Spring 26, Year 17, Parallel Universe 3

It’s been a long time since I stayed up until 4 AM playing a video game. The onset of both college and post-college life meant that I would rather spend my fairly limited time doing many other things. I just couldn’t afford to ruin the next day by spending the time I would be sleeping on playing a game. In order to convince me otherwise, a game would have to be playable in an unlimited number of discrete increments, such that I would always want to play one more. Additionally, it would have to be non-competitive so I wouldn’t give in after losing a game. Growth and achievement are must-haves. Taking all that and tossing in pleasing visuals and sound, in an endlessly rich world, gets us to a fairly strict set of requirements.

Fortunately, I have just the thing.


A wonderful world awaits within!

Recommended to me a while back, I picked up Stardew Valley during the past Steam winter sale, and finally had a chance to open it a couple weeks ago. Since then, for better or for worse, I have been completely hooked.

If I had ever played a Harvest Moon title, I would probably say the game is reminiscent of Harvest Moon. Having not, it feels like a wonderful amalgamation of Animal Crossing and Minecraft, with some of the good parts of Farmville. The game is divided into days, each of which take about a half hour (though this can be highly variable). Each day you wake up promptly at 6 AM and have until 1 AM the next morning to do whatever you want, whether that’s planting, watering, and harvesting your crops, fishing in the rivers, lakes, and ocean, talking to villagers, or any number of other activities.  Your path forward is entirely up to you.


You know it’s not my farm because he’s not using his scarecrow efficiently.

And yet, the wide range of choice leads to a frustrating conclusion. Upon initially opening up the game, I made it to the first summer before giving up. In a game about open-ended cultivation and exploration, I nevertheless felt like I was doing it wrong. Over the course of that first spring, I had realized so many things I hadn’t been doing or did wrong. I didn’t know that all your crops withered at the end of each season unless they specifically are marked to carry over. I didn’t know that you could build a chest until I had already thrown away tons of useful material. I didn’t know that because of weekly gifting limits, you have to start early to become friends with the villagers.

Thus, after the first month, I started the game over.

On take two, I made it to day 13 of the first spring before giving up. I once again felt that I wasn’t doing it right. There were many days in which I didn’t get done what I thought I had to accomplish. On one day I even ran out of energy and collapsed in the mine, which is never a good sign. With so many successive days of perceived failure, I didn’t have it in me to continue.

So I started over. Again.

On my third play I finally nailed everything for the first spring. I went into the Egg festival with tons of money for strawberry seeds. I blitzed the mine up to level 40 to start gathering iron for sprinklers. I made a bunch of tree tappers to gather pine resin for fertilizer. Finally, I felt like I was hitting or even exceeding all of my goals. With more and more sprinklers, I had to water fewer and fewer crops each morning, leaving me with more time and more energy to do other productive things with the rest of the day. Summer came, and I spent my accrued fortune on as many blueberries as I could support. I’m now at Summer 4, year 1.

And I feel a little bit lost.


Not pictured: Me. I skipped the Flower Dance to keep fishing all day.

In my relentless drive to perfect my first month, I set myself up for failure following it. I did it; I hit my goal, I made every day count. But now what? Should I set another extremely distant goal and replay over and over until I hit it? It’s not quite that I don’t want to give up on my progress again, but that I don’t know what I should even be aiming for in the first place. What is the point of playing Stardew Valley?

In this way, Stardew Valley feels less like a video game and more like, well, life. There’s not really a “point” of playing the game. The closest thing the game provides to a singular main goal is repairing the community center, but that feels more like a way of marking your progress than your motivation to progress. When I finally decide to stop playing, I don’t think I’ll feel completed. Though I don’t know what the “end” of the game has in store for me, I don’t think it will feel like a fitting, all-inclusive conclusion.

And yet, isn’t that life? Living out one more day, reaching another little goal you’ve set for yourself, and making new friends along the way? Perhaps the all-consuming search for perfect and complete meaning isn’t the right way to play, nor the right way to live. Stardew Valley does not give a reason to farm, to fish, or to explore. Aside from an initial hint, it doesn’t even force you to meet all of your neighbors.

