»We didn’t have the luxury to do it like other RPG’s« – Chris Avellone on »Planescape: Torment«

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When you pitched »Planescape« in 1997 to Interplay, you we’re in your mid-twenties. What was this younger Chris Avellone like? And how do you think about him today?

About as fat and awkward as I am now. And just as addicted to caffeine. Also he had a lot of misconceptions about the industry and game development but was willing to do anything to write for games (which I still do). When pitching games then, we were pitching to a much different audience than nowadays (with the exception of Brian Fargo, the majority of the people we were pitching to was marketing). In today’s era, we do speak to biz dev and agents, but often it’s not marketing that’s critical to the decision (they have input, but they are part of a larger group).

As for thinking about then vs. now, I’m slightly worried that 20+ years in the industry has tempered some more creative thoughts as not being »practical« enough or resource-conscious enough so I discount them, when the older me was more willing to give it a shot (the problem, however, is that such decisions don’t just affect you). It’s one of the reasons it’s always good to hire juniors or those with fresh perspectives who may be able to show you how to make a design happen in a way you didn’t think of before.

What was your philosophy towards game design at this time? How did »Planescape« express this?

The idea that RPGs were forcing you to care about something external and how painful that imposition could be when done poorly. RPGs should be a personal journey, it should be self-discovery of not just whatever backstory the game provides, but more importantly what you are like as a role-player (which ties into Planescape’s »what can change the nature of a man?« as an indirect question related to that subject). 

There were a number of other elements that chafed me about RPGs including a standard set of usual races (elves, dwarves, halflings), the usual classes (which we didn’t get away from), and even the »usual« set of protagonists and enemies (evil wizard, dark god). 

Inventory items also seemed to be standard »+1« or »+2,« so we did make an effort to make the inventory items and the inventory slots (eyeball) unique and tried to go a step farther with the protagonist’s tattoos where these could be equipped and you could gain new ones depending on what you’d accomplished or experienced in the game (the tattoo system was also done because we couldn’t do multi-armor sets for the player or companions, so this was a pragmatic solution as well). 

I also didn’t always see RPG User Interfaces at the time that seemed to help represent the game world or the tone, but I think Planescape over-corrected in this regard (not the wheel so much as the naming convention for options, even on the opening menu). 

Lastly, I also think there were some omissions that players didn’t appreciate (ex: almost no swords as viable weapons in the game), but we figured if we’re trying to differentiate ourselves, might as well go all the way.

What were some of the biggest difficulties in development? And what we’re the greatest changes you had to make to the original vision of the game?

First off, to balance out the difficulties and disadvantages, there were a lot of advantages. 

One was very few people in the studio cared what we were developing beyond we were using the license (which isn’t cheap, so the fact we were putting it to some kind of use was a plus as far as everyone above us was concerned). 

Second, we had a great engine to build the game upon – we used BioWare’s Infinity engine for the project since most of the engines we tried to build in Black Isle Studios didn’t work out for various reasons (mostly management oversight and production processes of these engines, not because of programming skill – we had excellent programmers). 

Third, the Planescape team was very passionate and genuinely cared about the project. For some of them, this was the first chance to fully express their skills, and some of the people in the project, they had been »written off« by other senior developers in the studio as not meeting their standards, so it’s a testament to the leads on the project that they not only were willing to work with these devs, but the leads worked very hard to train them up and make them a cohesive team… with tremendous success.

On the negative end, the team was small, so we tried to downscale some of the Infinity Engine expectations because we knew we didn’t have the same team that BioWare did for Baldur’s Gate. 

Also, the marketing for the game not only ignored mistakes from previous Infinity Engine titles (putting the discs in cardboard sleeves that were known to scratch the discs, which got a number of fans pissed off at release), but the tone of the marketing was also off-putting. This was partly fair because Planescape is a strange universe, but the idea it was a D&D game should have been heightened, not lost in the strangeness of the presentation. 

