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The Big Interview: Chris Avellone on how to write an RPG

Alpha Protocol

Chris Avellone leans into his desk, scribbling furiously. Occasionally he curses under his breath, screws up a draft and casts it into the waste paper bin, to be retrieved by Obsidian lackeys and later developed into a critically-lauded new RPG. At night, an attentive intern sits by his bed recording his unconscious inventions. “Nice Sith… demon thief… morgue resurrection.”

That’s the perception, anyway. That as Obsidian’s creative director, Avellone has been single-handedly responsible for all of his company’s best-written games.

“That’s certainly not true,” he points out as soon as the dictaphone’s turned on.

Decamped to the UK for Nottingham’s GameCity festival and sporting a backpack that has him looking more Dora the Explorer than the bard of an adventuring party, Avellone is keen to demythologise the RPG writing process.

Knights of the Old Republic II

Sometimes an Obsidian project begins with Chris Avellone. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it begins with the product director – and if they ask for something, it’s everyone else’s job to figure out how to make it happen.

They’ll be joined early on by a creative lead – and together these two overseers will conjure up the broad sweep of a story. Something that will feed nicely into the game they’re planning on making.

Most of the time, Avellone’s role is simply to give advice on the story points he thinks work, and those he thinks don’t.

“I’m just there for counsel,” he said. “I’m going to trust them to come up with the ideas. If they want to heed my advice, that’s fine and if they don’t that’s also fine, because it’s their vision. The most important thing is that whatever they do is consistent.”

As the work filters down, individual writers are made responsible for specific areas, characters and quests – and tone control becomes the paramount concern. Usually, project leads will draw up a 90-page document of design standards for their colleagues to follow.

Fallout 2

For writers, that means a set of boring conventions on acceptable terminology, the titling of quests and the formatting of descriptions. And then bi-weekly area reviews, to ensure any necessary course-correction happens early on.

But it’s important work. For what happens when documents like these aren’t adhered to, look at the way Fallout 1’s desert-dry humour gave way to the ‘wacky’ Boogie Nights references of its sequel.

“I think Fallout 2 suffered from not having a creative lead,” nodded Avellone. “Someone to enforce that.”

As it happens, Avellone is currently the creative lead on a new project. The precise makeup of his workday changes from month to month, but lately he’s designed lore and background material for a new fantasy world – conceiving environments and coming up with companions.

The other half of his time has been eaten up by Kickstarter responsibilities – writing his Pillars of Eternity novella and drawing custom avatars for crowdfunders.

Avellone and Kickstarter have fused in the public perception over the last year, such that he’s now viewed as a sort of human stretch goal – writing a pen-and-paper sourcebook for Accursed, a treatment for a Legend of Grimrock film, and dialogue for Wasteland 2, FTL and Torment: Tides of Numenera.

For the most part, they’ve been “quick” projects – a few months or weekends, rather than years of development – and Avellone has enjoyed dabbling in other fields.

“I’ve found it much the same experience as working at Obsidian in the sense that there’s been a freedom to explore different types of writing and design,” he said, “and as a bonus, do so outside RPG development.”

Avellone has weathered cataclysmic changes in the ways RPGs are made – his is one of very few names to appear in the credits of Fallout games on both sides of the millenium. But his own tastes remain resolutely old-school.

While prescribed avatars like Commander Shepard and Adam Jensen are in vogue and allow some wiggle room for self-expression, Avellone is a firm exponent of traditional character creation – letting the player choose exactly who they want to be.

Femshep.

“My belief is that you should not guide them down a role that’s like, ‘I see your destination, here’s where you’re going’,” said Avellone.

“I think players should have the freedom to create their own destiny because at the end of the day, their story is the one that’s the most important – despite what you intended. What you should be giving them is a playground for them to roleplay their opportunities.”

It’s been “kind of a relief”, too, to return to the prosier style of Black Isle’s games with Pillars of Eternity. The more cinematic writing of Knights of the Old Republic and Alpha Protocol has proven to be a slightly different discipline – requiring Avellone and colleagues to pay attention to camera angles, the backdrops characters are speaking against, and above all their tone of voice.

