SB Exclusive: Chris Avellone Talks "Prey"

Chris Avellone goes into detail on the development of Arkane's Prey reboot, including his specific involvement in its design, his thoughts on review scores, and reveals Prey's wild ending was not actually the original ending.

Chris Avellone is a legend in the gaming industry, and has worked on some of the greatest western RPG's of all time like Fallout 2, New Vegas, KOTOR 2, and more. I first got the chance to interview him last Fall on a range of topics from Fallout and Bethesda, to game design in general which you can read here. With his recent work on Arkane's critically acclaimed sci-fi Action RPG reboot Prey (which I very much enjoyed and is currently my 2017 GOTY), I could not think of anything else I would rather ask Mr. Avellone about for our 3rd go-around. This is not my final interview with him however, as I sent him some other questions about System Shock, Kingmaker, and other projects that will be answered sometime in the near future. We thank Chris for his openness, and please go follow Chris on twitter @ChrisAvellone as well as myself @4allout and SB @sxbgang for updates on future interviews. Chris also may be doing an AMA on-site in the future, so make an account today so you can partake in that and discuss this interview. Enjoy!

Warning: This article contains spoilers about Prey. It can’t be helped.

SB: What was the creative process for Prey like? Did you and lead designer Raphael Colontonio work together on the main narrative or did you work on separate aspects of the game? Any interesting/funny stories you can share?

CA: The main narrative had been established by Raphael and Ricardo (Bare) before I arrived, although they were accepting of feedback on it and were interested in my thoughts. My role was focused writing the NPC “narratives/short stories” throughout levels and the station, both with dialogue and visual storytelling – the way the process would work is Raphael and Ricardo would explain the layout of Talos I, the level flow, the NPC’s role on the level/levels and immediate threat/danger they presented, and then they let me script out the events, dialogue, and reactivity both in the introductory scene and throughout the game (esp. true with Mikhaila, Igwe, and “Will Mitchell”).

I don’t have much in the way of “funny” stories, except that Rich Wilson (Lead Level Designer) is to be given kudos for the Starbender Cycle books (which I would love to play as a Prey spin-off or a DLC like FarCry 3’s Blood Dragon), Steve Rogers (level designer) wrote a lot of great lore and NPC interactions and backstory that really helped me with Sarah Elazar and the history of the Prey universe among others, and lastly, I am sad I never got a chance to play with the neurotic sniper rifle, unfortunately.

Oh, one last thing – (spoiler) when I was playtesting and got sick of trying to save Telepath victims and started gunning them down, my murder spree came to a screeching halt when I heard a “cling” of an item dropping and discovered one of the victims I’d just murdered had dropped a wedding ring (inventory quest item). It immediately caused me to feel bad and reminded me that these people – yes, even though they were NPCs – once had lives, and didn’t deserve me murdering them. I still cite the “wedding ring” story as a simple, powerful way to remind a player of their place in the world, the NPCs’ place, and can even cause a switch in behavior – and it’s just an inventory item that tells a story and creates this effect. It’s so simple to add elements like that vs. “oh, he has a healing potion” or to tell a long expository story about the man’s marriage. The wedding ring does it. Easy to implement. Powerful. Perfect.

SB: Prey's attention to detailed fascinated me, the fact that every single person (dead or alive) had a name/background was amazing to me, along with all the hidden areas/secrets, computer logs/wall writing/audio logs, etc. Was there a concerted effort by the dev team and yourself to achieve this? And do you ever feel when working on a game that you spend too much time on little things people may never appreciate?

CA: Yes, it was a core principle in System Shock 1, and Prey wanted to maintain that feel – the employee roster (and where they are now in the station, and if they died, how they died and where) is a huge PDF Arkane made that allowed you to scroll through the station employees and broke the personnel down by departments and roles. I thought that was great (and great it was so thoroughly designed out). The dev team as a whole took steps to make sure the background of the station, the background of the Volunteers, TranStar’s economic pipeline (in humorous detail, with suitable iconography), and a detailed backstory of how the Typhon first made an impact on Earth was all laid out, and it made the universe feel coherent, and it made developing characters much easier when you have a foundation like that to work with.

SB: I often touted Prey as "abstract art" in conversations on twitter and with friends such as MrMattyPlays. I feel that from the writing itself (which deals with many abstract concepts such as consciousness), to the ending, to the gameplay itself not being straightforward and encouraging you to really explore your environment to find alternate paths and ways to solve puzzles. Would you agree with my assessment?