Lastly, the studio wasn’t in good financial shape. When it became clear that Fallout 2 was in jeopardy (mostly because Tim, Leonard, and Jason had left to form Troika – this wasn’t their fault, however, nor was the studio’s financial challenges), a number of devs on Planescape were enlisted to do double-duty on Fallout 2 because Fallout 2 had to ship in order for people in the company to keep their jobs. 

We also went through a number of management changes over the course of the project, which was often a thankless task at Black Isle since your primary job as producer is mostly to be a shit umbrella. Unfortunately, we didn’t get our producer role right until the end when Ken Lee who worked with us to get the game done… the fact he had been in the trenches, understood the game, had contributed to the game (spells and spell effects) made him more invested and willing and able to fight for us when needed. :: Raises a glass to Ken Lee ::

»Planescape« is widely regarded as a classic now, hailed by fans and critics alike. But I sometimes wonder, that it didn’t make it’s influence felt like other games did. How do you feel about »Planescape’s« legacy in contemporary gaming culture?

I feel like it’s one of those classics no one really wants to play – it might be similar to asking a majority of high school students to care about reading a heavy or obscure »literary classic« (which I use loosely in comparison to Planescape, since the game wasn’t that). A »literary classic« might have some strengths, but you have to be in the right mood and frame of mind to receive them. Also, it was a lot of reading, and arguably more an adventure game than an RPG. 

When we were doing Pillars of Eternity (which was marketed to be partly based on Torment and carry some of its narrative and tone decisions), I had team members come by to purposely tell me they hadn’t played Torment or couldn’t get into it, which was fine – I think they felt I was the one who set that particular obligation for the Kickstarter, when in fact I think that was more of a way for the execs to try and draw more money and interest from fans (I think this was confirmed with the Numenera Kickstarter, which had much more Torment elements than Pillars did and definitely got backers on board).

What do you think will be some of the biggest trends in interactive storytelling we will see this decade? Is there something you are excited or worried about?

I’m excited to see conversation systems develop in VR that utilize gestures, eye tracking, and more animation-sensitive techniques. I think the industry’s been in a rut with menu-driven interrogation systems (or some variation thereof).

I’m also eager to see interaction systems without insta-win dialogue or ones that remove choice from the player (ex: Speech checks often lead to insta-wins or the most favorable path, or a Light Side/Dark Side indicator for a choice can lead to players defaulting to an extreme vs. making a nuanced choice). This isn’t a technological limitation, it’s a design one, and it’s often a simple fix (ex: something as simple as multiple Speech checks that lead to different results depending on what you know of the person you’re speaking to and how you want to steer the dialogue to achieve a certain goal).

I do feel that Fallout 1’s attribute and skill-based dialogue variation system was one of the best dialogue additions to come along in decades (and was a lot of fun to write for). It definitely impacted the dialogue design in »Planescape Torment«, and Torment would have not been the same game without the influence of Fallout 1 and 2’s dialogue design.

I guess I should also say something about Hellblade and God of War in terms of storytelling which really impacted me. In Hellblade, Sanua facing/talking to the camera and the Furies that comment on her journey is an excellent tool for immersion and seeding doubt/providing advice, and the fact the camera doesn’t leave Kratos in God of War is a more powerful technique for immersion than I would have realized.

Fans sometimes claim that »Planescape« has a much higher wordcount than »War and Peace« from Tolstoi. How did you write all that as a team? What was your creative process and daily routine like?

So an unpopular answer: While a verbose game, part of that verbosity was to offset the lack of dialogue and portrait animations. 

Also, we had to copy a lot of files with the same text from creature to creature… to explain, one of our programmers developed functionality in the dialogue tool for duplicating an entire scripted dialogue file to a new one with brand new text strings, even though the word choice for those strings would be the same. 

The advantage of this is you can do 24 »zombie« dialogues for the price of one, and then do minor tweaks to the other 23 dialogues and include variations that make each one stand out. The bad news of that is you suddenly have a much larger word count than if you’d directly referenced existing text strings (which is not without its same perils).

