Late to Dinner posts are about something (or someone) that has been part of the cultural (and usually pop cultural at that) zeitgeist for a number of years, but which I’ve only discovered recently.
Good evening, friends. I hope this missive finds you all doing well, and feeling relatively hearty and hale.
Toward the front end of his Master Class, Neil Gaiman touches on the subject of influences, emphasizing that while it’s important to recognize who your influential writers are, it’s also important to understand we can find our influences beyond the realms of word-slingers. And today, I wanted to write a bit about Supergiant Games, an independent video game studio out of San Francisco, CA.
Before we look at Supergiant, let’s travel back to April 2020. I was listening to the “11th Hour” arc from The McElroy Family’s The Adventure Zone podcast, and during a Q & A episode, Griffin McElroy, the game’s dungeon master, was asked about the music he used during the show’s intros and outros, whether he had taken the music from the Bastion soundtrack (note: he did not, indicating that coincidentally he and the Bastion composer used similar stock loops in Garage Band). I’d never heard of Bastion before, but after doing a quick Google search knew that I needed to play the game as soon as possible.
In Bastion (2011) you play as The Kid, one of the only survivors of an apocalypse called The Calamity. And while the game offers traditional action-rpg tropes (questing, discovering, and building, and battling in real-time), it subverts traditional storytelling conventions. Players get the story through a narrator, Rucks, who provides commentary on The Kid’s movements and decisions, and then breaks off bite-sized pieces of the history here and there to worldbuild, and contextualize The Kid’s endeavors. The action and the story are accompanied wonderfully by Darren Korb’s soundtrack of “acoustic pioneer trip-hop.”
Although the game originally landed on Steam, XBOX, and PS4, the developers had also ported it to ios, offering a free demo of the first level with a purchase option to unlock the rest of the game. After working through the demo, I ponied up the $5 to get at the rest of the game, and spent the next month playing through level by level (usually in 10-15 minutes chunks of time). But even after beating the game, there’s incentive to return to the world as you can continue to try out different combinations of weapon, spirits (beverages), and shrine monuments (the more you activate, the more challenging the game becomes). There’s also a significant decision you must make in the game’s finale which can lead to one of two endings. Kind of reminds me of Metal Gear Solid for PS1. If you survived the torture sequence, Meryl lived, and in the next playthrough you began with a boon which gave unlimited ammo. If you submitted during the sequence, Meryl died, and in the next playthrough you began with Octocon’s cloaking device. One of the underlying themes of Supergiant’s debut is that of redemption and forgiveness, but Bastion doesn’t clobber the player over the head to convey this idea, but rather lets it unfold, develop, and wash ashore during the conclusion.
As much as I enjoy having Bastion on my phone, I imagine it’s much more efficient (and fun) to play on a console. In the mobile version of the game you have to switch between weapons by tapping on the screen, which creates a slight delay when in the middle of a boss fight or a sea of minions.
Transistor (2014), Supergiant’s next game continued in the action-rpg genre, but added a tactical element, in which the protagonist, Red (a singer who’s lost her voice searching to discover who murdered her boyfriend…who now incidentally lives inside a giant cyber sword) can either attack directly, or pause time and plan a series of attacks or moves. I swooped on this one when Nintendo was running a sale, and while I’m looking forward to diving in, I haven’t put much time into it yet.
Unfortunately Pyre (2017) is only available through Steam or on PS4, so I won’t get a chance to play this one. The conceit of this game, according to the developers, is “Wizard NBA Jam.”
It’s here that I should spend a little time mentioning Darren Korb, Supergiant’s resident audio director and composer. While all of Supergiant’s soundtracks are great, it is Pyre’s I’ve listened to the most, specifically the all acoustic alternate version of the record, White Lute.
Supergiant just released a tenth anniversary record with songs from each of their games, featuring a full orchestra recorded in the Abbey Roads studios.
I first learned of Supergiant’s latest game, Hades (2020), through The Besties (“a podcast about the latest and greatest in video home entertainment…because shouldn’t the world’s best friends, play the world’s best video games”), and then watched the six part No Clip documentary series on YouTube about the making of the game and its development in the early access process.
In Hades (a roguelite, which means when you die, you get to keep your possessions and ability upgrades) , you play as Zagreus, son of Hades, striving to escape the underworld. On each attempt, you meet more and more of the pantheon of Greek gods, and in turn more of the story unfolds. I’m only 9 attempts in, and though I’ve yet to make a successful escape, I’m having fun every time I emerge from the starting pool in the Underworld.
From watching the documentary and subsequently reading/listening to interviews with the Supergiant team, I quickly understood that a) as with Bastion, I needed to play Hades; and b) Supergiant is one of the best companies. Not just video game companies. But companies [period]. Full stop. They started small (just 7 team members) and they’ve only grown to fit the scope of the projects. And every project is a masterclass in collaboration, gameplay, and storytelling. I know that I will continue to play anything they come up with, continue to be influenced and inspired.