Nothing is straightforward when it comes to Supergiant Games.
The studio's critically acclaimed games are alien versions of well-worn genre exercises. 2011's Bastion, Supergiant's first release, is a funhouse-mirrored Western that follows a mute gunslinger on his quest to restore a floating sanctuary after the end of the world. 2014 follow-up Transistor inflects a sci-fi, cyberpunk city with the corporate intrigue and murder of a noir thriller. It's also a love story about a woman and a talking sword.
Obviously, neither are typical games.
Supergiant's latest doesn't depart from the studio's tradition of examining familiar narrative and design conceits with fresh eyes. Pyre, set for release later this week, may be its strangest yet. A cast that includes horned demons and talking, mustachioed dogs are sent into exile and look to return to their home by traveling a hyper-colorful wasteland, competing in magical sporting competitions along the way. Exploration segments resemble an elaborate text adventure. The "combat" is a three-on-three throw down that looks to require both strategy and fast reflexes—a sort of occult-themed soccer match.
The originality of Supergiant's work – the studio's refusal to lean into narrative and design concepts audiences have seen before – is the result of a team that not only possesses a fascinating imagination, but the discipline and creative process required to make its visions a reality.
FROM WRITING ABOUT TO WRITING FOR VIDEO GAMES
Supergiant creative director and writer Greg Kasavin grew up loving games, but couldn't see a clear path into making them.
"I tried to teach myself to code on a number of occasions, but struggled and didn't get far," Kasavin told me over email. Instead, he would go on to begin writing about games in his last year of high school, starting a zine with an internet friend. As Kasavin puts it, "[I] wanted to try and do something productive with all the hours I was pouring into games." It wasn't long before Kasavin began taking freelance work. Later, he would begin an internship at GameSpot, a position that would keep him writing through college and eventually lead to his final position as a game journalist as the site's editor-in-chief.
Kasavin studied English Literature in college and did some creative writing outside of work, but was mostly publishing at GameSpot. The opportunity to change that came with word of a job opening at Electronic Arts Los Angeles, passed along by Kasavin's friend and former GameSpot colleague Amer Ajami. Kasavin applied and was soon hired to work as a producer on the long-running Command & Conquer strategy series. "I realized that if I never at least tried making games, I'd always regret it," he says.
It was at EA that Kasavin met Amir Rao and Gavin Simon, Supergiant Games co-founders and current Studio Director and Engineer, respectively. Rao already knew of Kasavin from his work at GameSpot (he says Kasavin's review of cult classic The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay convinced him to buy it) but grew closer to him while working together on several Command & Conquer games. Kasavin, Rao, and Supergiant Chief Technology Officer/Systems Engineer Andrew Wang eventually became housemates.
The three left EA in 2009 with Rao and Simon heading to San Jose to begin work on Supergiant's first game, Bastion. Kasavin would spend a year at 2K Games as a producer on Yager Developments' Spec Ops: The Line before joining the Supergiant team in September 2010, as Bastion entered full production. He returned from paternity leave to give his notice to 2K and hop into a van for a long-haul drive to Seattle's PAX Prime with Rao, Simon, Supergiant Art Director Jen Zee, and Audio Director Darren Korb for Bastion's public debut. The game was released in 2011 and went on to be a massive success, selling more than 3 million copies over the next four years.
"It took joining a studio founded by friends I met at [EA] to finally get a shot at doing what I always wanted to do," Kasavin says. "Which was writing for games."
THE SUPERGIANT METHOD
Supergiant Games is comprised of only 12 people. Kasavin, as creative director and writer, sees his role as helping guide how their work fits together. He describes the team's development style as a process heavy on communication – one that progresses without design documents or formal pitches. "We start by having everyone talk through their preoccupations, which can be anything, from gameplay or technical ideas to narrative or thematic ideas or pure emotions about where we're at with things." Work is thrown away when necessary.
Though his writing is central to the studio's identity, Kasavin stresses again and again that what Supergiant makes is the result of deliberate collaboration. He estimates that "at least 60 to 70 percent of the writing" for Pyre was entirely discarded in order to best fit the rest of the game's design focus. What's left, he says, is "heavily iterated" upon. Kasavin describes his dual roles as requiring him to be involved with all aspects of the game's creation, from collaborating with art director Jen Zee on character designs to working with audio director Darren Korb on music and audio. Kasavin's writing may lead an aspect of game creation or it may be tailored to fit another team member's work. "It's a very symbiotic process," he says.
A telling example is the creation of one of Pyre's main characters, the horned demon Jodariel.
"She was born of an early concept image that Jen created very early in Pyre's preproduction," Kasavin says. "She was never intended to be a real character. But, she aligned well with some of the ideas I had for the story at that time so I based a character on that design and, in turn, Jen iterated further on the character's appearance as the story took shape."
Other studio leads describe the collaborative process similarly. Amir Rao says the Supergiant production method "reflects the interdisciplinary nature of [game] development." What they do works "because we trust each other and we've had multiple projects to reinforce that trust."
"We don't believe you can create a game on a whiteboard," says Gavin Simon. Instead, Supergiant uses conversation, playtesting, and iteration in place of rigid planning sessions. One person may lead the implementation of a game's art or music, but the studio relies on one another to ensure the project as a whole is moving in the right direction. The process works. As unique as the studio's games may be, they're also remarkably cohesive.