Lastly, I write a lot. I also like writing minor NPCs and quests, I like writing inventory items (which I think are one of the best ways to tell a story), and sometimes it’s just too much for a studio’s pipeline, especially in terms of localization. We almost didn’t have companion text and dialogues with the companions in Torment because of localization concerns, but (after getting permission from our studio head), I said fuck it and put it in anyway because I thought it would make the game better. I still got in trouble for it anyway, but I don’t regret it even though I’d do it differently (I’d just keep pushing for it until I got official permission from the real sources – in other words, do it properly).

The Nameless One represents one of the strangest and most fascinating player-characters in any game to this day. How did you develop him?

We not only wanted an anti-hero, we wanted an avatar that looked like one and represented the baggage of many, many lifetimes. 

We also wanted his appearance to visually confirm that his existence wasn’t a power fantasy, that this kind of immortality basically sucks and also enforce the idea that you might become an immortal zombie wasn’t far off.

Could you elaborate a bit, on how you designed the choice-mechanic in the game and how this connects the player to the story and journey of the Nameless One?

We couldn’t customize the player’s avatar (we didn’t have the resources), but we could customize the character’s personality, give expression to those personality choices, and also use it systemically to alter the character’s alignment which could lead to a number of other effects beyond narrative reactivity. 

On a narrative front, it reinforced the theme of »what kind of role-player are you« or »what can change the nature of a man,« although I’m hard-pressed to say which came first – the systemic design of changing the protagonist’s personality or Ravel’s question (I believe it was the systemic decision first).

One of the major themes in »Planescape« is, what it means to know oneself. Why was this something you wanted to explore? And what where some of the inspirations you turned to for shaping this theme and how it would play out?

Absolutely. The best mystery is not only your protagonist’s background (esp. if it’s hidden from you), but what kind of protagonist you want to be vs. what kind of protagonist you actually are. 

While a tired trope, amnesia seemed the best way to create this mystery, but part of the reason for amnesia was (1) we wanted to do an alignment development system you could grow into and allowed you to start as »true neutral,« a clean slate (this also fit into the »what kind of role-player« are you theme), and (2) there was SO MUCH to absorb about Planescape that trying to assume the player had any sort of pre-conceived knowledge about the setting felt like a big challenge – so instead of trying to »solve« that, we leaned into it, starting the player with no memory and then letting both the player and protagonist learn about the world together which arguably helped with immersion (and Morte as a sidekick was there to explain things as they went along as needed, although not always in the most helpful manner). 

A lot of the companions have a hidden connection to the Nameless One, which relates to the games discussion about the meaning of torment. Was this something you knew, you wanted to do from early on? Or how did the companions and their role take shape?

It started as a pragmatic decision, which I then tried to explain thematically, then evolved into super-easter-eggs for players that explored the conversations vs. taking their companions for granted (since many of them will not volunteer these connections).

On the pragmatic decision front, we didn’t have many companions and we didn’t have the luxury of people leaving your party based on your behavior as many other RPGs (I think there would have been other ways around this, but…), so the »others who suffer are drawn to you« psychological tether generated by the Nameless One was part of this and would narratively explain how these other suffering individuals might be trapped in his orbit. It’s not a cheery thought, but it did blend into the theme of the game and it doesn’t preclude you from helping to set those people free and ease their suffering, even for the most broken of them (even Ignus).

On the easter egg and writing front, it was interesting and fun to draw secret connections and to see how the player influenced their companion’s past and the impact the companion had on your current incarnation. Morte, Ignus, and especially Dak’kon were major examples of this.

It seems like in »Planescape«, you can only truly know yourself, if you strive for wisdom in your life. What role does wisdom play in your life?

Very little, I am ashamed to say. There’s a lot of (questionable) wisdom I’ve learned in the forms of mistakes I’ve made, which would be too long to list here, but I do try to share with new developers so they can avoid the same mistakes. If there was one difficult piece of wisdom for me to act on, it was when to remain silent and when to speak up. Being silent on a topic will not help that problem get resolved, it only allows it to persist. If it is not challenged and a light shined on it, it will remain. If you are too afraid to say something because of fear for your position or punishing consequences, you should question where you are and if you want to remain in that situation – chances are, there’s someplace better to be if you look for it.

