Q&A with Chris Avellone

Sep 26, 2014 by

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Interview with Planescape: TormentFallout New Vegas and Wasteland 2 video game writer/designer and Obsidian Entertainment co-founder, Chris Avellone.

Kevin Fukunaga (Scripts & Scribes):  You are the CCO (Chief Creative Officer) and one of the original founders of Obsidian Entertainment.  Can you describe what your role is at Obsidian and how the company was created?

Chris Avellone: Obsidian was formed when five developers from Black Isle Studios (including the division director at the time, Feargus Urquhart) left Interplay and went out, blasters firing and lightsabers vshhhhking to life, to create RPGs on our own.

As Chief Creative Officer, my role has mutated over the years; I don’t think I’ve ever had anything as an “average day,” which certainly keeps me on my toes and makes life more interesting (in the best possible way).

For example, in the past month, I was doing core writing work on one of our internal projects, now I’m illustrating cartoon Kickstarter backer rewards, and also doing creative lead duties on another of our unannounced internal projects scripting lore and world sourcebook material. It’s a lot to juggle, and it hasn’t left a lot of time for much else – although it’s one interesting aspect of our studio that the owners themselves don’t hesitate to pitch in to help with a product’s success, whether interface, optimization, writing installers, setting up the website and backer portals, or even doing what I am usually enlisted to do: design, usually narrative.

Over the years, I’ve served as a Project Director, a Lead Designer, a Creative Lead, an Area Designer, a Narrative Designer, and a Cut Scene Producer assisting with production support on South Park: The Stick of Truth, for example, but when not assigned to a specific role on a project, I do design critiques in tandem with a Project Director or other owner, do pitches for future Obsidian projects (and presentations of the same game pitches), deal with publishers, assist with designer hiring and recruitment, examine narrative scheduling and tasking, and also carry the torch for design principles and practices at the studio with approval and support of the other owners and Project Directors.

Kevin:  You’ve worked on, writing and designing, games from some of the most iconic video game franchises in the past decade, including series such as STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC, NEVERWINTER NIGHTS, BALDUR’S GATE and one of my all-time personal favorites, FALLOUT.  Which game that you worked on are you happiest with the end result and why?

Chris: I was proud to work each of the titles for various reasons, but the one I’m most happy with the end result was Planescape: Torment, I felt the title had enough time to “cook” and let the themes come out strongly. Although had I worked on Fallout 1, that would likely have trumped Planescape pretty easily – I felt Fallout 1 had one of the best endings of any games Black Isle Studios turned out, especially for a speech character. I also enjoyed Icewind Dale 2 and FNV: DLC: Old World Blues as well, both of those were just… fun to work on.

As a quick note, while I wish I could claim credit for having worked on Baldur’s Gate, let me say for the record that I didn’t work on the Infinity Engine ones (just Dark Alliance, the 1st action RPG using the Baldur’s Gate name). Wanted to clarify because sometimes people thank me for working on the title, and all the heavy lifting was done by BioWare, and they definitely deserve the applause.

Kevin:  How big of a gamer were you before you became a video game writer/designer and what are some of your favorite video games of all time? (that you didn’t work on)

Chris:  I was heavily into pen-and-paper role-playing games, notably Champions, Superworld, D&D 2nd Edition, and at the tail end was Warhammer Fantasy Role Play and Warhammer Fantasy Battle – although the last one isn’t an RPG, we had a large amount of basement space devoted to it.

When it came to computer RPGs, however, the one that started it all was Bard’s Tale 2 when I saw it running on a friend’s Commodore 64 – and as fate would have it, I eventually came to work at Interplay and with Brian Fargo who had made Bard’s Tale 1 and 2 (and 3).

Other games that especially grabbed me were Wasteland 1, Chrono Trigger, Ultima, Eternal Dagger, Ultima Underworld 1, along with a host of Infocom titles and some even older adventure titles that might give away my age if I mentioned them. I even tried to program some myself, but that was… embarrassing. Still, was a fun exercise, though.

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Kevin:  What sorts of skills and training does video game writing require?  What is your background and how did you get involved in video game writing?

Chris: There’s a host of things, so I’ll try and boil it down to key points (note these vary according to the type of game we’re doing):

– A logical mindset. Even if you aren’t technical, even if you can’t code, you still need to understand the simple process of “if – then – else” and how that factors into writing for a player who can make any number of choices at any one time that could “break” the flow of the narrative.

– Be aware of how to tell the story without words, visual and through audio. Some of the best game stories don’t have you engaging in any sort of talking head dialogue, they use props or close coordination with the audio department, the environment artist, and level designer to “shape” a story moment so it hits all the senses at once.

