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RPG Codex Interview: Colin McComb on Writing for Torment: Tides of Numenera

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RPG Codex Interview: Colin McComb on Writing for Torment: Tides of Numenera

Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Sat 18 May 2013, 15:32:06

Tags: Colin McComb; InXile Entertainment; Planescape: Torment; Torment: Tides of Numenera

To this day, Black Isle's Planescape: Torment is widely regarded as video gaming's most finely crafted narrative. It goes without saying, then, that it won't be easy for InXile's spiritual successor to Torment, Torment: Tides of Numenera, to live up to its predecessor's reputation. On the other hand, Planescape: Torment's amazing story came packaged alongside a fair share of problems, such as weak combat and a number of poorly designed areas. In this interview, esteemed community member grotsnik talks to Torment 2's creative lead, Colin McComb, about the approach Colin takes in designing and writing for the game so it can live up to the hype, as well as about addressing the weaker parts of Torment: Tides of Numenera's illustrious predecessor.

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You’ve credited Chris Avellone with being responsible for a pretty extraordinary 50% of the overall writing on Planescape: Torment, including the first drafts for three-quarters of the characters. T:ToN, on the other hand, seems to be gaining creative contributors almost by the day, one of whom (Pat Rothfuss) is coming to games-writing for the very first time. As the lead writer, how exactly are you planning to manage all of these disparate voices? Is there a danger of an individual vision being lost in the rush to bring in more recognisable, Kickstarter-friendly names?

Having a distributed ensemble writing team is something that we planned for from the start, so while the danger you mention is a risk, we’re prepared for it. Now that the Kickstarter has wrapped, I’m sitting down and fleshing the story out further. This involves outlining specific story beats, levels, and thematic elements to hit at certain points, among other things. It has been a very busy month since the Kickstarter ended and it’s going to be (at least!) another very busy month before we get anyone else really going on the design. That’s just as well, because narrative development is a hugely iterative process, and we’ve already improved and tightened various aspects of the story. By the time our other writers come on board, we’ll have a solid base for them to work from. Further, we’re going to get them rolling in stages, so issues flagged by the first group will translate into improvements for the second, and so on. This staged roll-out will make it easier for me to review their work for consistency and style.

In the meantime, we’ve got our novella writers working on the Tides stories, and we plan to use those to help acclimate the other writers to the baseline of the Tides.

It’s my hope that our writers will feel grounded and able to work with what we have by the time of the first writers’ meeting. At this meeting, we’ll be discussing the story in excruciating detail and breaking it down bit by bit in order to tidy it up.

And then, after they all get moving, I’ll be overseeing and reviewing their work throughout the process. I don’t imagine that I’ll be writing 50% of the game, but I will be writing a fair portion and am going to have my hands in pretty much all of it – whether writing directly, editing, or providing feedback. Fortunately, we have the example of PST to prove that the game doesn’t need to be the work of a single author – multiple writers works just fine, provided there’s good oversight.​

The basic T:ToN story hook has been seen by many as an inversion of the original Torment template, with the player character, like the Transcendent One, a cast-off aspect of an immortal being that begins to form its own motives and identity. Could you tell us a little about where the idea came from?

Originally, Adam and I were hashing out an idea that was based on a short story I was writing, in which the player is an angel of an ever-changing god beset by the forces of chaos, and in which the player became a seed of that god as it destroyed itself to save its legacy.

But after a couple of days of kicking this back and forth, we realized that while we could make this story cool, it wasn’t a Torment story—existence itself was at stake. It wasn’t personal... or rather, it was personal, but the stakes were so epic that the NPCs would have no choice but to care.

Then Adam and I kicked some more ideas around, he mentioned something about wouldn’t it be cool if the PC was a clone and when he died a clone was revived to take his place, and then we started cannibalizing, and then we got the Numenera license, and that’s when things got interesting.

We did recognize that there were similarities and parallels with PST. Frankly, that was part of the draw for us—that we could create a thematically similar experience without stealing or cribbing, a game that would carry echoes of the first but earn its own place.

