Agonz interviews Chris Avellone

Publicado el 25 mayo 2011 por Mugen

A couple of weeks ago Mr. Orange recommended me to play Alpha Protocol if I wanted to experience, in his words, “the new reference in action – consequences”. As an example, he showed me the following article about the different possibilities considered by the game in a conversation with one of the characters:

Agonz interviews Chris Avellone

Since I’m a bad geek and this things passionate me, the next day I went to a random videogame store and got the game at the sweet price of 20€. In case you have not followed AP’s history, it has a 64 in metacritic, exactly the same as Monopoly Streets. As you can imagine, I was expecting extremely hieratic facial expressions, robotic animations, bugs, glitches and even errors that I would not even know what to call. As I was progressing through the game, I was amazed when I didn’t find any of these. Soon I will find something that is really, really wrong, I thought, like half-made level (such as the last one in pac-man) or something like that. Well, it didn’t happen.

Agonz interviews Chris Avellone
True pop aesthetics. You can even buy T-shirts with this image.

The game has its flaws, obviously, that can partly explain these reviews: the artificial intelligence of the enemies is close to zero, or should I say, the guards are nearly blind and mute, and the game takes its time when it tries to load textures (something we are used to with Unreal Engine anyways). Besides, it’s hard to accept the strict mechanic of an RPG on a shooter. However, to compensate for this, the game offers an amazing narrative. There is no other product today that comes close at all to what Alpha Protocol does regarding interactivity.

Ever since the first conversation I realized I was before a very special game. Without getting into spoilers, I’ll say that just before this conversation I was a little confused about what was happening around me in the game, and so I answered my interlocutor in a variety of ways (angry, provocative, calmed) as a consequence of my incomprehension. When I finished talking with this character I was awarded with a bonus for keeping my interlocutors disoriented, for confusing them with my range of answers. That’s why, after finishing the game completely amazed for a couple of times, I couldn’t resist contacting Chris Avellone, Creative Director and Co-Owner of Obsidian to talk to him about the title.

Agonz: There are two things in Alpha Protocol that are really fascinating. The most obvious one is its interactive narrative: not only it avoids the notion of good or evil choices with different, human answers, which is something so very few games do, but it also avoids the use of clear loops in conversations, making every line of dialogue feel genuine.  How did you come up with this idea and what was the objective behind it?

CFA: The Dialogue Stance System (and the forward momentum) belongs to AP’s original creative lead, Brian Mitsoda (who’s now heading up Dead State at DoubleBear). The system is designed with “no takebacks,” which makes it feel more like a normal conversation, and in many respects, makes the choices more meaningful and less game-y. It also works especially well in the context of an espionage role-playing game, as it helps to add to the tension when you know that every second you need to be on your toes to see what choices are coming up.

We did want to avoid the morality scale in Alpha Protocol. Having an internal good/bad karma scale didn’t feel right – however, the idea that other people and factions would judge you on your behavior and having each one of them have a perception of you (good or bad) and judge you that way made a lot of sense – in the game, you may be the only one who knows why you do the things you do, and while what you did may have been for the best of reasons, in the eyes of others, they may only see the evil that results and categorize you accordingly. It felt more natural to us rather than an internal barometer. 

If you have read my previous interview with Richard Garriott, you will know that the idea of my actions not being reflected on a bar during the game appears to me as unavoidable for a morality system to be truly deep. Alpha Protocol manages this quite nicely: without ever displaying a bar, there will be characters with whom we will get along and some with whom we will not. I can defy a faction without that meaning to the game that I’m evil (even though I will be perceived as such by the faction). The game allows my reasons to remain mine.

Agonz interviews Chris Avellone
Gin and Tonic or peach juice? Only one will lead you to the princess!

However, even though it’s weird to find games like that, this is not what makes of Alpha Protocol a unique game; its majesty begins with this system without take-backs. Thanks to it, the characters are not just a menu, there won’t be the narrative disruption of asking them by mistake the same thing twice and watching them, just like robots, repeat the same exact words. The characters are humanized.

