Interview: Supergiant Games' Greg Kasavin on Bastion

Kasavin speaks on Bastion's emotions, goals, and purpose.

By , Contributor

Bastion is the first effort from Supergiant Games, a development team of seven people who made a splash with the first title in Microsoft's Summer of Arcade promotion. A deeply emotional experience about a boy struggling to right his world after an unspecified disaster, Bastion is sure to be a hallmark of 2011. Creative Director Greg Kasavin chatted over Skype about the title, it's meanings, and its purpose.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Greg Kasavin and my title is Creative Director. That means I'm the writer on Bastion. I did all of the story and in-game writing work along with fiction development. I also did roughly half of the level design in the game.

That's a lot of work.

Yeah, we're a pretty small team, only seven people including our voice actor. It's the sort of thing where everyone on the project has their own lions share of responsibility. That feels really good actually.

One of the things really interesting to me when I started playing was how colorful Bastion is. This is a world of course that has been destroyed by something called “the calamity.” It's a very vibrant world where as modern games tend to be in that brown and orange earthy tones.

Why is Bastion so saturated?

That speaks to the kind of contrast we wanted to create. Technically, it is a post-apocalyptic setting but it feels bad to even describe it that way. We did want it to have this storybook-like quality where people feel a sense of wonder. It's both to make the world feel captivating from the beginning from a gameplay standpoint to get players hooked but also was thematically important.

We wanted players to feel sort of conflicted about the world where even though you had the sense that there's been something like a terrible loss, what's left is still pretty nice. We wanted players to feel attached, and making it beautiful was one way to do that.

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I've read before that the backgrounds were hand painted...

Yeah, that's correct. It's a fully 2D game.

Then my curiosity is how were the sprites created?

A lot of the sprites like the main character are based on 3D models that have a hand-painted texture to them. The animation frames are still spat out as sprites so technically there isn't a single polygon in the game. The only reason we used 3D modeling is because we only have one artist on the project and doing 10,000 frames of animation by hand would not have been bloody likely for us to pull off.

Our goal was to give it a cohesive and 2D look. Going for a 2D game was one of the first decisions we made. It [2D] has a certain look and feel to it that I don't think 3D has ever been able to fully replace. We miss some of the feel like that.

Why did you choose a child as the main character? Generally an action RPG has a mage, the brute etc.

We call him “The Kid,” but he's meant to have sort of a indeterminate age, but he does look like he's pretty young. It was important to me, at least fictionally, that it not be kind of a far-fetched fantasy where you feel like, “Yeah, I'm running around kicking all kinds of ass.” There are aspects like that to the game, but I think it's totally different. He's meant to be empathetic. He's not meant to make you feel jealous that you can't double jump like he can or have all of these kick-ass abilities which most video game protagonists are there to create. They're all sort of better than you. That stuff is fine, but there is a lot of it out there.

I was instead more interested in a character you feel for and help succeed through his own determination and yours. He's a character who is this lone survivor, always picking himself back up and pressing forward. However he's not necessarily outmatching the stuff he's up against. It all comes back to the kind of feel we wanted the game to have aesthetically.

So it was definitely an early choice then, not something that came down the line?

Yeah, it was an early decision to not make him this bad ass brawler. I don't think we ever considered something like that. We always wanted the main character to be the sort of person who can reflect on the world around him and not just want to kill everything.

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There's a moment in the game that kind of got to me a bit, one of those I keep repeating every time I talk about the game. The Kid comes across these people who are basically charred and made of ash. The narrator gives a sort of backstory to these people when you smash them (if you choose). How did you come up with that, because that's a really dark moment in a game that doesn't look like it would fit.

I think you're referring to the Hanging Gardens...

Yeah, correct.

There are a few traces of people before but there's a moment where you see where this has happened to everybody. That was one of the key moments of the story from the get go because we wanted the darkest moment in the story to happen early on and for the tone to lift from there. It still gets pretty dark from there later on and hopefully between a fairly interesting emotional range.

