AVC at GDC '10: An interview with Alpha Protocol creator Chris Avellone

AVC at GDC '10: An interview with Alpha Protocol creator Chris Avellone

Chris Avellone came into the games industry writing pen-and-pencil role-playing games. An opportunity in the late '90s brought him to Interplay, where he went on to be lead designer on Planescape: Torment—one of the eeriest, most innovative computer role-playing games—and also worked on Fallout 2. In the '00s, he moved to Obsidian, where he has worked on such titles as Neverwinter Nights 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, the second in a series that for many, rescued the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas. His next game, Alpha Protocol, is an espionage role-playing game slated to ship later this year. He is also working on the upcoming Fallout: New Vegas.

We caught up with Avellone at the Game Developers Conference to talk about his Dungeons & Dragons past, how he broke into the industry, his design philosophy, character relationships, morality, questions we’ve always wanted to ask about Planescape: Torment, evil and destruction on an epic scale, and how he would translate a television show like The Wire into a game.

The A.V. Club: You’ve said that you got started in gaming by playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school.

Chris Avellone: I used to run a weekly tabletop game with three or four friends. It originally started out with Dungeons & Dragons, and then we moved on to superhero games like Champions, and I think we may have tried GURPS Supers for a brief period of time. And then a pen-and-paper game called Superworld. I kept doing the gamemastering thing, and once you actually do all the writing and the map drawing for the adventures, you’re like, “I wish I could do something else with this.” 

So I kept sending my dungeon designs off to Dungeon magazine, and I amassed so many rejections. 

AVC: What kind of gamemaster were you? 

CA: I think I erred on the side of planning too much. Like, I would actually write out the cutscenes and narrate the cutscenes to people to get the session started. So they knew where they were, what the context of the situation was. Sometimes I would describe a cutscene that would just throw them right in the middle of combat, without warning. 

The map layouts tended to be pretty detailed. I’d actually keep those battle mats off to the side and covered with a blanket. I had drawn out all the locations of the enemies and everything, and then I would pull that out once the battle started. They’d be like, “Oh shit! Everyone power up!” We used miniatures and tactics a lot. And then I think I had way too many tables and charts behind the gamemaster’s screen.

With each of the players in the campaign, I would talk with them about where they wanted their characters to do, the challenges they were looking forward to, and certain disadvantages they had built into their character. Like, “Why do you have this alcohol problem? Why do you have this issue with guns?” And once I had that skeleton for how they wanted the character to develop, I’d try to make sure I included those in each campaign, to give them a moment to shine both from the character flaw aspect, like, “Here’s an instance where you actually have to deal with alcoholism in the middle of a fight.” Or, do things like, “Here’s a chance for the super-strong character to shine in this one situation. He’s the only one who can be there hero in this one situation.” Just to make them feel special. It keeps them coming back for more. (Laughs)

AVC: Were you ever into computer games?

CA: I absolutely knew that I wanted to play role-playing games when I saw a friend of mine playing Bard’s Tale 2 on his Commodore 64. And I’m like, “What’s that?” And he goes, “Well, it’s Bard’s Tale. You make up your whole party, the dungeon’s already made for you, it acts as the gamemaster and you just go and accumulate experience and get loot.” “So you can play D & D without having to get three or four guys together and write your own adventures? Wow, I really want to play that!” So I got a Commodore 64, started tearing through all the Bard’s Tale series, and Wasteland, all those RPGs like Might & Magic—and I’m like, “This is fantastic!” And of course, I would stay up way too late, forsake homework, and my mom was like, “You know what, if you don’t apply yourself you’re never going to get a career doing anything like this.” 

AVC: How did you break into the gaming industry?

CA: I actually wasn’t sure I’d be able to. I spent a year after college just writing pen and paper games. Midway through college, I got my break with Champions. Because they needed to fill a character book for the Dark Champions line—which was sort of like their Batman line—and they’re like, “Hey, you know what, you’ve been applying for about the last five years. We have to do a book; why don’t you go ahead and give it a shot?” 

