Alpha Protocol Interview

Article Index

Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date:2010-06-01
  • Action,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
There really hasn't been a whole lot of news about Alpha Protocol since the game's most recent delay, so I thought I'd change that by tracking down lead designer Chris Avellone and systems lead Matt MacLean for a conversation about a few of the game's moral dilemmas, taking a non-lethal route through the game, some of the lesser known gameplay mechanics, and more. Here we go:

GB: During a recent interview, you stated that you, personally, were "all done" with Alpha Protocol. When did you actually switch gears to Fallout: New Vegas, and how difficult of a transition was it to go from modern espionage to the post-nuclear wasteland?

Chris: Like almost all the designers, I've moved off Alpha Protocol. Switching gears from Unreal to the GECK has been painless. All the previous experience with Fallout back at Black Isle studios also made the transition easy as well - we got right back in the saddle, and off we go.

GB: In your latest blog entry on IGN, you compellingly discuss the focus that was put on moral ambiguity in the game. Can you give us an example or two of difficult decisions we'll have to make in the game? Is it true that we can blow up an orphanage if we care nothing for digital lives?

Chris: No orphanage-destruction specifically in Alpha Protocol, although we do have a "Orphans Created" counter so you could conceivably cause an upturn in orphanage funding in sections of the world depending on how many opponents you shoot in the head. As always, we try and think of the children and their families.

It's hard to choose the moral dilemmas without stumbling over the spoiler tripwire, and many of the consequences pan out long term, which goes even deeper into spoiler territory. Still, one example of a moral dilemma we have revealed to the press, however (although not the consequences) - you encounter a weapons trafficker. Letting him go could reveal intel leading to the next man up the chain, who is clearly more dangerous, but allowing the weapons trafficker to remain in business may cause more deaths in the region. If you bring the trafficker in, however, you may compromise your intel source and warn your real target of your intentions, possibly even lose him. And if your main target is free, that could cost more lives. What do you do?

One of the potential contacts in Moscow presents the player with another dilemma - while he is likely to have information critical for your mission, if you go see him (which is optional), you'll have to weigh the consequences that he's going to sell information about you to all the other power groups in Moscow, which is going to put you at a severe disadvantage in the field. Do you risk your own safety and potential difficulty in reaching your real target, or do you take the long way around, which poses its own dangers? Furthermore, are you willing to resort to unorthodox... and perhaps excessively violent... methods against the contact to insure his cooperation and his silence? And if you do that, are you willing to accept the consequences of a frightened informant based on what you know about his dossier, assuming you've done your research? We try to play fair with the player in hinting at possible repercussions in the game, there's other dilemmas the player's going to have to sort out on their own.

There are other moral dilemmas (which would be better examples to discuss after the game has shipped) but all of them are major spoilers - the game gets more complicated from the opening hub onwards, and the decisions by that point are going to be pretty big reveals. We can discuss them more after the game has shipped, though.

One last thing - note that these moral dilemmas are also player-motivation-dependent. Some moral dilemmas for Professional characters won't have the same weight as more cavalier-playstyle characters, and vice versa. And in some instances, your attitude and feeling about various NPCs may either increase the pressure of some dilemmas or negate them entirely. Still, that's an important part of role-playing in the world of espionage.

Also, see the "pacifist" path answer below. In some respects, choosing who to kill and who not to kill is also an in-game choice with its own consequences. Some enemies on missions are just doing their job, and it may raise moral questions if murdering them is really the right thing to do.

GB: You also talked about the various motivations the game's characters and protagonist can have throughout the game. Our personal motivations can certainly change during the game, but what of those for prominent NPCs? If an NPC is taking the "just plain nuts" route, will their agenda erratically change from game to game? Or are NPC actions entirely tied to our choices during the game?

Chris: Several NPC motivations in the game can change 180 degrees depending on their dealings with you, how much you understand them or try to understand them, and using dossier information to appeal to their personalities. Sometimes Thorton has an advantage because he's coming in on a situation from the outside, so he can share what he knows of the NPC, an organization, and the consequences/attitudes he's observed on his own to help sway an NPC. There's also instances where Thorton can change people's minds via example - simply behaving a certain way will cause an NPC to re-evaluate how they're behaving or approaching a certain situation.

