Friday, March 25, 2011

PAX East 2011: Bastion Preview & Interview

One of the highlights of my weekend at PAX East was the opportunity to demo Bastion, the upcoming action-RPG from Supergiant Games, and to talk with the seven-person studio’s Creative Director, Greg Kasavin. Supergiant recently inked a deal with Warner Brothers that will see Bastion brought to Xbox Live Arcade this summer—very good news for those of us eagerly anticipating its release.

Shown from an isometric perspective, Bastion has the player take on the role of The Kid, who’s just woken up to find his world literally torn apart by a mysterious Calamity. The Kid advances through each level, gaining experience for defeating enemies and collecting items and weapons to build his powers. The gameplay fits comfortably into the genre’s conventions, since, as Kasavin explains, the intention is for anyone to be able to pick up and play the game. There’s a few intriguing twists to the “smash everything in sight” formula, though.

The most noticeable thing is the art style. Instead of the sickly brown and gray color pallet seen in games like Fallout 3, Bastion features gorgeous hand-drawn art reminiscent of a Miyazaki film. It’s easily the prettiest post-apocalyptic world I’ve ever seen. Bastion is “not meant to be a bleak game,” Kasavin says. The brilliant colors serve a narrative purpose as well: “If this world is so beautiful even in its destruction,” Kasavin says, “it sure must have been amazing before the Calamity tore it apart.”

And the world of Bastion is literally torn apart. The action takes place on levels that appear to be floating in the sky, lending a fairy-tale sheen to the atmosphere. (Kasavin confirms he was inspired by the “darkness” in fairy-tale films like The Dark Crystal, and both he and designer Amir Rao tell me that they wanted to make the isometric angle feel more open by placing the sky below the player.) As The Kid progresses through each level, the ground assembles in front of him; bricks fly in from the edges of the screen, reconstituting the path ahead. The effect is pretty, but also a unique way to guide the player. The team asked itself, “Is there something we could do to direct the player that is not a map?” Kasavin says.

In the brief introduction to the story the demo provided, it seemed clear The Kid’s mission was to use the power of the Bastion—a sort of hub world—to restore his world to its former glory. The reconstituting effect subtly but meaningfully sets up a tension between gameplay conventions (smash everything in sight) and narrative (rebuild this broken world). Destroying objects and defeating enemies nets you “fragments,” which are later used as a form of currency within the Bastion to rebuild the world and purchase upgrades.

But even the act of combat isn’t entirely straightforward. I asked Kasavin about a previous statement he had made that the enemies in the game are not inherently evil monsters, but rather people who have been deformed by the Calamity. While there’s no discrete mechanic for defeating enemies without violence—“Killing them is often the only option,” Kasavin says—the game does want you to think about the implications of your actions. “I’m more interested in forces of antagonism,” Kasavin says, than “villainy,” whatever that might be. “People are put at odds, and we want the player to have empathy [for the enemies],” he says. There is no enforced morality system in Bastion, but the game does encourage the player to think critically about combat.

Yet the most striking feature of Bastion, and perhaps the one that lends its story the most ambiguity, is the narration. The Narrator—whom Kasavin cagily describes as “the main character, in a way”—provides nearly constant voiceover as you play. A second or two before The Kid performs an action, the Narrator will describe it. “The Kid grabs the hammer that’s just dropped from the sky,” he might say, just as said hammer drops from the sky. Like the reconstituting path, the narration leads the player on to the next objective while also fleshing out the story. “Our baseline requirement was for the story to never interrupt the play experience,” Kasavin says.

From what I saw, it works nicely, with Logan Cunnigham’s Tom Waits-meets-Sam Elliott gruffness providing a somber contrast to the bright, cartoony visuals. There’s also some humor peppered in occasionally; after I accidentally fell off a ledge, the Narrator deadpanned, “And then The Kid falls to his death...nah, just foolin’.” At which point, of course, I respawned.

