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From Torment to Eternity: Chris Avellone on RPGs
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From Torment to Eternity: Chris Avellone on RPGs

November 30, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

The Kickstarter phenomenon that swept the industry in 2012 has been dominated by projects from established figures who made their names in the 1980s and '90s. These projects trade on nostalgia from fans of genres and game design styles that major publishers have since come to regard as too risky to fund.

Obsidian Entertainment creative director Chris Avellone is revered among RPG fans for his work on Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment (among many other credits). He is one of the most prolific writers working in games -- he personally penned the bulk of Torment's 800,000 words -- and is regarded by many as one of the industry's finest.

Avellone dipped his toe in the crowd-funding stream early, signing up in March to assist with Brian Fargo's Wasteland 2, on the condition that it could reach a $2.1m "stretch goal" for its funding (which was easily surpassed). Then -- following comments from Avellone that he would like to seek funding for a follow-up to Planescape: Torment (on which he acted as lead designer) -- speculation began as to when an Obsidian Kickstarter would surface.

And surface it did -- after four days of teasing on the Obsidian website, the Kickstarter for Project Eternity went live on September 14, and quickly began to break records. It reached its 1.1m target in slightly over 24 hours, before finishing with over $3.9m, overtaking Double Fine Adventure to become the most successful game campaign ever run on the site.

Gamasutra recently sat down with Avellone to discuss Project Eternity and his work more generally. This in-depth discussion touches on the specifics of Obsidian's approach to crowd-funding, Avellone's thoughts on what makes game narrative unique, and Obsidian's double-edged reputation for releasing brilliant role-playing games that are tarnished by an unacceptable quantity of bugs.

Did Obsidian start thinking about running a Kickstarter because of Double Fine's success?

Chris Avellone: As soon as Tim Schafer did his Kickstarter, we became aware of how much support there could be for products that publishers might discount. I'd pretty much lost hope that we'd ever see another adventure game that wasn't on the DS or the iPhone. And then suddenly Kickstarter happened, and I realised that "holy shit, we're going to get another adventure game because of all this." Then Brian Fargo moved really quickly, and suddenly it was pretty clear that people also wanted an old-school RPG.

And so after that, we started discussing it internally. We've always wanted to do another Infinity Engine-style game, and so we spent a good many months [planning], we talked with inXile and Brian to see how they had structured their campaign, and the lessons they'd learned from it, and we checked out a bunch of other Kickstarters that were successfully funded, and we tried to build up hype with screenshots on our website and things like that. And then we launched it, and yeah, it turned out great.

But to be honest, I was a little worried that most of the games I'd seen on Kickstarter had just barely gotten funded, and Brian and Tim Schafer and Shadowrun felt like exceptions. [The audience] either knew the franchise or the names behind them so much that it wasn't too hard for them to far exceed their goals. So when we put ours up, we weren't sure if it would actually get funded or not, but obviously the outpouring was so huge. Hitting the funding the first day was awesome and also scary at the same time, because we were like, "Oh my god, we have to figure out these stretch goals a lot faster than we'd planned for."

So, what is it about Infinity Engine games that you love so much; the reason you've wanted to go back to them?

CA: Well the first thing is -- in the Icewind Dale games, the artists were able to paint the most amazing dungeons. There wasn't a lot of worry about memory management, or how it would perform on consoles, or getting all the polygons not to slow down the game. When they were actually able to paint dungeons, they were able to make some amazingly creative spaces to explore, that I don't usually see a lot in today's games.

We had one dungeon in Icewind Dale 1 which was basically this big frozen museum, and as you were walking along you'd actually see creatures frozen in the floor and the walls, and we actually had this other dungeon which was this giant hand reaching up to the sky, and you'd actually travel up through the hand, and into each individual finger and explore that.

Secondly, we all loved playing and designing those games, we all loved Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2. Icewind Dale was a bit different because we were always under a tight schedule, and we could never really do the same level of companion and other interactions that Baldur's Gate did, and it was kind of a different style of game. But if we could take all those elements and make our dream Infinity Engine game, what would those things be? So we compiled a list of that stuff, and then we were like, "Let's just go do this and see if people would want to see that made". And they really do.

I loved both Baldur's Gates, and Planescape: Torment is one of my favorite games of all time.

CA: Torment was... it wasn't fun, at the time, at certain points, but I really enjoyed writing and designing that game. It was a rare moment in the industry, I will say. You don't usually get a franchise that allows you that much freedom.

That setting is incredible.

CA: I was actually surprised that it was a Dungeons & Dragons setting, because it was so freeform and had so many ideas that I'd never even seen before. It was amazing! So cool.

Philosophy-based factions.

CA: Yeah, the idea of mental real estate, and "if you think about it hard enough you can make it reality." I was like, "What? This is awesome!"

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Thomas Happ
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I hadn't been aware that the Planescape: Torment designer was also on KoToR 2 and New Vegas. I own the former but never played it past the intro. I'm going to need to dig up his mobygames info . . .

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I sorta miss the "wall o' text" method of dialogue in games, as in Torment. Not to say that it's what I want in EVERY game, but it definitely added a certain cerebral element that you don't see too much anymore.

Bart Stewart
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"Usually I find that anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."

Amen to that.

Some of the most fun I've had in CRPGs -- usually first-person 3D games -- has come from developers giving NPCs some ways to perceive aspects of their local environment and take some plausible action in response to that stimulus.

