Chris Avellone interview: Torment, Project Eternity, New Vegas, and beyond

T.J. Hafer

On my last day to explore GDC, I received a real-life quest via e-mail. "Meet me at Metreon Park, by the bronze statue with 3 hands." My quest-giver was none other than Obsidian's Chris Avellone, of Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale fame, currently working on Project Eternity. He also holds the distinction of being a stretch goal in the Kickstarter for inXile's Torment: Tides of Numenera .

My reward was some xp, a few clot charms, and the interview that follows. Exploring Avellone's dialogue trees brought to light info on Eternity, Torment, crafting open world games, and how to (theoretically) strike fear into the heart of inXile's Brian Fargo. More on that last bit when I post my interview with Brian next week...

Chris Avellone: Before we start, this isn't to ask about my criminal record or anything, or the murders?

PC Gamer: Well...

Because they told me it was for PC Gamer, but if you're actually a cop, you have to tell me right now.

No, I swear I'm not a spy for any sort of organization of transdimensional justicars that might have a rap sheet on you. I promise.

[laughs]

Alright, now that that's out of the way, let's just start with, how's the development of Project Eternity going? Where are you guys on that?

It's going pretty good. We are still in pre-production for the project. And that means, like, we're figuring out all the level design pipelines, the narrative pipelines. What we want to make sure is we do our due diligence before we hit the production phase, and we understand how all the pieces go from start to finish. Because you want to do that before you add a bunch of designers onto the project. If you don't have those pipelines figured out first, it just causes a lot of problems with iteration for everybody.

So, along those lines, we did an update yesterday that sort of gave the run-down of where our first prototype is. And that's sort of proving out all our [highest] priority systems, in terms of, "Hey, here's how combat feels. Here's how navigation feels in the environment. Here's how you control the entire party." Basic door movement, dungeon exploration. And then we're actually planning to do a second prototype later on that sort of does the [lower] priority elements. For things like, when we want to do new conversational aspects, a little bit more about the crafting and merchant systems. But we wanted to make sure to get the solid, core gameplay down first, so that it felt right. Everyone at the studio had a chance to play it, give feedback on it, then move on from there.

In terms of the storyline stuff, we're still working on the lore. We're doing a variety of sort of one-pagers, and multiple takes of the storyline and world from just about every designer that's working on the game. And what we do is, we've been reviewing each of those pitches that each individual designer has done, and say, "Hey, you know, there's some particular strength to this, individual storyline. We like the characters here, the protagonist here, the antagonist here. Why don't we see how we can blend these elements together and make a stronger storyline overall." Having multiple designers do their take on the story has actually been pretty cool.

Project Eternity

Speaking of the story, how does the process work when you've got so much writing to fill in all the little cracks of this big, open world?

Eternity has been different from our other projects. With our other projects, we haven't had quite the luxury to have this sort of process. So generally, on our previous projects, a project director would sort of set up the overall vision for the game. In terms of, here's the overall mechanics I'm looking for. Here's the overall feel that I want the player to have. And then what we call a creative lead kind of holds the torch for the storyline. What he'll do is do a few takes on the storyline, let everyone in the studio offer feedback on that particular storyline, and then we iterate on that until we feel solid about it.

And then we divide that story up into chunks amongst the designers. "Hey, you develop this area and these characters. You develop this companion, you develop that companion." On Eternity, it's been a little different because Josh Sawyer set up the vision, the feel he's looking for, and then every designer had a chance to sort of do their own take on what the storyline was like, and we picked and chose from there. Even Josh did a take on the storyline, as well. So it's been a lot different, and we're really enjoying the process.

How many writers do you have working on Eternity altogether?

Just about all of our designers are writers, too. In terms of full-time narrative designers, I think there are only two. There's me and then there's George Zeits, who's also doing work on the Torment: Tides of Numenera project. But we're pretty much the only two full-time narrative designers, although we do expect to have more in the future once we ramp up production.

You guys are kind going back a little bit old school with the 2.5D perspective. Have you been worried at all that some of the newer generation of RPG players who didn't grow up with this, and they expect these publisher-funded blockbuster type things with full voice-acting, might look at a game like Eternity and think, you know, "What is this?"

No. Because everyone who supported our project understands what [we're going for], and they actually love to play that type of game. If the project appeals to more people beyond the backers, that's great. But we're not counting on it. We certainly hope it does, but ultimately, we're making a project for the audience that supported us, and we just want them to be happy.

So, Eternity is set in a fantasy universe with swords, dwarves, and elves. There's sort of this trend in the gaming zeitgeist of, you know, "I'm sick of swords, dwarves, and elves." How would you go about selling this new setting to someone who might be of that mindset?

It's not much of a sell. The differences are the following: First off, when Josh was setting up the vision goals for the feel of the world, the technology level is a little bit more advanced than the sort of traditional fantasy tech levels that we've seen in other games. And that definitely sets it apart from the Forgotten Realms. The world is sort of on the cusp of a technological revolution, and as a result, people are finding new ways to wage war, to defend against magecraft. And even wizards find they're suddenly not in a completely secure location from the common populous, because these new weapons are becoming available.

