This is a great read
Credited with some of the best-written games ever, he's branching out into new genres, and the wild west of VR
Chris Avellone's credits read like a recitation of the computer RPG canon: Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale. But talking to him, you get the feeling that the veteran writer and designer has only recently begun to reap the benefits of his profile. In the middle of 2015, Avellone left Obsidian Entertainment, the studio he co-founded in 2003 – and where he helped make widely-admired games like Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic 2 – to go freelance. Few people can earn a living writing games; fewer still have the juice to make it work as free agent. "I decided that after about 20 years of doing full-time work across a limited set of genres, I wanted to go see what else was out there," he says during our interview.
Blood, Sweat, and Dialogue Trees: How Games Writing Has Evolved
It's worked out for Avellone, especially the latter part. For most of his career, he's worked on the sort of isometric, prose-heavy RPGs we immediately think of whenever his name comes up – games with dialogue trees, speech checks, morality meters. Nowadays, for every game he works on that fits that mold – like Divinity: Original Sin 2 – there's another that doesn't. He recently wrapped writing duties on Arkane's sci-fi adventure Prey, for example, and the gig he's most excited about right now is Nightdive Studios' System Shock reboot.
For now, though, Avellone seems to be enjoying some downtime. At this year's Game Developers Conference, he cops to being involved in five games, most of them no longer requiring his immediate attention (he won't talk about the unannounced stuff). In our chat, he goes into his motivations to pursue the freelance life, what he's learned writing stories for VR, and why he wants to make an RPG based on The Wire.
What were your prospects like as an aspiring game maker growing in in Arlington, VA? Did it seem possible?
It actually looked pretty impossible. It was pretty much guaranteed that I would have to find some 40-hour a week job that I probably wouldn't like as much as making games. It was always going to be a sideline. The only contract work I could pick up was writing for pen-and-paper games, like Hero Games and Champions, and, occasionally, a Dungeons & Dragons article. It wasn't a lot of money at all, so I was like, "Okay, well, I'm going to have to have a full-time job and then do this as a hobby on the side." Then suddenly it changed.
Experience in pen and paper role-playing games seems to be a common thread among developers of a certain generation. Do you think that experience is valuable?
Yeah. I value it very much. There were so many mistakes I made as a game master. The players around the table give you immediate feedback when they're not having fun. That allows you to edit yourself later and go, "You know what? I probably shouldn't use that dungeon technique again because that was obviously not well received." Players don't like having their items stolen. Superhero characters don't like having their identities revealed. That accumulation of mistakes and that sense of how to entertain them better, no matter what the group is – that definitely was great training for computer game mastering."
How does that experience practically apply to making computer games? It's one thing when you see people around a table who are clearly not engaged.
The best technique I ever learned was to try and figure out what each character's power fantasy is. Do they want to be the strongest hero? Do they want to be the cleverest guy? Do they want to be like John Constantine? Do they want to be like the Gray Mouser? You figure out what their power fantasy is, and you design the adventure so there's always an element where they can shine, and then they walk away from that event going, "You know what? I contributed. I felt awesome, and I helped the whole group achieve their objective."
We used to do that when play testing the Fallout "Van Buren" game back at Interplay. We had like 12 different types of characters, like "speech guy," or "thief guy," or "Nightkin stealth guy." I was like, "Oh my god, how will I do this?" But it was a good exercise – how can I make all these quests so everyone feels like they're doing something cool? That was a good proving ground for that.
How do you adapt learnings like this to a game that isn't an old-school, prose-heavy RPG?
Interestingly, I found a Dr. Who method of storytelling that actually works pretty well. You throw the players into an environment with a lot of visual mysteries, where they're like, "I'm not sure what's going on here." Then you let them explore the environment, and try and solve those mysteries. That curiosity leads them on. I found some of the best adventures, either pen and paper or computer games, involved presenting that question to players. They're so curious about it that it actually motivates them to go and find the answer. I think that ends up being better than, "You must go to point B, and then go to point C. Then at point D, you'll achieve your resolution."
I still play pen and paper RPGs, and what you're describing – this more "sandboxy," less rigid approach, encouraging of improvisation – feels very old school.