So I wrote a book for that called Underworld Enemies. And then I got more work, just writing more modules and more adventures. Some of them I had already used in campaigns that I had run. The pay was terrible. It was $50 every two months. And you can’t live on that. (Laughs) So finally I talked to my editor and said, “If you ever hear of a real job in the game industry, or even in the computer game industry, I’d be curious to hear it.”

At that time as luck would have it, Interplay was forming their D & D division. It was called Dragonplay, and they were looking for junior designers.

I [interviewed with] Mark O’Green, who was the division director at that time. He said, “Hey, if you wanted to do a Planescape game, how would you start it?” They had the Planescape license, and they actually hadn’t done anything with it yet. And I’m like, “Oh, I’d have it start with a character who wakes up from the dead, maybe right after the death screen he gets right back up and suddenly he finds himself in the mortuary, and he has to figure out what’s going on.” And he said, “All right. That could work.” (Laughs)

And then I went back, and he offered me a job for like $22,000 or something. I was like, “Oh man, this is fantastic!”

AVC: You mentioned that you were looking first for a job in pen-and-paper games. Was getting into computer games a second choice, and was it an odd adjustment?

CA: To be honest, it was a second choice. I didn’t have as much exposure to computer games, so I wasn’t sure exactly how they were developed. But mostly because I had already been doing the pen-and-paper modules for so long, it just felt more natural to me that, “Oh, if I actually get in with a pen-and-paper company, and write source books and modules”—I was already familiar with that, so that seemed more comfortable to me. I was actually kind of surprised that the computer game option became a reality, and that I was able to keep going with it.

AVC: When you started doing junior design work on computer games, was it hard to make an adjustment?

CA: The two problems that popped up, the very first one was, as much detail as I put into the pen-and-paper campaigns back home, I discovered that wasn’t enough. I have to know every single inventory item that this character is carrying, I have to know their specific appearance, I need to know their hair color, I needed to know all these things about the character model that I would never have had to describe before.

The other thing was, a lot of pen-and-paper ideas wouldn’t work for computer games. If you want to have this big epic-scale war, in a pen-and-paper game you could just describe that, isolate a section of the battle—doing that on a computer game is obviously a much, much different matter. 

AVC: Planescape: Torment did some interesting things with the player-character. While the game revolves around the character, he doesn’t have to save the world—this is just his story, and the world around him really doesn’t care.

CA: On my long list of hates about RPGs, one of them was, I always felt it was an unnecessary chore to make you care about a world when in fact what most players care about is their own personal experience. So in Planescape, we [decided], “We’re just going to make everything about you. This is your journey, the planes aren’t going to explode—it’s all about your personal journey, and about everything that took place that you did beforehand that’s caused this situation.” And that’s how we wanted to keep it. You want to have a totally selfish adventure? I’m right there with you. That’s fantastic. I don’t want you to save a nation or go rescue the princess or kill the evil wizard, I want you to save yourself, and you figure out how to do it. It’s all about you, so enjoy it. Because that’s the kind of game that I want to play.

AVC: I read that you don’t like romances in games. Over the '00s, the romances with companions have gotten more and more elaborate. And BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins has even been compared to a “love sim”: some players focus all their attention on the romance options and barely notice the main plot.

CA: I’ve got to be honest, I absolutely don’t like designing romances. I think that you get a lot more drama and impact from failed romances, or unrequited relationships that occur in games. I think that creates more player tension. I’ve had debates with forum members where, I guess I would agree that romances can still work, as long as the consummation happens near the end. I just follow the soap opera methodology, that once a relationship is consummated, you are now in danger of boring the player. Because it’s consummated, that problem is solved, and in a dramatic situation that’s not necessarily what you want to happen. It just seemed like more tension could be had when there’s something flawed there, or there’s a disconnect, and you might be able to get more of an emotional impact when those things aren’t consummated, but you know why.