Agonz: The concept that there are really no good or bad choices in Alpha Protocol, only choices and their consequences is clearly appreciated when we talk to different characters for the first time. There are characters that will appreciate us being subtle and some others will connect with rude or direct behaviors; this will require from us to figure them out psychologically. How much of a real issue is the ‘Uncanny Valley’ for this personality profiling?

CFA: I don’t think it’s much of a departure from the spy genre – there’s plenty of reasons why handlers in the real world would want you to approach a situation with subtlety and stealth – get in, get out without a trace, and they’d respect you for it. While there’s a certain level of “game mechanic” introduced in that personality profiling, we did try to write the dossiers in such a way to mask the attitude choices in dialogue and make them sound “real world” convincing while providing the game-oriented clues.

This difference in personality through all the characters is another step forward in the humanization I am talking about. The use of previous texts is a good resource so that the weight of having to profile someone is not heavily centered on the visuals. Even though it’s true that obtaining the diverse psychological profiles is really useful when trying to guess (and this is important: we will always have to guess, they don’t give it us in a totally obvious way) how we should focus the conversations with each character, the way how we get them (directly buying them at the store or hacking a random computer during a mission) is not totally satisfying. Achieving this information means a lot of in-game power, but the game doesn’t really shows it like that.

Returning to the main idea of the article/interview, and as Grahame Weinbren says in his cult essay “In the Ocean of Streams of Story” (, one of the main issues within interactive narrative is that, precisely, it leaves the choice in the hands of the users. If we give too many of them, we may lose a climax. Think about the typical terror movie: if we had the choice to make the pretty blonde not to climb to the attic but instead she was to leave the enchanted house and run towards the nearest police station, the movie is over. Yet, if the choices offered by the film are too shallow, where is the interactivity? Can we avoid the user thinking that, actually, the movie (or in this case, the game) works without him at all and that all he is really doing is pressing a “continue” button?

Agonz interviews Chris Avellone
And to think that this freak was one of my childhood traumas.

In my opinion, Alpha Protocol deals with this problem transferring the tension to the fact of having to choose our answers at full speed. Thanks to this, we don’t have time to think what choices we think that should have appeared, we just flow with the conversation trying to keep the coherence.

Agonz: Creating suspense in interactive narrative is always an issue due to its nature. How important do you think it is the use of a limited time to choose our answers for this matter?

CFA: A time limit is a guaranteed proven way to add tension to a conversation – and it’s part of the spy genre that you have to think quickly. It wasn’t well-received by everyone, however, I feel it worked quite well for added that “24″ style of tension to the game experience, even when talking to someone. In focus tests, there was almost as much adrenaline spikes during conversation as there were in firefights, which was interesting.

I personally loved this decision. Especially in those moments when you have to choose between two options to go on with the plot and, a little time later, the game makes you think that maybe you should have taken the other one. This turns out to be great to the game’s narrative, which happens between different flash forwards, allowing other characters to question the consequences of your actions while you are left defending them.

Agonz: There are several times during the game in which we are offered to perform different missions and we have to choose which ones first. It is quite remarkable that, independently of which order we take, we will always feel that the plot was designed to be played this way. Do you think Alpha Protocol has reached a new standard of quality in interactive narrative?

CFA: The mission structure was based on a honeycomb mission structure proposed by our Systems Lead, Matt MacLean. The idea that each central mission could have a series of satellite missions associated with it that would cause reactions with each other and also influence the main goal of each hub was his idea, and it’s a mission structure we’d like to explore in future titles.

This structure is, without a doubt, what really makes a reference out of Alpha Protocol. We are used to the fact that, when presented with the chance to choose the order in which different missions or chapters can be done, what we do in one will not affect the other. Here we will find several times shared characters between different missions and they will speak to us accordingly to our previous relationship.

