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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 Previous Page 4 of 4
 

In games, do you feel that you need to be able to let the players decide for themselves what's meaningful or important?

CA: I think it's fine to suggest a theme, and suggest a question to the player, but ultimately let them find their own answer in the environment. New Vegas obviously had one critical end point, but at the same time, the overarching goal of the game was just to find out where you stand with all these factions. Do you agree with their philosophies? All of them have good and negative points about them. Or do you feel that you have a better vision for the world? And if so, just go out and create your own story. I think that's how you have to approach the narrative of games. Sort of like an open world narrative.

It's hard, because you can't always get the pacing down right, but at the same time, I think because you're allowing the player to choose the pacing, that that actually makes it a more accommodating experience for them.

But yeah, giving up on a really strict structure is one thing that's hard to let go when you move from [other] media to games, especially role playing games. There's so much branching that can take place, and so many different paths the conversation can take and it can be difficult creating a playground for the players.

An analogy I've used is that the player is like a shaman on a spirit quest and as a narrative designer you're kind of like the spirit guide -- you have to put all things in their path that could be meaningful to them, but it's up to them to work out what is ultimately is important to them.

CA: Yeah, I think the more you can allow a player to leave their meaning on the environment, the better the game is going to be for them. Sometimes I get into an argument with designers [about whether] it's better to provide a narrative story arc, or is it better just to provide a bunch of system mechanics and let the player derive their story from that? There's been so many times where any story I've attempted to tell will get trumped by some action the player can do in the game systems, and it's a better story for that, and I can't argue with it.

Do you have an example of that?

CA: Yeah. In New Vegas, our project director used the reputation mechanics between the factions to create a pretty awesome story, and he did it unintentionally. This entire sequence would have taken probably a month of several people's time to actually try and narratively create, and I don't think would have been as strong. He used the reputation system to piss off one faction, Caesar's Legion, and once you piss them off they start sending assassin squads after you whenever you try and sleep. Then he completely reversed and started pissing NCR off. And suddenly they start sending assassin squads after him [as well].

So he's running around the wasteland like a crazy man, and then he wakes up, and both assassin squads have spawned, but because their AI makes them hate each other, they started exterminating each other rather than attacking him. So he waited until they were all dead, and then he just shot the last one. Fantastic story. And because he was able to push the world to make that happen, I think that made it stronger than if we'd tried to narratively design that situation. So I think allowing for stories like that is really important.

That's fantastic! There's a lot of games around now that use procedural generation to try and create situations like that. Do you play that kind of game?

CA: Not necessarily, although I do try and pay attention to what causes those [situations] in games. Usually I find that anything that changes the AI state of enemies is what generates the best stories. For example, I noticed I was able to create a lot of fun situations in Dead Island because they have a lot of tools and tricks that will change the AI states of various opponents. Like when you drop the meat jar on the ground, and suddenly you can make all the zombies move to a certain area. And from there you can start staging all sorts of fun stuff. And also usually anything that causes damage remotely in the environment, like fire or water, or even like in New Vegas where you can set up explosions from a difference. That can [bring about] all sorts of interesting stories. But I do wish there were more ways of doing [these things] that didn't necessarily involve violence or damage.

Most of Obsidian's games have received a huge amount of praise for the storytelling and characters, but you've often been criticized for releasing games that are buggy and in some cases not quite finished.

CA: Yeah. No developer ever wants to release a buggy or unfinished game, and we certainly never have wanted to do that. And it's not fair to any consumer to have to spend any amount of money for a game like that. The only thing [I can say to that is] that we have to be better about that, and Dungeon Siege III was our first effort, I think, where it clearly showed that our new pipelines are paying off in that respect.

Is that going to come across to Project Eternity, do you think, or is it going to be a whole new learning experience because this is the first game you've built using the Unity engine?

CA: I believe there are actually tools and functionality from Dungeon Siege that we can apply to Unity. I don't actually know the specifics of that, because I don't come from a programming background. Our tech director will be handling most of that stuff. But there is a lot of bug-reporting software and ways of tracking and killing crashes that I think could work with Eternity.


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Comments


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!


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