Reading over those old emails makes realize that I need to give Adam a huge amount of credit. I am so happy to be working with him again; he’s got a tremendous mind. He’s also incredibly modest, and I feel it’s my duty to let the world know that he’s creative, smart, funny, and productive.​

On the Codex and abroad, the question of exactly how stat and skill checks and other variables should function in CRPG dialogue is an enduring and a knotty one. Josh Sawyer, notably, has taken aim at the discrete, ‘select this option to win the conversation’ speech skill as something which he’d like to see go into the dustbin. Do you have any preferences as to how you’d want character build communicating itself in the T:ToN conversation system?

I think skills should enhance and improve gameplay, not replace it altogether. Having a single skill instantly solve your problems is a particularly boring, meta-gamey way to play, which is to say: Gameplay should be integrated with the skill set, not overwhelmed by it. Should skills have a meaningful impact on your decisions and their outcomes? Absolutely. But they shouldn’t take the place of thought and care, and they shouldn’t provide an instant win state for important parts of the narrative. We do expect to have skills that are relevant to conversation, and some of those skills will improve your chances at favorable outcomes, but they won’t dictate the course of the conversation.​

It’s often argued that PS:T suffers from a drop in quality from Curst through to Carceri, when the player’s no longer free to explore the hubs of Sigil but instead has to work their way through a succession of smaller, wilder locations with a far higher number of hostile creatures. As a writer, how exactly do you go about trying to pace a game where the player can leap from world to world and spend longer inside one conversation tree than an entire dungeon?

A large part of this is defining our base storyline and the behavior of our NPCs within those modules. Right now we’re establishing our constraints and briefs for area design, and we’re planning of the relative size, in terms of gameplay, for each section of the game. We’re also working on character and Mere placement and number and size of dialogues. At some point, even the most completionist of players are going to decide they’ve wrung every bit of reactivity out of an area and move on. But some choices are mutually exclusive, and we don’t see it as a possibility that you’ll be able to experience the entirety of the game in a single playthrough. In fact, I don’t think you’ll get it on two.

Now, I should mention that we don’t see it as our job to make sure people move along at the pace we’ve dictated. We’re designing the story so that people can progress through the mainline at their own pace, while trying to keep the sense of urgency on the story.

But the real answer to the question is that we’re designing the game so that you can go back to areas and explore at your own pace, though you’ll start to have difficulties if you stagnate too long in one place. I see that’s the next question, though, so I’ll save further discussion for that question.​

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During T:ToN, the player will be hunted by the ‘Angel of Entropy’. Many games settle for conveying a sense of urgency by faking an antagonist's pursuit via scripted sequences - no matter how tardy the Nameless One is, he’s never going to be caught by the Shadows in the Mortuary or in the Buried Village - but you’ve stated on Reddit that “there will be some pressure from behind”. Should we expect time-limits, a la Fallout, or do you have other plans for giving the game's adversaries a sense of involvement in the story?

We’re still talking about how exactly to implement this, and I don’t want to give away too much too early, but we’re designing at a system in which you’ll know that it’s time to move on. It’s not that you’ll always be looking over your shoulder, but if you spend too much time in an area without forward progression, the sense of menace increases until the menace actually arrives.

Again, I want to stress that we do want to keep the pressure on without making you feel like you’ve lost agency or that you have to save at critical junctures so you can go back and experience the game. We intend for this game to be deep and heavily replayable. We understand the tension between providing a sense of realism and urgency, and the desire not to create a frustrating, over-tense game experience. Developing this is part of our early process, and it’s an issue we’re looking at closely.