But then, it doesn’t have to. The world is so rich in color, in sound, and in personality. Blades of grass and flowering bushes dance everywhere you go. The music shuffles to match the season and the weather, as well as to punctuate key scenes and days. Each and every townsperson has a completely independent schedule that varies by day of the week, season of the year, and current weather condition. Additionally, all have exceedingly deep personalities that change and reveal themselves as the player gets to know them. I’ve never seen this much attention to detail in a game not for the purposes of game mechanics, but purely to create an amazingly rich world in which to play.

One day while I was farming away, I heard a train whistle. Immediately thereafter a notification popped up on the bottom of my screen, saying, “A train is passing through Sundew Valley.” Did that have any significance? I don’t know! In any other game, I would answer yes, beyond a doubt. But in Sundew Valley I’m not so certain. Maybe it didn’t have any meaning. Maybe, just as in real life, sometimes trains pass through your town, blowing their far-off whistles while traveling to far-off lands. As the sound fades, maybe you return to your prior activity, or maybe you start a new one. Maybe it had significance to you, and maybe it didn’t. Did it mean something? No one can say for sure. That’s just life.





Forging a Path – How to Capture Replayability

As luck would have it, the steam summer sale fell in the middle of my awesome vacation. I, therefore, had no time to play any games. Luckily though I managed enough of an internet connection to buy a few and have them waiting for when I got back to America.

One of the games included in my haul this summer was Valdis Story: Abyssal City. The game is listed under the tags Metroidvania, Action, RPG, Platformer, and Indie, so the chance that I wouldn’t at least semi-like it was already slim.

The art throughout is bright and bold, similar to Dust

In short, I really loved the game. The single best thing I can say is that the game has extreme replayability. As soon as I finished the game the first time (in around 6 hours), I immediately started up another file on a harder difficulty. There are a bunch of reasons for this, all of which symbiotically reinforce the others. First, there are four difficulty levels: normal, hard, veteran, and god slayer. When I first started the game I opted for hard, but found it too challenging and moved to normal. Now I am replaying it on hard and having no difficulty. That leads into the second quality that assists replayability – the game is heavily skill based. Initially I could not even progress through the game on hard, and now on this second try I am flying through it. Third, the RPG element of the game is no pushover. The skill, spell, stat, and alignment systems ensure that you get fairly comprehensive control over your character and reward different play styles. The system, on the whole, is complex enough that you can make mistakes, again ensuring that more experienced players who make smart choices early on have a better chance as the game progresses in difficulty. Finally, if all that wasn’t enough, there are four playable characters, each of which is drastically different – entirely different skills and spells, as well as weapon choices and attack patterns. Just because you’ve mastered one character doesn’t mean you’ve figured out the game.

Each character does have loosely defined attack, defense, and magic skill trees, but even within them the differences start to appear. Because of the system of prerequisites for skills (denoted by connecting lines downwards) it is important to pick skills not only for what they do but for what later skills they help unlock.

Secondly, the game gets a solid B+ for story and an A-/A for visuals and sound. You very quickly begin fighting against both demons and angels, so rest assured that it’s not a standard you’re good/you’re bad go fight the other people kind of thing. The story also manages to create a fairly fleshed out and engaging world to explore, which is always a really nice thing to have in any metroidvania (which by definition require some amount of exploration). I can’t give top marks for the story only because it is a little short, and that the dialogue is a little shallow and cookie cutter.

Visually the game is beautiful. Areas are bright and diverse, colors are bold and the fast paced action is accented by quick flashy animation. The overall feel of the game is helped by the epic soundtrack which wonderfully captures the difference between demonic and angelic settings. I particularly loved the boss battle (of which there are many) music, which contributes to both the epicness and the time sensitivity of the fight.

The first of many, many boss battles. You are graded on your performance on each one, which is yet another reason to replay the game over and over again.

