Actor Logan Cunningham voices Rucks, the narrator of Supergiant Games’ Bastion. Creating the character in collaboration with sound director Darren Korb and studio director Amir Rao added new dimensions to a long-standing friendship. The three first met on their neighborhood soccer field and in high school, growing up in San Jose.
The Supergiant sound team is in the running for three VGA awards, with votes currently being accepted on the Spike website. In this interview we hear about the creation of the voice of Rucks from the actor and sound director.
Logan Cunningham at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles
What was it that led you to pursue a career in acting?
Logan Cunningham: When I was in high school I had done some acting with Darren, but I didn’t train as an actor while in college. I studied basically everything else. When it came time to graduate Fordham University at Lincoln Center as a journalism and communications student, also studying a lot of English, film and visual arts, I realized that everything I had been studying was leading me back to acting and the theater.
Acting was very difficult, and I liked that. In my life, acting and writing are the two things that I’ve done that have been the hardest and the most fun. I’ve been out of college for five years, and have spent a lot of time thinking about being an actor. While I don’t go on a ton of auditions, I do whatever comes my way. That was, ironically, how Bastion happened.
Did you feel that your interdisciplinary background was something that helped inform this performance?
LC: Certainly. I think that if you are an actor you should study as many things as you can.
When you began creating the character of Rucks, you had not been thinking of yourself as a voice actor. What preparation was necessary to satisfy the requirements of supplying narration for the game?
LC: Voice-over in general is a technical challenge. It’s easier than live action acting, in that you don’t have wardrobe or makeup and you can get away with more. Obviously, I would never be cast as Rucks in “Bastion: The Movie.” But I can produce his voice.
There are things like diction and speaking clearly that are much more important in voice acting. I wasn’t as used to that. The majority of the very early work with Darren was in finding that voice. What made it harder than live acting was never having a whole, completed script to read. I’ve since learned that this is pretty much the plight of all voice actors in videogames, who generally don’t get whole scripts for security reasons.
Lyrics by Greg Kasavin, vocals by Logan Cunningham
Were suggestions you were receiving from writer Greg Kasavin helpful in building the character?
LC: A big influence on the sound of the voice is Ian McShane from Deadwood. Greg would send links to YouTube clips, which was great timing because I had just started getting into the show. In the credits of Bastion, I thank my friend Marcus for lending me his DVDs of the series the summer before, where I developed a huge actor crush on McShane and his voice.
Before Bastion, I had not been comfortable dropping my voice that low. When I was in school I was the kid that the teachers always asked to read out loud, which I hated doing. I was really self-conscious about the deepness of my voice and would pitch it higher in my everyday speech. This was a new thing for me, feeling comfortable in that lower register. And I have Deadwood to thank for that.
What kinds of exercises were you doing in order to capture the right sound for the character?
LC: Before we would start each session I warmed up with a blurb from cereal boxes, film synopses from Netflix envelopes, whatever was around. I did that four times in total: as Daniel Day-Lewis’s character Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, as Sam Elliot, Al Swearengen from Deadwood, then finally as Rucks, after all that. Doing those three passes, somehow Rucks would come out.
Apart from the mechanics of finding the voice, were there insights into the personality of the character that came from Greg’s writing or your own choices as an actor?
LC: The script we used came to us as a Google document, split into six columns. The column next to the lines themselves were pointers from Greg, giving some context. He had written an extensive backstory to Bastion that I was not privy to until the game had been unveiled publicly. I didn’t even meet Greg until seven or eight months into it.
From the lines and my own imagination, I sensed that archetype of an aging gunslinger. I got the loneliness and the regret. It was clear to me that he had spent most of his life alone, but also that there was a lot going on with the character. I was eager to read that backstory that Greg had written once I learned of its existence, and once I did I realized that I had been on the right track.
You had in fact grown up with Amir Rao and Darren Korb. How did that relationship form prior to development on this game?
LC: Amir and Darren went to elementary school together and have been friends since they were seven. Amir I met in eighth grade. Almost every season I would play recreational soccer on their school’s team, the Cougars. I stopped playing in high school and became a theater kid, but in high school it turned out that Amir and I had a lot of mutual friends in common. The three of us all went to New York for college, and they were the familiar faces that I had in the city. The three of us have stayed friends since.
Sound director Darren Korb in Santa Monica, California
You’ve described the genre of Bastion‘s score as “acoustic-frontier.” How did you find a sound for the music score that was unique and fit with the environment that Supergiant was looking to create?
Darren Korb: Early in the process we tried to pin down a tone for the game. I was lucky enough to be involved from the beginning, and stumbled upon “acoustic frontier trip-hop.” That was something that everyone seemed happy with, so I was looking for everything to fit that genre as a kind of thematic glue for the game.
Trip-hop uses sampled beats. The juxtaposition of the trippy hip-hop and the frontier acoustic guitar made for a fun mix. World One now has a Byzantine kind of sound, with Middle Eastern and Asian influences here and there. For World Two, I’ve gone more in the direction of Bayou and Western frontier. Each world has its own musical tone.
The soundtrack’s concept of the frontier complements the visual quality of the Bastion sprouting up around the protagonist as you explore. Was the personal context of exploring new territory as independent developers at all informing the decision?
DK: Yeah, part of the idea behind the frontier vibe was to give you the feeling that the world around you wasn’t settled. Being an unsettled independent game company, we delved into this project not knowing what was ahead of us.
Are there scores for past games that stood out in your memory at the time of working on the soundtrack for Bastion?
DK: My favorite music score for a game is Marble Madness. I love it so much. Another of my favorites is Dungeon Keeper for the PC, Windows 95. Back in the day I would put the actual Dungeon Keeper game disc in my car and would listen to the music tracks on it. As far as music in games goes, I grew up playing games and they are a big part of my influences, along with bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Weezer and They Might Be Giants. But before I liked rock music, I liked game music.