It’s possible that others you’ve managed to antagonize or cross in some other way pursue you or lay traps for you. It’s a dangerous world, and you’re most definitely not the most dangerous thing in it. We’ve had many new ideas since the Kickstarter and we may have played up our depiction of the Angel, but we will try to achieve that sense of urgency, yes. It won’t be faked urgency – we have no qualms about the outcome of the player’s choices resulting in Game Over. We’re not going to push you into game-ending states at every opportunity, but we’re not going to go out of our way to make sure they never happen, either.​

One of the most common complaints we’ve read about the narrative design in PS:T is the game’s use of factions, which some players thought were ultimately too inconsequential and incidental to the larger story, particularly given their prominence within the Planescape setting. How are you planning to make the various groups and wider conflicts function within the narrative of T:ToN?

We intend to let the players get as involved (or not involved) as they want to be. We mean to have more faction-specific information and quests, and joining one faction should prevent you from joining another. They’ll interact with one another, with opposing and sometimes intersecting interests, and you’ll have to pick one over the other. Sometimes your Tides will play into these choices, and sometimes they won’t.

But again, at this point this is all theoretical. Until we can get into the systems and start making these mechanically come true, I’m free to promise the world—I should probably be a little more careful about that.

So let me say this: Many of the factions are subplots and not part of the main line of the story. They’ll be optional quests, though it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter and interact with at least one or two of them on any given playthrough (you won’t have to join them or anything, but you’ll come across them regardless), and unless you make the exact same choices, they’ll be different ones when you play again.​

The ‘evil’ playthrough is something that seems to give a lot of CRPG writers a headache, both in terms of establishing a tone beyond cartoonish villainy and the practicalities of all the extra content required. You’ve said that the Tides will be ‘more nuanced’ than the classic D&D alignment system - but are you planning to let the player roll with a unconscionable bastard as well?

Yep. I mean, at some point we have to define various aspects of how the game will play, and offering 20 dialogue choices based on subtle shadings of what kind of asshole you want to be (“I want to be an ultimate badass!” “I want to be a hepatitis-ridden James Bond!” “I want to be Wormtongue, only stabbier!”) probably isn’t feasible purely from a time constraint (though it might be fun to write). But we do intend to take into account a variety of play styles, and we’re looking at how to define various play styles.

Your choices will impact your Tides, but again, we’re not aiming for a good/evil state on these choices. Bastards will have their bastardy tagged for specific interactions and reactions with others, but how that plays into the Tides system is still to be determined.​

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We already know that companion influence exists in-game in some form, and that it’s going to be more explicit than PS:T’s morale counter; Kevin Saunders has suggested that we can expect something along the lines of Mask of the Betrayer’s system. ‪It’s something we’ve seen a lot of in recent CRPGs, many of which have showcased the difficulties of trying to quantify a personal relationship via gameplay (if you agree with Companion X's opinions enough times in conversation, you’ll receive 30 friendship points and she’ll forget you murdered that orphan in front of her, and so on). Do you have any personal thoughts on how party dynamics should function in T:ToN, from a narrative and design perspective?

What we want to do is create distinct personalities for our companions. Some may be slavishly loyal, bending to your every whim. Some may have stronger personalities. In either case, they’ll respond to your choices as fits their character, and they’ll have specific reactions to specific events—which, I should note, we’ll broadcast ahead of time, rather than springing these things on you as a complete surprise. If you discover that the Fallen Priest has a phobia about multi-legged insects because his village was overrun by a murderous, carnivorous swarm, for instance, his reaction to your light-hearted prank of filling his boots with centipedes may very well be to attack you—although if you’ve beaten him down enough, he might just try to cut your throat in your sleep or sabotage your quest. Note that he’d do this only if he knows that you’re aware of his phobia; otherwise, he’d just be really, really mad at you and might be less helpful throughout the game until you make amends (why you’d want to fill his boots with centipedes is probably a discussion best left for later).

We can create specific flags and scripting for these characters for instances like this; the question then is where and how we append them throughout the game in order to maintain reasonable character narrative and to use our resources properly. On the one hand, strong companion reactivity is one of the hallmarks of what we’re trying to accomplish, and we intend to spend a lot of time on making sure we’ve got it just right. The other night, for instance, I spent about 50 minutes with Pat Rothfuss talking about his proposed character and how we could make his companion’s arc play out – and, I should note, this is before he’s even technically started, so you know that he’s looking forward to the project. Chris Avellone is also hugely excited about building a companion of his own, and I think we can all agree that an Avellone companion is essentially the benchmark for RPG companions.

