PAX East 2014: Interview with Transistor's Creative Director
PAX East is an important show for gamers. It gives them the chance to play the latest unreleased titles and determine which games they will throw their money at for the year. There are hundreds of playable games on the show floor this year, ranging from big-budget AAA titles to up-and-coming indie games. Over the years, these independently developed games have gone from garage projects to artfully crafted adventures that are demanding the attention of the industry.
Bastion, Super Giant Games’ 2011 critically acclaimed fantasy-action adventure, was an important game for me because it opened my eyes to the amazing work passionate independent developers are doing. Bastion has a lovely painterly quality to it and delivers a caliber of narration few games have ever come close to.
When I first learned about Super Giant’s upcoming Transistor project at E3, I knew this was a game I had to keep my eye on. This year at PAX East, I finally got the chance to go hands on. I have to say, it is ridiculously pretty and elevates the gorgeous painted style that drew me to Bastion. I am also quite pleased to say that not only is the narration as powerful as Bastion, but it does an even better job of engaging you with the story and conveying unique relationship dynamics.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to discuss Transistor with the game’s Creative Director, Greg Kasavin. We discussed everything from what goes into pre-production on a game like Transistor to why PC is an important platform for Super Giant Games.
Kris Rey: Before we start, I want to say that the art in Transistor is BEAUTIFUL. How long did your team iterate on art, style, and design before you started building the game?
Greg Kasavin: That is a great question. So, Transistor is our second game as a team. Our first game is called Bastionand…we kind of hit the ground running. Our art director and artist joined just as Bastionwas going into full production and all the art she made went straight into the game. One of the big things…the team wanted to do when we were lucky enough to have the chance at make another game as a team, was [include] a pre-production phase were she could figure out the look and feel of everything. Transistor spent about a good year or so in pre-production as we were figuring out all different aspects, the feel of the world, what the characters were going to look like, and many different things like that. That was a time when we were exploring along every trajectory, including the art style, until we arrived at this kind of look.
We knew we wanted to see what we could do in the science fiction…genre having done a weird fantasy game with Bastion. We kind of started with the cyberpunk aesthetic, but we knew we didn’t want it to be straight-ahead cyberpunk mostly since it has been done so well so many times before. We wanted to see what kind of stamp we could put on it, so this is where we ended up.
Kris: When I played through the demo, I noticed there were many types of blended gameplay. Can you tell us which games inspired you to take Transistor’s gameplay in this direction?
Greg: With Bastion, we explored the action RPG genre and looked for new ways of approaching it because it has been done so well by…games like Diablo that have really defined what that style of gaming is like. We knew we couldn’t compete with something like Diablo head-on in terms of character classes. So we made this more kind of narrative driven game with our style of narration.
Even after having finished that game, we felt there was a lot of room to explore. With Transistor, we wanted to take it in this more kind of strategic direction where we took influence from classic Turn-Based Strategy games and Tactical RPGs and stuff like that; just games we really liked from those genres and combining some of those sensations with the immediacy of an Action RPG. We feel that [these] games…actually have a lot of drama to them, where you…hit go on your turn and you are kind of biting your nails waiting to see the outcome... We wanted to combine that feeling of planning and deliberating in with the immediacy of the action. We also really wanted it to feel expressive and open ended as to how you play so you can play this game almost exclusively in real time if you want. But you have this powerful ability where you can plan and take it your own pace…
Kris: Regarding the sword the main character Red is using; there were a few pieces of story that showcase people you come across in-game that are technically absorbed into your sword as powers. I feel like there is a lot more you haven’t shown us about this weapon. What can you tell us about what the sword is or maybe what direction you are taking this concept?
Greg: That is great that you picked up on that. I mean…Transistor is the name of the sword-like thing Red wields. A lot of the game is very much about it and why it is important, so I don’t want to give away too much but we wanted to set up the sense that it is extraordinary in different ways. Over the course of the game, you’ll find out why it’s so important, why Red has it, and why these things are trying to kill her and get it back. Both narratively and from a gameplay standpoint, we want it to feel mysterious and powerful where the whole way through, you are discovering more of what it can do and what it is about—kind of piecing together all the mysteries around it.
Kris: I liked the relationship dynamic between Red, the Transistor, and narration. In Bastionthe narrator was somewhat omnipotent and explains what is going on whereas in Transistor, the narration lends a sense that there is a unique dynamic between Red and the Transistor. Can you speak to this?
Greg: …From our point of view, this is a character who is in the world and experiencing the events of the story as they unfold. In Bastion, the character seems to have a foreknowledge of the story for the most part and it had a really different feel to us. For us, exploring the relationship between these two characters is so important. Essentially with Red, you discover early on she is a singer whose voice has been rather literally taken from her and she is traveling with a character who is nothing more than a voice. Exploring the symbiotic relationship between those characters and how they have to rely on each other in certain ways was something that got us really excited with the early concept. We hope that people find the full game goes to interesting places with this idea.
Kris: Ok this is the part where I talk about PC gaming! What kind of experience can we expect on the PC compared to the console version, and is there going to be anything unique to the PC version?
Greg: PC couldn’t be more important to us because so much of Bastion'ssuccess came from how well it was received on Steam and in the PC community. We knew from the start this game was going to be on PC, so we have already put a lot of time into the PC controls. We play a lot with mouse and keyboard and I love playing Dota 2, so we want the controls to be really solid on mouse and keyboard.
Kris: High five for Dota 2! (Greg chuckles and we actually high fived.)
Greg: Bastiondidn’t have any path-finding, so you had to press and hold or use WASD to move. In Transistor, it feels more like what you would expect from an isometric PC game—an action RPG where you click somewhere and that is where you expect the character to go. For us, it was a really big deal to take the time and make sure the PC controls feels good. That being said, it feels great to be able to hot-swap between a gamepad or mouse and keyboard. You can really customize the controls like crazy. We are not creating unique features or content for each platform, however it was very important to us that Transistor feels at home on the PC.
Kris: Are there any exclusive details or new information you can share with us?
Greg: It is so important to us that people are able to discover this game for themselves, so we don’t want to give too much away. The cool thing we are showing here for the first time is how robust the power combination system is. If you played Bastion, you will know that there were only about 10 weapons. In Transistor, there are literally thousands of upgradable power combinations. Because of the way you can combine different powers to produce different results, we are still finding new stuff in this game ourselves as we play it every day. It is a little scary, but super exciting, so that is something we haven’t show or talked about at all up until now. It is such a big and important part of the game we think it will have a lot to do with the long-term playability of the game. We hope people really enjoy it.
Kris: Thank you so much for your time. This is one of the games I am looking forward to most this year and it feel super polished.
Greg: My pleasure, and we are glad you enjoyed the demo.