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Dinner with Mr. Avellone (part 2)
Posted By Pavlos - 02/24/09

Discuss

Here is the promised second part of our interview with Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment, as promised. If you haven't read it then part one can be found here.

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The themes in Torment are obvious: Torment and belief. They are reinforced throughout the game, even in the thing’s tag-line and title. Yet when we come to TSL the title seems almost irrelevant and though the past-centric plot and the tormented character remain, the focus is shifted. What, exactly, is the thematic drive behind TSL?

The idea of the “echo” and the past reaching its resolution in the present is something that’s hammered quite a bit in Knights 2, and while I think it could have been more subtle in some of its presentation, it’s there – the “echo” that Visas and Kreia feel in the universe is the ramification of a choice the Exile made, both in war and in his/her own turning away from the Force as a result. Nihilus was supposed to be the personification of that echo, but his character suffered a great deal in presentation (which was my fault).

As for the title, it was chosen as an afterthought, and extremely late in the process. The story itself also went through some growing pains (what ended up in the game was actually the second iteration of the story, since we didn’t get the chance to play the first game before starting on the sequel, which was a little disjointed - as a result, there's some legacy crap in the second story that was the result of the first story, and I think that affected the balance). Anyway, the theme of the Sith Lords was an examination of a universe where an all-powerful cosmic force is guiding its individuals to achieve certain nebulous ends, and how I would feel trapped in a universe like that – and how much I would want to rebel against it (which both the player and their mentor explore differently). So how do you fight back?

Also, I have to confess, I have a fondness for Chinatown and the idea that a main character (the Exile) had an event in his past that’s rarely directly explained but clearly haunts him/her in the present was extremely important to me – the imagined horror of such an event I think gives credit to the player’s imagination and makes the narrative stronger. I don’t know if I’d want Kreia to turn to the player at the end and go, “Forget it, Jake. It's Malachor V.” but something like that I think carries a haunting strength about it.

Also, I really wanted to prep for a third title that examined Revan’s long-range plans, but that was only hinted at in the game.

****


You’ve mentioned recently that you’d rather show something than have the player read it. People have kicked up a fuss about this in certain quarters of the internet but surely this is just an extension of what you’ve been doing already? Torment’s Mortuary is littered with imagery to hammer home the theme of circularity, Kreia is literally blind, and Kaelyn the Dove sees in black and white.

Well, as much as Torment showed thing [sic], most of the story came through in the actual written words on the screen – and Kreia, Ravel, and Kaelyn’s imagery actually doesn’t come across visually at all, it’s forced to be conveyed through the written word as well. The biggest demands in making this happen is usually art and animation resources.

In Alpha Protocol, we’ve had a lot more success with this show-don’t-tell technique. Our cinematics team, Shon Stewart, Joe Bulock, and Roberto Clemente, have done a lot of work with emotive facial rigging, animations, and even using the proper camera angles and sometimes the absence of any sounds in a scene at all to drive a point home without anyone needing to hear it or read it on the screen.


The introduction of the “talking film” into cinema prompted discussions on the art of sound but the emergence of 3D engines and cinematics in video-games has yet to provoke such a discussion. Is there “art” in your “emotive facial rigging [and] animations” or is it simply a new toy to draw in the crowds and their wallets?

It is art. It may have to wait until Alpha Protocol is released, but I'd love to post some captured footages of some sequences in the game that say more with silence and facial expression than any text or voice actor could. I'm not cynical enough to say that it's a gimmick to take money from the consumer - I very much believe it's a better way to convey story, despite how resource-intensive it is.

****


The tying together of gameplay and plot seems to be something of importance to you. Torment is based around an immortality mechanic and TSL’s plot was intricately tied into the Influence System. Oddly enough, whenever you seem to do this you seem to be poking fun at or criticising the genre.

Not always, but sometimes, yes. The modron cube in Torment was definitely poking fun at Diablo (which I enjoyed), but many other game mechanics I don’t use as elements of mockery – the immortality system of Torment was partly a critique of saving/loading, but I thought it was more important from a plot standpoint. Nothing says you're immortal more than ignoring one of the basic RPG interface screens while playing.

I do feel strongly about tying the plot into gameplay mechanics, if only out of a sense of frustration that sometimes game stories seem divorced from the actual gameplay, and I think that weakens both of them.


How exactly would you say they are weakened?

People play games to interact with them, not to watch them or be flooded with exposition. If a storyline is presented as a non-interactive cut scene or if nothing the player does in conversations or interactions ever has any physical change in the world, they just come across as hurdles or eye-candy, when ultimately, what you want to do is have well-rendered story elements the player can interact with and cause actual changes in the world around them or in their character.

I think story should be a game mechanic that has actual game mechanic results, and I think that makes gamers more involved in the story than they would be otherwise... as an example, there are choices I made with the villain at the end of Fallout 1 that were made more powerful because my skill set and my inventory collection allowed me to do it, and I felt 10x cooler than if a staged cut scene had played out.

****


That's it for now...


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