Alpha Protocol: interview

Evil genius Chris Avellone

Prepare yourselves for one awesome interview. After much slaughter of henchmen and navigation of dialogue trees, we made it to the heart of Obsidian’s secret volcano base to confront Alpha Protocol’s lead designer Chris Avellone, and a few surviving Obsidian staff. Plenty of details about the game here but, more importantly, the answer to the question on everybody’s lips: if James Bond, Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne met, who would walk away alive?

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CG: Alpha Protocol is the first time Obsidian as a team has had the opportunity to create something completely from scratch, not pandering to a big license. Did you find that liberating? Did it bring out different sides of people and talents within the studio that you didn’t know existed before?

CA: It was liberating and a hell of a lot of fun. I think the biggest gain was more experience in 3D level design and real-time combat mechanics. I also enjoyed scripting for the new dialogue system and am interested in how people react to the timed urgency.

And I have to say, the chance to write “real world” characters was liberating as well. Being able to use “goddammit” and “hell” vs. “gods damn it” and “by the hells!” alone was worth working on the project. Don’t get me wrong, I like working on fantasy titles, but man, after a while you just want to write some real-world dialogue.

I think the strongest gains were in the supplemental action systems – the shooting mechanics are solid, but both the stealth mechanics and the mini-games exceeded our expectations, and a lot of it is due to our Systems Lead, Matt MacLean – he took those systems by the horns. Now the stealth mechanics and the mini-games really pop out, not only as fun elements in and of themselves, but their presentation also does a great job of complementing the espionage feel of the game as well.

CG: Alpha Protocol looks to be a game about choice, about acting how you want to act in a situation and then facing the consequences. Do you worry at all that people will game the game, as in, they’ll look for the ‘right’ thing to do in a given situation for the maximum benefit (for instance choosing dialogue options that will please everyone and get them on your side), would that even work in Alpha Protocol?

CA: We made an effort to balance all paths with different gameplay and mission rewards – if you want to be a ruthless asshole in the pursuit of your mission, you can be, and we don’t penalize you for it, we just give you different results.

Ultimately, the espionage world is not a world of absolute right or wrong, and your decisions shouldn’t be “right” or “wrong” either; the world and people just react to them as individuals. We made sure to present these rules of the Alpha Protocol world up front, and we don’t mince words. Part of the orientation (in the game) is demonstrating how right/wrong works in Alpha Protocol – you should expect consequences for any action, not for the right or wrong ones, so just do what you want to do or feel you should do to accomplish your mission. Once we make that compact with the player, then we reinforce it quickly in the opening missions, and ruthless, merciful, pragmatic, or sociopathic playstyles just produce different results, not penalties.

CG: When moving away from the Star Wars and Forgotten Realms fantasy universes, did you find it difficult at all to create characters that were as innately interesting and compelling? Considering that in fantasy everyone can be sort of unique and different because of their race or their magic powers, did moving to a real-world setting throw up any problems with regards to creating unique or interesting characters that could grab the players attention?

CA: A lot of the original character designs were done by narrative designers who have a talent for creating interesting characters (Brian Mitsoda, Annie Carlson), so that wasn’t much of a problem (and you can see that in Vampire: The Masquerade as well). Each character has a nice visual and dialogue hook that makes them stand out, and also makes them fun to script as well. I think a Russian mob boss with an obsession with the 80s and a ballroom battleground straight out of a Billie Jean music video might be a bit of a stretch, but hardly implausible, and besides, it’s damn fun to design.

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CG: Which of the JB’s (Bourne, Bond, Bauer) would win in a fight to the death?

CA: They’d all die, here’s how I figure it: In the opening five minutes, Bauer shoots Bond dead after finding out Bond slept with Bauer’s daughter, his ex-wife, and all of his romantic interests from Season 1 through 5. Bauer then shoots up with heroin to smooth himself out, unaware that Bond already poisoned his black tar blend with a synthetic poison that’ll kill him in 24 hours. Bauer takes a deep breath, searches Bond’s possessions and discovers he’s just murdered a British intelligence agent. Bauer goes underground as a rogue agent, but CTU counters this by drafting Jason Bourne to go after Bauer and bring him in by any means necessary.

Bourne ambushes Bauer, and in the midst of the fistfight of rapidly-shifting camera angles and improvised weapons, Bauer (face bloodied) explains why he killed Bond. Bourne (face bloodied, and now with a limp) nods and says he would have done the same thing if Bond had slept with Sarah Silverman.*

Bourne offers to help Bauer get the antidote – another lethal poison that ironically enough, perfectly counteracts Bond’s poison but is otherwise lethal if ingested.

