Editor’s note: The following interview is with Greg Kasavin, writer and designer for Bastion. Be warned, as the interview contains spoilers.
Justin: Today, I’m here with Greg Kasavin. Did I say that correctly?
Greg: Yeah, that’s right.
Justin: Great. People mispronounce my last name in very odd ways, so I always feel bad when I mispronounce other people’s names.
Greg: How do you say it?
Justin: My last name is pronounced Tokarski.
Greg: Okay. That’s what I would have thought.
Justin: Yeah, pretty Polish. Well, as I said, I’m here with Greg Kasavin, who was involved with the writing and design for the videogame Bastion. One of the things I was most interested in was where the story of Bastion got started. A lot of authors have a specific place they start from. One of my favorite books actually, “The Sound and the Fury,” Faulkner said it started with the image of a girl standing on a tree branch looking in a window who never was never even a narrator of the story. So, did Bastion start anywhere specifically, or was it an idea that developed over time?
Greg: Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve been trying to retrace some of the steps there. The game itself started with a really simple idea actually, which was this idea of an action RPG where you built the world around you, and that was it. We didn’t even know what exactly that meant, and that was kind of the point; kind of a rich idea open to evolution during the course of development. I think the stuff that we felt from the beginning, we did know up from that we wanted it to have some sort of story that could hopefully be meaningful to people that purveyed the experience on some level, but that wouldn’t interrupt the play experience either, and that’s what eventually led to our use of narration as basically a storytelling technique. As for where the substance of it came from, I do think it was inspired by that idea of building the world around you. I think that was originally Amir’s idea, our studio director. Where that got me thinking about the story was what sort of … if you are building the world, what are you doing? Either you are building it from scratch, or you are rebuilding it. It can only be one of two thing. So, it wasn’t long after that I got pretty attached to this sort of rebuilding, which is a pretty universal story. History is filled with situations where there is some sort of terrible event, but the human spirit prevails anyway, and people rebuild, and everything somehow seems to turn out okay … until the next thing happens. So, that type of story seemed really interesting, and this idea of rebuilding after a loss of some sort was cool, and it lead to the thematic core of what the story was gonna be about. From there, a lot of the events of the world … a lot of the details happened during the course of development, but the high level story happened really early on; the story of a few survivors in this kind of fantasy frontier world. The theme and the tone of it were things that were important early on, even before we had a lot of the details. I gave you a lot about the theme, but the tone was inspired partly by the author Cormac McCarthy who has written “All The pretty Horses,” “The Road” and “No Country For Old Men.” Some of his novels have a very Western feel to them, but even the ones that aren’t set in that kind of time period or location have this Southern Gothic feel … this minimal dialogue that’s dripping with meaning and these rich sceneries. So, we liked that kind of tone applied to a fantasy game because we hadn’t seen any game attempt to do that and it seemed exciting to us. So that’s where it originated. He story existed in draft form even before we had the narration there, and we realized that narration was … that there was always gonna be this mysterious old man character in this place called the Bastion that you’re gonna restore; and the ending of the game was there. I had the ideas for that very early on, and I think we realized that very closely to what the original intention was. The narration technique turned out to be ideal for the kind of story we wanted to tell anyway.
Justin: A lot of world building games I’ve noticed usually take that rote of destruction and rebuilding. Though, it seems in RTS games the more building from scratch probably lends itself a little better gameplay wise. But a lot of these games I’ve played where you do start with this destroyed world you’re rebuilding, specifically I’m thinking of Dark Cloud 2 and I’m replaying Legend of Mana, the building seems to take play outside the flow of the game; in Dark Cloud 2 building the cities and in Legend of Mana actually placing the areas on the world. But in Bastion, it’s a lot more dynamic; you’re running along and the world is rebuilding itself that way. Did you go with that for the same reason you went with the fluid narration? So that the world building didn’t get in the way of the gameplay, but you still got the sense of rebuilding?
Greg: That technique was one of the first design ideas on the project. And it was partly there just to solve the problem of “How do we orient the player in the world without having to force them use a map like in a lot of other game, and without using a blatant arrow or something to point the way?” So, it actually started from there in a sort of … from a place that existed outside of any fictional conceit or anything like that. It just seemed like a cool idea from a design perspective. That in turn informed the fiction and I think helped us to nail down that kind of central theme of the world. But, we wanted it to be a very “pick up and play” game. We wanted to eliminate any kind of interruption from the experience, and make the game feel very streamlined but not at the expense of anything. We wanted to cut a lot of the fat that we felt were on some of the RPGs we’ve played and enjoyed over the years. We love RPGs, and we wanted to distill that experience down to the most important choices. And, in the case of the passive world building as you run around, it not only helps to direct the player through the world but it also tied back to the central theme. It was an interesting looking technique that got people thinking immediately when the saw it because they wanted to know what was going on. Why am I able to do this and what’s really happening here? That was a really cool response.
