Bastion, SuperGiantGames’ premiere game is about to hit Xbox Live Arcade next week. We had the opportunity to speak to creative director Greg Kasavin on the heels of the gaming madness under one roof that is called E3 2011, where Bastion scored numerous awards from a ridiculous number of publications.
Eduardo: First you completely changed fields when you left the editorial side of the gaming world in order to work as a producer. You then moved on from big development houses like 2K and EA to a small team at SuperGiantGames. How were those transitions?
Greg: I’ve gone through several major professional and personal transitions since I left GameSpot at the beginning of 2007 to get into game development. I started at Electronic Arts as a producer but by the end I was closer to being a writer / designer on the project we really wanted to make, which got canceled. Then I moved on to 2K Games, where I was a producer on the publishing side, working with a team based in Berlin. This was a more administrative position, which in many ways gave me much more responsibility than I had at Electronic Arts, though I became further removed from the creative side of the development process. I appreciated 2K Games’ commitment to quality but I missed getting my hands dirty making content. Now at Supergiant Games, I get to spend most of my time creating content, whether it’s story or game levels. Since we’re a small team, we each get to do a variety of things, which is exciting and rewarding.
I think I’ve managed to adapt to each job change pretty successfully, because each time I tried to be very honest with myself about what I was getting myself and my family into. And I really, really wanted to work in games. I had no illusions that the jobs would be perfect. I did my best to fulfill the responsibilities while at the same time thinking about what I wanted to get from my career, while trying to keep my family life from falling apart. It’s taken me all this time since I left to finally have the job that feels just right for me – which really is no accident, because since I’m part of a small studio of friends, we did essentially create jobs around each team member’s skillset.
Please pardon my pun, but how “giant” do you think SuperGiantGames will have to become from here on out? You mentioned that since the team is small, it’s easier to accommodate the jobs based on their skills. Bastion’s scope is already pretty big. How will that influence how you pick future projects for development?
Our intention is to remain a small studio where everyone knows everyone, because our team culture and chemistry are so important to our creative process and ultimately to whatever success we experience. That doesn’t mean we can’t grow a little here and there based on our ambitions for the future. As you said, Bastion’s scope is pretty significant and we pulled that off with just seven people, most of whom weren’t even on the project from the start. So we can accomplish a lot with a little, and intend to keep it that way, where everyone on team has a major stake in our titles and can make a direct impact.
Speaking of scope, a strong script is vital for such a ambitious game. How much did you have to write for Bastion? Did you get to use everything that was written? If not, was there something left in the cutting room floor that you’d wish was included in the final game?
I wrote close to 60,000 words for Bastion, though a large slice of this is all back story content mostly for my own reference to inform the rest of the writing. I did all of the in-game writing, both the text and narration. Amir Rao, who’s co-founder of the studio, served as my editor, and then once we’d get the writing to what felt like a good place, we’d record and implement, then test it on other people. We heavily iterated on all the writing to make it the best it could be – there’s a saying that you do your best writing only 10 percent of the time. Cutting and editing is a natural part of the process of getting to good writing, so no, we absolutely did not use everything that was written. And I have no regrets about anything that wasn’t used. Everything we threw out, we threw out in order to make the game better. There was no part of the game that I thought was really good that we had to cut, or anything like that.
As the writer, this was really an outstanding process for me – I had a razor-sharp editor in Amir, the high-level goal to keep iterating to reach the highest possible quality, and an absolutely great, one-of-a-kind voice actor in Logan Cunningham, who would read the stuff I wrote and nail it time after time. I say half-jokingly that even if I wrote the worst possible trash, Logan could still make it sound good. So yeah, if the story and writing in Bastion aren’t well received, I’m pleased to say I’ll have no one to blame but myself.
You’ve probably heard of the quote from Carrie Fisher on how she approached the dialogue in Star Wars that was written by George Lucas. It goes something like “he can write all the (expletive) he wants but I’m the one who has to read it”. You took it to another level of editing, having Amir helping you out along the way. Were there ever any moments when you two realized something didn’t really sound natural just when Logan was recording his tracks? Did he improvise or ad lib any of his dialogue along the way?
