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An Interview with Chris Avellone - game designer, writer, and former 'unlucky schlep' - Part 3

As we near the release of Fallout: New Vegas' fourth and final DLC, Lonesome Road, in this last instalment of a discussion with Chris Avellone, we chat about the Fallout series, creating mythical characters, and writing an interweaving story through DLCs

Will Ooi, Blogger

September 18, 2011

24 Min Read

The latest edition of an interview series, “Unmasking the Gamers,” humanising the people who play video games: the real character controlling that fictional character; the person behind that First Person game.

On the eve of the final DLC release for Fallout: New Vegas, Lonesome Road, and having spoken previously about RPG designAlpha Protocol and his personal interestsin this final interview Chris Avellone discusses his work on the series, the creation of New Vegas, as well as the goals of its narrative-driven DLCs.

WillOoi: Could you see the Fallout series taking place in a different setting? Seeing the post-apocalyptic world from the perspective of a Chinese character, for instance.

Mr Chris Avellone: Character perspectives aside, the ability to properly give context to that setting is more difficult the more removed the developers are from that location. There's likely a good reason why Bethesda did F3 in Washington DC, for example, and why Obsidian took the West Coast/SoCal region - we know more about the area where we live (or the areas that the Project Director, JE Sawyer, can ride to on his bike) than, say, China. Not having intimate insider knowledge of a location I feel makes the level design for those areas weaker as a result, not to mention the comments you'll likely get from folks living in those areas about getting various details wrong.

WO: You were initially the lead of the cancelled Interplay Fallout 3, Van Buren. Did much of your original vision of the game differ from Josh Sawyer and the rest of Black Isle's final design documents? 

MCA: I believe most of it was changed, except for Denver, which remained largely the same as far as I could tell from the docs. The revised take on the Circle of Steel was different (for me, they weren't evil, they were just hardliners who thought the rest had drifted from the original principles of preserving tech and policing their own rogues - kind of like Internal Affairs), same with the central prison/quarantine facility, the Hanged Man, etc. Still, that just gave me the opportunity to include locations like Old World Blues' Big MT in the DLCs, so it all worked out. And plus, it's always fun to drop references to the old tribal groups that I'd created (Twin Mothers, Hangdogs, the Ciphers, etc.). Also, the Prisoner's Dilemma was a core theme in the original spec, as well as the conflict with the rival "player character group" and the reactivity spawning out of that.

All that being said, Van Buren was shaping up to be great with the direction, it's a shame it got cancelled. I feel Interplay could have made it clearer they had no interest in PC-only titles earlier and saved a lot of expense and time.


Fallout, then and now

WO: From a narrative point of view, what do you think the pros and cons are in regards to having an open world as opposed to the classic isometric angles for RPGs in terms of both atmosphere and limitations? And what challenges do these varying engines/in-game worlds bring when it comes to writing a game where, just with landscape alone, so much is already immediately visible and there isn’t as much of a mental, ‘filling in the blanks’ process?

MCA: Narration cannot be separated from level or system design, imo, and camera angles are a big part of that. As an example, there are certain vistas and moments in Fallout 3 and New Vegas that could not be accomplished without breaking you out of the isometric view regardless (REPCONN rockets launching). You can't get the full impact of weather, day/night, seeing the moon over Vegas, seeing the two Ranger Statues in the distance at the Mojave outpost, seeing distant flames at Nipton, looking up to see the Goodsprings cemetery with the skyline of Vegas behind it, or seeing the storms of the Divide to complement the location (the last four of which I'd argue are strong narrative moments as well as superior level design touches that cannot be done isometrically). I feel isometric is great for multi-party (like, 5-6 individuals you're controlling in combat), but when you're the lone wanderer with one or two companions that take general orders, it's not essential.

After Dungeon Siege 3 and FNV, I feel it's important to add depth regardless of the camera view - by that, I mean all of the distant vistas and signpost objects (ex: the 2 statues of the rangers shaking hands at the Mojave Outpost you can see cutting the horizon) provide the sense of a larger world, as well as a goal to travel to in the game. In Dungeon Siege 3, the push came from the verticality in the locations: frequently, the camera view would allow the player to see many levels down into valleys, ruined canyons in caves, and even multi-tiered lit levels that really added to the level design.

