Bastion's ever-present narrator set the game apart from its peers, but its music tied it all together.
In Transistor, Supergiant Games' second project, the gravel-voiced narrator trades his after-the-fact omnipresence for a mysterious residence in the titular science-fiction sword. The music trades reverberating guitars and banjos for harp, accordion and subtle electronics, but keeps its clear, stop-you-in-your tracks vocals.
That's partly because Supergiant had a musician before it had an artist when it started to work on Bastion. But even with the team fully formed heading Transistor, Supergiant wanted to keep music at the fore.
It's even more important now, given that main character Red is a singer by trade but a warrior by necessity.
We spoke with designer Greg Kasavin and audio director Darren Korb about how music continues to define Supergiant's games, and how it plans to keep surprising people.
People might think Supergiant has run out of tricks after Bastion, Kasavin worries. They'll find out when Transistor hits PC and PS4 on May 20.
When you were first starting to work on Bastion did you plan on music being such an important aspect?
Greg Kasavin: The short answer is no, because Bastion was made in a pretty ad-hoc sort of way. There was no grand plan for the game on day one, it was just about creating a game in a certain environment and seeing what could be done. It started with just Amir Rao and Gavin Simon, who were former colleagues of mine from Electronic Arts. And for them it wasn't trivial just to get a character moving around on the screen, swinging a weapon when you hit a button.
They needed to get the fundamentals working before they could start thinking about things like tone and the atmosphere too much. At the same time, there were early ideas and ambitions around the tone, and we discovered that the music was really the first way to really achieve that at a time when there was no artist on the project or anything, because Darren and Amir are old friends. Does that sound somewhat accurate, Darren?
Darren Korb: Yeah, pretty much. To what Greg said, as the team grew a little bit to the eventual size it would be for finishing Bastion, a big constraint on that project was just what we can execute with the people that we have. That was a big part of why music ended up being a reasonably important part, just because there was access to somebody who could make a bunch of music for the game.
I was involved really early, so I was able to make something that would then guide the tone of the game a little bit, or respond to the ideas we had about tone. Like Greg said, we didn't really have an artist at the time, so I was one of the few creative disciplines implemented early on in the game. So in that sense it became an important part, just because it was the only thing representing our ideas about tone for a while.
GK: Yeah, the music came before the voiceover, for example. Because the game was always called Bastion there were some ideas about the theming of it that stuck over the duration of the project... But as soon as some of that audio was there, suddenly you could start to feel what this world might be like.
You had visual artists going into Transistor, but it seems music is equally important there. How has your approach to world building changed or stayed the same?
GK: We felt very strongly about the music in Bastion in terms of its ability to contribute to the overall tone and the overall quality of the game. I think that's reflected in a lot of the response that we got. So we knew for sure that we wanted it to be a big part of whatever we did next. Our No. 1 goal after Bastion was just to stick together as a team and make something new, whatever that was going to be.
One of the things to me that was subtly different, but kind of a more interesting approach, was we wanted to surprise people again with this game. I personally feel that the element of surprise is really important to whatever we've been able to accomplish so far. In Bastion we kind of hid these vocal pieces in the game and part of their potency was where they occurred: the unexpectedness of hearing those songs in those moments.
"We wanted to surprise people again with this game"
Whereas in Transistor, a thought early on was what if we put the vocals of this game more at the forefront? We can't hide it this time, people know that's something that we're capable of. But why would we even want to? We know that we can do something interesting here, so can we think of an interesting context in which this type of music can be even more central?
So from those types of ideas we get a protagonist who is a singer by background, and things of that nature. That informed part of the thinking. I think Darren can attest that it still took us a while to find everything and get at the tone and stuff, but we knew that we wanted music to be a big part of this game. That was for sure.
DK: This game's been a really interesting process, because in a way we have to make it in relationship to Bastion; we don't want to repeat ourselves, we want to make something new. That is part of the equation, at least for me.
I definitely wanted to go into this project having music be an important part. I had some ambitions around having some more vocal involvement early on, stuff like that is what I personally wanted to try. Just having done it once and having a team together from the start allowed us to, for better or worse, crystallize our ambitions a little bit more at the beginning than we did on Bastion.
How does Red's life as a singer characterize the game?
GK: It's really important to us that the protagonists of these types of games reflect the values of their worlds.
The way that we approach storytelling in our games is we sort of shove you in at the deep end. We don't give you a lot of preamble. We try to get you playing immediately and then give you a whole game's worth of material to figure out what's going on and figure out what the setting is, and how it works, and all that kind of stuff.
A really significant access point into the setting is the character, and the judgments you make superficially looking at the character and thinking about what sort of place this person might come from.
So in Bastion you've got this scrappy, hard-livin' Kid whose hair has already gone white. And he's reaching for drinks at the distillery, and you don't even know how old he is and whether that's appropriate.