GB: So the game's characters will be gathering intel on Michael Thorton - does this mean that they'll automatically know every detail about the righteous and/or dastardly deeds that we commit? Or is it possible to successfully obfuscate our true intentions from even the most well-informed contacts?

Chris: You can hide it from some of them, not all of them. Some notable figures in the game (and it'll make sense who) are very, very hard to hide intel from - the kicker, though, is Thorton can still do it if he's specialized in certain skills and performed certain Cover Your Ass moves, and the satisfaction of pulling one over on these supposedly well-informed operatives and agency leaders is pretty damn gratifying.
GB: What sort of approach did you take for gear in the game? Aside from weapons and gadgets, are there items that can boost our skills and various types of body armor and flak jackets we can acquire? Will most of the better equipment come from black market arms dealers or from specific mission "rewards"?

Chris: Equipment can provide additional gadget slots, affect your ability to move unseen and unheard, and while no item directly gives you +1 to your skills, a number of gadgets compliment the passive and active abilities that skills grant. This is a simple example, but relevant: the Sound Generator is useful for distracting an enemy (Stealth) and it can also be useful for causing an enemy to walk right into a Thorton-made-minefield (Sabotage) and it can also be useful for lining them up for a shotgun blast if you're crouched behind a corner, waiting for them to show (weapon skills). Also, gadgets have nice environmental effects and consequences as well - in the Moscow trainyards, for example, you can use the Sound Generator to lure opponents into traps and ambushes on the tracks, or even make them stumble onto the path of an incoming train if they're not paying attention, which is extremely satisfying. That said, I found myself using Epinephrine Spikes (raises hand to hand damage, recoil control, and damage resistance) regardless of my Martial Arts ability, I simply found using the spikes to be handy to be able to survive a tough encounter whether I was punching people out or not.

Matt: The player can outfit Mike in different kinds of armor. The broad decision made with armor is protection vs. detection vs. carrying capacity, though the player will also have armor modifications that can be used to round out or specialize an outfit - you might want a sneaky infiltration suit but be willing to sacrifice some of its noise dampening for added protection.

Some special items are earned only from specific mission results or specific alliances (or even enemies), though much of very best equipment is only acquired from the black market with cold hard cash. This was a deliberate decision to reduce the amount of psychic powers required to enjoy our game. If the player has to make friends with a certain faction to get the best Assault Rifle in the game, it'd be unfortunate to have a player who spend dozens of hours building Sharpshooter Thorton miss out on the Rifle of the Apocalypse (not an actual weapon in the game) because the player didn't magically know which friends to make. And there's no sensible way to write dialogue wherein someone says "Hi Mike, did I mention I have access to awesome rifles? If you someday want a Vorpal Rifle, don't piss me off!" Yes, your choice of friends and enemies will influence a lot of the equipment you can or can't get in a given playthrough, but play the game anyway you like - you won't arrive at the end stage of the game and it u nwinnable because your equipment sucks.

GB: Aside from some discussion about lockpicking, we haven't heard much about the game's Infiltration skill line. Can you elaborate on the non-combat skills we'll be making use of, and how they can directly impact a mission?

Matt: Every skill in Alpha Protocol provides bonuses in combat - though some skills are a bit more roundabout in their applications, and some skills mix non-combat bonuses and combat bonuses into the progression. Three skills that provide lots of indirect combat bonuses are Sabotage, Technical Aptitude, and Stealth.

Technical Aptitude includes a variety of passive bonuses to weapon performance and armor strength - representing Mike's ability to customize and streamline his gear (this is in addition to bonuses you get from actual modifications added to your weapons and armor). While Sabotage makes your offensive gadgets more deadly, Technical Aptitude improves the efficacy of your medical gadgets and increases your range options - proving more gadget slots for you to either diversify your arsenal or try to see how many pounds of explosives you can take into a mission, and then try to beat that record. At its highest levels, Technical Aptitude is a force multiplier - the Brilliance ability allows you to use activated abilities from other Skills in rapid succession, allowing you to double the duration or impact of your other special moves.

