Obsidian’s Chris Avellone chats Alpha Protocol
With Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol out in October, we got the company’s co-founder Chris Avellone to take us through its story
When it came to planning Alpha Protocol’s story, what differences were there compared to Obsidian’s previous projects?
Feargus Urquhart, our CEO, came up with the idea in tandem with Chris Jones, our Technical Director at Obsidian. The theme was to create an action hero game set in the real world, and allow the player to take on the role of a highly-trained operative, working alone. Once we had this “theme box,” the team set to work on creating a game on that vision.
The story went through two drafts (not unusual – Knights of the Old Republic II, our previous title, went through at least 1), and a year and a half ago we finalized the story, shifting around various characters and utilizing assets we’d already built from the previous storyline. The goal of the final draft was to enforce the cinematic action blockbuster experience, and give more reactivity to the player’s choices, both in game mechanics (perks, trust level with characters) and immediate consequences in a mission… in addition, we had systems set up so that NPCs in the game could track your actions over time and respond accordingly if they’d dug up your dossier and researched you. Which they do. Often. (And you can do it to them, with similar results.)
Ultimately, tying the story to game mechanics wasn’t a big change (we try to make sure dialogue in our games is also a game mechanic, not just exposition) – but the biggest change was the way you communicate with characters in the game. Designed by Brian Mitsoda and implemented by Dan Spitzley, Alpha Protocol has a timed dialogue system with one route through the conversation (no loops as in previous title), and the goal was to create a more natural conversation, yet give those conversations the sense of urgency you’d often feel when watching TV shows like 24 or the snappy back-and-forth you’d get in a Bond flick.
How does storytelling work in tandem with the gameplay in Alpha Protocol? Is the dialogue stance system only used at certain times, or do you communicate with all characters in this way? What benefits are there to this system?
There are two cinematic deliveries in Alpha Protocol – one is strictly cut scenes (no interactivity, usually intros and outros to a level), but for any sequence where you have a conversation with a character (whether by phone, PDA, video screen, or direct confrontation), then the stance system comes into play and you choose your way through the conversation by choosing a mood (suave, aggressive, professional, or an action – like shooting someone in the knee, hanging up on them, or smashing their head into a table).
The benefits to the system is that it reinforces that the urgency and the attitude of the player character (we’re making a covert ops action title, like 24, and having to make quick, instinctual decisions or trying to pry someone’s hidden agenda out of them) is important in the dialogue mechanic, as well as giving more action-based players a chance to pull a Jack Bauer when they want to.
How is writing for a videogame different to writing for other mediums, like TV and movies?
I can only speak for role-playing games, but interactivity and branching dialogue in the games can be quite a juggling act. Also, because you need the voice actor’s tone to change and yet be consistent across certain branches, you need to make sure you’re tracking and grouping the lines correctly – for example, in Alpha Protocol, the protagonist Michael Thorton can switch between various moods and stances to get his point across. Each of these mood changes has a particular tone associated with it that you have to be careful to keep consistent for the conversation to flow smoothly.
To what extent do you believe storytelling in videogames should be cinematic?
If by “cinematic,” you mean face-to-face conversations that control the camera, I believe it shouldn’t be done – there’s other ways to pull off the same effect while allowing a player freedom of movement and action. I think when you paralyze a player or put them in a “talk box”, that ends up ultimately diminishing the experience.
Has working with voice actors, motion capture, etc. affected the way Obsidian scripts its projects?
It required a great investment of localization support across all our projects – Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords was our first foray into a fully voice-acted game, and the amount of localization support and voice-over tracking was considerable. Fortunately, LucasArts had had a lot of experience from the first game, and we’d had a long background in tracking localization and translations from Black Isle Studios, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Alpha Protocol is actually a much smaller RPG in terms of line count than our previous titles, but the reactivity amongst the major characters ends up being stronger.
We’ve also done a great deal of changes to our dialogue editor and tools over the course of Alpha Protocol, and the conversations in the game have caused the development of a pretty talented cinematics department here at the company and a number of rising stars (Shon Stewart and Joe Bulock are cinematics lead and cinematics designer, respectively – if you see a scene in the game you like, kudos to them and their department).
Alpha Protocol appears to be a mix of cutscenes and old-fashioned, text-based choice making – which method do the team prefer working with?
Choices are preferred – cut scenes are good for certain events, but there’s usually ways you can show those explosive events in the environment without taking camera control away from the player.
Recently, we’ve seen BioShock popularise storytelling within the gameplay, without breaking away from it. Do you believe this kind of method is the way forward, or do you think there’s room yet for cutscenes?
I think Bioshock’s method is more immersive, and given the choice, I would prefer that any storytelling take place in a manner that doesn’t paralyze the player (as cinematic conversations tend to do in today’s day and age). A blend between RPG content and Half-Life 2 is my personal dream.
Do you think there’s enough recognition for quality videogames storytelling in the industry? Outside of the WGA, it seems there isn’t enough acclaim for progressive, intelligent scriptwriting.
I think that’s changing across the genre, and I think games like Half-Life 2, Bioshock, COD4 and other mainstream titles are helping to drive that effort. We hope to be a part of it, and the fact that there are increasing conferences devoted solely to game writing and game content creation is encouraging. With any luck, Alpha Protocol will help getting videogame storytelling outside the industry the recognition it deserves.