You actually acted on that wisdom. You split with Obsidian Entertainment in 2015 and you have been a vocal critic of the working conditions and abusive power relations in the gaming industry since.

The only reason I’ve spoken out is because (1) it needs to be said, (2) I’ve seen the damage these cultures of silence cause, and (3) I’m going to keep writing no matter what, and (4) if someone tries to damage my career, I not only don’t care, but it also only serves to prove my point. I’ve seen these happen with other RPG companies who people tried to »blacklist«, but there’s a good chance any attempt to harm someone speaking out is going to backfire because often the very reasons they’ve spoken out against a practice are the reason no one will trust the blacklister or the blacklister’s perception if they subsequently attack you.

There now is a growing movement for unionization amongst game developers to fight this systemic exploitation of workers. Does this make you hopeful for the future? 

I favor unions but I’m not naïve to think unions would solve all the industry’s problems. 

On the other hand, I think transparency would evaporate many problems in the industry – often it’s the code of silence, managerial protections of other managers, ignoring or hiding problems in development (both within a team and from a publisher), NDAs, and the culture of punishing those who speak out against conditions that does tremendous damage and causes a culture of fear. Making games is supposed to be great, so it would be equally great if that all that shit stopped happening… but being silent about it won’t help.

The industry can be awesome, but it’s hardly perfect. And the things to help fix it are so simple – I think giving developers proper credit for your work, giving developers the proper title for your work (there is no reason a junior or associate that does all the work for a senior, or lead, or executive should get sidelined for doing the job that others will take the credit for), getting paid the proper salary, and getting paid the proper salary regardless of any other factors (race, gender, orientation). 

On the salary front, I will say there would be a lot of pitchforks and torches raised and a rapid equalizing of salaries if companies were transparent about the salaries paid to employees and that would level the playing field and spark some pretty heated discussions about who’s contributing, who’s valued, and if you should immediately quit or not. 

It would also immediately shine a light on any nepotism, favoritism, or the compensation for one’s contributions and workload, and that won’t often end well for those in charge of the salaries if they aren’t assigning salaries fairly (and it won’t end well for the ones they are favoring), either.

Lastly, and this may strange for me to say, but studios should be careful about putting specific developers up on pedestals or use their names to sell products. I don’t like it when it happens (and I have contractual clauses in my contracts where I have legal say about how my involvement on a project is done so other developers and leads in the trenches aren’t sidelined and I’m not the only one mentioned in press releases, for example). It’s unfair to the rest of the team. It’s also deceptive to players if the developer being called out isn’t allowed any actual say in the project or their designs. Lastly, putting specific devs on pedestals can cause a negative perception of the studio (no matter how great the rest of the team is, or how much better the rest of the studio is) should those developers decide to leave. The focus should be on the studio, the team, and the games, not on specific people involved in development. 

Game development is a unified, group effort, not a single person’s effort that makes a game sing. Credit should be given where credit is due.

Thank you very much for your answers and your time, Chris. We appreciate your insights and we are looking forward to seeing your work in the future.

Hey, I appreciate you asking me, these questions were a lot of fun. Also, I’m glad you enjoyed Planescape… it was a lot of long hours for a very small team, but we believed very much in the game we were making, and I hope it showed.

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Giacomo

Giacomo machte seine ersten Videospielerfahrung an einem alten Dell-Computer - mit einer Demo von FIFA 98. Verlor 0:12 mit fünf roten Karten gegen Brasilien - in einer Halbzeit. Spielt heute am liebsten Rollenspiele, Adventures und schreibt als Kulturjournalist über Literatur, Videospiele und alles dazwischen. Versteckt manchmal seine Adam Jensen-Figur unterm Bett, wenn Besuch kommt

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