Interview with Chris Avellone

Chris Avellone

Chris Avellone is an american computer game designer, one of Fallout 2’s major developers and Fallout: New Vegas. He was designer of Torment: Tides of Numenera, scriptwriter of Prey 3 and Neverwinter Nights 2. He answered a few questions exclusively for us.

The Settled Down Gamer: Planescape: Torment remains a cult classic in Poland partially thanks to its great, full Polish localization, including its memorable dubbing and translation of the difficult source material. Not every localization, however, gets it right. Do you catch yourself thinking or worrying about how translators can make or break the reception of your work in different countries? Any advice for translators of your writing?

Chris Avellone: I do worry about it and I think about it quite a bit, even though in the past, it’s often been out of my control, unfortunately. I often find fans to be great translators, and strangely, ones that volunteer can end up really shining, but I suspect that’s because they love the work so much they want to do it justice – and they don’t see it as a job, but a labor of love. I don’t know if I’d have much advice for someone translating my writing, but there are some techniques I’ve used over the years to help the process:

– Be careful of using word puzzles or puns in writing, as it can be a challenge for translators to make that work in other languages.

– It’s sometimes very hard to get the meaning of a line 100% right, but if writers take the time to leave “voice direction” notes in, I feel that helps translators get the line. For example, “Let me help you with that” can have an entirely missed meaning without “{Sarcastic} Let me help you with that.” Even going so far as to make sure scene directions are left in word exports for translators can help quite a bit (as well as including exports that indicate clearly not just who the speaker of a line is but who the listener is as well).

– Carve out time to make yourself available for localization questions. This can be hard around the end of production, but taking the time to sit down and answer localization questions can improve a game’s reception globally.

The Settled Down Gamer: In the Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter campaign, one of its joke stretch goals was a promise that you won’t write any romance subplots. Even Prey’s Morgan Yu gets a very Deionarra-like romance in their backstory, in that it’s not very uplifting. Why do you seem to dislike love stories, or at least those happy ones?

Chris Avellone: Wow… I’ve totally forgotten that aspect of the campaign. Oddly enough, while I don’t like to write romance plots, I do think there was a mistaken notion that somehow I disapproved of them in games, which is untrue – especially in role-playing games. My philosophy has been that I like seeing a spectrum of relationship arcs, from romance to hate-mance to friendships to rivalries (inc. professional to friendly to lethal), and more. Alpha Protocol was probably the best example of this range – we treated the hate-mance (anti-romances) sections of the plot with the equal amount of attention we paid to the romances.

[Spoiler Alert if you haven’t played Prey and are planning to, skip the rest of this answer]

Morgan Yu’s romance was a way of reinforcing one of the frightening things about the game, and it’s something Ricardo Bare and I kicked around as an idea and we both really liked telling it indirectly. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but that relationship was designed to emphasize the danger of certain technologies – and also, in my opinion, the elements I included made that relationship redeemable and even better than it had been before the events of the game, so it all wasn’t intended to be gloomy at all as much as shocking to the player.

Also, while I did write the Abigail-Danielle relationship (which is sad) in Prey, the premise wasn’t mine, I just fleshed it out, so I can’t take credit for that. I will say it was interesting writing about a romance that had ended (and badly) vs. one that was about to occur, which is usually how romances are done in games.

The Settled Down Gamer: Divinity, Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun Returns, Tyranny – cRPGs harkening back to the late ‘90s are coming back in style. Do you think it’s all temporary and that at some point the “classic” cRPG will fizzle out again, or are they back for good like adventure games? Is the classic isometric model viable in your opinion, or is it mostly nostalgia?

Chris Avellone: I think there’ll always be an audience for them – and even if they fizzle out again, it’s only a matter of time before they come back in full force (as has been proven). I do think the isometric model is viable, but I don’t know if it’s a huge moneymaker – at least for larger publishers. It’s definitely not a huge revenue source as many other game genres out there. I do know no matter what, I’ll still keep working on them because I enjoy them – although I’m trying my hand at other game genres as well just to stretch my skills, and because there’s a lot to learn about game writing from other genres.

The Settled Down Gamer: You sometimes get accused of writing “preachy” characters like Kreia or Ulysses, even though you’ve mentioned several times that you write them as if they were wrong; many other fans obsessively look for aspects of Ravel in the games you write (I admit that I’m one of those guys). Are you ever bothered by the audience reading into your work, getting caught up on stuff and perhaps missing the point?

Chris Avellone: I think whatever point players derive from any characters I’ve written is the point, despite whatever intentions I had while writing them – and it likely says a lot about the players themselves (in a good way). I do make an effort to step outside the characters I write, especially if they have markedly different attitudes and perspectives than I do, and try to see how they might view the world. I’ve even chosen in the past to purposely write characters that are 180 degrees of my own beliefs just to try and work through how perspectives like those might arise -and not to be preaching, but to understand. I think it’s a betrayal of a game’s theme to introduce a theme and then (as a developer) choose the answer for the player or dictate that answer to them as the “right” way – you want the player to think about the question, not get lectured.

Neither Kreia or Ulysses are anyone I 100% agree with, but they are intended to ask questions of the player and the universe, yes. I think their superior tone is what comes across as preaching, but for me, it just makes defeating them (especially out-thinking them) even stronger for a protagonist… because you’ve just proven they don’t know as much as they thought they did. I think the only time I ever get bothered (although I’d use the word “embarrassed”) is when people assume a character, world, or piece of writing I did came from a more educated place (philosophical, religious, historical, etc.) than it actually did – I’m not really classically educated, I just like writing about worlds and imagining what a character’s life would be like in that world.


The Settled Down Gamer: The games you work on tend to have a lot of words in them – Tides of Numenera even received some flack for this, something I personally don’t agree with. Are you personally burned out on “wordiness” in cRPGs?