Sometimes that's passive. One example would be The Witcher, where villagers would scurry under cover when it started to rain... and then talk to each other about the rain. It's remarkable how much more alive the world seemed from that one feature. Another example can be seen in Skyrim: guards race to the scene when a dragon attacks a village (admittedly only one you happen to be near, but still). Afterwards, when you absorb the dragon's soul, they acknowledge their awareness of this event. Eventually that comes to feel scripted, rather than spontaneous. But it's a step in the direction of letting NPCs perceive and react to events in their world, and that's a Good Thing.

Sometimes the interaction between NPC and world is active, where I get to do something that changes the environment and then an NPC can react to that change in an interesting way. A simple example of this is in the original System Shock -- destroying security cameras (and CPU nodes) causes SHODAN to lift restrictions on useful objects like power stations. She also reacts verbally -- it's also scripted, just like GLaDOS commenting when she "sees" that you've completed a test chamber, but it still feels like environmental awareness because it's not repeated identically.

Maybe my favorite example of causing NPCs to detect an environmental change and react accordingly, though, was in DOOM. I never, ever got tired of luring cacodemons, soldiers and even other imps into the path of an oncoming fireball, then watching the damaged critter and the imp tear into each other. Why haven't more games borrowed this tactical perception/response mechanic?

A very, very few games offer both modes. The Sims comes to mind: they'll react to the quality of objects in each room of a house (sort of passive), but they'll also react to changes you cause to happen, like denying one Sim a bathroom and causing another to react in disgust at the ensuing "accident."

Where are the games that make a virtue of these behaviors? Where are the games whose worlds are highly interactive and whose NPCs can use those interactions, too?

Finally, since this interview emphasized narrative design, it's worth noting that *talking to people* is a perfectly valid way of actively changing a character's internal state. If I tell some NPC "I hate you" (or "I love you"), why shouldn't that cause them to express different -- and, one hopes, reasonably plausible -- behaviors?

Not every game needs to be a dating sim. But a game intended to be a world full of people who sort of act like people... wouldn't a little more emotional perceptiveness be satisfying?

Joshua Kahelin
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I enjoyed the epic dialog boss battles in Torment. Getting through those formidable walls-o-text was a real accomplishment and I'd argue was every bit as satisfying as dealing the final death blow to the grand foozle in any other given CRPG.

Michael DeFazio
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Kudos to Obsidian for running a very effective Kickstarter. (pre and post donation)

As a consumer, I have been overjoyed with the amount of communication between the dev team and the "donors"... (Not too little information, not too much, but just interesting bi-weekly nuggets to keep me interested and informed, but nothing too "spoilerish"...)

Interviews like this are also great to get the word out (for those who were interested... but never pulled the trigger on donating). Truth be told, I'm having a hard time trying to keep my expectations in check because everything I've seen with Project Eternity (and Wasteland 2) have me all amped up.

Bertrand Augereau
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I love what you do, Chris, but don't try to convince the hardcore RPG fans that we want a standard fantasy setting. We know this is a necessary evil to make the funding happen :)

Ramon Carroll
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I'm sure that there are many hardcore RPG fans that still appreciate a standard fantasy setting, even in a new game. I'd like to think that I'm not alone here.

Ben Strother
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I have to disagree with Bertrand Augereau. I on the other hand, am weary of all the RPGs that try so hard to be "edgy" or "hip" and end up making the setting far too modern for my tastes. At least a traditional fantasy setting has medieval elements and feels like an entirely different time period than today.

I backed the kickstarter, and I am happily awaiting another fine game from Obsidian.

Bertrand Augereau
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Is Torment "edgy" or "hip" in any way or just "more interesting than vanilla Forgotten Realms" stuff?

Luis Guimaraes
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"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."
"anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories."

Ben Strother
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In reply to
"Is Torment "edgy" or "hip" in any way or just "more interesting than vanilla Forgotten Realms" stuff?"

I loved Planescape Torment, but a big part of that is because it was unique, what other game is focused on philosophers with clubs? If every RPG was like Torment, that would get old too I think.

Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights were all great games set in the Forgotten Realms, but they are at least ten years old and we need new ones for this generation of games.

I think there is still room for both the shadowrun. steampunk or warhammer 40K type of fantasy and the traditional medieval and Arthurian fantasy, but I am sad when all I can find in new RPGs are anti-heroes like the Witcher or God of War in a setting that is more recognizable as our own modern one than anything traditional. I'm tired of the dark brooder that only saves the world because he has nothing better to do. I want old school heroes like Aragorn or Perceval.

Bart Stewart
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On heroic vs. non-heroic (or anti-heroic), it seems cyclical.

The gritty anti-heroes of the early '70s like Dirty Harry gave way to more traditional heroes by the late '70s and '80s like Luke Skywalker.

Something similar (on the non-heroic side of the curve) might be happening with RPGs now.

Ramon Carroll
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I think its best whenever we have books, movies, and games that include both types of hero archetypes, because watching how they interact and conflict with each other can be pretty interesting, like a paladin/rogue duo. Some of the best plots tend to do this, in my opinion.

Douglas Scheinberg
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I guess that party-based combat on a console works better if it's more turn-based, like in a JRPG. (I honestly think that the Dragon Quest series has a better battle system than, say, Dragon Age.)

Jeanne Burch
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"I think comic book writing lends itself to training you to write dialogue for games..."

This comment made me happy. For the past couple of years, I've been teaching typography to gaming students at my university. One of the things I do is bring in some original art boards I have of the old Silver Sable comics, pass them around the class, and ask the students to look at how the conversations are broken up in the word balloons. Even if one person is talking, the comments are split across several panels. That, I tell them, is how to avoid the Wall of Text in their video games; think of writing for a comic book. Nice to have a professional in the field say something similar!