Interview with Chris Avellone
Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with the great Chris Avellone himself, one of the minds behind the critically acclaimed Fallout franchise and Planescape: Torment. What follows is our exchange, where we speak of nearly everything you can think of in association to the RPG genre, Fallout and more. Enjoy!
Could you tell our readers about yourself–who you are and what you do?
I’m Chris Avellone, Creative Director at Obsidian Entertainment and Project Director on most of the Fallout New Vegas DLCs: Dead Money, Old World Blues, and Lonesome Road. Creative Director means I oversee all the projects from a design perspective, play the builds of all our games (over and over and over – which is a good thing), oversee the design department, attend level and design reviews of our titles, test and interview new applicants, and work with the designers to establish company-wide standards for all our projects.
What are your top three favorite games and why? What games are you playing at the moment?
It’s hard to give the top 3 – my top choices are Fallout 1 (dialogue mechanics and branching quest solutions), System Shock 2 (everything, this is like a game design textbook), and Chronotrigger (narrative mechanics and branching story possibilities, great story).
In terms of what I’m playing right now/recently played: Portal 2, Amnesia: The Dark Descent (best $20 I’ve spent, that game scared the hell out of me – if you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it), Puzzle Quest 2, League of Legends, and I’m playing the Fallout New Vegas DLCs (Right now, Lonesome Road) and Dungeon Siege III repeatedly at work. If I have free time, it goes to playing the company’s builds to try and polish as much as possible before release. I may sneak in Dungeon Raid for brief intervals when I can.
What’s it like working on primarily RPG projects in a day and age when the genre seems to be going through so much change? How do you feel about many of the changes/evolutions we are seeing in the genre?
It’s pretty exciting, and the technology and resources now being diverted to gaming is making the experience far more than I thought it could be (voice acting, motion sensors, voice recognition). I suppose it’s still a far cry from the Star Trek holodeck or jacking into virtual space, but it’s getting there.
Recently there has been a lot of commotion over Matt Findley’s (Hunted: The Demon’s Forge–and also hailing from Interplay) comments regarding older fantasy games–typically RPGs–”always wanted to be action games at their heart.” Do you agree with that statement? Would you, as someone who also worked at Interplay, say that some of the games you’ve worked on in the past actually wanted to be action games at heart?
I think Stonekeep definitely wanted to be an action RPG (Ultima Underworld was out around that time). I don’t think Baldur’s Gate could have been and still been Baldur’s Gate (or at least had as many party members), same with Torment and Icewind Dale. That said, however, at points in development at Interplay there were action RPG versions of Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape (not Torment, but an action title like King’s Field in the same universe) all in the works, although only the ARPG BG title came out (Dark Alliance).
Do you think choices work when they are put into games that are not fundamentally about choosing the outcome of the story?
As long as the choice is still meaningful in some fashion, either in a game mechanic context or if it causes a change in the immediate area you’re in. Also, can depend on the genre — some genres of games have seen so little of it (what, I can tackle the objectives in any order?), that even a single choice like that can cause a huge reaction, even if it’s giving the player a minor option. This was the basis of a Splinter Cell lecture at GDC many years past – I can’t dig up the exact lecture from GDC, otherwise I’d cite case and context, but a choice presented in the game, while it technically led to the same result, was such a new element for that game genre, that people really latched on to it.
The dialogue wheel vs. traditional lines of text. Do you think choosing one or the other for an RPG has significant consequences? Does the former make role-playing easier since you are choosing based on a general principle, or harder since you don’t know exactly what you are choosing to say?
I prefer choosing text lines because I want to know exactly what I am going to say, not the “gist” of what I’m going to say and then passively watching to see what I say. This may sound strange coming from the narrative designer of the title, but I didn’t like the emotion adjectives in Alpha Protocol, even though there were parts of that system that I thought were great.
Also, I don’t usually care for games that give my character a voice – that’s my only comment. I think it works sometimes (Mass Effect), other times I feel it ends up being extraneous and a waste of time… although it all depends what type of “role-playing” you’re doing. If you’re role-playing a specific character (which may sound strange in the context of “role-playing”), then voice is fine and great. If you’re allowed to build and customize your character, I prefer no voice.
