Greg Kasavin spent 10 years at GameSpot, ultimately becoming the site’s editor-in-chief, before taking the plunge into game development. As the creative director of indie start-up Supergiant Games, he’s the chief writer of the studio’s original and narratively inventive games.
But no story springs out of a vacuum, of course, and when I was first playing through Bastion, I thought I could pick out a few of its influences, socially and politically as well as creatively. I called Greg up to ask him about these, about what he saw as the very core of the story, and about the narrative’s evolution over time and through gameplay iterations.
Amir and I were talking about the author Cormac McCarthy, and how come there’s no game that sounds like that?
Did Bastion‘s story change much throughout development?
The story evolved over time as the game itself took shape, but the thematic core remained pretty constant. It was a combination of thematic and aesthetic ideas and also world-design types of ideas. And tonal ideas, as well. Tone was something that [designer] Amir [Rao] and I had been talking about forever. It’s something that we’re both just preoccupied with – creating something that has a specific tone. If the tone is specific, then the identity is specific. And we wanted to make a game that, for obvious reasons, would stand out to people and had a reason to exist. So we wanted to give it a tone that felt distinct.
Amir and I were talking about the author Cormac McCarthy, and how come there’s no game that sounds like that? Not all of his books are set in the South, but they have this kind of Southern Gothic feel to them. And The Road in particular was a post-apocalyptic tale but has that feel, with very rich and minimal dialogue and these beautiful, lyrical passages, but a lot of darkness there, as well. So we liked all that kind of stuff, and that was one of the tonal starting points and directly influenced the writing style and the way the narrator talks and stuff like that.
I thought I saw a lot of The Matrix in there, too.
I certainly love the first Matrix movie in particular, but I can’t say that that was a specific influence on this story. I mention Cormac McCarthy’s work; that’s stylistically a direct influence. Other than that, I think most of my influences are subconscious. A lot of the stuff that I grew up watching and reading and whatnot, that all kind of – I love a lot of ’80s fantasy films and, also, a lot of classic fairy tales and stuff like that, like Hans Christian Anderson-type stuff, the dark, rather sinister fairy tales, rather than the kind-of Disney sanitized ones.
It certainly might have been. I really like the first Matrix in particular from a world design perspective. And from a story perspective, it was really important to me to make Bastion completely self-contained and not have the sort of pretenses of being part of a trilogy or something like that. I wanted people to feel happy with how that story ended.
The Matrix also has this resolution where the humans’ war with the Machines doesn’t end in genocide – it ends in peace, with both sides needing the other. That seems to be a big element in Bastion.
Yeah. To me, that aspect of the game is more influenced by history, actually. The idea that you can’t just paint another society as evil – it’s never that simple. And people who try to reduce things to that level of simplicity are generally just wrong. Thematically, the story is exploring this idea of overcoming regret, so it had to have some sense of redemption there. You just can’t have these purely unsympathetic ideologies; you had to be able to see it from the other side’s perspective and kind of empathize with what was happening on both sides and recognize the bigger issue at stake, and then decide what you wanted to do with that.
In fact, I hate when games remind me of the Iraq War; I like when games transport me to new places rather than remind me of everything that’s wrong in the world today.
I don’t know what in particular preoccupied me with that idea; that’s just something that is an interesting subject, for me, personally. I think regret is something that everyone experiences from a very young age, no matter how rich or how poor or how well-off they are. A little kid losing a favorite toy experiences it. It just seemed like one of those rich and open-ended themes to explore, and something that could be done in a nuanced way, so that players didn’t feel like, here’s this game that’s going to preach to them about some lofty topic. It was just meant to be an exciting story, but one that, hopefully, had a meaningful substance to it, as well, for people who care to have that. I think everyone wants their stories to be substantive – they just aren’t used to it, necessarily.
My other big influence question was how much, if at all, did the Iraq and Afghanistan wars get in there?
It’s actually not those wars in particular. It’s interesting that you should bring those up. I think it is war between nations in general – it’s always the same theme, almost every time. It wasn’t meant to feel contemporary. In fact, I hate when games remind me of the Iraq War; I like when games transport me to new places rather than remind me of everything that’s wrong in the world today. I didn’t want people to think of Iraq when they played the game, although, if they did, that’s fine – they can think of whatever they want. But I did want the game’s world to feel familiar in some way, that the issues that were at stake felt like things that people recognize from the real world, whether from history or from the present, I suppose.
In the case of Bastion‘s world, the two factions of the backstory, they’re neighbors, and the war between them happens as these kind of neighborly wars tend to do throughout history, when they’re two societies next to each other, and each one of them gets bigger. Suddenly, the borders rub up against each other and friction starts to occur and a lot of problems can happen, through no particular fault of one side or the other. I think they’re countless – it even gets back to biblical times, and that’s more where my mind was at.
I definitely didn’t want the story to be an allegory. That definitely was not the intent at all. Allegorical stuff, I think, can feel kind of cheap – “Oh, you’re just trying to teach me a lesson about Iraq.” It’s kind of a deflating feeling to realize that something is preaching to you in that way. The game was definitely not meant to be preachy, and I think, thankfully, the feedback around the ending and the ending choices has been very strong. I think the reason those choices worked for people is because they really are dilemmas; it’s not like moral grandstanding or anything. We wanted to present choices that were totally justified, whichever way you chose, and not about, like, do you want to be the good guy or the bad guy? How do you feel about this world that you’re in at this point, and to give you options that could reflect that range.
You have to decide what’s right without the game spelling out for you that you’re going to get
The ending is very different from the rest of the game – you can’t freely switch out your choices. Once you pick, that’s it. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, that was very conscious. We weren’t sure exactly how it was going to go, but I really liked the idea that, in this game – to back up a little bit, we have no last boss or anything like that, right? The metaphorical “last boss” of the game is just an expressive choice that you make. That is the ultimate challenge. In a game where you’ve been making cool, fun gameplay choices the entire time, here, now, is a choice whose consequences are unclear. You have to decide what’s right without the game spelling out for you that you’re going to get, like, +25% damage, or something like that. The idea that we’re going to save these expressive narrative choices that don’t necessarily have any gameplay impact at all for the very end seemed pretty exciting. We thought those choices could have the highest impact by sort of coming out of nowhere in that way near the end. But I don’t think they come out of nowhere [totally], because they really are the first moments in the actual story of the game when the character is confronted with situations where he does have to make this kind of choice. So it all seemed to work out nicely, and we liked saving that sort of thing for last.
We felt that, either consciously or not, if the player was gonna invest that much time into the game to get to that point, chances are he would feel something about the world and about these characters and could make a choice accordingly. Whereas if we put those kind of choices in early on, they would be less meaningful, because you would have less time to basically get to know everything about the world. It’s like, “Why should I care what happens?” We didn’t end up using this as a tagline, but the sort-of tagline we had for the game early on was, “What will you make of the world?” – both speaking to how you build up the world around you, but it’s also speaking to [the player] deciding what to make of it, I guess, in a more spiritual sense; you get to decide what happens to it. Because, ultimately, in any story, it comes down to: how is the world different between the beginning of the story and the end of the story? We wanted that difference to be pretty profound in the case of our game.
Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for IGN, Gamasutra, and 18 other sites. He’s the editor of Tower of the Hand: A Flight of Sorrows and has even taught English in Japan.