On the other hand with Red in transistor it's this elegant woman. You don't necessarily assume she's a warrior woman, and she's not. We wanted the setting of this game to be this romanticized place, not a utopia, but a place where people have it pretty good. And then stuff happens to change that over the course of the game.
But we wanted to establish a world where people can be whatever they wanted. And in Red's particular case, she happens to be a talented singer in this world. And you find evidence of that throughout the world.
Part of the draw to us was this character pairing, because part of the story that is revealed early on is Red's voice has literally been taken from her.
So it's the idea of a partnership between a singer without a voice and this disembodied voice [in the Transistor] and the strange symbiosis that comes from that kind of relationship. We wanted to explore that with the story and see what came out of that.
But the idea that there's this talented singer who loses her ability to sing, we like that as a setup for a character. It should create high stakes for a character like that, and hopefully tell an interesting story there.
DK: We do stuff throughout the game to mechanically manifest some of that stuff and drop hints about Red's career as a singer before. You come across some different musical pieces of hers throughout the game.
Also, when you go into the 'Turn Mode', our kind of planning mode, we have a humming track. It's like you're inside Red's head, hearing her humming along to the music. And you don't hear her when you're not in that mode. So it's a little bit of a window into her mind. We wanted to use that mechanically to try and pull you inside the character a little bit more.
GK: We say that her voice has been taken from her, but it's a bit of a technicality. You'll hear plenty of her melodies and stuff throughout the game. It's sort of integrated right into the moment-to-moment play as Darren suggested. We want to establish her as a singer, so one of the ways we did that is that there's a button you can press whenever you want where she will just start humming a song.
We wanted there to be these expressive actions in the world. They're not there to help you win, they're not there to give you power-ups or whatever. It's just there to feel like you're a part of the world and get into the head of this character a little bit more.
It's a weird thing to describe, but it's something that on team we felt quite strongly about and really liked how it came together. We're curious to see if people notice or care about those types of details. But yeah, if the character's going to be a singer, it was important to us for that not to just be her backstory. It is definitely there, present as a significant part of the game.
Bastion had unique 'acoustic frontier trip-hop' music to match its unique world. Transistor's high-tech world is, at first blush, a bit more familiar to gamers. How will you keep surprising people?
DK: I think there is definitely more to it than meets the eye at a glance. We wanted to incorporate sort of a vintage feeling into a science-fiction setting.
I and some other people on team are very heavily influenced by things like Blade Runner and [1985 film] Brazil, and we looked at that stuff at least aesthetically.
And Jen [Zee] our artist has done some amazing stuff. She's really taken a lot of art nouveau cues and really interesting Gustav Klimt-style artwork. So I think it's going to be a pretty unique texture, just from having played the game a bunch recently
I feel like it doesn't just feel like a futurey, science fictiony thing exclusively. And I tried to reflect that in the music as well. I wanted to incorporate unexpected textures into that setting.
GK: The cyberpunk aesthetic was really just a starting point for us. We immensely admire that type of aesthetic, which is why we pursued making something in that genre. But out of respect for it, out of respect for things like Blade Runner or Deus Ex that really nail that concept, we wanted to approach it differently and find our own way within that space.
"Superficially it seems futuristic, but there are other things that challenge your preconception"
The thing I like to say is if Bastion is our take on fantasy, then Transistor is our take on sci-fi. It's just as weird in its own right and has its own idiosyncrasies that will come across as you play through the game.
And some of that for sure comes across musically. As Darren alluded to, it's this kind of vintage almost anachronistic feel. Superficially it seems futuristic, but there are other things that challenge your preconception of what the time period really is.
DK: There's definitely some old-fashioned kind of textures in there. I try to use a lot of harps and accordions and things like that, just to create a kind of old-school, older European kind of vibe for a lot of the music in this project.
GK: For us it's a relatively intuitive process, and it takes us a while, we iterate a lot. Hopefully the result is something that has an interesting, unique feel to it.
One goal, as I mentioned before, was simply to stick together as a team and make something new. On the game side, we really just wanted to make something with its own distinct identity, much like we think Bastion had on its own.
So we wanted to see if we could essentially do it again, make something that could stand out and feel different. I suppose we'll find out soon enough if we did that.
It sounds like Transistor is going to subvert some expectations.
GK: We'll see, yeah. I think that's really, really important. We got such wonderful feedback for Bastion that was so encouraging, but... I don't think people knew what they were getting into, because Bastion looks like it's this cutesy JRPG type of thing. But I don't think it's really that.
It goes places musically and narratively and gameplay-wise that it may not seem like it's going to at the beginning. I think that's really important, just to find ways to surprise people.
So that was one of the challenges on this project - do people know our tricks now? Did we run out of tricks on our first game? We don't think so, but we will see.
