Chris Avellone | We salute a videogaming maverick

Maverick game designer Chris Avellone, architect of Fallout and Star Wars titles, was always an innovator and thrived when given meagre budgets.

Occasionally handsome, often shy, always humble. That’s what I’d put in my Tinder bio if I was Chris Avellone: writer, designer, and architect of some of the best modern video games ever made. He cut his teeth as a Dungeon Master, before his breakout role as a designer on Fallout 2, where he laboured as the architect for the fan favourite New Reno. He’s gone on to be the lead designer and writer behind Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II (initialised as Kotor II) and Planescape Torment, amongst others, and worked on Divinity: Original Sin II, Jedi Fallen Order, and Tyranny.

Chris Avellone spearheaded design on games such as Fallout 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

The effusive developer is always keen to play up the contributions of others, and never frets to depreciate his own efforts. “The worst parts of New Reno you can blame me for, don’t blame the Troika guys.” Chris told Gamebanshee in a 2016 interview. “That was my fault” he tells the RPG Codex, four times, carrying the can for shortcomings in a 2004 release that was so awful it was re-released on the Switch last month to critical acclaim. He has all the mannerisms you’d associate with someone who got into gaming at a time when it was the preserve of the outsider, and that outsider status has served him – and his games – well.

The best art is made in the face of adversity, by mavericks with shoestring budgets. Kotor II faced a punishingly short 14-month lead time. Torment: Tides of Numenera was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. New Vegas, which boasts 65,000 lines of dialogue, was made in just 18 months. Having to scrimp, scrape, and innovate, leads to a vernacular construction. Without a praesidium of corporate types and a bloated HR department creativity can flourish. It’s a feeling Avellone shares, “they’re [Hollywood] worried they’re not going to make as much money if they try and do something different.”

Avellone’s games do nothing if not something different. Where most roleplaying games fall short of offering more than a choice between kicking a cat, or saving it from a tree, to be a renegade or a paragon, he rejects the binary wholesale. Fallout: New Vegas pits predacious capitalists, liberal democrats, and Roman LARPers in a three-way war, and allows the player to rally to any banner or none. Throwing your lot in with Caesar’s Legion seems like an obvious moral concession from the get-go, they’re the bad guys. But take the opportunity to lend your ear, and Caesar will justify his ostensibly bizarre operation in Hegelian dialectics that would put a professor to shame. His long march through the Mojave is not mad, but the antithesis of a democratic thesis, and war a catharsis in which only the higher truth will survive.

Similarly, in Kotor II, there is an instance in which a beggar pleads with the player for money. If his request is obliged, he will later be beaten and robbed for the donation we gave, us having now become the unwitting patron which sponsors the fists that crash down upon him. “Be careful of charity and kindness, lest you do more harm with open hands than a clenched fist” the game’s mentor Kreia chides stoically, as the beggar is beaten to the floor. Disney Star Wars this ain’t.

The Outer Worlds

The Outer Worlds, produced after Avellone departed Obsidian and the company was aquired by Microsoft, was left wanting for a more robust and interesting main theme

The indispensable are known by their absence. Avellone departed from Obsidian studios, the company he had jointly founded, in 2015. In 2018 the company would be acquired by Microsoft, furnished with money and set about developing its own answer to Fallout called The Outer Worlds.

The Outer Worlds takes place in an alternate timeline where Theodore Roosevelt never became the President of the United States, setting the country on a course to become a hyper-corporate crony capitalist society. Absent of Avellone, the best theme the game can conjure is that capitalism is bad, and this a message brought to you by Microsoft. Avellone’s prescience rings true – “I’ve never been in a position where I have unlimited funds and unlimited time, and I also think being in that position is very dangerous because really bad games and bad media get made that way.”

Avellone is not content with trite social commentary or teetering about the margins. He declares war on his own text, and makes it as much a target for assault as the player’s own enemies. Planescape Torment was a critique of everything he hated about RPGs, and Kotor II a deconstruction of the idealistic myths which underline Star Wars.

He is gaming’s Gramsci, empowering the player to challenge a new order absent of reprimand. For Avellone, it’s not all about clearing dungeons of detritus, but about enabling the player to choose between forces of ultimate rationality and agreeableness, between order at any cost and conscientious turmoil – and choose you must, because apathy is death.


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