In the first part of our interview with Greg Kasavin, we discuss how Supergiant games, the company behind Bastion, Transistor, Pyre, and Hades, was founded, and how the company designed its own language for the fictional world of Pyre.
Can you introduce yourself and introduce Supergiant Games?
My name is Greg Kasavin. I’m creative director at Supergiant. We are here at PAX showing primarily our latest game, Hades, which is a roguelike dungeon crawler that is now in early access. We launched the game in early access in December of last year, but we are showing it at a public event for the very first time here and letting folks get their hands on the latest version.
We’re also celebrating our 10th anniversary as a studio, which kind of snuck up on us. I’d like to think we’re an industrious small team. We like to just keep working on our games. We’re like, “Dude, it’s our 10-year anniversary. We should probably do something about it if only out of respect for all our players who’ve stuck with us over the years.” So we have some fun events here at PAX in recognition of that.
Let’s talk a little bit about the studio’s history. How did Supergiant get started?
Supergiant started with my colleagues Amir Rao and Gavin Simon. The three of us were working at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles and on the Command & Conquer series, and we were making real time strategy games. But in 2009, we were really inspired by the kind of burgeoning independent game development scene. What was happening there with these games like Braid and Castle Crashers and Plants vs. Zombies and World of Goo… They were totally different games, each made by really small teams and made with a great deal of heart and a great deal of quality and felt very fresh. And we were playing these games while working on a much bigger team going, “Wow, it’s amazing what can be done by a small group of people.” And that’s when we started thinking about, “Maybe we could give this a shot ourselves.”
Amir and Gavin left their jobs, dropped everything, and moved into Amir’s dad’s house and started working on Bastion, our first game. And then we formed our team of seven over the course of that game’s development. And the seven of us have been there ever since for 10 years, through our subsequent games Transistor and Pyre, and now Hades.
We’ve grown a little bit; we grew to 12 people for Transistor and stayed that size through Pyre, and now we’re up to 17 people, but that’s still, I think, relatively small. And staying small is really important to how we operate. But we’re so lucky to have some fresh blood on the team to offset us grizzled, old-timers who’ve been at it for a while. I think we just really value creative chemistry that we have on the team.
We try to create an environment where we do the best work that we’re the most excited about, and to jam our games full of that work, and see what comes out the other side, and hope our players enjoy it, and thankfully they have thus far and that’s why we’re still here.
We self-funded Bastion back in the day, and the success of each of our games has paved the way for the next. We are at a size where we can only kind of work on one major game project at a time, so it’s made the 10 years go by almost in a flash it seems, reflecting back on it now.
One thing we spoke about several years ago was the development of language in your games, and, in particular, the language in your game Pyre. I was surprised to learn that Pyre has its own functional spoken language in the game. Could you talk a little bit about how that came about?
For sure. For Pyre, we created an imagined language called Sahrian because the characters from the game come from a country called the Commonwealth of Sahr. And the origin of it is a couple of things. Pyre is a pretty narrative-rich game, but we knew that there was no way we were going to be able to fully voice all the story content in the game because it has all of this procedurally generated story content, where the characters in events, like aspects of them such as their race or their backstory, all of that is pulled together in the way that the narrative is presented. We did the math and there are 200 million different permutations of the epilogue of the game alone. So we were not about to voice record all of that, as you can imagine.
So with voice recording everything off the table, it was still really important that we give this cast of characters in Pyre a voice and a personality because we were trying to make this big character-driven game where you get to know these characters and get to grow attached to them, and having a voice there is so important. We developed this language so that you can have these little snippets of stuff that sounds like words to give them that sense, to make them come alive in that way, especially since the game has different characters of all shapes and sizes and some fantastical races and stuff like that. Just hearing really different types of voices could enhance these different characters.
So that was one reason we wanted to do it. The other reason is that we actually did a little bit of it on our first game, Bastion. Late in that game you encounter a faction of characters called the Ura. We start you off fighting these things that you don’t really care anything about, arguably semi-mindless seeming kind of basic monsters or something, but by the end of the game, you’re fighting people, and they had to seem like they were people who have that sense of agency and so on.
