Chris Avellone, Obsidian Entertainment
Mr. Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment and Black Isle fame, lead designer on Planscape: Torment and our own beloved KotOR II has kindly condescended to answer my annoying questions about the development of Torment and The Sith Lords as well as some of his design philosophies.
A big thanks to both MCA and Obsidian's marketing producer, Matthew Rorie for helping to organise this.
Just who the Hell is Chris Avellone?
Chris Avellone is a human male, recently levelled to 37 years of age and chose the Game Developer/Designer/Narrative Designer specialization career path. He has above average endurance, below average charisma and wisdom, and several seemingly useless feats, such as basic familiarity with bicycling, stairclimber, and balancing heavy weights briefly above his head. He is addicted to a variety of minor stimulants, and is suspected of having a five point sociopath disadvantage.
More relevant (?) is he was a lead designer on Planescape Torment, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, and now Obsidian’s espionage role-playing game, Alpha Protocol. He’s also served as a designer/senior designer on a number of other role-playing games – Neverwinter Nights 2, Neverwinter Nights: Mask of the Betrayer, Fallout 2, the whole Icewind Dale series for Black Isle, and probably a bunch of other stuff his aging brain has forgotten. He also contributed several stories for the last half of the run of Clone Wars Adventures comics, including a Bultar Swan story and an Aurra Sing story he’s especially proud of.
When you look at the (critical if not financial) success of Torment and then – to a lesser extent – KotOR II what do you suppose it is about your narrative style or technique that made the two so enjoyable and well-received?
After probably getting sick to death of my hangdog expression, mounting depression, and the packs of razor blades I would go through lightly dragging each razor across my wrist, Feargus Urquhart decided to break me out of my funk and let me know Torment made a profit, just not nearly as much as Baldur's Gate (the first part was a surprise, the second part wasn’t – Baldur’s Gate sold a lot of units, it’d be hard to top).
If I were to attribute Torment’s positive reception to anything (at least from the folks that did receive it positively), it'd probably be due to the 10-12 years of gamemastering where you slowly learn what players like and don't like when they play – usually through negative reinforcement and thinly-veiled threats delivering by phone calls and emails in the late hours of the evening by people who want to argue how many character points they got per session and why. Ultimately, you learn that players really want an adventure that's not about something they got involved in, but something that completely reacts to them, involves them, and preferably is all about something they did... and Torment is a very, very selfish adventure. Everything's about you.
Torment was also the accumulation of many years of unresolved fantasy adventures, quest ideas, cool NPCs and more that I hadn’t really had a chance to give much of a voice to in previous titles, or even in gamemastering sessions - Torment was set up from a campaign standpoint to allow just about anything you could imagine, so it was a perfect fantasy world to do an "idea dump" in. If I thought it would be cool if the player could wear their own intestines as armor, or regenerate from any wound, the Planescape universe (multiverse) was 100% accommodating.
Lastly, I read a lot. And a lot of the stuff that may seem deep in Torment is pretty immature compared to a lot of fantasy and fiction out there - it's just that game development had rarely explored that deeply up to that point. Again, the Planescape universe was a perfect field trip for that.
The Sith Lords takes a much darker, or rather, greyer road than the one taken in KotOR. What compelled you to take the franchise in a more mature direction?
The Force has always bugged me from the sense of pre-destination, and I thought trying to make a sympathetic Sith Lord would be challenging, so I went ahead and did it (I don’t think I succeeded, but I enjoyed the challenge).
Now many people would argue to the contrary: why do you think you didn’t succeed?
I suppose the buglists from QA describing her as "that crusty annoying bitch" (among other profanity-laced comments and suggestions on where she should jam her lightsaber that weren't in the buglists) come to mind; also, I never felt the ending adequately explained Kreia's motivations in a way that was sympathetic - it felt hamfisted.
Also, I think there's a lot of debate to be had on the aspects of following the Light Side vs. The Dark Side, and the general precedent of "following" the Force in the first place. It probably has to due with my unresolved irritation with religion and zealots.
The themes in Torment are obvious: Torment and belief. They are reinforced throughout the game, even in the thing’s tag-line and title. Yet when we come to TSL the title seems almost irrelevant and though the past-centric plot and the tormented character remain, the focus is shifted. What, exactly, is the thematic drive behind TSL?