So that’s kind of like the approach that I take. Now, that said, I’m kind of hypocritical in that when I’m playing Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, I do want that consummation. I want to figure out what makes Jack [in Mass Effect 2] go this way or that away. So I guess I have two sides warring there. But from a design perspective, I feel like keeping the drama going is more important.

AVC: Since the late '90s, we’ve seen role-playing games experiment with this morality mechanic, where your actions are judged as “good” or “evil.” But recently, role-playing games have started to move away from this. BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins doesn’t have any moral scale—it’s all about politics and the practical choices you make. And in Alpha Protocol, you can use suave tactics or brutal, expedient ones, depending on how you want to play, but it seems like you’re framing the choices in pragmatic terms, rather than as “good” or “evil.” Do you feel role-playing games are moving away from that simple moral scale, to something more pragmatic?

CA: I think it depends a lot on the genre. For example, in Star Wars, the good and evil mechanic obviously makes a lot of sense. It’s mandatory. Depending on the other genres, like, in Dragon Age like you’re saying, it’s the political machinations that you’re trying to do. And Alpha Protocol, I think we recognize that because you’re in such a moral gray area, and that’s part of the genre as well, we decided that it’s not [about] having some sort of morality scale. You don’t have one. It’s all what other people think of the actions that you’ve done, and then they have perception values based on how they see you, based on their own worldviews. The more goody two-shoes character over here may find what you’ve done reprehensible. The more pragmatic ex-spy over here, however, understands exactly why you need to get this done. And the reputation scales will vary accordingly. That felt more true for us in that genre. 

When you’re presented with choices in RPGs, more and more, I definitely think the solely good, solely evil path—those decisions being obvious—that’s starting to become old-generation. The next generation is going to be more like The Witcher, where you’re given a situation, you’re not exactly sure which [choice] is absolutely right because both of them are right in different ways, or they’re evil in two different ways. You’ve got to make the least evil choice. And then you see the consequences that spawn out of that. 

When you don’t clearly identify it as good or evil, that liberates the player to make the choice that just feels right. And I’m totally in support of that.

AVC: Do you think the shift is also caused because games are finding more ways to show you those consequences, and to carry the results of your action all the way through the game—as opposed to giving you a choice and then letting you get your “evil” points, move on and forget about it. 

CA: In Alpha Protocol, right from the outset, the parameters of the game explain to you that the mission needs to get done. How you approach that is your decision. The rewards and penalties for either path, those are going to balance out into different consequences. We wanted to make sure the player absolutely avoided the perception that, if reputation goes down with somebody, or if it seems like you’re getting penalized for something, there’s another consequence based on your actions that ends up being positive. 

The best examples we’ve talked about is, if you encounter this one weapons dealer, you have the choice to let him go, or to bring him in for questioning. And clearly bringing him in for questioning and cutting off all arms traffic in the region and the resulting destruction, is a good thing. But then it’s quite clear that if you do that, you’re going to lose your connection to the guy who’s a much bigger target. So then you say, “well crap, if I let this guy free, there’s a greater chance I’m going to find the big guy. But at the same time, if I let that guy go free, he’s going to cause a certain amount of damage.”

AVC: Do you think a good system is one that rewards you for sticking to one path—for being the ultimate Jack Bauer—or do you think it’s feasible to let someone be a Bauer sometimes, and a Bond others?

CA: Yeah, I think actually any morality system that rewards only the extremes is a flawed system. Players don’t approach life that way, they don’t approach games that way, and they shouldn’t be trained to approach games that way. They shouldn’t be in the Star Wars mode where, “I’ve got to choose every good option.” They should just play the game. And they should get equal consequences or rewards for that, that are different from the extremes.

AVC: In Alpha Protocol, I also understand you can torture people. Was that difficult to handle?