Where the game starts to stumble, ironically, is in being a metroidvania. Some features that should really be considered standard are simply missing. For example, one big one is the ability to access the world map. As it stands you can only access the map for the area you are in, so it’s up to you to remember how that area connects to the other areas you’ve explored and what path to take to a specific one. On a related note, there is no hint feature telling you roughly where to go. It was really nice when the game would at least point you in the right direction after you’d wandered for half an hour or more not sure how to progress, a feature that became fairly standard starting with Metroid Prime. Without such a system, you’re stuck re-checking every reachable room to see if there’s something to do there with a new ability you didn’t have the last time you were present. This isn’t all that bad here, as the whole map in Valdis Story is pretty small, but I did have to look up a guide once just to save myself an hour or more of useless wandering trying to find where to use a newly found key.

Secondly, the game expects you to make certain logical leaps without giving literally any suggestion towards them. This is more of an RPG problem, and is an area of challenge that isn’t fun. Rather than understanding the puzzle and upon completion think, “YES! I am the best”, you are forced to try every possibility, eventually get lucky, and then think, “How was I supposed to know that was the answer??” After getting a new set of spells, it’s fairly standard throughout the game for you to have to use one of them to escape the newly sealed room, but (even after realizing that you now can’t leave) you have to go into the menu and read through all of the descriptions to figure out which new spell can get you out of this mess. It would have been really nice for an unobtrusive line of text to appear a few seconds after gaining the new spells, hinting you towards what new ability to use. Furthermore, the game would vastly benefit from a built-in glossary of game terms. It uses arbitrary fantasy words like affliction and reckoning, which clearly have in-game significance, without ever defining them. Even simple words like stealth don’t have a clear definition listed anywhere. I’m all for not throwing walls of text at the player, breaking immersion and slowing the game down, but that information really should be available somewhere in case I want to look it up.

Do you know what stealth means by default? I don’t.

On the whole, though, the game is incredible. Even as a metroidvania I loved it. It struck the right balance of exploration and fun “ooo I remember an area where I can now use this new ability” backtracking. The combat is intense and extremely skill based (as opposed to button mashing), and even the platforming was challenging and kept stages fresh.

More than anything else, Valdis Story: Abyssal City truly shines in its replayability. Capturing replayability in single player campaign-based games is a challenge that designers are constantly trying to defeat. Unlike sandbox games, multiplayer games, or single-player match-based strategy games, single player campaign games usually struggle to present any value after completion. In this regard, they are closer to books and movies than their other game companions. Once you’ve experienced the story and seen what’s behind each hidden turn, that’s kind of all it has to offer. You might re-read your favorite book or series a few, maybe even ten or more times, but that’s nothing compared the thousands, even tens of thousands of matches enjoyed by the standard LoL or Smash player. Stories are, inherently, finite. So long as it is pre-programmed or pre-written, it has to come to a hopefully satisfying conclusion at some point. Yet, single player campaign games are nonetheless judged by the same expectations of playable hours as other games, and thus are constantly looking for ways to give the player more to do.

One avenue of doing this is to create more and more subquests, small but branching storylines allow (but don’t force) the player to explore the world while simultaneously continuing to experience story content. This isn’t a bad option, but for better or worse it always seems to detract from the main story. One example that comes to mind is Skyrim. Yes, there is a central story in Skyrim, but most people don’t seem to care. All Skyrim discussion that I’ve seen bleed onto the other parts of the Internet (i.e. Imgur, Facebook) usually refers to weird physics quirks and funny NPC interactions, as opposed to interesting plot points and underlying themes. Despite Skyrim’s certainly epic story, it is discussed more like Minecraft than like Harry Potter. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the last thing you want to do when crafting an epic story is to add content that detracts from it.

I think I can say with confidence that this is the most important thing to come out of Skyrim. This meme.

Valdis Story, for all of its missing help features, does something so right that the story is both important and central, and yet I want to play again. The answer, I believe, is the right combination of challenge and choice. Give me enough challenge that I am basically unable to complete the game on the hardest difficulty on my first playthrough, and am instead forced to use an easier one instead. It is thus clear that I have not bested the game; there remains a further challenge to conquer. Give me enough choice that I am aware that I may be making mistakes on my first play through, ones that I could make better if I knew what I was doing. It is thus clear that the path I took through the game was not the only one, nor likely the best one.