The idea of the “echo” and the past reaching its resolution in the present is something that’s hammered quite a bit in Knights 2, and while I think it could have been more subtle in some of its presentation, it’s there – the “echo” that Visas and Kreia feel in the universe is the ramification of a choice the Exile made, both in war and in his/her own turning away from the Force as a result. Nihilus was supposed to be the personification of that echo, but his character suffered a great deal in presentation (which was my fault).
As for the title, it was chosen as an afterthought, and extremely late in the process. The story itself also went through some growing pains (what ended up in the game was actually the second iteration of the story, since we didn’t get the chance to play the first game before starting on the sequel, which was a little disjointed - as a result, there's some legacy crap in the second story that was the result of the first story, and I think that affected the balance). Anyway, the theme of the Sith Lords was an examination of a universe where an all-powerful cosmic force is guiding its individuals to achieve certain nebulous ends, and how I would feel trapped in a universe like that – and how much I would want to rebel against it (which both the player and their mentor explore differently). So how do you fight back?
Also, I have to confess, I have a fondness for Chinatown and the idea that a main character (the Exile) had an event in his past that’s rarely directly explained but clearly haunts him/her in the present was extremely important to me – the imagined horror of such an event I think gives credit to the player’s imagination and makes the narrative stronger. I don’t know if I’d want Kreia to turn to the player at the end and go, “Forget it, Jake. It's Malachor V.” but something like that I think carries a haunting strength about it.
Also, I really wanted to prep for a third title that examined Revan’s long-range plans, but that was only hinted at in the game.
You’ve mentioned recently that you’d rather show something than have the player read it. People have kicked up a fuss about this in certain quarters of the internet but surely this is just an extension of what you’ve been doing already? Torment’s Mortuary is littered with imagery to hammer home the theme of circularity, Kreia is literally blind, and Kaelyn the Dove sees in black and white.
Well, as much as Torment showed thing [sic], most of the story came through in the actual written words on the screen – and Kreia, Ravel, and Kaelyn’s imagery actually doesn’t come across visually at all, it’s forced to be conveyed through the written word as well. The biggest demands in making this happen is usually art and animation resources.
In Alpha Protocol, we’ve had a lot more success with this show-don’t-tell technique. Our cinematics team, Shon Stewart, Joe Bulock, and Roberto Clemente, have done a lot of work with emotive facial rigging, animations, and even using the proper camera angles and sometimes the absence of any sounds in a scene at all to drive a point home without anyone needing to hear it or read it on the screen.
The introduction of the “talking film” into cinema prompted discussions on the art of sound but the emergence of 3D engines and cinematics in video-games has yet to provoke such a discussion. Is there “art” in your “emotive facial rigging [and] animations” or is it simply a new toy to draw in the crowds and their wallets?
It is art. It may have to wait until Alpha Protocol is released, but I'd love to post some captured footages of some sequences in the game that say more with silence and facial expression than any text or voice actor could. I'm not cynical enough to say that it's a gimmick to take money from the consumer - I very much believe it's a better way to convey story, despite how resource-intensive it is.
The tying together of gameplay and plot seems to be something of importance to you. Torment is based around an immortality mechanic and TSL’s plot was intricately tied into the Influence System. Oddly enough, whenever you seem to do this you seem to be poking fun at or criticising the genre.
Not always, but sometimes, yes. The modron cube in Torment was definitely poking fun at Diablo (which I enjoyed), but many other game mechanics I don’t use as elements of mockery – the immortality system of Torment was partly a critique of saving/loading, but I thought it was more important from a plot standpoint. Nothing says you're immortal more than ignoring one of the basic RPG interface screens while playing.
I do feel strongly about tying the plot into gameplay mechanics, if only out of a sense of frustration that sometimes game stories seem divorced from the actual gameplay, and I think that weakens both of them.
How exactly would you say they are weakened?
People play games to interact with them, not to watch them or be flooded with exposition. If a storyline is presented as a non-interactive cut scene or if nothing the player does in conversations or interactions ever has any physical change in the world, they just come across as hurdles or eye-candy, when ultimately, what you want to do is have well-rendered story elements the player can interact with and cause actual changes in the world around them or in their character.