Chris Avellone: I think there’s better ways to communicate a story, yes. Some of the wordiness of past games was effective, but we have so many other tools at our disposal now to communicate a story. I think part of the issue is also how the words are used and the pacing. I don’t mind a lot of text if it’s used effectively, but often, it seems like there’s better ways to convey the same situation (audio, prop arrangement, a vista, music, etc.). It’s one thing to have a bitter noble go on for paragraphs about how he’s the last of his warring bloodline, but you can do the same thing by showing a graveyard of tombstones with his family crest with the right music to accompany it (or no music at all). I still feel one of the best presentations on the somber nature of war in Fallout was encountering the Arlington Cemetery in Fallout 3 and just seeing the row of gravestones stretching out in front of you.

The Settled Down Gamer: You’ve mentioned in a different interview that the ambiguity and hint of an „unreliable narrator” within the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon was partially the result of giving TSR a window to declare it non-canon if they didn’t like it. Did things like that happen often? Have some technical, time or other outside limitations ended up being very positive influences on your writing and design? Was there any time you wished you had more freedom with a particular idea?

Chris Avellone: Things like that didn’t happen often, but I like to be respectful of the franchise I’m writing for – and leave the franchise holders a way “out” if they don’t like something. That said, the reverse has definitely happened (one of the Planescape: Torment companions, Fall-From-Grace, became canon, I believe) and it’s a really humbling moment when that occurs. Also, when writing the Unbroken Circle, I was always hoping that we could revisit the point in the Gith history that examines Dak’kon’s doubt as to whether the mind flayers really caused the civil war amongst the Gith in order to save themselves… and if Zerthimon was simply a tool and never stopped being a slave to his former masters, which is a pretty crushing thing for the Githzerai if proven true.

I think time as a limited resource always ends up being a positive influence – you learn to do more with less. Often, doing more or having a limitless budget doesn’t really help your writing or the title. For example, I’m pretty happy that we had a voice-over line count for the Fallout: New Vegas DLC’s because it forced us to simplify the cast, keep the writing in check, and use characters economically, which I think works to a title’s strength. I can’t think of any time when I wish I had more freedom with an idea (either that, or I’ve forgotten) – usually, when presenting a case for an idea, as long as you present that from the point of view where it’s clear you know the franchise you’re writing for, it’s not a hard sell with franchise-holders (or your boss) to be allowed to explore a certain idea. And if there is, introducing the “unreliable narrator” elements into it can give you a way out if there’s concerns about making some elements canon.

The Settled Down Gamer: Hideo Kojima once said that his intention when writing is to fool and betray his audience – ideally in a pleasant way. You do seem to have a thing for guiding the player through the world with wholly unreliable or enigmatic characters. What’s the reason for that? Do you always have in mind to primarily have fun with the player’s trust?

Chris Avellone: I prefer Brian Mitsoda’s “subvert the cliché,” where you seem to set the player up, then use that to give the twist on a seemingly-cliché situation more momentum. I don’t know if all my characters are unreliable or enigmatic, but I do know for companions and antagonists, you do want to give them enough depth and mystery that a player wants to explore their backstory and come to understand how they came to be.

The Settled Down Gamer: You’ve once said that fantasy is not your “happy place.” What is your genre happy place then?

Chris Avellone: I’m okay with fantasy as long as you’re trying something new, either in the world, lore, mechanics, technical / engineering aspects, or even just working with incredibly driven people (Swen Vincke never stops, for example). Over the years, I’ve worked on Numenera, Wasteland 2 and 3, Divinity: Original Sin II, and now Pathfinder: Kingmaker and I’ve found that in all those titles that there’s some element of that to write to – and sometimes even a lot to learn and admire from the people you’re working with that you didn’t think of doing or considering in an RPG before.

The Settled Down Gamer: Prey, Torment, The Sith Lords or Alpha Protocol all have plots that end up intertwining heavily with gameplay mechanics, intentionally or not. What comes to you first – the writing or the design?

Chris Avellone: As a narrative designer, you want to do all you can to reinforce the gameplay mechanics. However, gameplay mechanics often stem from “mood” (ex: Survival Horror), which arguably is a narrative design intention. Overall, I think the best products allow all the design disciplines (system, level, narrative) to work and cooperate together, but giving any one of them too much weight over the other has the potential to hurt a game. I personally believe narrative should never get in the way of the moment-to-moment gameplay, but if you’re smart about it, you make narrative just as much a moment-to-moment gameplay system as everything else.

The Settled Down Gamer: Finally – „Ustatkowany Gracz” roughly translates to „The Settled Down Gamer”. How would you define such a gamer in your own words? Do you think you fit into your definition?

Chris Avellone: A gamer for whom gaming is a lifestyle (not necessarily competitive, but more leisurely) who has time to relax and sit down and enjoy games. I don’t consider myself to be one… mostly because to my shame, I rarely have time to enjoy games – if I’m ever “enjoying” myself and relaxing with a game, I immediately feel guilty and need to start working again. It’s a bad habit that was bred into me in my youth. The last title I played I enjoyed was Oxenfree, and even then, I had to make sure I was so burned out from working I had No temptation to go back and work. 😉

Dawniej student projektowania gier na Uniwersytecie Śląskim w Sosnowcu, przez chwilę nawet doktorant. Kurator gier wideo katowickiego festiwalu Ars Independent. Wierny fan twórczości Hideo Kojimy, Yoko Taro i Shigesato Itoiego. Podobno napisał kiedyś tekst, który miał mniej niż 13 000 słów, ale plotka ta pozostaje niepotwierdzona. Ustatkowany Gracz. Z twarzy.

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