if i could turn back time + bastion

Strange Fixations, Vol. 21 — because it’s in the music

[via Nintendo]

Hello friends.

I’ve been busy this week, all my various odd jobs have kicked into high gear at the same time, as they often do when I’m least expecting it. Haven’t had much time to dive into new episodes of TV shows, my podcast queue is growing longer, and my goal of reading a little bit each day is getting harder to hit. But one thing I have managed to make time for is listening to the soundtracks for Supergiant Games’ and inspired by our I’ll Show You Mine episode on Bastion, releasing today. I really enjoyed our playthrough of this game, and welcomed the opportunity to linger in the world for a little while via composer Darren Korb’s excellent soundtrack. After being primed for the experience by Hades, I think I was in a much better position to get through this game with relative ease, and as we mention in the podcast, everything that people love about Hades has clearly been with Supergiant from the very beginning.

What struck me right away playing Bastion was the colors. In the header image you can see some of the landscapes and character design of the game, and I was amazed at the gorgeous saturation of it all. As you progress and discover new areas, the colors continue to impress, running the spectrum from the light and bright world of Caelondia to the darker palette of the Wilds. Everything has this dense color, from your surroundings to smaller details like weapon upgrades and tonics that are only really seen in menus.

The other way that Bastion envelops you in its environment is through music and sound, which is where that recent soundtrack obsession of mine comes in. Everyone who’s played Hades has raved about the killer soundtrack by Darren Korb, and this first entry in the Supergiant pantheon brings the same heat. Korb is truly a master at using specific instrumentation, musical genres, and vocals to craft the soundscape for a compelling world. Something that came to mind after we recorded our episode on this game was how Korb uses certain instruments and musical styles to evoke feelings of being in a particular place, or feeling a certain way. The soundtrack to Bastion has a vaguely Western feel, and this influence is ratcheted up or toned down to suit each section of the game. When you’re in the early game in the remains of the city, for example, a simple bluesy guitar riff backed by whining strings and frisky drum brushes is amped up into a more electronic gear and faster tempo to capture the sense of urgency. You’ve awoken in a destroyed world and must find the path to safety. Towards the midpoint of the game, in the Wilds, when you’ve become a little more comfortable with your skills, that tempo slows down considerably, but the electronic influence becomes much more distorted and strange, setting the acoustic guitar notes and other string instruments in stark contrast to the electric guitars and other manufactured sounds. You may think you know what you’re doing, but this is still dangerous territory, full of surprises.

But the biggest contrast of all is when you come across the sound of another human being, vocals echoing through a world where you have found few survivors. Sure, you’ve been kept company so far by the voice of your narrator, Rucks, but a singing voice rings out like nothing else. The first time you hear “the singer” Zia singing her song, waiting for you at the end of Prosper Bluff, it’s a shock. Quiet at first, a gentle humming, and then actual words. It’s perfectly placed, and again serves a wonderful purpose for the narrative as well as gameplay. While the first survivor you stumbled across you found silent, at the end of the map, this one forces you to come looking for her. Where could it be coming from? Who could possibly be singing, in this broken world? It reminded me of when you first encounter Eurydice in Hades, who is also singing in her little room in the middle of Asphodel, a river of flame. Coincidentally, the vocalist for Eurydice’s song is the same as the singer of Zia’s “Build That Wall,” Ashley Barrett.

Another element of the soundtrack that is used in both Bastion and Hades is that the melodies and passages of the vocal tracks are blended into the music once they have been heard for the first time. After you hear “Build That Wall,” the familiar up-and-down singsong motif can be heard in the environmental music of “Spike In a Rail,” only sped up and mixed with more of that distorted, electronic sound. In Hades, Eurydice’s song “Good Riddance” and Orpheus’ Lament similarly seem to inspire some of the tracks heard in Tartarus, Asphodel, and Elysium, giving the whole soundtrack a unified feel even as the songs remain distinct and unique. In gameplay, this gives the player a subconscious sense of the characters you meet following you and changing your perception of the world. They’re with you now, you see and feel them everywhere.

There’s something haunting about these lyrical Supergiant songs. They’re beautiful, but a little sad; they describe difficult relationships, lost loves, complicated feelings that demand to be expressed before the singer is overwhelmed with emotion. They play a similar role that songs in sung-through musicals do, providing some narrative information while setting the proper tone for the story being told. In Bastion, most of the characters are mourning the loss of the past, but Zia and Zulf’s songs each give some insight into their attitude and perspective. Zia’s song has a tinge of bitterness to it, it reflects her story of being raised in the city as an outsider, treated with distrust and ultimately betrayed. Zulf’s song is more openly mournful for lost family and seems to visualize the end of his journey, it plays when he has exhausted all his anger and is near death. When their songs combine, the result is bittersweet; they may have survived and moved on but the pain and loss is still there.

And on top of all this great sonic worldbuilding, they’re goddamn earworms! I defy you to play Bastion or Hades and not walk away humming one of the songs. The music is one of the things that makes Supergiant Games so special and rightfully praised, and as someone who was raised by a musician, obsessed over musical theatre through my young adulthood, and fell in love with sound design in college, it’s an element of interactive media I deeply appreciate. I can’t wait to get into Transistor and Pyre and dive into those soundtracks as well, I’m confident they’ll slap just as hard.

Honorable Mentions for Fixation of the Week

  • I got back into reading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses after falling off it for a while and I’m really enjoying the weird lyricism of it all. Talk about setting a tone, this book is pure vibes. Repetition, wordplay, and run-on sentences galore, all in service of conveying this mythical, dream-like story. At a certain point I had to look up a plot synopsis just to be like, “wait what the hell is happening here” and get my bearings. After reading a handful of more conventional books, it’s been a nice change of pace.
  • Shout-out to stir-fry packs! The ones you get at the store where it’s like a bunch of mixed veggies and sauce packaged together that you can just dump in a pan with your protein of choice, saving my life this week while I’m slammed with work.

Have a wonderful weekend and take care, friends.

❤ Elyse

Originally published February 26th, 2021 at https://elyse.substack.com.

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An opinionated nerd who writes about media, pop culture, and other things.

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Elyse Wietstock

Elyse Wietstock

An opinionated nerd who writes about media, pop culture, and other things.

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