As RPG Bastion prepares to kick off Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade today, Johnny Cullen speaks to Supergiant's Amir Kao and Greg Kasavin about its release, working with Warner and more.
Being honest, I hadn't kept myself up to date with Bastion, the isometric action-RPG first unveiled at PAX Prime last year. At least, that was the case until our own Nathan Grayson posted impressions of the game from E3 back in June.
"No doubt about it: in an industry inundated with 'intense, visceral' triple-As and 'ephemeral, unsettling' indies, Bastion’s breaking new emotional ground," Nathan said at the time.
You can see why in Bastion's opening. You wake up as the Kid after something called the Calamity, with the first words from the game's narrator being: "Proper stories are supposed to start at the beginning. Ain't so simple with this one. Now here's a kid who got all twisted, leaving him on a rock in the sky."
Something has happened to the land of Bastion. It's not the same as it used to be. The only things left are a bunch of surrounding hut-like buildings and a strange character who's set up camp.
This is the narrator. He wasn't planned from the game's outset.
"People often asked us whether the narrator was there from the beginning from the project, and the answer is no," writer Greg Kasavin told VG247 in a roundtable call last week.
"It's not something we necessarily imagined doing right from the start. I think we knew from the beginning of the project that all we wanted was an action RPG that was going to be more than just fun to play. We wanted to create some kind of lasting impression on the player through the use of story and narrative, but at the same time, we had a conflicting goal of never interrupting the player for the sake of the story.
"We had a conflicting goal of never interrupting the player for the sake of the story."
"We didn't want to stop the player's progress with text-based dialogue or cut-scenes. We kind of let that problem sit for a while. One day, Amir was working with Darren, our audio director who's based in New York, and Darren was roommates with Logan, who's this actor and mutual friend of Darren's. Amir has Darren and Logan record a few lines of audio into the game and the effect was pretty dramatic right from the start."
Added producer Amir Kao: "There are over 3,000 lines of narration in the game. No player will hear them all in a single playthough. And in response to what you're doing, it'll feel pretty unique to each player on each play experience."
Audio aside, the game is a clear visual stand-out. Bastion's art is one of its key strengths.
"We knew that having a bold artistic style was going to be a very important aspect of the game and we knew we wanted to do something bold and we could because we're a small team and we're making an independent game," said Kao.
"We didn't want to do something conventional visually. Jen Vee, our art director, spent the entirety of development working to create and hone Bastion's style."
Kasavin added that Bastion's art style is designed to take you to another place.
"Part of the reason the visuals are so important to us is because since we were interested in creating a game with a strong sense of atmosphere, we felt that the art was a very important component at that as well as the audio," he said. "So we wanted to be the sort of game when you start playing, you feel very quickly that the game has transported you to a different place the way that other atmospheric games have done successfully.
"So we really wanted to achieve that and we felt that we needed a strong art style in order to do that."
Heavy art requirements mean more memory. Bastion comes in at just under 560Mb to download. Behemoth's Castle Crashers came in at 139Mb, Jon Blow's Braid is 144Mb and Playdead's Limbo - CEO Dino Patti told me recently he didn't "believe" in quality caps - was a light 117Mb.
"I don't think any of us know what the limits of those things are," said Kasavin.
"We did the best that we could with the particular resources that we had. We took a lot of inspiration from past successes of these kind of smaller downloadable games like Braid and Castle Crashers that were made by very small teams, but we thought the quality of those games was really outstanding," he said.
The indie bar, Kasavin said, will continue to be raised.
"Overall, what's happening among indie game developers these days, partly made possible through digital distribution, is very exciting stuff, where these smaller teams are able to kind of realise their visions and the potential of what a few people can do.
"I think you're going to continue seeing really outstanding games that are all very different year-after-year like this. I think people are going to keep doing it because they see other people succeeding and doing cool stuff."
Kao said having a publisher like Warner helped hugely, but that there was interest elsewhere.
Warner has "been amazing to work with so far."
"Basically, to get on Xbox Live Arcade, you need to have a publisher, either Microsoft first-party or a third-party. After we showed the game at PAX, we had interest from all sorts of people, but Warner was the most excited about the game, and they had a ton of respect for what we had been able to do so far and for our independence," he said.
"We were looking for a distribution partner. We weren't looking for someone to fund our game, but we were looking for people who had bought into the vision, who really liked what we able to do, who trusted we'd be able to finish what we started and who were just excited about it. So yeah, we went with them because, as a publisher, they were the most thrilled about it.
"They have been amazing to work with so far. Having our own booth at PAX is the kind of thing we could never do on our own. We obviously don't have a European marketing arm of Supergiant Games, but it's really great for us to be able to get in front of the press out there. That kind of support is an example of stuff that we can't do ourselves: they've been able to help us with a lot. For us, the relationship has been going really great."
Kao wouldn't say who the other interested parties were, only that there were "many more than Warner Bros."
Bastion is a charming game with a unique art style, and an RPG that anyone - hardcore fans of the genre or those with a passing interest - can get into easily. If all of that sounds good to you, then you know exactly what to do later today.
Bastion releases today on Xbox Live Arcade as part of Summer of Arcade for 1200 MS points. Get a reviews round-up here.