Chris Avellone Interview on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Writing All Sorts of Great RPGs and Lots More
Chris Avellone is undoubtedly one of the household RPG developers still around, with a historic career writing and designing numerous cult classics and fan favourites, such as Fallout 2 and New Vegas, Baldur's Gate, Pillars of Eternity, Prey and many, many more. Given his pedigree, when we discovered he was attending Reboot Develop Blue 2019 in Dubrovnik, we just had to sit down with him for a chat.
Chris graciously accepted and was immediately disarming. Incredibly friendly, without a single hint of pretention, Chris effortlessly makes the people he's talking with feel comfortable with a warm inviting attitude and an infectious laugh. Throughout our talk, we discussed brand new games Chris is working on, such as the hotly anticipated Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, but also some of his older projects that fans still adore to this day.
Below you can read the full interview.
Chris, tell me about the projects you're working on currently because I was looking them up and you are prolific. You're busy.
Yeah, there are a lot of projects going on. So right now, I finished up work on Jedi: Fallen Order, also Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 with Paradox, Alaloth, Degrees of Separation with Moondrop Games, and Dying Light 2.
What was it like returning to the Star Wars license after not working with since Knights of The Old Republic 2?
Yeah, it has been a long time. It's been a little different to catch up with all the material that's been released since then, and the expanded universe that they had previously, has changed. But two nice things was I had never seen the entire Clone Wars TV show from start to finish. And I watched that, and I'll be honest, so when I saw the pilot for Clone Wars, I didn't like it. I'm like, wow, this seems kind of silly. But then as the episodes kept going, the writing kept getting better and better. And the story arcs kept getting better and better. So that was great to watch to get a refresher. And then I watch Star Wars Rebels which had the exact same problem. I like oh the pilot, I'm not that excited about what's on the plan, like whatever. But then as I watched more and more for research, I think wow this is actually pretty good. All this stuff was happening, and the writing was really good. As getting a refresher on Star Wars, that's been great. There really hasn't been a ton of new stuff to catch up on because still feels like Star Wars and always has those basic principles that make up the franchise. So yeah, it was kind of like putting on a comfortable shirt that you were used to.
You're incredibly well known for fantasy writing. Where do you start when you're trying to come up with a new story for example, like Alaloth? When you're trying to come up with something completely original, where do you begin?
So it varies according to the project. In an ideal world, what I try and do is try and figure out what the gameplay loop is going to be like, hey, what's the gameplay systems that we're going to use this game? So for Fallout New Vegas, we will obviously use all the Fallout mechanics that everyone was used to, but hey, in New Vegas we're going to introduce this faction reputation system. So once you know there's gotta be a faction reputation system that has suddenly you realize, oh, well, the game story has to have factions, the reputation has to have some sort of reactivity, whether it goes from hostile to super positive and that should influence the story. And sometimes they come from completely other places like Alaloth. Actually, some of the story elements were dictated by the fact a lot of the art had been done. So hey, here's the image for the main character, here's the main adversary in the game, well now we're going to build a story around that art piece. Then I also got an opportunity - they gave me the concept art they've done for other companions that you can find in the game. And they're like, well, hey, here's concept art, we have some general thoughts behind these characters, what do you think their deeper backstories would be? And then I would start from there. So actually, that was much more of an art-centric project.
Would you say there's a big difference between the traditional high fantasy and sci-fi fantasy?
Well, it depends on the franchise. Star Wars you could argue is pretty much a space opera sci-fi, almost fantasy-like, but then when you get the things like Firefly or The Expanse, or Prey, like the sci-fi starts getting a little bit more gritty and more real. We're trying to think of all the moving parts of the science behind it, versus, well, we're going to watch hand-wavy stuff and explain it all that way. And even fantasy can be that way too if they've structured the spell system, and the physics of the world so much. So you really think about how the fantasy elements tie together. What's the driving magical energy that people harness, are there drawbacks to it, what are those costs? So it all depends on what level of deep dive they're going into, and sometimes can be very; "I don't care. You know, it's wizards and hobbits." And it's great. Or sometimes, it can get really deep into every spell as a drawback. And you might be able to mind control someone to forget about something, but you lose part of your memory, like, all sorts of cool stuff like that. Depends on the franchise.
