Torment: Tides of Numenera Interview

The folks at RPGWatch have put together a lengthy interview with some of the core inXile designers who worked on Torment: Tides of Numenera. The game's setting, writing, and the general state of RPGs are the interview's main topics. An excerpt:

Farflame: A lot of writers collaborated on Torment. How did you organise their work? I ask especially because few writers didnt have big experience with RPGs (different background) so what was the best role for them? Did you wanted to use their specific style of writing or something like that?

Colin McComb: The reason we brought on those writers was indeed for their writing style. I had really enjoyed Mur Lafferty's work, for instance, and thought she could capture what we needed for Torment. Shanna Germain and Monte Cook had co-created Numenera, so they were a natural choice to have to involved. Chris Avellone, Tony Evans, Brian Mitsoda, and George Ziets, of course, had all worked on video games before. For the writers with less experience with CRPG development, we had them design areas, Meres, or novellas. With Pat Rothfuss, because he had signed up to write a companion but had no videogame background, we worked closely with him to flesh Rhin out. Later, because most of the writers we brought on for the Kickstarter had to return to other full-time gigs (it's not easy juggling a full-time writing career or a tabletop game company, it turns out), we brought on new writers: Leanne Taylor-Giles, Mark Yohalem, and Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie, each of whom had experience with game writing.

At that point, it made sense to break them down by their availability and interest. Leanne wanted to write a companion, and Mark was interested in the longer-form fiction of the Meres. Gavin we tied to a hamster wheel and worked him endlessly.

Farflame: Is there some main difference when an experienced writer writes for a game like Torment and wants to support that feel or mood? Something that he focus on or that he chooses to avoid?

Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie: As a team, we focused on obvious and subtle narrative reactivity, as well as one of the central rules of the Numenera setting: mystery. We steered away from weirdness for weirdness's sake, because while that's fun, it doesn't feel as immersive as an object that's strange FOR A REASON. We might not tell you the reason, but we used it to design the conversation around that object.

Farflame: Are there some NPCs that you are especially proud of?

George Ziets: In Sagus Cliffs (first city of the game), I'm very happy with the way a lot of the NPCs turned out, but my favorites include Sn'erf (a researcher who studies reproductive practices of species throughout the multiverse), Varrenoth (a female warrior who isn't quite what she seems), the Genocide (a warlord who tried to conquer Sagus Cliffs in the distant past), and the Dendra O'hur (a cult of corpse eaters). I didn't write any of those characters, though - I mostly handled design in Sagus Cliffs and only wrote a handful of dialogues.

For favorite characters that I wrote personally, you'd have to go to the Bloom. (I got to do a lot more dialogue writing for that zone.) Some of the ones that I especially enjoyed writing were Waits-for-prey (a battle construct from a prior world), Parsim Flint (an auctioneer who sells slaves), Inkpot (a crazy Bloom cultist), a white synth egg, and the Observant Speck.

Farflame: One tricky question about gaming trends and mainstream media. Swen Vincke from Larian once said that the new generation of RPG players needs to be "reeducated" because they don't understand what you can do in more complex RPGs. Sometimes media and players abandon proven concepts too easily. For example I remember media guys who demanded full voice acting in RPGs and give lower scores in reviews because of that. We can say that voice acting is cool but they completely ignore the negative side of full VA. Some designers admitted that they had to cut text, had less time to write and can't make late changes because of expensive voice acting. And this info was (almost) never mentioned in media at the time despite the fact it harms CRPGs with a lot of text. So do you think that developers could or should explain these things a little more? Maybe even defend proven design ideas against shallow or clueless campaigns or trends that can harm experience in complex RPGs?

George: All the challenges that you listed for full VA are accurate. Voiced dialogues need to be finalized much earlier so that they can be sent for recording and localization. If bugs are found in those dialogues later, or if the team wants to make a dialogue change to fix a quest or iterate on the main story, you have to bring an actor back into the studio for pickups (which can be an expensive proposition) or find a way to live with the text you have. Yet another challenge is that casting dozens or hundreds of NPCs is a huge endeavor, and for a variety of reasons, it's very hard to get the "right" voice for every character. The wrong voice actor, bad direction, or a poor performance can ruin an otherwise great dialogue.

Sometimes writers and designers do push back against voice acting in games, but they're overridden by executives or marketing departments who believe that full VA is necessary to attract a more mainstream audience and thus bring in more money. Marketing folks might argue that a few poor performances won't hurt sales enough to justify removing full VA from a game (and from a purely economic standpoint, they're probably right).

In smaller studios with more limited budgets, arguments against full VA can be made far more effectively. We don't have the money to pay top VA talent, and fans of our games aren't expecting AAA production values, so we can limit VA to the most important characters (and make sure they are cast and directed well). Personally, I do support strategic use of VA on important characters - especially companions. (Think of how much personality was added to Planescape: Torment by its iconic companion voices.) Beyond that, I think the benefits of more extensive VA diminish rapidly, unless a studio has the time and budget to bring actors back for pickups as often as needed.

Adam: When Planescape: Torment first came out, every review we got was high-except one. I remember getting so mad at that review. "What is wrong with these guys?" I thought. "They don't get it at all! They're complaining about things that have nothing to do with what the game *is*!" Looking back, I feel silly about that. After all, we all bring our own expectations and assumptions to every game or movie or book. I was right that they didn't get it, that they were expecting a different game than PS:T was. What I was wrong about is that it was *okay* they didn't get it.

Sometimes a reviewer like that will try the game again, or they'll read a good review and approach the game with new expectations and love it. More often though, that person just wasn't the target audience to begin with. Not everybody is-especially with a game like Torment. As a developer, of course I would like to have all good reviews, but that's impossible. So at the end of the day, I make the games I want to play and hope that they find their audience.

Colin: I think it's incumbent on us to make the game educate the player each time on how to maximize the game's potential. I don't think that it's necessarily the case that we need to explicitly teach the player what is and isn't possible, but we do need to set up the situations where the player can uncover this for him- or herself. For instance, in TTON, we have a number of situations where the player learns what it is this game's about - you can game-over die in the first few choices of the game; failure can be interesting and rewarding; exploration of the dialogue can be interesting. It's just a matter of helping the player learn the size and constraints of the game.