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Chris Avellone Interview Part 3: Fallout, DLCs, and Ulysses

Willooi September 18, 2011 User blog:Willooi
Chris Avellone 2009

To add to the anticipation of next week's release of Lonesome Road, I am pleased to bring you the third and final part of an interview with Chris Avellone. This edition focuses entirely on Fallout, character creation, DLCs, and Ulysses, amongst other topics.

Here are some selected highlights, with the full interview available either at Willooi Blog or Gamasutra:

[On Fallout games taking place outside of America]

Character perspectives aside, the ability to properly give context to that setting is more difficult the more removed the developers are from that location. There's likely a good reason why Bethesda did F3 in Washington DC, for example, and why Obsidian took the West Coast/SoCal region - we know more about the area where we live (or the areas that the Project Director, JE Sawyer, can ride to on his bike) than, say, China. Not having intimate insider knowledge of a location I feel makes the level design for those areas weaker as a result, not to mention the comments you'll likely get from folks living in those areas about getting various details wrong.

[His original vision of Fallout 3/Van Buren at Black Isle, prior to Josh Sawyer taking on Lead Designer duties]

I believe most of it was changed, except for Denver, which remained largely the same as far as I could tell from the docs. The revised take on the Circle of Steel was different (for me, they weren't evil, they were just hardliners who thought the rest had drifted from the original principles of preserving tech and policing their own rogues - kind of like Internal Affairs), same with the central prison/quarantine facility, the Hanged Man, etc. Still, that just gave me the opportunity to include locations like Old World Blues' Big MT in the DLCs, so it all worked out. And plus, it's always fun to drop references to the old tribal groups that I'd created (Twin Mothers, Hangdogs, the Ciphers, etc.). Also, the Prisoner's Dilemma was a core theme in the original spec, as well as the conflict with the rival "player character group" and the reactivity spawning out of that.

All that being said, Van Buren was shaping up to be great with the direction, it's a shame it got cancelled. I feel Interplay could have made it clearer they had no interest in PC-only titles earlier and saved a lot of expense and time.

[The benefits of DLC, and expanding on the vanilla game]

A lot of lore gets generated for most titles that folks never realize is there. Part of the reason that BioWare has comic arcs, novels, etc. is because they have a lot more going on in the world than could possibly fit in a single title - and even streams out into their DLCs. The same was true for New Vegas, and it was compounded by the fact a chunk of us had already worked on Van Buren as well, so we had a lot of story ideas lying around in the closet. My feeling is that you've designed a strong narrative and included the right hooks, those hooks alone (the Burned Man, or the "other" Courier 6) can make folks want to learn more about the world outside the Mojave.

From a developer standpoint, I find turning out short adventures to be more fulfilling than 2-3 year titles, and it also allows you to continually take into account feedback on the previous episodes as you're marching toward the end of the line.

[Isometric vs 3D view]

Narration cannot be separated from level or system design, imo, and camera angles are a big part of that. As an example, there are certain vistas and moments in Fallout 3 and New Vegas that could not be accomplished without breaking you out of the isometric view regardless (REPCONN rockets launching). You can't get the full impact of weather, day/night, seeing the moon over Vegas, seeing the two Ranger Statues in the distance at the Mojave outpost, seeing distant flames at Nipton, looking up to see the Goodsprings cemetery with the skyline of Vegas behind it, or seeing the storms of the Divide to complement the location (the last four of which I'd argue are strong narrative moments as well as superior level design touches that cannot be done isometrically). I feel isometric is great for multi-party (like, 5-6 individuals you're controlling in combat), but when you're the lone wanderer with one or two companions that take general orders, it's not essential.

My preference? If you're shooting for immersion, keep the player out of the picture as much as possible and try to keep everything as if the screen is your eyes. If it's a highly customizable game (as RPGs tend to be), I derive the most enjoyment out of 3rd person views that allow me to fully see what I'm carrying. When things get tactical and I need to know where everyone is on the screen at one time, iso's the way to go.

[When cutting Ulysses from the original, vanilla version of New Vegas, was there always an intention to have him - as well as characters only hinted at, such as Elijah - feature in the DLCs]

No, I didn't know until the end of DLC1 that Ulysses would be part of the narrative arc, it evolved out of writing those characters in the DLC. Elijah and the Burned Man were always intended for the DLCs, and planning to incorporate them and the other hooks occurred before FNV was finished.

As far as Ulysses, there's been some talk that the DLCs feature material that was axed in the game, and that's largely incorrect.* Even Ulysses' incarnation in FNV isn't what he came to be in the DLC narrative arc. All the characters and locations in the DLC are brand new, and the most we did was to make sure there were visual and narrative hooks to these DLCs prior to release (signage, hints, discussions about the other courier). Doing these hooks aren't easy to mask because everyone can have access to the GECK and files on release, so as one example - with Felicia Day's recordings where Veronica discusses Elijah post-Dead Money, we had to make up fake topic lines in order to mask who she'd really be talking about when the DLC was released.

  • One notable exception was the LAER rifle, which was a model from New Vegas we didn't use in the main game. We decided to make it work in the DLCs.

[Building up the legend and myths of characters, and the challenges in bringing Joshua Graham and Ulysses to life in-game]

First, the character model. There's challenges in models in Fallout, where you have a choice between doing a model that can lip-sync and have facial expressions (like Graham) but not have as much freedom with the body type and construction, or you can go down the path that we did with Ulysses, where we decided to forsake that in order to build a completely custom model for the player to interact with.

Also, you have to be clear - when talking about a myth, it's just that, a myth. The reality in meeting someone is certain to either defy people's expectations (and it's difficult when this happens, because when a player imagines a certain character to be a certain way and they're not, they're invariably disappointed because let's face it - anything they can imagine as cool is usually going to be better than what we try to guess would be cool for them).

At the same time, it's the perfect opportunity to surprise them and use that expectation as a twist, which I think Graham (and Josh) did extremely well.

[The original intentions and design of Ulysses as a companion]

- He had to reinforce the faction reputation mechanic, which I thought was one of the key mechanics in the game.

- He had to react strongly to NCR/Legion conflict and the player's role in it, acting as a sounding board when possible.

- He had to be a Legion sympathetic character and explain Legion backstory elements, since there wasn't much Legion support in the companions.

- He had to continually remind the player of Hoover Dam as the focus, and his backstory incorporated that (he was the frumentarii who discovered the Dam and NCR long ago).

- Showcase myth elements. Ulysses was big about symbols, and his take on the NCR flag, the Legion flag was also reflected in their champions (he viewed Legate Lanius as an Eastern myth in the making, and he felt the player could achieve that same mythological status for the West or for the Mojave).

- He was to complement the cool visual design changes that Josh had included for other companions (similar to Raul and Arcade, Ulysses would have the vest/flag changes, except it would depend on player's end faction allegiance when they completed Ulysses' vision quest).

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