Sundry

I returned from California last night from another hugely productive design week at inXile. Coincidentally, I was there just in time to attend the launch party for Wasteland 2 (for which I wrote the Mannerites in LA), so I got to congratulate the team for their achievement in the launch, hang out with some of the backers, and see old friends who accused me of traveling there too stealthily for them to make plans to hang out with me. (note: this is actually true, because I was working pretty much the whole time)

Post-party-hangover, the remainder of the week was spent writing dialogues, learning how to deal with technical issues, and having some excellent personal interaction with the Torment team. We tightened trickier aspects of the story, and are continuing to answer other questions that pop up as we iron down other aspects. Story in games is an ongoing process through development, as aspects of the story come into sharp relief and require answers that won’t break other parts, and each discussion we have is aimed toward honing the player’s experience and deepening the story’s significance.

Wednesday night, Jesse Farrell taught Steve Dobos, Nathan Long, Kevin Saunders, George Ziets, and me how to play Chaos in the Old World, and I would have won if Mr. Dobos hadn’t pointed out I was going to win. I had two paths to victory, both eminently achievable, and all those rat-bastards (Nathan especially; he was playing the Skaven scum) teamed up to deny both paths… opening the way for George to defeat me, 54 to 49. (Perhaps I spoke too soon when I announced to the table that they couldn’t beat me.)

This is the part where I give a shout to Jason Dora for his excellence with the Torment website, and to Charlie Bloomer and Alisha Klein for their stunning work on the TTON video. I realize I’m supposed to be all cool about this job, but seeing ideas brought to life is a thrill that never, ever gets old. Working with this team is a pleasure and a privilege.

On that note, I’d also like to thank Adam for his patience, his memory, and his enthusiasm. Working half a world away can’t be easy for him, but he’s always ready with an incisive look into story, design, and other aspects of the game, and his patience with changes and his understanding of the ramifications of those changes is always amazing. Plus, as he notes, he’s great at revision.

Enough. Time to get back to revisions and rebuilding Unity.

I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

The Kickstarter for Torment: Tides of Numenera is wrapping up in a few hours. I’m sitting out here in California, at inXile’s office, for the wrap party, and I’m looking at the numbers climbing and climbing. They don’t even show the PayPal number, which at last report was approximately $127K.

Back when Brian first suggested a new Torment to me, I was terrified at the thought. I still kind of am, but it’s a channeled, focused terror rather than the blind panic: “Oh no! What if I blow it? Am I even good enough to do this?”

Apparently the hours, days, weeks, and months of work that Adam, Kevin, and I have poured into this project (to say nothing of the time spent by all the rest of inXile’s talented team) have put that fear to rest. Rather than asking whether anyone will get onboard with my ideas, now it’s a question of how I’ll be devoting my time and managing my team.

I am (and I know I’ve said this before) truly humbled by the faith you all are putting in me. I’m grateful to Monte to making a world we can play in, and to Ray and Shanna for their help in pushing it along.

We’re making this game.

Holy shit, we’re making this game.

This is going to be so cool.

Concept art of the male PC after the jump.

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Oh, hi there. Also: LINKSTORM!

These last few months have been a little crazy. I mean this, of course, in the very best way. They’ve also necessarily entailed a lot of quiet-mouthedness, but now the veil can be lifted on Torment: Tides of Numenera. On which I’m (gulp) the Creative Lead. I mean… yes! Woo hoo! All right, it’s both scary and exciting. I’m going to lean toward exciting.

Numenera? Yes, Numenera! Monte Cook’s Numenera, set in the Ninth World, is going to be the host for the latest addition to the Torment franchise. I had the opportunity to playtest this with Monte (and Fiery Dragon‘s James Bell, editor/writer Shanna Germain, and editor Ray Vallese), and man oh man is it cool. I’m so excited to help our players tell their stories in this world, and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to do it. Thanks, Monte!

As an introvert, it’s frequently difficult to get out and speak to people to drum up interest in something like this, but for a project like this, it’s a lot harder to remain silent (not least because my friends at inXile might drive here to kick me in the shins and points north if I did remain silent).

This is a roundabout way of self-promoting (on my very own blog? the nerve!) some of the interviews Kevin Saunders and I did to promote the Kickstarter for Torment. But first, let me extol Kevin’s virtues, because working with him is a pleasure and a joy. He’s incredibly smart, detail-oriented, quick to see issues and possibilities alike, and he’s supportive of his team. Plus, it’s really, really hard to imagine letting Kevin down… just thinking about it makes me want to work harder. (also, Adam Heine has been invaluable along the way. Seriously, he is just amazing at his job, and he’s a really good person, too… as in, “Hey, how about I move to Thailand to care for orphans?” good)

Anyway.

So, the first interview: IGN! I misspoke about combat in there; this was not Casey’s fault, but mine. “Real-time smart combat” is word salad, and I was apparently chewing with my mouth open. Sorry about that, Casey, and sorry to everyone who thought that we’re doing real-time. We’re still figuring that out, and we’ll make our decision with the aid of our backers. But be assured that we have some foundational rules that we’ll lay out and then we’ll design our system based around those ideas. What’s most important to us is that the combat feels like an integral, functional, and enjoyable part of the gameplay.

