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Step by step, a world constructs itself, piece by piece, under his feet. A bourbon from the bottle voice reminisces about each tremble of the hammer, every breath of the bellows. Synesthetic is the only way that I can describe Bastion, but instead of stimulating the senses, it evokes memories that I’ve never had. The music is integral to the experience, like vibrating brushstrokes to the wonderful painting that is Bastion. When asked how he pulled off such an amazing score, Bastion’s composer Darren Korb cited pouring a lot of love and hard work into the music to match up to and exceed the quality of games with big budgets. In his talk at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this year, Korb showed how a two person team provided all the beats, hisses, and narration of Bastion with little glamour. I sat in the back row with my pen bleeding through my notebook as I watched a process I could theoretically enact myself given enough passion and grit. In passing, he mentions how one of the vocal tracks of the game, Zia’s “Build that Wall,” is a cultural artifact of a country at war. It is strangely soothing despite describing an impending doom of a people locked up in their stronghold.
I noticed a strong presence of indie developers at GDC, all with a similar message: “You can too.” The frankness of Korb’s talk revealed quality work assumedly monopolized by large development teams and sponsored by publishers with deep pockets. I felt the excited unease around me of people unsatisfied with solving artistic limitations by just throwing money at it. Pulling my pen away, I wrote out the lyric still in my memory: “One day that wall is gonna fall.” Bastion is a contemplative war anthem for the strengthening indie developer movement, a force growing large enough to raid the hill that triple-A companies have claimed. It gives a melody to the thesis of Anna Anthropy’s newly published Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Anthropy also spoke at GDC, echoing her book’s “you can too.” Rise of the Videogame Zinesters describes how and why homogeny is behind the hoarding of game design by the few and provides resources and guidance to start developing a game despite being excluded from current development culture. Where Korb lends that motivating hum to urge your body, Anthropy gives you the sword and the confidence to wield it. Both describe inner strength and self-expression, not a wealth of money, as the key to producing an independent game.
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“Build that Wall” isn’t just a call for war, however. As Kate Cox describes in “I’m trying to undo it, remember?” Zia’s song is also a spiritual, a binding hymn against oppression (“I’m trying to undo it, remember?, Your Critic is in Another Castle, 4 October 2011). She describes it as something persevering through time until the Kid is unable to bear his conscience anymore. Eventually, we all must deal with the pain, hum, and create a new world. Anthropy’s book seems to describe this new world, where games are a decentralized mode of personal expression. By making the tools and methods approachable for everyone, video games gain a diversity missing from the current model of production. A spiritual works like a tide. As more people sing, it grows until it sweeps over castles and leaves a new shore to walk on. During the Experimental Microtalk session at GDC, Anthropy described the philosophy behind the collaborative game Keep Me Occupied with mechanics that rely on the player being a drop in a wave of change. Games can inspire and chip away at walls once impenetrable. Bastion and Keep Me Occupied act as testaments to the untapped egalitarian nature of game design, telling the community that only some of the experiences in life can be told by triple-A studios.
Zia’s song wasn’t meant to be a challenge to gaming juggernauts, but it will be on the lips of those leaving GDC this year. Mine smiled when the bookstore cashier knew Rise of the Videogame Zinesters’ price by heart and seeing its bright cover poking out of bags. As developers take another year to absorb the experience and toil at their craft, there will undoubtedly be a rise in personal expression, of homemade games that speak to us in ways previously discouraged. I remember leaving the conference, the air of San Francisco brisk and lively. Go ahead game industry, build that wall.