Write Now: Narrative Designer Chris Avellone

If you want to break into narrative design, there’s absolutely nothing stopping you, says Obsidian Entertainment’s creative director. 


No experience? No money? No industry connections? Don’t sweat it, says Obsidian Entertainment creative director Chris Avellone. If you want to make games or break into the gaming field as a writer, get started right now. No excuses. That DIY drive propelled Avellone from writing pen-and-paper games to landing a design position with InterPlay in the late ‘90s where he worked on Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, Fallout 2, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, and Planescape: Torment among others. Following the cancellation of Baldurs Gate III, Avellone left InterPlay to co-found Obsidian. There he served as lead designer on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Alpha Protocol, project director on Fallout New Vegas’ downloadable content, and level and narrative designer on a variety of other titles.

Hustle runs in the veins of Obsidian’s culture. The company broke some impressive Kickstarter records by raising nearly $4 million for Project Eternity, a RPG due out later this year that’s been renamed Pillars of Eternity. Avellone has also independently partnered with inXile Entertainment to do narrative design work on Wasteland 2, an upcoming game that raised nearly $3 million through Kickstarter in 2012, and Torment: Tides of Numenera, which raised nearly $4.2 million last year.

In both breaking into the field and raising money to fund passion projects, it’s all about just jumping in, Avellone says.

Get In Media:
The Project Eternity Kickstarter campaign was such a success. What do you attribute that to?

Chris Avellone: There’s been a resurgence of old-school isometric RPGs, from Wasteland 2, the first CRPG to knock Kickstarter out of the park, and Torment: Tides of Numenera, which may hold the CRPG record for backer contributions. Nostalgia is part of the draw. The pedigree of the developers and the history of the development teams (Interplay, Black Isle) is definitely a plus as well.

I believe there’s a passionate audience that wants to see more of these classic RPGs and they remember Planescape: Torment and Wasteland fondly enough to be willing to support (and support strongly) their successors. I’m still amazed at how quickly these projects hit their funding goals and I’m glad Kickstarter provides a source of funding for projects like this or they never would have gotten off the ground, and certainly not in their current form.

GIM: Did having that crowdsourced funding impact the way you work or design a game at all?

CA: You’re beholden from the concept all the way down to the details, and if something doesn’t meet expectations then one needs to have a well-reasoned discussion as to why. That said, however, you know exactly who your audience is and how to reach them to discuss the decision, which is something not all products have the luxury when released into the wild. Overall, Kickstarter allows more discussion about the game development, more sharing, and even discussion on systems and interface. It’s liberating in many ways and I also feel it saves time—if you propose an idea or a concept that doesn’t resonate with your backers, it prevents them from seeing a feature they don’t want and it prevents you from wasting time on implementing it and then trying to sell them on it in the last six months of a marketing campaign. Logistically, preparing for the Kickstarter is one of the heaviest parts of the process. While we have production staff throughout, prepping for the Kickstarter requires a lot of work and coordination – you’re pitching to the world, after all.

GIM: With a Kickstarter-funded project, developers not only have to produce a game that fans want, they also have to keep fans interested for the entire duration of development. How do you balance what fans want and your desires for shaping the game?

CA: We have biweekly updates (we used to do these more frequently, but that was exhausting for both parties I think) and many members of the development teams are active on the forums, gathering feedback and opinions on the game and iterating accordingly. This is a great practice, and [design lead] Adam Heine does the same thing for Torment: Tides of Numenera for a variety of systems. People enjoy seeing meaty design-focused updates and information release.

GIM: The landscape of RPGs is arguably saturated. When Obsidian is planning a new RPG, what goes into ensuring that it’s unlike other games on the market while still retaining RPG hallmarks?

CA: We’re in an unusual place because most of our titles leverage off an existing engine or an existing franchise. That said, we strive for a few things to make it more Obsidian, although I don’t think these design qualities are necessarily solely ours. As an example, I feel BioWare does an incredible job with characters, worlds, and narratives. We do try and add a lot of interesting companion interactions, iterate on the narratives quite a bit to hit the right tone and theme (if appropriate), and try to provide the player with an interesting backdrop to play out their experiences.

GIM: In previous interviews, you’ve stated that Obsidian has made the mistake of giving characters too much exposition instead of showing game narrative in the environment. Would you mind speaking to that environmental narration? How does your team plan that out?

CA: Sometimes it’s budget, sometimes it’s just taking a step back and hacking away words and seeing if you can tell the story simply with images. With our titles, we try to have a visual narrative pass. We did this for the Fallout: New Vegas downloadable content, especially Old World Blues where we had design documents solely for how the Higgs Village scientist homes should be laid out and what props should be used. Prop and graffiti placement are a big part of this. For example, we used graffiti to indicate where one of the antagonists had traveled, which reminded the player of his presence even when the antagonist wasn’t physically present. A much-ignored aspect of this is also inventory item placement. As a simple example, we loaded Dr. Mobius’ chambers in the Forbidden Zone with Mentats [addictive drugs] to emphasize his problem. A more complex, subtle example is how we did an editing pass of the loot distribution of the Sierra Madre to reinforce that most of the gear you found was prewar, not postwar. In another Fallout example, if you ever travel to Lynette’s office in Vault City in Fallout 2, I purposely placed Mentats in her desk drawer solely to reinforce her hypocrisy on drugs and chems.