Justin: It was definitely a really neat opening, to wake up and start walking and suddenly the floor is just coming up beneath you. I thought that was a really fun way to open the game. Now, you gave me a lot to work with in that question, so I apologize if I jump around a little bit. You mentioned that there was an influence coming from that Southern Gothic style, even those that did not take place in the actual West. Did any of that go into the character designs? I wasn’t sure if it was intentional or not, but with The Kid and Rucks to a degree, it seemed they had this Western feel; the way the scarf was wrapped and Rucks was dressed. Is that what you were going with the art design for them?
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. It’s meant to be a trait of the world and the characters. Rucks kinda looks like an old Southern gentleman on some level. It’s not meant to be that direct, because it is a fantasy world, but we did wanted it to have touchstones back to the real world, and that was one of the post-colonial America feels we were interested in. It tied into some of the themes I this frontier world, so it informed how the narrator speaks and how some of the characters dress. You see some guys in cowboy hats, and some of the weapons are rifles and pistols and other things that wouldn’t look out of place in a Western. Obviously there are some things that are very different from genre conventions as well.
Justin: Especially in the second section of the game in the Wilds that definitely comes through, and to a degree the earlier sections too, even though it’s much more stone work. I think there is still that sense in some of those earlier levels. But in the last third of the game when you start getting into the Tazal Terminals area, the tone definitely switches. And the Ura themselves also look very different; the way Zulf and Zia are dressed, and also when you fight them as enemies. What was the inspiration for that very different look for them?
Greg: The main thing there is we are trying to immediately convey a cultural difference in an appearance through attire without relying on stereotypes. There are a bunch of different things going on with the factions in the game, but you can tell that both Rucks and The Kid have a darker complexion and pale white hair. It’s sort of ambiguous as to whether that is everybody, or just those two characters. Zulf and Zia have very pale complexions and dark hair. They appear very exotic from a Western perspective. They have a kind of Eastern appearance, but it’s not clear if it’s far Eastern or not. It’s supposed to be a hodgepodge of references but still be consistent among them. Like, Zulf is dressed in robe-like clothing as opposed to a gentleman’s jacket or something like that. That’s mainly what we were trying to convey; that these groups of people were different in their tradition and superficial appearance. The back story delves deeper from there.
Justin: Of the four main characters you actually encounter, The Kid, Rucks, Zulf, and Zia, I really enjoyed all of them but which was the first one to develop story wise?
Greg: You know, it’s gonna have to be…that’s tough. They all sort of happened at the same time, because it was thinking about the story I was interested in telling I wondered ‘who are gonna be essential participants for this story?’ They started out as the archetypal characters. The protagonist, the narrator wise man, the antagonist, and the “girl”. So, I think the archetypes for them happened at the same time, but actually it was definitely rucks in fact who was developed the most the fastest. In a lot of ways, he is the main character of the story because he is the one talking the entire time and the story is given from his point of view. I suppose the irony of that is his is the one back story that is never revealed in the game, though it informs everything. It informs the way he talks throughout the game. It was really important to us to make him a character and not just a narrator. It certainly made the writing easier on some level, because I could think about why he would say a certain thing. I could think of him as having an agenda for what he is saying. I had to answer the question ‘why is he telling the story and what is he all about?’ But, the character back stories all happened pretty close together. I initially never intended to include them in the game at all, and then we realized we could put them in in a convenient way in the Who Knows Where sequences, and I think that turned out quite nicely. Originally though, those back stories were only there to inform the rest of the writing.
Justin: I really did enjoy those Who Knows Where sequences; mostly after I got the Brushers Pike and the Calamity Cannon. T made going through the last two a little bit easier. I guess one of the reasons I was wondering if one of them took shape before the others is partially because of those sequences, but also because you had so few characters to work with it seems that it could be the story of any of the four. The Kid doesn’t talk, but you learn about his history, and of course you are playing as him, so it could be the story of The Kid as Bastion. But, just as easily it could be Rucks. You said it was a little bit easier to write for him. I’m guessing it was probably a little bit easier after deciding he would be telling this as a story for Zia, because then it gives a little more justification for what he says.
Greg: Yes. And once again, that idea was super important to me early on, even though the detail of him telling the story to Zia is relatively subtle. Some players don’t necessarily pick up on that. It’s not necessarily an essential point in the story, to me it was an extremely important detail because it made the whole thing make sense. Why is the story being told and to whom? It also seemed like a cool detail for those who were paying attention. But, all four of the characters, the story couldn’t exist without them. They were the cornerstones of the story.
