Silent protagonist — An interview with Greg Kasavin of Supergiant Games about Transistor

This article was originally posted on my other website, The Dialogue Tree.

I talked with Supergiant Games’ Greg Kasavin to learn more about their upcoming PS4 and PC game, Transistor.

Transistor 1

How is it to work on a game without a publisher? Do you have more creative freedom this way?

 We self-funded our first game Bastion and thankfully it did well enough to allow us to self-fund our next project as well. It’s very important to us that we be able to make games our own way, especially with Bastion’s success there as evidence that we’re onto something. We often felt during that game’s development that the only reason it turned out as well as it did and that we were able to make it as quickly as we did was become there were no external pressures or influences there to complicate the process. I don’t think it’s reasonable to make sweeping judgments about publishers, but in the case of a small studio like ours, our independence is very important to us.

Transistor seems share a lot of elements with Bastion, but it’s also a big departure in terms of setting and gameplay mechanics. Did you set out to make a sequel to Bastion, or did it naturally evolve the familiar elements?

 We set out to make an original game with its own identity in Transistor, so aspects of it that bear similarity to Bastion — things like the isometric perspective, the action-oriented gameplay, the importance of voiceover and music to the atmosphere and so on — these were things we decided were right for this game. We took nothing for granted, and felt that we had a lot more we wanted to explore and accomplish within the action RPG genre.

 Transistor 2

 What were some inspirations, in games and other media, for the look and feel of Transistor? The cyberpunk/noir/synth-jazz combination definitely feels unique.

 I tend to balk at listing influences because there’s no clean answer. Our influences vary from individual to individual on team, and stretch across media and different aspects of the play experience. There are numerous examples from games to cinema to comics to music to visual art and more that influence what we do, but it isn’t any one or two things. That said, the way you describe the game here is interesting and does imply some of the kinds of feelings and sensations we’ve purposely tried to put together for the world of Transistor. One way I like to describe it is simply to say that if Bastion was our team’s take on a fantasy-themed world, then this is in turn our take on a science fiction world. We wanted to come up with something that felt fresh and different to us, not because we dislike the mainstays of the genre but for the exact opposite reason — we feel like we need to carve out our own identity separate from well-established works out there, whether it’s a far-future setting like that of Mass Effect or a cyberpunk setting like that of Deus Ex, which are just a couple of examples of sci-fi world building in games that I think are very well done in their own right.

 What inspired the more strategic gameplay turn in Transistor? I got a feeling of Fallout’s V.A.T.S. system while seeing it.

 We were interested to see if we could develop a deep-feeling, open-ended combat system that had a lot of built-in drama to it. Likewise we wondered if we could come up with a thoughtful-feeling combat system that still felt fast and responsive, maybe combining some of the pleasures of classic turn-based tactical RPGs and strategy games. After a bunch of exploration along this trajectory, we came up with the system we’ve revealed as part of the game. By giving players the ability to stop the game at almost any time and plan their next set of actions, we found they became more invested in their moment-to-moment decisions and could use the ability in a variety of ways. We also feel like this style of play aligns well with the world design and mood we’re aiming to create for this game.

 Transistor 3

The story centers on Red’s loss of her voice, and the Transistor apparently does most of the talking. How do you approach storytelling in your games? Is the main character silent out of necessity?

 We like using voiceover in our games because we find it’s an effective way to provide narrative context at the player’s own pace. In Bastion you played as a silent protagonist in the tradition of many other games, while an omniscient-sounding narrator unraveled the story as you made progress. In Transistor, the protagonist’s silence is connected to the events of the story, and she’s traveling with a partner whose voice and consciousness is trapped inside of this powerful object she’s found. To us this creates a very different feeling and a different set of challenges, though some of the underlying benefits are similar. When the protagonist character doesn’t talk there is less of a chance for the player to experience moments of dissonance around what he or she wants versus what the character wants. We try to straddle a line between telling a crafted, specific story while also making that story feel very personal to players, where their goals and the characters’ goals can ultimately become very closely united.

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