Fallout: New Vegas and DLC Post-mortem Interview, Part Two

29 Nov 2011

Chris Avellone has been instrumental in crafting many of our favorite role-playing games, with his most recent labour of love being Fallout: New Vegas and its four story-driven DLC packs. When Chris agreed to do a post-mortem interview about the game and its many add-ons, Thomas, Eric, Simone, and I all rounded up a bevy of questions and sent them off. The end result is an interview so massive that we had to split it into two parts - the first half was posted last week, while the second half is ready for your perusal below:

Both Old World Blues and Honest Hearts took on an open world framework, while Dead Money and Lonesome Road were much more structured experiences. Does that significantly alter storytelling, or the themes you explore? Do you find one easier than the other to tackle?

It depends on the theme. With Lonesome Road, Damnation Alley was the inspiration, so the linear feel was intentional. The level design complements this - the player is traveling to a specific destination, and we didn't want much to disrupt the forward momentum or sense of being on a journey. With Old World Blues, it was more open-world roaming at your leisure.

Neither one is particularly easier than the other, I'd argue, so we start with the feeling we want the player to have in the DLC and then use the level design and systems to heighten it.

Lonesome Road hits the player with major consequences to choices that the player never actually participated in prior to the DLC's beginning. Do you think this would have worked better if the player had actually partaken in the events that he or she is being held accountable for, even if only in a tutorial?

There were a lot of ways we could have structured the DLC, granted. We certainly did have the resources to represent the NCR and the West (DLC4 was limited to 3 voice actors), and while I wouldn't have done a tutorial that physically put the player in the past, there might have been other hooks we could have done with more resources. Still, I'm satisfied with what we did construct, and it hit the goals we set out to do.

You've mentioned Zelazny's Damnation Alley as a source of inspiration for Lonesome Road. That story took place decades after the apocalypse, and indeed Lonesome Road is the most recently apocalyptic area ever seen in a Fallout game. Was this intentional after the post-post-apocalyptic atmosphere of New Vegas? Is this a direction you've been wanting to take for some time?

My only intention was I wanted the player to feel like they were traveling the road to The End. The proper "The End" feel for any Fallout game lies in seeing the wreckage of the world before, all its architecture twisted and cracked and flooded with invisible fires, radiation, and seeing the grave of the world that was. Your road started here, it leads back there, and at the end, you get to see what your journey meant to someone else - and hopefully, decide what it means to you. There are countless ripples that stem from the Divide. Without it, you never would have found the Sierra Madre, encountered Christine, Elijah, and Ulysses, seen Big MT, and more. From one simple act, countless others were born.

Lastly, I wanted to nuke the Fallout world to reset things. NCR's getting a bit big, and it's making things too civilized. Lonesome Road was a way of resetting the culture clock.

Confirm once again, if you will, that the courier did not suffer from either partial or total amnesia.

The player does not have amnesia. The idea was that the package the player delivered was a standard fetch quest in New Vegas, one you might forget about - but the people you deliver it to don't. There are a 100+ quests in the Mojave... people would be hard-pressed to remember them all 3-5 years later, and the package that went to the Divide was one of them. Again, all we knew about the player is (1) he had once been a courier, (2) he had travelled in the West and the Long 15, (3) based on the start of FNV, it's true that the Courier could have delivered any manner of incredibly dangerous pieces of technology without understanding the forces they could unleash. What could be a simple delivery for you could spell the end of a town, community, or city - or reshape the boundaries of the wasteland.

At the conclusion of Lonesome Road, a lot of things in the courier's past are still kept pretty vague. Was this done to ensure that there wasn't too much history outside of the player's control? Would you say that Lonesome Road tells us more of the courier's story, or more of the story as told through Ulysses' idiosyncracies?

Ulysses does refer to what the player would have done to the Mojave if Benny hadn't intervened - in some respects, Benny's intervention frees the player from a certain ignorance they might have had with a seemingly-innocuous delivery quest to Vegas.

So in essence, Lonesome Road is a story of what could have happened if the player completed their journey, made the delivery, none the wiser for how that would affect the balance of power in Vegas and the Mojave.

Like you, many of us come from a PnP RPG background. When looking at Ulysses, we immediately think "GM's character", one of those heroes/anti-heroes the players can keep bumping into, that actually has agency unlike most other NPCs. Is that the idea?

Ulysses is a nemesis - a foil and a sounding board, yes. Also, for want of a better definition, he's designed to ego-stroke the player - he's clearly one of the legendary figures in the DLC, and the fact that he's so focused on your player character to the absence of almost everything else in the world is intended to make the player feel important, feel cool, and get the sense that they matter.