That's part of the reason why we've revealed so little about the game other than the first 20 minutes. There's a whole big game behind that, and we've shown zero of that, because that's just in service of making sure that whatever we did there can be as potent as possible and not give too much away ahead of time.
Speaking of JRPGs, when I first started playing Bastion I was immediately reminded of Secret of Mana. Was that an influence?
GK: That era of Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy, to me at least, is the golden era of games: the mature Super Nintendo era, toward the middle or end of its life when developers really knew what they were doing with that thing and were achieving these really incredible games that are still classics to this day.
Then something really interesting happened: the PlayStation came out and the whole industry took a sharp turn in a different direction. Everyone is trying to figure out 3D and everyone's trying to get cameras working in 3D worlds, and it almost felt like they threw out everything they knew about how to make these amazing 2D, sometimes top-down isometric games.
One of the things we were thinking about as were working on Bastion, is it's almost like an homage to that era. If people were still making games with that mindset, what would they look and feel like today, with more modern technology and some different narrative techniques and stuff like that.
So I think we're still working in that tradition. We have a lot of fondness for the games of that era, but at the same time I would qualify that by saying it's never about nostalgia for us. We don't just try to make throwback games or anything like that.
We don't assume people's prior knowledge with that stuff. Anyway, that was a roundabout answer: Secret of Mana and like a thousand other 16-bit games and computer games and all sorts of stuff went into it because we all grew up playing this stuff. So it's all swishing around in our heads.
DK: Some other things about the 2D style are appealing to us. Something that Greg didn't mention is just the responsiveness and how immediate 2D can feel relative to some 3D stuff.
The input response is really satisfying in a visceral way. And that's something that lacks in a lot of 3D stuff these days. Like Greg said, we love a lot of that stuff, and it's in our brains bouncing around, so that's an influence definitely.
Can you describe the process behind making 'Build That Wall' and how that reflected on overall development?
DK: Yeah, definitely. For Bastion, and also for Transistor actually, Greg wrote this gigantic world document that makes its way a little bit into the game in bits and pieces. But there's all this backstory that the world has that is what I was trying to pull from when I wrote that song.
We went back and forth a little bit before I set off to write it, about what kind of song it should be. We ultimately settled on a wartime Ura song, that maybe Zia or her dad had sung or something. You can kind of speculate that stuff. I pulled that vibe from this backstory that Greg had written.
GK: In terms of what the collaboration was, we were all actively working on the game at this point and had a pretty strong sense, thematically, of what it was going for.
What the moment is supposed to achieve with that song - you hear this beautiful voice all of a sudden, it's the first voice you hear other than the narrator - so just when you think this is all you're going to hear through the game, here's this other voice cutting through. So Zia represents something specific in that game.
But at the same time, in terms of the content, it's all this stuff, the complexity of this social situation between two groups of people. Zia grew up in this other culture, but she's singing her own native culture's song, but it's all complicated and kind of tied up if you listen to the lyrics.
And it's got this ominous quality as well, there's some foreshadowing with it, which we thought was pretty cool. I think that song was just a really cool example of how all seven people on Bastion could kind of internalize aspects of the game and go off and make stuff for it, and then we find ways of pulling it all together.
"We all do rather personal work [then make] it make sense in a single work"
Once the general idea for the song was established, Darren just kind of came back with what it was [laughs]. We don't all sit in a room, that kind of stuff is done really individually, which I think helps the result.
It's not processed through a lot of human beings. We all do rather personal work on this stuff and then find ways of making it make sense in a single work.
Have you given any thought to a third game?
GK: It's almost a taboo. It was similar on Bastion. I think at this stage of the project, people's minds start to drift there. But we tend to shut it down if anything.
Because the reality is that we've poured everything into this game and whatever happens to us as a studio is going to depend a lot on this game and how it's received. We're not going to be able to ignore that one way or the other.
So anything that we would plan to do at this point... It just feels false, because we know everything is going to be different once this game comes out, one way or another.
At the same time, the goal remains - as long as people like what we're doing - we would love to keep doing this stuff. It's challenging but immensely gratifying at the same time. I personally would like nothing better than to keep working on stuff that can surprise people in interesting ways over a long period of time.
DK: As a studio that just works on a single project at a time, we don't split up the team and work on different things. At least with Bastion and to a lesser degree with this one we have an all-in sort of thing going on, where this is our thing, and if people don't like it...
If people didn't respond well to Bastion that was going to be our only game. We wouldn't have money to make another game and that's that. So to some degree it's just that this is the thing that will allow us to make more games, so we need to focus on this until it's done. We can't afford to have our minds wander too much to the next project while this is still going on.
We've got to focus on this and make this as good as we can, and hopefully it will allow us to make more games.