– Strong prose, technical, and script-writing styles – we use all of these in our games, from non-voice acted games (prose), technical (for interface text and tutorial prompts), and script-writing (for voice-acted games where brevity and writing for an actor’s tone is key).

My background was as an Architecture/Fine Arts minor at VA Tech (2 years), and then once my architecture professors pointed out that even if they liked the buildings I was designing (I was an A student), my sketchbook was often filled with more sentences than sketches… and it made me seriously question what I was doing with my life, so I switched over to English at William and Mary for the next three years.

I had no idea what I’d do with my career, but during this entire process (including high school) I had been writing pen-and-paper supplements and adventures, most of which were rejected, but I kept at it until I got a few gigs, which while cool, they were not enough to pay the bills or maintain a full-time job writing.

However, I did well enough on these projects I was able to use my reputation there to get an interview with Interplay as a junior designer (a few of the other authors working in pen-and-paper games were also working there and moonlighting there). Interplay was looking for designers for their “TSR” division (Dungeons and Dragons) and especially for the D&D Planescape license, so I flew across country, pitched my take on how to do a Planescape game (which became the  opening and premise for Planescape: Torment) and then they hired me… and I’ve been in game development ever since. Like, 20 years since. Wow.

Kevin:  How is a video game “written”?  Can you explain briefly how a video game goes from a basic idea to a completed video game release?  How are “scripts” written for video games?

Chris:  You start with a narrative arc that compliments the game’s pillars and the mood it’s trying to evoke in the player (survival horror, exploration RPG, flight sim), draft a quick treatment that can be reviewed and iterated on (don’t fret the details, outline the broad strokes and key moments), and then you build on the treatment, detailing out things like the main adversary/antagonist (if there is one), suggested locations in the world, supporting lore, major characters the player is likely to encounter (and their narrative arc).

Once the overall story is approved by all parties (which would include the publisher for a title, if it’s not being self-published by the developer), then you do increasing detail on the story, zooming in more and more on every detail, bringing it to life. For an RPG, this usually means slicing up the story and the characters and dividing it up amongst other narrative designers in the studio since it’s often far more work to write an entire RPG than one person can do (although I tried to do it with Planescape: Torment, but with that project I had an entire year by myself to write a pass of all the characters and dialogue).

Note that just as the Project Director has the “vision” for the game (and can be as involved in the story process as they’d like), each designer division (systems, level, and narrative) also have a sub-lead who carries the torch for that designer division. So with the narrative design team, there is a Creative Lead who has the job of story consistency, reviewing everyone’s work, being the advocate for the story, and coordinating the efforts of all the writers. I suppose they carry the “tiny torch” for the game story, but it’s an important torch to carry, and it’s important for Obsidian as a studio to have someone devoted to that role.

Kevin:  Can you explain how the different positions in video game production (director, designer, writer, programmer, producer, etc.) work together and what their various responsibilities are?

Chris:  Sometimes these roles vary from studio to studio, so I’ll present them in the context of Obsidian.

A Project Director is responsible for the vision and having the “say” on the title – they are the ones that carry the torch for it, know what makes it tick, and they override everyone else on the project to see that that vision is brought forth.

Producers are the tasking and conscience for the project, responsible for seeing the Project Director’s vision realized… and at the same time, letting them know when there is not enough resources or time and then leave it up to the PD to make whatever cut makes the most sense for the game. Producers prioritize, monitor, and see that the development pipelines are running smoothly so that content can be generated properly and in the right order to facilitate other departments. And even if a pipeline is running well, it is also the Producer’s job to still examine it and see if it could run even better.

A designer and narrative designer/writer are responsible for generating the fun and the context of fun for the game. In my personal feeling on the hierarchy of design, the systems designer is top of the chain because they are the ones who make sure all the moment-to-moment gameplay is fun – the player needs to be having fun every second, and that includes movement, jumping, firing their weapon, casting a spell, etc. in addition to the long range goals of those systems: level advancement, loot gains, monster challenges, and so on.

Level designers are the next stage as they provide the “backdrop” on which the systems play out… and at the lowest rung (probably shooting myself and my career in the foot here) the narrative designer comes in and gives the systems and levels a context and a reason for the player to experience the ambiance of the world. Whenever possible, the narrative designer is responsible for also tying the story into the game’s system pillars (reputation gain, timed events, espionage missions with multiple non-judgmental reactivity, etc.).