And on that note, when it comes to handling franchises which are revered, like Star Wars, like Fallout, what is that pressure like? How do you feel trying to put together a story that everyone is going to be happy with?
Well, the way I start is that we used to have a designer methodology for this, both at Black Isle and Obsidian, where if we are going to be doing a game that is someone else's franchise, the very first step - and it sounds really obvious - is do your research, know everything about that franchise. Because if you try and write a new quest or new storyline, you need to be aware if that story has already been done or if that joke is played out. Even when we're doing South Park: The Stick of Truth. It's important that we watch all the episodes, get a feel for the characters, what's the state of the show right now? What's the art quality? What sort of quest would fit into the Cartman universe? So the only time I feel any pressure is when I feel I haven't done my research properly. Because then there might be something I'm not aware of. And it can be really significant if you haven't watched everything, like you could miss one episode of a series that actually counteracts whatever plot while you're trying to suggest, and I've had that happen before, where if I haven't watched the very last episode of a certain series, sometimes I will answer a bunch of questions that I should never have touched plot-wise with the story. So the real pressure comes up if I haven't done my research. And I do try and do the research, especially for Star Wars, and Fallout. I feel pretty immersed in that. Although I haven't played Fallout 4 or Fallout 76 - so I guess I do have a weakness there.
I haven't either, don't worry.
Yeah, so and then any additional pressure just comes when you submit the notes to the franchise holder, like hey, how's Bethesda going to respond to his? How's Lucasfilm going to respond to this? But Lucasfilm was really great with Fallen Order. They had really good notes and reasons why they wanted changes. And the reasons why is important, because when you hear that, suddenly that answers a bunch of future questions down the road, we're like; "Okay, well, we shouldn't do that at all, because they've already indicated the reasons why that's the case." And it's the same thing with Bloodlines. And usually, the feedback tends to be pretty good, because a lot of designers have done their homework.
What is it like designing a game which has a linear narrative, versus an open world game with a lot of side quests? Do you approach those two tasks differently?
Yeah. So when we do a game like, like Fallout New Vegas, we do try and create a critical path storyline for the player to follow - I'd argue that's not always the best approach for doing an open world game. I think if you're doing an open world game, you should find a way to structure an open world story where the actions cause the story to come to you versus you go to point A to point B to point C, I think there's been a tendency with people who do open world games, and they feel they need to do like a linear store else, people are going to be comfortable. And I don't really agree with that. However, on the other hand, when you're doing like, you know, a bunch of side quests, how you go into a region, there's a bunch of stuff to do. Usually, we go back to the gameplay systems like for Fallout, it's like, hey, I will make sure there's tons of stuff for a speech character to do. Makes sure there's a ton of stuff for like the combat guy to do the stealth guy. And then the good guy, and I'm evil karma guy, and then hey, you're part of NCR, Caesar's Legion. Is there enough activities, this area when you first go there? And also, if you come back as well, we used to have like, a bunch of Excel spreadsheets that would check all the reactivity and everything and make sure like, hey, are all the skill checks being accounted for like the does even the demolitions guy have something to do in each area? So, and the best example of that, as we used to have, we had this design philosophy for the very first area you go into, like Good Springs for New Vegas, we make sure every single skill has something very unique and special doing this area. So if you're really cool about how you build your characters, like even like demolitions, and you had a good springs, there are separate threads that pop up in conversation, like "there are more explosives" and "you sound like you really know your stuff." And I'm like, well, I'm like a lot of what all those points of the demolition, that's fucking great.
That's a really great way to reward the player. Which is good because a lot of games decide not to.
