Interview with Chris Avellone

Chris is always happy to draw a pic for his fans. Especially when there’s a gun pointed at him.

RPGNuke: I think we can skip the traditional questions like «When is Fallout 4/KotOR 3/Alpha Protocol 2 going to come out?». By the way, how often you and your colleagues are tortured with these questions? A quick look at any forum with discussions on Obsidian games makes me think about regular letters and phone call threats.

Chris: Aw, we’re not tortured by these questions! We enjoy getting them – it means fans liked the previous game enough to want a sequel, which we love to hear, we just rarely have the chance to make that a reality. Hopefully, publishers will listen if enough fans say the same, and sometimes the changing of the guard at a publisher can cause them to re-evaluate their line-up, so there’s always some hope. If not, there are always spiritual successors.

A while back you honestly admitted that you failed to represent the well-known «Russian spirit» in the Moscow missions of Alpha Protocol, since you grew up in a different culture. Nevertheless, the game had some incredible easter eggs only a Russian can understand. For example, a name of the Lazo’s yacht being «Победа» with the first two letters chipped away, which is a reference to a well-known Soviet cartoon. How did they come to be?

I confess I don’t recall, but I’m glad you caught it. JR Vosovic was the level designer, I believe, and the environment artist was James Garcia, and both of them are clever enough to have done their research when I could not, I was too busy writing and trying to research 80s movies for Brayko’s lingo and do alternate endings for the Moscow path.

Startled Chris posing for the People magazine. Nope, that’s a lie. We couldn’t come up with a good caption for this.

DLC Lonesome Road was inspired by Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley and Fallout universe as a whole was inspired by David Brin’s The Postman and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. What books influenced your other works?

So as part of the design process, I read and watch a lot of movies related to the era/situation. For WL2, for example, I had to bring myself back into the 80s mindset as well with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which Brian Fargo recommended to us, and re-watching a bunch of movies from that era to get some lingo down. Other book and movie influences recently (for WL2) were Food of the Gods, the Road Warrior, Day of the Triffids (book and series)… to name a few. For other projects it’s been Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls), as well as Don Quixote, the Jack Vance Dying Earth series (just finished Cugel the Clever), almost every one of Iain Banks’ Culture series (which I highly recommend – if a game developer needs a place to start, start with Banks’ The Player of Games, which was amazing and it’s one which game devs and game aficionados can get into pretty easily).

Glen Cook’s Black Company has always been a big source of inspiration (I loved how the RTS Myth from Bungie made it feel like you were playing in the Black Company world), Stephenson’s Snow Crash (there’s game ideas on every page, if not every paragraph) and I loved Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s “Roadside Picnic” as well, which felt like the inspiration for the Stalker video games. :)

David Gerrold’s Chess with a Dragon was also used as inspiration for some sci-fi ideas we had in previous projects as well.

In any event, I could go on and on, but those are some that jump to mind.

He spends his nights working part-time as a flight officer. For the soul.

Each Fallout: New Vegas DLC didn’t just add new content but also told a standalone tale, explored different themes. If you could make another one, what would it be about?

Going east to explore more of Legion Territory (especially the united/divided tribes who were crushed under Legion rule), or Denver would be interesting. Denver was a significant location in the first Van Buren iteration, and to be able to flesh that out in more detail would be welcome. Failing that, a DLC that continued the game and allowed you to travel west to explore at least a segment of NCR would be interesting. It’s a little hard to speculate because the existing DLCs were intended to be wrapped narratively around each other, and tell a complete tale. I was tempted to consider DLC that dealt with what happened to Cassidy from Fallout 2, but I don’t think the audience knew or cared very much about his fate, so that was an easy call.

There’s a new Fallout mod coming out that explores Texas called Fallout: Lonestar that explores another chunk of the Fallout world – if you need more Fallout in the interim, that’s worth supporting and checking out. The concept pieces are amazing.

Year and six months after your studio got money for Pillars of Eternity, can you still say that working with the backers is simpler than with a publisher? The «collective mind» of backers seems pretty mettlesome and wayward.

