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Chris Avellone, Obsidian Entertainment

Well, here's to the first news item not by mach in a few weeks. :p As you might have noticed from the title it's not news about KotOR III, but it is an interview with Chris Avellone (the lead designer for TSL) Pavlos and I were able to hold with him.

And no, just so for the sake of snuffing out whatever scrap of hope there was left in your heart, there's no KotOR III news in it either. It did, however, turn out to be a very interesting and informative as to various TSL-related things. (Random factoid, the team working on the game hadn't played KotOR I when they wrote the first draft.)

But enough of rambling, here's the interview... In the case you've not finished either game, by the way, you should hold off on reading it until you have - it'll spoil the main plots of both KotORs.

Emperor Devon: Fan opinion of TSL ranges from it being a miracle that's descended down from the heavens to brighten up our world to being the spawn of Satan. You're probably not very partial to either of those, but how exactly is it you think the game turned out (overall) and why?

Chris Avellone: I thought it could have used less content or more time to cook, take your pick, but the content issues are mine, so if you wish to laud hate upon it, feel free to target me, but save any praise you have for the rest of the team. I should have cut a planet or drastically scaled down the cut scenes in the game (which was done in the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion pack, and to good effect, I think).

I probably should have bit the bullet and cut the mini-games as well, they were an unnecessary distraction in development and I don’t think they added to the value of the role-playing experience in comparison to other mechanics in the game. I suppose I felt they, like the number of planets, needed to be there to make the game comparable to the first, when that was actually less important to the player in the long run.

Emperor Devon: TSL's trimmed deadline and subsequent cut content has made the game highly criticized. (Yes, you probably did know that. :P) What would you have done if you'd had those extra few months to work on it? Or if you'd had, through some mysterious and unknown means, unlimited time and funds?

Chris Avellone: What I would have done was finish Malachor V and Revan’s Telos-based HK-50 factory. The HK-50 factory was probably a more realistic goal, I probably could have finished that in two more days, but honestly, the tweaking of the cut scenes would have taken forever (which we discovered elsewhere in K2). I did think it would have been a cool series of levels that would really have let HK-47 shine, however, and there were some good comedic moments in there as well (well, if you find sadism funny).

Emperor Devon: Numerous fan theories about Darth Nihilus' origins have risen up, ranging from him being Zayne Carrick to Revan and to the Exile's missing Force connection. Did you ever have a specific origin in mind for him, or was he supposed to remain hidden, mysterious, and valuable in the fact that he remained in the dark (pardon the unfunny pun) like Dracula?

Chris Avellone: I cannot speak for the story arc in the Knights of the Old Republic comic (obviously, Zayne Carrick didn’t exist at the time of the K2 storyline, but that’s not to say there isn’t a connection). Nihilus’ exact identity is never specified in K2 - I had a specific origin in mind, but not a name, if that makes sense, and what I say hear is not canon: He was created when Malachor V was torn apart, and he was intended as the Exile’s other half, one that took a more self-destructive path rather than denying the Force during that battle that ended the Mandalorian Wars.

As much as Nihilus embraced the Dark Side’s Force talent of consuming force sensitives (and other life, such as the mass Mandalorian slaughter), the Exile took the higher ground and cut himself off from the pull of such power. As powerful as Nihilus’ ability is in the short term, the drawback is that it robs the user of almost identity but hunger, which is why is never employed by the Sith Lords of old... who had no wish to sublimate their identities for any reason.

Emperor Devon: A hotly debated subject among fans is whether Kreia and Arren Kae are the same person, and it would be nice to have an official opinion on this. What's your take on it, did you ever have them being the same person on your mind during development?

Chris Avellone: Can’t comment, but good catch. Sorry.

Emperor Devon: The cut content at Malachor and M4-78 and the rest of what Team Gizka is working on is well-known, but is there anything else cut from the game that didn't make it into the final version or remain in the game files? Such as, say, extra scenes, areas, or plot points?

Chris Avellone: Mostly the stuff above, the end sequences with the companions were the ones that caused the most damage. There was also some more exposition sequences with Atris inbetween planets, I think only 2 of 4 made it into the game. (The other two were deemed too risky to implement in the time provided, and I agreed.)

