Exclusive: Obsidian breaks 3-year silence to spill the secrets of Avowed, its next big RPG

For just a moment, Avowed looks like any other fantasy RPG—swords and shields, shiny armor and helmets with those funny little nose guards. Then the dual-wielded flintlock pistols show up. And the fungus-infected bear. And the Willy Wonka-ass mushrooms. Obsidian was once the RPG studio that played in other developers' sandboxes, but with Avowed it's getting to paint the world it created for Pillars of Eternity on a far bigger canvas—one in which you're, well, kind of the asshole.

Okay okay, that's not quite fair—you don't have to be an asshole. But you do have to be an outsider, Avowed director Carrie Patel told me in an exclusive interview ahead of Avowed's reveal on Sunday.

As the game begins, your character arrives in a remote corner of the world of Eora called the Living Lands as an envoy of the Aedyr Empire, where you've been sent to investigate a mysterious plague. "Not everybody in the Living Lands is super thrilled to have an imperial presence in this far-flung land," she said. "So adventure ensues."

It's been a long three years since Avowed first appeared during a Microsoft livestream, promising a first-person RPG from Obsidian Entertainment. Since then Obsidian has released Grounded, an ant-scale survival game, and Pentiment, a 16th century murder mystery. Both were hits, but it's about damn time for another RPG, and Avowed's trailer says 2024 is the year. Its first appearance was just CG hinting at a game, but this time we've seen the real thing, and Obsidian was ready to talk about it.

CEO Feargus Urquhart told me that in scope Avowed is more akin to Obsidian's past RPGs like The Outer Worlds in size than it is a sprawling open world a la Skyrim, though that was actually Obsidian's initial pitch. When the developers sat down and focused on what Obsidian does best—stories and companions, in particular—the more compact scale came naturally.

"As someone who's come through development as a narrative designer, companions are a huge part of the experience and draw for me both as a player and as a developer," Carrie Patel said. "One thing we wanted to do with Avowed was make sure the companions felt really integral to the story. In some games they're optionally recruitable, but in Avowed they're deeply tied to the story, tied to your party… we really wanted to create this sense that you're in this big wild frontier, you're going on this adventure of discovery, and you have this small but tight knit crew with you. The sense you're adventuring through the wilds together, sharing in the discovery and the danger. These people are just as much a part of your story as the larger events that you're getting in the middle of."

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment)

The way you interact with other characters in Avowed will be similar to The Outer Worlds, where your dialogue options reflect the tone you want to want to use. "We try to hit a sweet spot when we're writing dialogue options where we invest enough personality for those options to be fun and interesting, but also leave enough space around them so that the player can really invest whatever headcanon they built for their character into that option," she said.

Patel wouldn't spill much about Avowed's story, but did give me some of the basics on what form of RPG to expect from Avowed: 

  • You have an established role as the imperial envoy, but your "personality, appearance, and philosophy and vibe you bring to that role is up to you as a player to decide"
  • You can play as a human or an elf, but not other races
  • It's purely singleplayer—no co-op
  • The world is lightly systemic: think water and lightning interactions, but not the ol' bucket-on-the-head trick
  • You'll have two companions with you at a time, with their own combat specialties and, of course, personalities
  • There are several ability trees to progress through, and you won't be locked to a particular class or playstyle
  • You will level up, but the focus is on unlocking abilities rather than putting points into stats to grow stronger

Early in development, when Obsidian decided to prioritize a story "more focused on depth than breadth," the first-person combat ended up benefitting, too. Patel said that it was an example of a piece of Avowed that was surprisingly fun in their first vertical slice, a time when the team has to decide on what to commit more resources to and what to scale back on. Combat became a key focus, which should be music to the ears of every Elder Scrolls player who's always found the sword-swinging a bit wimpy. "Our combat has come along really, really well, and the bones have been there since the beginning," she said. 

Patel cited a lot of time spent tuning the feel of swinging a sword vs. a mace vs. an axe to make combat feel right, but the options available to players seem like the more significant element at play here. You're free to dual-wield weapons, wield both magic and melee simultaneously, and as in Pillars of Eternity, there are some old timey guns available. When I brought up how bored I am of game loot with imperceptible stat differences from one sword to another, she said that's been on their mind, too. 

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment)

"The way we've tried to approach that is erring on the side of fewer but meaningful upgrades. If you're upgrading your weapon from one tier to the next, you should feel the difference. If it's a small number change next to your item name, that's not going to feel as meaningful as going through an upgrade process, trying your weapon again and realizing it's doing a lot more damage. Fewer but more meaningful upgrade tiers."

From today's trailer, magic looks like it could be the bit of Avowed that really gives it its own fantasy flair. There's some excellent hand animation at work when the envoy draws runes in the air to conjure a fireball and later lifts a pulsing void skyward, sending a pile of guards orbiting weightlessly around it. I want a whole lot more of that, and I'm excited that I can mix magic with melee without being railroaded into a class. 

We've seen only two minutes of Avowed, and I imagine Microsoft and Obsidian won't be talking about it too much more until Starfield is done with the spotlight. Once we do, I expect Obsidian's characters to start getting all the attention. When I asked Patel what she hadn't been able to do with the isometric Pillars RPGs that she's excited to do in Avowed, she brought it back to the companions without hesitating. 

(Image credit: Obsidian Entertainment)

"In most of our games companions have been optional, which I think offers a wonderful degree of choice to players, but it means there's a limit to how deeply you can tie them into the core story. With Avowed we decided companions are going to be core. They're going to be part of the experience. And that means we can invest so much more in them and tie them much more closely, and personally, to the events and the parts of the world the player is encountering."

And can they die? 

This time there was a pause. "You'll have to see," Patel said. Until 2024, then.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).