A programmer makes all these ideas a reality. Without them, we are all useless hunks of meat. Designers provide programmers with a design to implement, it is discussed and iterated on, and then the fun is slowly constructed and shaped in the game with programmer hands. We don’t hug programmers enough, but we should.

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Kevin:  Three games you’re involved in (including WASTELAND 2 and TORMENT: TIDES OF NUMENERA) all used crowd funding to cover development costs, as sort of a pre-sale system.  Can you talk of what the advantage of collecting payment up front does for you as a game developer in terms of both financial and creative freedom?  Do you see this being the way video games and possibly other entertainment mediums – such as movies, television, novels and comics – are funded and produced as standard practice in the future?

Chris:  It’s worked well for us and allows us to establish reasonable expectations of how much content we can deliver for the title and the time frame as well. Rather than having the money rationed out month by month in the publisher system by meeting milestones (which can shift), you know the amount up front that you have to complete the game… if you are aware of the pipelines to create levels and have an awareness of your resource budget to generate content, this is a god-send.

In terms of creative freedom, it’s been great – in these projects, we answer to the fans and backers (who we would have to answer to anyway) and remove the filter of the publisher. Note that when I say “filter,” I don’t mean this as a bad thing – there are simply projects that developers would like to pitch that wouldn’t have traction with a large publisher seeking to maximize profits across several ports to several different platforms. But Kickstarter still gives the players the voice to ask for games outside of those parameters, which is empowering for both the players and the developer.

Kickstarter is a viable platform for game funding, and the convergence of several technologies (digital distribution among them, plus affordable game building engines such as Unity) has really allowed for a surge of game ideas from corners of game development that were formerly unable to be given a voice due to the standard game development and distribution model.

It’s an exciting time, and I’m glad to be here, now, and part of it.

Kevin:  The original WASTELAND game, released in 1988, is sort of the original trailblazer in terms of post-apocalyptic games, setting the standard in the genre and preparing the stage for games like FALLOUT, BORDERLANDS, RAGE, METRO 2033 and THE LAST OF US.  Can you talk a little about your involvement in WASTELAND 2 and what fans can expect when it’s released in September?

Chris: Wasteland 1 was one of the best RPGs I’d ever played… and I almost never played it. Why? Because I was suspicious of it. It looked a little off the beaten track, and despite the Bard’s Tale-style interface (which was comforting for combat), the rest of it looked alien, strange, and was in a genre that didn’t have many RPGs devoted to it, notably post-apocalypse.

But I was bored, there was nothing else to play the day I walked in the store, so I took a chance on it, and it changed my design principles for all time. The writing, the level design, the system mechanics, the whole concept of the game blew me away and left lessons that remain to this day. It was no coincidence that it was also a Brian Fargo/Interplay game. It also was the ancestor to what became the Fallout franchise – Fallout was created because securing the rights to the original Wasteland was something Interplay had been unable to do… and Fallout ended up becoming a hit franchise in its own right, so it worked out well for all parties.

Still, Brian never gave up trying to do a direct sequel for the original Wasteland, he pitched it, and pitched it, and it wasn’t until Kickstarter came along that he decided to pitch it to the public and see if they’d be interested in financing it vs. his struggles with trying to finance with a publisher – and they did, over 3 million dollars (counting PayPal donations outside of KS).

During this campaign, Fargo was aware of my love for Wasteland 1, and he asked for a supporting quote for the campaign. Then, to my surprise, he asked if I’d like to be involved with the design. I said “hell yes” (although I didn’t know I was going to be a stretch goal at the time), and we went from there, enlisting Obsidian Entertainment into the process as well.

The project got backed, I got on board, and was responsible for several things:

– Providing what templates and design formats I could for area design and reactivity.

– Writing the vision document for the game (which we shared with the public) incorporating all the design pillars that Fargo and inXile wanted the game to embrace. This was pretty terrifying since I wasn’t sure how it would be received.

– Pitching in on the story design meetings.

– Organizing a small area design team (Team Tony) composed of a former programmer I worked with, Anthony Davis (and now work with again at Obsidian), and a former co-designer, Tony Evans, who I worked with on Knights of the Old Republic II, NWN2, NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer, and more… including Torment: Tides of Numenera (which I’ll go into more depth about below) to help develop the southern ruins of Los Angeles.

– Designing the maps, quests, monsters, and encounters for several locations (and sometimes variations of the same location depending on reactivity): Highpool, Agricultural Center, Seal Beach, and an additional area. To give credit where credit was due, the actual dialogue for the first two areas were done by two designers: Nathan Long (who I am also working with on Torment: Tides of Numenera) and Patrick McLean – I was responsible for doing a great deal of what I did in Fallout 2, which was to design isometric areas, quests, etc. Nathan did dialogue for the Ag Center, and Patrick did Highpool.

