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Just as its sister site ModDB picks the top PC gaming mods of the year, IndieDB rounds out the year with a countdown of the top independently developed games of the year. Think of it as a shopping list to help establish your indie gaming cred. How many of the top ten have you played?
Me? I've only gotten around to experiencing half of the ten games voted by IndieDB community members as the best independent games of the year. I've spent a great many hours exploring the world of Bastion, as everyone should. Stephen got me into SpaceChem after raving about the iPhone version of the game. Trine 2 from Frozenbyte was a no-brainer, considering my great love of the original, and Minecraft-meets-FPS Ace of Spades was personally responsible for several near-oversleep situations over the past few months.
As for the number one game, the 2D building, exploring, and surviving action of Terraria...I'm ashamed to say I hadn't played it at all, at least until this morning, when I plunked down five dollars for a copy on Steam. I'm enjoying it so much right now that this post was nearly incredibly late.
Hit up the list to see not only the top ten, but the top 100 indie games of 2011 and beyond, and start building your shopping list.
IOTY Players Choice - Indie of the Year [IndieDB]
Bastion snuck up on me—I had heard a lot of friends and fellow critics hyping it after seeing it at PAX East and GDC, but I didn't actually play it until it was released. For the first hour or so, I wasn't sold, but as the story snowballed and the levels stretched out, I fell increasingly under its spell.
It was a remarkably holistic game, especially in its presentation. Everything was of a piece: Jen Zee's breathtaking painterly artwork, Greg Kasavin's mysterious, ever-unfolding story, Logan Cunningham's throaty, Tom Waits-y narration. And tying it all together, Darren Korb's wonderfully trippy, six-string-fueled musical score. Bastion had one of my very favorite video game soundtracks of the year.
Here are five of my favorite tracks from the soundtrack, along with some backstory and technical details from Korb himself.
Bastion is a slow burn, a gradually building game that begins with a mystery and layers information and narration until it reverse-engineers a remarkable narrative tapestry. Each level is possessed of a steady, heavy momentum—the game marches forward, an inexorable drive towards an unknowable future.
This track is one of the first (maybe the actual first?) to play in-game, and it matches that sense of inexorable drive. The descending string line is probably my favorite part, recalling nothing so much as the hook from The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony." (No, seriously! Listen and tell me I'm wrong.)
Here's Korb on crafting this recording, which, like all of the tracks from the soundtrack, he did largely using sampled music within Logic Pro:
This is one of the more sample/MIDI heavy tracks on the soundtrack with almost no live instruments (that aren't samples). I use some Harp, some Oud, and some Electric guitar for the melodic instruments. This was one of the earlier tunes I wrote for the game while I was still experimenting with getting the right mix of live instruments, samples, and MIDI. I think this piece was helpful in defining the boundaries of what kind of music I wanted to make for the game.
I dig "Slinger's Song," because it captures the gut-blues open-string thing that much of Korb's music does so well. It calls to mind other soundtracks like Firefly and Deadwood by conjuring a sound that captures the iconic nature of the west without necessarily kowtowing to the time period's instrumental traditions. I was joking with Korb that I wanted to guess the primary instrument, but that I was going to guess "Dobro," which was my default guess when I hear a non-guitar guitar. I'm usually wrong. But this time, it actually was a dobro!
I played some bluesy electric stuff [on Dobro] over the top of this one, along with some heavily reverbed harmonica samples. I was looking to make something more frontiersy for this piece, as it occurs in our "wilds" portion of the game. Oddly enough, I hadn't really watched any Firefly or Deadwood when I was working on Bastion, but a lot of people have mentioned the similarities. My main influence for the more bluesy stuff in Bastion was mostly Led Zeppelin, actually! In each song I tried to include something that made it feel a little "nasty," whether it's contrasting rhythmic parts, or 3 over 4 bass, or distorted ukulele!
Awww, yeah. This song was the moment the game won me over; it was a bit of a "Far Away" moment a la Red Dead Redemptin. One minute you're playing, the next minute, someone is singing! And yet, it was far more organic than in Rockstar's game, mainly because in Bastion, you were rescuing Zia, the singer who performs the song. (The actual singer is Korb's friend Ashley Barrett.)
This was very much Bastion's "Get on board or GTFO" moment, and I personally got right the hell on board. I also loved the bit later on when narrator Logan Cunningham gives a rough, half-remembered a cappella rendition of the same tune.