Amir and I would go back and forth on the writing to get it to a place where we felt it was ready for Darren and Logan to record. I would always sound out everything I’d write, knowing that the timing and sound if it mattered more than how it looked on the page. Even still, there were definitely times when we’d do some rewrites on the fly during recording as when Logan would find a more natural way of reading certain lines. There was a little bit of adlibbing as well, as Darren or Logan would sometimes find ways of tweaking certain lines to make them sound better or more natural. Often what we would do was record multiple versions of certain lines, get them into the game, and see which fit the best for the context.
Without going into spoilers, what were the inspirations behind the main character in Bastion, The Kid?
This may sound a little strange but he’s kind of like a combination of the young Conan the Barbarian and Oliver Twist… they were these quiet kids who led hard lives from their earliest memories, but they learned to fend for themselves. They were strong spiritually and mentally, and they were survivors. As far as games references go, our Kid takes some inspiration from the silent protagonists of games like The Legend of Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Persona 3 and 4, and Shadow of the Colossus. He’s intended to empathetic, a character you feel for, but not necessarily a character you wish you could be. He’s got his own backstory that’s revealed during the game, though that content is optional and not forced on the player. We want players to be able to identify with the character, rather than feel like they need to accept a very specific personality.
We’re all aware it’s impossible to predict how every single person will play this game, but based on the feedback you’ve gotten so far, do you think this approach to character development is something you’d like to further experiment on with the games you work on in the future?
While I await the public’s verdict on how Bastion turned out, on a personal level I’m very happy with the kind of world-building and character development work we achieved in this game and would definitely like to continue along this trajectory as a writer. In any games I get to work on in the future, I would hope to continue to write characters that the player can empathize with and that seem deep and fully realized. I have tons of different subject matter in mind, but I think creating empathetic characters is necessary to good writing.
Bastion features an interesting twist: a dynamic narrator. How did the team come up with this idea? Was it something that was already decided from the start?
The narration aspect of Bastion emerged as one of the game’s defining features but it definitely wasn’t there at the start of the project. The project started with just a germ of an idea and then spent nine months in prototyping, during which time the feature set, the look, and the world of the game all came together. The simple origin of the narration is that it started as an experiment. Darren our audio director was roommates with Logan our voice actor at the time, and Amir asked them to record a few lines of audio for the game. He plugged them in, and it had an immediate and positive impact. From there, we found the narrator’s voice very quickly, because it lined up with the overall tone we were interested in from the start.
The narration turned out to be a solution to a paradoxical problem we were thinking a lot about when thinking about what we wanted to accomplish: We wanted to have a game that delivered the sort of emotional experience that a good story could provide, but we never wanted to interrupt the player’s experience for the story’s sake. Using narration, we realized we could make the story keep up with the player’s own pace, as well as deepen every interaction in the world.
This was certainly one of my favorite parts of my Bastion demo during E3. I managed to (unwantedly) kill myself by falling off the world, something that was immediately (and impressively) commented upon by the narrator in a very humorous and dynamic fashion. I’m looking forward to seeing if other less predictable actions will result in such quips.
That moment you describe is an important one I think, even though it’s purely optional. It teaches you something about the way the world of the game works and about the narrator’s personality, and expresses the breadth of the emotional range of the story – that it can be funny and not just serious. We aimed to fill the game with unique moments such as this, knowing players will miss many of them yet knowing they will encounter at least some of them. It was important to us to never repeat these kinds of moments else they’d start to feel like predictable gags, whereas our intentions with the narration were to create and maintain immersion while connecting with the player in surprising ways.
How many variations are there in the narrator’s lines? How many times would we have to play the game in order to hear them all?
It’s hard to say how many times you’d need to play through the game to hear all the narration because some of it depends on very specific conditions that some players might never experience no matter how many times they play. Suffice it to say it would take at least a couple of full play-throughs to feel like you’ve heard most of it. Bastion isn’t structured like a vastly branching narrative or anything, though, so don’t expect there to be a clear-cut “good path” or an “evil path” as in a lot of RPGs these days. Rather, a lot of the specific moment-to-moment narration depends on how you play, and there’s conditional stuff like that in each different area of the game. There are close to 3,000 total lines of narration or something like that. We tried to find just the right balance between a strong, crafted story with a lot of little variances that would make it feel very personal for the individual who’s playing.
