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Interview: Chris Avellone, Game Designer, Fallout: New Vegas

The term “video game author” has perhaps never applied to someone more than to Chris Avellone. Foremost, he is a storyteller, a crafter of worlds. His snappy dialogue and unconventional narratives have long placed him in the top echelon of video game writers. He began his career designing quests and campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons, later joining Interplay Entertainment where he worked on a number of D&D-related games. Most noteworthy is Planescape: Torment, a unique RPG that turns fantasy conventions inside out and upside-down, landing the title on countless best-of lists. In recent years, Avellone has worked on a variety of titles from the hit Star Wars RPG Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords to the modern-day RPG spy thriller Alpha Protocol. His next project is the follow-up to Game of the Year Fallout 3, entitled Fallout: New Vegas. In this in-depth interview with Lightspeed, Chris answers a variety of questions covering the breadth of his career.

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The story of your rise from humble teenage dungeonmaster to one of the most respected writers in the history of video games has become something of industry lore. What other early experiences do you think shaped you as a writer and guided you to the path you’re on now?

“Respect” and “dungeonmaster” are two words I never thought I’d see in the same sentence in any publication, so your question has fulfilled one of my lifetime goals. As for respect, you’re usually being reviled by either your players (even as they ask when the next session is going to be, sometimes with veiled threats) or the community at large in high school, college, or in the working world, and your dating pool slowly and surely shrinks to the radius of a Lilliputian dime.

The early inspirations aren’t terribly praise-worthy. They were the twin muses of loneliness and starvation. Aside from being lonely, the biggest motivation was not having enough people willing to gamemaster a game in my neighborhood; everyone was always up for playing role-playing games, no one would ever run a game, however.

Adding insult to injury, sometimes players wouldn’t stop at not running games, they couldn’t even be bothered to flesh out their disadvantages for their character build so I had to wing those. Guess what? They didn’t like that. Guess what? Finish your character sheets next time and maybe you won’t be attacked by multiple Mysterious Hunteds at once, Captain Lazyass.

In short, I was a starving artist in the sense that I was starved for playing RPGs. If I wanted a fix, I had to run game sessions myself-drawing the maps, setting up the cinematics (we had opening vignettes to set the stage), detailing out the characters, and sometimes even drawing the characters (superhero RPGs). Oh, and all the accounting work that came after each session to dole out Experience Points.

Still, here’s why I advocate gamemastering as a training tool for game designers: one, you get immediate, direct feedback as to why your adventure sucks and why your players aren’t having fun. Two, you have to start training yourself to be prepared for any direction your players might end up taking (which is a lot like normal computer game development). Third, you start training yourself to pay attention to each character’s build, motivation for playing, and their skill sets. And you begin to look for ways to make them shine during the adventure, which again translates directly into game development (and it’s one of the things that Fallout does really well).

What books, movies, and video games inspired you growing up?

Zelazny was a big influence, as was Robert Pirsig (outlook on life and craft, as well as how to approach writer’s block when you’re stuck), Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game appealed to my gamer instincts), David Gerrold, Harlan Ellison, and a number of graphic novel authors: Alan Moore, Garth Ennis (his run on Hellblazer was amazing), Bill Willingham (Elementals - the fact that the heroes in that comic could suffer grievous harm and regenerate was a big source of inspiration for the Nameless One’s ability to recover in Planescape yet leave parts of his body behind), Grant Morrison (Doom Patrol: Crawling from the Wreckage all the way until the end of the run, Animal Man, etc.-and Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol was the source of inspiration for the pregnant alley in Planescape: Torment-Morrison introduced a character called “Danny the Street” in Doom Patrol who was a living street who was also a transvestite, and I’ve never gotten that character idea out of my head). I also read a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure books, which also helps train you for game development.

As far as movies go, most of the Coen Brothers movies were a big source (esp. Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing). In terms of games, Bard’s Tale 2 allowed me to realize a game could be my gamemaster and set me down the road of computer game development, and after that Wasteland, Ultima Underworld, System Shock 2, Chronotrigger, Final Fantasy III, Myth, and more all ended up being big influences on me for different reasons.

