Monday, July 25

Bastion: Innovation in Narration

Bastion - the first offering from the Xbox Live Arcade’s “Summer of Arcade” promotion - oozes charm. Its visuals and isometric perspective hark back to classic RPGs like The Adventures of Alundra and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The combat system and other gameplay mechanics also appear to be reminiscent of Action RPGs released in the nineties. Innovation lies in the game’s sound design though. Not necessarily in the sound effects or the contemporary soundtrack, but in the use of a narrator. 

Other games have used them before, though not as comprehensively as Bastion. Previous instalments of the Fallout franchise have opened and concluded proceedings with Ron Perlman’s dulcet commentary, but his voice is notably absent throughout the action of each adventure. The narrator in that case sets the tone, but doesn’t maintain it. Supergiant Games’ first effort offers a new approach, with a narrator providing observation on most aspects of the player’s experience.

Bastion’s narrator, Rucks comments on almost every action the player takes. He will taunt you when you become careless and fall or take massive damage. He will remind you to heal yourself when you’re close to death. He will celebrate and detail the acquisition of new gear. He will lament your passing. 

For the first few minutes, I found this constant commentary distracting; almost annoying. About three hours in however, and this vocal chronicle of my adventure is essential. It elevates what is - in all honesty – a fairly standard, though beautifully-rendered hack-and-slash adventure to a thoughtful experience that I would recommend without hesitation. You need to listen to fully appreciate what Bastion offers, and how it differs to every Action RPG before it.

The way in which every deception, betrayal, triumph and shortcoming is reinforced provides a sense of warmth and guidance that can’t be achieved with the scrolling and boxed text normally associated with the genre. It also serves to develop the story at large. I can’t think of any game – RPG or otherwise – that tells players how they’re performing, what they need to do, and what’s happening in the game’s world as effectively as Bastion. Can this narrative strategy and sound design be applied to any game? Probably not, but the results could be hilarious if not inappropriate. 

Let’s start with a game like John Woo’s Stranglehold. I would invite you to provide a transcript to read over the action you’ll witness in the clip below.

Here’s my take:  
Inspector Yuen may have been a violent man – some would say, needlessly so – but if there was anything he enjoyed more than killing, it was grinding. Jumping on a rail and sliding; killing as many people as he could, as stylishly as humanly possible. He was doing that well this time. The rail had to end sometime, didn’t it? At least he found a cart to continue his dance of carnage. Time just seemed to slow down when those bullets flew and those bodies crumpled. So many bullets, but not enough bodies to make a good score this time it would seem. There will be others though, don’t you worry. Why is he jumping against that wall? Now he’s just showing off, isn’t he? 

Maybe that’s a little too lyrical for a game that allows players to shoot their opponents in the groin and watch as their victims fall to the ground in agony? Let’s try the technique on a game that is better suited to some exposition: Grand Theft Auto IV.

Niko loved to drive; and drive fast. So he did, on his newly acquired bike. It was a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. He was listening to some light-hearted tune that reminded him of better days. If he had hair, you’d best believe it would be trailing behind him in the Liberty City sun. One thing you should know about our friend, Niko is that he did not much appreciate the law. Nor did he care much for paying hard-earned cash to abide by it. Either way, he had better slow down if he has any hope of avoiding certain death. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Few people would have called him a good man, but no one deserves to be thrown into the Liberty City deep like old Niko just was. 

Are there any games you can think of that would be richer with the inclusion of an all-seeing narrator? Have you got a transcript that you would like to share?

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