We Interview Chris Avellone From Obsidian Entertainment: Part 1
What non-gaming things have inspired you to become a better game writer and also gamer?
Going to see live plays that were made on a tight budget – the amount of emotion and lighting they can bring to a scene with a minimal amount of props and effort really makes me think about how you can do the same with modern RPGs. Comic books are another (both reading and writing them). They don’t always get the respect they deserve, and the way they unify visual storytelling and writing… well, there’s a lot to learn there, especially for describing and storyboarding cut scenes and making each line impactful with the right stance, action, and backdrop.
Neal Stephenson (with Snow Crash) is not only a huge host of design ideas on just about every page of his books, but he taught me when it was important to describe something and when it was not – there’s a end chapter line in Snow Crash that simply says “and a car chase ensued.” He had no need to describe anything further, that was enough, and it was simple, elegant, and I appreciated he didn’t try to force details and action when none was needed. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to this day makes me understand why it’s better to have less voice and less focus on ultra-realistic visuals if you truly want a player to empathize with a subject. Sometimes it’s easier to empathize with a stick figure than a highly-rendered 3D model, and it’s because the viewer is able to project more of themselves onto an abstract than something someone else has excessively detailed.
There’s more, but most of the rest is gaming related.
What is something you have wanted to implement in a game in the past that you worked on but were never able to before? It could be a scenario, feature, just about anything.
I wanted to have a spell system based on harnessing sound effects you find and create by interacting and exploring your environment (the death howl of a wolf, the crashing of the tide on shore, walking into a forest and hearing the wind whistle through the trees). The mage could then assemble these SFX pieces into new spell combinations to defeat opponents. We tried to do something vaguely like this in Old World Blues with the sonic gun that could be equipped with various SFXs, but that’s not exactly the same thing.
What is your favorite classic game, and why? What did that game teach you?
Wasteland. It taught me that with the right kind of game mechanics and “thinking outside the box” when it comes to level design, you can move mountains… such as using your mental attributes to fight mental battles in an android’s brain, for example. The exploration of Finster’s brain in Wasteland 1 where you fought nightmares, your doubts, and even restarted your own brain waves to fight back was incredible, and it’s still one of the best levels I’ve ever explored in a video game from a sheer creative standpoint. I thought it was brilliant.
What is your favorite modern game to play and why? It can be any kind of game, even a cell phone game. It could even be a modern board or card game!
League of Legends and Battlestar Galactica (board game). I’ve always got a soft spot in my heart for Chez Geek and Lunch Money.
What is your favorite stat in an RPG and why?
Intelligence, because often it determines dialogue options and/or can be used in cool ways in some of my favorite titles (Wasteland and Wasteland 2). Generally any stat or skill in an RPG that increases the verbal weapons and tools at my disposal (and experience more options in the story) are great.
Project Eternity Specific Questions:
Will Project Eternity use a level system (most RPGs) or an open ended skill upgrade system (Shadowrun, Vampire The Masquerade)?
There will be traditional leveling and advancement options (and classes). However, we want to make sure that a character’s growth is also tied to the world, the lore, and the narrative. So as much as the player levels up, there is also a selection of soul-based advancement elements tied to the world itself – these elements exist outside of your class, and they can be shaped and grow according to a player’s individual choices and backstory.
Will we see realistic moral choices that are beyond the usual “good, bad, and neutral” choices?
Yes. While we don’t have a morality bar, we do want the player to feel like they’re making meaningful decisions, and rather than good/neutral/bad range, we’ll allow for simply a range of “options” that reflect decisions you want to make that aren’t colored by morality.
Do you plan on making voice-overs for most of the dialogue in the game?
We plan on doing what most of the BG and IWD series did and only have limited VO for NPCs and companions. We don’t want to do a fully voiced game, as that comes with a number of technical hurdles that limit iteration, and that’s one of the things we wanted to do differently with this project… the ability to make a larger range of reactive text (like we did with New Reno in Fallout 2, for example – the only limit to this kind of reactivity is the cost for VO and localization). Limiting the VO also allows for any necessary changes during the final months of a project without the huge costs involved with altering VO and doing pick-ups.
Do you plan on implementing cut-scenes, especially for major plot points in the game? I have found that when going back in playing old games cut-scenes are the parts of the games that have aged the worst. Have you considered implementing rather than a video, as you are playing the game and talking to NPCs you see your character’s and the NPCs face react based on the emotions being brought out by the conversation? An example of this is the classic adventure game Sanitarium.
Not at this time. Cut scenes you can’t interact with or paralyze the player’s movement always leave me a bit sour, especially if they hamper actions I would otherwise take – for example, being forced to stand and watch when an adversary appears you’d normally shoot on sight, or if a companion or family member is killed in front of your character and you can do nothing about it. I don’t feel cut scenes are the best means of storytelling – and there’s much better ways to communicate plot points without cut scenes.
Will the game take place on one super continent or do you plan to just say it takes place in one part of the world, with the potential for an expansion in the future?
It takes place in one part of the world with potential for expansion in the future – there’s definitely more going on beyond the borders of the game, and our hope is you’ll be able to visit those locations and nations in future titles.
Do you plan to implement other worlds, like how it was done in Planescape: Torment?
Our goal with location design is to make amazing locales for the player to explore, much like in Icewind Dale 1 and Icewind Dale 2 (Dorn’s Deep with the frozen museum, Dragon’s Eye, the still-enchanted elven fortress of the Severed Hand that was literally a giant citadel shaped like a hand rising from the earth, etc.). Having dungeons like these allow for plenty of diversity among locations even though they all take place in one section of the Eternity world… the Endless Paths of Od Nua (which we’ve described earlier as our mega dungeon) is one such locale, and we plan to do many more locations equally unique and interesting for players to explore.
We know Project Eternity will feature magic but what level of technology will the world have? Looking back I myself thought Final Fantasy 7 had too high a level of technology but games such as Final Fantasy 6 (3 in the US) and Arcanum did it just right.
Eternity has a 16th century technology level much like our high or late Middle Ages with the exception of the printing press. The level of technology depends on the region of the world – while most large civilizations have 16th century tech, other regions of the world are more primitive, more along the lines of Stone or Bronze Age of development.
How adult will the game be? By this I mean, would an 8 year old child be able to play the game or would it be too serious of a game for them?
Depending on how insightful the 8 year old was, they may or may not understand the repercussions and dilemmas in the game. We didn’t want to shy away from a range of relationships (I don’t mean romances), situations, or edit ourselves from an idea that we thought was interesting to explore because of fears of how players might react. In previous titles at the studio, we’ve explored sexuality, religion, contrasting political ideologies without a clear cut right or wrong, and we’d like to take the themes even further in Eternity.
Crazy RPG kind of Questions:
If you had one wish, what would it be? Note: this wish may or may not have consequences; would you risk making the wish?
It would depend on the theme music that was playing at the time when the wish was offered. I often find the background music to be the best indicator as to whether I’m in a sinister poetic justice “make a wish and you screw yourself’ or a Disney made-for-kids romp. That said, I’d probably go with a bug-killing forcefield around myself or the ability to shrink my car and carry it in my pocket when I drive to a destination because finding parking sometimes is a pain in the ass. Yeah, I’m sure there are better wishes out there, but they all seem scary to me and would probably result in me being recruited or killed by various shadow governments once they discover I have super strength or photographic reflexes.
Stand by for more articles and interviews with Chris Avellone and Obsidian Entertainment in the near future! Time to think of more crazy questions! -Ignacio/honorabili-
!!! Click here for Part 2 of our interview with Chris Avellone!