Is there one author that had a particular impact on you, that influences your writing?

Kurt Vonnegut-especially Galapagos and Bluebeard. He wasn’t afraid to play around with the writing and tie the stories together, and seeing the “*” in front of the characters in Galapagos was always a reminder to me you can play around with literary conventions with surprisingly effective results. I miss him.

Prior to your video game work, you made content for tabletop roleplaying games. What is the trick to writing a quality tabletop campaign, and how has that work influenced your current career?

Don’t dictate the path of the adventure or character builds, and pay attention to the character builds of your group-each player is at the role-playing game session for a particular reason. One wants to be the sharpshooter and the critical hit master-one shot, one kill. Another wants to be the disgraced tortured ex-NCR officer who was court-martialed and is fighting to redeem himself, and he’s more about the emotional experience than the combat experience. Another one wants to be the smooth-talking card shark and outwit all his enemies. Realize why the players are there, realize what skills they-both as players and as characters-shine at, and what challenges you can throw at them to emphasize those traits. Your job is to entertain them, and you can set up a custom adventure that lets them play the characters they want, that lets them take the stage and have their moment, while having a challenging session along the way.

Secondly, you are not there to be entertained as a gamemaster. The satisfaction you feel should be secondary to the players having a good time-and if they do, your satisfaction comes after the session is over and they want to play more.

Also, lastly (and this took me a few years to figure out): let the dice fall where they may. The best gaming stories and events can result, and they’re ones you never saw coming. It’s better that way.

One of the first video game projects you worked on was Fallout 2. How did you become part of this project? What was your involvement?

I was in the middle of Planescape: Torment at Interplay. Everyone who went on to form Troika [Games] suddenly left, and Feargus [Urquhart, currently CEO of Obsidian Entertainment] got us into a room, passed out area summary docs, and said “go.” We did. I took over New Reno, finished up Vault City, did the Raider Cave (I was proud of New Reno and Vault City, not so much the Raider Cave), and the Special Encounters. I had to move back on to Planescape full-time after that (I was juggling both at the same time), and the experience was pretty brutal, but worth it. I learned a lot about how to script and lay out dialogues. I made a lot of mistakes, and was able to carry those narrative designs into Torment, which I feel made it a better game.

New Reno is a section of Fallout 2 that is totally non-linear, allowing the player to pit the town’s criminal factions against each other. What was your inspiration for this concept?

I got a 1.5 page summary of the location left over from the previous team: four crime families, a list of events that needed to happen (get Myron, find source of Jet, exposure to Enclave, etc.), and then I just started designing. I wanted to make sure each character build, skill set, and stat-build had something fun to do in town, and that was a lot of work.

What is your process for writing non-linear stories with branching plots? Do you start with a single “correct” path, and then fill in the alternate routes?

Start with a moment or event you want to create, and why you want to create it. For example, talking down an adversary and showing why his plan is flawed would be a good example from Fallout 1. For Torment, I knew I wanted the following moments: waking up from the death screen, seeing the outside of the Mortuary, the idea of encountering a pregnant alley and helping it give birth, the concepts for Fhjull and Trias and what it would be like to talk to otherworldly creatures like them with their peculiar outlooks, a floating skull, a puritan succubus, a buried village, and the idea of having a conversation with your own mortality on a plane of the dead. With those elements in mind, I asked “Okay, so how do I get the player to all those moments,” and then started fleshing out the paths to get there.

Planescape: Torment shows up on several best-game-of-all-time lists. Many standard mechanics of video game RPGs (like repeatedly dying and leveling up) are incorporated into the narrative of the game so that each death and level up is part of the protagonist’s story. Take us through the development of Planescape. How did you set out to make this game different from other D&D games?

