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Obsidian's Avellone On Torment, KOTOR 2, Alpha Protocol

Back In Black (Isle)

Well, it's official: Chris Avellone has joined the Torment: Tides of Numenera team. Kickstarter's overwhelming monetary might has pushed another old band back together again, and now this one's ready to give belabored brain birth to another tale for the ages. And dimensions. And whatever other creative gravy giblets they can fit into their twisted turducken of a setting. But Torment's hardly the only thing on Avellone's increasingly busy mind, as he's also got both Project Eternity and Wasteland 2 to worry about. Oh, and let's not forget that exceedingly tantalizing Star Wars pitch Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart was so thrilled to discuss. It's tough, then, to imagine that Avellone has even a spare second these days, but he somehow managed to shove aside a few for a chat, so we used it as wisely as humanly possible. To discuss kindly stick figure knights and giggle at bad naming jokes, of course. Also, all of the above, Avellone's role on Torment, and what an Alpha Protocol sequel would look like in a post-Walking-Dead world. 

RPS: You're on Torment. Hurrah! Why, though, did you initially bow out? What kept you on the sidelines?

Avellone: It was mostly logistics. Brian asked if I could work on Torment not long after he got the name rights for it. But between the plans to do Eternity and other Obsidian stuff, it wasn’t possible. He kept following up, and then Kevin Saunders actually proposed a plan for how much workflow would seem reasonable over a certain time period. I said, “You know what, for a companion and for doing design documentation, that’s actually manageable in the time provided.” Rather than doing the same scope of work I did for Wasteland 2. Doing that at the same time as Eternity is kind of a juggling act. I don’t want to repeat it.

RPS: How much work have you done for Wasteland 2?

Avellone: A lot of area design. I did about four area designs. I reviewed some system documentation. The area design stuff was a little bit more complicated, because each of the areas I designed had two completely different states depending on certain events that happened in the game. So it felt more like I was designing six areas. But yeah, that was the extent of the work for Wasteland. I did some description text, but I didn’t actually do as much writing as I was expecting. I actually really enjoy area design. Having a chance to draw maps again reminded me of that whole architecture phase. It was fun to sit down in the isometric view, plot out all the encounter points, how to use the skills in each area, the monster types, the traps. It was pretty awesome.

RPS: And then on Eternity, I'm guessing you've mainly been doing writing and world-building? If so, I imagine those roles sync up pretty nicely.

Avellone: Mostly I’ve been focused on narrative. I’ve been working on the story, the lore, the cultures. We’ve been trying to figure out the approach we want to use with the story in the game. We’re doing something a little bit different this time around, where everyone is doing their own take on the story, and then we all pick it apart. We find what strengths we like about each one, or things we think can work with some iteration, and we can share points that we bring together. I think we’ve got about five or six different storylines that we’re constructing. We should have that resolved within about two weeks or so.

It’s actually turned out a lot better than I thought. I was worried it might be a bit chaotic. But it was really interesting to see all the different perspectives on which way the story could go once we had a few elements set in stone. We said, “Here’s our core starting point that we have to cover. We know we have a stronghold, a city, how many dungeons. Now, on top of that, knowing what we know about the spell system, the cultures, and the world, what sort of story do we think works best in a setting like that?” Then we have like five or six different submissions for that, and then we just tore those apart.

RPS: So, given that you're already juggling those projects, what are you hoping to bring to Torment? Are you worried about overlap?

Avellone: There’s two things I’m set up to do. One thing, I’m going to be reviewing all of the design documentation for the game that Kevin and Colin have laid out. I’ll offer feedback on that for things like, “Hey, I think this development works really well.” “Have you considered iterating on this particular element to make it feel more like Torment?” I think Colin and Kevin already have a good sense of what makes a Torment game, but I think they’d want my input on the design documentation. I know Kevin and Colin would appreciate that. Also, Kevin… When I worked with him on Mask of the Betrayer, he and George really liked the companions that I wrote. I think what they’d very much like is if I took the idea of a companion in the game and just did what I did with Kaelyn the Dove and Gann, do a companion along that same structure for Numenera. I think that’ll work out pretty well.

