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.
(Top image credit | Jen Zee)
"The Best Game Music of 2011" is a multi-part series highlighting the best video game soundtracks of the year.