CA: I love Arkane’s weapon design – it’s because they aren’t just weapons, they’re tools (Recycler Grenades can clear obstacles, the GLOO Gun can make stairs and walls, etc.). As I’ve said before, I’d love to see that “open-world weapon-tool design” in other open-world games. Despite the sheer amount of bug-testing that would need to be done, I think it would be amazing (I often think that any one item in Prey or Dishonored could have an entire game built around its mechanics – example: The Outsider’s Timepiece).

SB: I noticed a pattern in people's critiques of Prey (critics and gamers alike). Many did not enjoy the game as much as they otherwise may have because the game was indeed more abstract and less straightforward (not funneling the player from point a to point b, the GLOO gun, not even giving the player a map, leaving things open to interpretation in the story etc). Do you think this reaction has something to do with how AAA games are designed these days? Did you anticipate this sort of reaction at all?

CA: I don’t know if I anticipated a specific reaction – I certainly thought Prey was a great game and still do (Author’s note: so do I!). It may have been the expectation of being on a space station perhaps could have clashed with the idea of freeform/open-world, and even though you have hubs to navigate, maybe it was the blend of open-world in a constrained space (or expectation of a constrained space) that caused those reactions. I don’t know. I enjoyed playing it multiple times. :)

SB: Going off something I mentioned previously, I felt there are two big themes in Prey (correct me if you feel otherwise). Both of these are laid out in pieces of writing in the opening level. One is the nature of consciousness, so I'll quote this passage of writing found in the opening level of Prey that struck me: "The nature of consciousness remains deeply mysterious. How can the subjective nature of experience-my inner life- be explained in scientific terms? Does consciousness emerge from complex computations among brain neurons? Or is it a fundamental and irreducible property woven into the fabric of the universe?"

The other big concept I noticed is that of "Fermi's Question" (are we alone?).

Were these concepts something that drove the writing in Prey, and how would you personally answer these questions?

CA: The 2nd one (Fermi) definitely did – I believe that’s why it was placed as one of the 1st books you find in Morgan’s quarters (at least last time I played). Also, the idea of cognitive dissonance and the idea that the “you” of three months ago, six months ago, a year ago, etc. is much different than the “you” of today is referenced repeatedly out in the game – at what point does this “personality drift” turn you into someone else entirely, and what are the prolonged effects over time?

SB: I have to ask about the ending. I personally appreciated the ending as I think it tied the whole theme of consciousness together, and really left a lot of it open to interpretation which I like (Were you playing as a Typhon with implanted memories? Did Morgan actually exist? Was the ending the only "real" choice you've made? etc). However, some people felt that it took many of the choices you made throughout the game and threw them out the window. And in a game that throughout reacts to your choices so much, I can understand where they're coming from. What are your personal thoughts on Prey's ending, and how would you address the criticisms of those who did not like it?

CA: Ricardo’s the best person to ask about it, it was not the original ending for the game, it came in later in development. For me (and we discussed this at Arkane), the key thing to be careful of is disrupting the player’s attachment to their avatar (I call this the “Clone Spider-Man Dilemma” – this is titled based on a storyline reveal that happened in the Spider-Man comics where it was revealed that the “Spider-Man” the readers had followed and loved for 20 years wasn’t actually Spider-Man, it was a clone – and guess what, this did not go over well with the fans, which was understandable, because they were there because they loved Spider-Man, and now the rug had been yanked out from under them).

If you ever choose to do this in a narrative, you need to be careful and take precautions (I feel Prey did these things) was tie the reactivity in the game to that ending so your actions still mattered (at least in the drafts I saw), but the danger of being disassociated from your avatar was a very real thing and should be treated very, very carefully.

I will say (anecdote) that I learned something else very wise from Prey’s development about game endings in general – always keep in mind someone else who isn’t you may have to inherit your end game reveals. We were in a meeting with Raphael and discussing end states, and he said, (paraphrased) “no matter what, be careful about giving an ending that must be carried forth by either us (Arkane – and it might be the same team or a new design team within Bethesda, you never know in game development) or anyone else who must inherit the sequel (again, whether Arkane or someone else). This comment wasn’t intended to distance anyone from the ending, it was a clear acknowledgement that you have to be careful with endings in a game franchise – if you push the hint of an ending too far in the first game or any title with a sequel, it sets up an expectation that the next game will have to match and solve, and what may only be 5 minutes of the ending of the first game will define 40+ hours in the next title and likely cause the Lead Designer a lot of headaches. So example: If a game ends showing an alien invasion in the last five minutes, then that sets a very specific expectation for the next team that is very hard to step away from. I’ve certainly been part of decisions like this – it was done on Neverwinter 2, KOTOR 2, and as far back as Dark Alliance 1 – and yes, this is a bad way to do endings in many respects, but Raphael was clear as to why – it’s not just disappointing for the player, it’s a pipeline concern and a design concern, and that assumes you’ll even get a chance to do the sequel at all.

