One Day That Wall Is Gonna Fall: Bastion Reviewed

This is a video game review that is mostly a music review. To get the full flavor, change tracks as you reach them. Trust me, it’s worth it.

First, click to start this song: 

Now, the review:

BastionThe video game industry has exploded in the last few years as independent development becomes easier, cheaper, and more freely available. While multibillion dollar studios still exist and game projects with budgets the size of Hollywood blockbusters still thrive, this is no longer the only way on earth to make a game. This is a boon for gamers, as indie megahits like Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, and Braid make their way directly from small teams of creators to the public. Smaller games gather their own audiences and groundswells, and ideas proliferate until not even professional games industry critics can play everything. There are so many games to play already, and every year the quality and quantity of the selection increases exponentially.

All of this is to say, basically, that Bastion is the best game that I should have played two years ago, but didn’t.

What is most remarkable about Bastion is the music and sound design. The Bastion soundtrack has been universally praised since release, even beating out the iconic Portal 2 theme by Jonathan Coulton in the Spike Video Game Awards. The game itself is colorful, lively, and fun to play, but Bastion wouldn’t have been the hit it became without the musical influence of musician Darren Korb.

Darren Korb

Korb must be some kind of mad genius. His work on Bastion was his first project in video game music design, and to hit such a home run on the first try is breathtaking. Korb applied his talent as a composer and musician and just started writing songs. Rather than make all of the music sound the same with endlessly looping mood pieces, Korb invented a musical genre for all of the game music to fit into for a unified, signature sound. What he came up with is a sign of Korb’s genius, a style he calls Acoustic Frontier Trip-hop. Imagine a world where Firefly meets manga meets industrial rock concert. Japanese shamisen and wounded bass lines call out the sound of a dark saloon where a geisha slams back a shot of whiskey, whips up a chain gang with an old slave work spiritual, and everyone pitches in to clean up the morning after a Sex Pistols blowout. It’s bizarre, but goddamn it sounds nice.

What I didn’t understand during my time with the game was just how central to the design the music really was. According to his speech to the crowd at the Game Developers Conference 2012, Korb was tapped to provide the music so early in the design process that his finished songs were some of the first creative assets to be shared with the team. As a result, Korb’s decision to invent his own musical genre to evoke a sense of place influenced the rest of their team in their work on creating that setting. The tone and flavor of the backdrop became the foundation for the world itself.

Korb also brought the game’s signature narrator came to life. Reaching across the hallway, Korb asked his roommate, actor Logan Cunningham, to take a shot at providing the voice of the narrator. The development team liked the result so much that they seized on this arrangement as one of the core strengths of their development. As creative director Greg Kasavin explained in an interview:

One of those advantages was, ‘Hey, our audio director, who is a very talented musician, is roommates with a guy who has an amazing voice and is an amazing actor. So, first of all, why don’t we do something with voice, and why don’t we push on that as hard as possible, because they can record whenever? It’s just Logan going into Darren’s closet and recording stuff.’ Whereas even for a triple-A studio, the logistics of setting up a recording session are incredibly difficult. So we realised it was an area in which we could compete against the big studios head-on.

With that realization, the reactive narrator was born. Throughout the game, over 3,000 lines of dialog unspool as the narrator, Rucks, guides the player through the story. The reactive narrator is incredibly effective as a way for the game to pay attention to the player and provide them immediate feedback. If the player spends time goofing around, the narrator makes fun of it. If the player falls off a ledge, the narrator jokes that the character died and the story is over. In providing detailed, personal feedback, the story becomes the player’s own.

(Stop the first track if it hasn’t ended already)

(Now click this one)

This new way of building an interactive world comes to a head with the level “Prosper Bluff.” The highlight of the Bastion soundtrack, “Zia’s Theme (Build That Wall),” begins to play in the distance, sung by a stooped and lonely singer. The level is designed to bring the player in and out of range of the figure crooning in the center. This spiraling, twisting level was built specifically to deliver Zia’s quiet, mourning acoustic solo in waves, a stanza at a time. In a game where the musical genre influenced the color palette, this is a level built by the lyrics.

The “video games as art” discussion has been going on for some time. Bluntly, I don’t see how video games can be anything other than art—after all, “if a hundred artists create art for five years, how could the result not be art?” That said, I understand that skeptics are watching the game world for something more artistic than grunting supermarines sawing an alien in half with a shattered bottle of Mountain Dew. They aren’t convinced that realistic breast jiggling physics (Ugh.) show the same commitment to self-expression as the post-impressionist movement. I get it. Really, I do.

What is art?