Emperor Devon: Kreia is without a doubt the most well-developed character in TSL, with her unique goal of destroying the Force, her cryptic persona, interesting backstory and deep personality and motivations making her one of if not one of the most well-done characters to yet grace a video game. How did you think her up, what inspirations did you have? Although most fans guess Darth Sidious they're completely different people apart from their manipulative natures. I'm more inclined to think the Bene Gesserit from Dune or Ravel Who-Puzzles-Well from PS:T. Where was your inspiration for her?

Chris Avellone: In part, Kreia was supposed to be aspects of Ravel that I didn’t have time for in Planescape: Torment. Also, as much as the nature of the Force frustrated me in some respects, Kreia was the personification of that frustration – the fact that some arbitrary force would feel the need to “correct’ the human species at times with mass slaughter in Episodes 1 through 3, and the hypocrisy of the Jedi that took place in IV and V. I’ve never really forgiven Ben Kenobi for his lies in Episodes IV and V, and Kreia definitely echoes that.

Her one redeeming feature is that for a (former) Sith Lord, she loves the player and what he/she represents. She sees in the player a chance to turn away from predestination and destroy that which binds all things, giving the galaxy back its freedom.

Emperor Devon: Like any other game I'd imagine TSL had entirely different story drafts that were written up before the current ones. (Or at least substantially different ones.) What were some of the earlier drafts of TSL's plot like, or if there weren't any how different was the plot when you first envisioned it and what was that like?

Chris Avellone: The first story draft was pretty terrible, mostly because we weren’t allowed to play K1 before drafting it, so we really knew nothing about the first game and were writing in the dark (Revan who?).

It was a frustrating situation that we wasted 2-3 months on that (there was nothing to be done about it), and then had to do another revision once we were able to play the first game. If you feel a disconnect in the storylines, that would be one of the reasons (again, my fault).

Emperor Devon: I don't know if you're allowed to give an official opinion or not on this (by all means ignore it if you're not! ) but what are your thoughts on Team Gizka's restoration project? What do you think of what they're doing, is it something you're glad about?

Chris Avellone: No opinions, though hypothetically I might be incredibly happy that the material is being used for its intended purpose and am extremely grateful to those doing it. Thank you, Team Gizka.

Emperor Devon: Did you feel that you learned anything from the development of TSL?

Chris Avellone: Less content of higher quality is better than trying to meet the gameplay length of a previous title. There’s more optimistic and cynical lessons as well, but that’s the most important one that jumps to mind. I did learn a lot more on voice-acting and pacing based on experiences for TSL, however (I had only experience with that on major NPCs with previous titles), and I think that was a positive lesson.

Emperor Devon: Whether for major things like how to write interesting plots and characters or minor things like what camera angle is best when the villain is meditating on their evilness, did you feel your ability or perspective at doing those things change? Did making it influence how you designed other games, such as NWN2? Did you derive anything in the OC from TSL?

Chris Avellone: I couldn't speak to that, as the original campaign for NWN2 was developed by Ferret Baudoin, our lead designer at the time. He may have taken aspects of TSL's design practices and incorporated it into NWN2, however, but that's probably a better question to ask him. Some mechanics from TSL definitely did transition over, however, as well as some of the story-aesthetics (cut scenes that took place elsewhere in the world, for example).

I will say that cinematic and storyboarding for cut scenes suddenly took on a new importance as the engine improved, and cinematic cameras and their placement were very important in conveying certain moods. We also learned a lot about party mechanics that we decided not to repeat in future games where possible.

Pavlos: TSL, like the Empire Strikes Back before it, gives off the feeling that what we’re seeing in the game is only a symptom of larger problems in the galaxy – those that exist now or may exist in the future. Was this effect intentional and successful; how do you think this affected the game’s overall appeal?

Prime: Was the story of K2 written with the intention of doing a K3 to "wrap things up" as it were?

Chris Avellone It was supposed to transition into K3, yes. The events in K2 were supposed to showcase that Revan was aware there was a larger problem outside the galaxy, and he/she had set plans in motion to unite the Republic and confront this other threat... all the destructive fury in K1 had a much larger purpose in the context of K2 beyond conquering the Republic. This is communicated more explicitly during some of the end sequences in K2, and in some of the discussions with Kreia and the Disciple.

Pavlos: In concept, it is terrific (and it helped add something fresh to TSL) but for all Kreia’s speeches about how the player’s companions mimic the Exile, the mimicry was really just a statistic. How do you respond to this criticism?

