An Interview With Chris Avellone on Project Eternity: A Word on Romance

Are there non-violent or non-lethal options available to the player in Project Eternity?  

Yep. You can use stealth and speech options to circumvent, prevent, and resolve tense situations, much like in the Fallout titles. While there won’t be a pacifist path in the title, there are times where you can accomplish objectives with more social/sneaky builds in inventive ways.

We also want to explore the idea of speech as a tool, not as a key. That may sound odd – we don’t want speech skills used as insta-wins when the option comes up, which doesn’t allow for much player contribution in the interaction beyond pressing the highlighted button. We experimented with this slightly in Fallout: New Vegas and the DLCs, although what we’d like to explore is more along the lines of what we did in Alpha Protocol: if you know enough about a target or subject, there may be different ways and approaches you want to use to create a desired result, which may involve pissing the listener off, flattering them, or intimidating them, for example, but none of these technically “win” the scenario, they either provide a broader context or more information on the target’s attitudes and motivations but it all depends on which way a player wants to push them.

A better example of a dialogue tool is the “Empathy” skill from Fallout 1 and 2. It was a perk that color-coded your responses to indicate whether the response would create a favorable, neutral, or hostile reaction. That didn’t mean that that option would lead to a good or bad result, however, and you had to decide what to do based on the clues the Empathy perk gave you (for example, you may not want to get in good with the leaders of Vault City in F2 because you feel slimy and dirty doing so, even if you’re being unfailingly polite – or you may want to make a mob boss angry and hostile so he has a heart attack right then and there).

A few RPGs, including the newly released Dishonored and the much older Deus Ex contain scripted elements while allowing for non-scripted or emergent behavior.  Are there any plans to allow, or even create opportunities for the player to "play outside the bounds" of the scripted events in Project Eternity? 

While we’ll have a core narrative, we would like to allow for player-driven stories through the game mechanics when possible, as those end up being far more personal and stronger to a player than anything we could script (a lesson I learned very early on in my gamemastering days all the way to the Van Buren play sessions we had at Black Isle for Fallout 3).

Aside from writing the stories in the games you've worked—and are working on, how else do you contribute to the games? Do you have any input on the game's design?

It depends on the title – at the most senior level of a project (if I’m in the role of Project Director), I have full input on all design aspects of a title with the exception of owner input and publisher input and often, in these instances, I’m weighing in on all aspects of the design and often doing core writing and core design (Fallout New Vegas DLCs).

When it comes to other projects, I often am in the role of an advisor, imparting suggestions for pipelines and cautionary tales based on the many, many mistakes I’ve made in the past. While giving advice and support is welcome, I prefer a specific role on at least one project in the studio since that allows me to get my hands dirty and contribute more directly (and it keeps me on the front lines so I don’t get rusty or unhappy).

For the Fallout New Vegas DLCs, for example and a few of the pitch projects, I’ve been Project Director and Narrative Lead, for New Vegas, I was a senior narrative designer for the most part, for Knights of the Old Republic II, I was Lead Designer and Narrative Lead, while on Alpha Protocol I was largely a narrative lead with some lead designer responsibilities (system design fell to the Project Director, Chris Parker, on Alpha Protocol in that instance, and he guided the Systems Lead with input and vision).

So to make a long answer even longer, the amount of input I have on design varies, and the goal is to allow people at their level to be empowered to have their vision imparted in the project – so, for example, if I’m not a Project Lead on the title, I defer to the Project Lead and the owners’ design direction and advise or give perspectives, critiques, etc. when asked. It’s taken me a while to figure out the best role to assume at the studio to be helpful, and it tends to change on a yearly basis and also change based on the project.

Other specific contributions I have are design producer duties (I’m obsessed with pipelines and hierarchies and making sure nothing gets lost, based on previous mistakes), writing and scripting characters and quests, and doing level design (such as for Wasteland 2). Wasteland 2 has been a breath of fresh air, since I haven’t had much opportunity to do level design since Knights of the Old Republic II and I love drawing maps and laying out area quests.

Besides your future work on Project Eternity and having already returned to Fallout, have you any other universes or settings you'd like to visit? 

Sure. Wasteland 2 at inXile has already been an opportunity to return to one of my favorite franchises, so I can check that off the list (until Wasteland 3 – ::crosses fingers::). Other ones include: The Wire, Firefly, Ghost in the Shell, the Walking Dead (movie or comics), Chronotrigger, Torment (although that’s difficult for a variety of reasons), and Star Wars (I’ve always wanted to do Knights of the Old Republic III and finish the trilogy).

It's been officially disclosed that Obsidian plans to use Unity to develop Project Eternity. Is there a reason you've chosen to use Unity's development tools over other options? 

It meets our needs, has a good deal of support, fits within our budget, and is user-friendly. I’ve been happy with it on Eternity and on Wasteland 2, and it works great, so… yeah, that’s pretty much it. I wish I had something more critique-y to say, but I don’t.

Given your vast experience with designing and developing RPGs, are there any lessons or experiences you'd take from those previous games to avoid in Project Eternity? 

Awareness of scope. If you don’t know the scope, find out the specs for each part of the design and development toolbox (build a small level, a medium level, a large level, write a 15 node dialogue, a 50 node, a 150 node or more companion, build a weapon from start to finish, build a critter using the full range of animations, etc.). Then use a stopwatch to time each task until you know how long each one takes, and use that as a gauge of how much work you have in store – then seriously consider cutting it down to 50% or 75% of that amount to account for X factors during production.

Second, always ask “why the player should give a shit?” with every design decision, lore choice, and faction design. When fleshing out the world, keep in mind the player’s role as an agent of change, not your personal presentation. While you do want to put yourself and topics you’re passionate about in a title, that doesn’t mean crap if the player can’t interact with it in a way that empowers them. 

Examine pacing and expectations. As an example, Torment was an extremely dialogue heavy game, and I do believe (I can hear pitchforks and torches being gathered) it could have benefited from more dungeon exploration, more combats, in addition to the dialogue depth it had. I tried to correct that when doing Targos in IWD2… I started off with a lot of fights and exploration rewards that immediately highlighted the threat the city was facing, then moved into dialogues (punctuated by a few fights), then a blast-off at the end.

Project Eternity has been described (by Forbes) as a 'roleplaying risotto' rather than a unique dish of its own. What are you doing to give the RPG its unique flavor and ensure that it's more than just a mash-up of other games? 

Finally, what makes Project Eternity more than a simple nostalgia trip? 

Combining these two into one answer since the answer’s one and the same: Considering they’re all elements of Infinity Engine games, it’s taking the best of each, and they aren’t mutually exclusive. We have learned a lot of role-playing lessons over the year when applied to our designers such as how to employ dialogue mechanics (see above), making sure we’re rewarding for every style of gameplay (some titles we’ve done previously at Black Isle were punishing to a player that pursued a certain path, a path that we allowed, but cut a good deal of content out as a result – for example, “slavers” in Fallout 2), the idea of taking fantasy tropes and re-imagining them from the more narrative-driven metaphysical aspects of the world (soul transference, the nature of gods and their agendas, the Cipher class).