I had a long list of things I wanted to do with an RPG and a long list of things I hated about RPGs when Planescape rolled around, so that all added fuel to the fire. I started with all the elements I hated, cut those out (no halflings, dwarves, elves, evil wizards, no saving the kingdom, no swords, no attempt to make the undead scary, re-loading after death, regimented class system, and pre-determined alignment) and added stuff I’d always wanted to do (puritan succubus, making the dead more sympathetic, dungeons-in-a-pocket, selfish main quest, fragmented personality of main character, pregnant alleys).

The fact that it was set in the Planescape universe was a plus, because Planescape consciously disregarded D&D conventions in favor of the setting, and that allowed a lot more breathing room for adventure and character ideas than a normal D&D campaign.

The length of the Planescape: Torment script has become quite notorious. What was the process like writing it? Hundreds of hours alone in your room? I’m curious about the construction of both the big picture (The Nameless One’s quest, backstory, the world) as well as the details (supporting characters, the creation of quests and sub-quests).

That’s not off-base. I would sit in my office, write, drink unhealthy amounts of OJ mixed with Mountain Dew until I became a soft, blobby creature with incredibly dexterous fingers. It started with a high level vision document that had all the hopes and dreams for the project. Once the vision document was approved, we scaled it down and outwards and turned each bit into reality. The lead artist, Tim Donley, did sketches of each of the major locations one by one before they were arted on the computer. I then took the characters and quests and did area design documents. I wrote a first pass of much of the dialogue and companions (many of which made it all the way to the final draft). All the while our programmers started digging into the Infinity Engine (which wasn’t done at that time, since Baldur’s Gate 1 was still going on) and learning more about how it worked so we could see if our ideas were feasible or not. A plus of BioWare’s Infinity Engine is you could paint the backgrounds of the locations for the player to explore, which made bringing [the city of] Sigil and Planescape to life much easier than it would have been in a traditional 3D game. A lot of the crazy, mind-bending architecture was able to be done by our artists and inserted into the game only because of the engine, and it really helped us bring the campaign setting to life.

If there is a theme that threads throughout your work, it might be neutrality, or moral ambiguity. Many of your games put the player in a situation where there is no “right” answer. Do you do this as a way of letting the player write her own story, or do you have a bigger message?

Players should be able to play an RPG the way they want, and they don’t need my moral judgments getting in the way of how they have fun. I also am not a fan of pre-determined attitudes and alignments for players-my hope is that at the end of the game, they’ve answered the question, “What kind of character am I really, and how did that depart from what I thought I would be?” I always considered Torment a sort of role-player’s experiment, where each incarnation of the Nameless One had the potential to be a different personality and a different type of gamer, depending on the choices he made in the game world. It’s echoed a bit in Alpha Protocol at the end of game with Leland, where he asks if you became the person you set out to be when you joined the agency, and it’s something I like to keep asking players when possible because moments of self-reflection never hurt.

As lead designer of Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, you may have gotten away with writing the most un-Star Wars Star Wars story ever, going so far as to depict the Dark Side as perhaps not being a bad choice. How did you convince LucasArts to let you take The Force in a new direction?

They may have been too busy with Episode III, although they did review our work and seemed pleased with it. They only had five or six comments over the course of development, and one of them was our Devaronian’s horns were off, and there was one instance where we’d misspelled Atton’s name in a document or dialogue as “Anton.” That said, we took great pains to pay attention to the franchise enough so we didn’t cause continuity problems, and we wanted to make sure we were treating the planets, cultures, and societies accurately. While there’s an unorthodox take on Kreia’s view of the Force in KOTOR II, that was still portrayed within the context of the Force in the Star Wars universe, and that’s what she’s rebelling against.

Tell us about your approach to creating characters. Do you take inspiration from life, or other media? How do you build quests organically from the characters you create?

When I design characters, I usually approach it in the following way (I’ll use Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic II for this example).

-Examine their role in the story. Kreia in KOTORII serves multiple purposes: companion, foil, and a means of acting as a sounding board for the game theme (the role of the Jedi and the nature of the Force in a living galaxy).

-Name them properly. This is more important than it may seem. Kreia, for example, was consciously intended as a twist on Leia with a harsher prefix-she basically acts as an ally as Leia does in Star Wars, but her life before she met you was…well…brutal.

