Greg Kasavin is, all things considered, probably one of the most important men in video games. He’s been, uh, everything: a freelance writer for fanzines; a GameSpot intern who, by the time he left, had moved all the way up to editor-in-chief; a producer at EA Los Angeles; and that doesn’t even cover all of it.
Now he’s gone indie: he’s joined Supergiant Games, a developer with a team so small they all fit on this page, to work on Bastion. If you’re one of the maybe four unfortunate people left on the planet who aren’t already super-pumped for Bastion, peep this trailer below:
Alright, now that we’ve gotten that taken care of, scroll down for the interview with Greg, where we talk about such seemingly disparate elements as Cormac McCarthy, Portal, the pros and cons of creative freedom, and run animations. Strap in, y’all. This is a longie but a goodie.
Your official role at Supergiant is creative director. What does that mean for your input on Bastion, especially considering the game spent a short while in development without you?
As creative director at Supergiant Games, I’m responsible for developing all aspects of the Bastion gameworld, which includes providing all the writing for the game, coming up with the characters and locations, and creating the story, among other tasks. I also have a general influence on the design and overall experience of the game.
While I joined the team only recently, the cofounders of Supergiant Games, Amir and Gavin, are some of my closest colleagues and best friends from our years spent working together at EA LA. They knew my capacities as a writer and my major preoccupations as a game designer from having worked with me on several projects, and it happens that my skill set is highly compatible with theirs. We collaborate really well on everything from low-level tuning of game systems to fiction development.
We all left at around the same in the summer of 2009, and we were talking about the idea for this game and possible angles for the fiction even at the time, though in the end I wasn’t able to join the company when it first formed. I couldn’t make the kinds of sacrifices these guys made, and I feel very lucky I got a chance to join them later. But at any rate, the early going for Amir and Gavin involved getting the core functionality of the game to a good place, which means lots of gameplay prototyping. The game is now at a point where the core of it is in a relatively mature and solid state. That means it’s time to go wider on the content side, which means building out the rest of the story and pulling together all the promising ideas the guys have prototyped into a cohesive experience. So even though I’m technically new to the team, since I already know these guys so well and since they’ve been working on a concept that’s near and dear to my heart, it’s been easy to integrate.
You’ve cited some pretty awesome and unexpected sources of inspiration for Bastion. You’ve even namedropped Cormac McCarthy in discussing your influences. What are a few more of the specific inspirations you can account for, both within and outside of video games?
Bastion isn’t directly inspired by any one or two games, and it’s not the sort of project where everyone on team keeps referring back to any existing templates. Everyone on team, myself included, brings to bear at least 20 years of gaming experience when developing this game. We like to draw upon as many influences as possible, so long as the ideas make sense for our game and are given context in it.
For me personally, my primary gameplay influences for the moment-to-moment experience of this game are the console and arcade classics I played as a kid or as a teenager. Games I’ve thought about in the context of Bastion include everything from Final Fight and Golden Axe, to Final Fantasy IV and VI, to the Zelda series, to Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night, to Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man, and on and on. All these games I’ve mentioned happen to be Japanese, because I think the Japanese mastered the traditional form of the action game in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, mastered making the moments of gameplay feel rewarding in themselves without the need for loot drops or achievements or things like that. My instincts as a designer owe a lot to that tradition. We knew from the start that we wanted to make a 2D game, with the kind of tight and responsive feel to it that players might remember from the golden age of gaming in the ’90s, so we do go back and pay close attention to the classics.
At the same time, I think we have more modern influences on the metagame, the sum total experience. Again our influences are broad here, as we think about everything from BioShock to Viva Piñata. For years I’ve wished I could play a game that felt like the games I used to love in the 16-bit era but with more-modern design trappings along with the kind of presentation that’s possible today. I think modern games have generally achieved more success coming up with really strong and compelling metagame layers than in superior moment-to-moment gameplay. I love the structure of today’s games but miss the feel of games from the golden age.
My narrative influences run much broader. Classic computer role-playing games including several titles in the Ultima series, as well as Star Control II, Fallout, and Planescape: Torment each were eye-opening experiences for me in terms of what games could do with story and setting. A number of Japanese RPGs including Phantasy Star and its sequel as well as the 16-bit Final Fantasy games also had a big impact on me in their day. I’d also credit Thief, Grim Fandango, Starcraft, The Chronicles of Riddick, and Portal as influences on my writing for the game. I love games that nail down their atmosphere and want to make one.