CA: When we have the option to use physical force, that does get you information quickly. And at the same time, we’re very quick to show you all the negative results that occur because of that. Also, [in] the pacifist options where you go through levels without killing anybody, or you stealth through the entire thing, a lot of your enemies have a lot more respect for the fact that you don’t do a lot of collateral damage or kill people on missions. Because no spy really wants a fucking murderer running around blowing everyone’s head off. No one in the intelligence community respects somebody like that. They just want them dead.

AVC: A lot of characters in your games have that kind of epic capacity for destruction. Planescape: Torment was very dark, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer had some pretty dire endings, and in Knights of The Old Republic II, the character Darth Nihilus is just consumed by the Dark Side of the Force, and he’s a voracious energy-eater. You’re talking about something so destructive it’s beyond evil. 

CA: With Nihilus, it was more of the sense that he’d given himself over to the Dark Side so completely he had no personality left. He was just a feeling of hunger. There wasn’t even evil behind it.

It always seems more heroic for the player to triumph over something that’s even larger than an emotion, or even the universe itself. The bigger you can make that threat, and the more nebulous you can make that threat—there are certain things we did with Darth Nihilus for example, so that you couldn’t identify with him as a human being. He was more of a force of nature. Because fighting a force of nature is far more epic than fighting one particular person.

We even found in the Aliens game that we were doing, there was a temptation to give more information about the Aliens. But that would make them less scary. Why would I ever want to know an Alien’s vulnerability? Their whole goal in an Aliens movie is to terrify the shit out of you, and the more you know about them, they become more terrifying. They’re more like a force of nature. And that’s totally my philosophy with things like that.

AVC: Something I always wanted to know from Planescape: Torment. One of the companions, Fall-from-Grace, carries a diary in her inventory. Is there any way to open it?

CA: No.

AVC: What do you call a thing like that? It breaks the rule of inventory, and it’s this little mystery that’s always in front of you.

CA: I think the expression is “flaunting the gaps.” Basically, you include something that’s appropriate for the character, and it’s also appropriate that you can’t use it. You shouldn’t be able to access her diary at all. 

It seemed important to me that there are certain things characters would wear and wouldn’t wear, or they would keep around them for their own personal reasons that don’t make a shred of combat sense. These are things that are comforting to them. And it makes sense why it’s in their inventory. And you see the negative game mechanic effect of it—yes, it takes one inventory slot, that sucks—but at the same time that’s appropriate for her. It feels more real [as a way to] tie the story into the game mechanics.

AVC: You once said that a property you’d love to turn into a game is The Wire. And that’s a very pragmatic show. The decisions people make are rarely about doing the right thing. It’s more about risk, and cowardice.

CA: Do you put your ass on the line? And if you put your ass on the line, they show you the consequences of what happens, and they’re horrible. You understand exactly why the system is the way it is, and it just makes you sad. 

AVC: It would be an interesting premise for a game.

CA: Well, you’d have a certain level of influence points, to trade for favors … I guess what fascinated me about The Wire was the slow, steady accumulation of police work to achieve a desired goal. And even once you achieve the goal, the amount of effort it takes to make that goal stick, if you can make that happen. But the way they did it was paced so well that I think you could actually do a game, just doing that slow, steady process of evidence accumulation, whether through the social-networking aspect, putting the leads out, having the surveillance teams positioned in certain areas. You only have x number of resources, and what will you do to get more resources to cover other areas?

AVC: Yeah. You lost the camera. What do you do now?

CA: Yeah, that’s some serious shit! And then the psychology of the guys comes into play. You don’t want McNulty anywhere near a bar during certain surveillance scenes, because you know what’s going to happen. They each have their own specific game mechanic disadvantages. You don’t want the druggie guy constantly picking up drugs or having loose cash available, because if he has that stuff, he’s bailing after the mission to buy more drugs. Juggling stuff like that seemed really interesting.