Writer and Creative Director of Hit XBLA Game on Inspiration, the Industry, and More
Some of you TV game addicts might know the name Greg Kasavin. As the former site director and executive editor of GameSpot website, Greg made a mark on in the industry even before moving to the other side of the screen to actually make games, beginning as a producer for Command & Conquer: Red Alert.
I know him as my old roommate. When we were young wild bucks, Greg and I shared an apartment for a few years. While I gave myself brain damage watching horrible movies and playing music really loud, Greg would drink vodka and play heroic amounts of real-time strategy games on his PC. I always knew Greg was destined for better things, even great things, and I’m happy to say that one such great thing has now arrived…
Bastion debuted on Xbox Live Arcade last week. The game – which Greg wrote and did Creative Director duties on – has been winning rave reviews for it’s innovative storytelling, addictive combat system, and impressive music and art direction.
Greg is still busy with Bastion related work at Supergiant Games, but he was kind enough to make some time for a old roomie and to answer a barrage of questions for CrunchyNews, beginning with….
I know from hanging out with you how “game crazy” you were as a teenager. What games now rank among your all-time favorites?
Greg Kasavin: Oh man, it’s too many to mention really. My all-time favorite games are an eternal blade-lock between Ultima V, a classic computer role-playing game, and Street Fighter II, which more or less created the fighting game genre I was obsessed with for years. In more recent memory, some of my favorite games have been BioShock, Portal, Modern Warfare, Braid, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Plants vs. Zombies, Street Fighter IV, LIMBO, Super Meat Boy, Mass Effect 2, Tactics Ogre, and The Witcher 2. Even though I’m working for a small independent studio I still split my gaming time pretty evenly between bigger and smaller games. My favorite kinds of games are ones that draw me in both through the physical experience of playing, as with a great fighting game or a shooter, but also with the atmosphere and narrative. Going back farther, I have very fond memories of games like Thief, Super Metroid, Wing Commander, and Grim Fandango. It took me a long time to realize just how much games like this had in common.
How would you describe Bastion to someone who knows nothing about it?
The short answer is, Bastion is an action role-playing game in which a mysterious narrator marks your every move. Players quickly find there's more to it than that, though.
The game is filled with mystery, which discover straightaway as your character awakens to find his entire world has been shattered in some sort of surreal catastrophe. So you guide him to this location called the Bastion, where his people were supposed to go in case anything went wrong -- but the only person you find there is an old man, who believes he has the power to set everything straight. You join forces with him to seek out the materials needed to realize the Bastion’s true power, pushing farther and farther out into this unusual and dangerous world. All this is made much more interesting, I think, because of how we use voiceover narration to deliver the story of the game at the player’s own pace. As well, our gameplay focus is on tight, responsive combat designed to reward player skill, and that along with our hand-painted 2D art style should make for a game that’s very engaging both in its presentation and in its play experience.
Can you walk us a bit about the process of how Bastion actually got made? For starters, how did you get connected with Supergiant games?
Bastion is the first title from Supergiant Games, and we're a seven-person team based out of the living room of a house in San Jose, California. I met the cofounders of the studio, Amir Rao and Gavin Simon, when we were working together at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles on the Command & Conquer franchise, so this game is a pretty big departure for us. We ended up leaving one after the other in August of 2009, and a month or so later Amir and Gavin had dropped everything, moved into that house, and started working on Bastion. I was able to join sometime later. We were inspired by what was happening in the independent game development community, which was belting out these beautifully crafted, really high-quality games that felt so much more refreshing than most of the stuff coming from big publishers.
Bastion was built in a very iterative fashion, piece by piece, until it felt complete. There was no grand design document from the get-go, just the idea to create an action RPG where you form the world around you. We wanted to make a game that anyone could pick up and start playing but that had some real emotional weight to it as well. The game spent about nine months in a prototyping phase, during which time Amir and Gavin formed up the rest of the team, including Darren Korb our audio director and composer, Jen Zee our artist, Logan Cunningham our narrator, Andrew Wang our systems engineer, and me as writer and creative director.
