Learning From Games
Most games are 'just' games, even if they're fun. I had a blast with Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, but I couldn't say I learned anything from it. But occasionally you get a game that teaches you something.
Tiny Wings was like that for one finger play. There have been several design competitions for one button play with accessibility in mind, such as Gamma 4, but I never saw anything of that level come out of these contests and didn't really believe you could have such a polished, fun, one button game. I suspect part of it is not starting with the mentality that you're crippling a 'real' game.
Bastion is like that for audio. It's a fantastic game, and at the core it's a fun, polished action RPG, but if you turn the sound off suddenly it's no longer a fantastic game, it's just a decent game.
Lessons Learned from Bastion
Most of the things I'm going to point out are already known game design principles, they're just very well executed in Bastion. And the narration is a huge innovation.
- Everything in Bastion is well soundposted. There's a short window where some of the weapons are charged up enough to do a Power Shot that does extra damage. There's a visual effect, but there's also a subtle sound effect that reinforces your proper timing.
- Enemies are immediately identifiable, even offscreen, by the sounds they make.
- Every weapon has a unique sound that affect the functionality but gives each character. You can tell which weapon you're using just by the sounds and help give them a tactile feel.
To the point, if you're playing with the sound off you are at a real disadvantage.
This will be the least surprising to anyone, but music adds significantly to the experience. It's a rollicking / sad spaghetti western with asian influences affair which is mostly wordless. Occasionally it will kick in some vocals, and they have a real impact, especially because the singers are the characters in the game.
Over the course of the game the soundtrack never gets old - in fact, now that I've finished the game twice, I badly want the actual soundtrack.
This is the real genius of Bastion. The way the levels appear around you as you move is also relatively original and great artistically, but not nearly as significant for play.
Your player is 'The Kid', but the narrator Rucks, voiced by Logan Cunningham, is the game's real character. His deep, reassuring voice narrates almost everything The Kid does and imbues it with extra significance. You're not just killing sprites, you're doing something epic.
There are at least four key points in effect here:
- The right voice. It has to be one you like listening to for 15 hours. This wouldn't work with Gilbert Gottfried.
- Plenty of situational variety. Rucks doesn't say the same thing too often, and most lines are level specific. Early on when you get your first weapon, any normal person will spend some time just tearing up the scenery and there's a unique line only used here: 'The Kid just rages for a little while.' Every level has unique comments for things like falling off the terrain.
- The narrator fills you in on specific plot points and warns you about upcoming dangers without requiring you to read text or find hokey audio logs. It's completely natural.
- The narrator is mostly reliable, but he's got his own agenda, which is particularly obvious in the level where you're clearing out the monsters' bastion. He's also not omnipotent or omniscient and isn't afraid to admit when he's not sure what's going on. Turning him into an in-game character makes this more palatable to players who aren't used to the idea of an unreliable narrator - especially the voice makes you want to believe everything he says.
Now I'm not sure how far you can sustain this. A repetitive narrator is extremely annoying - we've already seen that in sports games, Dark Messiah, iNFAMOUS and Zelda's Navi. And would I find Logan Cunningham's voice as soothing if he were in every single game like Nolan North? But Bastion at least proves it's possible when nobody thought it was.
To Wrap it Up
If you own an XBox 360, buy Bastion right now. It's well worth $15. Otherwise, you'll have to wait for the Steam release later this year.
Play the game and beat it. Now start another game and turn off the sound.
Reconsider your (explicit or implicit) stance on whether audio should be a first class citizen in a game. Or if you're an audio guy, just pump your fist to the sky and scream 'Yes! Yes!'