Many of the things that Ulysses says throughout the DLCs are intended to reinforce how capable the player is ("[Elijah's] Gone to the Sierra Madre. Someone tougher, stronger's going to kill him if the Madre doesn't." = Indirect compliment to you.) People on the forums got excited once they realized that someone was specifically looking for their player, and seeing a legendary figure consider their Courier important enough to follow to the ends of the earth makes the player's journey all the stronger, in my opinion.

Other than that, Ulysses is like any level 50 player character I would expect - he's been around, seen a lot, and can put a lot of the Fallout world in perspective, just like Elijah, Dr. Mobius, House, and Caesar. He's not my character, he's a character designed to make your player stronger, and be a challenging adversary to test yourself against (whether violent or not).

We know that Ulysses is meant to mirror the player, but he seems to have a lot of similarities to Elijah from Dead Money, and those DLCs are book-ended by two mentally damaged antagonists that are incapable of letting go of their obsessions, while Elijah also mirrors Joshua Graham as an erudite former legionnaire. Were these similarities intentional to help tie the DLCs together thematically?

The goal was to make epic adversaries - I do think a player's strength is comparable to the strength of their adversary - there's nothing epic about killing a weak adversary, so Elijah and Ulysses are designed to be epic-level foes. I didn't intend Elijah to be more than what he meant to be - a Fallout-style sociopathic Merlin who's tired of human nature looting, pillaging, and rummaging through his Mojave Pre-War toy box.

Ulysses isn't intended to mirror the player, he was just intended to act as a nemesis - and while he's been wounded, he's not crazy. Both the NCR and the Legion are embodying two political principals that have shown to fail the world in the past, and are currently failing the world as they exist - the fact they even exist is a testament that history is repeating, and it's the wrong lessons. Best thing? Take them out now, give room for a new idea. The idea and the power wouldn't have occurred to Ulysses without the player's intervention.

Unfortunately, Ulysses latched on to some distant imagery of what the Divide/America might have been, so he doesn't have all the facts. Still...

From what we understand, you headed up all of the story-based DLC except for Honest Hearts, which fell under the watchful eye of J.E. Sawyer. Did the two of you work together to ensure that the add-ons meshed well, or was J.E. given free reign when working on the DLC? And because Joshua Graham originated in Van Buren (which J.E. was lead designer on), would you say that he's different in any measurable ways from the antagonists in the other DLC?

There's a different approach, and it depends on the stage of Van Buren you mean (Josh and I were lead designers on VB at different times). Originally, there was a character called the Burned Man (and Caesar's Legion) in both versions of VB. As far as the Burned Man goes, he was pretty messed up, and I think my version was more brutal than Josh's (not saying that's bad, but the Burned Man in VB1 carried a lot of baggage for a companion character, as indicated on the Vault wiki).

I’ve never taken them except from Fallout (again, because that pen and paper game was designed for the computer game)… but even then, in terms of groups and factions, Caesar’s Legion, the Hanged Man/Burned Man, and more, just went on to be taken by others and re-interpreted in different ways as the years went on. They’ve mutated over time, and they’re not anything like they were initially except in name.

Josh had free reign over Honest Hearts, much like he did in New Vegas, and I feel that giving Josh the authority to voice and carry out his designs as he sees fit gets the best results. His execution on ideas is solid.

When doing Honest Hearts, I did have a list of requests, and this was it:

- Maintain the same team hierarchy as the other DLCs. This didn't need to be expressly said, but we re-organized the team for the DLCs.

- Maintain the new pipelines we made for the DLC (we had new naming conventions and script conventions everyone was expected to follow, for example).

- In terms of narrative, here was the only things that were requested:

- Any conversation with Graham mentions that when he first heard a courier was coming to look for him or the Blackfoot [CFA: original name of tribals] tribe had captured a "courier," he should initially be surprised it was the player, as if he was expecting a different courier (Ulysses, although he won't describe him or name him). If asked to elaborate:

- Graham should mention that previous Caesars and generals sought to send agents West to look for new territory and to exterminate any threats to the Legion, although none ever returned, no matter how capable they were - there was one, however, that he thought might still be alive out there based on stories he'd heard, but he won't elaborate any further - but hey, if Graham managed to survive, maybe other cast-offs of the Legion survived out there as well when they were believed dead.

This can be spoken by anyone, Graham or otherwise.

