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Wilderness games and Bastion's sheer solitude
by Andrew Testerman

Now here's a kid whose whole world got all twisted, leaving him stranded on a rock in the sky. He gets up. Sets off for the Bastion. Where everyone agreed to go in case of trouble.

Earlier this week, I finally finished Bastion, indie-developer Supergiant Games' much-loved action-RPG for Xbox Live Arcade and PC. Bastion's minimalistic storytelling, Diablo-style look and upgrade system, and fun, varied action mechanics made it a great hit with me, but one element of Bastion stands above the others: how alone and isolated an experience it is.

More than any game I've ever experienced, Bastion conveyed a sense of loneliness that ran through the whole mood of the game, and took an above-average, fun action-RPG game and turned it into one of my standout titles of 2011. The game uses several tricks to accomplish its bleak, deserted atmosphere, and each is worthy of consideration from other developers.

The Wild Unknown. Place can eat a man alive. Place is so raw, even the Calamity couldn't cook it. Not all of it.

Throughout Bastion, the game's protagonist, The Kid, is all alone, accompanied only by his wits and his weapons. I've experienced games that present you with a pressing sense of loneliness, having played through my fair share of Metroid games, and Bastion's sense of isolation is up there with the best of them. Its colourful art style and stylised monster designs give the game an other-worldly feel, and the atypical visuals add to the sensation that The Kid isn't in Kansas anymore.

Whilst exploring, The Kid traverses through the ruins of Caelondia and Ura, two nations that were at war before they were destroyed by a cataclysmic disaster known as The Calamity. Little titbits of Caelondian culture are scattered throughout the journey, and slowly you will discover how certain areas functioned before The Calamity struck, or learn about the various religious practices performed by the people before everyone was wiped out. The effect is similar to the opening scene in the film 28 Days Later, when the protagonist wanders through the deserted streets of London trying to figure out what happened. The details about the world you find yourself traversing, coupled with the lack of inhabitants, help drive home how alone The Kid really is.

There the kid hears something he ain't heard in a long while.
How's it go again....?
Yeah.... that's the one.

Perhaps my favourite element that Bastion uses to convey loneliness is its music. The soundtrack blends electronic and hip-hop elements with acoustic and electric guitar, with a composition that aims for an Old West, Frontier-esque feel, and leaves you with the impression that The Kid is wandering through a feral world, surviving by his own wiles, much like the classic Western heroes of old. In a way, he is.

Yet, even more than conveying an impression of the untamed West, the music hints at a sense of emptiness and an absence of hope. Many of Bastion's songs have a bluesy structure to them, or are sparse in their instrumentation, conveying a sense of sadness and emptiness, and making you, the player, feel as if you're the only one you can trust amidst the desolation.

Now the Kid sees something stranger still. His mind races. Did anybody else survive? Sure enough, he finds another. He finds me.

Nearly as enjoyable as the music is Rucks, the narrator. As The Kid slashes, shoots, and scrapes his way through the ruins of Caelondia, Rucks provides a running, second-hand commentary on the action. Rucks' sparse, fragmented speaking-pattern describes The Kid's actions at arm's length, always talking of the action in an active voice, but never becoming more involved than a basic description. Rucks talks about The Kid as though he weren't even there, turning a potential spot for camaraderie into another distancing element. Listening to Rucks calmly describe the monsters and their motivation amidst heated combat creates a chilly sense of separation.

It is this distancing element that provides the game with its most striking moment. Whilst exploring one area, around three to four hours into his journey, The Kid hears a sole acoustic guitar and a haunting, carrying voice. It's the only other voice heard in the game, and it belongs to Zia, a woman born of foreign soil whose only companion is her music. The sound of another voice, especially after so much time listening to only one person speak, is striking, and creates a near-instance feeling of kinship towards Zia, similar to how The Kid must feel to see another survivor of The Calamity.

Don't you worry, though. Once the Bastion is restored, everything'll be alright.

Bastion is one of the most remarkable games of 2011, full of unique story-telling, compelling action-RPG mechanics and a soundtrack that needs to be heard to be believed. However, my favourite - and possibly the best - aspect of the game is how isolated it made me feel, and how well it cast me as a lone adventurer. Many games have set me up me as the world's sole saviour before, but only Bastion makes me feel how 'sole' I really am.

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- Andrew Testerman

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