My Game of the Year: Bastion
At the very least I think Bastion was a brilliant example of what a smaller indie game developer can achieve if they give themselves a tightly defined design remit. It had virtually no missteps, by keeping its aims tight it accomplished everything it set out to do.
Bastion benefits from having a very solid core gameplay foundation. A immaculate if unambitious take on the isometric action RPG mechanics, peppered with a wide choice of well-balanced and satisfying to use weapons. The balance between the individual weapons was complemented by upgrade paths that allowed me to add extra utility or raw power as I needed. Bastion understood that I wanted to play the game In a style that I enjoyed the most, not one predetermined by the designer. Sure if I switched the games difficulty up to full certain combinations were definitely optimal for certain levels, but in that situation I think its entirely fair for the designer to assume I am looking for a challenge and balance accordingly.
It's gameplay alone wouldn't have Bastion my game of the year, it won its way into my heart with great storytelling and real innovation in methods used to deliver it.
The choice to use a Narrator could easily have been overplayed, but his laconic drawl was used sparsely and with such perfect timing that it always felt welcome to hear him expound another bit of the tale of The Kid's journey through the ruined world of Caelondia.
Superficially I was on a mission to recover the parts needed to rebuild the Bastion. I moved through a beautifully painted world while simultaneously trying to restore it while changing it with every step I took. Just like the kid I didn't know why. I did what I was told to by the narrator unquestioningly, setting out to put the world to rights. But as time passed by I learnt that the narrator was only giving one side of the story, as simultaneously self doubt seemingly began creeping into his words.
Bioshock is perhaps the most notable example of a game which played with using a unreliable narrator, but famously it had a lot of trouble stopping its story and gameplay pulling in two different directions as authorial intent and player freedom came into conflict.
Bastion seemed wise to this peril. It came down to making sure that there is a simple acceptance on my part that because I was being told a story that has already happened, it was okay for me not to be able to change it. It is only when the story stops and the narrators voice is conspicuous by its absence that the game gaves me the freedom to choose.
And what choices it gave me! Neither simplistic or reductive, Bastion forced me considered what I felt the entirety of the game had been trying to tell me, without judging my choice on a binary moral scale. Better still those choices were rooted ultimately in reflections on both the nature of narrator, the way the I related to him, and my relationship with the world through which I had travelled.
On a more technical level Bastion's choice of storytelling device also allowed the game to flow beautifully for me. Exposition and gameplay were delivered together in parallel, there was not the stop and start sensation that can come in games with traditional set pieces. Its impact was aided and abetted by a soundtrack which provided vivid character and pacing to each level. Swinging from country influenced dirges, to fast paced trip hop and J-pop influenced tracks. It was remarkable for managing to remain cohesive despite it variety.
Bastion felt special to me, having completed for the first time my instinct was to immediately try and find someone to talk to about it. It had affected me, I wanted to find out if others felt the same.
Part of what allowed me to feel this was Bastion's complete lack of pretension. This wasn't a story with a any overt meaning to its tale. It concentrated on providing relatable characters and left the interpretation of its story to its audience, a level of trust which is often uncommon in videogames.
It was this trust that in the end helped make Bastion into my game of 2012, without the confine of a set interpretation it allowed me to take my experience in the game & relate it to my life in a way which was intimately personal.