SB: Is there any chance for a Prey expansion helmed by you ala New Vegas DLC's? Do you think DLC would be a good thing for Prey or is it better off how it is?

CA: I can’t speak about unannounced projects (not being cagey, I just legally can’t answer a question like that). But I want more Prey and more Dishonored, so yes, I would love more DLC and I would love to continue/contribute to either (I’ve never gotten a chance to work with Harvey (Smith, head of Arkane and Dishonored creator), and I’d like to, I’d like to be a fly on the wall for his design approach, like I had the chance to do with Raphael and Ricardo, and I learned a lot). Also, I think Prey did a lot to push the “System Shock”-genre-style, and I’d like to see even further… pushing.

SB: Are you aware of any secrets or underlying concepts in Prey that haven't been discovered or you feel haven't been appreciated?

CA: Nope. I did include more hooks for things to explore (Mitchell’s brain condition and its possible implications on the Typhon threat and the world, TranStar’s ties to Russia and how that affected the global economy on Earth, and the idea of what recycler weapons and new energy sources could mean for the Earth as well the idea of recycler plant explosions being the equivalent of “clean” nukes is pretty scary, and disasters on Earth were cited in the lore). I also thought the NeuroMod’s potential to create a new strata of have's and have-not's and contribute to an unusual form of classism (especially when some people medically can’t use Neuromods, so they’re in danger of immediately being regulated to the class left behind). There were also some elements of Mikhaila’s medical condition (Paraplexis, “White Noise”) that was also supposed to feed into the Neuromod debate, but I’ll leave that for another time.

SB: IGN reviewer Dan Stapleton infamously gave Prey a 4/10 for a game breaking bug. As a developer do you feel it is fair that your game gets beat up (and Metacritic score tanked) because of one rare bug QA missed?

CA: I don’t know the exact bug, and I’m not saying this was the case at all, but sometimes the configuration of people’s systems can surprise developers (all companies usually have compatibility testers, but still some rigs get through the cracks). I wouldn’t mind if reviewers at least gave developers one chance to examine the issue first in case it’s something out of left field (and trust me, we want to fix it – and arguably, that attempt and how well it’s done can be a test of developer responsiveness and willingness to help), BUT if a common bug is missed because of an improper testing plan, a known branch was never checked, inadequate QA resources, or because someone checked in bad code and couldn’t be bothered to check to see if a certain script worked in the game, then I think developers (me included) deserve to be slammed with low scores, yes, and slammed hard. We need to do better, no one should have to pay for a buggy game – and no developer wants to release a buggy game, either.

Really, my biggest challenge with review scores on Metacritic is when any score is posted with no review (review pendings/review forthcoming should be deleted, in my opinion, because there’s no actual review – same for broken links), and the fact that certain publications have such a wildly different range of how they score a “good” game vs. other publications (ex: 5/10 might be considered a good game by a certain publication, as opposed to a 8 for most other publications, but the “5” will torpedo all the other scores and make the game be perceived as a piece of shit). Ranking scales like that can tank a game’s success. (Author's Note: Dan Stapleton has been reached out to for comment, and this piece will be updated if he responds)

I will say I am an advocate that specific publications (such as IGN) be scrutinized in any contract involving Metacritic scores as recognition that these publications can seem to tank your score, when in fact, they aren’t trying to do that at all, but both the developers and publishers will suffer for it, and the Metacritic values should be evaluated with that in mind – this is especially true since these same publications don’t always review all games, they may have a specific “focus” which can cause a further difference between your title and something outside the genre.

SB: In a previous part of our interview, you praised Bethesda's marketing. However, I feel that Prey did not get as much marketing as it deserved. With Arkane releasing 2 games in the span of 6 months (and Bethesda marketing other games such as ESO, Quake, and even its E3 showcase), it's inevitable one game would get the short end of the stick. Do you have any thoughts on this?

CA: Not really, maybe it was just my social feed, but I felt Prey got a blitz of marketing, and I certainly felt there were enough game interviews to do on my end (some of them were shared with me to help with because there were sooooo many). I’m a bit wary of marketing overall just because I’ve seen too much effort on marketing vs. making the game distract development teams (and especially heads of development teams, who you need focused on the game to make the right decisions and because have the authority to make decisions and fixes that no one else can).

While sure, one can condemn too little marketing, as a developer, I am relieved not to have the entire QA team as well as designers and artists drafted into taking 300+ screenshots every 2 weeks for a final round of 5-6 chosen that will be selected for the game, or doing a swath of marketing demos for 5+ conferences that could be better spent on making a solid, polished final game.

Interview by @Monte
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