– Also, writing a WL2 novel as well. Phew.

So there was a lot to do, but for the chance to work on one of my favorite franchises of all time? Totally worth it.

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Kevin:  TORMENT: TIDES OF NUMENERA is scheduled for release in late 2015 and is a “spiritual successor” to the hit 1999 video game PLANESCAPE: TORMENT, which you also designed.  How will TIDES OF NUMENERA draw from its predecessor and in what ways will it be unique?

Chris: It draws a number of things – the game makes the examination of themes through character interaction and narrative one of its pillars (which is rare in a title), there is a cast of companions with at least the same level of depth and complexity as the original, and we have a deep, no-holds-barred story like the original that you can sink your hands into. The development team also consists of a number of the key people from the original – Creative Lead Colin McComb, and programmer Adam Heine as the Lead Designer (Adam writes better than me, btw, so he basically does everything better than me), and Aaron Meyers, who did environment art for the original Torment.

In addition, developers from Obsidian who developed Mask of the Betrayer (commonly held as a fantasy RPG with the same depth as Torment) are present on the team as well: Tony Evans, George Ziets, and Kevin Saunders and more. They understand the heart of the license, and they know how to make it even better.

That said, Torment: Tides of Numenera differs in significant ways – combat is much improved, there is a non-judgmental alignment and development system (called “the Tides,” colored variations of psychic physics the player can mold and be molded by) and the context of the world, while sharing some hallmarks with Planescape in terms of richness, is notably different in that it takes place in the Numenera pen-and-paper game world, a world that’s built on the technological wreckage of nine worlds. This mess of technological ruin forms the principal of magic, exploration and areas in the game… with the guiding premise being that technology, when it reaches certain heights, becomes indistinguishable from magic.

Kevin:  Along the same lines, what can you reveal about the story, characters and world of TORMENT: TIDES OF NUMENERA in terms of its development into other ancillary outlets – such as films/TV, novels and/or comic books?

Chris: Torment: Tides of Numenera got much of its lore start by having five of the designers each writing a novella set in the world of Numenera. These lore pieces factor into the game’s area design, in some respects acting as narrative lore pieces for designers to build on in when doing level design. The first area, the Bloom, has ample evidence of this – it draws from one of the first Torment: TON novellas by Mur Lafferty for much of its foundation, which allows readers to see key insights that other players may be unaware of.

In terms of other outlets, Numenera itself is already a setting that was developed for pen-and-paper games by Monte Cook, and it was leveraged for the Torment: TON game much in the same way the original Torment game leveraged Dungeons and Dragons’ Planescape license. So in essence, both iterations of Torment were born from pen-and-paper gaming… from there, prose works are part of that process, and there has been discussion concerning other media aspects (graphic novels, for example).

Time will tell, but for now, the focus is on making a great title.

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Kevin:  What are some inspirations for your writing?  (movies, TV shows, music, books, video games, etc?)

Chris:  All of the above! But I’ll be more helpful than that:

Inspiration can come from anywhere, but two of the most important ones outside the categories above are (1) studying history – history is filled with the most amazing stories, ones that can easily trump the wildest flight of fancy a writer can dream up, and (2) traveling. There is no substitution for finding new physical grounds to walk, to see, new cultures to experience, and people to talk to, especially if your principal job is developing new worlds of your own.

In terms of books on pipelines and thought processes that have been inspiring, I’d say “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud is one – he breaks down the key elements for allowing a viewer to contribute to a story, and he teaches a lot of valuable lessons about audience participation in a visual medium.

Also, I still refer back to “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” for outlining the principles of quality and one of the best ways to kill writer’s block (if you can’t write about a street, focus on a building, and if you can’t write about the building, focus on its smallest component – say, a brick, and write solely about that to get things going).

In terms of dialogue in action formats, I still cite the novel Dune, Garth Ennis’s Constantine comic run, and Sherlock (Cumberbatch ver.) and Luther as TV shows that do “dialogue combat” effectively.

I also like to point to Doctor Who as a perfect way to show narrative designers that it’s fine, and in fact, often more interesting not to explain everything at the outset. For example, almost every Doctor Who episode opens with dumping five minutes of questions on the viewer, and from there, you’ve got them hooked long enough to see what the answers are. My favorite episode for showcasing this is “The Girl in the Fireplace” for all the reasons above.