It’s provided Obsidian’s writers with the odd “huge advantage” – being able to have an actor convey in tone something that might otherwise have required lines of exposition, for instance – and tends to wind up more accessible, which is “everything the publishers want to hear”.

But of course, it doesn’t altogether matter what the publishers want to hear when Obsidian are working on what was, for a short while, the most-funded video game on Kickstarter.

Pillars of Eternity

Sitting down to write two characters for Eternity, Avellone felt as if the chains were off.

“I’m not writing for a publisher right now,” he thought. “So I can write about subjects we’re normally not allowed to. What’s interesting about the world of Eternity that I think these two companions could have something to say about?”

In the end, Avellone went too far even for his colleagues at Obsidian – those characters won’t appear in the game as he originally intended. But the finished game will return to the literary quality that Avellone agrees Obsidian and BioWare both lost in the transition to full 3D – from the Infinity Engine games, through Neverwinter Nights, to Knights of the Old Republic.

It won’t be alone. Eternity arrives during a second golden age for the prosey RPG. Wasteland got its sequel, Shadowrun returned, and Divinity: Original Sin turned out better than anyone could have hoped.

“Kickstarter has proved there’s still a sizable number of people that would and do still love to play games like that, and that was really gratifying, a huge relief,” said Avellone. “For so long we just heard, ‘Well, no one’s going to buy these’, ‘No one’s going to support them’ and ‘There’s no way you can really get one done’.

Planescape: Torment

“You don’t have to do it across five billion ports and with all of the supposed ‘features’ that you need for an RPG which we could debate to death that I totally don’t agree with.”

Avellone’s occasional irritation with RPG convention has bubbled to the surface more than once in his career. In Icewind Dale II, he designed a boss battle that required in-game research if players were going to stand a chance of success (“For once, make the lore useful!”).

For Planescape: Torment – his most celebrated game and the root of that unwanted auteur status – Avellone was given a setting in which any reality went. He poured all of his frustrations about fantasy RPGs into his design, beginning with the abolishment of player death.

Since then, he’s spent another decade working on more traditional genre fare. We wonder: if he were to channel his grievances into another game now, which conventions would he be sticking with the pointy end?

“I’m really exhausted of talking head conversations,” mused Avellone, after a pause. “I think ultimately that’s a dead end as far as dialogue is concerned. There’ll always be a market for it, but there might be a better way.”

Aliens: Crucible

In their doomed Aliens RPG, Crucible, Obsidian had figured out a way to balance conversation with a permanently hostile environment. It’s an idea that’s stuck with Avellone, who doesn’t think a line of text should make the player feel safe.

“It should be able to be interrupted at any time,” he said. “So maybe you shouldn’t fuck around examining someone’s backstory when you should be watching out for aliens.”

Most of what Avellone plays are builds of Obsidian games – but he tries a “spectrum of stuff” in his spare time. He admired the “narratively brave” Walking Dead: Season One for the way it overturned the expectations of Lawful Good RPG veterans – and played BioShock Infinite in a bid for self-education.

“I think there are ways that shooters communicate a story that’s actually superior to how most RPGs do it,” he said. “it’s not as intrusive and I think there’s important lessons going on in there.”

The Walking Dead Season 1

In fact, Avellone’s “a little tired” of menu-driven dialogue systems in general. Perhaps, he suggests, not all games necessarily need two people speaking at all. If you’re wondering what might take their place, think Ghost in the Shell RPG.

“I noticed in a lot of parts [of the seminal Japanese sci-fi film] that, because of the way the team does radio communications, you actually never see their lips move – they’re just thinking at each other,” said Avellone. “And the idea that you could have an RPG based around that would be kind of entertaining in terms of what thoughts are being broadcast as well.”

Even in a reverie of “hate-generated” ideas, however, Avellone couldn’t help but note that thought-dialogue would “also be less resources”. You can take the creative director out of the production cycle…

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