Bauer tells Bourne, you aren’t going to “forget” are you?

Bourne says no way, “mind like a steel trap.”

Bauer says, well, let me write you a note to make SURE you don’t forget and puts it in Bourne’s jacket pocket. Bourne goes after the antidote being held at CTU, recovers it in a bloody shootout, Sarah Silverman shows up for 10 minutes, takes a bullet and dies saying Bourne’s name, Bourne is sad and mopey, and on the way out has an amnesia attack and forgets everything that happened. Searching his jacket for clues, he reads the note from Bauer which simply says, “recover the antidote to save my life.” Bourne assumes the antidote is for him, then injects himself with the counteragent and keels over dead.

Bauer waits the remaining 22 hours (becoming the most boring season of 24 ever) and then dies. Then there’s an explosion.

* We’re assuming that Matt Damon is reprising the role of Bourne.

CG: Other Spy based games tend to have strong protagonists, such as Sam Fisher or Solid snake. With Alpha Protocol being an RPG, how hard was it to fuse Michael Thorton with the same sense of character, whilst at the same time trying to cater for the different choices a player might make?

CA: Tough, but the voice cast really helped differentiate the character – our lead, Josh Gilman, understood the range of attitudes a player could choose and was able to switch his tones and motivation on the fly pretty well.

Character customization in terms of appearance, special abilities, and skills also helps, and the game plays very differently depending on which development path you take – my playthrough as a smooth-talking pacifistic martial artist was much different than my soldier Brock-Samson-fully-loaded-shotgun-and-submachinegun-kill-anything-that-moves-including-witnesses-and-get-results-at-any-cost playthrough, but both were satisfying.

The special abilities involved in each branch of character specialization change the approach to a lot of the missions alone… knowing you have access to Evasion powers vs. having a few more seconds left on your Bullet Storm or Fury ends up being pretty important tactically.

CG: We’ve heard a lot about how Alpha Protocol has consequences to your actions, that may reveal themselves later in the game, arms dealers selling you weapons, or potential foes becoming your friends. But how do they impact the main story? Can we expect to see different endings, depending upon how we acted throughout the course of the game?

CA: Absolutely. We have a number of different endings, and your relationships with characters, weapons dealers, and others have repercussions in terms of intel, news reports, others’ opinions of you (and reputation gains and losses), missions available, what handlers you can take on those missions, and even changes boss battles (both in terms of content and the AI of the bosses depending on the actions you’ve taken). Ultimately, we want the player to feel like their choices matter, and in significant, observable ways – they’re making an impact on the world, and it shows.

CG: What sort of game did you set out to make with Alpha Protocol?

CA: A real-world RPG… and as Feargus (our CEO) has said, an espionage role-playing game that lets you take on the role of a lone agent against the world. He and our tech director, Chris Jones, had the idea over lunch and pitched it to us, and we pitched it to SEGA.

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CG: The player’s character starts out with amnesia. Is this a nod to the fact that it’s a rather overused plot device in video games?

CA: He doesn’t start out with amnesia. The player does not know exactly where he is at the start of the game, however, but that’s because of the drugs they used to keep the location confidential.

CG: How deep is the character customization that you offer? Will players be able to create a character skilled in many areas, or will they have to concentrate on their favorite play style (offensive rather than stealthy, for example)?

CA: You can either specialize or be a jack of all trades, and after your first Operation in Saudi Arabia, you’re allowed to choose an additional three skill areas of specialization (this gives the player enough time to play around with all the skills in the opening missions and see what they do).

Only characters that have specialized can take the selected skills to advanced levels, levels no other character can. It’s a way of tailoring the experience for the player after they’ve played enough of the game that they can make an informed decision on gameplay and how they prefer to play their espionage character.

CG: How much of an impact on the story and gameplay will the moral choices offered to the player make? Can you give us any examples?

CA: The best example in the game is something you’ll have to play, but I can point to two of the minor examples and their consequences.

In Saudi Arabia, you track down a weapons dealer with the knowledge that he may be able to lead you to a terrorist leader – when confronting him, however, you have a choice between capturing him and losing a potential lead to the terrorists – but shutting down weapons traffic in the area, saving lives and reducing violence in the region. You can also choose to let him go in order to track his movements on the chance he’ll lead you to your target… but in so doing, this allows him to continue weapons trafficking and further destabilize the region. What do you do?

Another example occurs in Moscow, where you have a choice of going to see an informant… with the catch that simply the act of contacting the informant may cause him to sell you out to other (hostile) factions. With that in mind, you have a number of different approaches in how to talk to him.