Bastion is art.

Bastion is a symphony with introductions and characters and themes and returning, twisting motifs. As gamers fight for our hobby to find some recognition, some purchase in the world of respectable artistic expression, it is games like Bastion that will help cross that gap.

One day, that wall is gonna fall. We’ll be there before too long.

The Kid

In Defense of Practical Effects: Oz the Great and Powerful Reviewed

China Girl

There’s a moment halfway through Oz, the Great and Powerful where Oz meets an adorable living china doll. She is scared and hidden in the dark corner of a broken house, and she is the first opportunity for Oz to do some real good in this colorful new world.

Oh, how I wish she would have stayed in that house with her legs snapped off.

It’s not that the character is bad — she isn’t. It’s not that the voice acting isn’t good — it is! I pick on the China Girl as a symptom of a deeper disease that makes this movie a truly mediocre waste of time.

The problem with the China Girl is that every time she’s on screen interacting with other actors, the CGI involved is as competent as a high school media project. The lighting on the doll doesn’t match the lighting on the actors, and James Franco in particular seems incapable of pretending he’s holding a doll in his hand. This leads to a number of scenes where Franco tries desperately to cup his hands to nestle a China doll’s butt without letting his talent trickle out from between his fingers. As he walks across the room, his hand and the doll move independently of one another like the animated background in a Scooby Doo cartoon.

These kids don’t know it, but they are better actors than James Franco.

Before long, I was convinced that the special effects were placed lovingly by the same photo techs who digitally insert Tinkerbell into Disney World vacationers’ family photos.

Technology changes, and it does so every day. As it grows, the urge to use technology grows with it, and film producers are compelled to look for ever-newer, ever-flashier, ever-more expensive ways to depict the fantastic characters in their movies. This is a symptom of big Hollywood productions in that, in every way, Oz, the Great and Powerful is supposed to be a great movie simply because it was so very expensive.

Even though it cost $215 million dollars, Oz has more than turned a profit in the first two weeks of worldwide release. It is the biggest hit of 2013 and continues to dominate the box office and probably won’t slow down for a while. But why so much money on such bad effects?

This idea shows up everywhere in this movie. A good script with a better story can only soak up so much of the budget — after all, you can only pay writers so much before they’re just getting spoiled. But 100 graphic artists and computer animators dissecting and recoloring and animating every frame of a two-hour movie? Now we’re talking about some serious change.

This mentality seeps into other parts of the production as well. On several occasions, the actors are shown in profile as shadows against a wall or as silhouettes in front of a setting sun, and for some bizarre reason these scenes are again animated in CGI, and they are done very poorly. The animations blend seamlessly from a real person doing real things on a set to a pre-render glitch reel from the cutting floor of Nightmare Before Christmas.

Why not put an actor in makeup, point a spotlight at them, and film the wall of the set? Why not spend a little money buying an actual china doll and then animating the mouth and using digital effects to erase the wires? At least then she’d fit in poor Franco’s hand.

There’s a reason why the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park from twenty years ago look and move better than the dinosaurs in last year’s stinker Terra Nova. Even though true computer animation has been invented, pioneered, professionalized, and matured in the last two decades, it still can’t match the real quality impact of a hand-made, hand-illustrated model. A guy in a rubber suit made Alien the archetypal horror classic, while $130 million couldn’t save Prometheus from the trashbin of broken dreams.

attack_the_blockIndependent film hit Attack the Block introduced the world to a horrifying cast of aliens that began as actors in gorilla costumes slamming around the set. After filming, the glowing teeth and matte-black fur was added in post-production. Regarding the cost of the aliens and the success of their overall look, director Joe Cornish said:

I knew [the aliens] had to be practical. I knew we couldn’t afford CGI creatures. And I wanted them to be practical, because I love the practical work in movies that I saw when I was growing up. I wanted to use some digital, but with a lightness of touch. I always feel digital is best used to enhance what’s already present, than to create it from the ground up.

The results are breathtaking. The young actors on set admit that they felt intimidated and scared of the creatures, even though they knew they were just actors in stupid suits. They were reacting with fear to real monsters, and their performances are worth it.

Maybe less is more. Maybe practical effects with digital polish is the way to go. Maybe Hollywood should start taking lessons from the Indie film scene and start restraining budgets to unleash creative solutions.

Then again, maybe Oz is going to turn a profit big enough to fund a manned mission to Mars. Maybe Attack the Block lost $8 million of its production budget despite being critically acclaimed. Maybe what’s good for profit isn’t what’s good for art, and Disney film executives and I are just looking at opposite sides of the memo.