Thursday, March 30, 2017

Q&A With Chris Avellone

Chris Avellone has returned to Planescape as the Lead Designer on Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition.
Planescape: Torment may have been released nearly two decades ago, but its status as a beloved genre classic remains untouched largely due to its amazing setting and unique story.

Chris Avellone, Lead Designer on Planescape: Torment, went on from PST to work on many other popular titles, including Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Wasteland 2, and Prey. Now he’s returned to his roots to help Beamdog bring Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition to life.  

We’re glad Chris has found time to share insights about the original game and PST:EE.

Warning: Interview contains spoilers.
1. What was your involvement in Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition? Was an enhanced edition something you always wanted to do?
CA - A lot of people have mentioned Torment to me over the years, and the chance to do an updated version of it was appealing – not to change the core content, but with the goal of re-introducing  a new generation to the RPG and allow them easier access to playing it without having to jump through hoops to make it happen.
While I love the original game deeply, I recognize that both interface design and tech across platforms have come a long way since ’99. I believe the Torment experience can be kept while taking advantage of the technical achievements over the past 15+ years, so when Beamdog contacted me to gauge my interest, I told them I was absolutely interested… especially if they allowed me a chance to do a real grammar fix of the discrepancies in the original, of which there were many (we weren’t able to hire an editor, who could have helped back then, so I am happy to have a chance to do it now).
Before anyone thinks editing was a lot of changes to the text, it was more along the lines of fixing basic errors, establishing naming consistency and formatting consistency, and elements that were never intended to make it into the final product (narrative bugs).
2. Take us through the development of the original Planescape: Torment. What makes this game different from other RPGs you’ve worked on since?
CA - I suppose it was largely the Planescape setting that TSR/Wizards of the Coast had established – it was a very freeing license, so it allowed for departures from mainstream fantasy tropes which was welcome. (See below for additional motivation.)
3. How did you come up with the idea of an RPG where combat is not a focus? Was it difficult to create a game where most of the quests can be talked through instead of just fighting?
CA - Unfortunately, I was so focused on dialogue interactions/verbal combat that actual combat in PST was something of an afterthought. Yes, that is my fault. Was it hard to do a narrative-focused game? No – it was one of the things I liked about designing the game in the first place, as I’ve always seen conversations as both dungeons to explore and also conflicts and challenges to resolve.
4. How did the name of the original game come up? Why Torment?
CA - The original name was “Last Rites,” but it didn’t pass marketing (if I recall – it may have been b/c of a name conflict with something else, but it’s been so long, I don’t remember).
So Planescape: Torment was the next choice – and once we knew what the title was going to be, we worked on reverse engineering the title into the theme of the narrative (esp. the player’s existence and the reason his companions join him/gravitate to him).
5. What inspired you to write a game in a (at the time) relatively obscure and strange universe a long way away from other popular, but more generic, fantasy world settings?
CA - The inspiration came from being exposed to several fantasy RPGs in quick succession that seemed to follow the same conventions (system and narrative) without even trying to break the mold or even the basic gameplay loop – I thought Planescape was a way to experiment with deviating from the design norms of fantasy RPGs all in one fell swoop. :)
6. Which parts of Planescape: Torment are you particularly proud of?
CA - I loved the Modron Cube, and kudos to our Lead Programmer, Dan Spitzley, for architecting the mechanics. I also enjoyed the final battle moments (esp. your companions squaring off against the antagonist), and the final sequences that followed – including the meeting of the other NPCs near the end of the game as well (no spoilers, but one of them I enjoyed writing immensely for reasons that are likely obvious to those in the know).
7. What parts of the game would you go back to rewrite or expand (if any)?
CA - Probably the Buried Village, as we didn’t have time to flesh it out in as much detail as we wanted. Also, we would have loved to include more plane-travelling in general, but we just didn’t have the resources and time.
8. Have you thought about extending the Planescape: Torment universe in the past or did you consider this story finished?
CA - While Planescape: Torment’s storyline is done (it reaches a definite conclusion in my eyes), I think the rest of the Planescape universe (multiverse) is ripe for further exploration – there’s countless planes and settings to explore, it would be a shame to let them go to waste.
9. With which character in Planescape: Torment do you feel the greatest connection?
CA - I care for them all in different ways – even Ignus and Vhailor, who have their own emotional moments where they go beyond their outward obsessions.
Each CNPC and NPC was designed to represent a certain story or emotional arc to inform the player about the Planescape universe – and the player’s role in it. I care about them all in different ways, so I couldn’t choose only one.
10. Which Planescape faction would you choose to join?
CA - None, actually. The factions (forgive me) were one of the things I didn’t like about Planescape because none of them really seemed to “fit” me (even the Indeps and Anarchists).
I did think they were great “foils” to test a character against, however, and were the source of fun narrative and political challenges.
If I had a “faction,” I suppose it would be a follower of Aoskar, since I always imagined his deity portfolio represented the true theme of Planescape – the ability to connect all the planes together and provide access to all of them through portals (and the secrecy of the portals and the nature of the keys to open them was another nice narrative layer).
11. What led you to keep the true name of the Nameless One secret from the player, even though the protagonist himself finds it out eventually?
CA - Spoilers! ;) I thought whatever name we chose would never be as cool as the one players themselves imagined – and in the end, it’s not what you’re called, it’s who you are, which the game has already shown you through your actions. The actual name wasn’t important anymore, and I thought it was more literary if it was a secret that only 2 people in the multiverse knew for certain.
12. If given the opportunity, would you cosplay as a PST character? If so, which one?
CA - I’d try for Morte, because I could just wear a black robe and put on a skull mask.
Of course, then people would likely mistake me for Darth Nihilus and challenge me to duels.

13. This is the second time you’ve worked with Beamdog (Chris was a Narrative Consultant on Siege of Dragonspear). Would you be interested in collaborating with Beamdog again in the future?
CA - Of course. And have! Secrets!

14. What can change the nature of a man?
CA - The high Wisdom response at the end of the game is the “true” one (and there’s an Achievement for it to boot, in case there was any doubt).
From there, it’s up to the player to interpret what that truth is for them, I don’t feel it’s the game’s place (or any game’s place) to choose an answer for you.


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