In general, when doing a certain “ambient” piece (say, post-apocalyptic), I make it part of my TV and movie and book routine to delve into all the bits of media that have dealt with that genre so I’m aware of what’s been done in the field already and what I should avoid (or do better, if possible). So for example, with Wasteland 2, I researched Day of the Triffids (movie, books, TV series), Food of the Gods, Blood of Heroes, and the Mad Max series… as well as lots of popular 80s movies and books (Ready Player One, for example, although that was a homage to the 80s) since Wasteland has its origins in an 80s-style setting, and it’s important that I (re)familiarize myself with those elements.

There is one more inspiration I use – I tend to ask people I meet a lot of questions, even if I have to force the questions out when I’m feeling introverted. Taxi cab drivers, especially, can be a gold mine of fascinating stories, even if the ride is only 5 minutes long. Everyone has a story, and it’s a good one, they just may not realize it until you ask.

Kevin:  When you’re not creating video game worlds and stories, how do you like to spend your free time?

Chris: Usually working out to try and kill my writer’s block – or just to take a break and chew over the ideas I wrote for the day, the week, or the year. Endorphins are good for that. I try to make sure I have a sketchpad or my iPhone nearby so I can transcribe ideas as I have them while I’m engaged in “moving meditation” and getting my heart rate up.

Most of the story moments I’ve been most proud of never occurred in front of a computer – it was only when I was able to tear my eyes away that inspiration hit.

Kevin:  Do you have any advice or suggestions for aspiring writers hoping to make a career of writing video games?

Chris: Yes, quite a bit, so here goes!

– Nothing’s stopping anyone from making a game right now. There’s plenty of tools to make mods and games on your own. Even if you’re a writer, go for it!

– Even if you’re too wary of that, find someone making a game or a mod for an existing game and offer your services. For example, with the game FTL, I ran across one of the narrative designers in a bar, and told him I’d write for his game for free if he’d have me, and I’ve never regretted it.

– Find a studio whose writing you like, then examine the tools they use (both programming and otherwise) for how they implement the story – and if they have modding tools, experiment with them to write quests and dialogue in the game on your own. It’ll make the interview process with that company much stronger to show knowledge of their editor and their processes.

– Play a lot of games, both to critique the story, but also to see the mechanisms for telling the story the game employs and also to recognize “what’s been done before” even if it’s not expressly a cliché.

– Find a Kickstarter you like and offer your help. The important thing is to start writing for a game and get it on your resume, build contacts, working relationships and go from there.

– Go to GDC in San Francisco (or local IGDA) and track down the narrative designers there, there’s plenty of opportunities to meet, greet, and learn from them.

There’s much, much more, but that’s a few of the best pieces of advice I have to offer.

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BONUS Q’s:

Kevin:  What is the best use of obsidian (besides developing video games):  making weapons (blades and arrowheads), ornamental jewelry or audio record turntable bases?

Chris:  It is a powerful reminder that it’s okay to get out of a bad relationship. Steven Dengler, one of our coolest fans, sent us a block of Obsidian from Sicily. It’s on my shelf. It reminds me that leaving Interplay and joining Obsidian was the best thing I could ever have done. So for me, Obsidian’s best use is a reminder of purpose.

Kevin:  Going back to one of my all-time favorite video game franchises ever, FALLOUT, who would win in a hot dog eating contest and why:  The Chosen One (from Fallout 2), The Lone Wanderer (Fallout 3) or The Courier (Fallout: New Vegas)?

Chris:  I noticed you didn’t put the Vault Dweller, which is curious, because of all four, he has the most experience with such delicacies, even if they are “Iguana” on a stick. Or something, er, close to it. So I’d say the Vault Dweller.

Kevin:  Who would play you in a movie about your life story:  Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine or Chris Pratt and what genre would the video game be?

Chris:  Chris Pratt in Parks and Recreation mode, especially when he’s acting like Bert Macklin.

Kevin:  Which fellow William & Mary alum would make the best video game companion and why:  Daily Show host Jon Stewart, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin or Golden Globe and Emmy winning actress Glenn Close?

Chris:  Jon Stewart for inter-party banter, Glenn Close for a strong narrative arc that keeps you wondering until the end. I confess I don’t know enough about Mike Tomlin to say, although he sounds like someone we’d be fighting in the game to save the world from his lethal, well-trained horde.

 

Kevin

Kevin

I invented the Frappucino. My dream is to visit Dollywood. Sometimes I host a podcast on writing @ScriptsScribes. Only one of those things is true.
Kevin

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