That’s an interesting balance. Usually developers tend to award the so called “completionists” who go out of their way to look through every nook and cranny in order to find just about everything a game has to offer. There was one noteworthy case of the opposite, with David Cage, where he wanted players to play Heavy Rain only once, in order to have a single, personal experience with his game. He’s redacted this comment since then, I believe.
Were there many occasions where play-testing led to different branches in Logan’s dialogue, for instance, outside of what you planned when you were writing the script along with Amir?
We observed new player behaviors all throughout development and aimed to support them with the narration as much as possible. Many of the ideas we’d come up with on our own, others we’d pick up just from watching what players would do and realizing we could feed back on their behavior in interesting ways using the narration. We were coming up with and trying out new ideas like this right up until the end of development. That said, the narration isn’t there just to provide play-by-play commentary, so we always looked for the best balance between driving the story forward while feeding back on player actions to make the experience feel personal.
What should we expect in terms of story if we make use of the ‘new game plus’ feature? Will the fact that The Kid is already somewhat powered change the story in any way in the second playthrough?
The New Game Plus mode is supported by the narrative but don’t expect all the narration to change the second time around. The mode is there to extend the life of the game and give you some interesting new ways to play, but we didn’t want players to feel like they needed to go through the game a second time just to complete the story. The idea was that, for most players, a single play-through should be sufficient and feel very rewarding. It’s not a short game, so if players are willing to invest eight or more hours just to finish the game the first time then we want them to feel like it was well worth it. Then, for those players who want to keep going and feel particularly invested in the gameworld and story, the New Game Plus mode is available to provide new twists the next time around. And beyond that, hopefully it’s the sort of game that leaves a lasting impression.
I remember how back at E3 you mentioned how every weapon and ability can be useful from the beginning to the end of Bastion. I’m curious to see the combinations people are bound to come up with once the game is out. Maybe they’ll even create their own challenges by going with certain configurations.
Do you expect or hope to be surprised by what some players are bound to come up with in terms of ability and/or weapon combinations for their repeated playthroughs of Bastion? Will there be some way for you and your team to track this?
We’re very much looking forward to see what types of combinations players come up with, and we expect to be surprised since, mathematically, the combinations are so numerous. On the team we broke down many different combinations and would try them all to make sure we had a good handle on the breadth of options, and we invested a lot into tuning and balancing all the weapons, upgrades, Spirits, Shrine Idols, and of course the different foes in the game. We have some ability to track how this content is used, though since we’re not a competitive multiplayer game or anything, that wasn’t a major focus.
What’s next for SuperGiantGames after Bastion’s release, other than a relaxing vacation in the Caribbean?
The successful launch of the game on Xbox 360 is our big focus right now. We have the PC version of the game still to come for later this year, and we have a lot of ideas about what comes next after that. And yeah, I and other members of the team have also been taking a bit of time to get our bearings back after the big push to finish the 360 version. We put everything we had into this game, so we need to feel refreshed as we prepare for the launch and whatever we do next.
We’re often asked at this point what game we’re going to make next. The only specific thing I’d say about that is, any game we make after Bastion would aim to create a similarly strong response in players. I would very much like for any game with our name on it to provoke a sense of wonder in players, to connect with them in a profound way, as if they’ve been transported to some fascinating new place. I think that’s the real potential of games as a medium.
I’m certainly one of the many looking forward to seeing what will come after Bastion. Best of luck on your future projects, Greg. And thanks for sharing a moment of your time for this chat.
Thank you as well for thinking of us for this, and I hope the game lives up to all your expectations and more.
For further insight into Bastion and the team behind it, you can check out SuperGiantGames’ website at www.supergiantgames.com.
Bastion is set for release next Wednesday, for 1200 Microsoft Points as the first of a group of games to be promoted under the Summer of Arcade on Xbox Live Arcade marketplace.