Planescape Torment How is Ignuss's character developed?
"We didn't have the luxury of doing it like other role-playing games" - Chris Avellone on "Planescape: Torment"
"Planescape: Torment" was published almost twenty years ago. With its bizarre interpretation of Forgotten Realms, it is considered a classic in gaming history. The story: A nameless zombie with amnesia tries to find out who he is. Or rather, how many (nameless zombies) he is. Because in »Planescape: Torment« our totally scarred game character lived countless lives even before the game started. The unlucky boy is also accompanied by a band of weird outsiders that are rarely found anywhere else. Including a flying skull with Laberflashs and a succubus that leads to a… »brothel of intellectual desires« in the capital of this feverish dream-like world of the afterlife. We spoke to Planescape: Torment mastermind and game design icon Chris Avellone about the evolution and legacy of his weird game creation. And about the dubious experiences he's had in the game industry since then.
You can read the original version of the interview here »
Hey Chris, when you pitched Planescape: Torment to Interplay in 1997, you were in your mid-twenties. What was young Chris Avellone like?
He was about as fat and awkward as I am now. And just as addicted to caffeine. This young Chris Avellone also had a lot of misconceptions about the game industry and game development. But he was ready to do anything to write video games (which I still am). If I compare my former self to myself after 20 years in the industry, that worries me a little. Today I am getting rid of some creative ideas faster than impractical and costly. That's one of the reasons I think it's imperative to hire young people. They bring fresh perspectives and show you how to implement designs that you would not have thought of yourself.
What was your design philosophy back then? How was that expressed in »Planescape«?
Role-playing games are meant to be a personal journey in which you not only uncover the history of the game, but also learn something about yourself, namely what kind of person you are as a role-player. This ties in with the central question of »Planescape«: What can change a person's nature? There was one thing that annoyed me about classic role-playing games, especially the same races, classes and stereotypes, the evil wizard, the dark god. We wanted to make the game unique - right down to the inventory items. For example, you can swap your eyeball. The tattoos that the nameless person can get should be related to what the protagonist has experienced and achieved.
What were the main difficulties during development?
To compensate for the disadvantages, I would first like to say: We had a lot of advantages with »Planescape«. Only a few people in the studio were interested in what we were actually developing. With BioWare's Infinity Engine, we had an excellent technical foundation. And the Planescape team was very passionate. For some it was the first opportunity to show off their skills. Others, however, had been written off by senior developers at Black Isle because they did not meet their standards.
I give credit to all the project leaders for not only being willing to work with these developers, but also training them and making a real team out of them ... with great success. The project was really important to everyone. On the negative side: Because we were a small team, we had to lower expectations a bit. And Black Isle was not in good shape financially. When the timely release of "Fallout 2", and with it many Jobs, was in jeopardy, especially because Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson left the studio to found Troika ("Vampire: Bloodlines"), some were pulled Developers of "Planescape" from, and thundered them to extra shifts in "Fallout 2".
During the development of »Planescape« we also experienced some changes in management. Producing a game was a thankless job at Black Isle. Above all, you were a kind of shit umbrella. "Torment" lacked a good producer until Ken Lee took over responsibility in the end. He understood the game because he had worked on it. And he was ready to fight for us (Raise a glass for Ken Lee).
In search of Morte, the skull we trust.
"Planescape: Torment" is considered a classic game and is celebrated by fans and critics alike. I sometimes have the feeling that it still didn't have as much of an impact on gaming culture as other games. How do you see the legacy of Planescape?
I sometimes think “Planescape” is one of those classics that nobody really wants to play. It's a bit like asking students to read a difficult and obscure "literary classic." Such a "literary classic" has its strengths, but you have to be in the right mood for it. Besides, it was just a hell of a lot of text. And you could say it was more of an adventure game than an RPG.
When we developed "Pillars of Eternity" at Obsidian Entertainment in 2012, the Kickstarter campaign advertised that the story and tone of the game would be partly based on "Planescape". So some of the team came up to me and confessed that they had never played Planescape or that they couldn't get on with the game, which was okay with me. I didn't make that commitment. It was more of a means by executives to arouse interest among fans and thus get more money.
What do you see as the main trends in interactive storytelling that we will see this decade? What are you looking forward to?
I am curious to see how dialogue systems develop in virtual reality and how gestures, eye tracking and other animation-sensitive techniques will be used. I would also be happy if we got more interaction systems again in which you don't win a conversation with one click or in which players are deprived of choices. This is not a technological limitation, but a design issue, and often easy to solve. For example, you can have multiple skill tests instead of just one. Depending on what players know about the person you are talking to and how you approach the dialogue, that would produce different results in conversations. "Fallout 1" implemented such a system best, I think. It was a lot of fun writing for it back then. This experience definitely had an impact on the dialogue design in »Planescape: Torment«.
“Hellblade” and “God of War” have also influenced me recently. The way the protagonist Senua in »Hellblade« speaks into the camera again and again and the voices in her head comment on her journey, I found really outstanding. It immersed gamers in their reality and at the same time sowed doubts in their minds. The fact that the camera in the new "God of War" always remains by Kratos' side, like in a one shot film, created a more powerful feeling of immersion than I would have expected.
Definitely a terribly smelly one
Secret is waiting for us.
Fans like to brag that »Planescape« is linguistically more extensive than a tome like »War and Peace« by Tolstoy. How did you write all of this as a team? What was your creative process like?
