Discuss it here
Mr. Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment and Black Isle fame, lead designer on Planscape: Torment and our own beloved KotOR II has kindly condescended to answer my annoying questions about the development of Torment and The Sith Lords as well as some of his design philosophies. The whole thing weighs in at just under three thousand words so this is to be part one of three. The other two parts should be released on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.
A big thanks to both MCA and Obsidian's marketing producer, Matthew Rorie for helping to organise this.
Just who the Hell is Chris Avellone?
Chris Avellone is a human male, recently levelled to 37 years of age and chose the Game Developer/Designer/Narrative Designer specialization career path. He has above average endurance, below average charisma and wisdom, and several seemingly useless feats, such as basic familiarity with bicycling, stairclimber, and balancing heavy weights briefly above his head. He is addicted to a variety of minor stimulants, and is suspected of having a five point sociopath disadvantage.
More relevant (?) is he was a lead designer on Planescape Torment, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, and now Obsidian’s espionage role-playing game, Alpha Protocol. He’s also served as a designer/senior designer on a number of other role-playing games – Neverwinter Nights 2, Neverwinter Nights: Mask of the Betrayer, Fallout 2, the whole Icewind Dale series for Black Isle, and probably a bunch of other stuff his aging brain has forgotten. He also contributed several stories for the last half of the run of Clone Wars Adventures comics, including a Bultar Swan story and an Aurra Sing story he’s especially proud of.
When you look at the (critical if not financial) success of Torment and then – to a lesser extent – KotOR II what do you suppose it is about your narrative style or technique that made the two so enjoyable and well-received?
After probably getting sick to death of my hangdog expression, mounting depression, and the packs of razor blades I would go through lightly dragging each razor across my wrist, Feargus Urquhart decided to break me out of my funk and let me know Torment made a profit, just not nearly as much as Baldur's Gate (the first part was a surprise, the second part wasn’t – Baldur’s Gate sold a lot of units, it’d be hard to top).
If I were to attribute Torment’s positive reception to anything (at least from the folks that did receive it positively), it'd probably be due to the 10-12 years of gamemastering where you slowly learn what players like and don't like when they play – usually through negative reinforcement and thinly-veiled threats delivering by phone calls and emails in the late hours of the evening by people who want to argue how many character points they got per session and why. Ultimately, you learn that players really want an adventure that's not about something they got involved in, but something that completely reacts to them, involves them, and preferably is all about something they did... and Torment is a very, very selfish adventure. Everything's about you.
Torment was also the accumulation of many years of unresolved fantasy adventures, quest ideas, cool NPCs and more that I hadn’t really had a chance to give much of a voice to in previous titles, or even in gamemastering sessions - Torment was set up from a campaign standpoint to allow just about anything you could imagine, so it was a perfect fantasy world to do an "idea dump" in. If I thought it would be cool if the player could wear their own intestines as armor, or regenerate from any wound, the Planescape universe (multiverse) was 100% accommodating.
Lastly, I read a lot. And a lot of the stuff that may seem deep in Torment is pretty immature compared to a lot of fantasy and fiction out there - it's just that game development had rarely explored that deeply up to that point. Again, the Planescape universe was a perfect field trip for that.
The Sith Lords takes a much darker, or rather, greyer road than the one taken in KotOR. What compelled you to take the franchise in a more mature direction?
The Force has always bugged me from the sense of pre-destination, and I thought trying to make a sympathetic Sith Lord would be challenging, so I went ahead and did it (I don’t think I succeeded, but I enjoyed the challenge).
Now many people would argue to the contrary: why do you think you didn’t succeed?
I suppose the buglists from QA describing her as "that crusty annoying lady" (among other profanity-laced comments and suggestions on where she should jam her lightsaber that weren't in the buglists) come to mind; also, I never felt the ending adequately explained Kreia's motivations in a way that was sympathetic - it felt hamfisted.
Also, I think there's a lot of debate to be had on the aspects of following the Light Side vs. The Dark Side, and the general precedent of "following" the Force in the first place. It probably has to due with my unresolved irritation with religion and zealots.
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