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Italian Torment Interviews: Chris Avellone and Kevin Saunders

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Italian Torment Interviews: Chris Avellone and Kevin Saunders

Interview - posted by Infinitron on Wed 18 December 2013, 23:45:58

Tags: Chris Avellone; InXile Entertainment; Kevin Saunders; Torment: Tides of Numenera

For some reason, the official Italian Torment: Tides of Numenera blog does some of the best interviews about the game. Today they published an excellent one with Chris Avellone, who is in full professional mode and has some interesting things to say. Here's an excerpt:

Hi Chris, you were the lead designer di Planescape: Torment and the guy who wrote a huge part of that game. Even if your role in T:ToN development is smaller, part of your job now consists in reviewing various design docs and giving advice to the other Torment developers. Is there any particular area of Tides of Numenera that has taken advantage of your feedbacks, something where players can clearly recognize your signature? And on the other hand, what’s the feature designed by another guy of the team that appealed you the most?

I
’ve been part of intense story reviews with Colin McComb, Adam Heine, Kevin Saunders, and Nathan Long on Torment, and given hours of feedback on the story structure, plot direction, and questions about player agency – that said, the story is very much from Colin’s mind, he was open to a sounding board for a variety of concepts.

So what appealed to me at first glance? Oddly enough: the combat tie-in to the protagonist’s dilemma. And the reasons surrounding the player’s initial quandary, which I’d be happy to elaborate more on once the game is released and people have had a chance to play it. What I like about Colin is he really likes digging in deep with motivations for NPCs and then laying out the quest and backdrop permutations that result naturally from asking a lot of questions about how the NPC would handle the situation if he had years upon years to tackle it.

You are well known for the memorable characters you wrote for pretty much every game you’ve worked on. You’ve also stated many times that themes and game systems should play a role in the writing process of an RPG, especially when it comes to companion design. Can you tell us how these elements influence your work both in Torment and Pillars of Eternity?

I laid out some companion specs for design based on 15+ years doing it, and those same principles were re-examined for Torment as well, with one exception: Kevin and I agreed that there may be Torment characters that don’t serve a game mechanic function as long as their narrative presence is strong (which is fine). Although, that didn’t stop me from trying to suggest new ways to make those narrative-based characters still contribute to the game mechanics.

Is there anything else you want to add on the companion topic? Maybe a concrete sample (either from Torment or from Pillars of Eternity)? Probably you don’t want to give away too much too early, but there’s no harm in trying.

The companion for Torment was born out of reading the others – I wanted to make a character whose fit, in terms of the RPG mechanics, with the others (ex: what party role was missing that would be needed to round out the party?), and also someone that would be fun and interesting in a party banter situation, as well as with the player.

So the first thought after reading through the companions was – wow, we have a grim bunch. Like, really grim. You feel sad and terrible after reading most of them, although there’s bright points of light (the Toy, for example, and Pat Rothfuss’s character, who is great, and also Nathan Long’s character, which fulfills another important role I’ll get to once revealed). In the end, I recognized one important companion signpost in Torment lies in characters like Morte and Nordom – one provides humor naturally in irreverence, the other provides humor in being a fish out of water. The companion I’m doing in Torment is another take on adding some levity to the situation, whether intended to or not. I’ve played him in a few Numenera tabletop sessions, and so far, he adds a lot of… energy… to encounters. Plus, he’ll be a lot of fun to write, and I think he’ll lead to some interesting adventure possibilities.
The Italian Torment blog also did an equally awesome interview with Kevin Saunders last month, which for some reason I didn't post back then. Well, better late than never:

Hi Kevin, my fist question is about exploration. In his last Kickstarter Update, Montgomery Markland wrote about world-map gameplay in Wasteland 2. Can we expect something similar in Torment: Tides of Numenera or is the game’s focus far too different? Broadly speaking, do you think free-roaming adds to RPG’s formula?