Yeah. I think part of the draw of the pen and paper games is the sandbox element. It allows you as a player to express yourself more in that environment versus, "Here's the book end, you can express yourself that way as long as you're still going to point B." I don't think that gives you the same narrative experience. You don't feel like you're contributing as much.
That was actually driven home in New Vegas. It often wasn't the actual storyline of the game [that stayed with people], it was things they were sharing online that they thought were cool, that their characters had done. That was their story and that's what they were excited about. The more opportunities you give a player to express themselves like that, the more engaged they get.
Is that a consideration when you're writing? That notion that the these parallel stories that players tell themselves about their in-game experiences are in a way equal to the ones you're writing?
Yeah, absolutely. When doing stories nowadays, I try and get away from "A, B, C, D" quest-lines, and I try and figure out – supposing we let the player do anything they want, is there some way to have a story advance based on that?
When we were originally doing Tyranny at Obsidian, part of the idea was that you could go anywhere, do anything. Because "reputation" was a power mechanic in the world, no matter what you did that involved "RPG-ing" in the world, that would raise your power level and reputation. When that happened, then the story would come to you, so it didn't matter what you did. You can just go have fun anyway you wanted to, and it would actually help the storyline advance. I try and look for mechanics like that, that are clearly reacting to you, but you're still allowed to do anything you want in the world, and you still feel powerful for it.
I think 'Planescape' is perhaps one of the most selfish power fantasies I've ever written. Everything revolves around the player character.
What do you think of the more linear approaches to game narrative that we see in so-called "walking simulators?"
I played Firewatch, and actually – this is going to sound strange – but I would have enjoyed it without the marketing. The marketing actually made me anticipate a different experience. I actually thought it was going to go deeper into psychological horror, but then it didn't, so I got disappointed. It's this beautiful environment to explore, and there's clearly a mystery going on here, both within the character himself, between the NPC you're talking to, and the other events that are taking place in the park. I still thought it was interesting, but I felt that the marketing had possibly gone too far [to set] my expectations in a different direction.
Weirdly enough, that actually caused me – whenever I'm working on a game, I'm like, "Can I talk to marketing?" I need to make sure that the message is very clear because I know that hurt my experience [with Firewatch].
That brings to mind the sort of misdirection I encountered in Gone Home. The ambiance, especially early on, played with my expectations in a way I thought was pretty cool.
I don't know how this will translate into an article – maybe people should skip the next paragraph if they want to avoid spoilers – but in Gone Home, the thing that bothered me was… so, I loved it, I thought that the father's narrative was carried very clearly through the game and it was actually kind of uplifting at the end where you're like, "Wow. Okay, he finally found his voice, that's awesome." But then there was the weirdness of going behind the walls of the house, where I'm like, "Okay, this is going to turn potentially into horror really fast," but then it didn't. I'm like, "Now I don't know whether to be disappointed or just kind of confused." But overall, I enjoyed the experience.
Are you mainly a freelancer now?
Yeah. I decided that after about 20 years of doing full-time work across a limited set of genres, I wanted to go see what else was out there. Whether it's first-person shooters, whether it's an RTS game, whether it's walking simulators, whether it's VR adventure games... I'd never had a chance to do a dialogue system in a VR game, but it changes everything. Getting to experiment with those tools, I feel like I'm growing in my craft. I didn't feel like I was growing for a while.
The very basics of VR are still being defined – including how we simply move around in those spaces. How are you approaching narrative in VR?
I didn't realize exactly how much you could track [and] detect where the player is looking, and also the player's gestures. I know it seems very obvious, but the degree to which that affects a dialogue interaction is considerable. The fact that you can actually track whether I'm making eye contact with you – you can have the NPC respond, going, "Hey, are you not engaged with me right now?"
It's elements like this – the gestures and even the head directions – that I never would have realized are things you can script to, things you can respond to. It's been pretty fascinating.
Coming from a background where you work heavily in prose, how much of your process have you had to rethink now that you're working in VR?
All of it, actually. I don't usually like approaching things via prose. In the past, I've had to use prose because there was no other way to do it. Whenever possible, I prefer visual or audio [methods of storytelling]. I think that communicates a story 10 times better than long "talking head" conversations, or long prose descriptions. You have to be careful with that.
But when I sit down to play Planescape: Torment, I know I'm going to be reading a ton. I don't think that game is any weaker for it.