It was a well-regarded aspect of Bastion. So with Pyre we decided to go all in on it, and that meant coming up with internally consistent rules around pronunciation and starting to like come up with specific terms that could be used throughout the game, as little touchstones to make you feel like it was a real language instead of just straight up gibberish. There are games that use gibberish really well, The Sims is the classic example, but it’s not meant to sound like real words in that game. Whereas with Pyre, we wanted it to sound like actual words that people were saying.
I have a broad fascination with languages. My first language is Russian, though English is the language I know by far the best. I think growing up I was exposed to different languages, so I just kind of love the sound of them. I was pulling together different ingredients from different languages. And the main one on Sahrian, the language of Pyre, was Latin because we wanted this kind of ancient feeling world. And I think so much of it is kind of encoded in our minds, but when you hear Latin, it just feels old. Just automatically, it just seems ancient and medieval or whatever. So if it sounds kind of like Latin, it’ll just make you feel like you’re in an ancient world just automatically. That was kind of the starting point for the vibe of it.
To add more dimension to it, we have different characters from different parts of this country. Essentially, we had to come up with sub-dialects of this language, for the equivalent of a Boston accent or an Alabama accent or a California accent or whatever.
With this character, who is much more educated, and this other character, who’s much more lowbrow, how do they sound different? And some of that is in the performance, but some of it is also in the writing. We have these subtle little differences in some of the words.
Could you give us an example of that?
Oh man, off the top of my head? Your character in the world of Pyre is called The Reader. Reading in the world of Pyre is forbidden: it’s a world of characters who are largely illiterate, but your character has this forbidden knowledge of how to read, and it’s an ability that holds great power. So, we establish this term in Sahrian, the term for reader is “Ligaratus.” So, many characters just call your character “ligaratus,” and you hear the term ligaratus used by those characters, you’re like, “Oh, hey, that must mean reader,” as you hear it a few times.
But then you meet a character called Pamitha who is this harpy-type of character. She’s part of a wicked race called the Harps, and she has a more informal way of talking to you. In the writing she refers to you as the “Reader Darling.” She almost has kind of a femme fatale quality. So she’ll say, “Reader Darling, how you doing?” And you hear her say Ligaramis instead of Ligaratus. And it’s just a small twist on it. You hear it. It’s mostly similar. You see “Reader Darling” written, you hear Ligaramis said, and it’s like, we absolutely don’t expect players to notice that, but we hope that they feel it.
This wasn’t an aspect of the game that we expected to stand out necessarily. It’s just there to add to the flavor of it and make it feel more lifelike, but it was really cool to see some players pay attention and notice, and feel that we did put some, I guess, some effort into it as it were. Because we had to write, even though it’s technically, even if you could call it gibberish, there’s always a subtext.
I had to write it in English and then translate it into Sahrian and make both versions available to the actor, because the actor reading each of these lines, they need the subtext of the line. Because while they don’t know these words, they need to know that this line means “I’ll get you back, you SOB” and read it that way. So I would write it in English that way and say, “Here’s the translation, and here it is phonetically, here’s the rules of pronunciation. So now do this.” We would record hundreds of these lines for each actor and then they would fumble the pronunciations, so we had to discard quite a bit and only use the ones that sounded good to us to fit the specific moment in the story. It ends up feeling, hopefully, cohesive in the context of the game, even though we left so much on the cutting room floor.
How does having the different language reduce the number of combinations you needed to record? You have your original English text, and the translated Sahrian, but you still have all the procedurally generated combinations. How does that help?
That’s a good question. Even though I wrote all these lines with specific subtext, in many cases, I did not care about what the intent of the line was when hooking them up in the game. I would just listen for the one that felt right for what was written, because we wrote and recorded the Sahrian, in many cases, months before the actual game writing was complete. It was never meant to be one-to-one because again, it would be hundreds of millions of lines. If it was one-to-one with everything, we weren’t going to do that. It had to be a little bit more reusable than that. And then even with many lines, we’d say like, “Give us a … ” If a line has the subtext of like, “what the hell?”, give me a, (questioning) “what the hell?” as well as an (angry, frustrated) “what the hell?” And then I can maybe use both of those inflections in different situations.