RPS: Numenera's quite a change of pace from Planescape. Less grotesque and sickly, more futuristic and empowering. Or at least, that's how it sounds based on what I've seen and heard. That in mind, what still makes this a Torment game for you? What are the defining characteristics?

Avellone: The sci-fi angle was something to keep in mind, but all the location designs that I’ve seen, as well as how magic is interpreted in the game, still feel very much like [classic Torment]. You have the freedom to make any location you can think of and put the player in almost any situation you can think of. When I was reading the area designs for the Bloom and George is going over how the location works… It’s just a big living creature that actually moves around throughout the world. It’s got foreign monsters living in it, and there’s a community living in it. But then depending on what you feed the dungeon, new portals open up to other dimensions. Anyone who attempts to measure it or quantify it ends up getting destroyed or eaten. I’m like, “That sounds pretty Planescape to me. Right on. I want to contribute to that location. That’s fucking awesome.”

RPS: Which sounds really cool, but I have to wonder: You are obviously someone who’s in very high demand right now. Everyone wants you to work on some RPG or another. Is it kind of exhausting? Does it hurt your ability to focus and create to the fullest extent of your abilities?

Avellone: Not really. The only problem is, it depends what the workload is like. I think that if Wasteland 2 were still going on and I was thinking about Eternity, the idea of taking on another Kickstarter project would just be a no. There would be no way I could handle that. However, the fact that it’s just Eternity, and then I have some work on Torment, that feels pretty manageable to me, the way that Kevin and Brian and Feargus have laid out the schedule. That made sense to me.

RPS: But you have been working on a lot of old-school RPGs lately. Are you still trying to push the genre forward, even in spite of that rather narrow genre definition?

Avellone: Sure. But I haven’t really been the vision lead for either Eternity, Wasteland 2, or Torment. Each of those have their project directors. Brian’s the one in charge of Wasteland 2, with Matt Findley and Chris Keenan. Josh Sawyer is our project lead for Eternity. Kevin Saunders is going to be the one for Torment. Each of them have goals that they want to do for the project. There are things that they’re doing in those games in terms of dialogue systems, in terms of tactics, certain gameplay choices, that I think each one of them has always wanted to do.

For me, it’s mostly in the character concepts that I find the things I want to do. Once I heard they were doing Torment, the next day I was starting to scribble out companion ideas in my sketchbook, so I could get it all out in there. So my focus is on the narrative end. In terms of game systems, I think the project directors could probably speak to that better than I could.

RPS: On that front, big epic RPGs in this style tend to have a series of archetypes that show up a lot. As someone who writes so many characters for these, do you ever feel like you’re in danger of getting stuck in a rut, or saying, “Okay, I’m just going to take this character I already made and tweak them slightly to bring them back”?

Avellone: There’s two approaches you can use. One thing I think helps is the fact that when the game systems for each title change, personalities change as a result. When I’m writing a character that’s a cipher class, for example, in Eternity, the very nature of that class and how that class works will cause notable changes in their personality, even if I was resorting to a trope or a character archetype that I tend to use a lot.

Also, just the nature of a franchise… When I was doing Trias for Torment, for example, I didn’t feel like I’d said everything I wanted to say about that character. I still like that archetype. So when Knights of the Old Republic II came around, I said, “Why not reinterpret Ravel in some respects for Kreia?” But then, because of the nature of the Star Wars universe, that version of Ravel becomes a lot different. It’s always a danger, but I think that when you have the right game systems and the right lore behind it, I think that allows you to ask different questions with a character and get different answers.

RPS: You said, when you first heard that you might be working on Torment, you sketched out some characters. Do you mean visually, or just writing?

Avellone: No, just in words. I just wrote them down.

RPS: I know that you draw things sometimes, so I was wondering how much of that filters into the writing process.

Avellone: Unless a companion is a stick figure, I probably couldn’t draw them [laughs]. Although that could be interesting, too.

