a marble was harder, so there is greater risk and greater reward for picking a larger clip.

How would you play this game? Take a moment to think about the rules that are given (specifically the first paragraph, not the second) and the rules that weren’t.

I won the first round of the game by a few hundred points. I did so by picking the largest clip, and by picking up marbles using the looped metal piece attached to the back of the binder clip. This was both fast and easy, and didn’t violate any of the rules. By the time we got to the third round the game was in shambles – everyone had seen my strategy and (logically) rushed to copy it. All of the marbles were quickly depleted from the tub, and everyone got about the same score.

The intent of the game was to demonstrate how different evolutionary traits (such as a bird’s beak length) determined what kind of foods it could eat. What was meant to be a 50 minute activity of students trying out the different approaches ended after 5 once the dominant strategy was discovered. Needless to say, my teacher was not happy.

Games deserve your respect. That isn’t to say you have to like every game you play – I don’t like many. But you need to play the game and fully analyze it before you reach any conclusions. On the flip side, however, would be game designers must be conscious and thorough. A game is defined by its rules, but it is more so defined by the rules it doesn’t have.

People who told me “It’s just a game” throughout my life intended the phrase as a dismissal. They use the term “game” to refer to a set of goals that aren’t worthy of effort, that are meaningless. I view it slightly differently. Games are their own ends – creating a truly great game is an extremely difficult, extremely worthwhile endeavor. A great game will go on to affect huge numbers of people in ways that, I believe, no other entertainment medium can.

It’s Just a Game. And that’s the most important thing there is.