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

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.


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.