Chris Avellone Interview, Part Three

Completing what he started with the first and second installments, Will Ooi chats a third time with Obsidian's co-founder Chris Avellone, and this time most of their talk (available both on his blog and on Gamasutra) revolves around the Fallout franchise and Fallout: New Vegas in particular. Here's a sampling:
WO: From a narrative point of view, what do you think the pros and cons are in regards to having an open world as opposed to the classic isometric angles for RPGs in terms of both atmosphere and limitations? And what challenges do these varying engines/in-game worlds bring when it comes to writing a game where, just with landscape alone, so much is already immediately visible and there isn't as much of a mental, '╦ťfilling in the blanks' process?

MCA: Narration cannot be separated from level or system design, imo, and camera angles are a big part of that. As an example, there are certain vistas and moments in Fallout 3 and New Vegas that could not be accomplished without breaking you out of the isometric view regardless (REPCONN rockets launching). You can't get the full impact of weather, day/night, seeing the moon over Vegas, seeing the two Ranger Statues in the distance at the Mojave outpost, seeing distant flames at Nipton, looking up to see the Goodsprings cemetery with the skyline of Vegas behind it, or seeing the storms of the Divide to complement the location (the last four of which I'd argue are strong narrative moments as well as superior level design touches that cannot be done isometrically). I feel isometric is great for multi-party (like, 5-6 individuals you're controlling in combat), but when you're the lone wanderer with one or two companions that take general orders, it's not essential.

After Dungeon Siege 3 and FNV, I feel it's important to add depth regardless of the camera view - by that, I mean all of the distant vistas and signpost objects (ex: the 2 statues of the rangers shaking hands at the Mojave Outpost you can see cutting the horizon) provide the sense of a larger world, as well as a goal to travel to in the game. In Dungeon Siege 3, the push came from the verticality in the locations: frequently, the camera view would allow the player to see many levels down into valleys, ruined canyons in caves, and even multi-tiered lit levels that really added to the level design.

My preference? If you're shooting for immersion, keep the player out of the picture as much as possible and try to keep everything as if the screen is your eyes. If it's a highly customizable game (as RPGs tend to be), I derive the most enjoyment out of 3rd person views that allow me to fully see what I'm carrying. When things get tactical and I need to know where everyone is on the screen at one time, iso's the way to go.

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WO: Generally, what are the difficulties in balancing seriousness with humour, and what do you think is essential in these cases?

MCA: Comedy's hard. I wasn't sure how Old World Blues would be received. While it was one of the most fun titles I've had the chance to work on, I thought it might be comedic overload and play too much with the boundaries of the franchise - I was primarily concerned about Fallout lore enthusiasts being upset with the direction.

Still, Old World Blues showed that as long as the context has some underlying logic that the player is a part of, it makes it palatable, and assuming most of your humor hits the mark, it's genuinely fun for the player. It's a difficult balance, notably because you don't want the humor to undermine the plot, characters, and any themes you've introduced - often, a joke at the wrong time can completely destroy an otherwise cool arc or moment. Still, when the theme of the narrative and the world is directly tied to the humor, then you've got more to work with.

I also believe it can't all be chuckles and laughs throughout, there needs to be contrast. There's sad and horrifying stuff in Old World Blues, and it couldn't have the same stabbing effect without the madness and the humor. The end slides can be melancholy, and I always feel bad for Borous and 8, among others. And Muggy.

On the converse, a game without any humor at all is challenging as well. Overpowering, crushing despair in desolate environments needs to be carefully designed, as those feelings and environments isn't something a player is playing a game for - there needs to be those lighter moments and human victories to vary the experience. Dead Money had the biggest challenge in this regard, since there wasn't much to laugh at in a toxic city filled with pseudo-dead masked killers and hologram ghosts, and worse, the underlying stories of just about everyone didn't make anything any cheerier.