Well, Planescape's probably an example I'd point to where we never could have done what we wanted to do – like, showing characters' expressions – with the animation budget that we had. Nor could you actually even see it on the scale those characters were [drawn].
Ultimately, we had to describe a lot [using words], and that was a lot of fun. I think Planescape got a little bit of a pass because every NPC you talked to generally knew something about your character. That ended up motivating you to play through it. You're like, "I'll discover something powerful about myself if I keep talking to this person."
So you think the dialogue kept you going by making you feel grand and important?
Yeah. I think Planescape is perhaps one of the most selfish power fantasies I've ever written. Everything revolves around the player character.
Planescape: Torment is often cited as one of the best-written games ever made. How do you feel about the place it occupies in the canon?
Speaking as someone that thought they were going to get fired over that game, I'm extremely gratified by the reception. QA thought it was a very strange game, which is something you really never want to hear from QA. I wasn't sure what the reception was going to be. It was a lot of long hours with a small team. It's really cool that people responded strongly to it.
When did you realize that you would not, in fact, get fired?
Six months later, I'm like, "Oh wow, now I have some breathing room. It seems like I bought some time."
A lot of the games that you've ended up working on as a freelancer are isometric RPGs in that vein.
Actually, very few of the freelance projects I'm on are isometric RPGs. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is the only one that comes close. I don't know how much more I have to add to the genre right now. I spent the last 10, maybe 15 years working on that style of game. What I'd like to do is see what other genres have done with storytelling and then, when I go back to isometric RPGs – which I eventually will – see how can I take the elements those other genres have figured out about story, and bring that into the isometric RPG, to make the experience even stronger.
So you're certain that you'll go back to isometric RPGs? Is that stuff in your bones?
Yeah. I may just go back to the pen-and-paper route. The idea of gazing down at a battle mat and moving your miniatures around – that's something I've always really enjoyed. As long as that's not the only thing I'm ever doing, as long as I'm trying to learn in other ways. That's what makes me happy.
I think the advantage of different genres is that, as a designer, you end up creating mechanics and systems that are designed to enforce that genre.
We as an audience fetishize choice in games – we love being able to choose what our characters are going to say. Do you think that propagating that has come with any negative side effects?
I almost worry it's a technical limitation. Sometimes, it's hard to decide why a player is doing something, and that's why dialogue is important. It gives the player character an opportunity to go, "Here is why I'm doing this." It's otherwise almost impossible to tell.
When we were doing Alpha Protocol,for example – it was an espionage RPG – we didn't focus on a morality meter. We just focused on what the outside world would think of your actions, and then we'd use that as consequences despite why you're really doing it. Because that felt more "secret agent-y." I think that applies to a lot of games. You [as a player] have to make an internal choice. You know why you're doing it. The world may not understand, but that's why you have to make the hard decisions – because you know more than the outside world does.
Speaking of Alpha Protocol, do you wish you had stepped out of fantasy more frequently? Or is fantasy your happy place?
Fantasy is not my happy place. I think the advantage of different genres is that, as a designer, you end up creating mechanics and systems that are designed to enforce that genre. Even with espionage, you do different dialogue mechanics, and different stealth mechanics to reinforce the feeling of being a spy – things you might not necessarily do in a fantasy RPG. That's why I think breaking into different forms of sci-fi, different forms of fantasy – all of that [can inspire] brand new systems.
So the conventions that define a genre play a big role in how you end up shaping the story and systems.
Yeah. When the designers were creating the dialogue system for Alpha Protocol, it was kind of alien to us that there would be a timer involved. But it worked really well with the espionage genre, where you can't hem and haw. You have to be like Jack Bauer and make a decision. There is no time! That actually worked very well. When we were doing the focus tests for the game, they were, like, "Being in dialogue feels a lot like being in combat." And we actually have the brain wave activity to reinforce that.
I reviewed Alpha Protocol. I didn't give it a great review –
I don't blame you.
– but I was nonetheless engrossed by exactly that tension. What turned me off was the fundamental difference between how the game looked, and how the mechanics behind the scenes worked. You could hold a gun directly to someone's head, and yet still miss the shot.
