Road To The IGF: Supergiant Games' Dynamically Narrated Bastion
by Kris Graft [PC, Console/PC]
February 22, 2011
[As part of a series of "Road to the IGF" interviews with 2011 IGF finalists, Gamasutra speaks with Amir Rao and his teammates at Supergiant Games about Bastion, an imaginative, isometric action RPG.]
Action-packed role-playing games set in apocalyptic wastelands are a dime a dozen, but Bastion has a few twists to set it apart from the pack. For one, a unique narration system actually reacts to the player's actions within the game, drawing the player deeper into the experience.
For another, the game's lush, isometric world forms and deforms dynamically around you as you move, creating a unique visual style that has to be seen in motion to be appreciated.
Now, after 17 months of development work, the team of former EA employees at Supergiant Games is almost ready to release their title this summer. Gamasutra caught up with designer Amir Rao and his team to talk about what inspired them to start an independent studio and what they're trying to accomplish with their game.
What background do you have making games?
I started by making pen and paper games – I was a huge D&D fan and still am. When I was twelve, I wrote a letter to Gary Gygax about the rules modifications I make in my D&D campaigns and when he responded in an encouraging manner he pretty much sealed my fate to game design. After I graduated with my lit major (to enhance my Dungeon Mastering of course), I went straight into the game industry.
I was a designer at EALA on the Command & Conquer games for three years. Most of my time was spent putting together single-player levels for the campaign mode, fiddling around in the WorldBuilder tool we used there trying to make dramatic fights with little men.
I really loved my team there but watching what people like The Behemoth, 2D Boy, Twisted Pixel, Jon Blow and others were able to do with small, independent teams really inspired us to strike out on our own. I quit the company with Gavin Simon and we moved into a house together in the Bay Area in September 2009 to form Supergiant Games and start working on Bastion.
What development tools did you use?
For Bastion, we made our own tools and engine started by Gavin in C# and recently expanded to consoles by our newest friend to join us, Andrew Wang, who came to us from Infinity Ward.
We do all our scripting, audio hookups, level design and lighting in our custom editor. The game is in the isometric perspective like our RTS games were, so I still spend a lot of my time moving little guys around a screen. But the end result is very different.
How long has your team been working on the game?
We've been working on Bastion for 17 months now. We started in September 2009 and will release this summer.
How did you come up with the concept for Bastion and why did you choose to do an action RPG?
The concept for Bastion was extremely minimal and the parts that actually make it special evolved over nine months of prototyping. The original seed was based on our love for RPG towns: those moments of downtime, commerce, and preparation in between all the action elements. We thought it might foster more attachment to that kind of a place if we allowed you to construct it yourself. That was it. We just started building the game immediately without any paper designs as soon as we moved in together.
That seed was a very small part of what I think ended up making Bastion distinct and interesting: the reactive narration, the hand-painted art style, the finesse of the combat, the way the world comes together as you move through it. All of these were a result of exhaustive experimentation and having people join us who could actually make this stuff work while still staying small.
We're about seven people now: Greg, Jen, Andrew, Gavin and I are all crammed into a living room right now trying to make this game come alive, while Darren Korb and Logan Cunningham are recording hundreds of audio lines tucked away in an apartment in New York.
A lot of people from big game developers are moving on to create independent studios and games. What motivated the team at Bastion to do this -- is it just a matter of freedom?
Freedom is a part of it. If we tried to pitch Bastion to anyone, even ourselves, before we actually built it, they would've probably said it was a terrible idea. "Hey it's this action RPG where an old man talks to you the whole time." I wouldn't have high hopes for that game based on that sentence alone, but the game we ended up building is essentially that idea realized in a unique way.
The other big part of it is speed. Big teams are slow. With a small team, anyone can have an idea and minutes or hours later it's in the game. When you’re small, you can fail fifty times a week to get to the good stuff instead of finding out at some big milestone that what you have just isn't as good as it could be.
What was the inspiration behind the game's hand painted art style?
I'll let Jen Zee, our artist, answer that question herself:
Jen: I think that the opportunity to have players experience an artist's vision at its very basic and pure level - in the form of a painting - is a joy that most artists never get, and would jump at the opportunity to have. Of course, dealing with the isometric angle has its challenges but I think we're making it work.
One of the visual constraints I wanted to overcome was the overbearing and often distractingly angular feeling many isometric games are affected by, which I feel can really take the player out of the experience. The bright, hand-crafted style of our assets lends itself well to the use of more organic shapes and angles, which often don't conform directly to an isometric grid.
This went hand-in-hand with our decision to portray a post-apocalyptic world in such a way as to emphasize the beauty that's still there. Rather than illustrating the world of Bastion as a brown, broken, dirty thing which has been done a lot, I wanted to present something approachable and refreshing, showing how you can find beauty and meaning even after the destruction of this world.
In terms of my inspirations, I have a healthy repertoire of classic, isometric Japanese games under my belt, so it wouldn’t be unfair to say the style wasn't on some subconscious level an attempt to channel the pixel-crafted beauty and charm those games so often had.
In a sense I was simply following in the footsteps of the artists who put so much love into creating beautiful pixel art by hand. Now that the capabilities of our consoles are such that displaying hand-painted work in high definition is feasible, it seemed quite natural to go in such a direction.
Greg Kasavin said he wants the game to "hit players' emotional chords in unexpected ways." Could you explain how the team plans on doing that?
Sure, here's Greg in his own words.
Greg: There are a couple of things we're doing to make Bastion emotionally rich beyond the moment-to-moment pleasures of interacting with the controls. First, we've been working to create a deep gameworld that players can immerse themselves in, the sort of world where you can find meaning in every detail if you want to.
And second, our particular use of narration throughout Bastion is there to make virtually every aspect of the game feel more personal. It's this idea of having a narrator who's marking your every move, and feeding back on your actions even when they're minor. By the end of the game we want the narrator to feel like an old acquaintance, complete with the emotional nuances that go hand in hand with old acquaintances.
The effect our narration has is that the player's own story is being told in real time, at the player's place. You're not relegated to just sitting back and reading or listening to it, you're there acting it out, so you gain more stake in the outcome. We also take inspiration from various literary techniques around use of narration, the results of which we think will deepen the game for players.
What's next for Bastion -- is it pretty much done and ready for summer at this point?
We're days away from the point where you can play the game from start to finish, so we're down to making the final set of environments and content. Then we're just tuning and polishing it for the next few months for our summer release, and we've polished a lot of it already.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Yeah, I fell into Super Crate Box for a while and had trouble clawing my way back out of it. There are moments in that game that remind me of what can feel really good in real-time strategy games, the idea that your attention is a very important resource and if you squander it you're going to be overwhelmed. I haven't played any others yet, but I am hoping to beat the kind of lines games like SpyParty had at PAX 2010 somehow at GDC 2011.
Also Greg's been raving about Amnesia: The Dark Descent for months.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
I feel like we're really blessed that there are all these people out there who have done this before and are willing to share their experiences and help us. Independent games don't really compete on a creative level in the way that AAA games do.
Big publishers always have to be wary about what another big publisher might be making and when it might come out, but if you're making something original you don't have to quake in fear of the competition.