Supergiant’s action RPG doesn’t open on a pre-rendered cutscene or a wall of introductory text. Instead, it opens on a black screen and a sonorous voice. “Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning,” it rasps. “Ain’t so simple with this one.” As the dulcet tones of this mysterious narrator fade from your speakers, the image of a young man lying on a threadbare bed creeps into focus. And then... nothing happens. The Kid just lies there, motionless, until you push on the analogue stick and he drowsily clambers to his feet. The narrator chimes in again: “He gets up.”
It was at this moment during my first playthrough of Bastion that I cocked a quizzical eyebrow at my screen. Did the narrator just react to something I did? At the time, I wasn’t sure, but I very soon would be. Because Bastion’s narrator isn’t just some simplistic storyteller or a hokey conveyor of lore – he’s a reactive character that will offer commentary, guidance and context to your actions within this world.
Perhaps the most famous example of this gruff raconteur at work can be triggered within minutes of firing up the game for the first time. Roused from your slumber and confronted with a ruined world, you steer The Kid from his bed on to the game’s critical path, picking up your trusty hammer as you go. And, when you stumble into a clearing covered in breakable boxes, you probably do what most gamers would: smash ‘em.
But your destructive tendencies don’t go unnoticed. “The Kid just rages for a while,” breathes the narrator. It’s a simple line that does a lot of heavy- lifting. First, it works to recontextualise your video game-y habit of smashing crates in search of collectables, turning a flatly utilitarian action into a moment of role-playing character development. Your workmanlike hunt for currency is suddenly reimagined as a passionate outburst, a violent tantrum in the face of oblivion.
And, once you reach The Bastion – which stands as the one remaining sanctuary in this dead world – you’ll get to meet the man behind those treacly pipes. Although he’s initially introduced as The Stranger, you’ll soon discover that his name is actually Rucks, and while his enigmatic dialogue doesn’t give much away, his character design provides all sorts of hints towards Rucks’ role within this gameworld. Both Rucks and The Kid wear red bandanas and carry cog insignia, for instance, and the two men have the same colour hair and eyes, too...
But for all of the narrative intrigue that his presence throws up, Rucks impresses most thoroughly on a technical level, and a little context into the character’s creation only makes Supergiant’s achievement more remarkable. As the debut product of a small independent studio, Bastion was not a big-budget affair with clearly defined job roles. As such, composer Darren Korb was also tasked with recording the game’s voicework, and he asked his thespian roommate Logan Cunningham if he’d be interested in the part. Rather than hiring an expensive recording studio, Korb set up a microphone in a closet, and Cunningham would deliver his lines into the blank back wall of a cupboard.
Korb proved a demanding taskmaster, too, asking Cunningham to perform take after take to ensure that every single sentence had exactly the emphasis, inflection and tone that he was looking for. By the time Korb’s recording sessions were complete, he had more than 3,000 lines of narrator dialogue for the team to implement in-game, and it’s this vast catalogue of informative interjections, interesting asides and contextual comments that give the illusion of intelligence to the narrator’s nattering.
While all that might seem frictionless in the final product, it was far from an easy goal to realise, and writing a system that would retrieve and play these audio files at the appropriate time proved a significant engineering challenge – doubly so, given that the team was adamant that Rucks should never repeat himself and never interrupt himself. Making this faintly mad ambition a reality required two of Supergiant’s finest to sit down and hand-script all of those 3,000 or more lines of dialogue. It took quite some time.
But the result isn’t just impressive or immersive – it’s very much delightfully un-gamey, too, and it’s only when you’re confronted with a companion that never loops lines of dialogue or cuts out mid-sentence that you realise just how accustomed you are to making concessions for NPC eccentricities. Every time Rucks crops up to provide background on your surroundings or fill you in on Caelondia’s feisty fauna, it only adds to the sense that Bastion is a game that pays attention to your actions. Plenty of games may feature silver-tongued storytellers and eloquent speakers, but Bastion is one of the very few that appears to listen back.
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here (opens in new tab).