My preference? If you're shooting for immersion, keep the player out of the picture as much as possible and try to keep everything as if the screen is your eyes. If it's a highly customizable game (as RPGs tend to be), I derive the most enjoyment out of 3rd person views that allow me to fully see what I'm carrying. When things get tactical and I need to know where everyone is on the screen at one time, iso's the way to go.

Playing with Intelligence less than 4

WO: Fallout 1 and 2 featured low intelligence dialogue – how much extra work does that take? And how fun is it to write; are you able to ‘let loose’ seeing as the more 'serious' playthrough was essentially made redundant when players took this option?

MCA: It takes some work, it's not easy if you're doing the extent it was done in F2 - you have to carefully make sure that all locations are accessible in stupid ways (for example, stupid characters can gain access to Vault City most easily by being enslaved and made a servant, which is another quest path to write and test). This is balanced out by the fact that these quest options and stupid dialogue in general is fun (Torr's subtitles in F2 where you can only "fully" communicate with him as a dumb character). When writing low intelligence dialogue, it's a blast to just sit down, chug a beer or two, and write it. We even wrote all stupid options for every single topic in Dead Money, for example, and that didn't take much time. The problem is, you're still looking at a localization budget, so that's not always feasible, so that needs to be cut even if it may not add to the voice recording time, it'll add to the word count translators need to account for.

WO: Being in charge of most of the Fallout New Vegas DLCs, how do you think the vanilla plot of a game can benefit from the addition of more content? Apart from obviously increasing the lifespan of the title and new saves being created from scratch, what do you think of having this type of 'episodic' extra content?

MCA: A lot of lore gets generated for most titles that folks never realize is there. Part of the reason that BioWare has comic arcs, novels, etc. is because they have a lot more going on in the world than could possibly fit in a single title - and even streams out into their DLCs. The same was true for New Vegas, and it was compounded by the fact a chunk of us had already worked on Van Buren as well, so we had a lot of story ideas lying around in the closet. My feeling is that you've designed a strong narrative and included the right hooks, those hooks alone (the Burned Man, or the "other" Courier 6) can make folks want to learn more about the world outside the Mojave.

From a developer standpoint, I find turning out short adventures to be more fulfilling than 2-3 year titles, and it also allows you to continually take into account feedback on the previous episodes as you're marching toward the end of the line.

Concepts from the cancelled Van Buren eventually made their way into New Vegas and its DLCs

WO: The DLC packs for F:NV have been rather unique in that they all hinted towards future events within the DLC side story - namely that concerning the ominous confrontation with Ulysses. What were the challenges in spreading this subplot across all the DLCs, allowing them to also be played in a different order to the releases themselves and still remaining coherent and revealing to the player?

MCA: Sometimes we accepted that there would be an inconsistency if the players played them out of order, other times, we did what all narrative designers do when faced with a technical limitation - you acknowledge it and find a reason for it in the story that explains it away. For example, in Old World Blues, the Think Tank at Big MT brainwash you when you arrive so you can't ever talk about the place to anyone outside the crater. And then we used that as a further narrative opportunity to suggest that's because of a series of bad events that happened in the past when previous visitors attacked them and escaped... and then added an additional narrative hook that if people go to Lonesome Road or Dead Money, they'll encounter those exact folks that caused the scientists to do that in the first place. We try to see these narrative limitations as opportunities when we can.

In Lonesome Road, one narrative solution we used is there's a compact with the player, especially with regards to the Burned Man/Graham, that suggests a more personal reason as to why the topic isn't discussed, and I believe that can work just as well. It doesn't have to be imposed on the player, just understood.

WO: When cutting Ulysses from the original, vanilla version of New Vegas, was there always an intention to have him - as well as characters only hinted at, such as Elijah - feature in the DLCs?

MCA: No, I didn't know until the end of DLC1 that Ulysses would be part of the narrative arc, it evolved out of writing those characters in the DLC. Elijah and the Burned Man were always intended for the DLCs, and planning to incorporate them and the other hooks occurred before FNV was finished.