Here's Korb on the story of the song, and how it tied in with the world of the game:
We had planned to include some sort of vocal piece in the moment when you meet Zia for a while, so I knew basically how the piece would be used while I was writing it. I wanted to make it mournful and lonely to reinforce the tone of that moment. The singer is my friend Ashley Barrett and we recorded it like I recorded all the sounds, music and narration for Bastion: in my closet. For this piece in particular I looked at a lot of old Southern spirituals and proto-blues stuff. Generally, Jeff Buckley and Radiohead are big influences on my songwriting as well. The lyrics of the song are all based on the deep backstory provided by the game's writer, Greg Kasavin. It's written as a wartime song from the point of view of the Ura. For the level with Logan humming it, we wanted to have a place in the game where he didn't have anything to say, and we thought that players would get a kick out of the narrator humming this. So for the melody on that, I wanted him to do it sort of like Tom Waits, who approximates most melodies. We figured that's how Rucks would sing.
Not too much to say about this one, really, particularly since I'd rather not spoil the bit it plays during for those who haven't played the game. But here's where we get to hear Korb do some singing, a soft, mournful tune that stands in sharp contrast to the segment it accompanies. The second fully voiced song on the soundtrack, it is as effective as "Build That Wall" if not more so, and provides a degree of emotional catharsis that almost outdoes the entire narrative setup leading up to it.
My approach for this one was to write a song that might be sung at funerals in the world of the game. Again, the goal here was just to reinforce the emotion of the in-game moment. This is the only version (aside from the mash-up version in Setting Sail, Coming Home).
Perhaps the most iconic of Korb's pieces for the game. That's partly because it plays during the opening menu and while in the Bastion itself, but also because it contains all of the various aspects that make this game's soundtrack so good. The dramatic western tinge of open-tuned guitars, pulsing electronic beats, all set off by dramatic, melodic strings. It's funny that Korb mentions Jeff Buckley as one of his influences, since the harmonic minor string line he uses here very much reminds me of the incredible string arrangements (that final melodic line!) on Buckley's "Grace."
Here's Korb talking about his guitar tunings and general process writing this song (guitarists, I recommend that "Dad-Gad" tuning, it's way fun):
I played all the live instruments on this track (and all the tracks in the game). For this song I used a DADGAD tuning (but for most of the rest of the game I dropped it down another step to CGCFGC). This is a very early piece (probably the 2nd one I wrote for Bastion), and the piece that eventually lead me to the term "Acoustic Frontier Trip-hop," which I used to thematically connect all the music in the game. Rather than having musical themes that I returned to over and over, I decided to make it like an album, where all the pieces are connected by genre and arrangement.
We'll be back tomorrow with the final post in this series. It's been a lot of fun! If you haven't, be sure to submit your own nominations for our Readers' Choice collection, which will run on Friday.
It's been a day of surprises for fans of Bastion. First, they announce that you can play the gravel-voiced adventure in the Chrome browser. And now comes word that they'll be releasing DLC for the game next week. (This comes after saying that they'd never make any.)
The Stranger's Dream add-on hits on 12/14 for $1 and, as the title suggests, expands the backstory of the mysterious narrator. It also opens up two new modes. The customizable Score Attack lets you mix and match from the unlocked Spirits and Idols modifiers to rack up as many points as you can while the cakewalk No Sweat provides minimal challenge for those who just want to experience the story. This DLC will be available for Bastion for Chrome, too, in the next few weeks. The XBLA version will cost $1 and the Steam version comes as a free title update. More details can be found at Supergiant's website.
Announcing the Stranger's Dream DLC for Bastion! [Supergiant Games]
First, Supergiant Games' acclaimed action RPG came out for the Xbox 360 as one of the games in Microsoft's annual Summer of Arcade promotion. Then, shortly after that, the narrator-centric release landed on Steam, which let PC owners tour the game's shattered world of Caelondia. Now the hit indie's been made to play in Google's very own browser software— at full resolution and everything—where even more people can experience one of 2011''s best games.
In a blog post in their official site, Supergiant details the specs you'll need to play the Chrome version of Bastion:
The Chrome version of Bastion requires:
- Processor: 1.7 GHz Dual Core or Greater
- Memory: 2 GB
- Hard Disk Space: 1.0 GB
- Video Card: 512 MB graphics card (shader model 2)
(Note: Gamepad controllers are not supported in this initial release.)