If the game doesn’t have additional levels of challenge, no amount of choice will get me to play again. If I’ve already gotten the gold medal, so to speak, using set of choices A, there’s no point in doing it again with set of choices B. I’ve already won, no need to do it again. If there’s not enough room for choice, on the other hand, additional levels of challenge will feel redundant. I did the best I could with the options available and was able to attain a high enough proficiency at the game to beat it. Allowing me the ability to try again at a harder challenge, but not make significant alterations to my play style, means that the only way I’ll beat the harder level is to, as they say in the biz, “get gud”. I, the player outside of the screen, have gained knowledge by my first play through the game. Let me use that knowledge!

Crucially, none of this detracts from the story. I approached and beat the epic final boss of the game for the first time with the guilty knowledge that my victory would be a bit hollow. I knew that I was playing on the easiest of the available difficulties. In the real story the final boss would be impossibly difficult to defeat. I’m still invested in the story because it was made clear that a full and fulfilling conclusion was still just outside of my grasp, and that I would have to play both smarter and better in order to achieve it.

Overall, I give Valdis Story a 9/10. Would I play it again? I already am.

Evil Knife Hands. EVIL KNIFE HANDS!

The short version, for the video game enthusiast on the go: blah blah blah Steam summer sale blah blah best game ever blah blah Castlevania blah blah Zelda blah blah blah blah!!

And now, your feature presentation.

As per usual, I grabbed an armload of games during the Steam Summer Sale a couple months back. This time, my haul included:

  • Antichamber, a portal-like first-person-puzzle game that makes relying on the laws of reality quite difficult
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer, an amazingly innovative rhythm-based dungeon crawler that features some of the best dance songs I’ve heard in a while
  • Tales of Maj’Eyal, not yet opened
  • The Talos Principle, not yet opened

And, the feature of today’s post,

  • Dust, an Elysian Tail

I just finished Dust; I am literally writing this five minutes after watching the credits roll. I knew I would like the game from the first hour or two, but after finishing the game it is now one of my all time favorites. Dust does just about everything well. I’m having a hard time figuring out something that I don’t like about it. Let’s break it down a little.

Dust is a Castlevania-style RPG. Jump & swing. All of the combat is based off of one weapon, and three attack buttons. So right off the bat there isn’t a whole lot complexity-wise. Fortunately the game recognizes different sequences of the two main attack buttons for some powerful combos, both in the air and on the ground. In the heat of battle there is a lot to think about as you try to execute combos but also dodge enemy attacks. Furthermore, the emphasis on combos is multiplied ten-fold by the experience system. You level up (increasing in one of four stats, just barely enough to give you some degree of flexibility but also makes sure that there is no wrong choice) by killing enemies, but more so by executing combos of hits – any series of connected hits. Thus while the game gives you pre-programed sequences of two to five moves to do a real “combo”, you have to string those combos and other singular hits together in order to build up to combos of 100, 200, 500, or more hits. Finally, if you get hit at any point, you lose the combo and don’t get any of the combo experience you would have earned. As the reward of the combo experience rises faster than linearly with more hits, the risk of getting hit and losing (or rather not gaining) that chunk of experience grows as well. It’s a wonderful system that very intuitively fits into the hack-n-slash combat system and rewards the player for wanting to look cool.

I could go on and on just about the combat system. How the energy system forces you to use your projectiles and mobility bursts wisely, while incentivizing risky (but awesome) parrying. How the power of Dust storm and Dust Tornado are equalized by their lack of mobility and fixed trajectory, respectively. Etc. All of that would be well and good if Dust were only valuable for its combat. While that’s what got me hooked, it’s not what kept me coming back. For that, I needed the story.

Story-wise, Dust is very Zelda, minus the titular princess. We have a guy with an annoying companion and a magical sword trying to rid the world of evil guy. We journey around the world, helping people out of the lurch the evil guy put them in, grow morally, and eventually save the world. Normally, this would really annoy me. It’s an extremely formulaic story pattern that I grew tired of five years ago.

But it doesn’t. Not at all.

