Chris Avellone Interview

I suppose you could consider this six-page article-style interview with Obsidian Entertainment's Chris Avellone on gamesTM a gift to those of us celebrating Icewind Dale's ten-year anniversary. In it, Chris talks about how we broke into the video game industry, the many RPGs he's contributed to over the years, his decision to leave Black Isle Studios and form Obsidian Entertainment, and much more. A generous excerpt:
Planescape: Torment is a magnificent and rare example of so-called ludonarrative consonance: The Nameless One's amnesia necessitates a gradual learning process that mimics the player's own understanding of the gameworld; additionally, any skills that the player accrues are explained in-game as '˜recovered memories' from previous '˜lives'. Similarly, due to The Nameless One's nebulous backstory, the player is also afforded a fairly flexible moral compass: any actions they choose to undertake, no matter how morally inconsistent, can be considered the effects of the vestiges of The Nameless One's former personalities.


But Avellone's favourite part of Torment is the player's conflict with its primary antagonist, Ravel Puzzlewell, a maternal, morally ambiguous archetype that Avellone further explored in subsequent projects. (Ravel means a great deal to me. I love the premise of her character. The way she viewed time both backwards and forwards, and how that reflected her speech was really interesting. The genesis of her character is actually pretty boring, though: tree magic. I just kept thinking about trees in relation to her, and decided it would be interesting if Ravel had the composition of a great tree herself, and each of the branches and leaves had their own personalities. So Ravel became all these different people the player encountered, but even she wasn't entirely aware of it. I feel like there's a lot more stories I could've told with her . I mean, it's sort of why I wrote Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic II. I thought it would be cool to be in an adventuring party with Ravel!)


Noticing his colleague's exhaustion (I'd put on so much weight; the doctor had told me not to continue down this road, and I really needed to get my life in order) Urquhart gave Avellone space to recover. After a few months, he slowly moved Avellone into a design role on the hack-and-slash-oriented Icewind Dale unofficially, Interplay's response to Blizzard's frighteningly successful action-RPG, Diablo.

(Competing with Diablo was one of the goals handed to us from up high,) Avellone says. (I loved the adrenaline rush I got in Diablo, but I'd hesitate to call Icewind a full action-RPG. It still had dialogue trees, and it was pretty tactical. But I really enjoyed working on it. I wrote all the major NPCs, and also did a number of quests in the opening area. And I also designed a lot of the special inventory items. It was a lot of fun.)

Icewind Dale 2 was just as enjoyable, but his workload was steadily increasing again. Development for the first, ill-fated attempt at Fallout 3 (codenamed '˜Van Buren') had begun in earnest, and Avellone was happily drafted into the project. (I started setting up Van Buren's story and locations,) he says, (and so I was running regular Van Buren-derived pen-and-paper games with the design team, so as to introduce them to the various locations and ideas in the game, and see how quests might play out. I was getting feedback from them for ways to make the areas better. The nice thing was that because all the developers had different skill-sets for their characters, it forced me to think of ways those skills could shine in each of the areas in Van Buren.)

According to Avellone, Van Buren was nearing completion when a beleaguered Interplay unceremoniously pulled the plug on the project it cancelled Baldur's Gate 3 at the same time, on which he was also working. The loss of so much work crushed Avellone in a way that Descent to Undermountain's poor response never could. When Feargus Urquhart left the company, he knew it was time to go.
Without question, a highly recommended read.