- Graham/Random NPC should mention that Caesar was lucky that the NCR trade route from the "Divide" was wracked by storms, and that only left the chokepoint at the Mojave Outpost (and possibly the Blackfoot/New Canaan trade route) for the Legion to target in order to cut off supplies to the NCR West of the Colorado. Graham doesn't know what happened at the Divide, only that it was destroyed and it was fortunate it was for the Legion, as it helped hurt the trade routes to the NCR in the Mojave.

- Graham/Random NPC may make mention that only madmen would go to the Divide, the road there is a death trap and a road to the grave. If Graham says the lines, I'll want to incorporate it into the trailer for DLC4, if possible, so some drama in the delivery would be welcome. ;)

- A tribal or dead scout may make mention either verbally or in a note that many years ago, a courier did visit the outskirts of DLC2, and he wore a strange pattern on his back (Ulysses' coat with the Old World flag).

- Graham/Random NPC can mention that the only other stretch of territory West of the Mojave is the Big Empty, and that might as well be a wall to any living thing... no one's ever gone there and returned, just like the "Legend of the Sierra Madre." If the player has been to DLC1, would be nice if some reactivity bonus was given to this topic. Again, if Graham says this line, I'd like to use it for a trailer for DLC3, so drama would be welcome.

- Any other links between the DLCs you can think of - assuming Bethesda approves the next iteration, DLC3's going to be high-tech Wizard of Oz (and could have been the source of the mutated mountain lions), DLC4 is the final battle against Ulysses where he tries to kill the player - see below.

Because they're designed to simply introduce more equipment to the game, Courier's Stash and Gun Runners' Arsenal are a completely different animal in comparison to the game's first four DLCs. As a designer and a writer, what is your personal opinion on these types of add-ons? Do you feel that they complement other story-based add-ons well, or would you prefer to see them combined with a narrative of some kind?

Weapon and gear packs are great, and from what I observed, Josh took special pains to make sure each weapon had personality, character, and added more to the Mojave. It's an odd thing to say, but when Josh designs a weapon (either unique or not), you can feel that there's a story and purpose behind it, and it has an added plus because it's left to the player to make the connection - or in some instances, make a brand-new connection.

This is a philosophy of mine, but Josh's work exemplifies it in GRA: I strongly feel that one of the best ways to communicate narrative is through item design, especially gear the player can equip and use. Often, it does a better job of describing politics, economy of a region, trade focus, and even highlight major figures (good and evil) before you even meet them.

Are there any final comments you'd like to add about your experience developing the game's DLC? Perhaps there are a few interesting easter eggs you'd be willing to share?

I'd never done DLC before, and I prefer releasing four short adventure packs to a 2-3 year RPG title for a number of reasons:

- Quicker feedback and sense of accomplishment.

- Tighter team, scope, and focus. When you set out to make a 4-12 hour experience, it focuses your efforts.

- Smaller voice cast - I always prefer a smaller, deeper cast that allows more reactivity (Alpha Protocol) to a sprawling cast of more shallow characters, so the DLCs were good for that.

- The chance to experiment with brand-new themes and mechanics in each DLC - if there's an experiment you've always wanted to try, DLCs are a great stomping ground for it. If you want to experiment with tiny end slides for each region, a hallucinogenic boss battle with a mutant bear, flare guns, mute characters, opening slides, evil endings, a chattering base of talking appliances, and cutting out the player's brain, guess what? No big deal. Try it out in a tiny test bed and check out the audience reaction.

Lastly, the fact we knew we were going to be able to do 4 narrative DLCs (which is a rare in the game industry - you can never guarantee you're going to be able to do a sequel, which we've discovered with Alpha Protocol, Knights of the Old Republic 2, and even titles back at Black Isle). So once we knew we'd do 4, that allowed us to do foreshadowing across titles and create a larger narrative arc rather than a series of isolated adventures, and the DLCs were stronger for it.

As far as Easter eggs go, aside from the Wild Wasteland ones, there's a secret ending to Dead Money that allows you to side with the bad guy (like the Master in Fallout 1) which not many people found. Also, if you are playing a really stupid character with Dog's personality in DLC1 he'll tell you what it was like to be in the Master's army and life in the vault and cathedral in Fallout 1.

The designers had a lot of fun doing the Wild Wasteland encounters - we had special stages in the DLC production that allowed designers (and Bethesda's QA department) to suggest Wild Wasteland encounters, and they turned out to be a lot of fun to implement (the tiny Deathclaw, Spike, in Old World Blues, comes to mind).