While it has different challenges, it’s still easier. You spend much more time interfacing with fans up front and during the process, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all – even if there are conflicts, if you’re able to explain your points in an intelligent fashion, we’ve found that people understand. Being able to share how the pipeline process works (which normally we can’t do) also helps educate fans on what’s possible and what’s not with game development as well. Also, if fans don’t want something, it sure saves time from implementing it – and not discovering it was unnecessary feature 6 months before ship when it’s revealed to the public.

«And out of this window we pushed the Activision investor. Call of Duty RPG, my ass!»

Did you play games that in some way affected your world outlook?

There have been games that have showed me new ways to develop RPG mechanics for certain as well as bold narrative decisions that were like being dashed with a bucket of cold water: Walking Dead, System Shock 2, Wasteland, and Fallout.

In terms of games that have challenged or changed my world outlook, almost none of my favorite games have. I usually use games to explore world outlook and possibilities (some of the moral dilemmas in KOTOR2 about Dark Side/Light Side and the moral set-ups for those situations are part of that, and some comments on religion in Mask of the Betrayer were the same).

Often it’s movies (Blade Runner, Citizen Kane, Up in the Air) or books (Screwtape Letters, 1984, Heart of Darkness, Iain Banks’ Culture novels) or even comics that have changed my views in many respects, and especially in showing me there’s new ways to tell life stories visually even in a seemingly-confined medium like superhero comics. Stainless Steel Rat and Dune both showed me how to do effective thief-style characters and diplomacy “fights” in the proper context, and my first exposure to the idea that belief-creates-gods/reality occurred in a book called Godstalk, which I re-read recently and still enjoyed.

What are your favorite setting and fictional universe?

Fallout’s up there. Planescape’s great. Numenera’s fun to play in. Fables was a great premise. Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber because it contained a whole spectrum of worlds within a cohesive whole (which I liked about Planescape, and what I like about BioShock as well), I love Warhammer (the setting is brilliant), I’m really loving the Pathfinder campaign worlds (they’re just fun to read and play in, and I love the art style), I love Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (the previous two for both the setting, and the characters/protagonists), Glen Cook’s the Black Company (gritty take on fantasy warfare), and while I’m sure everyone is on board with this already, I love both the HBO series and the Game of Thrones novels. TV-wise, I love Doctor Who, House of Cards, and the Wire.

What’s your favorite videogame genre besides RPGs?

Besides RPGs? Hmmmm. I guess it’s FPS’s (although the “shooter” part isn’t necessary) with strong storylines (Spec Ops: The Line, BioShocks, System Shock 2, Half-Lifes, Gone Home, Amnesia, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Dear Esther, Alan Wake).

Being a big fan of the original Wasteland, Chris was happy to work on the sequel with inXile.

Do you have an «idee fixe», a dream of creating a RPG an idea of which has been in your head for quite a while? Project of a lifetime stuff.

It’s more systems-related now. I’ve already gotten the chance to work on most of my dream RPGs (Torment: Tides of Numenera, Wasteland 2), and while I have TV and video game licenses I enjoy, I don’t know if they’re dream RPGs per se. I did have a different take for Torment 2 for a spiritual successor which I wouldn’t mind exploring, and a lot of the Wasteland 2 novel writing feels like a good set-up for Wasteland Zero, so who knows? The future’s bright.

Doing an RPG in the FTL universe would also be a lot of fun, too, I really enjoyed volunteering to write for it.

Can you tell us your personal Top 5 of cliches you’re sick of the most?

Let’s see… here’s four: (1) the bad guy is you, (2) amnesia, (3) female sexy handler, and (4) the midpoint-companion-betrayal are four that jump to mind, and I’ve done them all, so I have no room to talk. Although I don’t think I mind the clichés, it’s the execution that matters, and it only bothers me when they are done poorly.

In comics, though, it’s quickly becoming a cliché for “hot girl on motorcycle rides up to save the protagonist” which I feel has happened 5+ times this year in comics I’ve read. It usually happens halfway through issue #1, and my eyes hurt from rolling them so much.

Do you think the success of hardcore and old-school games on Kickstarter will make the publishers do something about development of such projects? We were already surprised by Might and Magic X from UbiSoft, so may Activision be already making (God forbid!) Arcanum 2?

They seem to work with some publisher portfolios (Paradox), and while I don’t think every publisher is seriously considering it, there are some for which the price point and the resource investment is a good fit.