Also, what we tried to do, even though there are recognizable tropes like elves and dwarves, we've tried to introduce some new elements into their cultures and make them stand out. "Elves and dwarves" are just nouns that we use to lure you in. But then, once you're in there, you suddenly realize that there are a lot of differences between this, and what you'd consider typical fantasy fare.

Also, I think the overall magic system that's in the game—the idea that souls recycle themselves over time, that sort of lends itself to people being able to harness that energy for powers—that's caused, personally, for [my part of the writing], a lot larger repercussions in how society views life and death, and how one should live their life. And also, factions and cultures that are based around the idea that souls persist... that threw a different feel over the world, much more than I was expecting. But in a good way.

You mentioned the different cultures. We saw some of that in the early concept art, where we had the Inuit-inspired dwarf. Do you have a particular favorite culture that puts a spin on an existing fantasy trope?

Well, my favorite race is the Orlans. They're feline-based, and I don't think there's actually an equivalent of them in standard fantasy fare. Partially because I'm a cat person, and I really like the idea that they're sort of the stealthy, guerrilla class. That kind of appeals to me. And you know, the trap-making. They're very anti-slaver, because the slavers love to pick on them. So that's caused some interesting paranoia and hostility in their culture.

As far as dwarves and elves... I've been mostly focused on the human interaction. So, the human cultures that Josh is developing- those have interesting spins on them, in terms of... Josh is a very focused history and religion major. So, when he develops cultures, he thinks very much about the deity breakdowns, the actual climate and environment of the area where they grew up.

The Aumaua, they have a very interesting Polynesian take on their culture which I haven't seen before in other games. They're not really the equivalent of half-orcs. They're actually just a brand new, sort of swarthier species. And they're sort of like our [natural] tanks in the game.

Have you guys given any thought into where you might want to take this setting beyond just the base game? Thinking along the lines of novels, or, I'm actually a big fan of tabletop roleplaying.

Yes, what we'd like to do, because we see a lot of possibilities develop in the lore and the world beyond just the gaming arena... Like, BioWare's famous for this, in the sense that there's a lot of lore material that they do that just simply can't fit into their games. They have the comic books, graphic novels, various other types of games that aren't computer games. All those things are things that we'd like to explore with Eternity. As well as do future installments in the series.

Going back to your roots with this classic cRPG model, is there anything particularly significant that has changed, technologically, that will set Eternity apart from its, I guess you could call them ancestors, you worked on back in the day?

Yeah, there are a few things we've noticed. One is, working with Unity allows us to build the levels that we did back then much, much faster. We've been surprised at the rate that we can construct dungeons and create gameplay spaces, and sort of paint out those locations in Unity, and then to be able to actually walk around in those environments. So that's been really encouraging for the production process. We feel like we can get a lot of mileage out of that.

Another thing is digital distribution has suddenly given us an avenue to distribute the game, where we definitely would have had to work with a publisher before. But because there are other ways to get the game to the consumers, that sort of frees our hands a little bit, and I'm pretty happy about it.

The other thing is just Kickstarter in general. It's not so much technology, but just the fact that now there's an opening for players to be able to vote with their own dollars for games that they want to see, especially ones that might not be able to make the route through the publishers, that's been really important for us. Because I don't think we could have gotten a game like this financed in any other fashion except going to the players. And if Kickstarter hadn't existed, we would have been out of luck.

PC Gamer: As a studio that's in the vanguard of telling stories with games, which is something that really hasn't fully come into its own the way literature or even film has, where do you guys see yourselves as having made the most progress as storytellers, and where would you like to see the medium go from here?

CA: Well, the first thing I think we're really conscious of is the fact that we try to pay a lot of attention to the actual game systems before we start a story. Like, when we were doing Fallout: New Vegas, we had some pillars for the project. But one in particular was, we knew that one of the new systems we wanted to add was the reputation system. So, once you have that as one of your pillars for the new gameplay experience, you want to make sure that you weave a story that takes advantage of those mechanics.

And that may sound obvious, but I don't know if every game necessarily focuses on that when they're doing stories. I feel like, sometimes, people take the route of making the story much more independent, rather than anything that's actually going on with the second-to-second gameplay. So, for example, the reputation system. Okay, that means we've got the following things the story needs to incorporate. Like, there have to be multiple factions. There have to be consequences, and sort of ego-stroking reactivity that occurs based on what your reputation level is with them, either negative or positive. It doesn't necessarily have to be punishing to the player, but they should feel like they're making a difference in the world.

Also, if the game you're constructing is an open-world game, like with New Vegas, we tried to make sure that we were also constructing an open-world story. Which may sound kinda weird. We'll have have characters with agendas, we'll have factions. But ultimately, we're designing this story so that the player wants to go in and mess it up however they want, they'll still have an entertaining experience, and they'll still be able to complete the game. But they feel like they have more room to breathe than in, say, a linear storyline.

And then, the second part of that—where would you like to see game storytelling go? Where do you think the boundaries are that you'd like to push with telling stories in games?