Chris Avellone: It was a part of gameplay, with value inside the game. Also, the fact that influence allowed you to have the characters change careers and realize their potential I thought was a plus and made sense, story-wise.

Chris Avellone: That was one reason, and also because I was sick of the good/evil axis (it's pretty standard now in most RPGs) and felt it might be more fun if influence paid more attention to the NPCs in your party and made their personalities more of a game in itself. We expanded upon that more in NWN2 and George Ziets did a lot of cool revisions to it in Mask of the Betrayer which I think improved it considerably.

My regret is that there should have been more options for bad influence, since it makes it unfair to people who enjoy stomping and disagreeing with others in their party.

Pavlos: Many people have attempted to brand Torment as a work of art for its sublime dialogue and its own particular brand of armchair philosophy. Isn’t it odd that the things we often praise Torment for are things that we would praise a book for? Do you feel that for the video game to truly establish itself as a *new* art form, it will have to transcend the boundary of “interactive novel” and show us a new experience?

Chris Avellone: I think it already has by being interactive, through both gameplay and visuals. I consider Torment and K2 text-heavy, for example, but I don't feel either one is an interactive novel.

Pavlos: It never occurs to a reader when they sit down to read a thriller to think “I shall hold this up against the paradigm of a true thriller, as thought up by Edgar ‘Bubba’ Bolisikbang and then grade it against Poe and Gardner.” Categories exist for the better appreciation of art – or, in this case, a game – not vice versa. So why is it that CRPG players seem so particular about what makes a good game?

Chris Avellone: I don't think it's solely CRPG players - I have heard FPS devotees go on at thesis-level length about the gun mechanics and multiplayer level design in an FPS, so maybe it's simply the nature of what gameplay mechanics they focus on for each game. It is possible that CRPG players pay more attention to the story and characters, which are usually less of a focus in FPS's.

Pavlos: The key criticism of a lot of games is that “the story is *so* clichéd.” Is this really a valid criticism? Shakespeare wasn’t exactly original and I don’t see anyone belittling Henry V’s rousing speech at the Battle of Agincourt because “it’s been done before.” Follow these comments to their natural conclusion and we could say that quality of writing and implementation can take a back seat to absurdity.

Chris Avellone: I think it’s fair to critique some games on that, mostly because I still feel story-writing for games (if you want to label it that way, I think it’s better to approach it as "experience-driven" instead of story-driven) is still in its early stages, and we’re still looking for the best practices to make interactive entertainment.

Jae Onasi: How does a game get developed in general? Do you write up the entire story first and they go from there, or do you outline it, get the art people started, and then it goes from there?

Chris Avellone: Story-wise, you get a list of what your parameters are, write up the overarching plot and level scope based on that, cut the plot and levels into discrete chunks, assign it to others (and the art team), and then everyone takes a piece and makes it their own under direction from the Lead Designer or Creative Lead Designer.

Boba Rhett: I'd like to know the main thing you would have wanted changed before TSL was released.

Chris Avellone: The ending. And trimming out HK-47's reference to the droid factory on Telos.

Note that there are some things we did change at the end, and I'm glad we did. Among them was Atton's death scene, and several sequences with Visas Marr which I am glad got repaired (or removed).

Darth Moeller: I think the thing I'd like to know is more about the cut content and how late in development it was decided that it had to be cut from the game.

Chris Avellone: It was pretty late in development, and we were pushing so hard at times it was difficult to tell if it would make it or not. We had continuous setback and emergencies (mostly memory management and level division) toward the end, so at times it was difficult to judge. In general, the schedule for K2 was aggressive, but that doesn't excuse me not taking more time in forecasting what's possible to include in the time provided.

I am proud of what Obsidian was able to do, I just wish I'd trimmed my ambitions a bit more.

Emperor Devon: And lastly, the inevitable K3 question... Are you allowed to say anything on it?

Chris Avellone: I can’t answer that, unfortunately, wish I could.

Emperor Devon: Again, thank you very much for the interview.

Chris Avellone: Thank you - I appreciate the opportunity.

I've got to say I was surprised Pavlos and I were even able to even get an interview with Mr. Avellone, but we're certainly not complaining. :D

941 years ago on this day, by the way, the Vikings lost the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Just thought you all should know that.

Link to LucasForums discussion thread.

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