-Set up a visual signature for the character with the concept artist. Kreia blends elements of the wise mentor (Obi-Wan’s robe) mixed with the Dark Side elements (Palpatine’s hood design).

-The character must be someone who can give voice to shit that bothers me or is something I really, really want to write about. Kreia is my mouthpiece for everything I hate about the Force, and then I let her rant.

Note that character designs all depend on the character’s function. Sometimes having a one-note or zero-note character is important to help show the contrast of a more important character in the same environment-and sometimes, a merchant should just be a merchant. At other times, you’ll want an NPC to showcase a particular aspect of the world…for example, in Fallout 3 in Megaton, the character of Nathan is clearly set up to portray how the common people of Fallout might fall under sway of President Eden’s propaganda, and that’s part of Nathan’s role in the story.

Overall, I prefer having a smaller cast and finding ways to ditch one-note or zero-note characters and just make the smaller cast more reactive (like in Alpha Protocol).

Alpha Protocol was Obsidian Entertainment’s first original venture. How did the project come about? What was the initial germ of an idea, and how did it enter production?

It was a concept developed by our CEO, Feargus Urquhart and our tech director, Chris Jones. They proposed an espionage-style Jason Bourne RPG where you could play as a spy. SEGA wanted an RPG for their line-up and to build a franchise around, so they signed it up and put it on the roster. From that point on, it entered production. It didn’t have a Project Lead or a Lead Designer for a chunk of its early inception and production, and then at the two year mark, Chris Parker became Project Director and I volunteered to become Lead Designer on it in the absence of a Lead Designer. SEGA also participated in the design (not so much the narrative) and they also dictated the marketing and release schedule for the title as well.

Do you think people shy away from modern-day RPGs because it’s so easy to get campy? “You discover Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit. Provides +2 to Diplomacy, -1 to all other Charisma checks.” What are the challenges to writing RPGs in a contemporary setting?

People don’t shy away from those kinds of games, they just don’t make them. I loved Bully, for example, and that had a lot of RPG mechanics in it. Not sure how well it sold, but I wish Rockstar would make more in the series. In terms of challenges, it’s a lot of work to make the real world an interesting place to adventure in if you strictly adhere to real-world elements-without some element of the fantastic about it, it’s a lot harder to create the art, character looks, and even quest threads. When players make modern-day games, half the fun is messing up the environment in those real-world games, and that’s the real joy. In Fallout: New Vegas, some of our most interesting locations are the ones taken from real life and then given the Fallout “touch” (usually nuclear with a slight 1950s sci-fi aftertaste).

You’ve written for some of the most beloved franchises in video games, from Fallout to Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons. Is there a dream project you would love to work on someday? Or an original idea you’ve always wanted to try?

The Wire RPG, a Harry Dresden-style RPG, an ’80s High School RPG (although Bully covered a lot of this already, so I’m less enamored of this idea than I was), and Alpha Protocol II (which would be an original idea with where we want to take it, IMO). I’d be interested to work on a Shadowrun game as long as there was less dice-rolling in the system. I’d also like to lead a Fallout title, just once.

You’re going back to your roots with New Vegas. How did it feel to revisit the Fallout world? What were the lessons you brought from past games when you approached Fallout: New Vegas?

It’s like finding an old pair of favorite shoes you lost in the back of a closet, putting them on, and finding out they fit just as well as they used to. In terms of lessons-make sure that you design modular, so you can cut as needed and not break elements.

What are the challenges of balancing all the stuff that goes into a game, from the story elements and gameplay to the technical stuff like programming and troubleshooting? No game development company has unlimited resources (unless there’s a cheat code I don’t know about). How do you decide where to focus the team’s energy?