Pillars of Eternity is the most anticipated game of this year among RPGNuke readers.

I guess you may have heard about recent World of Darkness Online tragedy? Let’s imagine for a moment, if guys from CCP decide to sell it one day, and then… Obsidian Entertainment suddenly get a chance to receive this IP. Your possible decision? Do you think, your guys are capable of such an accomplishment?

We’re big fans of the World of Darkness (our director of audience development, our D.A.D., did a lot of work with White Wolf). It’s a narratively rich world, and I love reading the source material. I couldn’t speak to its future, however, although hearing about the layoffs was pretty brutal, and I hope the devs find new work soon — we’ve certainly extended our hand to them to help out, as have other developers.

In a recent interview you mentioned never playing a Russian game, but what about Tetris? :-)

Fair enough, I have played Tetris. It was a competitive pastime in our freshman dorm. Probably too much so.

Do you get tired of constantly being in contact with your fans? Sometimes I get an impression you did more interviews than all other Obsidian workers put together.

If anyone — fan, budding developers, or press — asks me questions or wants advice, I try my best to answer them. I was in their place once, and no one would ever answer me when I was looking for knowledge or help in the industry, so now whenever anyone reaches out to me, I do my best to give the best answers I can. It takes some extra effort, but it feels good to do it.

You post excellent sketches almost every day in your Twitter. Can you tell us more about them? How and when did you start drawing them? Is this your hobby? Did you ever draw comics? If yes, can we get them in some way?

I drew a lot more when I was younger, but the defining moment of the this stick figure drawing obsession… er, passion …was a drawing technique in a book called “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,” where they suggested if you were interested in drawing superheroes, one of the best ways to show the range of motion for the figures was to draw a stick figure of the motion first, then add muscles to it. I never got around to adding muscles.

My Dad used to bring home huge reams of paper from the office that they were going to throw out, so I used to unroll them in our basement and just start drawing all over them (and on the walls, and on the stairwell to our basement, which got my Mom a little grumpy, but she was tolerant).

I use it to relax, and they are fun to draw. I never drew comics, although I’ve written a few (Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures short stories in issues 4, 5, 8, and 10, Star Wars Tales #24, Fallout New Vegas: All Roads). I’d love to write more if the opportunity presented itself.

It seems that you are a big comic book fan. Can you please name your favorite series?

Midnight Nation, Watchmen, Preacher, the Authority’s first 2 seasons (and Jupiter’s Legacy, right now), Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol (which was so heart-breaking in the relationship between the characters and brilliant the protagonist and antagonist concepts, especially Crazy Jane), Byrne and Claremont’s run on X-Men (ideas of which are still being used today with Days of Future Past), Simonson’s run on Thor (ideas of which, again, are being used in the Thor movies today), Frank Miller on Daredevil… the list goes on.

Currently, I’m really enjoying Manifest Destiny from Skybound (Lewis and Clark goes out to a Deadlands-style West expedition, love the art and the storytelling), X-Factor (every time Peter David writes it’s a joy, but the art in the new series is pretty fucking cool – also Peter David was recently playing South Park: Stick of Truth, so it was great to give him hints on the game when he got stuck), Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals and Fraction’s Hawkeye are both great, even though I hate Hawkeye and the premise for Sex Criminals sounded like the dumbest thing ever… until I read it, and I thought the execution was brilliant through characterization. I actually cite elements of Fraction’s Hawkeye when experimenting with dialogue interfaces. As an example, there’s one issue that’s “narrated” from the viewpoint of Hawkeye’s dog and it uses smell icons to represent storyline points, and it’s pretty cool.

I’m also loving Rat Queens, which is providing an amusing, brutal, and profane look at a fantasy adventuring company — which is a breath of fresh air for someone who’s been immersed in fantasy worlds for so long. Others: Witch Doctor from Skybound (House meets X-Files), Day Men, Black Science, Del Toro’s the Strain… there’s a ton out there, it’s hard to list them all, but those are some current favorites. I’m sure there’s more to come. I’ve been pretty happy with the quality of writing and art I’ve been seeing in a lot of comics to date – it feels like they’re really stepped up the quality bar over the past 10 years.

Русская версия интервью с Крисом Авеллоном