Justin: I remember, I think it was just one sentence during the loading screen between two different areas, that he was telling the story to her. I thought “Oh, okay. It makes sense now”. One thing I really d enjoy about the game, moreso once I got to the end, that there was this running theme of changing the past, or having the future be very malleable. To m it seems it came through not just in the story, but through the gameplay; the level up system, where you can go back and switch upgrades at any time and the difficulty system, which I though was a really clever way to set up a difficulty system. Was that something that came out while you guys were working on the game? That it came out as a theme that was going to lead to the difficulty system being set up this way, or was it something that sprung up naturally over the course of development?
Greg: I think it was a little of each. From a design standpoint, we wanted to make a game that was easy to pick up and play and that rewarded experimentation on the players part instead of locking the player into a character build or punish a player for picking the wrong skill. Those are some of the things we wanted to solve for from a design perspective. But through the story we did have this theme of basically…and, I don’t like to vocalize it because I don’t mean to oversimplify it…but it boiled down to overcoming regret, and an exploration of that idea. We definitely wanted that to come across both in the story and the play experience, because ideally the story is there to support the experience and the gameplay isn’t there in service of the story. It’s the other way around. We wanted people to have that feeling of freedom and a sense that they understood the consequences and could change them, but still tie it back to the story theme whenever it didn’t interfere with what we wanted the play experience to be. I think the narrative choices at the end are the biggest expression of that. After giving you a bunch of gameplay choices in the end, the gameplay choices at the end of the game are purely expressive and have to do with how you as a player feel about the world at that point in the game.
Justin: I know I just keep going on about how ‘I like this’ and ‘I like that’, but I really liked having the ability to carry him back or leave him there. Of course the player wouldn’t have known that at the time, but it becomes a decision to keep fighting the Ura or just walk by. Also, I thought it was really nice that you didn’t do what some other games do where they have an achievement for doing it both ways, because I think it cheapens the choice a little bit. Personally, I would still be able to enjoy both the endings, but I think not making it ‘oh, now I have to go back and play it this way’ makes it a bit more compelling.
Greg: We definitely wanted the players to make those choices the way they thought felt should. And though we have two achievements for finishing the game, one of them was hidden, so we tried to trick people into thinking there was just going to be one ending and not force there hand from that achievement perspective. Yeah, I totally agree. Experientially we wanted people to just make that choice based on what they felt, not what they they would get out of it.
Justin: This is one thing I’ve discussed with a few friends of mine, who have played the game…When it comes to the new game plus, I like it in games like this where it is almost impossible to get all the upgrades in one run through. In fact, I haven’t gone back and checked but I’m fairly certain that with the items you need to upgrade the weapons, you can’t do it in one run. Of course the New Game + is a nice feature to have, but it seemed like it could go the route of ‘if you return the world to before The Calamity, the New Game + was actually you catching up to The Calamity inevitably happening again’. Is that something that was I your mind when you guys decided on a New Game + feature?
Greg: That was a story idea as part of the original story absolutely. In fact, one of the original thoughts about the story was that you would have to play through the game twice to get the option to do something different. The game turned out to be quite a bit longer than…at the point where we had the full scope of the game did we think that was a good idea anymore. We didn’t want people to feel forced to play through New Game + basically. But, yeah, the narrative motivation for it was always intended, and it was the reason we were always interested in the feature from the get go. And of course yo could choose the endings out of sequence. I think the introduction of New Game + can be a bit more satisfying if you choose one ending over the other, but since we open up the possibility of time continuity the idea of linear time ceases to have meaning anyway; so, I think the endings work in any order. Sometimes people ask what is the canonical ending, but in a certain way they aren’t mutually exclusive.
Justin: I actually had known there was a New Game + feature before had beaten the game, so I intentionally went with the Restore the world and the Escape order, because I thought it worked a little bit better that way. But, like you said, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. This is just getting to a little more of a personal question, but I know you started doing work in videogame journalism and were working at Gamespot for a while. Had you always been interested in segueing into more the design area of videogames and their creation, or is hat something that came up a little bit later after you had been working in the journalism aspect for a while?
Greg: That’s actually something I wanted to do since I was a little kid, since about 8n years old. What happened is I eventually fell in love in the media side of things, dabbling with that straight out of highschool. Suddenly it had been ten or twelve years and the thought occurred to me ‘if I don’t at least try game development sometime soon, I might miss the boat altogether’. It was one of those things I would rather try and fail than never try. So, it’s been about five years now, almost to the day, since I left6 Gamespot. It’s been kind of a wild ride. It was something that was a long time coming for me, but it’s not like I worked it…I’d love to think that I could plan on something that far ahead, but it’s not like I was working at Gamespot, biding my time until I could get into development. It did end up happening relatively spontaneously when it did happen.
