Friday, March 25, 2011

PAX East 2011: Bastion Preview & Interview

One of the highlights of my weekend at PAX East was the opportunity to demo Bastion, the upcoming action-RPG from Supergiant Games, and to talk with the seven-person studio’s Creative Director, Greg Kasavin. Supergiant recently inked a deal with Warner Brothers that will see Bastion brought to Xbox Live Arcade this summer—very good news for those of us eagerly anticipating its release.

Shown from an isometric perspective, Bastion has the player take on the role of The Kid, who’s just woken up to find his world literally torn apart by a mysterious Calamity. The Kid advances through each level, gaining experience for defeating enemies and collecting items and weapons to build his powers. The gameplay fits comfortably into the genre’s conventions, since, as Kasavin explains, the intention is for anyone to be able to pick up and play the game. There’s a few intriguing twists to the “smash everything in sight” formula, though.

The most noticeable thing is the art style. Instead of the sickly brown and gray color pallet seen in games like Fallout 3, Bastion features gorgeous hand-drawn art reminiscent of a Miyazaki film. It’s easily the prettiest post-apocalyptic world I’ve ever seen. Bastion is “not meant to be a bleak game,” Kasavin says. The brilliant colors serve a narrative purpose as well: “If this world is so beautiful even in its destruction,” Kasavin says, “it sure must have been amazing before the Calamity tore it apart.”

And the world of Bastion is literally torn apart. The action takes place on levels that appear to be floating in the sky, lending a fairy-tale sheen to the atmosphere. (Kasavin confirms he was inspired by the “darkness” in fairy-tale films like The Dark Crystal, and both he and designer Amir Rao tell me that they wanted to make the isometric angle feel more open by placing the sky below the player.) As The Kid progresses through each level, the ground assembles in front of him; bricks fly in from the edges of the screen, reconstituting the path ahead. The effect is pretty, but also a unique way to guide the player. The team asked itself, “Is there something we could do to direct the player that is not a map?” Kasavin says.

In the brief introduction to the story the demo provided, it seemed clear The Kid’s mission was to use the power of the Bastion—a sort of hub world—to restore his world to its former glory. The reconstituting effect subtly but meaningfully sets up a tension between gameplay conventions (smash everything in sight) and narrative (rebuild this broken world). Destroying objects and defeating enemies nets you “fragments,” which are later used as a form of currency within the Bastion to rebuild the world and purchase upgrades.

But even the act of combat isn’t entirely straightforward. I asked Kasavin about a previous statement he had made that the enemies in the game are not inherently evil monsters, but rather people who have been deformed by the Calamity. While there’s no discrete mechanic for defeating enemies without violence—“Killing them is often the only option,” Kasavin says—the game does want you to think about the implications of your actions. “I’m more interested in forces of antagonism,” Kasavin says, than “villainy,” whatever that might be. “People are put at odds, and we want the player to have empathy [for the enemies],” he says. There is no enforced morality system in Bastion, but the game does encourage the player to think critically about combat.

Yet the most striking feature of Bastion, and perhaps the one that lends its story the most ambiguity, is the narration. The Narrator—whom Kasavin cagily describes as “the main character, in a way”—provides nearly constant voiceover as you play. A second or two before The Kid performs an action, the Narrator will describe it. “The Kid grabs the hammer that’s just dropped from the sky,” he might say, just as said hammer drops from the sky. Like the reconstituting path, the narration leads the player on to the next objective while also fleshing out the story. “Our baseline requirement was for the story to never interrupt the play experience,” Kasavin says.

From what I saw, it works nicely, with Logan Cunnigham’s Tom Waits-meets-Sam Elliott gruffness providing a somber contrast to the bright, cartoony visuals. There’s also some humor peppered in occasionally; after I accidentally fell off a ledge, the Narrator deadpanned, “And then The Kid falls to his death...nah, just foolin’.” At which point, of course, I respawned.

Kasavin acknowledges the use of nearly continual dialogue was something of a risk, but is excited about the opportunity it’s given the team to play with narrative techniques. The Narrator “sounds like a straight shooter,” Kasavin explains, “but he never really gives you anything straight. You always have to read into everything he says.” While I didn’t get to experience much of that ambiguity in the demo, I’m fascinated to see how it turns out.

With its multiple twists on the action-RPG formula, Bastion is one to watch. You can start with the official trailer, found here.