Then again, my approach with that may be Old School, so take that with a grain of salt.
Let’s talk Fallout for a second. Could you tell us what your favorite/most satisfying story or dialogue options in a Fallout game are?
In Fallout 1, the end options with the Master using speech and the evidence you found was an epic moment, I’ve seen it rarely topped or seen any other conversation come close.
In Fallout 2, hard to say. I did enjoy out-smarting Myron with a high Science character, and confronting Cassidy on his tribal prejudice in Vault City… and if you get in good with Lysette, you can force the
Vault City Captain of the Guard to give Cassidy his bar back.
In Fallout 3, I thought Ashur from the Pitt DLC was an interesting character with an interesting philosophy (or work ethic you could say), and the whole set-up of the Pitt (forcing you to immerse yourself in their culture) was great in building him up. That was a conscious decision they made in the design documentation that I read, and I thought it worked really well.
In Fallout New Vegas, I enjoyed speaking to No-Bark and Vulpes, using Barter with the Legate and Oliver (I always felt Barter was under-used), and telling Oliver that you’ll rocketfuck his whole battalion with your Securitron army. That, and thanks to Charlie Staples, our Lead Level Designer, for setting up the scene where you ask the Securitron to throw Oliver’s body off Hoover Dam.
Van Buren was a project that was originally meant to be Fallout 3. Though that project never came to be, we’re now seeing elements of that project resurface in Fallout New Vegas. How did you guys go about deciding which elements would be necro’d? How did it feel to have the opportunity to make parts of that project actually happen?
We just picked and chose what elements still seemed to work and we were interested in resurrecting. Wasn’t a formal process, but it was gratifying to see some of those older bits come back to life (FNV DLC3: Old World Blues, especially – I always wanted to see the Big Empty come to life in a computer game).
As far as the public knows, New Vegas marks the end of your involvement with the Fallout franchise in the near future. How do you feel about that?
Sad, but hey, it’s happened to me before with Fallout at Black Isle, and this time, it goes out with a bang in Lonesome Road… if you want. It’s nice to be able to put down the punctuation mark at the end.
Feargus Urquhart says that 10 years ago, you didn’t want to contemplate the idea of Torment 2. Let’s open that can of worms: do you still feel that way? Could you see yourself revisiting the game–or for that matter, any of your older projects?
Torment 2, no, Planescape 2, yes. I’d always work on Fallout, and Icewind Dale was always fun because no one took it too seriously and even the campaign setting was a little more relaxed than the rest of the Forgotten Realms. Icewind Dale 2, especially, I thought was totally nuts in terms of flow and level design, but the designers at Black Isle had fun making it… we took that principle into Fallout New Vegas: Old World Blues to see what people would come up with, and in my opinion, it worked. There’s plenty of variety in the locations for folks to check out and explore.
Recently you made comments regarding power fantasies in an interview, as well as the importance of choice and consequence. How can the two be balanced out?
They don’t need to be balanced, they’re one in the same – the fact that your choices are having repercussions on a global/nation/faction-scale is a power fantasy in itself.
Creating a world that seems alive and reacts to your influence is a very difficult task. What lessons or techniques have you learned from your days writing Campaigns for Dungeons and Dragons?
It doesn’t have to be a big event is the key – it just needs to be clear, specific, and simple. In Fallout 1, even having a single guard react to you choosing Killian over Gizmo in Junktown is enough to make the world seem alive, and that’s just two barkstrings to remind you the world is paying attention. I think the more you can do to tie it into a game mechanic system (like the Reputation mechanics and faction repercussions in Fallout New Vegas), that’s even better for making the world react to your actions.
Is there anything you feel that games are lacking or do poorly that Pen and Paper/ tabletop gaming do particularly well, or elements from Pen and Paper that you’d like to see more of in video games?
I’d like more immediate player feedback. ME2′s metric report was a good take on it (those kind of metrics are invaluable to game developers), and Twitter, helps too, oddly enough.