At the recent Framework conference in Melbourne, veteran RPG designer Chris Avellone – of Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2 and KOTOR 2 fame – told us all how much he hated RPGs.
Avellone kicked off his presentation by telling us that hate is a gift for design creativity. Throughout his career he’s used his hatred of role-playing cliche to defy genre conventions.
In Knights of the Old Republic 2, Avellone hated Star Wars and the Force. In particular, he hated the concept of predestination implicit within the Force. So he built the game’s story and characters around this idea. He focused on what a Jedi might gain from turning away from the Force or what they may lose when they embrace it.
In Planescape: Torment, Avellone felt it was the perfect setting for a guy burnt out on RPGs because it allowed him to turn everything on its head. He hated death, so he made the main character an immortal so that death became something useful rather than an impediment. He felt inspired to build a game where the death screen is just the beginning – and so Torment opens with you lying on a slab in a mortuary.
Predictable encounters were another hated aspect. Every RPG has the player killing rats in the tutorial dungeon because rats are an easy enemy. Avellone proceeded to make rats one of the most dangerous creatures you would face in Torment. Cranium rats, as they were called, would grow more powerful in greater numbers and could overwhelm you with a host of magic spells.
While at Black Isle Studios, Avellone worked on Fallout 3 on-and-off for about six years, before it was cancelled and Bethesda purchased the rights. His vision of Fallout was also built on this idea of hate, specifically that he was sick of tracking down and killing the big, evil, bad guy.
Avellone realised that in all RPGs, the most powerful bad-ass in the world wasn’t the “big bad”, but the player-character’s adventuring party. So Fallout 3 was designed around there being another party of adventurers out there in the world at the same time as you. Over the course of the game you will encounter this other party and experience how their actions have influenced the world. Along the way you’d have to decide whether to cooperate or work against them.
For his current project, the modern day espionage of SEGA’s Alpha Protocol, Avellone applied his hatred to character interaction. Most RPGs give you a dialogue tree where you select branching options, but can usually return to the top of the tree and start over again. Essentially, NPCs become information kiosks rather than real people.
In Alpha Protocol, every conversation is a once-through system where there’s no opportunity to return to the top of the tree. You choose your response at each juncture and that’s it, no second chances. With no danger of repeating dialogue, the idea is to create greater immersion by ensuring each conversation feels natural and plausible.
This extends to your reputation with other characters. Avellone says that in most RPGs, you have a lesser experience when you’ve done bad deeds and become hated by everyone. This usually means people won’t talk to you or they’ll just attack you on sight. He wants to continue the idea that hatred is a “gift” and that when your character accumulates a negative reputation with other NPCs, the player still gets just as much enjoyment from the interaction as the player who has a positive rep.
For me personally, it was brilliant to listen to what Chris had to say. Not only has he worked on several of the greatest RPGs I’ve ever played, he’s clearly a guy who really thinks about his craft. I can’t wait to see how Alpha Protocol turns out when it’s released later this year.
Finally, I’d like to ask you: what genre conventions do you hate? And how would you turn them on their head to make a better game?