You’re listed as the Creative Director of Bastion. What does a Creative Director do, and what don’t they do?
Creative Director is a pretty meaningless title that represents totally different jobs in different places, but you have to admit it sounds cooler than “Story Guy”, which may be somewhat more apt in my case. Practically speaking my role involves a lot of writing and level design, plus various other bits and pieces since we’re a small team and everyone does everything. Bastion has a detailed story as well as a deep gameworld so I was the one coming up with that stuff, from figuring out the names of places and weapons and creatures to outlining the story and writing all the narration and other text in the game. In addition to that, I did roughly half the game’s level design. It was great to get to do so much writing and content creation on a project, though I’m not a programmer or anything. Also our whole development process is very collaborative, so everyone on the team is coming up with good ideas all the time. Sometimes creative directors are really creative dictators, but in my case it's more about infusing the team's ideas with our game fiction, making everything fit together in a cohesive way.
For Bastion, at what point did the use of a narrator enter the picture? Was the voiceover a narrative hook that started with the original game concept, or did the idea come about later in development?
The idea of making Bastion a fully narrated game wasn’t there from the start, and came about several months into the prototyping process. It started small, as Amir asked Darren and Logan to record a few lines for the game’s early low-fidelity prototypes. The effect was pretty striking, and from there, the idea of using narration throughout the game turned out to be a great solution to our goals of not interrupting the play experience for the sake of the story but still having a strong narrative of some sort. Really the technique was only possible for us because of the long-standing connection between Amir, Darren, and Logan. Darren and Logan live on the other side of the country but they were roommates for much of the project, and they’ve known Amir since they were kids. Having that kind of access to voice talent meant we were able to push hard to get at a very high quality performance. We were always iterating on the writing, re-recording bits and pieces here and there, tuning everything to sound as natural as possible.
As a writer, I’m always curious about other writer’s habits. Under what conditions was the narration for Bastion written and what was your state of mind like?
Wow, I’m not even sure how to describe my state of mind during the project. I'd boil it down to that sense of "enjoy it while it lasts" because this was a one-of-a-kind experience for me. On one hand there was an awful lot going on in my mind as I was writing Bastion, and on the other hand, I was fully immersed in the world of the game that I’d built through the backstory. I wrote nearly as much backstory, which was never intended to be read by anyone outside of the team, as actual content for the game. This allowed me to set aside my personal preoccupations and stay focused on creating the story based on the themes and events I had in mind.
But back to my mental state! You have to understand I’ve wanted to make games since I was a little kid, and now at the ripe age of 33 here was my first chance to work on one in the capacity I'd always wanted. It was a big deal for me -- my shot at telling an original story through the medium of games. Not to mention, I’d somehow talked my family into thinking it was a good idea for me to quit a good stable job in favor of joining a small studio with minuscule statistical chances of survival. So I felt a certain amount of pressure, I guess, but I like working under pressure.
Bastion’s story is told through a narrator who has a personality that, let’s say, has some common ground with mine. He’s fixated on the past as well as the future. Writing this character was cathartic and therapeutic for me, and allowed me to express myself as a writer in a way unlike anything I’ve ever done. It was a really great experience.
Also: Drinking was involved.
What kind of guy is the narrator, Logan Cunningham? How did he get involved in the project?
The voice of the narrator in Bastion may lead you to think Logan Cunningham must be this six-and-a-half-foot-tall 65-year-old grizzled dude with an awesome moustache but in fact he’s a young man making his way as an actor in New York. He's known Darren and Amir since they were playing soccer together in middle school, and that long-standing connection is the reason we were able to do something relatively ambitious with voiceover. As mentioned, Logan was roommates with Darren for much of the project, so these guys could always drop what they were doing and record a bunch of narration in the comfort of Darren’s coat closet. Being able to work this closely with an actor of Logan’s caliber was really incredible for me.
Were there any early concepts or ideas that didn’t make the final version of Bastion?