Justin: I had a question about the, I guess you could call them pets. The little squirt and the bird and them. I really enjoyed it when I found out I could get them. I haven’t tried it, but I would guess you could not get some of the pets, at least the bird since you have to go out of your way to find the egg. I know that they do help out when the Ura attack the Bastion, but the squirt and bird didn’t seem to be able to do much. Does that kind of play into the theme of regret? That you weren’t just trying to restore the world through the machine, but also by bringing the native animals and the religion in the bull back into the world through the Bastion?
Greg: There’s a few things going on with them. They were something we tried at some point. It might have started as a bug, where a squirt appeared in town unintentionally, and we though ‘hey, that’s kind of cool. There’s something to that’. So, it started kind of spontaneously, and we like what it was implying. We added a few of the little pets, and all of them are optional. You could miss one hundred percent of them. And, narratively it was somewhat controversial on the team whether we should put them in the situation where they could die. We figured some people, even though they don’t do that much, would get attached to them; and that’s absolutely what happened. But, narratively, it was important to me that that could happen. During the game, you are massacring droves of these things,
and then the Ura come in and do to you what you have been doing the entire time, it ties back to some of the thematic stuff. All of this stuff is perfectly fine until it happens to you basically. In one of the endings yo basically have the option to basically revert what happens, and whether you care about those pets, it may sway the final decision you made. So, we have them fight in that battle, but it’s not there to balance the battle or anything. It’s meant to be really hard. But we liked the image of these little guys fighting for you and give their lives for you if that’s what it took.
Justin: That was admittedly a really tough battle. The first time it happened, I didn’t know what was going on and I just got railroaded. But, I actually had that experience of being very sad when I found out how many of them didn’t make it. The second time I played through the game, I did my best to keep all of them alive, but I couldn’t keep the squirt alive.
Greg: It’s definitely possible. Some people have saved them all. And there are some more hack-y ways you can avoid them coming to harm.
Justin: I’m sure there are. I tried to strong-arm it, but right near the end, it didn’t make it. Story-wise, the kind of themes that go into this game, colonization, with the Caelondians being foreign and the more religious native people being pushed out of the way by these people coming in and colonizing the area; clearly it’s not a new theme, but was there any sort of current events that influenced this? Specifically, I’m thinking of the fact that the Ura were not only very religious, but live more in a less technologically advanced cave area. Was the story a reaction of some kind to events going on internationally, or are parallels between these coincidental?
Greg: It’s certainly not intended to be allegorical. In fact, it’s very overtly not meant to be allegorical. But it’s meant to deal in themes that are universal and I think themes like that can always be applied to current events. I actually looked more to history and historical conflicts between neighboring nations as more of that inspiration rather than current events. Looking back more at Biblical times, and Babylon, and ancient Rome. Much like the story itself suggests, history has a way of repeating itself when it comes to some of those types of conflicts between neighboring nations or between colonial or imperialistic nations. There are just countless examples like that. But, no, the game was not meant to be a commentary on anything that’s happening right now. It’s very much meant to have the opposite effect. Part of our desire to make an original world is to play up the fact that games can have a really potent transportive quality to take you away from your worldly concerns; just take you to some amazing, far away place with it’s own interesting problems. That’s more what we wanted out of it, but again, we wanted the world of the game to feel like it…we wanted people to be able to relate to what was going on in the world on some fundamental level. So, hopefully that’s what you sensed from it.
Justin: A lot of those themes, especially those regarding colonization and battles between native and non-native peoples, pretty much stretch back to time immemorial. I liked that the characterization of the Ura, because you only had two that you dealt with as main characters, you got a really good sense of how varied they are. Being enemies, of course it’s easy to blanket ‘these are the enemies’, whereas with Zia you see this romanticizing the conflict through the folk song she sings It’s very peaceful, but it’s very clearly a war folk song. You see her desire to go back to the Tazal Terminals, and you see the opposite in Zulf trying to move to Caelondia to bridge that gap and move the Ura forward. It was nice that the Ura were characterized by having just these two you could focus on. It felt much less like they were just cannon fonder, and yo feel bad for them by the time you get to the end of the game.
Greg: That’s what I was hoping for. It’s a matter of perspective. This story happens to be told from the perspective from one off the two sides, but there is some version of the Bastion’s story where Zulf is the hero. That was very important to me, having a story where there is no real evil. Whatever evil happened, it happened in the past, and now it’s just a lot of intense antagonism brought about by people with profoundly different perspectives on what needs to be done. But from their respective perspectives, they are doing the right thing, and are battling whatever the evil force is. But you as a player see the bigger picture, that it’s a really bad situation where no one is in the right and a lot of people are having to get there hands dirty.
Justin: Well, Bastion is a very full game, and I could probably go on with questions for quite a while, but I know you are kinda busy. I can hear in the background…I come from a family of five kids, so I know the sound of someone needing attention. I really did appreciate the chance to sit down with you. Thanks for the interview.
Greg: Yeah, no problem. Take care.