RPS: Yeah. Have a 2D stick figure be one of the companions. They could be from another dimension, since Numenera likes those so much. The second dimension.

Avellone: Only a slice of them is what you can see at any one time. Actually, that could work pretty well. I’m going to have to credit you on that [laughs].

RPS: You're doing tons of work on old-school-style RPGs. Do you miss triple-A at all? Do you think you will after Eternity, Wasteland, and Torment are done?

Avellone: No, I don’t think I have a compulsion to do anything other than the next interesting project, whatever form that takes. Between triple-A versus Kickstarter titles or old-school titles, none of that really matters to me, as long as the title is interesting.

RPS: I’d be remiss if I did not ask about the Star Wars pitch that Feargus spoke about.

Avellone: [laughs] I wish I could talk about it. I wouldn’t be able to say any more than Feargus already said.

RPS: Ah. Well, can you at least say if you've gone through with pitching it to Disney yet?

Avellone: I think Feargus is probably the best one to answer that question. I’m actually not sure how much more he could say beyond what he already said in the interview. I do know that we’re still pitching projects. We’re still talking to publishers. That’s still going on. But in terms of stuff like that, I just can’t talk about it.

RPS: OK. Well, what was it like for you to write in that universe again?

Avellone: It was amazing. Because I like that part of my brain, where I was like… I really enjoyed working on Knights of the Old Republic II. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Star Wars, but once I started working on it, once I got into it, I got really excited about it. So a chance to revisit the universe would be pretty exciting. I’d really look forward to it.

RPS: I imagine that goes double since you never got to complete KOTOR 2's real ending. I mean, what was it, anyway? What were you planning to do with it, as opposed to what ended up happening?

Avellone: The ideal ending was, when you go to Malachor V, the goal there was that I wanted all the influence changes that had occurred with your party members to cause them to split right down the middle, so they end up fighting each other and having a big showdown there. They confront each other over the things they’ve done across the game, how they relate to your character… Even the droids would square off against each other. Because they hated each other.

RPS: I know there was a little bit of that in the actual ending, where the droids end up having a standoff.

Avellone: Just a little, yeah. That was not nearly enough of what was planned. And that would end up being the final showdown there, right before Kreia. Also, there was supposed to be a series of sequences where, over the course of the game, Kreia, behind your back, would start recruiting certain people to side with her, like Hanharr. She actually would have a cutscene where she would seduce them to the dark side, or show them why they should turn on the player or be more loyal to her. That was supposed to factor into the ending as well. She’d use them as cannon fodder before you actually fought her.

RPS: And the player was going to see those scenes over the course of the game?

Avellone: The player would see them, but not the character, if that makes any sense.

RPS: I actually sort of like that those weren’t there, then, because I think that would have made Kreia's real goals a bit too overt. Whereas I think when the big reveal came, it was still like… It was obviously coming, but it wasn’t, “Woooooo, I’m basically Palpatine.”

Avellone: It’s a little hard to explain, but the context of those conversion scenes [it works]. Like when she’s persuading Hanharr, the reason why she’s doing it is unclear in the scene. Except that you realize it’s going to have some payoff down the line. You’re just not sure what it is. I would like to think that we were handing it somewhat subtly, but who knows? It never happened.

RPS: Did you go to Warren Spector’s GDC talk about, um, Warren Spector?

Avellone: No, I didn’t.

RPS: Well, at some point, the idea of D&D dungeon masters came up - the fact that our stories, in spite of stealing liberally from D&D for years, have failed to deliver that experience.

Avellone: I think it’s a delicate balance. It’s a matter of finding more system-based quest mechanics and system-based narrative interactions. The best examples that I’ve seen today are ones that sort of blend the two, where clearly it’s because you have this reputation that this event gets triggered. Or this quest occurs because you picked up these objects.

