The Art of Fiction #6: Greg Kasavin

I met Greg Kasavin in the winter of 2010 over enchiladas at a Mexican restaurant in San Rafael, on my lunch break from Telltale Games. Greg had just quit his job as a producer at 2K Games to join his former Electronic Arts coworkers at Supergiant —then a handful of unknown developers in a suburban home in San Jose — as a writer on the 16-bit throwback action RPG Bastion.

I remember playing Bastion on the floor of PAX, a place no writer wants his or her work to be first experienced. Yet within just a few moments I was seduced (just as millions of folks soon would be). Bastion’s narrator (voiced by the incomparable Logan Cunningham) made a passing comment on my choosing not to fight any of the game’s multitude of enemies, and I remember pulling my headphones off of my head, returning to the din of the convention hall, turning to Greg and saying, “Fuck you, man,” with the envy of a writer afraid he’d never make a moment half as good in his entire life.

Greg Kasavin

Greg is a forceful and economic talent. He writes like a boxer, lulling you into a hypnagogic stupor before delivering a crushing left-cross that leaves you seeing stars. The writing in both Bastion and Transistor, Supergiant’s turn-based strategy follow-up, anchors the experience. It takes a game that feels like something you played in your youth and elevates it to the heft of your favorite film or novel. A Supergiant story assembles itself before your eyes, reacting to your play, commenting on your actions. It feels distressingly alive.

Over the year of its release, Bastion found enormous success. Supergiant moved out of the San Jose house and into an office in San Francisco’s South of Market district. The studio’s name was surely aspirational at the time of its founding, but now accurately represents the gold-standard for independent developers who seek to make hit games on their own terms.

From our desks at Telltale Games, Jake Rodkin and I watched their studio like a kid hoping he grows up to play college ball just like his brother, taking careful note of what he does along the way, studying seemingly inconsequential choices in obsessive detail. When we finally had the nerve to strike out on our own, we appealed to Greg and studio director/designer Amir Rao for any advice about how we could find a modicum of their good fortune.

And late last year, as we sat down to design Campo Santo’s second game — our follow up to Firewatch — I did the same thing. I sat down with my friend Greg and asked what it was like to create his second game, Transistor, their follow up to Bastion.

His first answer delivered to me the news that I feared.

GREG KASAVIN: It felt like starting over. I often found myself thinking ‘I’m surprised that our past experience has not benefited us more here and now.’

Jake and I will often go to coffee and ruminate on how making Firewatch will surely help us develop “Game 2” and out of the gate, Greg brought me crashing back down to earth.

GREG: I was naïve about ways in which our second game might be easier than our first. Even knowing there’s a lot of conventional wisdom around the challenges of your second effort, of how you follow up on something that was successful. I think it’s widely known that it’s not easy. Neither I nor anyone I work with certainly went into that process like, ‘Yeah, man! This is going to be a cakewalk this time!’
But at the same time, we had a team that had gone through this type of experience together and come out on the other side having produced a game that many people enjoyed — in fact many more people than we anticipated. Together we made something that a lot of people liked, so one would reason that that would be like a very validating experience.
We worked quite hard on Bastion to make it what it was. We saw that game as our big chance. It was our first time working together in that kind of environment, and we were all super motivated by that set of circumstances and by what this game was and could be, so we gave it our all and the game turned out to be a hit. From the outside perspective, I think it’s a wonderful Cinderella story and I still feel incredibly grateful that it happened to me.
Supergiant’s BASTION

I’m grateful to know Greg, someone who’s so closely walked the path that Campo Santo is now headed down. There are so few game writers in general, and even fewer who’ve written the kind of Cinderella story that both Bastion and Firewatch have turned out to be for their teams.

But I wanted that golden nugget of insight — “whatever you do, be sure to do X,” — and as I sat with Greg I knew that sentence would never come. He, like a lot of successful developers, has a keen understanding of what level of mercy he and the team remain to fate.

GREG: I often say, I feel like we can control the game that we make, to a large extent we control the quality of it and what the game is, but we cannot control entirely — or very little really — the context in which it’s released.
SEAN VANAMAN: Exactly, the environment into which that thing goes out in the world. [i.e. one of my greatest fears while running Campo Santo.]
GREG: The best you can do is roll the dice properly on when it comes out, just be able to extrapolate and hope that the thing you’re making is going to resonate with people at that time.
SEAN: And don’t release it on the day that an Uncharted comes out. What were the sorts of things that felt like starting over [on Transistor]?
GREG: Definitely a lot of it that I ran into personally is around the narrative.
SEAN: Really? That’s surprising.
GREG: Getting to Transistor’s story and characters was really just much, much more difficult and slower-going than it was in the case of Bastion. It was just something that took more time, and that was something that I personally often took hard. Because when you’re the writer you can’t help but take some of that personally.
You want to do work that’s on the level of work you’ve done in the past and you don’t want to be struggling on things that were less of a struggle in the past.