Yeah, actually, that was one of our negative philosophies back at Black Isle, all the way back to Fallout 2, we had made some design decisions on that were like, for example, if you were really evil karma, or if you became a slaver very early on the game in Fallout 2, you lost a good percentage of content for the rest of the game. That's not the way to go about it. Like if we're allowing you this choice to play as an evil character we need to also give you an equal experience to balance it out. We can't just cut you off from a bunch of content. Otherwise, no one gaming the system would even want to play a character like that.
Are there any other things that come to mind that you would change now, with the benefit of hindsight?
Yeah. Sometimes it's a very easy mistake for junior designers and junior artists to think it's really fine to include a bunch of jokes in the game. Inside jokes, hey, let's of reference other team members, you know, make jokes about another game, you shouldn't break the fourth wall. And you should make humor where it's appropriate. The challenge in New Vegas, we're like, well, all the goofy stuff we'll actually make a special trait for, so if you choose that, then suddenly you have access to all the goofy stuff. And then like even when we were doing like the downloadable content for New Vegas, we had like one funny DLC, we try to make sure all the humor was explained within the world. And it never ever broke the fourth wall. That was kind of one of our mandates.
Some designers have said that humor has no place in their games. Would you agree with that?
I would disagree, I think especially in an oppressive atmosphere like Fallout, I'll actually Fallout's a great example. So when Tim Cain and the whole crew created Fallout, Tim has a very unusual sense of humor. Me and Tim chat about this, even to this day, he's sort of got this sort of strange, quirky dark humor, that very much bled itself and to Fallout 1, and even the design of the vaults like all the social experiments, that was all Tim, but it has that certain humor, quirkiness, that's important for the franchise. And I think The Outer Worlds is going to have the same Tim Cain sort of humor based on everything I've seen.
The other point is, not only do I think that's important to Fallout. But the other thing is, I think you can still have humor in games, especially games that are really aggressive because sometimes we need that contrast with just a laugh every once in a while, to sort of release the vent. One example I always point to is that if you've seen the movie Aliens, that movie is actually pretty funny. Because there are certain elements where a certain character will freak out a certain way. "Oh my God, put her in charge." Like that's funny when it happens. But it's still humor that has the right context for the situation. And that's emphasizing the stress of the situation, this character's mental breakdown, but it's funny. Or when Sigourney Weaver says, you know, let's nuke them from orbit, like everyone in the theater is like, "yeah, that's exactly what I want to do." Burke's like, "Well now hold on, this installation's a substantial dollar value," she's like; "you can bill me!" And everyone in the theater laughs, but that's exactly what you're thinking as a viewer and a character. And it's funny, but it's appropriate within that genre. And I don't think it makes Aliens any less of a suspenseful movie or a scary movie. So in those cases, there are ways to put humor like that, even if you don't even if you're thinking, oh, well, humor has no place. Sometimes it really does help.
I know that you can't give too many details, but you mentioned that the folks at Lucasarts have been pretty good with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. How's the experience been on the whole with Respawn?
Really good. So the project director is Stig Asmussen from God of War 3, I'd never met Stig or worked with him before, but he has a really solid vision and even better, he's able to communicate it. So he set a really good path for the project. And then also, I was familiar with their lead narrative designer on Fallen Order, Aaron Contreras. He was also one of the key developers on Mafia 3. And I always wanted a chance to work with them. So this was a chance to do that. And working with both of those guys was absolutely great.
So, you've been working on a lot of projects right now. What is it like not being tied down to a specific studio, or franchise? Is it a lot to think about?
Not necessarily. So the interesting thing about being a freelance writer is you'll have periods of downtime in between projects, as usually like, like, for example, like with Prey, they're like okay, well, here's three side characters, another quest, can you flush out these characters and the interactions? You do that, then you submit it, but it might be two or three weeks before you hear the feedback to do all the iterations and changes. So for those three weeks, and I've been kind of twiddling your thumbs unless you have another project to work on, to switch gears. And so after that period that you're working on like, it's full-on focus and concentration, but then there's downtime between each project. So, I'm able to switch and juggle each one in turn.
