[In this interview, Supergiant Games' Greg Kasavin and Amir Rao talk with Gamasutra about how Bastion's unique incorporation of narration emerged, the challenges of forming an indie studio after coming from a major developer, and more.]
Bastion, the debut title by independent developer Supergiant Games, has received accolades from players and critics alike since it was released for Xbox Live Arcade on July 20.
Published by WB Games, the action-RPG was a finalist in the 2011 Independent Games Festival Awards for Excellence in Audio and Visual Art. Among the most novel design decisions found in Bastion is the multifaceted purposefulness of the voice-over narration.
Voiced by actor Logan Cunningham, comments by an off-screen presence (The Stranger) offer insights into the world your playable character (The Kid) inhabits and the obstacles he must overcome throughout his quest. Voice direction was overseen by the game's music composer, Darren Korb.
In this interview, we hear from Supergiant's Greg Kasavin and Amir Rao on how the narration emerged during the development of Bastion. Both a technique for fleshing out the game's storyline and an expedient alternative to tutorials and cutscenes, the game's thoughtful incorporation of narration serves as a prime example of indie developer ingenuity.
Greg Kasavin, Amir Rao, Jen Zee and Gavin Simon at Supergiant Headquarters in San Jose, California
The first time anyone had the chance to play Bastion was when the game appeared as a finalist in the Penny Arcade Expo's PAX 10 indie game showcase. How would you describe your experience bringing the title in playable form to the expo?
Amir Rao: We submitted the game during the summer, and once we were selected for the PAX 10, we made a big push to prepare a new build for the show. All five of us got in a van and drove 18 hours to Seattle from the Bay Area.
Greg Kasavin: PCs and monitors were thrown into the back seat. It was a nice road trip and team-bonding exercise. The reception of the game was probably the most memorable part of the experience. We went in with confidence but were open to the possibility that there would be criticism. I don't think any of us were prepared for the high praise that we got. You can't really prepare yourself for seeing people visibly moved by a game you've worked on. That was really encouraging.
Once the first trailer for Bastion was posted online, discussions on some message boards began posing questions about the ethnicity of the characters. The response might be along the lines of how critics suggested Michel Ancel designed the protagonist of Beyond Good & Evil to be racially ambiguous. Was this the result of conscious decisions in the character design for the game?
GK: We did talk about ethnicity early on as we were exploring the tone of the content. Questions of ethnicity are fairly key to aspects of the story. However, they're not simply allusions to real-world issues, since this is a fantasy story, not an allegory.
Previously members of your team were working at Electronic Arts. What have been some of the challenges of transitioning to running your own indie studio?
AR: While at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles, we were on a really great team, but it was a really big team. Getting anything to happen took convincing a large number of people and a fair amount of management.
On this small team, if someone has an idea, you can see it in the game in four hours. That means we can try a lot of things, like this idea of having narration, and iterate really fast. While they are managing a lot of things and there's a lot of risk, we are small and can be nimble. We can try more things, which makes it exciting.
GK: We have been able to push ideas that are aesthetically appealing, even if they're difficult to rationalize. The kind of game we're making we never could have pitched on paper. The idea of a game where an old man talks to you the whole time sounds terrible, but hopefully when people try it out they have a very different experience.
How would you describe your creative roles at Supergiant Games?
AR: I do a lot of the level design for the game and I run the studio, doing business and management stuff. They are not correlated roles at all. One part is really, really fun, and the other part isÖ less fun than that. It involves a lot of going to the mailbox to get and pay bills.
GK: I provide the writing for the game. There's a heavy narration component, and all that I write. I design the fiction behind the setting and the enemies you encounter. Since we're a small team, pretty much everyone gets to muck around in just about everything. We're not really super compartmentalized.
How did you come into contact with the game's audio director, Darren Korb?
AR: Darren and I have known each other since we were seven or eight years old. We played a lot of D&D together and went to college in New York, so we've stayed friends over the years. When this game got started, I knew exactly who to ask to do the music for it. I recognized that he loved games and could internalize the creative direction we were thinking about and would work tirelessly to make it happen. He started on day one, making all the music you hear in the game.