While we left nothing worthwhile on the cutting room floor, and aimed to make Bastion feel like a complete experience, there were a ton of ideas that got scrapped during the course of development for various reasons. For example we had any number of weapons we tried and ultimately decided weren’t interesting enough or were too similar to other, better weapons. In a combat-focused game like ours, it was very important to us that each of the different weapons available to the player felt different and distinct from the next. We were also very interested in a planting mechanic, where players could plant different items in their home base and they’d sprout up into new and better things -- we were never able to communicate this successfully and realized that our Bastion structures delivered what we really wanted out of this system. We also tried tons of different stuff with our narration, pushing it as far as we thought it could go, and were constantly rewriting and re-recording through to the end of the project. Editing the content down to just the best parts was an important part of the development process to us, so we would try new things all the time while being willing to throw out the stuff that didn’t work.
I don’t really want to ask, “what was your inspiration for Bastion”, but what kinds of books, films, and music were you keeping company with while the game was being made?
I’m glad you didn’t ask the “inspiration” question because I can’t for the life of me give that one a clean answer. People sometimes think games are inspired just by other games, though as you suggest here, there can be many other sources. The American novelist Cormac McCarthy is one such example in my case, as his particular style was an influence as we were talking about the kind of tone we wanted to strike. He writes these beautiful, ultra-efficient, hard-hitting stories with an Old West feel even if they’re not set in the Old West, so we thought to ourselves, what if he wrote video games rather than these great American novels? What would that sound like?
Beyond that I’m very interested in stuff that has a layered tone, whatever it may be. I'd been listening to the band The National a lot and loved the feel of their music, understated but somehow overflowing with emotion at the same time. This is a number of years ago now but the movie Children of Men struck me in much the same way, capturing a particular tone and sense of humanity that I found very moving in what was essentially an adventure story. And every now and then I go back to back to reading the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub, which for my money is some of the best, tightest storytelling you can find anywhere. It’s easily mistaken for a bunch of brutal action stories I suppose, but to me it has a surprising capacity to express the depth of human experience. Now that Bastion is complete, I can finally get back to playing, watching, and reading other stuff, since for a while there I was completely absorbed in the development process.
As someone who has worked as both a games critic, and now as a games creator, what are some of the Big Lessons you have learned about the industry?
I’m not sure I have any pearls of wisdom here that won’t come off sounding like something out of a fortune cookie. The truth is I think the game industry is insane, and that insanity is part of what’s kept it so interesting to me for so long. It's never dull.
I try never to lose sight of what makes for a good game, and don’t believe those criteria have ever truly changed since I started playing games when I was about five years old. A lot of people would have you believe that games need to evolve or get better, but I don't believe that -- I think it's more important to learn from past successes and find ways of making those experiences relevant and accessible to new players, rather than rejecting the way things used to be. There have always been cynical forces threatening to pull the game industry apart, and it continues to be very difficult for new games to find an audience and succeed. But on the other hand it’s never been easier to get in there and make something meaningful, thanks to the kinds of free tools out there as well as digital distribution services.
I believe and have always believed that games have a tremendous potential to create profound experiences for people. I also believe that no matter what’s trendy in any given month, whether it be Facebook games or motion-controlled games or augmented reality games or whatever, there will always be a lot of people out there who are discerning about quality and want to play good games.
So what’s next for Supergiant Games and what’s next for yourself?
We’ll be supporting the Xbox 360 version of Bastion in addition to wrapping up development on the PC version of the game, which we hope to release in the very near future. So we’ll be living and breathing Bastion for a while longer, which we’re happy to do since we love the world of this game and it’s been getting a great response. We’re also looking into a soundtrack release, especially since there’s been an almost overwhelming demand for this from our players. Plus we’re gearing up for a couple of big gaming events, namely Games Com in Germany and PAX Prime in Seattle, both happening in August. Beyond that, we have a lot of ideas about what we could do next, and it’s my hope that whatever it is we end up doing, it’ll remind players of how they felt playing their favorite games when they were younger, when games felt new and surprising and full of wonder.