Chris: Sabotage assists with tactically setting down mines to disable opponents and guard paths - and for stealth characters, it can give you Binary Invisibility at higher levels, which assists the player in remaining undetected by electronic countermeasures (cameras, auto-turrets). Mines do increased damage, have an increased range, and are generally more effective the higher your Sabotage skill becomes (Overclocking). Sabotage includes bonuses that make electronic bypasses, lockpicking, and hacking easier to perform. As there is often some sort of time pressure involved while doing these tasks (whether avoiding enemy patrols or being chased by them), the less time you need to bypass a terminal, shut down an alarm, or pick the back of a warehouse door so you can get to cover, the better. Not only are breaking and entering tasks easier with ranks of Sabotage, the cash payoff for hacking valuable data increases as you improve this skill. Put enough points into Sabotage and you'll gain Remote Hack - the ability to perform electronic bypass and computer hacking actions at a distance - perfect for subverting enemy turrets and causing all sorts of commotion.

Stealth allows you to get into and out of an area undetected. With good timing and patience, you can slip into and out of a mission without a single person detecting you and avoid all the potential pain and anguish that alarms cause. Your ability (or inability, or downright refusal) to solve a mission covertly is often noticed by other characters (and yes, a few folks will like you for being reckless and pathological). Keep a low enough profile and some might not even know you've come to the area (usually resulting in Reputation increases as well as other inter-mission reactivity). The special abilities you get as a result of raising your Stealth are useful for solving missions the quiet way, or for solving missions the loud way with ambush attacks. An early Stealth ability is Awareness, which allows you to hear enemies in the vicinity and "see" their locations even if they're not within line of sight (perfect for setting ambushes). After a few ranks are invested in Stealth, you'll earn Evasion which you a brief "respite" if an enemy spots you, where you're warned that you're spotted and you have some time to get to new cover before they see you for realz. Rounding out the Stealth abilities are Silent Running (allowing you to sprint through an area unheard or, more commonly, rush up behind someone who's back is turned to you and get your murder on... or choke them out into unconsciousness) and Shadow Operative (sets a timer that allows you to avoid enemy detection until you strike, which is perfect for taking out perimeter enemies one at a time and punching holes in their watchposts).

GB: At one point, there was talk that Alpha Protocol could be finished without killing a single enemy. Is this a result of using non-lethal weapons, or is it actually possible to utilize stealth and subterfuge to make our way through every mission?

Chris: It's not my intention to misrepresent the passive path - it will require the use of certain gadgets and weapons designed not to kill opponents. I do want to stress we worked hard to make sure there was a non-murdering path - it wasn't easy to implement this and the reactivity to it, but we thought it was important to put in a role-playing game, especially an espionage role-playing game. Taking the life of someone who may be innocent of any crime except being in your way is a big thing in the real-world, and it's a big deal in our game, too.

We think it's important to give professional and Lawful Good-style characters options for dealing with enemies that aren't slaughtering them wholesale, and the enemy targets you encounter in missions, while they are shooting at you, have their own reasons and motivations for doing so that might make a player uncomfortable will simply blowing them away - sometimes these adversaries are doing their jobs, and they aren't evil or hardbitten assholes. In some respects, this is another moral dilemma players will have to deal with - and we recognize some players won't care at all.

In addition, for players who study their opponents, make alliances, and understand the motivations of certain key figures we give them additional options. They can talk their way out of situations or make unlikely allies where a more combat-oriented character would find bullets and grenades being unloaded in their direction. Fallout 1 and Torment's talk-solution focuses meant a lot to me as a designer, and Obsidian works hard to include those options in games because we feel it's an important part of role-playing.

GB: Before we conclude, how many different teams are currently at work over at Obsidian Entertainment, and how many employees are working on projects other than Alpha Protocol?

Chris: I can't give exact breakdowns on the # per team, unfortunately. All studio employees are working on Fallout New Vegas or on unannounced titles, with a handful of them (maybe 5 at most) part-time on two projects.

Thanks for your time, Chris and Matt! So Obsidian is working on at least two unannounced games... let the speculation begin!