The second interview was with Polygon’s Dave Tach. I have nothing to add to this, except that I was perhaps a little excitable and needed some reining in. Good thing Kevin was there!

The third interview was today, with Destructoid’s Fraser Brown, and that one will be out on Wednesday, which is when (HOLY CRAP) our Kickstarter begins.

Oh, and tomorrow night it looks like I may be appearing on Geek and Sundry with Pat Rothfuss, Jerry Holkins, and Veronica Belmont. That’s… uh… no big deal? ::gulp::

 

What’s next?

Now that I’m largely done with the work on Wasteland 2 (apart from some iterative work, clean up, and reactivity adds), I wanted to think about where I’m going next. I’ve found it’s useful to take stock when looking forward.

I’ve written a lot of things in my life, but there a few that really stand out in my memory (apart from my fiction).

Though I was a big fan of my early work (just because it was my early work, and evidence that I was working as a game designer) one of the first things I was truly proud of was TSR’s Birthright, my first published world, which took AD&D into a lower-fantasy setting and let you take the part of a ruler of a realm. Second was my work on the Planescape campaign setting, which allowed a huge degree of creative exploration. In that body of work, Monte Cook and I (along with our able editors, Ray Vallese and Michele Carter) were able to flesh out a significant part of the cosmology and background of the planes, defining and creating a foundation that would lead to my next big gig (and to Monte’s; not only did he help design D&D 3.0, he also produced an amazing string of successes, the latest of which is his Numenera setting).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, was Planescape: Torment. That’s almost certainly the work that people remember best, even if they don’t necessarily remember my name. Working on Planescape: Torment was… well, let’s turn on the Wayback Machine.

I came onto Torment as, I think, the fifth or sixth person when my Playstation Planescape game was canceled. It was a blow to lose my first lead designer gig, but it turned into a real education. The first members of the nascent team had been working on the game’s preproduction for a few months. At that time, it was called “Planescape: Last Rites”, a name that had to change because of the game “Last Rites.” But the concept remained largely the same, though it grew stronger and stranger as we progressed.

I must have been only about six or seven months out from my TSR gig, so Planescape was still fresh in my head, and I became the go-to guy for matters of Planescape lore. The team grew significantly as we ramped up production, and I became Chris Avellone’s second for a lot of issues; he and I worked closely enough that we’re still good friends, though we haven’t seen each other regularly for 12 years.

I learned a hell of a lot from Chris: how to structure a dialogue, how to build in some real reactivity, how to condense ideas and stories to deliver maximum impact. The best part is that he didn’t sit down to show me–he just did it near me. And even though he and I both loved the setting, we saw ways that we could tell the story better by deviating from it.

But that’s not really the point of this post. The point is that of all the games I’ve written, the one that I keep circling back to is Torment. And now that the bulk of my work on Wasteland 2 is largely complete (with some iteration work that still needs to be done), I can start thinking about Torment seriously.

TORMENT
What was most memorable for most players of the game? Based on the conversations I’ve had with friends and fans, the answers (at least from a design perspective) boil down to these. It:
* Turned RPG tropes on their heads (e.g. death is bad and requires a reload).
* Had a rich, amazing story.
* Displayed memorable, unique characters, especially the companions.
* Took place in a hugely different fantastic setting.
* Allowed small player choices to make real differences in the game world.
* Wasn’t about an epic battle between good and evil, but it did ask serious questions (like “What can change the nature of a man?”).
* Created strange, even living, items that you can talk to or interact with

The Planescape setting allowed us [or the player] to explore a deeper array of philosophical questions. But I think there are many settings that could host the Nameless One’s story or a similar one. Any setting that rewards the player for internal exploration (certainly deeper than, “Can I hit it? How much loot does it have?”) could host a similar story. As long as there’s a fantastical element to the world–whether straight fantasy or science-fantasy–these questions become possible and desirable. The farther away we stray from comfortable routine, the more likely we are to challenge ourselves, trying to define our place in the world. A boring setting frequently leads to boring questions; we know the drill and don’t have to examine it closely. But a fantastic setting forces us to re-examine the world, to take it in a fresh light, and to see that our fundamental truths may be flawed. *That* is at the heart of a Torment story.

The first step in designing a new Torment story is to ask the primary question. I’m older than I was when I worked on Torment, and my questions now are different than they were. I have children now, and I look at the world through their eyes and through mine, and that’s changed me – in fact, the intervening years have changed me so much that I have new answers for the central story in the original Torment. So now that I know what can change the nature of a man, I ask: What does one life matter? … and does it matter at all?

Then I’d re-examine the fundamentals of the setting. I’d put it someplace other than Planescape (and I’ll explain why in a followup). I’d use a system other than D&D, because I’d want to align the player’s story axes along different lines than Good/Evil or Law/Chaos to something more subjective. The core of Torment is, after all, a personal story, and while we can be judged by others on the basis of our actions, arbitrarily aligning those actions on an external and eternally fixed line removes some of the agency from the player’s game.

I have a lot of ideas about what to put into a new Torment game, but my primary goal would be to help the player tell a story that was evocative of the original Torment without aping it. To be faithful to the odyssey of the Nameless One, and to recognize that it has ended, and that stories of Torment are ongoing.

What would you want to see?