Yeah. That game taught me two things. One is [that you should] always have a clear hierarchy for who says "yes" or "no" in any given decision. The second thing is, whenever possible, if you have a bunch of designers, get the systems nailed down first. Because if you keep iterating on stealth or gunplay, which was done continually towards the end [in Alpha Protocol], then you have to keep changing levels again and again and again to actually fit the mechanics.
Speaking of genres outside of fantasy, I read in an interview that you would love to work on an RPG based on the The Wire, the HBO drama.
Oh yeah. Normally, as a designer, when I'm walking by a parking structure, I immediately start imagining how a run and gun battle would play out. Or you're watching Rick and Morty and you're trying to break down all their stats and abilities. With The Wire, it was the same way. It's a slow burning investigation, but here's everything each party member brings to the investigation. McNulty, for example, even brings his disadvantages to the investigation. He's a huge womanizer, but then that allows him to identify with other womanizers they're tracking and go, "I know what that guy's thinking right now. I know what his agenda is. I know what he's probably going to do." That, strangely enough, contributes to the investigation. I'm like, "Wow, that is some good role-playing background information." I love The Wire. It's a fantastic show.
If you could work on anything right now, what would it be?
I'm actually already working on everything that I want to work on. It's System Shock! I'm working on it! I get to write Shodan! I can't really ask for much more than that.
There are a whole lot of franchises who are like, "Hey, would you want to try your hand at X franchise?" I'm like, "Yes I would!" There's really been no boundaries for who I get to work with or what I get to work on anymore. I get very clear in the contract that I'm happy to work for you, but there can't be any boundaries on anything else.
"Boundaries" meaning they can't restrict what other projects you get to work on?
Yeah. I try and be respectful about that, though. I'll try and make a note of when the release dates are and I will be very considerate to let them know, "Hey, by the way, there might be a similar project, but the two of them won't cross." I make sure there's a very clear dividing line in my mind when thinking about this project versus that project.
What do you think of the way the Dark Souls games approach story? The narrative isn't really there –
Oh, but it is!
It is there, but it's presented more sparsely. You have to seek it out.
That's what I love. It's because they don't shove it down your throat. What they're doing is they're presenting it visually. What I love about Dark Souls is they recognize how easy it is to tell a story with inventory items. Even with just the name of an item. Players are going to engage with that because they want that item. That's something we did as far back as Icewind Dale. We thought the inventory should tell a story. They're like, "Well, now I've got Christine's Blade of Wounding... Oh, here's Christine's Plate Armor. Christine must have come this way!" It's such an easy and seamless way to do a story.
Do you have any creative regrets? Do you wish you could have any do-overs?
Yeah, a few things. As far back as Planescape Torment, I wish we'd had more time to do more of the planes versus just Sigil, the city. There are times I wish I'd been more a part of a managerial environment where they were willing to sacrifice more to make a higher quality game. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a lot to make a good game, but I believe a good game is worth more in the long run than a temporary profit. With Alpha Protocol, I wish there'd been stronger vision holders.
There's usually [one] regret per game, but at the same time, there's usually something that I'm proud of about any particular game.
Fallout 2 and Planescape Torment happened simultaneously, right? What was your life like then?
Actually, it was a lot like now, but I went into an office to do it. 160 hour work weeks. I would switch off from doing Planescape and doing story stuff and dialogue to actually designing areas for Fallout 2. Then when Fallout 2 started nearing the end of production, I actually had two computers on my desk so I could test one branch and then the other while the other one was loading, or my character died, or whatever. It was pretty frantic, but it was a good time.
Did one end up influencing the other? Did you learn techniques in Falloutthat you could apply to Planescape?
Yeah. It was actually both Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 that taught me what a dialogue system could actually do, to a level I'd never considered before. The idea of "attribute checking" in dialogue never would have occurred to me until Fallout 1and 2. Then actually writing for that was a tremendous amount of fun. I'm like, "I could probably bring that over to Planescape." I think without Fallout 2, Planescapewould have not been as good of a game.
Do you think the industry values writers enough?
Yeah. That's a question I get a lot. I always felt that as soon as it became a money factor – when they realized that review scores would not be as high if the story was bad – that's what changed everything. Half-Life changed everything for me. It was like, "Now they realize that first-person shooters can have a story, and that elevates it." Once it started affecting the bottom line, I believe that people absolutely [started to] value writers.