On the other hand, we have a limited amount of time and availability for all our designers and writers, and we want to be sure that we use that time wisely, and this requires careful planning and scheduling up front, allowing time for iterative design during the process. This isn’t a social-manipulation game, after all – we’ve got a story to tell.

From a mechanical design perspective... well, you know the drill. “Systems not designed, still early in pre-production, etc.” While we want to make sure that a lot of our actual design is transparent for the players who want it to be transparent, I have a personal preference that party dynamics should have a certain level of opacity – the more your companions feel like living, breathing people, the more immersive the experience. Reducing them to a set of numbers and reactivity points might be fun from a mechanical perspective, but it’s too reductive from a narrative standpoint.​

It's often held that the combat in PS:T left a great deal to be desired not only in its mechanics, but also in the sense of (to air videogame theory's most impressive-sounding new buzzphrase) ludonarrative dissonance; in that whether you were murdering your way through the Tenement of Thugs just to get to the alleyway on the other side or bashing entire swarms of mindless critters in the Weeping Catacombs or Curst Underground, fighting frequently came across as arbitrary obstacle-placing, rather than relevant to what the player character was trying to achieve in the game's narrative. Without delving into the undecided technical side of things, how would you want to go about ensuring that the combat never feels disjointed from the story?

Combat should be a part of the story, whether to indulge or to avoid. It should always serve the purpose of moving your understanding of your character ahead, and that’s one of the ways we fell down on PST. Kevin, Adam, and I have talked about this fairly extensively, and we agree that our combats should serve a narrative purpose, and that avoiding those combats will help reveal more about your character as well—whether you talk your way out of fighting or flee from your foe, you’ll create a picture of who you are in this game.

So trash mobs won’t be prevalent in Torment. No random gangsters deciding that you look like a prime target. No killing rats for XP. I’m not saying that we won’t have any mindless fights, just that trouble won’t always come looking for you to ruin your non-combat playthrough. In Numenera as well, you don’t get XP for killing monsters, so combat becomes optional – your XP comes from telling a story, from solving problems, from being clever players. We are enjoying exploring in that vein.​

The year is 2015, and Torment’s been released. A man appears in a fiendish puff of smoke and offers you the chance to create a game in a setting entirely of your choosing, with absolutely no need to worry about marketability or mass appeal. What do you choose?

Do I have to worry about legal issues? Frankly, I want to keep going with stuff I’ve been involved in and already made a part of me. Numenera is right up at the top there—it’s new, exciting, and the boundaries are wide open. Rothfuss’s Kingkiller world would be pretty great; I know he’s interested in making a game set there. Hell, if we’re novelizing fiction, I’d like to make a game in my Oathbreaker setting, because I’ve been living with that in my head for more than a decade. I’d love to explore the world I created for Torn before they went in a different direction.

If we’re talking tabletop settings, I’d love to work in Birthright again. Doing something with Paizo’s Golarion would be cool, and of course Planescape is always going to have a special place for me.

But even beyond that, I’d love to develop a brand-new setting, because world-building is so goddamn fun. I’d love to do something in the world of Endless Night, where the players are the last bastion of Light... or perhaps the first. Or what about a modern-day horror game being penetrated by dimension-crossing monsters that attack by creating passages through nightmares? Or an urban crime fantasy?

Seriously, though, just one setting? There are so many good ideas out there that I can’t possibly choose one right now while I’m neck-deep in the Ninth World. Let me ask Lucifer (or is it Mephistopheles?) when we’ve wrapped up Torment. I might have a better answer then.​

Thank you for your time, Colin.

Colin McComb's personal website and blog can be found here.

We are grateful to grotsnik for coming up with the questions for this interview, and to Colin for taking his time to answer them.

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