GIM: You’ve credited your background in comic book writing as being central to your talents as a game writer. What specific skills do you feel you picked up from comic writing?

CA: When writing a comic book, you have to describe the scene and the camera angles and work in tandem with an artist. Rather than a reader pouring over a paragraph for a minute or two, a one- to five-second glance at the environment in a computer game can communicate all that and more. (BioShock is especially good at that). We employed a lot of these principles in the Fallout: New Vegas downloadable content.

GIM: What’s your biggest challenge in terms of narrative development on Obsidian games?

CA: Making sure you’re always asking, “Why should the player give a shit?” at each stage. Recognizing that a volume of words doesn’t always make your point. Also recognizing that it’s OK if people miss stuff that you feel is important because it isn’t always as important as you think it is if you’re doing your job with visual storytelling.

GIM: There’s been such crazy media attention about game writing in the past few years. The market is flooded with people who want to go into that field. For students who want to break in, how do you recommend they do it?

CA: Start doing it. Now. There’s no reason to wait. There are game editors for writing quests, plenty of mod tools. Just start doing it in your own time. If you can’t break into it directly, get into translation. Set up something in Twine (I get a number of submissions this way). Go to San Francisco [to the] Game Developers Conference and go to all the narrative tracks. Say hello after and [at] all the writer parties, say hello there, too. Don’t be an asshole about it. There’s no reason to “sell” yourself too hard. All you need to is show up and talk about games and meet writers there.

Get into writing comics, either on your own, on the Web, or for a publisher. Write a novella. Write a novel. Write short stories. Do what I did and write pen-and-paper adventures and submit them until your editor writes to you to tell you to stop submitting them (This is a true story: Monte Cook, [RPG designer] who I now work with on Numenera). Gamemaster pen-and-paper games for your friends and learn the lessons of how to entertain people. Help in writing Kickstarter pages and manuals. Volunteer for Kickstarters you like. Be an editor. Offer to be part of “beta” teams for novels, novellas, and other works that [Kickstarters] are doing (I could certainly use a critique group). If all that fails, try and get a job in a narrative design company doing whatever else you can (QA, customer support, production) and then see if you can move laterally.

GIM: When you’re evaluating portfolios for hiring, what stands out to you? What does a newbie in the game industry absolutely need in that portfolio and what absolutely turns you off?

CA: Narrative design is a different beast than most portfolios and there are a lot of elements to consider. First off, a strong cover letter demonstrating passion can go a long way (hey, that’s part of a narrative designer’s job, make the reader care). It’s hard to strike the right balance between being a fanboy and expressing competence and enjoyment for a game, but it’s worth erring on the side of playing it close to the chest and not gushing too much.

Also, any work you have on your resume, mods especially, is a plus. There is very little preventing anyone from designing and writing for games right now via mods and seeing that on a resume/portfolio moves those applicants to the top.

I also look for finished, published works. Both is great, and the former is important, and the latter shows that someone else saw value in it. I look more for screenplays, graphic novel scripts, and scripts than I do novels or prose-heavy works, since the former are usually more applicable for our industry than the denser forms of the media.

In addition, proper grammar, proofreading, command of the language, knowledge of other contemporary RPGs and clichés, or new takes on them, effective critiques (positive and negative) of other games, and the ability to write across a wide spectrum of narrative design—interface text, item/lore descriptions, quest descriptions, character backgrounds, reactive dialogues, and more—all of this is valuable and it helps to have them in your portfolio.

GIM: What else should students new to the field know?

CA: There’s nothing stopping you from making games right now. While a full-time position at a game company may seem to be the dream, note that if you are making your own games, not only are you building your resume, but you’ll also have a lot of flexibility and freedom to choose your own projects, learn programming, art, and design in fields that interest you rather than are assigned to you, and you will have the ability to create your own IP with a lot less restrictions rather than working on someone else’s IP. Plus, doing all this is great talking points in any interview for a full-time job.

That said, working on other IPs is a great learning experience. … Being forced to step outside your comfort zone is a good thing, and it can improve your design skills and perspective in future projects, as well as train you to shape systems, interface, level design, and narrative to achieve a certain ambient feel unique to each franchise: space opera, Mad Max apocalypse, zombie apocalypse, survival horror, etc.

Last of all, the industry is very specialized and you will be in a certain role on a project: narrative designer, interface designer. Unless the project is small, you likely will be in that role for a considerable amount of time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but be aware of it when applying for a job, and apply for what you love first.

Want to get started? Obsidian is hiring interns and full-timers. Check out job openings right over here.

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