October 5, 2015

Bastion (2011)

developed by Supergiant Games (San Jose, CA)
designed by Amir Rao and Greg Kasavin
written by Greg Kasavin

Next rule of 1-m cultural consumption: if I don’t like it, so be it. There’s a lot out there and of course I’m not going to enjoy it all. No need to do a negativity penance in the form of endless second chances.

Everyone online seems to really loooove this game but I didn’t. Everyone says it’s beautiful and short and sweet, but I was never actually charmed, and I stopped before it was over. “Short” is relative, after all. I played for 6 damn hours. That’s time I could have spent watching 45 Donald Duck cartoons, goddammit!! What’s the big idea? Blkhgh blkhgh blkhgh blkhgh blkhgh!

That’s my best attempt at typographic Duck.

The boldest thing about Bastion is that it has a narrator; a faux-gravelly faux-homespun voice tells the tale of the player’s progress as it’s happening. You heard him in the trailer; he goes like that the whole time while you’re playing. I think it’s intended to give a stronger sense of narrative drive to a game whose actual mechanics aren’t particularly narrative. For a lot of reviewers it seems to have worked. But the effect for me, unfortunately, was just the opposite: the narration came off as transparently aspirational, artificial ‘tude obviously unmerited by the onscreen action. Which just pointed up the awkward phoniness of the story being told, and of the needy pretensions of the game as a whole.

This particular narrator voice is, I feel sure, stolen from The Big Lebowski, which is indicative of the rather limited imaginative literacy at work here generally. If you want to tell a story that beguiles and moves me, you’re going to need to have a deeper bag of tricks to reach into than just the stack of DVDs and comics in your dorm room. This game tells a totally “epic” “tale” but the words “epic” and “tale” are cut and pasted from elsewhere, ransom-note style. Probably from the back of an anime DVD case.

The graphics and sound and music and kinetics are all perfectly polished and attractive. There’s just no glue in the interstices. It felt to me like a portfolio of game design elements rather than a game with a heart. “Heart” was one of the things in the portfolio, underlined heavily. Maybe if there hadn’t been that damn narrator telling me every 20 seconds that this was a hell of a tale, I might have found out what it really was — not actually a story game at all, but with kind of a story loosely off in the background. Like pinball. I can enjoy pinball, but not if someone stands over my shoulder doing a cowboy voice and saying “Ball tries going up the ramp… next thing he knows, he’s slidin’ back down. Well, no one ever said this was gonna be easy.”

I should also acknowledge my personal antipathy toward games with a lot of configurable options. Man, when I’m playing an action game in a fantasy world I so don’t want to have to care about a lot of configurable options. Whereas this game is pretty clearly designed around the player thinking that configurable options are the absolute bee’s knees. Mimesis meekly lays down flat on its face every few minutes so that you can have the pleasure of wrangling yet again with weapon selection and weapon upgrades and player power-ups etc. etc.

In the trailer, you’ll note that the first specific thing named and illustrated about the gameplay proper is “… this distillery, chock full of the finest spirits.” Understand that the “spirits in the distillery” are power-ups that the player can choose before each level; +10 Health and the like. To me it seems obvious that that sort of stuff shouldn’t be the first selling point in the trailer; it’s fundamentally auxiliary. Yet there it is, front and center. And it’s that way in the game too; all the real hoopla is reserved for the occasions when the game reveals awesome new opportunities to configure options! To me it’s more like the waiter who won’t go away. “Would you like some ground pepper on that bite, sir? No? And how about that bite, sir?…”

I just want to bop the little bad guys, which is the actual game of the game. I get the sense that the game is embarrassed to actually be a game about bopping little bad guys. Don’t worry, game, it’s okay. Embrace yourself. It would make this easier on all of us.

I was not nowhere, playing this game, I was at least partially somewhere. There were sounds and colors and presences, the insinuation of a something. I want to give it credit for that; that’s the main stuff, in games. But when a game is really working, that stuff coalesces into something strong and enveloping, whereas after 6 hours with Bastion there was still only that vague insinuation. Plus an ever-rising sense of tedium and annoyance. And now it’s months later and I’m not going to pick it up back up. I’m going to click “Publish” and move on.

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