Agonz interviews Chris Avellone
Perfect metaphor of the narrative structure in Alpha Protocol: everything is connected.

These connections between the different cells of the honeycomb are extraordinary complex: we have about 5 or 6 characters with whom we will talk in each mission and 9 possible variations of the order in which they are done. The game, knowing that it’s doing something fresh new and feeling proud about it, will not let pass a chance to show us that it is taking record of everything we do: how we get along with the characters, how we choose to approach the missions, what we are doing first and what we have left behind.

If you can name, at this moment, any other product that has pushed the limit this far, please ¡let me know! I don’t really think that there is anything comparable, but the truth is that I nearly let Alpha Protocol pass, so…

Agonz: I first said that there are two things in Alpha Protocol really fascinating: the first one is the narrative; the second one is the mixture of stealth and action. In every other stealth game we try kill everyone without being noticed until we mess up, then we are forced into action. In Alpha Protocol, mixing the two feels more natural and sometimes a clever choice is to stealth our way to an advantageous position and then use our shooting skills to dispose of the enemies. Was this initially planned for or was it a consequence of the system’s role-playing mechanics?

CFA: Stealth and combat passes were part of the design, and it was one of our design goals that the player be able to murder their way through every mission or make their way through all the missions, stealth-wise, without killing anyone  (providing a pacifist path is important to us, not just in Alpha Protocol, but in all the role-playing games Obsidian does). 

One of my worst remembering of this gen is tied to Uncharted 2. Even though it is, I think, a wonderful game and I was hooked up by its adventurous style, it’s truly sad that whenever I arrived to an area with six guards the music suddenly changed and Drake whispered: “I must be quiet”. Even sadder was that even when I tried to, I never succeed at being so.

Generally, when a games allows me to play it through stealth, that’s what I try to do. My eagerness, however, ends up making me screw things up and having to shoot like crazy. At this point, even if someone may think I’m out of my mind, it does come in handy that the AI is not really polished: we can use the stealth tactic we decide, since the guards won’t react alarmed even if they should notice a disappeared mate. My favorite path was to stealth my way to an elevated point and from there use my gun skills (nicely equipped with a silencer that, for once in a game, does silence) to dispose of my enemies with consecutive critical shots.

Agonz interviews Chris Avellone
In Metal Gear Solid the genoma soldier lost our track if we turned around a box and nobody freaked out.

Still, the strength of the game is undoubtedly in the plot. The gameplay may have some small issues, but I think we have to be able to forgive small things if the compensation is an evolution on a rather unexplored section. Otherwise, it will keep happening what we are seeing now: hundreds of games cut by the same pattern, without much charisma. I must say I completely enjoyed playing Alpha Protocol: if you think you will have to endure a bad gameplay to get access to a good story, this is not the case.

Agonz: It’s a fact that the reviews about Alpha Protocol were quite hard, to say the least. How much of it do you think it was due to the fact that even though AP looks like a shooter, it is an action RPG?

CFA: You’ve summed it up in the last question, all that’s only a part of it. AP represents a disconnect between what it looks like on screen vs. how it plays out – as an example, one of our design mandates from SEGA was that your gun skill effects your targeting and spread, which is something our studio is very much against, and you can see the consequences of that discrepancy in a number of mandated system mechanics in the game. Players don’t want invisible numbers in the background modifying what they’re physically doing on screen – if you have your cursor lined up, you should shoot where the cursor is pointing. Design decisions like that add up.

Alpha Protocol had its challenges on our side as well. I feel as much as it’s perceived as solely a shooter, shooter judgments carry over into the look and feel of the gameplay, and those certainly aren’t comparable to other shooters in the market – it’s not what our studio specializes in, and as such, AP was a new endeavor for us – to try and beat other mainstream shooters on the market with the first foray was a slim chance at best. We also suffered issues with AI, stealth integration with levels, and more. On the plus side, however, I feel our minigames were good, I feel the reactivity and the consequences were good, and as odd as it sounds, I liked the fact that I would hesitate when equipping my weapons, as I was trying to decide which weapons best suited my character build and accept the drawbacks and advantages of those weapons accordingly.