Hopefully, that gamepad support will find its way into this web version before too long. I gave the free trial of browser Bastion a spin on my iMac this morning and it looked as beautiful as it did on the Xbox 360. There's a significant chunk of initial load time as the game boots up but it ran smoothly for the 10 minutes or so I fiddled around with it. The game saves your progress to the cloud, which makes me think you can stop and start on different machines. However, you'll need a Google account log-in to do this. If you're curious, definitely try it out. Bastion's live on the Chrome web store now and, after the free trial, the full game's available for purchase at $14.99.
Bastion [Chrome Web Store]
College is a special time in the life of any young man or woman. You're finally free from your parents, ready to meet new people, attend interesting classes, and probably drink with those people and during those classes. While the first year of college can be a very busy time, there's always space for some gaming. A great video game can be a big attraction in a dorm room, and can function as a great way to meet new people. Sexy new people, if you know what I'm saying.
But what gift to get for the college freshman in your life? It can be tricky. Now that he or she has headed off to college, everything has changed. A person's social life becomes an entirely new, much more complicated thing. Some games aren't that compatible with an intense college lifestyle, while others are perfectly suited to it. Here are a few gifts that would be great for any young matriculator.
One of the most fun things about arriving at college is sharing music with new friends. But it can also feel a little bit intimidating—what are you bringing to the table? Do you have anything new or interesting that your friends will like? Both Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Bastion have superb soundtracks that not only make for great conversation starters, they're soothing and great to study with. Both were released in a limited run of physical CDs or Records, but both have sold out, so digital is your only option. Fortunately, they're both inexpensive! (Update! The folks at Supergiant have just done another pressing of physical Bastion soundtracks, so you can order a hard copy for $14.99 here.)
$10 for Bastion, $7.99 for Sword & Sworcery
THQ's resurrection of this Jellyvision classic is a good thing for dorm-room gamers. This is an inexpensive, fun game to toss into a stocking. It'll sit, unplayed, near a gaming console for a month or so, until a snowy day brings everyone inside with nothing to do. And then, it will reveal itself to be a riot of a dorm room game.
($19.99 at Amazon.com)
Believe it or not, Dungeons and Dragons has gotten cool again. (Not that it ever wasn't cool! You know what I'm saying.) The embers of passionate late-night dice-rolling never truly extinguished, and at any college there's likely to be a group of RPG enthusiasts to join. The secret is: These are actually the coolest people in the school.
This may sound crazy, but hanging out with people who like D&D is the best thing a first-time college student could do. Rather than attempt to get some sort of all-encompassing set of books, start with the Player's Handbook. It'll be all anyone would need to get interested in the game and find a group of players, and they'll have the rest of the books anyway.
This seems like a low-key entry, but it could be the most useful one. Of course, you'll want to check if your intended gift-receiver already has several controllers. But it's often the case that a student will head to college with one or maybe two controllers, only to find that four-player games are ruling the day. But those controllers are so expensive! An extra one can be a very useful gift.
($45 from Amazon, available for cheaper used. Be sure to get an official Microsoft or Sony controller. There are a lot of knock-offs out there, and they are kind of… off.)
Dorm life and single-player gaming don't mix all that well. There are so many people around all the time, and most of the fun comes from meeting them, getting to know them, and drunkenly fooling around with them and then being awkward about it the next day. Fighting games are a natural fit for this kind of scenario, and for laid-back social gaming, Mortal Kombat is the king. It's not the most balanced or well-designed game—it's no Street Fighter IV—but it is brutally fun, easy to pick up and play, and hilariously cheesy and violent. Best of all, it allows for 4-player tag-team gaming, and it's gory enough that it's fun to just hang out and watch people play.
($45-55 New Online for either Xbox 360 or PS3. Cheaper Used at Half.com)
But not all college gaming needs to be social; sometimes you just want to get away from everyone. The Astro A40 headset is great for that—the big headphones block out outside noise and create a deep well of sound, which is powered by the A40 small, ingenious dolby headphone mixer. And when it is time to play online with others, the A40's integrated headset and volume controls work flawlessly.
If your gift-reciever has already got a good pair of headphones, you can go with the mixamp alone, which generates dolby headphone surround and works with any pair of commercial headphones.
($249 online from Astro, $139 for Mixamp alone)
There were plenty of lovely things about Bastion, but one of its best features was its soundtrack. The combination of composer Darren Korb's groovy tabla-fueled psychedelia and narrator Logan Cunningham's throaty growl gave the game much of its unique, desolate charm.