Kasavin acknowledges the use of nearly continual dialogue was something of a risk, but is excited about the opportunity it’s given the team to play with narrative techniques. The Narrator “sounds like a straight shooter,” Kasavin explains, “but he never really gives you anything straight. You always have to read into everything he says.” While I didn’t get to experience much of that ambiguity in the demo, I’m fascinated to see how it turns out.

With its multiple twists on the action-RPG formula, Bastion is one to watch. You can start with the official trailer, found here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

PAX East 2011: Roundup, Part 1

Editor's note: One aspect of gaming that I've never been good at getting my head around is the fact that one can't be in all places at once. For instance, I'm currently trying to finish Dragon Age 2, which has all but extinguished my recently-rekindled preoccupation with Minecraft. There are only so many hours in a day; the two just don't mix.

And so it is with gaming expos, conferences, and related get-togethers—hot on the heels of GDC (which conveniently took place here in my own backyard), a trip to Boston for PAX East just wasn't possible—but that didn't mean I didn't want to be there!

Fortunately, Internet denizens and awesome games writers J.P. Grant and Sarah Elmaleh have been gracious enough with their words and their time to piece together a rundown of the show's events. Without further ado, allow me to present: Gamer Melodico's PAX East 2011 Roundup Part 1!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I Want To Believe: Jane McGonigal's PAX East 2011 Keynote

By 9:15 Friday morning, the line for the keynote wound three-quarters of the way down the convention center’s west wall. Which is saying something, because you can fit an entire city block inside the Boston Convention and Exposition Center.

The atmosphere was buoyant, despite the miserable blanket of rain and fog hanging over Boston. Teenagers wearing paper Plants Vs. Zombies construction cone hats mingled in impromptu Magic: The Gathering games in circles on the floor. Now and then a Professor Layton or Ryu would glide by, high-fiving the convention center police and Enforcers managing the line. Two guys in queue ahead of me, Seattle natives, enjoyed some good-natured pre-coffee bitching. “Weather here sucks ass,” said one, without a trace of irony. Behind me a gray-haired woman with a nose ring texted on her Android, fitted—naturally—with an R2D2 case. A PAX volunteer, a member of what I’d later discover was called the Cookie Brigade, circulated through the crowd, selling baked goods to raise funds for the Child’s Play charity.

9:15 AM and nary a Dickwolves shirt in sight.

An Enforcer approached my section of the line, motioning us all back against the floor-length windows so more people could squeeze in. “Gonna have to make friends,” someone in the crowd joked. “That’s okay,” the Enforcer deadpanned, “PAX is for making friends.”

Before I could comply, the line was lurching its way into the Main Theatre.

Friday, March 11, 2011

GDC 2011 Roundup/PAX East Teaser

It seems like GDC was just last week and here we go, it’s time for yet another conference/expo/excuse to play B.U.T.T.O.N. I’m reporting live from nowhere near the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. Fortunately, Gamer Melodico’s PAX East 2011 coverage is being ably handled by the indefatigable J.P. Grant and Sarah Elmaleh, both of whom we should be hearing from soon. Stay tuned!

As for GDC—what a trip! Awards were given (most of them to Minecraft), hands were shook, panels were attended, eyes were pinkened, and most of all some absolutely amazing people were met. A week has passed, and my voice shows no signs of returning.

