Bastion: Dynamic Narration Can Replace Cutscenes
The AAA titles are continuing to look for ways to make the player feel that they have an effect on the game world. We have seen the continued success of games that feature choice, as well as multiple endings. The only issue is that many games still contiue to tell the story through in-game movies, to help move along the narrative, as well as captivate the player. Most players do not like the feeling of losing control. They hold a controller for a reason. With Bastion, it is not the cutscenes or trailers that are capturing people’s attention, it’s the narration. This isn’t just some voice walking your through a tutorial. The dynamic narration in Bastion is telling the story that you are creating. The narration in this game is designed to react tho the actions of the player, and tell the story the player is creating. Having only seen a demo at PAX, I cannot say how well this is implemented throughout, but the experience certainly stuck with me.
I reached out to Greg Kasavin, Creative Director at SuperGiant Games to delve a little deeper into the concept of dynamic narration; from how it came to be, to how it’s turning out.
Who came up with this idea?
The reactive narration in Bastion is something Amir Rao our studio co-founder and designer decided to try a few months into prototyping the gaming. It was a relatively spur-of-the-moment thing, and was made possible because both Amir and Darren our audio director are longtime friends with Logan our voice actor. Without Logan we probably never would have even considered the technique since we’re all about playing to our strengths and never getting into a wishful-thinking mindset. The use of narration instantly enhanced some of the early moments we were working on and gave us something we were very interested in trying to find: a way to deliver story without interrupting the play experience. The narrator character rapidly evolved from there and before we knew it the narration in Bastion became a pervasive part of the experience. But it all started with an innocent little experiment.
How difficult was it to implement?
On the most basic level our narration isn’t difficult to implement. It’s hooking up an audio file to play based on a certain event in the game. But as with anything worthwhile, getting it right is the tricky part, and we put a lot of time into getting it right. Not to mention, there’s a lot of narration in the game — thousands of lines, something like seven hours of content. The narration in Bastion can be tricky to implement and involves at least four different people: I do the writing with Amir serving as my editor and sounding board, Darren records, directs, and mixes the narration, Logan provides the voice, and then Amir and I end up doing the implementation, sometimes with engineering support from Gavin or Andrew. Our artist Jen also gives great input about the story and content so by the end the entire team’s been involved. We’re constantly working on the timing and flow of the narration, as well as the writing and the delivery.
What bugs did you run into?
One of the goals of our narration technique is to build immersion, but immersion is easily broken. Even something very small like a narration line playing in the wrong place, out of sync, or too closely to another line, could snap you out of the experience. The bugs weren’t that bad, though. Probably the worst ones we had early on involved what’s called audio stomping, where if you moved quickly enough, it was possible for some narration lines to start playing before the previous ones had even finished. That killed the mood pretty quickly. We’ve since built tech that prevents this from ever happening, so that our narrator is pausing the right amount of time between remarks, deciding not to say certain things based on what else is coming up, and so on. Since the gameplay is pretty open-ended and some players will go through much faster than others, we need to tune the narration to account for a variety of play styles.
What are your impressions of it now?
Personally, I love it. It’s a dream come true. Logan’s performance I think is incredible and even though the narrator is a character I came up with I almost feel like he’s taken on a life of his own. As the writer of the story and the narration itself, working on this stuff has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I’m very excited and anxious to see what people finally make of it. Speaking more generally, we’re very, very happy with how the narration aspect of Bastion has been received so far, and we can’t wait to see people’s impressions of how it all turns out. It’s great that people are happy with their first exposure to the technique because the stuff they’ve seen and played so far is some of the earliest stuff we did, and I think where we go with it later in the game is even better. It isn’t something that we originally imagined as some kind of unique feature for the game, it was just one of many design solutions we came up with as we worked to define the experience we wanted to create.
Would this be something you see other developers incorporating into their products?
I hope Bastion serves as a reminder that games don’t need expensive non-interactive cutscenes to have interesting characters and deep worlds, and they don’t need to interrupt gameplay for the sake of their stories. To that extent, if other developers decide that narration is the best way for them to achieve their goals, then we hope they’ll try it too. When we started using narration in Bastion we didn’t really see it as something particularly original because many games have used narration to good effect before, such as Max Payne and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But I guess we’ve since taken the use of narration to a relative extreme that other games haven’t really done yet, and we appreciate that the work we’ve done there is resonating with people.
So, there you have it. The dynamic narration in Bastion reminds me of the first institution of dynamic commentary in sports games. It creates a feeling of immersion while constantly reminding that what you are doing in this game is affecting the story. This, as well as the visual concept of the levels coming together in front of you, has made Bastion my most anticipated game I demoed at PAX.
Check out the official trailer to see Bastion for yourself.
I for one cannot wait to get my hands on Bastion when it is finally released.