GDC Online 2010: Supergiant Games creative director runs down the structural, systemic, and narrative theories underpinning the studio's upcoming Bastion.
Who was there: Supergiant Games creative director (and former GameSpot editor-in-chief) Greg Kasavin. He has also worked at 2K Games on Spec Ops: The Line and Electronic Arts on the Command and Conquer series.
What they talked about: The Austin Powers films lampooned the idea of exposition by having the character of Basil Exposition show up at the beginning of each movie to lay out the conflict and then disappear, his usefulness concluded. However, Kasavin's talk was built on the notion that developers should strive to make exposition a near-constant part of the game experience.
Exposition, Kasavin said, is pacing from a narrative designer's point of view. He defined it as "the precise order in which the structure, narrative, and systems of a game are doled out to the player."
The benefits of exposition are difficult to quantify, Kasavin said, but the effects of it are most clearly seen in player attrition. Game developers want players to experience all the content they worked so hard on, and exposition helps keep players engaged to the end. After all, why bother putting an awesome capper in at the end of the game if nobody's going to stick around to see it?
Players today aren't a captive audience, Kasavin said, and exposition is a way to keep players from turning to other games as soon as they hit a stumbling point. Games like the original Mafia and Star Wars: Force Unleashed had some rough edges and difficult segments as far as gameplay was concerned (circuit racing and taking down a Star Destroyer among them), but Kasavin said he endured those tough bits because he was invested in the stories being told and wanted to find out what details the developer had been holding back.
Well-crafted exposition presents an internally consistent gameworld, and it makes the audience feel clever. It uses subtext, induces speculation, and withholds all but the most crucial information. People love to speculate, he said, and creators ruin that by telling people what's going on before they absolutely have to.
"If your goal is to write an interesting character, then never have him say exactly what he's thinking. Leave a little room for interpretation," Kasavin said.
Kasavin also talked about using the structure and systems of a game as exposition. The structure is the meta-game, everything from the main menu to the end credits, while the systems are the moment-to-moment mechanics. If structural exposition is about the framework of an experience, Kasavin said systemic exposition is about the gameplay that tells players about the nature of the world they're playing in. The fact that players in Gears of War can saw enemies in half tells players about the grim nature of the gameworld and draws them in that much further.
Kasavin encouraged developers to look at Plants vs. Zombies as an example of tying it all together. The game constantly introduces new structural exposition with gameplay twists and minigames. Right from the start, it communicates what it is to players through its menu screens. After a simple ramp-up through tutorial stages, the game opens up. Systemically, Plants vs. Zombies adds exposition with new plant and enemy types at a steady pace. The game's narrative exposition may be a bit lighter, but it still builds to an identifiable climax.
Kasavin pointed to his current project, Bastion, as being guided by that approach to exposition. He said the team couldn't do story in a traditional sense with expensive prerendered cutscenes, so the narrative had to be conveyed through gameplay. To that end, the game features a narrator reacting to the game in real time. The narrator never repeats a line, and he reacts to the player's actions, Kasavin said. Systemically, every weapon in the game introduces its own wrinkle of new gameplay.
Kasavin explained a series of tools and techniques being used on Bastion to test if the game is using exposition well. Exposition isn't just in the beginning of the game, Kasavin said. It needs to be an even coating throughout the game so players are consistently discovering new and interesting things. He cautioned developers not to assault the audience with too much at once; rather, they should dole out a breadcrumb trail of new things to keep players engaged without being overwhelmed.
Kasavin also said developers need to foster suspense by getting inside the players' heads, predicting what questions they think they'll be asking themselves throughout the game. If a developer can figure out what questions the player is asking at a given moment and echo it or dole out a little nugget of information along those lines, they can hook players deeper.
Gamemakers also need to make sure they're paying off on their exposition, Kasavin said. That can take the form of act climaxes, but those revelations also need to bring up compelling new questions to keep the audience involved for what's coming up next, like the season finale of a popular TV series. Along those lines, Kasavin also stressed the need for developers to have an outline for a game's story ready from the start. It may change during development, but creators should know where the story is going and deliver a good, solid ending rather than leave a cliffhanger for the sequel.
Finally, Kasavin said, "Make sure the chopping block is well fed." Developers can't be afraid to throw things out. Some good ideas just aren't compatible with each other for a variety of reasons, so they need to focus on the ones that work well instead of struggling to make them fit.
Quote: "Exposition is the secret sauce connecting the narrative to the game."--Greg Kasavin
Takeaway: Whether it's with story or gameplay, players need to be given a steady stream of new things to digest throughout a game experience. If the developer gives up too much too soon, it overwhelms the player or kills the suspense. If the developer doesn't parcel out the new exposition frequently enough, players are bound to get bored.
Interesting piece. I think Greg's on the right track in regards to how a game's narrative should be presented. If we could get every developer on the planet to follow these ideals maybe then deep, involved stories would be much more common.
Greg Kasavin proves irrefutably to the world that games are indeed art. Thank you for ending that discussion good sir. Thank you.
Half Life 2....... need I say more? ...... well also Mass Effect games (in the good ending , closure type of way ) Demon's Souls , and many other games , but the true jewel among them is still Half Life 2 games....
