Now Take Them Out, Devils: The Marriage of Music & Narrative in the Video Game Bastion

Written by Simon Lazarus Vasta on . Posted in Arts & Film, Music.


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Recently, when I’m not performing diligent research, sifting through a hard drive’s worth of mp3s, resting my chin in my hands contemplatively and having deep deep thoughts about pop songs for you lovely people, I’ve been playing a video game called  Bastion. It’s a really fun game, but more importantly, it’s a genuinely moving experience. If it was just the Isometric Action RPG it is in its core mechanics, that would be fine, but it’s Bastion’s presentation that makes it so unique and fantastic. That’s not to say that it’s style over substance; rather, it’s substance communicated perfectly by style. The most basic element of this is that Bastion is remarkably pretty, a techni-watercolor post-apocalypse that is simultaneously cartoony and grim. Added to this is the unreliable narration of Rucks (voiced beautifully by Logan Cunningham) who wryly comments on our actions as we hack and slash and shoot and explode our way through this ruined world, foreshadowing betrayals of trust and revealing dark secrets.

And all that would be enough to set Bastion apart from the pack: Wild-West tinged apocalyptic fantasy game, a Cormac McCarthy fairytale, wonderfully written and presented, full of depth and charm. But what elevates Bastion from a great game to an excellent one is its music, and the way it’s interwoven with the narrative.

Bastion‘s soundtrack was composed by Darren Korb, a New York-based musician with a background in scoring movies and television. Korb’s seamless blend of steel-bodied cowboy country, big beat electronica, western classical, and American and Middle-Eastern folk musics breathes uncanny life into the gameworld. The violent struggle for survival, the uneasy peace between rival countries Caelondia and Ura, the despair brought about by living off the scraps of your own dead civilization, and the hope of a brighter future (or a return to the comforting arms of the past); these things are present not only in the game’s visuals and narration but in the martial chaos of the industrial drum, oud and mouth harp-led “Terminal March” and the frontiers-y, old west-meets-breakbeats jam “In Case of Trouble.”

But while Korb’s compositions certainly flesh out Bastion, it’s the folk songs he wrote for the game that most inform the narrative. “Build That Wall” and “Mother, I’m Here” are sung by two of the game’s secondary characters (one of whom’s singing voice is Korb himself). They songs are relics of the world destroyed by the Calamity, the remnants of an all but extinct culture. They are eulogies and warnings, an attempt to hold on to the ephemeral and an acknowledgement of the inevitable. One of the most remarkable things about these songs isn’t fully evident until the end of the game, where they are combined into the soaring, sadly beautiful and beautifully sad “Setting Sail, Coming Home.” The songs are reflections of each other, parts of a larger whole. And, moreover, depending on the choices you make in the endgame, one’s interpretation of the lyrics is shifted. I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’ll just say that “Setting Sail, Coming Home” is as split between wanting to return to a bygone world and trying to build something out of its ashes as the rest of game is. I may or may not have teared up at the end of my first playthrough.

Bastion can be played on pretty much anything from an iPad to an XBox 360, and I strongly advise you to do so. Even if you are video game averse (and seeing as the medium is currently dominated by dumb, jingoistic bullshit like the Call of Duty games, I really can’t blame you) you should at least watch a few gameplay trailers, and listen to Darren Korb’s fantastic soundtrack. Hopefully it’ll change yer mind.

That’s this week in NTTOD. Follow Simon Lazarus Vasta on Twitter @hunter_s_narc.

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