Greg’s pain hit home for me: I trick myself into believing that I’m improving as a writer in some sort of linear fashion, that I’m mastering aspects of the craft like, say, a surgeon who hones her abilities to complete more complex and riskier procedures. But it’s nothing like that. It’s a confounding and frustrating mix of random paralysis where you set out to climb a mountain and one day your foot doesn’t work; another, your arms.

But before that, which mountain do you even choose to climb?

GREG: It’s a highly intuitive process. Games, for better or worse, have been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember and on a personal level I have a strong and clear sense of what is good.
I’m much newer at writing for games than I am at playing them, so for me there’s that gap between what I think are extraordinarily well-written games and then what is required to achieve those things. I basically think, ‘what are the games that left a permanent impression on me in a positive way?’ ‘What is it that made those games work?’ ‘And how I can achieve that through my craft?’ That’s where my ambition for things comes from.
It’s not as derivative as I suppose that I just made it sound: the idea for Transistor’s story I couldn’t tell you explicitly that it was based on this, that or the other, it’s a mashup of all sorts of stuff. A combination of how I’ve absorbed other media and life experience and all that sort of stuff, I couldn’t pin it down for you. But it is sort of done through the lens of [asking] what is a good video game with narrative and how can the narrative serve the play experience to result in a positive and lasting impression for the player who chooses to invest the money and the time.

Folks are sometimes surprised to hear about how much we at Campo Santo consider the player as a customer early on, and it’s refreshing to know that Greg and company think the same way. But, when I’ve got nothing, and on days when you’re particularly hard on yourself, those thoughts, combined with the echoes of your previous works’s critics, can confuse and derail me unlike anything else.

Supergiant’s upcoming PYRE
GREG: I think I chase after this sense of fulfillment and satisfaction through the work I’m doing, but it’s kind of like I’m content that it’s the road and not the destination. I didn’t finish Bastion and go, ‘Yep! Alright!’
SEAN: It doesn’t matter if you sold this many copies or if someone you really respect… actually, somebody at Steam Dev Days who I really admire and who has always been sort of playfully like — hmm, never really complimentary, let’s say — took me aside and said some incredibly gracious shit about Firewatch. I was like, ‘I don’t understand what is happening.’ Amir [Rao] was with me and as we walked away I told him, ‘That was a really impactful moment in my career, what just happened, I think.’
GREG: Then you go back and read one nasty thing in a forum…
SEAN: Oh yeah, wait a second, let me go read Tom Chick’s [review of Firewatch]. Oh! Congratulations, by the way! We’re part of the 2 out of 5 Star Tom Chick club. You, me and Jon Blow [for The Witness].
GREG: Yeah, Tom’s been pretty hot or cold on every game I’ve worked on. I love his –
SEAN: Oh, I loved his Firewatch review, loved it. But it would have been great if it wasn’t a 40. The thing is, that’s how it should be!
GREG: Yeah, it didn’t land for him.
SEAN: How many reviews have you read that are equally — maybe not as well written and not as thoughtful — but [are as much of a pan] that are like, “Seven”. And you’re like, give me the four! Give me the four! If this is how you really feel!

After a laugh of our mutual high-minded dragging by one of game’s best critics, I asked Greg, OK, I think I understand a bit about what going from Bastion to Transistor was like, but, how about Supergiant’s next game, Pyre? Hoping that maybe we will one day finally hit a groove and simply go to work and make good video games.

SEAN: You had these feelings going into the second game: ‘We should be in a better place because of Bastion than where we are; I assumed this would be easier.’ Now you’re on your third game. Is it just the fucking nightmare process of making entertainment software? Or is there something unique about that middle one, after the hit?
GREG: Yeah, so for me really the jury’s still out, I gotta say. My best conclusion right now is that, and I speak only for myself, I just think that they’re all really hard. That’s what I think. I personally think that there is nothing of great value that comes without significant effort. I just happen to think that one of the strongest correlators of quality is effort. And effort can only come through working hard.
I got into game development relatively late. I was just about 30 years old when I was working on my first game that ended up shipping. You don’t have a lot of video games to make in your life, assuming normal length life and career. I would rather work hard. The effort I put in to make the thing live up to my own feelings about it far outweighs the negative feelings I will carry with me indefinitely if I don’t do that. Cause I’ll have to live with that thing forever.

As I reflect on my conversation with Greg, I feel, albeit briefly, less alone in the anxieties that creep in about making another game. But I can’t shake the feeling that our game 2 is different. I go “well, your team had X going for it,” or “we don’t have Y,” and I realize that my instinct to caveat is the bugaboo of being creative. It is just lonely and that’s OK. You do it in a vacuum, on a deep-space mission hurling itself through the dark. Campo Santo is about ten people and we’ve got each other, but that’s it — we really do just have each other — no conversation is going to make the specific problems and worries we have about our game any easier. It has to be enough to know that other people are out there in their own ships, flying towards their own destinations, and the fact that they haven’t disintegrated might mean that we won’t either. We’ll see.

Greg is currently working on Pyre, set to release on Steam and PS4 later this year.