As far as Ulysses, there's been some talk that the DLCs feature material that was axed in the game, and that's largely incorrect.* Even Ulysses' incarnation in FNV isn't what he came to be in the DLC narrative arc. All the characters and locations in the DLC are brand new, and the most we did was to make sure there were visual and narrative hooks to these DLCs prior to release (signage, hints, discussions about the other courier). Doing these hooks aren't easy to mask because everyone can have access to the GECK and files on release, so as one example - with Felicia Day's recordings where Veronica discusses Elijah post-Dead Money, we had to make up fake topic lines in order to mask who she'd really be talking about when the DLC was released.

* One notable exception was the LAER rifle, which was a model from New Vegas we didn't use in the main game. We decided to make it work in the DLCs.

A character of myth and legend - but how to bring him to life?

WO: Prior to the release of Honest Hearts, the The Burned Man, Joshua Graham, was of near-mythical status thanks in part to the fact that he was only ever spoken of and hinted at with awe. What are the considerations in ensuring that such mystique is maintained when finally bringing these characters to life?

MCA: First, the character model. There's challenges in models in Fallout, where you have a choice between doing a model that can lip-sync and have facial expressions (like Graham) but not have as much freedom with the body type and construction, or you can go down the path that we did with Ulysses, where we decided to forsake that in order to build a completely custom model for the player to interact with.

Also, you have to be clear - when talking about a myth, it's just that, a myth. The reality in meeting someone is certain to either defy people's expectations (and it's difficult when this happens, because when a player imagines a certain character to be a certain way and they're not, they're invariably disappointed because let's face it - anything they can imagine as cool is usually going to be better than what we try to guess would be cool for them).

At the same time, it's the perfect opportunity to surprise them and use that expectation as a twist, which I think Graham (and Josh) did extremely well.

WO: Please describe the process of creating a character, developing their arc and relationship with the player character over the course of the story - and how does emotion marry into gameplay? As an example, after appreciating Cass as a companion for both camaraderie purposes as well as her skills, should players feel a responsibility in helping her forgive rather than become more bloodthirsty by the end of her personal quest?

MCA: The process worked like this:

- On most Obsidian projects, the Creative Lead either creates narrative summaries of the companions or delegates the creation of the companion arcs to individual designers.

- For FNV, Josh Sawyer took this role and then each of the companions was delegated to other designers (Travis Stout for Raul and Lily, Eric Fenstermaker for Veronica and Boone, Akil Hooper for ED-E, Jesse Farrell for Rex, I did Cass and Ulysses, and Josh himself for Arcade) divided the work.

- In the summary, Josh created the arc for Cass, including end states with character state changes depending on how her main quest resolved. I only did minor iterations on it (keeping the fate of her Dad in question and changing some elements), added elements about how she felt about the other companions, but I liked the initial direction very much, so much so it was really quick to write her. Josh left the tone and actual implementation up to us.

- From there, I set up the editor framework, lore nodes, quest hooks for beginning and ending, and then wrote out her actual lines. 

- Made sure the backstory and foundation matched her skill set, stats, and also explained where she had gotten these skills (explosives).

- We did iterations on her perks to make them more personality-centric (Cass's initial perk was carrying more Water, or giving a bonus healing for Water), but after kicking it around with Josh, we settled on the Whiskey Rose perk which we thought would make her more valuable as a companion game mechanic-wise and also reinforced her hard-drinkin' personality.

- Hinted at the location of DLC4 in her dialogue as a casual side mention. ;) She would also include a hook to her father Cassidy if we wanted to explore that in the future.

We did have discussions about the companions - while the companions in New Vegas are purposely divorced from the story so they weren't mandated to join you or endanger the plot by dying, I still think we could have made the mainstream figures in the game companions instead (or as well) without them necessarily being mandatory to join. For example, there wasn't any reason beyond line counts we could have made Victor, Benny, Vulpes (who could be in disguise for NCR-allied folks, or be full-on Legion for Legion folks), and Yes Man companions, and that might have made the narrative stronger in some respects. It's a philosophy we've discussed for future projects, and it's more my desire to have the companions more involved in the spine of what's going on. Also, we could have used more Legion perspectives, I believe.