"I don't know what exactly produces our creativity chemistry," Rao says. "[At] times I don't even want to know because I just like what we do and I like how it feels to make games together." He calls the longstanding relationships between team members "the bedrock of Supergiant."
FINDING THE WORDS
Key to the identity of both Bastion and Transistor is Greg Kasavin's writing. The former's ever-present narrator and latter's talking sword are as characteristic of both games as their unique, cartoony visual style and genre-bending combat design.
Kasavin cites a wide variety of inspirations – though he offers the caveat that Supergiant's first two games drew more from "a sum total of my life experience to that point" than external influences. With Bastion, he mentions the "Southern Gothic tone" of Cormac McCarthy and the unreliable narrators of Mary Shelley and Henry James novels. He also refers to the "ultimately hopeful yet bittersweet" tone of Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men and the narrative experimentation of games like Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Remedy Entertainment's Max Payne as touchstones. Transistor drew most heavily from Kasavin's time growing up in California's Bay Area – surrounded by Silicon Valley's ever-growing influence – but also the cyberpunk of Philip K. Dick, the fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock, and the more minimalist narrative of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. "Cyberpunk, I think, is fundamentally about identity," Kasavin says. "So Transistor is that type of story."
Supergiant's games are markedly different from each other, but Kasavin's distinctive writing style – which alternates between terse and expansive, melancholic and lighthearted – provides common ground.
"In all my stories, I want them to be both funny and sad," he says. "[I want] to present that broad palette to you early on, to show you the range of what's possible so that you can be on your toes from that point. I feel it's more true to life that way."
Kasavin discusses character writing as a process of excavating figures from his mind, describing the creation of Bastion's Rucks, Transistor's Red, and Pyre's Jodariel as them taking shape from something that already exists.
"I don't come up with what they say and do," he explains. "I just translate their actions."
It's a common description of writing and one that comes closest to encapsulating the necessarily bizarre act of creating a fictional person from whole cloth. Kasavin refers to the work with references to his prior role as a game reporter and critic, saying that shaping a character is a process of "nonverbal communication" where he's putting down what he finds.
"I know who they are," he says. "I get them. Even the bad ones. I understand them, and I empathize."
As a writer, he's interested in how storytelling functions within the context of games. ("If I wanted to tell stories for [their] own sake, there are far more efficient ways of doing so.") Most clearly shown with Bastion's narrator, a character who often comments on how the player chooses to interact with the world, Kasavin's work is often concerned with how players react to his stories as a part of actually moving through the game. He says he's fascinated by audience expectations and makes games whose "stories play into those expectations and then subvert them." He's excited by the kind of stories that would only work within the context of an interactive medium.
"... games don't need stories to be great ..."
This approach, combined with his team's production style, helps explain why he believes that "games don't need stories to be great" – and that they can, in fact, "really get in the way of a great game." It may seem like an unexpected attitude from a game writer, but it returns to Supergiant's collaborative approach to development. Kasavin says that "the job of a game's story is to provide context." He explains that the role of creative director involves tying together the sometimes disparate creative styles of the entire team and sees his writing as one part of that larger goal.
"I do my best to make my work enhance theirs, or to provide them with ammunition to do work that feels motivated and inspiring to them," he explains. "When I'm able to do that, I [also] feel that way about my own work."
FUELLING THE PYRE
Amir Rao, Gavin Simon, and Greg Kasavin all attribute some aspect of Pyre's creation to the studio's desire to make a game that featured a larger cast than anything they'd created before – to feature an ensemble of unique characters. It's an approach that necessitates broader (and more complicated) writing. Kasavin says he's had to keep a spreadsheet updated in order to keep track of so many characters and remember their distinctive ways of speaking, personal motivations, and relationships to one another. Surfacing so much dialogue and prose not through the previous games' voice overs, but as paragraphs of bare text required an enormous amount of writing. Kasavin calls Pyre "[the] most challenging writing work of my career," saying that "it's stretched me to my limits on many occasions." Still, with an increase in word count came greater opportunities to experiment with storytelling. Pyre's text-heavy design allowed Kasavin "a little more room to work" in writing more relaxed and intimate scenes between action-heavy moments.
More than its larger scale, Supergiant's latest also represents an attempt to rethink the relationship between video game difficulty and narrative. Rather than default to the traditional model of failing and repeating – game-over screens and respawns – Pyre forces players to accept defeat as a part of the story.
"The thing about death is you don't learn from it," Kasavin says of the choice. "And in games where your character dies frequently and you restart, [the player is] learning in a way that's disconnected from the narrative."
This focus on holistic design – of creating a video game where meaning comes not just from cutscenes divorced from the rest of the experience – is a crucial aspect of Supergiant Games. It's what makes their work stand out. In a landscape of endless sequels, reboots, and rehashes of existing ideas, the studio's willingness to experiment with new concepts and methods of design are a welcome exception. With the upcoming release of Pyre, Supergiant's commitment to this ethos doesn't seem to be flagging. Kasavin calls their position a privilege and hopes audience reception will allow the team "to keep pushing ourselves creatively."
Finding new ideas for those games doesn't appear to be a problem. Looking back on his career, from writing and editing at Gamespot, through to making games with Electronic Arts and Supergiant Games, Greg Kasavin says that he's someone whose thoughts have always focused on ". . . games, and what sorts of games I'd make if I could, and what sorts of stories I'd tell through games if I could." Over the years, this hasn't changed.
"I still have those same thoughts, all the time."