I think story should be a game mechanic that has actual game mechanic results, and I think that makes gamers more involved in the story than they would be otherwise... as an example, there are choices I made with the villain at the end of Fallout 1 that were made more powerful because my skill set and my inventory collection allowed me to do it, and I felt 10x cooler than if a staged cut scene had played out.
Romance. You always say that you don’t like writing them but I don’t think you’ve ever really explained why. So: Why?
I guess I'm not very romantic (although Alpha Protocol is a different experience for me). And I guess I think from an entertainment perspective (although I think many fans will disagree, and have), romances that lead to resolutions too early deprive the player of drama and conflict, which I think are essential to creating and maintaining entertainment value.
Turning a pepper pot into a religious text or a totemic object seems to be something that you do rather frequently. Take the player’s lightsaber; it is transformed from a “cool lazor sword” into a defining part of the player’s identity.
This is just the way of making the player feel cooler. If everything they touch or use becomes something that can be used for imagery or a metaphor, the more artistic it is, and the more weight the player's presence has in the game world. It helps the player achieve a sense of epic-ness beyond just their actions.
Would you say that there is a place for making the player feel weaker as well as “cooler”?
As long as being weak is cool. To explain:
Weakness is cool when it's obvious it was done by the player himself. If the player learns that their character has subconsciously cut himself off from his own powers out of fear of causing a nuclear explosion in the immediate area if he loses control of his emotions, I'd argue that makes me feel cooler as a character.
This also ties into loot placement - weaker items don't need to feel that way. As a game designer, I feel it's imperative to control player's access to powerful items - you need to pace item gains slowly so even what would be considered minor rewards end up being epic when found (we used to do this all the time in my old Warhammer campaign, and it re-surfaced in some of the item design in the Icewind Dale series). If you attach the right rarity and history to a +1 Spear that gives the player bonus +5 hit points, players will get much more of thrill about getting it than if they get their 5th +4 sword during the same time frame. I mean, what's cooler - collecting your 17th lightsaber or struggling through 4 battle-strewn worlds to find the parts to build a lightsaber yourself? In Fallout 2, I was stoked the first time I found a rifle because I'd spent the first few hours just using the spear, and it made me appreciate the rifle more.
There seems a great concern with the past in both Torment and TSL. Just why is that?
I think most of a story’s strength and “epic”-ness for lack of a better word (even though I've now used it twice), comes from the sense that you’re part of something larger, and history’s one of the best ways to do it. Torment, for example, would have felt much different to me if there hadn’t been a previous party of adventures that the Nameless One had gathered in a previous incarnation to assault the Fortress of Regrets. There needs to be a sense of something-that-came-before, and preferably, a series of questions about the past events that help heighten the mystery.
"I am never going to do an Empire Strikes Back ending again in a game, even if they put branding irons to my feet." Why not? What sort of Will save do you need to successfully resist the branding irons, anyway?
You can never guarantee a publisher will want to do a sequel, and if they do, there's no guarantee that a development team will remain stable for the next game. For example, for NX1: Mask of the Betrayer (and this isn't a bad thing), the NX1 team did not wish to continue the NWN2 narrative. For Knights 2, we didn't have Knights 3 lined up. For Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance 1 we didn't have the same team for Dark Alliance 2, and unfortunately for the second team, they felt the need to explain the ending for Dark Alliance 1, which I didn't feel was necessary in the first place.
So, in short, I guess the cautionary tale is not to present any sort of ending that doesn’t resolve itself, because anything that follows is so uncertain that you can’t guarantee you’ll have a shot at continuing the story.
Putting aside Mr. Avellone, the businessman, though: Did you like the ending (or what was planned for it) yourself?
Yes - I thought it tied up a trilogy nicely. Granted, I like Babylon 5 machinations and the idea that Revan had a master plan, but so be it. ;) I just like to think that Revan was smart and cunning enough to have the big picture in mind because those are the villains I can respect even while they're sending death fleets after me and bombing worlds into submission.
And they all lived happily ever after. The End.
Discuss it here