That's good. It sounds like you got a pretty good balance going.
Yeah, you know, the other thing too, is sometimes like if you ever get writer's block, or designers block, like, I'm not really sure how to make this class compelling. I'm getting stuck on this particular aspect. If you have another project that you're working on the answer is shift gears for an hour and go, well, I can't figure this out right now. But I can make forward momentum on that. And then while you're doing that, you kind of the other problem percolating the back of your mind, and then when you've finished that you're like, oh I know how to solve this, and switch right back over. So it actually is pretty freeing.
Do you have any anecdotes of particularly difficult situations? Because you just said that you'd sometimes get stuck and you come back to it later, do you have any examples of sections or quests were really awkward to write?
Yeah, there were a few. So one weakness of mine is, I have a lot of difficulty with doing games with really strong historical ties. Because the amount of research to do to get that done correctly takes years upon years upon years to get right. So there's a lot of pressure with that. If I find myself in a situation where I'm writing more of a period piece for a game, I find myself tripping up over things. Am I getting the authenticity of this, right? Because I would hate to do a quest line or a story or even a bit of prose, that doesn't fit in with the actual real time history of the game. So because I know that's my weakness, I do try to avoid games like that, because I know that I'm probably not the most skilled person to do that. And then also, there were for the two companions that I wrote for Pillars of Eternity. Those were kind of hard to write because neither one of them shared any shred of a worldview I had. But at the same time, like, you know what, if I always write what's comfortable and easy, I've never really gonna grow as a writer. So I took two characters that had pretty much completely opposite views to me. And I'm like, what would cause a person to believe in X, Y, or Z so strongly? And can I build a quest and a character around that, and I think that had a lot of mixed results, but I'm still glad I did it.
Would you say is much easier writing characters which you can relate to?
Well, I guess there's a something to be said like, for when you imagine a companion character, and you want them to fit in a comfortable archetype for the player to wrap their head around. That can usually be easy to write. So for example, one of the companions for Pillars of Eternity was this really shallow Priest, but the original take on him was like, I bet I could write off Falstaff character. And he'd be, you know, funny, and you couldn't trust him all the time. But he's still kind of be your best friend, go drinking with him. And that feels really easy to me. And while I think players would have liked a character like that, I don't think it would have had the same resonance, or depth as much as having someone had some pretty dark world views that you could confront and interact with. It felt like it would be cheapening things out and make things too comfortable.
What sort of genre of writing would you say is your favorite? Is there any genre or type of story that you sink into easily?
I like stories that are more personal to the player and the antagonist, and it's okay if as a result of that personal friction or conflict big things are happening in the world. But ultimately, I think it's the personality behind in a threat that makes things interesting. So seeing a storyline with strong characters that make the plotline move in those ways, that is something I enjoy the most, especially when it's much more of a personal journey for the player versus, hey, you're from the kingdom, and you're supposed to care about it, and the king's in trouble, and you don't really care about the king, we're going to try and make you care, and oh wait now you have a sister, we'll try and make you care about the sister. The moment you as an author needs to make the player care about something, maybe there's a better way to do it. By making it more important and not the player, or more intrinsic to the player. So, I guess more selfish protagonists stories are ones that I like. Also, from a genre standpoint, Fallout came close to this, but I really enjoy sort of like doing urban fantasy, urban supernatural, just because you hit the streets and suddenly the streets get weird, and then there's darkness and maybe vampires and werewolves. That stuff is really interesting. As long as it doesn't go too far into the real world espionage where you have to know every single thing about every single handgun, machine gun, like with Alpha Protocol. I'm like, I don't know anything about guns. So I hope this isn't what the designer does because I don't know about that.
Yeah, I like the perversion of the real world. It's relatable and alien.
Yeah, because the thing is, I recognize touchstones about the real world, but now I recognize where you're playing around with it, and suddenly you're like hey, I'm having fun, too.
That's great. Thank you so much for giving me a bit of your time. I really appreciate it.