Both Amir and I studied English literature in college so we do share some common inspirations outside of games. Cormac McCarthy’s writing was one of our early touchstones, as both Amir and I had just read his novel The Road and loved some of the imagery and themes, though we always knew we wanted to tell a hopeful story rather than a bleak one. We liked the idea of “Cormac McCarthy does fantasy” as a basis for the tone of the game. My favorite American author, William Gaddis, is another writing influence. He has a remarkable sense of voice and can write these characters who you feel like you know just from how they talk. I wanted Bastion‘s narrator to be a character like that.
Also we’re designing the world of Bastion to be suitable for all ages, without making it for kids. In this respect everything from Pixar’s catalog to my time spent watching Macross and Transformers: The Movie and playing Ultima as a kid and even reading Shakespeare in high school and college all comes into play. I want to design gameworlds that function on a few different levels at once, where a young player with little previous experience with games could enjoy it just as much as someone like me who’s been playing games for two or three decades.
Sorry, long answer. The short answer is Bastion owes a lot to the 16-bit classics.
While I don’t think it’s entirely one or the other, I do think that the latter-day 16-bit games stand as examples of masterful game design. Games like Super Metroid and Chrono Trigger hold up about as well today as ever. When the era of polygonal 3D gaming came about in the mid-’90s, a lot of the mastery around 2D game design seems like it had to be thrown out as developers struggled to learn completely new ways of making games, introducing camera controls and so on. It took years before games like the original Devil May Cry happened and recaptured some of the feel that was lost, and developers are still scraping away at those long-lost 2D secrets with games like Street Fighter IV or even Bayonetta and Demon’s Souls. The reason I look back to 16-bit classics isn’t because I’m nostalgic for them, it’s that I think they’re purer and often superior expressions of particular game structures or mechanics than what newer games have offered. Newer games tend to place a heavier emphasis on fluid animations and cinematic presentations. But these goals are fundamentally in conflict with the goal of having tight responsive gameplay feel, a one-to-one correlation between player input and onscreen output, which I think is closely connected to having satisfying moment-to-moment gameplay.
Today if you play a typical action adventure game you’ll find that almost no input of yours causes an immediate effect onscreen. If you deflect the left stick forward, your character doesn’t run but begins to run. If you pull the trigger to shoot, your character doesn’t shoot but raises his weapon to begin to shoot. As games approach realism, they simply can’t take the animation shortcuts that gave classic games their ultraresponsive feel. Some modern games strike a fine balance anyway, such as Uncharted 2 or Assassin’s Creed 2 or Batman: Arkham Asylum. But that’s not what we’re after, and those games are far beyond our means. On the other hand, recapturing the long-lost feeling of classic games doesn’t seem impossible though it’s very difficult. I think games of that golden-age era needed to focus on their core interactions and get the feel just right because they had little else to offer. I study those games out of respect for the craft.
One of the many striking things about Bastion is the narration – the game (or what we’ve seen of it so far) is completely narrated by a disembodied voice. As a writer, what sorts of new creative opportunities are you afforded when you opt to use voice-over narration?
The real-time narration in Bastion is our way of delivering story at the pace of the player. It was always intended to be a game with some emotional depth to it, and to use some of the tropes of the action role-playing genre, so the idea of real-time narration emerged organically during the prototyping process as a byproduct of these particular goals. For me, it’s an opportunity to tell an original story using means only possible through the video game medium, which is what I’ve wanted to do nearly my entire life.
So it’s very rewarding, and as a writer I feel both a great sense of comfort and excitement when working on it. The narration is there in part to play with the player, to respond to his actions in unexpected ways. In addition to that, the narration is there to give exposition and deepen the gameworld bit by bit, to build intrigue. Our narrator isn’t just a voice. We have pages of backstory about exactly who he is, and we know exactly what his role is in the story. We needed to do this because we wanted to deliver story in a minimal way, which meant having a narrator who could say a lot in just a few words, something he’s much better at than me. The dialogue isn’t there to state the obvious or to give objectives, but is being designed to always give you clues about the gameworld or the narrator, or both.
You guys have imposed some pretty specific design rules on yourself – the “no repeated dialog” thing, the desire to never interrupt gameplay for story, etc. You guys are speaking in some brave absolutes, and it’s pretty refreshing. What inspired the team to go this direction?