Dust kept my attention from the first moment to the ending cutscene because I liked every. single. character. Coming off of recently playing LOZ: Link between Worlds (a great game in its own right), I was struck by the character depth that Dust achieves without substantially changing the story format. First of all, the whole “let’s not give the main character dialogue because it makes him/her too hard to identify with” thing is played out, and I’m really glad Dust doesn’t subscribe to it. Dust (the titular character) talks plenty throughout the game, and has an actual personality to boot. This is actually a requirement, given the plot of the game, but it turns out quite well.

Fidget, Dust’s traditional back-sassing flying annoyance, serves as comic relief and fourth-wall-breaker, but also shows a surprising amount of emotion at the most trying moments of the story. She’s one of the first companions I’ve actually enjoyed having on an adventure game, one who made the story better than it would have been in her absence. One big reason for Fidget’s ranking well above the likes of Fi and Navi is that she only interrupts you to talk when it’s absolutely necessary. All of the mundane notifications (there’s treasure here/you’re low on health/you’re out of energy, etc) are handled with only a small symbol above her head and a brief but noticeable chime.

Magical talking sword Arrah rounds out Dust’s crew, taking the role of secretive wizard-like person who knows what’s going on but can’t tell Dust because of reasons that become clear near the end of the game. This would be frustrating to a real person, and amazingly, it’s frustrating to Dust as well. Dust gets mad at Arrah frequently throughout the game, whenever Arrah tells him to do something with little to no rationale behind it. The party size of three leads to some interesting argument resolutions throughout the game, where two parties agree against the wishes of the third. There are a few extended cut scenes, but they are all near the end of the game at which point I was 100% invested in the plot of the game. Finally, though I really can’t go into much detail, the fully unrolled plot is very interesting features some very unusual details, and also leaves copious amounts of room for a sequel, if there isn’t one already.

Finally, Dust is a visual and audio masterpiece. Every three-stage background, every enemy, and every animation is cut from the same vibrantly colored and flowing cloth.

300 hit combos are infinitely more satisfying because it looks like the whole thing was choreographed. A friend of mine watched me play for a good ten minutes, and at the end asked if it was scripted. It feels a bit like what Bastion would look like if every background was filled in with sweeping hills and towering mountains. Sound-wise, I felt like I was listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Powerful symphonic movements accompany Dust through his journeys, combining symbiotically with the landscapes and punctuating key moments. The only thing I can find wrong with Dust (and this is the smallest of nitpicks) is that the blending of foreground to mid-ground to background sometimes makes it difficult to determine what is walkable terrain. But it’s a trade I’ll gladly make for the seamlessness of the whole world.

Overall, to say that I loved Dust is an understatement. It sets a precedent for every adventure and RPG games that I will ever play, in just about every judicable category. I played it on the Tough difficulty, which was just right for me, and took about the right amount of time for a small adventure game (12 hrs). I can’t even deride it for being too easy, as there is a hardcore difficulty above tough that I’m sure would kick the crap out of me and most players. If you like Adventure games, RPGs, or Hack-n-slashes, Dust is an absolutely must buy. If not, I would still say give it a shot as the paragon of its genres.

When Everything Changes…

“Look, whatever you’re thinking, do me a favor; don’t let go.”

It’s taken just under two days, but I’ve finally made it home to the good old VA. Driving is nice, especially given how awful dealing with air travel has gotten these days, but upstate NY to central VA is just a bit too long of a trip for my tastes.

There were many things I wanted to do during the semester, and now I finally have the free time to start checking items off that list. The list (as with all mental things) is in a constant state of flux, but it looks a bit like this:

  1. Hug my two miniature poodles.
  2. Arrange music for next semester.
  3. Continue working on the game I’m designing. Hopefully have a playable prototype by the time school starts up again.
  4. Boot up steam and see what’s new.

I checked off number one immediately upon opening the door, not that I had much of a choice. With my desire for poodle hugs briefly sated, I flipped through the other three. In browsing Steam, however, I stumbled upon a game I have been waiting for forever, and everything else would have to wait until I finished it. Usually I wait for sales to make my Steam impulse purchases, but Transistor, released for Mac since I last checked, couldn’t wait.

