Category Archives: Writing

Alpha Torment: Or Why Chris Avellone is Gaming’s Flawed Christ

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.

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Good Ideas, Bad Ideas and How To Use Them

I spent the better part of this morning and early afternoon working on my personal writing (screenplay rewrite, short stories, et al), and trying to decide upon a topic for today’s post. During that time, I was thinking about new directions to take superheroes and heroes in movies in general, because I think they’re very overdone. And as I was doing that, I thought about an idea I had a while ago. It wasn’t a good idea, it still isn’t a good idea, but I’m amused by it nonetheless.

My idea was that there was this person who had the power of imagination, and he could will anything into existence. That was his superpower. Pretty silly, right? Well it gets better. He was part of an elite team of superheroes, all who had this awesome superhero. Of course my idea had a fatal flaw: It was all about how cool these superheroes would be. There was nothing about a plot, or an antagonist, or semblance of a good idea whatsoever.

So what’s my point? Why tell you about a bad idea? Because that’s the topic of this post: Bad Ideas.

Everyone has bad ideas when it comes to writing. I’m sure even incredibly amazing writers that have been doing this for decades have bad ideas. Harlan Ellison probably has bad ideas. And what differentiates a good writer or at least a decent writer from a bad writer? Knowing which ideas are bad, and being smart enough not to go through with them. A bad idea in literature, screenwriting, comic book writing, etc, is the equivalent of eating month-old meatloaf that’s been sitting out on the counter for two weeks and has so much mold on it that it looks like a shih tzu. You’re going to regret it later, and it might kill you. Now bad ideas in writing kill you, at least not literally. But they can kill your career. And that’s just as bad. You don’t live through being killed. But you have to live through having your career killed.

Now am I talking about bad ideas in terms of my taste? No. I personally hate the Twilight series with an undying passion. I think they’re some of the worst books and movies ever made, but they aren’t bad ideas. The proof that they have made millions upon millions of dollars is proof of that. They connect with people somehow. Granted, the people they connect with are mostly just girls between the ages of 12 and 18, but that’s a good demographic. Now would Twilight be making more money if it wasn’t so badly written? Yes. Look at the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling is richer than God, and her books are both better written and appeal to a far larger audience.

Another “bad” film that was badly made (and perhaps badly written) but was a good idea, was James Cameron’s Avatar. It was one of the few films to take such a gigantic monetary risk and actually made money. The film cost nearly five hundred million dollars to produce and promote, yet it made more than two billion. It was the very first, and to date the only film to make so much money. So was it written well? Did it have a great plot and compelling characters? No, on all counts. But was it a good idea on Cameron’s part? You bet your ass it was.

Now we’ve established what I mean when I say a bad idea, so let’s get cracking. A bad idea is something that happens all the time, and sometimes they masquerade as epically awesome ideas. Ideas that make you stand up and shout, “THIS IDEA IS FUCKING AWESOME!” But if you let them sit and stew long enough, your shout of epic proportions eventually changed to “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all.” If you let it stew longer, it will eventually become, “This idea is stupid.”

Bad ideas are always ideas that have a kernel and nothing else. They are the idea about making a stalwart hero of the land who kills bad guys with a glare, and kills everyone with his massive sword that’s three times larger than a moose. It’s the idea about making the lovable yet flawed heroine who is so beautiful that the earth stops spinning, and she wins everyone with her heartfelt laughter and rainbow-like smile. These ideas are stupid. Very stupid. And why is that? It’s because there’s nothing else. A hero who has already reached his peak has nowhere to go but down. So making a movie about how awesome he is is going to be like riding along the Bonneville Salt Flats. It might go fast. It might be fun for a short while, but eventually it gets boring because it’s very flat and never changes.

Now creating a story about a hero who has hit his peak and then making your story about his downfall would be great. That’s what Sophocles’ Oedipus The King is. Oedipus has reached his peak. He’s beaten the Sphinx and all the other battles of his life, and the only way left to go is down. He ends up finding out his wife is his mother, she ends up killing herself and he ends up digging out his eyes and then the story ends. It’s certainly not the most uplifting story in the world, but it works. And that’s the main difference between a good idea and bad idea. Good ideas work. Bad ideas don’t.

So how do you tell that you’ve come up with a bad idea? Take a week to think on the idea after you’ve thought it up. If it still sounds just as good, then think through the plot. Who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? What’s the underlying plot? If your idea has NONE of these, then create some. If you can’t create them, or when you create them they just don’t work well, then you have a bad idea.

Now good ideas? Well good ideas work. So after you’ve thought on it for a week, and been able to come up with your protagonist, antagonist and underlying plot, it still sounds just as good. A good idea works, and it works well enough that it just feels good. And those are the ideas you want to write down and pitch to your friendly neighborhood Creative Executive.

