The A.V. Club caught up with Chris Avellone at GDC for a lengthy interview about his career, his design philosophy, his work on Alpha Protocol and Planescape: Torment, and his thoughts on role-playing games in general.
AVC: I read that you don't like romances in games. Over the '00s, the romances with companions have gotten more and more elaborate. And BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins has even been compared to a (love sim): some players focus all their attention on the romance options and barely notice the main plot.
CA: I've got to be honest, I absolutely don't like designing romances. I think that you get a lot more drama and impact from failed romances, or unrequited relationships that occur in games. I think that creates more player tension. I've had debates with forum members where, I guess I would agree that romances can still work, as long as the consummation happens near the end. I just follow the soap opera methodology, that once a relationship is consummated, you are now in danger of boring the player. Because it's consummated, that problem is solved, and in a dramatic situation that's not necessarily what you want to happen. It just seemed like more tension could be had when there's something flawed there, or there's a disconnect, and you might be able to get more of an emotional impact when those things aren't consummated, but you know why.
So that's kind of like the approach that I take. Now, that said, I'm kind of hypocritical in that when I'm playing Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, I do want that consummation. I want to figure out what makes Jack [in Mass Effect 2] go this way or that away. So I guess I have two sides warring there. But from a design perspective, I feel like keeping the drama going is more important.
AVC: Since the late '90s, we've seen role-playing games experiment with this morality mechanic, where your actions are judged as (good) or (evil.) But recently, role-playing games have started to move away from this. BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins doesn't have any moral scale it's all about politics and the practical choices you make. And in Alpha Protocol, you can use suave tactics or brutal, expedient ones, depending on how you want to play, but it seems like you're framing the choices in pragmatic terms, rather than as (good) or (evil.) Do you feel role-playing games are moving away from that simple moral scale, to something more pragmatic?
CA: I think it depends a lot on the genre. For example, in Star Wars, the good and evil mechanic obviously makes a lot of sense. It's mandatory. Depending on the other genres, like, in Dragon Age like you're saying, it's the political machinations that you're trying to do. And Alpha Protocol, I think we recognize that because you're in such a moral gray area, and that's part of the genre as well, we decided that it's not [about] having some sort of morality scale. You don't have one. It's all what other people think of the actions that you've done, and then they have perception values based on how they see you, based on their own worldviews. The more goody two-shoes character over here may find what you've done reprehensible. The more pragmatic ex-spy over here, however, understands exactly why you need to get this done. And the reputation scales will vary accordingly. That felt more true for us in that genre.
When you're presented with choices in RPGs, more and more, I definitely think the solely good, solely evil path those decisions being obvious that's starting to become old-generation. The next generation is going to be more like The Witcher, where you're given a situation, you're not exactly sure which [choice] is absolutely right because both of them are right in different ways, or they're evil in two different ways. You've got to make the least evil choice. And then you see the consequences that spawn out of that.
When you don't clearly identify it as good or evil, that liberates the player to make the choice that just feels right. And I'm totally in support of that.