One choice is if you’re going in Jack Bauer style, you can choose to be aggressive and take a quick, violent action to get the information you need without beating around the bush… saves time, effort, and gets you what you need. But in so doing, however, the action terrifies the informant into alerting the authorities to your presence and putting your next target on alert, bolstering the guards and the marines protecting him from the crazy American agent. This may seem like a disadvantage at first, but on the plus side, the informant actually ends up being too frightened to sell word of your presence to anyone else except the authorities – that means other factions interested in the same target won’t be aware of you being there, which is bad news for them and a nice surprise when you cross paths later on. As a further bonus, the added personnel guarding your new target can switch to your side in the middle of the mission (resulting in more allies with better armor and equipment than if the target hadn’t been warned), and the added firepower and marine presence ends up being on your side and helping you out, rather than being turned against you. If the informant hadn’t been frightened, you’d have much weaker allies or no allies at all, which would leave you outnumbered and at a disadvantage during the mission.

From there, the ripple effects keep going throughout the Hub, and the aggressive path above is just one of three consequences that can occur just by speaking to a single character (and even speaking to the informant in the first place is entirely optional, so the player may not even see these effects in favor of ripple effects from other missions in Moscow). What we wanted to do was highlight the consequences, not in terms of good or bad, but just the reactivity of the world to what you do.

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CG: Does the use of real world locations mean you’re going for a realistic feel? Can we expect any political or satirical commentary?

CA: We have a “to an extent” rule that’s summed up as “we’ll do the real world up to the extent that being realistic isn’t fun.” This translates into the look of characters and level layouts – while having bathrooms every 500 feet and exit doors that meet national and city building codes may be realistic, we don’t adhere to city ordinances when building game levels, for example.

And as for political and satirical commentary, we have a bunch, both in dialogue, news reports, and especially through email. I think people will see more than a few satirical nods to modern day events and politics.

CG: It sounds like stealth will only be a major factor in the game if the player wishes it. Do you think stealth is overused? Was there too much or too little of it in Metal Gear Solid 4, do you think?

MR: It’s hard to say that it’s overused; people do seem to enjoy being stealthy and sneaking through the shadows. It’s been an interesting challenge in Alpha Protocol to incorporate stealthy gameplay in such a way as to make it truly optional. A lot of work has been put into balancing the game to the point where it’ll give a run-and-gun gamer the same amount of challenge as a stealth player, but hopefully we’ve succeeded at it in the end.

CG: Alpha Protocol has often been compared to Mass Effect in previews. Is this a comparison you welcome?

CA: Sure, I think they’re right to compare them. They’re different genres (sci-fi vs. espionage), but the presentation is similar enough to warrant the comparison. Personally, I think being compared to Mass Effect is awesome; I loved the first one and am looking forward to the second one.

CG: Why has this game received comparatively little press coverage leading up to release?

MR: As you may have heard by now, our shipping date has been moved to Spring 2010. We’re looking forward to getting the word about Alpha Protocol out far and wide before we ship.

CG: What mistakes and successes from your previous games have had an impact on Alpha Protocol’s development?

CA: I think one of the changes I can point to is the revisions we’ve made to the Influence systems we’ve used in Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2. In general, the influence system was intended as a mini-game that didn’t focus on black/white morality as much as trying to understand what motivates your companions and then achieve camaraderie or hostility based on philosophical differences rather than alignment.  The issue came about in that there was often no reward for alienating a companion other than them leaving the party or turning on you, which leads the player down a path of trying to do “right” by each companion rather than just playing the game the way they want.

What we tried to improve in Alpha Protocol came through in the reputation system, where we made sure that losing or gaining reputation with individuals in the game focused on consequences and different game mechanic bonuses, not penalties… getting someone to hate you can have an equal (and different) game mechanic change as getting them to like you, respect you, or even fall in love with your character.

CG: What next for the team? Anything to expand on Alpha Protocol before moving on to the next game (and what might that be)?

CA: We’re on to our other projects, notably Fallout: New Vegas and other internal titles (which we can’t disclose right now). I do know our producer Chris Parker is most likely going to retire to Margarita Island and play this “game” where you drink margaritas all day long and everyone wins.

If you want to sneak around the official Alpha Protocol website then turn all the lights off, close the curtains, and aim your browser at www.alphaprotocol.com

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Written by Patrick G

One comment

  1. Klug McKaven /

    Great, interesting piece. Chris seems like a good dude, and the game sounds great. Can’t wait to play it…

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