The announcement of the Retro Video Game System, a cartridge-based console, is the latest case study in the debate of whether gaming should continue evolving beyond its roots.
Leviathyn Exclusive: Transistor Interview With Greg Kasavin
For the people that experienced Supergiant’s incredible debut Bastion, the wait to see what their next project would be has been a tough one. Bastion came out of nowhere to become one of the breakout games of 2011, and their new title Transistor hopes to emulate that success. Lead writer Greg Kasavin talked with us about how things have changed at Supergiant Games since the success of Bastion, the process of developing a strong female lead and whether or not we can expect another “tough decision” ending.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Greg. How have things changed for Supergiant Games since the release of Bastion?
Things have changed a lot for us in some ways but from a certain point of view they haven’t changed at all. We’re no longer working in the living room of a house and have a studio space. We’ve grown the team from the seven original members up to 10. We’re not as cash-starved. Other than that it’s still just us in a room trying to make something we think is worth people’s time, fretting over it nonstop, tinkering away at it. Day to day, I think the success of Bastion still feels very abstract to each of us. I have to remind myself that it’s a game I worked on. There wasn’t really a sense of closure around wrapping development on Bastion. I see game development as sort of a long, drawn-out baseball game. Thankfully we didn’t strike out with Bastion and now we’re up to bat once again with Transistor.
Now that you have a bigger team and more exposure, talk a little bit about developing Transitor versus developing Bastion? Has Transistor presented any unique development problems you didn’t experience with Bastion?
With Transistor we wanted to make a whole new game, by creating a new setting from scratch and exploring in different directions for the gameplay. We also had the entire Bastion team on the project from day one. As a result it’s been pretty different from Bastion’s development, which started with just two people and gradually grew to seven. Pre-production on Transistor was longer and more involved. We had more ideas about the look and feel of the world up front, spent more time defining the characters and the environment, trying to find a specific atmosphere. Spending more time doesn’t necessarily make things easier of course, it just means the process is more involved and hopefully produces a strong result.
Given the breakaway success of Bastion, do you feel that you can take more creative chances with Transistor? In retrospect, are there any elements of Bastion you would change now, or maybe some ideas that didn’t quite make it in Bastion that you are incorporating into Transistor?
We held nothing back with Bastion, and there is no meaningful aspect of the game I wish we handled differently. I am very happy with how that game turned out and with the response it got. There are no cutting-room-floor ideas from Bastion that we’re putting into Transistor because everything we cut on Bastion, we cut because it was no good. Bastion expressed our best ideas around gameplay and game narrative for its time. Transistor is an attempt to do the same in a different context. Our goal is to make complete-feeling games. If we’re successful then there shouldn’t feel like anything was missing in the first place, and our subsequent games will just be different, while hopefully still very good in their own right.
Did you know from the beginning that you would use an isometric viewpoint again, or were there discussions about different ways to play with the camera?
Nothing on Transistor was taken for granted. In those aspects where we’ve come around to similar decisions as Bastion, such as with the default isometric camera angle, the discussions and exploration leading to those decisions tended to be pretty involved. We think it’s important to not assume things just because they worked in the past, especially when our goal here is to create a new game. Whenever we end up with a similar decision to decisions we made on Bastion it’s because we’ve decided it feels right for this game.
The combat in Bastion was really one of the games high points. While it looks similar on the surface, strategy is obviously a higher priority in Transistor. Do you feel like Transistor is taking steps forward to improve upon the combat? Did you learn anything from Bastion to help in this regard?
Combat was a key aspect of play in Bastion, and it will be key in Transistor as well. We were happy with how the combat in Bastion panned out though we wanted to explore it from a different angle in Transistor. Bastion’s combat I think made sense in Bastion’s world, and likewise I think Transistor’s combat is what makes the most sense in Transistor’s world. This gameplay direction and the world’s sci-fi theme are closely connected. We love a lot of classic turn-based strategy games and tactical RPGs, and wanted to see if we could bridge the thoughtful strategic feel of those kinds of games with the intuitive, fast-paced feel of the action RPG genre. The result, we think, is combat with a sense of drama and a sense of ebb and flow to it, where players can dictate the pace but will sometimes be surprised by the outcome of their planning. We of course learned a lot from developing Bastion, and I’d like to think we’re building on that experience in some ways, but the gameplay and narrative of Transistor are different enough to us that this project brings a whole different set of challenges. And I like it that way.