Truth be told, it was my first GDC and I had somewhat limited access—so here are some of my favorite #gdc11 posts from around the web. Read this modest selection, and it’ll be like you were there! (At least, as much as I was.)
  • How to Write a Book About Games,” by Simon Ferrari. Not a post about GDC per se, but one of the first posts of the week written by-and-for GDC attendees. My first book will be titled Idetestinfinitespawnism in your honor, Simon. It’s going to open with a diatribe about the doctrine of eternal recurrence as it applies to Black Ops, and it’s going to be epic.
  • Rollercoaster Bias,” by Michael Abbott. The Brainy Gamer sits in on Heavy Rain creator David Cage’s panel, carefully deconstructing Cage’s arguments while still managing to give them a fair shake.
  • Clint Hocking on Dynamics,” by David Carlton. Reading David’s notes on the various GDC panels may well be the next best thing to having been there—this one in particular is one of a handful that he has singled out as particularly enlightening, but if there are any panels you’d wanted and failed to attend, all are worth perusing. For more information than the human brain can withstand, he has organized the rest of his very packed schedule by day: Mon - Tues - Weds - Thurs - Fri.
  • The Many Faces of Tim Schafer,” by Kirk Hamilton with photos by Brian M. Taylor. This piece needs no introduction, but take care to view it in its entirety before moving on to...
  • Mr. Schafer, I Presume,” by Kill Screen staff. Bwah ha ha ha.
If this list seems incredibly short, you’re completely right on—but it’s late and I’m hungry. Please do feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments.

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011

    Cold-Blooded Killer: A Dead Island Preview

    A cursor glides across the browser window and hovers over the “Play” icon. With an audible click the Dead Island trailer begins, a gory Memento of a thing that plays mostly in reverse. It does not begin well, which is really to say that it does not end well, for a vacationing family that is gruesomely un-devoured by a rampaging hotel room full of zombies.

    I am most likely among the last of the world’s videogame writers to see this clip. It’s not rare for me to be this late to the party, and the problem wasn’t that I failed to hear about this video. The week before, Twitter was ablaze with people raving about it—the game had been delivered to me with an extreme amount of hype, created entirely by my own friends and online acquaintances.

    Truly, the game shown in this trailer looks like it has the potential to be revolutionary, but for now, my excitement is somewhat tempered by the events of the past 24 hours. I’ve seen something my fellow gamers hadn’t—and in most cases still haven’t—had a chance to see.

    * * * * * * *

    “The first thing we need to discuss is what Dead Island is not,” says our host.

    We have stepped out of San Francisco’s Moscone Center and into a tiki hut. There is a woven canopy over our heads. Palm fronds and safari gear adorn the walls. There are sandwiches and licorice and bottles of water.

    Dead Island, we learn, is not going to be an experience akin to Heavy Rain. It is not intended to be an emotional experience about a family and grief and loss. It is a game about killing zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. I nod my head,  acknowledging that these are some of the expectations floating around the gaming community, apparently inadvertent side effects of The Trailer.

    I was hoping, upon leaving my house today, that they would show me this notorious trailer in a gesture as much about the success of the three-minute clip as the exposition contained within. It is not to be—our host assumes that we have seen it (in what universe could we not have seen it?), and his tone all but confesses that his role here today is to help guide us through the transition from The Trailer into the light of gameplay.

    The demo build places us in first-person control of Sam B, a rapper with a solitary hit who has been hired for a gig at a resort hotel on the fictional island of Banoi. He passes out drunk and awakens the following morning in the midst of a zombie outbreak. “Motherfucker!” he calls them. He hits them with a baseball bat. He zaps them with an electric machete. He levels up and then stomps on their heads, which burst like ripened cantaloupes.

    Although the demo seems to follow a fairly fixed path, we are told that the game will feature an open world. There will be experience and levels and perks (including the aforementioned cantaloupe effect), an unfolding narrative, multiple playable characters, online co-op, and a bustling resort island’s worth of zombies. What I’m seeing looks like Left 4 Dead meets latter-day Fallout, set in a Rockstar Games sandbox designed around Sandles Royal Caribbean, and if that equation is anything like reality… well, you could certainly do a lot worse.

    Make no mistake, I love killing zombies. At this point in my zombie-killing career, I’ve killed them by the tens of thousands with almost no regard for their particular persuasion or point of origin. Zombie, ghoul, necromorph, husk; hunter, hunted, survivor, dinner. Dead Island looks like a really fun game about killing zombies.

    But an emotional zombie epic? A family torn apart, literally and figuratively, by a zombie outbreak? It would seem as though that story has yet to be written.