But that moment, without being too gruesome, is meant to express a true sense of loss. Your ability to destroy them is reflected by the narrator. It's an example of how the narrator can sort of speak to the characters intentions, even when they don't align with the player's in what's hopefully an interesting way. The very first encounter you find with one of these ashen statues is right at the beginning, the bartender. If you choose to destroy him the narrator will say, “He always wanted his ashes scattered here.”

The idea is that the character is sort of doing him a favor. We wanted to leave those types of interactions open to interpretation where the player can kind of imprint on the character some sort of an emotional state. Do you want to avoid destroying them or do you want to destroy them? It's up to you, and we're not going to judge you for that or speak on whether you did a good or an evil act. It's yours to internalize as to what meaning those things still have. In a lot of ways, that's what the entire game is about.

It's interesting that right at the end, so we are going to get into minor spoilers, you have this moral choice. That's the only definitive moral choice, where a game like Mass Effect is entirely about morals. Why are there no other moments in Bastion where that type of thing comes up?

Part of that is to create a sense of surprise. From a gameplay standpoint, you've been making choices all along about your weapon loadout, or things that matter from that perspective. That means the ultimate choice in the game is meant to be an expressive one that isn't going to make you stronger or weaker, but it's very pertinent to the state of the game or the world. Some people really agonize over that final choice and others I suppose others could make it more easily.

We never intended for the game to be like Mass Effect. If anything, the structure is meant to state that there isn't going to be any choice, but there's a very clear goal to complete the Bastion. There are no prior opportunities for a choice to come up, but we wanted to include them where it felt really meaningful to make the ending stand-out and memorable. It was important to us to have a strong ending to this game so people who played all the way through could feel a sense of fulfillment.

I don't think there are enough games out there that invest enough in their ending. You often hear about how bad the statistics are in regards to how few people finish games. I think part of it is that games have trained people to not expect anything that great when they get to the end. It's just going to be more of the same or as much as you can handle and then it's going to be over.

Having just beat Bodycount two hours ago, there's an ending I want to punch somebody for creating.

[laughs]

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You're an interesting case because you've written about games for GameSpot, now you're developing. So, review Bastion briefly. What do you think you did wrong? What would you do over?

Well, I would never review Bastion if you let me put my old hat back on, because I'm obviously too close to it.

Right, of course.

What I can say is that it's the game we intended to make. We're happy with how it turned out. Looking back on what we wanted to accomplish and the feedback we've gotten, it's lined up very nicely. There are no features we wish we could have added. We pushed ourselves really hard to make that possible and I think we did it. The feedback has panned out and it was worth it. I've never heard of a game that's suitable for everybody, nor did we intend to make this game for everybody. To that extent, the amount of positive feedback we have received has been really fantastic.

The thing that I'm the most happy with is how well it ties together because we wanted to make a game that felt complete where it's all internally consistent. The different game systems are supported by the fiction, the story is going somewhere, the details all mean something, and I feel like we've been able to do that. We didn't want to make a game that had any obvious weak points. Sometimes you play a game and you can tell they tacked on multiplayer, or the music is terrible but the graphics are amazing. We put in the effort and I'm happy how that turned out.

I don't think I've ever interviewed a developer who said they got it all in.

Yeah, I'm surprised to hear myself say that. Part of that is the scope of the game which we were very pragmatic about from the start. We're a team of seven people and we didn't set out to make a MMO that you'll play for 200 hours. We wanted to make a game that wasn't going to overstay its welcome, it gave you a sense of grand adventure that provided a good amount of replayability if you did want to go back, and gave you a darn good value for $15.

We don't get the multiplayer question very often and I'm glad we don't, but once in awhile people ask because it is a fun way to play other action RPGs. Even that is something we prototyped and we decided to cut along the way because it took away from the tone we were going for. It's a solitary journey with one character where your companion is the narrator, but having two people running around changed the feel of it. The game is better off for not having it.

All that said, we're our own worst critics, and I'm not going to get into the little nitpicky things we could have done differently, but there's no obvious stuff that comes up.

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Matt Paprocki is a 13-year veteran of the video game, movie, and home media scene. He has written thousands of reviews, has been published on a variety of websites, and contributes his thoughts daily on a diverse range of topics.

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