Which I think ends up being a really great hook for players, because they instantly know that because they were moving through the environment and doing these specific actions, this is what triggered it. But if they hadn’t done those things, no other player would have seen them. So I think scripted events like that are still possible. Those do make the world feel like there’s a game master there. But at the same time, there’s no spontaneous solution. You’re still scripting that out. It’s still something you’ve written that occurs.

But there’s so much the game master can bring to the equation, just by improvising or rolling with what the players are feeling and how they’re reacting. I totally agree on that.

RPS: Do you think games could ever reach a point where they'll emulate that almost in full?

Avellone: Without an actual game master interfacing with the game, I’m not sure. But I do think it would be a possibility that someone could be actually running a game session of a game. Something that’s the equivalent of the games we play now, but there’s actually a game master interfacing with the game, setting up encounters and reacting to the players’ movements, their actions, their dialogue and whatnot. I don’t know how the dialogue would work exactly, but using an actual player as the game master and finding a way to pull that off, I think that would be interesting.

RPS: Have you heard of Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death?

Avellone: No, but he just did a great presentation at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. It’s not the same game, though. I’m not too familiar with Sleep is Death.

RPS: Basically, it’s multiplayer, and one player is, er, the player while the other is essentially the world and NPCs. They take turns and, in the process, craft an elaborate, entirely reactive story.

Avellone: Oh, very cool.

RPS: Yeah. It’s this brilliant thing. It’s kind of depressing, because it really didn't get the kind of notice it deserved. I think there's a lot to be learned from it. And while we’re on the subject of interesting means of telling stories in games, we can't not bring up The Walking Dead. Because apparently I just do that in every interview now.

Avellone: Oh, yeah. I’ve only played the first episode right now, but I loved that so much. I think it was because the other episodes hadn’t come out yet. What I played, I loved. I thought it was awesome. I wasn’t sure if a story-focused game was something that would appeal to people, but I’m glad that it proved there’s an audience for that kind of thing. They did an excellent job with it.

RPS: As someone who is, by trade, a storyteller, does your soul yearn to do something similar?

Avellone: Yes, absolutely. I just… Selling that has always been an issue, but I don’t think it would be as hard to do now that Walking Dead was so successful.

RPS: Obviously, you’ve already been able to tell some incredibly cool stories with games. But I think, by nature, when you’re working in an action-based context, it sort of limits your subject matter.

Avellone: Yeah. I sort of wonder what Alpha Protocol would have been like without all of the more action espionage stuff. After I played Walking Dead, I was like, “What would Alpha Protocol have been like if you just fought with the dialogue system?” I wonder what kind of experience that might have been. That could have been interesting to explore.

RPS: Oh, and of course, the usual disclaimer: you should make another Alpha Protocol why aren't you making another Alpha Protocol hi how are you i'm good no that's a lie because there's no more Alpha Protocol.

Avellone: [laughs] Sounds good. We have a lot of ideas for a second one, but again, Sega just wasn’t down with it. Oh, well. We’ll move on to other projects and have fun.

RPS: What about another modern setting? You guys definitely did some interesting things there, and it's rare for RPGs to venture into that territory.

Avellone: Yeah, they lend themselves to some cool RPG elements, just because the player can see these real-world areas, but then they can go in and modify them and basically be an action hero, or have a power fantasy in that environment. Which normally you just can’t do in the real world. But having that real world as a backdrop just makes it more powerful. I think it’s one of the reasons people like the Fallout series. Because they can see those real-world landmarks, but the world around them has changed. It’s your sort of ego power fantasy adventure, where you can explore this environment, through all these ruins… It’s something you’d never have a chance of doing in the real world. I think it’s part of the appeal.

RPS: You should make a new series that’s just like Alpha Protocol, but give it an only slightly different name.

Avellone: Beta Protocol.

RPS: What’s a synonym for “protocol”? Hmmmmmm. Initiative! There you go: Beta Initiative!

Avellone: We should start hiring you. Between the 2D character and this, I think you’ve got a spot carved out for you.

RPS: It's true. My dream job has always been The Guy Who Names Things At A Videogame Company. Thank you for your time.

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