How Supergiant Games Made Art in Bastion, Transistor and Pyre
Without sacrificing gameplay or story, Supergiant Games have masterfully made video games that are art.
Hello and welcome to Late to the Game on OK Beast. For you who may not know what the hell it is, it’s a new column here that used to be a whole site of mine. The premise: I couldn’t get to games till much later in their lifetime and this column is my exploring those games. Maybe even trying to elude the hype cycle and see them clearly and plainly. Occasionally, hopefully more frequently, you’ll see others chiming in here. But for the most part, I, Moises Taveras, will be your guide through gamings past once every other week. Now let’s get this show on the road.
Question: Where do you fall on Uncharted 4?
I personally think the story was fantastic but overwhelming. I felt like I certainly had direct control of Nate the majority of the time but I also don’t feel like everything I was able to do was the most interesting or functional (yes, I’m looking at you, car from the Madagascar chase scene). I don’t feel like this perception has ruined the experience that was Uncharted 4 but did ruin the game. More so than ever, games aren’t just games. Instead they want to be games and movies and art and experiences but in trying to be all, it fails at being even one sometimes. Sometimes, in the pursuit of art, they lose themselves.
Someone should probably tell Supergiant Games that because they’ve been absolutely killing it for years now.
On a surface level, I wouldn’t blame someone for thinking that perhaps the story of their games were so overt and thin, they were merely used to push the protagonist from place to place. But I’d be remiss for allowing anyone to think that, because I believe that is an inconceivably bad reading. I’d say that no other developer puts more time into their world and stories. You just have to look for the story and message in it as you would with any other form of art.
If it wasn’t already clear, todays Late to the Game isn’t about just one game. It’s about Bastion, Transistor and their latest, Pyre. More specifically how they weave story into their gameplay and vice versa without sacrifice.
Bastion is a fantastic ARPG that, more than anything, is the skeleton of what future Supergiant games would go on to encompass. The most important thing the game did is establish an aesthetic that the studio would capitalize on. Namely, they had the Idols, which became Limiters in Transistor and Titan Stars in Pyre. These are simply modifiers that grant you more XP for greater difficulty but have always been made to be greater in the fiction of the game. The Idols were representative of the gods the Caelondians praised. The Limiters, though it’s never made clear, I interpreted as tapping into the true power of the Transistor, which is absolute control. Lastly, there are the Titan Stars, which are my favorite. Titan Stars are constellations in the shape of the great beasts that once roamed and had a hold of the world the game takes place in, the Downside.
The best thing the actual storyline of Pyre does is only tease these very interesting characters. You go to the places marked by these titanic beasts and you learn about the story of these places. This makes a page appear in your in game atlas/Bible known as the Book of Rites You use a Titan Star in a fight and you discover a page in the book that tells some of the story of these beings. You fight a team you’ve never fought, you unlock their page. The goal is to get you more involved in the world of the game. By upping the difficulty, they naturally up your stakes in it because at the end of the day we all want to win. So not only do they make the game harder and therefore more fun, but they incentivize it with the draw of more XP and reward you with story that you may not have come to the game for, but will stay with you long past it’s end.
Beware of Transistor spoilers ahead.
However there’s one thing they did in Transistor that is kind of the same and also entirely different and is why I think it’s their best game and the finest example of the marriage of storytelling and gameplay. In Transistor, your abilities are these slots called Functions. Every function can be used as an active ability, an upgrade on an active ability and as a passive ability. So there are three ways to use every one of these moves and if you use a single function in all three ways, you chip away at redacted files that reveal the backstory that is absolutely essential to getting and loving Transistor. Now what people don’t entirely realize is that most of the game is just mixing and matching these abilities to find the perfect combinations to decimate your opposition. It’s all about experimentation. Most gamers are still stuck in the mentality of “meta” gameplay, where this is one combination of weapons/abilities to end them all. Due to this mentality, I feel most players found what worked for them early in the game and never changed it thus negatively impacting the game for themselves. This is the objectively worst way to play this game. Why?
Well because each one of those functions is representative a character that existed in the world of Transistor. Transistor is a game about a group of elites known as The Camerata trying to take the city of Cloudbank for themselves and reshape it how they see fit. They do this in two intertwined ways: The Process and the Transistor. The Process is an army of blank robots made with the sole intention of reducing Cloudbank to a blank slate on which The Camerata can build their emboldened vision of the world. The Transistor is the key to controlling them and people. You see, the Transistor is capable of consuming those it’s used against and retooling them into utilities in order to make itself stronger and the stronger it is the more efficiently it can be used to remake Cloudbank. This is exactly how it is used on the influential members of society that stand in their way and it’s on you to experiment with the abilities enough to discover this.
So in atypical ways, Supergiant Games delivered more than enough story in their games. They also delivered more than enough gameplay and neither suffered for the health of the other. The story doesn’t miss a beat, you’re just missing it by not adhering to the rules of the game. You get out of their games exactly what you put in. You know what frustrates, delights, challenges and surprises? Each one of these games, their stories, their characters and their delivery. In provoking those aforementioned things and by hiding their nuances behind their own systems and rules, Supergiant Games have invoked the one word that I feel perfectly captures what they’ve made in all of three of these games: Art.