Wow. I didn't know he was knee deep into actually creating games! Good for him :) Btw, I hate this new "Quote" + "Takeaway" thing. I read the article, I GET what he is saying, thank you!
I'm glad its working out for Greg. I just watched his long rambling review of Deus Ex Invisible War just to watch Greg throw bodies around again and again. Miss those reviews!
Good for you Greg. I still remember your awesome Splinter Cell and Oblivion reviews. And let's not forget the 17 minute Halo 2 review... ;)
Great Article! As for the exposition sequences I think we are starting to see more of these such as the opening Sequences in games such as Heavy Rain, with the whole getting to know your family and what not. And games like Mass Effect where you get to know your team mates or Read Dead Redemption, the sequences prior to the climax. Even Dragon Age Origins if you play as the noble family heir you get to know your family and all that. When you do things like this, some events become more emotionally involved as you care more for the characters and your actions in the game reflect this. And when at times characters die or something happens you care more, becoming a painful or Joyful experience at times!
I miss Greg's reviews, I always enjoyed them. I agree with what he's saying - narrative and story in general is sadly lacking in most of today's games. Most (almost all) dialogue does little but state the obvious in the most obvious manner possible. Characters are the same trite stereotypes as found in every other game. It would certainly be nice if developers actually listened to what he had to say - it's a very large part of the difference between a gameplay experience vs. a simple gameplay mechanic.
Great read Kasavin! Assassins' Creed 2 did this Exposition stuff very well, every time I was thinking " why didn't they just do this?" Desmond or Ezio asked it in the game and got an answer. It was suprising and kept me engaged with the story and gameplay.
Wow, he worked on Tiberium wars and Red Alert 3 and both were great games. He is also one of my all time favorite reviewers. I can't wait to see how this turns out!
thumb me up if you would like to see GregK reviewing an upcoming title for GameSpot as a fan service. xD
The entire point of a GDC (and GDC Online) session is to talk about what you've learned during the development of your game in the hopes that it will benefit other developers. He's not "telling other developers what to do" - he's just describing his experiences and what has worked for the game that Supergiant is making.
Greg Kasavin. Now if there was a reviewer that was unbiased, straight to the point and can make a person who isnt insterested in videogames love the gaming world then that person would be Greg Kasavin. I really hope GS one day hires Greg Kasavin as a guest reviewer.
Kasavin must make a couple of successful games and have more years of experience in the gaming industry (Reviewing games doesn't count at all) first before telling other developers what to do.
Greg Kasavin, the only man able to make a 19 minutes review and not making it boring at all, he has been no doubt the best reviewer GS ever had, no disrespect to good reviewers like Alex or Kevin, but Kasavin was on a league on his own, i'm glad he is doing fine.
"exposition is a way to keep players from turning to other games as soon as they hit a stumbling point." Maybe not exposition specifically, but a good story definitely. He's spot on about Mafia.
Definitely one of the best writers this site has ever had. His tastes in gaming were unmatched. This game also looks very interesting.
Ahh good ol' Greg Kasavin...all the GS old timers miss ya. Keep it up man! The one GS Review that I can't ever get out of my head was TES: Oblivion, he got me so hyped up for that game and it did indeed deliver.
I'll have to think about this.....good stuff. I think at the moment the best games for story would be L4D 1&2, Half - Life 2 and Episodes, Fallout 3, Portal, Halo 3: O.D.S.T., Halo Reach, MGS4 and I know I'll get slapped for this but I really liked Mafia II even with it's ambiguous ending. that's all my opinion, I'm just saying these were the games that touched me in some way.
Greg seems to be getting around lately, glad he's doing well, he really knows his stuff when it comes to gaming.
I love story telling in games, take Enslaved for example, I really hope alot of developers take something positive away from this
lately I've been getting bored of games because there is so little storytelling going on in most games. so i hope Greg's game does it well.
Dear Gamespot, I miss Greg Kasavin's reviews. Please pay him a bunch of money every once and while to be a guest reviewer. ;)
I remember thoroughly enjoying the recap of his 24 hour Oblivion marathon. I wonder if it's still up...
Kasavin: the greatest reviewer of all time. Nobody comes close to his accurate, articulate, honest and humble charm. What I loved most was his total lack of flashiness or distracting personality quirks. He stayed on topic always and never forgot his job was to present the facts and let you decide. At least that's my opinion of his reviews... He's the type I could talk games for hours with and enjoy every minute of it. Current reviewers would get on my nerves very quickly due to their...oddities and their desire to make things exciting...it's hard to put my concerns in words, but there's definitely something off with modern reviewers. So it's great to see Greg moving onward, but I wish current reviewers would go back and study his methods...
Dang... lots of memories of Greg Kasavin when he used to help with On The Spot every Thursday night.
hey kasavin, he was a good reviewer, not saying tha newer gamespot staffa re bad reviewers though :D
i'm not quite sure, but I think Kasavin said something... :P (refering to the constant "kasavin said" formula used in every single paragraph of the above article)
Same here, gamespot lost all of their credibility when they lost Greg Kasavin. He helped me find lots of games that I wouldn't have thought to purchase otherwise.
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