We just want to make a good game, and we know we have to set certain boundaries in order to achieve that. We have a hard road ahead of us with Bastion because we know this is our shot at making something worthwhile. To achieve that we know we have to play to our strengths as a team and be creative and flexible around the constraints we’re facing, while also being relatively stubborn about aspects of the game directly tied to the quality and manner of experience we’re aiming for. I think it was important for the team to build this game organically, not by starting with a set of features or a giant written design document, but by starting with an aesthetic idea along and a variety of in-game prototypes, then trying to find common themes among the most successful ones. Now that the direction is relatively clear, we need to actively make sure to not lose sight of what’s important about it. For the narration in particular, because of our goal of using it to create atmosphere and draw the player in, we know we can’t afford to repeat any of the lines, because we know from past experience that the moment you hear a line of dialogue repeat even once, it breaks immersion.
You started in the mainstream games press, moved into the development side after getting a job at EA LA, and are now a full-on indie developer. This has no doubt given you an incredibly unique perspective on the industry. What are some of the major differences between mainstream and indie development, and how has being a part of the press changed the way you look at making games?
For better or worse, games have always been a very important part of my life. In addition to the jobs you mentioned, in the gaming press I started off writing independent fanzines and contributing to small-time publications, so it was only later that I became involved in a juggernaut press outlet like GameSpot. I also spent a year on the publishing side of the game industry after leaving EA LA. So I feel like I’ve come full circle lately, and finally reached the starting line of the career I’ve always wanted since I was a kid.
There are any number of differences between mainstream and independent development, though I think most of them are derived from these two: Team size and creative freedom. Both can be seen as double-edged swords.
Having gone from working on teams of 100-plus people to a team of five is of course going to have a big impact on the scope of the games I’ll be working on from here on out. What can be so great about working on a small team is the depth of the personal chemistry on that team and the amazing results this produces. I feel that the chemistry of the team is the true source of its power – it’s not the individuals. Talented people are not that uncommon, but in many cases their true potential as individuals is only achieved once they’ve worked within a group of like-minded people for a period of time. When working on a strong team, individuals benefit from the effects of high morale that comes from being inspired by the work of their colleagues.
Also the creative constraints that tend to come with working at larger studios and their existing franchises can produce some really amazing games. For an independent studio, having no creative constraints can make for some intimidating problems. Even still, I absolutely love having those types of problems. I’ve always been able to imagine the types of games I’d really want to play, and I love developing gameworlds, characters, and stories. Within our team, we need to have very strong checks and balances when it comes to creative decision-making, to make sure we’re being honest with ourselves about the quality of our work. But then, we wouldn’t be much of a team if we weren’t doing that anyway, and as a team we often seek external validation through usability testing so we can sort of tell how well we’re doing and if we’re on the right track.
Having worked in the gaming press for a while prior to getting into game development gave me a breadth of knowledge about gaming, as I could never have afforded or justified playing all those games otherwise. It also gave me a critical capacity about gaming because I had reason to think carefully about why certain aspects of games worked so well while others didn’t. Finally it gave me experience working with small, tight-knit, high-performance teams.
You guys are teaming up with Giant Bomb to do a series of unconventional dev diaries called “Building the Bastion.” How did this idea come about, and what makes them special?
The idea came about from brainstorming shortly before Bastion was announced. We agreed that there’s this very interesting side of game development that’s very closely guarded by developers and publicists, that there’s still all this mystery around what it truly takes to make a game, about the trials and tribulations and the fighting and the late nights that go into it. I feel like the best you can do is to read a postmortem on Gamasutra, but postmortems are written with the benefit of hindsight so you don’t get to see people going through the process. At Supergiant we decided we didn’t really have much to hide, that our creative process is pure enough and that we’re hard-working enough that we wouldn’t be embarrassed if people knew how we worked; and likewise that our content is original enough or draws from broad enough sources that we have no fear of giving away too much from a competitive standpoint. Like, there’s no one mechanic that we’re worried some other game is going to implement before we do or anything like that. We decided we wouldn’t go into all the details of the business side since that’s personal and private, and we’re not going to spoil the game’s story prematurely, but apart from those boundaries anything goes.
It helped that Giant Bomb and Supergiant Games have some common ground as independent companies that split off from much larger ones, plus I have a long history with Jeff and the team from our days at GameSpot so we have a lot of built-in rapport. All told, we thought it could make for interesting and entertaining content for people. Rather than just show people our process, we want a big part of it to be a dialogue, so people will have a chance to tell us how we’re doing or ask questions every step of the way. It would be fantastic if through our story helped some people get their start making games of their own.
Sounds awesome! When can we expect to see these?
We should have a next look at the game on Giant Bomb in October I think. Now that people have seen how the game is looking at the moment, I really want to show some of the early prototypes so people can start to get a sense of how these types of projects evolve over time.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, Greg!
Readers! Are you excited for Bastion? Let us know what you think of it in the comments!