The genre and the franchise focus your attention. As an example, Fallout: New Vegas needs to focus on the elements that made all the Fallouts great, but especially Fallout 3, since that’s what most people played and that’s what they’re going to expect from any Fallout title following Fallout 3 using the same engine. So when focusing on New Vegas, you choose (1) open-world exploration, which was core to Fallout 3, (2) similar skill sets and character building that Fallouts have always done, just give more options for each and new ways to use those skills (for example, more crafting recipes for different skills, melee skill unlocks for special moves, using skills in dialogue), and (3) focus on what your studio and development team do well-one of Obsidian’s strengths is character and story, so we make sure that’s one of the elements we bring to the title.

Have you ever written a quest or character that you loved but for whatever reason could not implement in the final game?

Yep, it happened in Fallout: New Vegas. There’s a character on one of the trading cards, Ulysses, who was supposed to be a companion. Oddly enough, tearing him out of the game was almost as hard as putting him in because companion scripts touch almost everything (and he also was a complicated character in terms of some of the hooks into the storyline). Maybe he’ll come back at some point. I miss him.

What were the highlights of the development process of New Vegas?

There were a few things, in no particular order:

-Having a chance to play Fallout 3 for research.

-The owners brainstorming the “box” for New Vegas in terms of what elements the title should have (Vegas as signature city, start with a reversal from Fallout 3, Fallout elements, etc.).

-The first time I saw Dinky the Dinosaur in Fallout: New Vegas and walked into his belly, and then into his mouth to look at the Mojave wasteland.

-Getting to meet Felicia Day and getting my Guild DVD signed. And listening to her talk about killing bunnies in Red Dead Redemption.

-This is a little random, but marketing support from Bethesda, and how it changed my opinion on game development marketing and how much it can help your title when they are involved early and they understand the title. They didn’t just meet us halfway, they did more than I’ve ever seen a marketing department do in all the companies I’ve worked with. As an example, one of the first marketing meetings I’d had for the game was very early in the development process, and during the meeting, the head of PR/Marketing said “I’ll start playing the builds so I can demo this myself,” which amazed me. Then he did it. You’d be surprised how often marketing doesn’t want anything to do with talking about or demoing a title, they leave that to the developers. Bethesda really stepped up in all these aspects.

-We also had a marketing plan. This is a rare thing-and even more rare, we had a marketing plan early. This may be a difficult thing for someone outside of game development to realize, but it was a godsend to actually hold it in our hands and know what the future of the product was and how to plan for it.

-Getting to write the graphic novel for the game and tell stories about the characters for insights you might not have otherwise seen…and meeting Geof Darrow, the cover artist, and learning that he was going to do the cover for it.

-Going to the Goodsprings graveyard at night, looking north, and seeing the lights of New Vegas.

-Everything yet to come.

Recently the game industry has been very hush-hush about future projects. It’s almost as if companies are afraid that announcing a game in development will jinx it. Why all the secrecy? Or better yet, tell us what’s next on the Pip-Boy radar for Chris Avellone.

Making games isn’t cheap, and the timing for when games come out can make or break a game. Alpha Protocol’s delayed release date contributed to its reception; had it been released before Mass Effect 2 and Splinter Cell, I think some of its elements wouldn’t have suffered by the contrast, but frankly, those games are excellent at what they do. Knowing when a competitor is planning on releasing a competing title is valuable knowledge and it helps you develop a strategy for when you should release your game. As a better example, no one wants to release a movie the same time as a Pixar release because no one will see it on opening weekend. Game development is similar. Your title can get lost, buried, or lose out by comparison depending on what other titles are released around the same time, and that’ll definitely hurt reviews and sales.

But considering Obsidian’s focus, an RPG isn’t too far off base.

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Matt London

London, MattMatt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com and Realms of Fantasy magazine. His story “Mouja” appears in John Joseph Adams’s anthology The Living Dead 2. He has no less than three escape plans should the zombies take Manhattan.

3 Responses »

  1. Very interesting stuff. Big fan of Avellone’s work, even before I knew it (New Reno was always my favorite RPG area).

    • Epic stuff. Have to say Avellone is really good at written interviews. Man likes to talk about what he does and you can see why such a lot of it is turns out well – he literally has right opinions about things. There is such a thing as “right opinion” by the way.

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