When doing Ulysses as a companion (he was one I got to create from scratch not in the companion doc), I had the following goals:

- He had to reinforce the faction reputation mechanic, which I thought was one of the key mechanics in the game.

- He had to react strongly to NCR/Legion conflict and the player's role in it, acting as a sounding board when possible.

- He had to be a Legion sympathetic character and explain Legion backstory elements, since there wasn't much Legion support in the companions.

- He had to continually remind the player of Hoover Dam as the focus, and his backstory incorporated that (he was the frumentarii who discovered the Dam and NCR long ago).

- Showcase myth elements. Ulysses was big about symbols, and his take on the NCR flag, the Legion flag was also reflected in their champions (he viewed Legate Lanius as an Eastern myth in the making, and he felt the player could achieve that same mythological status for the West or for the Mojave).

- He was to complement the cool visual design changes that Josh had included for other companions (similar to Raul and Arcade, Ulysses would have the vest/flag changes, except it would depend on player's end faction allegiance when they completed Ulysses' vision quest).

WO: While on the subject, what were your goals with the character of Cass? 

MCA: As mentioned above, Josh provided the arc and the concept, and then I just fleshed her out trying to channel how a daughter of F2's Cassidy would have grown up in the wastes. I'd written Cassidy in F2, so it was a good fit. There were some key points I felt necessary to hit:

- Karmic sensitivity. It was important to me that Cass have a moral sensibility despite the train wreck her life had begun.

- Fun to interact with, I wanted to play around with Fallout slang and profanity, and it made her one of the fastest characters I've written.

- Reactivity. While many of the reactivity lines didn't make it into the game based on location and events, Cass was designed to pay attention to environments and have quips accordingly (she had a range of comebacks to the Kings when they're catcalling to her in Freeside, for example, and Rachel Roswell read them like a pro).

- Showcase the underlying problem with NCR and Legion, and reveal that despite her hatred of the Legion and their treatment of people, they're still doing a lot of things right, which makes an already bad situation even harder for her - she prefers NCR, but recognizes that they are colossal fuck-ups.

- Also reveal the underlying caravan conflicts in the game and emphasize the problems with the caravan economy both in Mojave and the West (which Josh had included in her arc).

WO: Her Whiskey Rose perk really made me appreciate the +10 lb carry weight and the bonus of drinking without fear of getting hungover, which also matched well with my highly charismatic (and alcoholic) character at the time. What were your own favourite, personal adventures with companions in F:NV?

MCA: Fallout 3 and New Vegas reinforced the importance of staying drunk all the time for that ST bonus if you're a compulsive looter and hoarder like I am. If it's not nailed down, I'm takin' it and sellin' it. 33 tin cans? You bet I'll grab all of those pseudo-copper-pieces.

So my most notable companion experience was two-fold, but it was in Dead Money: One, Dean Domino's guns skill hadn't been tweaked, and he proceeded to display what a card-carrying badass he was when we entered Puesta del Sol, and the second moment was fighting 4-5 Ghost People, and using Elijah's voice in the middle of combat to switch God to Dog and watch him start to devour everyone while I watched - it was like dropping a "companion bomb" into a nest of bad guys.

WO: What were the reasons behind Fallout 2's humour and pop culture references? Its style certainly seemed to later influence New Vegas and the Old World Blues add-on, even more so when players selected the Wild Wasteland trait. A marked change from the original Fallout, yet at the same time it was great to be able to select smart-arse lines in dialogue.

MCA: There are a few different reasons behind the humor/references for each product.

Fallout 2, imo, was the result of new designers, including myself, playing around in a pseudo-modern franchise that was also a mature-rated title. The attitude was prevalent amongst the team. As a result of that experience, we now have style guides, style direction, and a ruthless policy about including any inside jokes and winks-and-nods to friend and developer names in our titles. It's our attempt to learn from mistakes in the past.