The Chaos and Order of Rewriting Your Work

Currently, I’m working on the rewrite of a screenplay about an order of supernatural new-age knights that strive to keep the world in balance by policing the energies of chaos and order. I like it a lot and I’m very proud of it, but of course the rewriting process (as any writer will tell you) is a total bitch. It’s much easier to write a first draft of something, whether it be a short story, novel, screenplay, and so on than it is to do a rewrite of it. With a first draft, you have the freedom of the blank page. You can write anything. Because in a first draft you’re focusing on just getting the words on the paper, to tell the story. The second draft is refining. And the third draft, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the… well you get the point.

So with that in mind, I thought I would share some insight in rewriting, why it’s important, how you should do it and other information. To be fair, I didn’t know a lot of the following information before this year, when I learned a lot more about the rewriting process from established writers. One in particular was kind enough to sit down with me and a few other fellow writers to share his techniques and writing process as well as how he was able to break into the business of screen writing. I don’t like name dropping, but suffice it to say that being able to talk to him was a privilege.

After you write your first draft, you feel accomplished. You think, “Wow! I just wrote a full-length screenplay!” It’s a feeling akin to finishing a marathon, or finishing a novel, or finally getting your college or high school after four years of grueling work. And you feel done. You’re not done, but you feel done. So you start thinking about how awesome your script is and start asking yourself questions like, “Well this is it! I can jump on IMDbPro and look up people to send my script to, right?” Wrong. Now the real work begins.

While it’s perfectly fine for you to hop onto IMDbPro anytime you like within your writing process (and I highly recommend getting a subscription if you can afford it), you should never even think about picking up the phone and dialing any of the phone numbers you’ve gotten until you’ve finished at least three drafts of your screenplay. Yes, you read that right. THREE. Not two, and certainly not one. Why? Because your first draft is shit.

Yes you read that right. Your first draft is shit. I don’t care if you’re the greatest writer who ever lived, your first draft is shit. Now don’t mistake me. I’m not trying to give out some blanket insult to writers everywhere, after all I would be insulting myself along with everybody else. What I am saying, however, is that your first draft is full of mistakes, too much action, too much description, bad dialogue, so on and so forth. And why is this? It’s because for your first draft, you focused on getting the story out there. You didn’t focus on making the dialogue pitch-perfect, you didn’t focus on getting your format perfect while also making it fun to read, and you certainly didn’t focus upon making it work perfectly in a three-act structure that doesn’t feel like a formula everyone has seen before. That is why your first draft is shit. And that is why you need to rewrite.

Now when some writers think of doing a new draft, they simply open the old file, make a lot of corrections, and then print it out and shout “Draft two! Hooray!” They’re wrong. I guarantee you any writer who has done such a thing has never gotten that screenplays sold. The people who are going to read your screenplay have read hundreds, perhaps even over a thousand screenplays. They’ve probably read ten to twenty screenplays just today. They’re going to notice if your precious third draft is really just your first draft with a lot of copy editing and corrections. And they’re going to throw it in the trash.

“But what if my story is awesome? They won’t throw it away!” Yes, they will. Screenplay readers have no time for bullshit. They don’t care if your story is awesome, because they’ve probably already read five other ‘awesome’ stories since breakfast. They don’t have time to call you up and say “Hey, I love your story, but your screenplay is written very badly with bad dialogue and bad action and so on. Want to come in and talk about it?” No. That’s your job. Don’t expect a reader, producer, etc, to do your job.

So how do we begin this second draft? Well firstly, this is a rewrite. Think for a moment on that word. That means you start over from page one. This doesn’t mean that you act like you’re writing a brand new screenplay. Then you’ll just get another shitty first draft. You will need to use your first draft as reference, so print it out and do whatever it is that works for you to keep it organized in a way that will allow you to glance back and forth while writing your second draft.

Now the first thing you need to do after all that, is decide on one major issue from your first draft that you will fix. Maybe choose one or two minor issues as well. You won’t be able to fix every issue in one draft. That’s impossible, so don’t even try. On this first rewrite, you want to focus on the issue you have just chosen and do your best to fix them. On my current rewrite I’m focusing on taking away as much exposition from the dialogue as I can (I have a lot of it), and to use the action to acquaint the reader and viewer to the world rather than having characters come out and say “This happens because blah blah.” I’m also focusing on tidying up the screenplay, but only on minor issues. As I said, you can really only focus on one major issue per draft. So if you have a lot of major issues in your first draft, you’re going to have a lot of rewrites.

So how do you know when you’re done with your draft? Simple. You reach ‘the end.’ Now it’s time to read your draft over, note any simple copy errors and fix them. Next, read over your draft comprehensively and make sure that you’ve succeeded in your goal of fixing whatever issue you decided to focus on. If there are just simple mistakes associated with the issue, go in and correct those. If you didn’t succeed in your ultimate goal of fixing the issues, you have to do another draft on those issues alone.

Once you’ve made sure that you’ve succeeded in fixing the issues you were focusing upon, it’s time to choose another main issue from your first draft and do ANOTHER draft to fix that issue. Wash, rinse and repeat until all the major issues in your first draft are fixed. Now you will have a final draft that has fixed all the issues. It should read well, not be predictable, and be a beautiful piece of screenwriting. Now it’s time to start calling those numbers you got from IMDbPro, but that’s the subject of an entirely different post altogether.