I had a library of tonal material for each speaking character in the game, and I would go through all their story content scene by scene, and hook up an appropriate line. There are many scenes in the game. For example, so there are many scenes in the game where nine different characters can be in the scene depending on the circumstances of the game. And in those scenes, I had to do this work times nine essentially for all the different playable characters.
So, even with the procedural generated story, you still had to assign this positive-sounding intonation with this positive line, all by hand?
This process was fully manual. You chose this path, so this character is with you in game; that’s the procedural part, how it chooses the character. But then, for each permutation I had to manually construct the mapping, since I have to manually write their dialogue anyway, how does this character react in this situation and so on? That sort of thing.
I think I said it on a panel earlier today – someone asked how do we feel about Pyre in hindsight? For me, I think Pyre contains a lot of the best work I personally I’ve ever done. It felt like this was my shot.
Each of the games I’ve worked on here has been my shot at one thing or another, but Pyre was my first opportunity to create a game with a big cast of characters with intricate relationships, where I was really concerned with making sure each of these characters had a really distinct personalities, distinct motivations. As part of that, they had to have a distinct voice. That’s why this Sahrian thing—it both benefited the specific characters and then it benefited the world building to make the world feel like it was real.
I should mention we use English extensively in the game as well. Whenever you get into one of these rites, these ancient rituals where your freedom is at stake, there’s this announcer voice presiding over the rite who speaks in English to you, in an almost snotty, often humorous kind of insulting way.
We wanted to play with the role of language in the game. You, as the reader, can read English. It’s nothing to you, but playing as your character, reading this stuff is second nature to you, but something that you uniquely can do. So, while you can understand this English-speaking character, in the same way, Sahrian, the foreign language to the player, that’s the normal language to everybody. That’s the language everybody understands. English is the language that you uniquely understand. English represents a forbidden language that’s like Latin to us.
And the game has since been translated into other languages. I refer to English because we’re speaking in English. It’s also in German and French and stuff like that.
Did localization have any kind of impact on how you handle language?
Localization was extraordinarily challenging on Pyre because of the procedural generated nature of the story. The construction of sentences is based on assumptions of English grammar and sentence structure.
Can you give an example of that?
One of the first characters you meet is named Hedwyn. Let’s say the game has a sentence, “Hedwyn says he wants to go West,” but Hedwyn may not be in your party. Maybe Hedwyn has already ascended and returned to the Commonwealth. So, in this situation, the game will choose Jodariel, who’s a demon. And it will be, “Jodariel says she wants to go West.” Male, female pronouns, the subject-verb structure of English is unique to English. Different languages have different rules around pronouns, different rules around sentence structure. And German does not work the way English works, and French does not work the way English works and so on, so we have to fundamentally reconstruct the dialogue. The languages don’t all follow the same rules so we have to rewrite the rules of the sentence construction for each language, and that made it really difficult.
Did you localize Pyre yourselves or did you outsource the work to another team?
We worked with an outside team to localize the content, but we had to work with them to do the part where it becomes coherent. Like, the game does not have just a script, it just has these sentences that are filled with bits of data that are almost like a Mad Libs. If you think of a Mad Libs, it’s just like a bunch of blanks, so they have to translate these things that only end up making sense once you put them through the game and the blanks are filled in, so that made it very challenging.
As a writer, how did that compare to something like Bastion or Transistor which was a much more linear, straightforward narrative?
Bastion and Transistor definitely had branching as well. In Bastion, the narrator will say in the very first level, as you’re running away from something collapsing, the narrator says, “Kid just keeps running.” But if you’re tumbling around, he’ll say, “Somersaulting like crazy.” And he only says, “Somersaulting like crazy,” if you’re actually somersaulting. In Pyre, it was just like exponentially more material. It made things exponentially more complicated, but it was an exciting challenge.
This is part one of a two-part interview. Part two, which focuses on Supergiant’s latest game, Hades, and working with early access, will be up next week.