In Transistor and Bastion, a big part of the sound direction is spoken words. Obviously Bastion had the narrator, and in Transistor your sword kind of takes over that role. Thematically, it’s interesting that neither The Kid nor Red have an in-game voice. Was that a conscious decision, or just kind of where the development took you?
With Bastion, we found the use of voiceover to be very useful to creating atmosphere as well as providing narrative context at the player’s own pace, without interrupting the flow of gameplay. Not only that, our team was uniquely configured to deliver it, since we were able to work so closely with a voice actor of Logan Cunningham’s talent. While we didn’t necessarily assume we would use voiceover again for our next project, we had so many more narrative ideas we wanted to explore using the technique that we’ve decided to keep pushing on it.
As for our use of silent protagonists, likewise it’s a technique we think is useful and effective on the surface, as well as ripe for further exploration from different trajectories. A silent protagonist is useful in that he or she will never contradict the player’s intentions by speaking to some narrative goal that’s at odds with the player’s goal. In Bastion our narrator could reflect on the player’s actions but as a player you understood that this was another character’s point of view. Whether his impressions of your actions were accurate or not was, at its best, interesting to think about.
In Transistor we were very intrigued by having a silent protagonist who’s silent for reasons tied to the narrative rather than just for the sake of the storytelling. We want to explore this relationship between a singer who’s lost her voice and her companion who’s been reduced to only a voice.
You’ve talked a little bit about multiplayer. How did that evolve into the discussion, and what direction would you like to go with it?
We don’t want to say too much about multiplayer especially since Transistor is still early in development and a lot can change. We know we want this to be primarily a single-player experience for all the reasons that single-player games tend to do a better job of creating strong atmosphere and narrative context, which are things we’re interested in delivering. At the same time, since we do like context, we like the idea that games aren’t played in isolation. For example even though BioShock Infinite is a single-player game, I could see, while playing it on Steam, that many of my friends were playing at the same time as I was. There was a shared experience there. We’re interested in exploring how to capture some sense of that shared experience in an interesting and subtle way that supports the core single-player experience. Also I will now punch myself for each time I have used the term “experience” in this response.
Females in gaming have been a bit of a hot button issue recently. How did the character of Red develop? Were there any unexpected complications in creating a female lead?
The idea for a character like Red was one of the very first ideas on this project. Having a “fallen idol” type of character was always intended to be central to this gameworld and story. That said, like all aspects of Transistor, she evolved over time. Much like the Kid before her, we see Red as a sort of an emissary of the world she comes from. Her appearance leads to certain assumptions about the kind of world she comes from and the kind of story that Transistor is about. Developing these themes takes time, and the character design is derived in part from that. We’ve been very happy with the initial response to the character.
Bastion caught a lot of people off guard with its “tough decision” ending. I literally stared at my screen for ten minutes agonizing over which choice to make. With the success of choice-driven titles like The Walking Dead and Mass Effect, is this an idea you are looking to explore more in Transistor?
We loved the idea of having a tough choice as the “last boss” of Bastion. In that game you were making gameplay-oriented choices all throughout, so we wanted to conclude with a pair of narrative choices that challenged you to reflect on your experience with the game. Likewise, in Transistor it’s very important to us that players become engaged with the characters and the world, and the narrative is one of the tools at our disposal in terms of achieving this. We want players to feel invested in the outcome of the story and feel like they are the agent of the story, rather than a passive spectator. It’s also very important to us to repay players’ time investment with a strong sense of closure in the narrative, so if you get to the end of one of our games we’re going to do everything we can to make you feel like you reached a suitable conclusion to your journey through that world.
Many thanks to Greg for taking the time to speak with us. In addition to being one of the stand-out demos at PAX East, we here at Leviathyn have high hopes for the game as well. Supergiant is currently targeting an early 2014 release date, so we’ll have to wait a while to get our hands on this stunning looking new title.