I loved Bastion. Like, a lot. So let’s get the biggest disclaimer out of the way first: Transistor, the second game produced by Supergiant Games and spiritual successor to Bastion, is not Bastion. This isn’t at all a bad thing, but it means that in evaluating Transistor we can’t ask it to fill Bastion’s shoes. We have to judge it based on its own merits and flaws, and come to an unbiased conclusion.

A gorgeous travel cutscene
Even combat is beautiful

Let’s start with the good. Transistor, like Bastion, is absolutely beautiful. Bastion’s art style was full of vibrant colors drawn in a way to convey mystery and build the world. This strategy is applied once more in Transistor, to even greater effect. Transistor’s world is furnished with unending high rises that are at once indestructible and in a state of disrepair. Just as Bastion’s use of thin terrain and muted backgrounds created a sense of being alone in the middle of nowhere, Transistor’s never-ending urban sprawl creates a different kind of isolation – being alone in the largest city in the world.

Also like Bastion, Transistor makes use of a dynamic soundtrack with narration that follows you through the game. The music, along with the various bits of plot information thrown at you throughout the game, completes the feeling of isolation. Moments of silence drip with dread and desperation, punctuating key plot moments in the game.

The biggest way Transistor moves beyond Bastion is in its combat system. Bastion was a simple hack-n-slash. The weapon selection and upgrade system went a long way to allow all kinds of players to find something they liked, but at the end of the day everyone still selected two weapons and a special ability, and mashed buttons until everything stopped moving. Transistor starts at the same point, but moves far beyond it. Your core weapon is the Transistor but you get to pick four abilities to use at a time from a bank of learned abilities. Thus at the very start the level of customizability is higher – choosing four different abilities leads to a much higher number of combinations than three. Add on to that the fact that the upgrades and the abilities are the same resource – every ability you learn has three functions: an active, an upgrade, and a passive. You can only use each ability for one of its three functions in a given setup, however, so choose wisely. With this system, the number of different setups is nigh infinite and creates an extremely fun framework in which to experiment.

Thus far in the description, Transistor is still a hack-n-slash, though notably a complex and well-explored one. Transistor, however, doesn’t stop there. While you do have the option of playing the entire game in real time, you can instead treat it as a turn based strategy. Whenever you start a “turn”, all movement stops and you have free reign for a given amount of “time” – in turn currency. After you’ve planned out your turn you are able to execute it, seeing your immaculately planned series of strikes become reality.

The turn() interface. Admit it – you want to see how this works.

This turn() system is what allows the complexity of Transistor’s ability selection system to truly shine. Where the distinctions between your four abilities would likely be lost in a truly real-time setting, the ability to plan a combo allows you to use your set of abilities to their fullest and incentivize picking a set that you can really work with. It also creates a strange hybrid between a real-time strategy and a turn-based strategy, as you can seamlessly switch between the two even within the context of a single fight. At a minimum, it’s certainly an idea I would like to see more of.

Now, on to the bad. Transistor suffers from a few issues, but all are rooted in one core problem – the game is ridiculously short. I bought the game last night and had played about five hours when the credits rolled. I may play the “recurse” mode, but by the title I am lead to believe that I won’t see anything new. The combat system is amazing, but I felt that I had barely gotten the hang of it when I beat the game. The plot begins promisingly, but ends in a rush without real resolution because it just didn’t have enough time to develop. There were a few hard fights, but I never felt extremely challenged. It’s possible that the real difficulty of the game comes after the first victory, but I don’t think that’s good planning – the final boss fight should feel hard, on any play through. I came away feeling like I was ripped off. Not because of any monetary reasons, but because I really bought into the concept of the game in all aspects, from combat to plot, when it suddenly ended.

Overall, Transistor was a very good game. It proves that Bastion wasn’t a mistake – Supergiant knows how to use art, music, and gameplay to build a world and shape a plot within it. Moreover, Transistor brings up enough new ideas in its combat system that show that Supergiant isn’t skittish of trying new things that depart from the Bastion formula. At the end of the day though, Transistor’s short playtime is just too much of a handicap to argue for it being on the same level as Bastion. The real test, however, is what Supergiant will do from here. They had one hit game and managed to make a second one that, despite suffering from a key flaw, contained both the things that made the first great and new innovative material. I’m excited to see what they can do for their third game.

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.