Have you found that joining the development team has allowed you to be directly involved in your role as musician?
DK: I love being a part of Supergiant Games. Not only do I get to do something that’s incredibly fun, I get to work with friends of mine, who I really get along with. Because it’s such a small team, I feel that everything I do has a large effect on the overall project. The soundscape of the game is directly affected by the things that I do. It’s nice to feel like I have a stake in the project.
What kind of tone did you feel was right for the character of Rucks, and what do you feel the game gains by having the narration serve as an enduring element of the gameplay?
DK: We did some experimentation, looking at other memorable narrators that we really enjoyed, like Alec Baldwin in the Royal Tennenbaums, or Sam Elliot in the Big Lebowski. We looked at how narration like that fit with the quality of Logan’s voice, and started to build the character a bit from the outside in. It started off with the aesthetics of his voice and then became more about who he was and what he was all about.
The narration in this game tells the story in an unobtrusive way that happens while you’re playing and it gives context to your actions. During development, I would play levels that didn’t have narration on them yet and I kind of had no idea what was happening. When the narration is added, you always know what’s going on. You know your objective, and everything has a context.
What kind of attitude did you want the narrator to have toward the playable character of the Kid?
LC: I knew there was an affection there. Rucks really has no other choice but to like the Kid, because there’s no one else around. I think he likes the Kid and sees a lot of himself in him. Fans of the game have theorized that Rucks may in fact be the Kid in a Star Trek-esque causality loop. I never saw it that way myself, but I can see how other people would.
Who was supplying the vocal effects found in the game? It seems like that may have fueled speculation about whether those characters were actually related somehow.
LC: The Kid’s exertion sounds are Darren. There are two male Ura at the end of the game, and Darren and I both did the sounds for those.
Additionally, you are singing on the soundtrack. When you were listing the subjects you studied in college, I noticed that vocal performance did not come up. How much background did you have as a singer prior to this game?
LC: Not much. I had been in musicals, though it’s the one kind of acting that I’m not particularly fond of doing. When I see it done well, I love it. Darren wrote a musical with his older brother and it was chosen for the New York Theater Festival. There were two performances about a month ago. I was actually their assistant director, stage manager and on-stage briefly in a panda suit.
Singing is something I do reluctantly. I knew going in that they wanted me involved on the soundtrack in some capacity, but I had no idea what it was going to be. The soundtrack came out on a Friday, while I got the song from Darren only the Monday before, and we recorded it on Wednesday. Darren wrote a Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash kind of song, that required a looser, more relaxed kind of singing style forgiving to someone like me, without technical vocal training. We did it in maybe two takes. He had to rewrite the guitar track I was singing over, because it turned out I could sing much lower than he thought I could. We’re really happy with how it turned out.
Lyrics by Darren Korb, vocals by Logan Cunningham
The soundtrack has been very well received. It has millions of plays online. That must be gratifying.
LC: Yeah, the number of plays is some insane number. Out of everything about the game, the reception to the sound has surprised us the most. We all knew that Darren writes good music, but witnessing the crazy response to that has been a really nice surprise.
Could you tell us a little about your thoughts on Jen Zee‘s art style, seen in the game? When you saw Rucks for the first time, was that image something that meshed with your vision of the character?
LC: That was pretty much what I thought he would look like. What I really like about Jen’s portrayal of Rucks is that he’s a little threatening looking. He’s not totally a kindly elder. Like everything she did in Bastion, there’s a lot of layers to the look of the character.
There’s an edge to it.
What was your experience, having been on the development end for so long, finally playing through the finished product?
LC: I was floored by just how good it was. People sometimes question our “indie-ness” when they see the WB logo, but the truth is that it turned out the way it did because every single one of the seven people who worked on this were amazing at what they did. For those without a background in development, there’s a lot of mystery to how a game is made. But, in fact, you can do it, just with labor and a small amount of hardware.
Playing Bastion from start to finish for the first time, I was so proud of it. More than anything else, I was happy for Amir for having pulled it off. When I had heard that he had started his own company with Gavin, it was surprising to me. For most of my life I had known Amir to be a huge gamer, an English major and intellectual. It was therefore a little shocking to discover that he was now an entrepreneur. But he’s done it, terrifically.
Your character has popped up in a number of unexpected places outside of Bastion. There was a segment on the Dorkly website, showing Rucks narrating Mario games.
LC: I’ve seen that video everywhere and I like it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, or whatever. There seemed to be a lot of people, to my eyes, that thought that was me speaking, which was a little disturbing, but that’s fine.
There was also the wedding you narrated.
LC: Yeah, the guy emailed Greg. We were going to be recording anyway, so we thought, “Why not?” Our recording session was actually interrupted by that earthquake that hit New York back in August. We did it, sent it out and then we didn’t hear anything. There wasn’t even confirmation that the lines had been received, so we left it at that. Then this past Friday, I guess he emailed Ars Technica about it. That was how we found out that he had gone through with it and used the recording for his ceremony.
Do you have thoughts on the potential for working with Supergiant in the future, expanding upon the collaboration so far?
LC: There’s enough in the lore to support another Bastion game. I, for one, would love to see a prequel happen. Rucks as a young man, in his hayday, would be an interesting place to go. All I know is that if what Supergiant does next requires a voice that I would be appropriate for, I’ll be there.
[Images courtesy of Supergiant Games. This article is available in Italian on Gamesource.it. For more information on Bastion, see the Supergiant website and soundtrack album. See also our GDC 2011 group chat with Darren Korb and other composers of indie games. Photos by Jeriaska.]