Was the music score purely being influenced by the story and art design, or were there instances where audio for the game was informing other aspects of the development process?
AR: The character has changed, the levels have changed, and the world has been modified a number of times, but some of the first music tracks are still intact. It's been the case in our game that the music has been created ahead of other content. Before we get to a new world, we have the creative direction that Greg provides, together with Darren's music.
Did you feel you knew the actor well enough that you could write specifically for his strengths?
GK: I had never met Logan before I started writing for this character. I only met him for the first time fairly recently. It was surreal, meeting someone bringing to life so much of this content.
Actor Logan Cunningham at the Supergiant Games booth during the E3 Expo
In what ways did you feel the personality of Bastion's narrator would be valuable in supporting the storyline of the game?
GK: It's very convenient for us that we happen to have this narrator who's a man of few words. We have this fast-paced action game where you can move through these environments very quickly, so we can't have a guy who's going to be yammering on and on. He needs to use short expressions to convey a lot of rich meaning in a short space of time, and he's also the kind of guy that is comfortable with long pauses.
There are certain design constraints and thematic goals behind pretty much every line of dialogue. It all happens to conveniently fit into his character and map very nicely to the style of game that we have. Because he is not a play-by-play announcer but is deepening pretty much everything that you do, he can offer you insight into things that you never could have known. As a player, you are unfamiliar with any aspect of this world, and he's revealing portions of the backstory as you navigate through it.
What were the key concepts guiding the musical style of the soundtrack to the game?
AR: When Darren started, he had an idea of what the creative direction for the game was and the core tone of what we were going for. He then developed a musical motif that he describes as "acoustic frontier trip-hop." Those three things may sound like they don't make much sense, but they do fit together in a cohesive way in our game.
The acoustic frontier part is that warm instrumentation entailing world music and acoustic guitars. It all sounds like real-world instruments that people understand. Then he will do things with the percussion and some of the other elements that surprise you in interesting ways. That's the trip-hop part. You'll be sailing along on a nice melodic riff and drop into a strange or unexpected rhythm. It's a really good musical interpretation of some of the thematic ideas we had.
GK: We want to convey that there is both something exotic to this fantastical world and also something familiar and comforting to the American frontier elements of the music. While we were in the middle of PAX, we were very happy to see people get the tone of the game, though it's not simple to describe.
How did the concept of the world being built up around you come about? Is it in part a way of guiding the player?
AR: There were two things going on really early on when we were trying to figure out how the world should function. The first is that in isometric games, you almost never see the sky. That's just a result of your looking down from that three-quarters perspective. In the RTS games we made at Electronic Arts, it was the same case. We really wanted to do something where you could see something skylike behind you. We thought that if we brought the world up and shattered it, we might get some of those effects.
The second thing is guiding. We hate maps. In games, maps are a necessary evil because a lot of games are about navigation and exploration. We wanted to have some of those feelings too, but without bringing up a map all the time. If you know that any place you've been to is where the world is "up" and anywhere you haven't been to is where the world is "coming up," you know where to guide the character.
GK: Once the prototyping proved very promising, this became deeply ingrained in the design of the fictional game world. Why this is a fragmented, shattered land also became very central to the story.
The voice-over narration belongs not to the protagonist but to a character he encounters. What was the thinking behind giving this off-screen presence a role in unfolding the storyline?
GK: We wanted to have a game with some narrative substance to it that offered an emotional experience through a story. At the same time, we didn't want to overwhelm the player with text crawls, cutscenes or anything that took the player out of the moment-to-moment experience. The narrator solved a lot of those problems, adding context to everything the player is experiencing. We saw the promise in that almost immediately and never looked back.
After developing this character, we began fleshing out the world in the same direction. Having the narrator be someone other than the playable character opens up a lot of really interesting narrative opportunities. We hope that players will begin to ask themselves questions about the nature of this character and why he's telling this story. Hopefully it's unusual in an interesting way.
Images courtesy of WB Games and Supergiant Games. For more information on Bastion, visit the official website. Photos by Jeriaska.