By Hugo Blair, Gaming Editor
Videogame developers come in all shapes and sizes. On one side there are behemoth studios such as Nintendo, Blizzard Activation, or EA, who consistently pump out gigantic titles each year like clockwork. On the other you’ll find the small one-person passion projects like Eric Barone – AKA ConcernedApe – the man behind the surprise 2016 smash hit Stardew Valley. Sitting somewhere in between these two camps lies one of my personal favourite game studios: Supergiant Games.
The studio got their start in 2009, when developers Amir Rao and Gavin Simon left EA following their work together on the Command & Conquer series, with the aim of creating a new and exciting game together. The duo immediately set to work on a fresh action-adventure RPG, with crisp hack n’ slash gameplay accompanied by an isometric view reminiscent of early Diablo titles. This project would eventually become the studio’s first commercial release: Bastion. In order to facilitate better development, the team quickly grew from there, taking on Jen Zee as principal artist, Greg Kasavin as creative director, Darren Korb for music and sound design, and notably recruiting Logan Cunningham to voice the game’s Narrator. For as playtesters would discover during the game’s first appearance at PAX Prime 2010, it was the Narrator that set Bastion apart from the rabble.
Bastion boasted striking hand-painted visuals, a fantastically gritty and occasionally western sounding score, and excellent gameplay featuring a multitude of different weapons, powerups, and other items to choose from. However, these elements alone were nothing ground-breaking in the industry, even in 2009. Instead, it was the method by which Bastion told its rich story, or rather, how the story was interwoven into the gameplay itself, that was the game’s most defining feature.
“Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning…”. The gritty voice of the Narrator sets the game’s tone right from the onset, as the calamity that has fractured our protagonist’s world is described to the player. Then, just fifteen seconds later, with three simple worlds: “He gets up”, it is revealed to the player exactly the type of game they are about to experience. Every swing of a hammer, every slash of a sword, every last-second dodge roll and miraculous victory over an enemy is narrated in beautiful fashion back to the player. It’s almost like magic; a play-by-play commentary describing not just the broad events of the story unfolding before you, but exactly the way those events are dealt with in real-time. This was untrodden territory, and ultimately was what spring boarded Supergiant Games into the public eye. After securing a subsequent publishing deal with Warner Entertainment, the game was released in mid-2011 to critical acclaim and was a commercial success for the studio – a relief given development had been funded entirely by the team themselves.
Supergiant Games now had a reputation to uphold, and naturally fans wondered where the studio was headed next. Some developers might rest on their laurels, and follow up success with more of the same, while others might strive to continuously mix up the formula to avoid becoming stale. Each approach has merits and weaknesses, however once again Supergiant placed themselves somewhere in the middle, deciding to follow that adage: “Same… but different”.
The studio’s second title, Transistor, was announced two years later in March 2013. In this new addition to its catalogue, Supergiant built from the foundation it had established with Bastion. The game contained elements fans would recognise from the studio’s debut, whilst refining those elements and of course introducing new mechanics to boot. Like its predecessor, Transistor is an action-adventure RPG with a top-down isometric view, featuring dynamic combat and an intriguing story. Set in the retro-futuristic locale of Cloudbank city, Transistor follows the story of famed singer ‘Red’ as she flees from a shadowy high-ranking group known as the Camerata. As the player, you struggle through various parts of town encountering agents of the syndicate who must be defeated with the aid of a cyber-greatsword (the titular Transistor), all the while slowly uncovering the city’s secrets. Transistor’s gameplay is reminiscent of its predecessor, though improved and polished in many areas. In addition to real time combat, players now have the option of using a tactical ‘time freeze’ mode, allowing them to string various attacks together to be unleashed all at once. In addition, various modifiers, termed ‘Functions’ can be applied to attacks to alter them in different ways. Not only do these systems allow for more strategic and creative solutions to combat encounters, but it also looks damn cool. There’s simply nothing more satisfying than watching Red dart around the screen in an instant following your pre-set commands, and seeing a pile of enemies falling in her wake.
However, combat wasn’t the only area to be enhanced in Supergiant’s second outing. The game features a richer and more detailed narrative than Bastion, with more complex character designs and motives, and in my opinion, Darren Korb managed to compose an even greater soundtrack than Bastion’s. Regardless, the thread that tied Supergiant’s first two games together was undoubtedly the narrator, as Cunningham once again loaned his vocal talents to guide players on their journey.
In 2017, Supergiant Games continued their run of success with the release of their third title: Pyre. Following the same philosophy of incremental improvements while retaining aspects of the core formula, Pyre was a party-based RPG, set in a unique world in which ‘exiles’ must fight to escape purgatory and regain their freedom via victory in competitions known as the ‘rites’. The player controls the party as they travel from one rite to the next, managing resources, recruiting new party members, discovering more about the world and its inhabitants, and grappling with all manner of difficult decisions. Fans of the studio would once again recognise Supergiant’s signature elements; a stunning voice over by Logan Cunningham, a beautiful score by Korb, enchanting visuals by Jen Zee, and of course, fantastic writing. As for the rites themselves, they can only be described as a strange mix of Rocket League, Transistor and weirdly…basketball, as the objective is to lob glowing orbs into the opposing team’s pyre in order to douse it before the opponents can extinguish yours. The player manages a team of three, each of whom possess different strengths and weaknesses. Some characters are quick and agile, yet are easily taken out, while some are slow but are great for blocking opponent
shots. It’s a wonderfully strange blend of high fantasy and sports games, yet somehow Supergiant manages to execute the premise beautifully. While Pyre was received less favourably than Supergiant’s previous titles, it nevertheless garnered positive reviews and laid the groundwork for the procedural storytelling elements that can be found in their latest title.
In 2018, Hades burst onto the scene as Supergiant’s fourth and most recent release to date, and following a two-year period of early access in which the studio sold over 700,000 copies, the game finally released in late 2020 to universal acclaim. Hades is a rogue-like dungeon crawler that features Supergiant’s signature blend of hack n’ slash gameplay, coupled with an isometric view, rich worldbuilding and character designs, beautiful visuals and an exciting score. The player assumes the role of Zagreus, the son of Hades – Lord of the Underworld, in a constant battle to escape from his father’s realm. Aided by characters of Greek mythos; gifts from Nyx and boons from various Gods of Olympus, the player traverses through procedurally generated environments, battling the foes that lie within each chamber, though ultimately likely falling at the hands of the lair’s inhabitants each time. Defeat in Hades is only a means to an end however, as with each failure both the player and Zagreus improve their capabilities through the collection of new weapons and items that can be utilised in future attempts. Additionally, with each new run the player learns something new about the world and its cast of characters.
This rogue-like style of gameplay: continuously dying, making another attempt, only to die again, suited the procedural storytelling approach that Supergiant had employed in Pyre. With each new run, the player creates a new branch on the ever-growing narrative the game offers. Featuring a large cast of characters of Greek legend (many of whom are voiced by Cunningham), the story unfolds in beautiful fashion over the course of many escape attempts, as interactions in each run will affect the next. This approach proved to be widely popular, as the game took home multiple awards at both the Golden Joysticks and The Game Awards, and was reviewed extremely favourably.
The tale of Supergiant Games is thus written in the games they have created. From Bastion, to Transistor, to Pyre and Hades – with each new title, the studio managed to produce a fresh and exciting experience distinctly different from what came before, and yet contained all the elements that branded a game as distinctly Supergiant. A masterclass in consistency, this San Francisco based team has made a name for themselves in the industry; when a game has the Supergiant logo, you know what kind of experience you’re in for.