In 2011, a yet unknown indie developer named Supergiant Games released Bastion, an isometric action RPG for the Xbox 360. It was considered the figurehead of the ‘Xbox Live Arcade’ program at the time, with the title being heavily advertised by Microsoft in order to spark interest for it’s new digital market. The fascinating thing, is that Supergiant had no real backlog before Bastion itself. They weren’t a long and storied dev with a huge anthology of games such as Team 17, or Double Fine, but still they came out of nowhere and delivered an absolute smash hit.
This was the developers first published work, and to have it launched with such fanfare on what was the biggest gaming platform of the time, must of been equally terrifying and thrilling. As you’d expect, this wasn’t the team’s first foray into video game production, with all of them having a storied background in video game development each within their individual areas.
Amir Rao, studio head, was a developer for Command and Conquer and Red Alert 3, as was Gavin Simon their designer and engineer. Similarly, the rest of their team had a collection of past work and skills that were culminated in the creation of Supergiant Games, an indie development studio that was just itching to burst with the creativity of every individual member involved.
Every Frame a Painting
Now, before I go on, I must warn you. I absolutely adore this developer. They have created two of my favourite games of all time, which I consistently revisit time and time again just to scratch the itch. I’m warning you, so that if at any point I sound like I’m gushing, it’s likely because I am, and that you should ignore it. Capiche? Good.
Every Supergiant game starts with a bang, launching you directly into a situation, a world, a problem, with absolutely no idea what’s going on. There’s no cut-scenes or scrolling text of exposition to lay it all out, all you need to know is ‘Here’s a story about a kid who’s world got all twisted, leavin’ him stranded on a rock in the sky’. Similarly, Transistors opening was my personal favourite, as it gave an absolutely beautiful animated painting for the player to look at, without even a menu screen before it. This picture was then followed by ‘Hey, Red. I don’t think we’re gonna get away with this are we…’, as we get a gorgeous shot of Cloudbank (the game’s setting) and then the game begins!
The intrigue for both stories is just immediate, and as your eyes adjust to the absolutely gorgeous hand-painted worlds of both games, from artists Jen Zee and Camilo Vanegas, it’s pretty hard to not just curl up and have the story told to you. Trust me, paying attention to these stories is easy when Logan Cunningham, their lead voice-over artist whispers it in your ear. His voice is..supremely sexy and adds a ton of heart and gravitas to both games respectively.
The artistic direction in both games is some of the best I’ve ever seen in the industry, with Transistor standing out especially as a game that to this day I cannot fathom just how much work was put into every single environment. Bastion boasts this flying, fantasy, steampunk world which I can’t even really describe, which I suppose is an ode to how different it is. Transistor has a more cyberpunk aesthetic, but instead of the tried and tested grimy and gritty streets of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, it’s a beautiful, almost Utopian city, making you question how anything could possibly go wrong. Which, for the record, it does.
Each game tells and understated but intriguing story. It’s not really laid out in front of you, you’re very much an outside observer in both games attempting to understand a world you’re simply not part of, as characters talk as if areas, enemies, and people are things that they’ve seen a thousand times over and known for years. I love this method of storytelling as it really helps ground both worlds in their own twisted reality, even though both are wildly different from our own.
Beatin’ Up Creeps
Of course, a Supergiant game wouldn’t be the same without it’s gameplay. And as much as everything else, this is one of two reasons I constantly come back to these games, the other I’ll mention soon. As I said before, Bastion is an isometric action RPG, in which you play as ‘The Kid’, as he explores set levels with an arsenal of weapons, tonics, potions and special moves to defeat the ‘creeps’ and the ‘scumbags’. It’s fast, it’s extremely tight feeling, and can be very tough if you ramp up the difficulty.
Transistor is also an action RPG, but took a unique look at combat. In Transistor you play as Red, a woman who’s being hunted by ‘The Process’, for reasons the player doesn’t yet know. Red has 4 abilities at any one time (from a pool of about 20), that can be simply used freely in real time. However, the player can choose to ‘pause’ the combat and plan an attack as if the game were turn based, at any time, which Red then executes in real time.
I wasn’t sure how it would work, but it works pretty much perfectly. The freedom the system offers with your abilities, which has some absolutely insane number of combinations is very refreshing. Also, there’s some great moments where you can feel completely overwhelmed, and pause the action and stare long and hard at the screen thinking how you’re gonna get out of your mess. They’re both great and if you haven’t played them yet then why haven’t you, you fool.
Sparkle and Shine
There’s just one more thing that has to be mentioned though. One more thing that makes Supergiant one of the best indie devs out there. Their soundtracks. There’s no two ways about it, Darren Korb, their audio and music lead and a childhood friend of the studio head, is an absolute legend. Not only does his music perfectly capture the atmosphere of both games, but rather than just being generic atmospheric music, Darren’s soundtracks are essentially full on albums.
Combined with the gorgeous vocals of Ashley Barrett, and the high energy of Korb’s backing tracks, these pieces can be amazing on their own. But when integrated into gameplay and when timed to play at significant or ‘epic’ moments, it creates moments you really aren’t gonna forget in a hurry. All his music is on Spotify and YouTube also, under his name. Because he’s a moral artist, and not Alex Mauer.
I can’t really say much else without spoiling these games, so all I can say is that if you for some reason haven’t played these games yet, you absolutely need to give them a try, as they’re regularly on steam sales and aren’t that expensive upfront anyway. I’ve yet to play Pyre, their latest outing, but once I do you can expect a full impression on it, because let’s be fair it deserves it.
‘And then The Kid fell clumsily to his death. Nah I’m just foolin’.