I think there are two things. One is, I'd like to see more reliance on system mechanics to allow the player to tell their own story. Some of the most entertaining New Vegas experiences we had were from people who found interesting ways to create events in the game itself. They weren't necessarily narratively scripted. They didn't necessarily have any dialogue or writing associated with them. It was just stuff they could do to the environment by pushing the systems around and getting entertaining events that way.

Also, I'd like to see much more of a focus on visual storytelling. I think that, sometimes, writers can lose sight of the fact that audio, level design, graffiti, graphics, posters... can all be used to flesh out a location without a single line of dialogue, and still tell a compelling story about what happened, what your goals for the area are, and what the theme of the adventure is. I'd like to see much more attention to that, as opposed to, there are two heads talking to each-other, and you see text on the screen with a menu.

Let's talk Numenera really quick. If you are brought on to the project [with the $3.5 million stretch goal], what would your role be?

It's two-fold. One part is, I will be reviewing all of the design documentation that the project develops. Kevin Saunders is the project lead, Colin McComb is the lead designer. And what I would do is review all of their documentation, offer feedback, give whatever critiques, if there are any, both positive and negative. And then I'll just reinforce, you know, "Hey, here are some of the goals we were going for in the original [Planescape] Torment, here are some positive things you guys are doing that I think are hitting the mark, and here are some other things that you might want to consider incorporating."

The other thing that I would be doing, is that I should have a chance to write the eighth companion for the game. And that would be a lot like what I did for previous Obsidian titles, and Black Isle, in the sense that... when we did Mask of the Betrayer at Obsidian, I wrote Gann and Kaelyn the Dove. And I think Kevin and George really liked what I did with those two characters. So I would be doing one additional character, much like that, for Numenera.

Do you have a rough idea of what kind of character you would like to add to that world?

You know, as I was taking the plane ride over here, I actually pulled out my sketchbook... and I started writing down all of the possible directions I could take the character. What I really like is that, already, the locations they're coming up with for Numenera are sparking my imagination. For example, George Ziets had his update on that one area, the Bloom. And I got so excited to hear the little details. Like, if anyone attempts to quantify the Bloom, it devours and destroys them. And the idea that, whatever you feed it, it opens up new dimensions... when I hear that stuff, I just get really excited.

How early were you talking with the guys at inXile about doing a new Torment game? I know a lot of people in the community were asking after those first few blog posts from Brian Fargo about bringing the name back, like, "Where's Chris Avellone?"

The time frame was... not long after Brian realized that he could get the name, and he actually purchased the name for Torment, then he talked to me about it, and whether or not I would be interested in working on the project. But at the time, between Wasteland 2 and Eternity, there wasn't any time for me to do that. And occasionally, Brian would follow up with me and see what my situation was, and if things might work out.

Then Wasteland 2 finished up, and my time freed up a great deal more. Then Brian and Kevin started talking to me and Feargus [Urquhart, Obsidian CEO], not necessarily about my time, but just about ways we could work together. And I think that between Kevin and Brian, they were able to break out a reasonable schedule for me to work on the project with Feargus. And Feargus was pretty comfortable with that. So he was like, "Hey, if you really do want to work on this.." And I did! But that didn't happen until a few days before the stretch goal announcement. Before that, I thought there would be no chance I'd be able to do it.

So, this is something that I can't help but wonder about: With the shared heritage you guys at Obsidian and the guys over at inXile have, and how often and openly you collaborate, what's stopping you from just coming together to form the Ultimate RPG Studio of Ultimate Destiny?

I don't really know. I think that inXile and Obsidian just like casually dating right now. [laughs] We don't want to quantify our relationship, and mess it up with a boyfriend/girlfriend thing.

I think, right now, Brian, Feargus, and just Obsidian and inXile... we just enjoy working together, sharing information on how to make both of our Kickstarters better, sharing products across Kickstarter, and also sharing technology. We've learned about Unity together. And so far, it's a really comfortable relationship. If things get better in the future, that's great. But right now, things are pretty great as they stand. I certainly like working with Brian, and I like working with Feargus.

This whole Kickstarter process has sort of allowed our organizations to talk more than we could otherwise. That's another reason I like Kickstarter!

Torment: Tides of Numenera

I'm actually interviewing Brian later today. What could I say to him that would totally freak him out coming from someone he's never met before.

Oh... tell him, "The clowns are coming for you, Brian. They've made peace with Avellone."

Alright, I'll do that. Anything else you'd like our readers to know before we wrap it up here?

Well, considering it's PC Gamer, one thing I did want to say was, one obstacle to getting some of our products funded was because no publisher would listen to having a PC-focused or PC-only title. Basically, not having consoles involved with the process. And, obviously, that would have been a huge, additional cost for us. The fact that we can do a PC-focused product... we can use the keyboard controls, we can use the mouse. That is very liberating for us as game designers.

Thanks again to Chris for talking to us. As of the writing of this article, there are about six days left and $300,000 to go for Chris to be involved in Torment: Tides of Numenera . You can keep up with the development of Project Eternity on Obsidian's official site .

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