Okay, that's an unpopular answer: "Planescape" is a wordy game, but this richness of words also served to cover up the lack of animation. One of our programmers developed a function for copying entire dialog scripts into a new file. The advantage is that you can do 24 "zombie" dialogues for the price of one by making minor adjustments to the other 23 dialogues and adding variations.
But I also just write a lot. I like to write minor NPCs and quests, I even like to write inventory items. I think they are particularly good at telling stories in a game. Sometimes such large amounts of text overwhelm a studio's capabilities, especially when it comes to localization. In »Planescape« we were almost not allowed to write any text for the companions due to localization concerns, including any dialogues with them. But after I got the studio bosses' permission in principle, I said to myself: Fuck it and added it. I thought that would just make the game better. I got in trouble for that. But I don't regret it. Even if I would do it differently today.
The nameless one is considered to be one of the strangest and most fascinating protagonists in video game history. How did you develop it?
We didn't just want to create an antihero with him, but also an avatar that shows that he has had many painful lives behind him. We wanted to make it clear that his existence is not a power fantasy, but that his immortality is basically pretty shitty. We wanted to devote ourselves to the idea that you could become an immortal zombie.
These nice ladies don't want anymore
than to torment the nameless ... forever.
One of the related main themes in Planescape is what it means to know yourself. Why was that something you wanted to explore in a video game?
I think the best mystery of a game is not just the backstory of the protagonist, but the contrast that you can create between the person you want to be and the person you might be.
While amnesia is a pretty overused topos, it seemed like the best way to create such a mystery and conflict in Planescape: Torment. We wanted a moral system that you gradually grow into. One should be able to start out as "truly neutral", as a supposedly blank slate. And because you have to learn so much about this strange world at the beginning in “Planescape”, memory loss was a good way to let the player and the protagonist experience it at the same time. It helped immersion tremendously.
Many characters who accompany the nameless on his journey have had a secret relationship with him in his previous lives. Those who suffer are magically and fatally drawn to him. Was it clear to you from the start that you wanted to explore the subject of suffering through these secret relationships?
At first it was honestly a pragmatic decision. We didn't have the luxury of doing it like many other role-playing games of the time, where companions leave your party depending on how you acted. Hence the idea that "others who suffer are drawn to you". They are kind of trapped in your orbit.
Then I developed this idea further. I hid super-easter eggs that players could find in conversations with their companions. It was really interesting and exciting for me to create such secret relationships and to think about how the character had influenced a companion in one of his previous lives without remembering it. And in return, it was fun to think about how the companions influence the current reincarnation of the protagonist.
Morte, Ignus and especially Dak’kon are impressive examples of this type of relationship. You were able to free them and alleviate their suffering, even that of those who were totally broken, even that of Ignus.
It seems as if you can only really know yourself in Planescape if you strive for wisdom in your life. What role does wisdom play in your life?
A very small one, I have to admit, ashamed. There's a lot of (questionable) wisdom I've learned from mistakes. But they would be too numerous to list here. I try to share them with young developers so that they can avoid the mistakes I made. There is one really difficult wisdom that I had to learn in my life. And that was the question of when is it okay to be silent? And when to open your mouth.
Silence about a problem only allows it to persist. If you do not say anything for fear of your position or for fear of the consequences of a punishment, you should always ask yourself what kind of situation you are in and whether you want to stay in that situation. Chances are, if you start looking for it, there will be a better place for you.
You actually acted according to this principle and separated from Obsidian Entertainment in 2015 and then turned to the public with sharp criticism of the management - which had severe consequences. Since then you have been an outspoken critic of working conditions and the abuse of power in the gaming industry.
I spoke out against management because it had to be done. I have seen the harm these cultures of silence and fear cause. Managers protect other managers, while confidentiality agreements punish those who resist the conditions. Making games is supposed to be great, so it would be great if this whole shit finally stopped. Keeping silent about it doesn't help.
You give a good friend a kiss.
Not Ignus, however, he is on fire.
We have seen for some time how game developers are increasingly unionized. They fight against systematic exploitation in the industry. Does that give you hope for the future?
I am in favor of unions, but I am not so naive as to believe that they will solve all of the industry's problems. The industry can be great, but it's not perfect. I think what often happens, for example, is that a junior or other employee does all the work for a senior or executive, and they get the most credit for it. You have to give developers the credit they deserve. You have to give them a correct title and a fair salary, regardless of factors such as origin, gender or sexual orientation.
I think many would go out with pitchforks and torches if companies made the salaries of their employees transparent. That would spark heated discussions about who actually contributes what, who is valued, and whether one should not resign immediately. It would also shed light on nepotism and nepotism in the industry. And that would not end well for both those who set salaries and their minions.
Lastly, I would like to say, and this is perhaps a bit strange from my mouth, studios should be careful about putting certain developers on a pedestal or selling products by their name. It's unfair to the rest of the team. And it can also be a deception to the players if the developer who is highlighted did not have much influence on the project or the design. I have clauses in my contracts that give me a say in how my involvement in a project is marketed so that other developers are not ignored. Game development is teamwork. Anyone deserving credit should be given credit.
Thank you for your time, your courage and your honest words, Chris. We look forward to your future stories.
Hey, I appreciate you guys asking me, it was fun. And I am glad that you liked »Planescape«. It was long hours for a very small team. But we believed in the game a lot. I hope this has been shown.
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