If you have been involved in video games between 1997 and now, especially in the vein of Computer role playing games, then the name, “Chris Avellone,” should evoke tears of joy and fond memories especially of the beautiful, golden years between 1998 and 2002. In the nineties and early 2000’s, there was a little company called Interplay®. At Interplay® there was a little division dedicated to CRPGs called Black Isle®. For any of you who have ever played a role playing game, you should feeling some great nostalgia right about now.
Black Isle, the division of Interplay that specialized in CRPGs, were arguably the one of the best, if not THE best CRPG developer in history. They gave us some amazing pieces of art, such as Fallout, Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, and Icewind Dale 2. Additionally, they were the publishers of the Bioware® magnum opus Bladur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn. Now at this little division there was a developer by the name of Chris Avellone, who had a neat little idea of starting an RPG after the death screen. But he was working on Fallout 2 at the time.
After Fallout 2 was finished, he began work on his own magnum opus. This game was, and still is, considered to be one of the best role playing games of all time. It was, of course, the utter work of genius known as Planescape: Torment. This game was so revolutionary, so incredibly well made, and so fucking amazing that it elevated Mr. Avellone from just one developer at Black Isle to a status of game design god. With one game, he joined the ranks of other genius developers, such as John Carmack(Quake, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom), John Romero(Quake, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom), Sid Meier (Civilization), Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) and Shigeru Myamoto (Mario Brothers).
Planescape: Torment has yet to be topped in terms of uniqueness and revolutionary ideas. And it is still a game that many CRPG developers aspire to. Avellone would follower Torment with work on two more works of greatness: Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale 2. While neither compared to Torment in their uniqueness or depth, both were amazingly well written, and are widely considered two of the best CRPGs ever developed.
He then began work as Lead Designer on what was supposed to become Fallout 3. Unfortunately, however, Interplay’s financial woes were slowly eating into Black Isle, and the division was cut and everyone laid off before the planned Fallout 3, then called Van Buren would come to fruition.
Along with original Black Isle head, Feargus Urquhart, Avellone would leave to start Obsidian Entertainment®. And things went south, or so I believe. While at Obsidian, Avellone has proven time and again that he has lost none of the wit and genius that made Torment such an enormous success. He has, however, not proven that he can deliver everything he promises. Every single game that has been released by Obsidian has been marred by shoddy gameplay, sever technical problems, unfinished content, or all of the above.
Obsidian’s first release, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: the Sith Lords was largely unfinished, had a multitude of technical problems and left a very sour taste in the mouths of the millions of fans who had eagerly awaited the sequel to the 2003 game of the year, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The first game had been developed by Bioware®, but when they weren’t able to develop the sequel due to creating their own IP, Lucasarts contracted Obsidian to do it.
Now with KotOR2, Obsidian is mostly left off the hook because the unfinished nature of the game and multitude of technical difficulties were the result of the greedy morons at LucasArts rushing the game out the door far too soon. At least that was the excuse. But similar stories were to follow.
The next release was Neverwinter Nights 2, the long awaited sequel to Bioware’s 2002 opus. On release day, I remember awaiting eagerly at the gamestop, waiting for my copy. After receiving it, I barely got through my classes at school before rushing home, installing it on my computer and having the biggest disappointment of my life. If Biwoare’s Neverwinter Nights was a slice of pie, Neverwinter Nights 2 was a storebought crust with week-old whipped cream. Its technical problems were horrendous, its gameplay was annoying, it had quests that you couldn’t finish and it would just randomly crash for no reason. While the story was decent, it didn’t make up for the rest of the problems.
But still, since I revere Avellone to such an extent, I wasn’t willing to brush Obsidian off, and when they announced their next project: Alpha Protocol, I awaited it eagerly. The role playing options that were being offered were quite impressive, and if they returned on their promises, I knew that this would be the game to prove to people that Avellone was still the genius that designed Torment over a decade ago.
Sadly, while Alpha Protocol completely delivers on most of the conversation options and choice-effect mechanics in the game, the rest of the game is a mess. But it says something about a designer, when I will trudge not once, not twice, not three times, but four times through everything that’s bad, just because what’s done right is that good.
So is Chris Avellone still the genius that brought us Planescape: Torment? Damn right he is. Is he able to deliver on everything he promises in his latest releases? No. But nobody’s perfect. And that’s why he’s the industry’s flawed messiah. While I dislike a lot about Neverwinter Nights 2, KotOR 2, and Alpha Protocol, I love just as much. And I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t give anything just to work with him.