A Bastion of Emotion: Music and Words

August 3, 2011

Two times through Bastion, and there’s a good chance it’s ruined me to pretty much every other game that’s going to come out this year. There are pieces of this game that made me feel things that I haven’t felt from a game in years…maybe ever. This is the first of three increasingly spoilerific posts in which I try to break down just how Bastion manages to be as affecting as it is.

Part 1: Music and Words (Minimal Spoilers)

Songs with words do not typically go with video games unless they are presented purely as background. This approach is most prevalent in sports games, where licensed soundtracks compete with each other until you’re trying to figure out whether you’d rather listen to Puddle of Mudd or Staind or freaking Hinder until you’re done picking whatever you’re picking out of menu #4. Songs with words written specifically for the game in which they appear? Usually the result is a too-precious or cute pop song running along on top of a particularly carefree moment in a JRPG, or you get Portal, whose end song is one more joke courtesy of the always funny GladOS.

While Bastion‘s everpresent narrator Rucks is often quite funny, he’s not a joke in and of himself; he actually ends up coming off as a dire, cynical character, in a world that is deadly serious despite the game’s cartoonish veneer. Most of the music here is simply background work, a little bit more atmosphere in a world positively crawling with the stuff. It’s spaghetti western with the odd downtempo beat, metal guitar, with a touch of Indian influence — a fantasy-world wild-western concoction that wouldn’t have sounded terribly out of place scoring, say, Firefly.

The first time you hear her, however, you know. You know that the game is doing something to you, you know that it is truly something special. For an entire stage, she’s there in the background, playing her song as you try to find her. The music gets louder as you progress, giving it a tangible quality rare for video game background music. And then, when you finally find her, all the sound in the game cuts out save for her song…and it’s a beautiful song. Shockingly so. It’s worth just sitting there and listening to it, wondering what it’s trying to say about the game it adorns. Zia is known as “the singer” in the game, and it’s for good reason.

Just as shocking as hearing Zia’s song for the first time is that her song is not the last time you’ll hear a vocal track adorning the game’s beautifully-done music, and that second moment packs at least as much of a punch as the first.

If not for the music, these moments would work, but not nearly as well. When you hear Zia sing “I dig my hole, you build a wall”, you wonder what she means exactly. Rucks treats the song as if it’s an old standard, but when you’re hearing it for the first time, it’s impossible to keep from ascribing meaning to the words. This is, of course, by design. We’re supposed to ascribe meaning to it. It’s there for a reason.

And then, when you hear the other song…”I’m coming home”, he sings…and if you have a heart in your chest, it will break.

Given that this is supposed to be the least spoiler-filled of my Bastion series, I’m going to leave it there. Bastion is a very special game for a number of reasons, but I never could have suspected that the narration would eventually be overshadowed by the music. The music in the game is uniformly fantastic, but when words are put onto that music, and a gameplay experience is laid on top of that, it’s positively transcendent.

* * *

Stay Tuned for Part 2, where we’ll look at the emotional pull of persistence.

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One comment

  1. […] And speaking of music, my recent podcast buddy Mike Schiller at Unlimited Lives writes about the sounds of Bastion. […]

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