As for the story, I think its narrative structure was received slightly better to much better than the gameplay, but that’s because it represented more of our studio’s core competency. I liked the reputation system, and I liked the fact that pissing someone off simply gave you different bonuses. 

I don’t know how much this played into it, but I also believe part of the negative press concerned the time of release, which put us in a bad spot – first off, the fact that the title was held with no improvements defied expectations of why it was being held – people expected to see more when a title is held for 5-6 months. I also don’t feel that the title being held and released after Mass Effect 2 (which had some of the best cinematic conversations to date) and Splinter Cell (which has some of the best stealth mechanics to date) was a solid release decision, and I feel that releasing before either of those titles would have helped its reception. As it stood, I believe it was held to build up marketing buzz to generate more sales, which is something that could have been started much earlier and never was.

Agonz interviews Chris Avellone
Oh, my! Sega, whatever happened to you?

Lastly, I don’t want any of this to come across as I’m anything less than proud of Alpha Protocol. For all its haters, there’s a good many folks who played it and enjoyed it, and for that, I’m happy. I’m also proud of how it was structured, the new mechanics, the morality system, and I do feel it had meaningful choices and a cool branching narrative. While some reviews have been extremely negative (and I think they’ve had valid reasons), there’s many other folks who played it and appreciated it for what it was, and recognized the genre-pushing we were attempting in the title.  

If we ever did another one, it would be a more refined experience, although much of the design elements were new to us the first time out. We got the chance to experiment with new mechanics, and that always makes my designer heart happy. 

It wasn’t much of a problem for me to get used to the skill system in the game. It is true that the first times it’s frustrating to have an enemy’s head perfectly targeted and not only miss the shot, but have the guard realized he is being shot at and call for help. After a couple of unsuccessful tries, you learn to shoot only when you have the especial skills you acquire through the character’s evolution ready.

What is really interesting is what Chris is implying about SEGA’s marketing work: they forgot to make a marketing promotion and then decided to freeze the game half a year to generate expectation. It’s quite obvious they did not succeed. If we compare Heavy Rain with Alpha Protocol, even though both games are really different, they share one thing: an amazing plot told through an innovative structure that goes together with a gameplay that doesn’t work for everyone. One of the two has won many awards and is used today as a reference is many articles about narrative (this one, for example). Didn’t SEGA know what they had in their hands? Why didn’t the go wilder with the promotion of its strong parts? We all say we hate hype, but deep down we love it.

Agonz: Finally, even though I thought intellectual property ownership belongs to the developer, we have heard SEGA say that there will not be an Alpha Protocol 2. Is there a chance that this sequel will ever come out, even if it is under a different name due to marketing reasons?

CFA: No idea – like you said, SEGA isn’t interested in doing a sequel. I did write a pitch for AP2 based on our experiences from AP1 (and DLC options), and in my opinion, it would have made for a great game and would have proven to be a nice second step up in experimenting with reactivity and game mechanics. Still, those design elements aren’t tied to AP specifically, and could see light in another RPG down the line – there were a lot of design experiments in AP1 (like the honeycomb mission structure, the reputation system, the lack of speech skills in conversations, etc.) that we can still carry over to other titles, regardless, so that’s all good for us. 

To sum it up, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be an Alpha Protocol 2, but we can assume that the spirit of the game is going to be kept alive. Some months ago there were a lot of speculations about an Obsidian secret project that could be showed at the E3. Rumors went from Icewind Dale to a new Ultima (the license belongs now to EA). Whatever it is, I hope it’s a project they can have a reasonable amount of control over. Watching their past and thinking about their readiness to experiment with new mechanics, I’m pretty much sure it will be one of those games that bring fresh air to a somewhat stuffy world.

Volver a la Portada de Logo Paperblog