Ars Technica tells tells the story of a Bastion fan named Jay Greschner who wrote in to Supergiant games to ask about getting Cunningham to narrate some lines for Creschner's upcoming wedding. From his letter:
Soon after, Greg Kasavin (writer and creative director of Bastion) got back to me and we had a brief discussion. In my initial e-mails I had sent a couple of example lines but Greg replied that the Narrator had a certain tone that he wanted to keep even though this was out of game and was wondering if he could write some stuff up for Logan. I had no problem with this and Greg said that they'd try and record some lines before PAX Prime.
A couple of days later, I got another e-mail containing 4 recordings that the Narrator had done for us and was just amazed and honored that Supergiant Games would do this for me.
Cunningham recorded a number of narrations that played throughout the ceremony, essentially "narrating" the proceedings in the same way that made Bastion such an interesting game. You can listen to his recordings over at Ars .
My favorite part is hearing Cunningham tell people (somewhat passive aggressively, if you ask me):
"Ain't a peep from one of those portable phone things as the ceremony gets underway."
For Bastion, it worked, and it worked really well, given the way he was used as much to tell a story as to give a play-by-play. Give other games narration, like this video does, and it's easy to see why other games don't work quite so well.
As a trend, steampunk may be yesterday's fad. And, while this custom controller—created by the folks at MorbidStix— apparently been around for a while, it just popped up into view again. I love the combination of a real-life mechanical act—unlocking the controller with the key-to open up digital worlds. It's a nice metaphor, almost like a Narnia-esque fairytale thing,
Looking at the controller's unlockable beauty make me wonder what would be the best pairing, game-wise, for it. Two games that come to mind are Bastion and the upcoming BioShock Infinite. Supergiant's Xbox Live hit had a bit of a roughhewn, rustic look in its design and Irrational's flying-city saga evokes an early 20th century aesthetic, what with its skyhook and dirigibles. The steampunk controller looks like it'd fit in both worlds, as if it's what the Kid or Booker DeWitt would use while playing an analogous projected entertainment device.
The controller doesn't appear to be available on the MorbidStix site, but I'm sure a uptick in demand would make them pump out some more. And, while not present in mass quantities, it's likely available on request.
Metacritic doesn't just aggregate the arbitrary scores that professional reviewers assign to subjective works such as video games. It aggregates the arbitrary scores anyone can apply to subjective works such as video games. This has all sorts of fun applications, such as abuse. So, recently Metacritic banned a bunch of spam accounts set up to slag Bastion and Toy Soldiers: Cold War for no good reason.
According to Giant Bomb, Supergiant Games and Signal Studios both noticed that their aggregate scores, among users, had fallen after they publicly asked fans to rate their games on Metacritic, whose ratings are frequently cited by industry executives and flacks and in some cases govern compensation. After fielding complaints, Metacritic looked into the matter and found both had been pummeled by 0-rated reviews, without written comments, from a fresh batch of accounts. In other words, it was a hit job. Metacritic promptly banned the group of user reviewers and removed their scores from the games' averages.
This is all well and good, and it's nice to see that Metacritic wiped out this slander of two of the summer's best downloadable titles. A written user review that spells out someone's specific praise for or disappointment in a product, whether it's a video game, a film or an appliance, has merit because another reader might identify with the writer's experience, or might be looking for specific qualities that a professional reviewer doesn't address in speaking to a broad audience. But aggregated user reviews, especially considering their potential for abuse, are even more useless than the jury-rigged consensus of professionals that Metacritic provides.
"We have no plans to extend the game in that way," Greg Kasavin, the game's writer and creative director, told The Morton Report. "As I was saying before, we held nothing back. It's meant to be a complete story, so there are no obvious extensions."
Kasavin said his studio, Supergiant Games, will still support Bastion post-release and "I guess you could call something like the Portal turrets DLC," but seemed pretty definite no more content was planned.
"We're probably going to go dark here in the sense that our game is out there and whatever we do next probably isn't going to happen for a while," Kasavin said later in the interview, which further indicates that Supergiant has moved on from Bastion.
This came from the second of two parts of a wide-ranging interview in which Kasavin discusses much more about the game, its development and reception.
Interview: Supergiant Games' Greg Kasavin on Bastion (Part Two) [The Morton Report]
Interview: Supergiant Games' Greg Kasavin on Bastion (Part One) [The Morton Report]