Games

'Bastion': Putting Character Back into Indie Arcade

Bastion is a grandiose science fantasy with a rustic twang steeped in the mythic Old West.


Bastion

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Rated: E10+
Players: 1
Price: $15.00
Platforms: XBox 360
Developer: Supergiant Games
Release date: 2011-07-20
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For the past few years now, Xbox Live Arcade has used their "Summer of Arcade" promotion to introduce gamers to strong, uniquely conceived work from the indie scene. 2008's Braid sparked an undeniable change in how mass audiences saw "art" games, which (along with thatgamecompany's Flower) became chief arguing pieces for and against Roger Ebert "can games ever be art?" debate. 2010's Limbo followed up this act by referencing the Gothic tradition of silent cinema and leaving a strong aesthetic impression -- as well as speculations whether 2D, sidescrolling platformers featuring big-headed man-children were the flavor du jour of this console generation's indies.

2011's Bastion, the debut title of Supergiant Games, proves that at least one of those above elements is optional. Its protagonist is still superdeformed and quiet as a mouse, but we've swapped side scrolling for isometric action-RPG gameplay and traded in Braid's big blocks of text and Limbo's semiotics sans language for a memorable, chatty narrator and plenty of item descriptions and backstory. In doing so, Bastion becomes far larger than either of those games, not simply by providing a strong narrative but by giving us characters to care about.

Bastion is a Western the same way that Firefly is a Western, likewise, a Sergio Leone film or Stephen King's Dark Tower. It is a grandiose science fantasy with a rustic twang steeped in the mythic Old West. But it is also something far beyond what the genre may imply.

Central to the game's conflict is the Calamity, the catastrophic event which literally tears reality asunder. The Bastion referenced in the title is a bomb shelter/Eden 2.0 with the power to reconstruct the world from its ashes, something the player then sets out to do. You encounter other survivors along the way, including the game's narrator, who has more of a connection with the Calamity than he initially lets on. The strongest part of Bastion's story is how each member of its small cast bears meaningfully on events, especially as the game delves deeper into issues of expansionism, race, and war.

In addition to choosing the order in which structures are rebuilt in the Bastion, players can set up their own challenges. Gameplay, while at first blush rather simplistic, is admirably well balanced for the variety of ranged, heavy, and melee weapons that you acquire, all of which can be upgraded and further customized. Each weapon has a story as part of the culture from which your character hails, as well as "Proving Grounds" where traditional users of those weapons honed their skills before the Calamity. Only the shrine, where players invoke various religious idols to power up their opponents in exchange for better EXP and drop rates, feels a little disconnected from the world building which otherwise affords this game something close to perfection.

On our forthcoming podcast dedicated to the subject, I speculate with other members of the Moving Pixels crew whether Bastion is a game that can be expanded upon. In my view, one of the endings the player may choose from certainly suggests this, but ultimately adding even one thing more to Bastion's ensemble would be one thing too many. Some games provide a touch of characterization that leave you wanting to know more; Bastion is one in which my imagination had no trouble taking flight to fill in the gaps. From Rucks, the fatherly yet unreliable narrator, to Zulf, a traumatized but driven ambassador from a foreign land, the entire cast is rendered beautifully in the game's painterly cutscenes and afforded a rich texture by the writing.

Bastion may be a strangely alien frontier but the campfire recollection of Rucks's drawling oration (which adapts to the player's actions), the folk elegance of Zia's music, and the sheer wealth of little details populating the world all tap into a vein of the Western that is much deeper than cowboy hats and desert badlands. It reaches to the heart of myth. The Calamity Kid stands up right next to the likes of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan, and the developers know it.

But Bastion's truest beauty is in how dark it becomes and how subtly it draws the player into that darkness. If the West had been won by nuclear war, this is how it might have played out in one's nightmares. And yet it is so charming, so colorful, so cute with its chibi character designs that we might sooner expect something on the level of Spirited Away, not Grave of the Fireflies. But grim it is, though the game is always careful to provide you with just a glimmer of hope for a happy solution, well, for some definitions of happy.

As an aesthetic experience, from visual design to world building and music, Bastion is second to none right now. It is definitely this year's stand out indie title, which proves once again that good things come in small packages. What Bastion provides, head and shoulders above either Limbo or Braid, is a narrative you can wade neck-deep into -- and get carried away in the current.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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