First, thanks for your well thought-out questions! I think world maps such as Wasteland 2’s can be a great gameplay feature, but they do affect the game’s pacing and type of experience it creates. Broadly speaking, I do think free-roaming is beneficial to RPGs and, for the amount of effort they require, a world map can add much gameplay and depth. I initially dreamt of a world map component for Torment, but over time it’s come to feel like it might not mesh with our vision for this game. We will see.

I really love the idea behind “Crises”, but I’m curious to know how exactly are you guys planning to handle them? Mainly trough text - in choose-your-own-adventure fashion - or through “normal” gameplay? Will they incorporate puzzle-solving elements, instant death events and other challenges? What are the pros and the cons of Crises compared to a more “system-oriented” approach to non-lethal gameplay ( i.e. stealth/hacking in Deus Ex/Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines)?

Crises occur in the framework of normal gameplay, but are separate from exploration or conversation gameplay, much like real-time exploration is separate from combat in some classic RPGs. For example, we expect for the interface and some of your options to change when you’re in a Crisis (e.g., we may find that different game camera options are best for Crisis gameplay than for when you’re exploring the world). They won’t be choose-your-own-adventure style; text will be a part of them, but in the same way as it is throughout the rest of the game, with you potentially engaging in (limited duration) conversations and examining items in the environment. I think it’s accurate to say that Crises will include puzzle-solving elements. We won’t blindside players with unpredictable instant death, but you’ll pay the consequences if you’re careless.

The main reasons we are looking at this approach (as compared to the approach in the examples you give) have to do with compartmentalizing these experiences, which provides benefits such as:
  1. We can safely create the environments throughout all of the parts of the game that don’t have Crises even while we’re still iterating on Crisis design. So we can take the time necessary to flesh out our Crises and best understand what they require from their environments without putting the rest of environment creation on hold. This is especially important because we expect iteration on our 2D prerendered environments to be more challenging than for a 3D game.
  2. We can consider more extreme abilities and reactivity (i.e., choice and consequences).
  3. This approach allows us to handcraft the major encounters, simultaneously blending non-combat elements into them. We promised early that our encounters would be thoughtful and strategic, and Crises allow us to live up to that promise.
The primary potential disadvantage is that the Crises (and thus combat) will feel less seamless. This affects the pacing of the game in ways that could be either good or bad depending upon the specifics. But we do risk some loss of immersion.

Speaking of character development, while I was reading the Numenera Corebook, Focus struck me as the most defining trait of your character’s build (seriously, some of them give you X-men-like superpowers). Since Foci greatly impact character development, do you think it’s wise to tie them to the alignment system in Torment? As a rule, are you positive about the idea of mixing role-play and character development elements?

A very insightful question. In fact, while we did say previously that we’d tie foci to your Legacy, over the last months, we have been rethinking that idea for the reason you imply. We have come up with more ways for the Tides (and Legacies) to have narrative relevance and plan to keep them more detached from the core gameplay systems. We want players to make their narrative choices based upon what they want to do, not what powers they want to harness.

Narrative is definitely one of the highlights of Planescape: Torment (and Mask of the Betrayer as well). The Nameless One’s is a journey you won’t forget, but is also a pretty linear one. I mean, there’s A LOT of room for reactivity and unusual interactions, but you have to visit the principal locations in a certain order, meet certain characters and (SPOILER ALERT!!!) ultimately die. How linear will Tides of Numenera be in comparison, and what’s your thoughts on non-linearity in story-driven RPGs?

We expect Torment: Tides of Numenera to be similar to Planescape: Torment in terms of linearity. We’ll have room for exploration and self-direction, but particular story points will be gated by narrative events that must occur to move the story along. I do think that non-linearity can work well in a story-driven RPG, but that it does affect the nature of the story that is told.
As linear as PS:T, huh? I remember them saying it would be less linear at one point, but I guess we can't really complain.

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