Wild Wasteland was an idea by Josh Sawyer to allow folks who wanted those optional references in the game. I don't think it was directly inspired by Fallout 2, it was more the feeling from reading the forums that there were a certain % of folks that did very much enjoy those aspects of Fallout (including folks who would enjoy hardcore mode, who enjoyed references to Aliens). Josh is considerate to the player experiences, and he leaves aspects of gameplay like that as an optional choice for players without forcing it on them.

Old World Blues was different than F2 and FNV. Old World Blues did a different take on the humor - it was an attempt to include humorous moments but have a "logical" reason why there's a series of talking appliances, why the doctors are a garbled psychological mess, and why the facility is laid out as if it was tag-teamed by a pair of giant fuckbots. There was a conscious effort in the DLC to make sure all the insanity had a narrative and lore reason why it existed. I think Eric Schwarz's Game Banshee review had the best description of the underlying logic and the results of any review, I've read, and they correctly mirrored my concerns about the title's reception (which I'll get to in the next question).

WO: Generally, what are the difficulties in balancing seriousness with humour, and what do you think is essential in these cases?

MCA: Comedy's hard. I wasn't sure how Old World Blues would be received. While it was one of the most fun titles I've had the chance to work on, I thought it might be comedic overload and play too much with the boundaries of the franchise - I was primarily concerned about Fallout lore enthusiasts being upset with the direction.

Still, Old World Blues showed that as long as the context has some underlying logic that the player is a part of, it makes it palatable, and assuming most of your humor hits the mark, it's genuinely fun for the player. It's a difficult balance, notably because you don't want the humor to undermine the plot, characters, and any themes you've introduced - often, a joke at the wrong time can completely destroy an otherwise cool arc or moment. Still, when the theme of the narrative and the world is directly tied to the humor, then you've got more to work with.

I also believe it can't all be chuckles and laughs throughout, there needs to be contrast. There's sad and horrifying stuff in Old World Blues, and it couldn't have the same stabbing effect without the madness and the humor. The end slides can be melancholy, and I always feel bad for Borous and 8, among others. And Muggy.

On the converse, a game without any humor at all is challenging as well. Overpowering, crushing despair in desolate environments needs to be carefully designed, as those feelings and environments isn't something a player is playing a game for - there needs to be those lighter moments and human victories to vary the experience. Dead Money had the biggest challenge in this regard, since there wasn't much to laugh at in a toxic city filled with pseudo-dead masked killers and hologram ghosts, and worse, the underlying stories of just about everyone didn't make anything any cheerier.

From serious to humorous, the events of the DLCs were still connected by a single, overarching story

WO: From a developer point of view, do you still get to enjoy the titles you've contributed to even though you know the mechanics driving them all? 

MCA: Yes, even though there's running developer commentary in the back of my mind while playing the titles, including a fair amount of wincing and gentle whispers of "Jesus Christ" to myself. Still, that ends up being balanced by moments where you find a cool area you hadn't ever had a chance to explore before (Jeff Husges, one of our best level designers, made a lot of cool nooks and crannies in the Sierra Madre villa in Dead Money that I stumbled across and smiled once I saw the set-up, for example). Also, it helps that many of our titles have so many branches that whenever I play, I have the chance to experience something new, so that's a plus as well.

WO: Where to next for you, Chris, career-wise and personally, and what can we expect from Obsidian in the future?

MCA: Sleep. Watch more BBC sci-fi. I'd love to share more info about RPGs to interested folks, so I'm always happy to speak about that to individuals or audiences. Career-wise, I'll still be doing RPGs until death or carpal tunnel syndrome sets in. I don't know why it hasn't yet, maybe the wrist rotation exercises at the gym have staved it off (insert innuendo of your choice here). Regardless, if I get carpal tunnel, I'll just learn to type with my nose or toes. Or my "penis-toes," as the doctors of Old World Blues might say.

WO: Looking at life through a lens of an RPG, which three tag skills have you picked and what is your karmic alignment?

MCA: I know which ones I DIDN'T tag - Speech, Science, and Guns, which makes me almost the most worthless Fallout character ever. Don't ever make an Avellone build unless you need to either read or write an enemy to death.

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