I Hate it When Mom And Dad Fight - Chris Avellone v Obsidian


#11

My reaction to this last week was that I was more disappointed that anyone at Obsidian would even post on that hellhole more than I was bothered by all the other shit and I most certainly was bothered by all that


Pillars Of Eternity 2: Deadfire, let's talk about it?
#12

Yeah I made my thread on it with the hopes of getting the Waypoint crew’s attention but I’m too timid to @ anyone and figure it might get lost in the noise. I figure if they’re interested they could probably get interviews with people, better than it all bein on that site for sure.


#13

I think it might be worth quoting/screengrabbing the key posts and sharing them here so folks don’t have to wade through that site. I’m not familiar enough with the issue to do this, but I think it would be a good idea.

A general summation/summary post would be super helpful, so maybe an enterprising poster can dovetail the two and put together the definitive post for us.

For what it’s worth, @-ing staff members is something we (as mods) discourage (since it can be very bothersome for them). If you want to bring something to the attention of staff, having a robust discussion here is one method of doing so (and forum topics have been shouted out before, particularly good & robust posts). I might encourage writing into the staff with a question to the podcast by dropping an e-mail to gaming@vice.com with the subject “QUESTION”.

I can’t guarantee it’ll go on the podcast, but these are the best channels to get in touch with staff. Sometimes some stories won’t get covered (for a whole host of reasons – time, ongoing story, legal guidance, among many other others!), of course, but you can do your part to bring it to people’s attention.


#14

EDIT: You’ll have to blow up the images below to read the text, they’re small here but large in their own tab.

So if you follow Obsidian or just Chris Avellone closely you probably remember that when he left a few years back, it did not seem to be on good terms. Or at least, the language both Avellone and official Obsidian comments on his leaving were…terse, certainly for someone who’d been at the studio so long, was CCO, did a ton of writing and headed up multiple projects for them. I didn’t read too much into it at the time, no way for us to know what went on there, I figured.

So not long after Chris Avellone starts posting on RPGCodex in Pillars of Eternity threads. I was familiar with the site before that but I would still drop in to read dev posts if I heard about them. RPGCodex is focused entirely around cRPGs in the vein of either Infinity Engine games, Wasteland, Avernum, Wizardry. They talk about other types of RPGs but those are the core that the site identifies with the most and what most of the shitflinging and arguing centers around. On the whole they really don’t like Pillars of Eternity, viewing it as a massive disappointment (sometimes “betrayal,” because gamer man-children,) for reasons that are not relevant to this topic. So Avellone shows up and starts at that time talking about the development of that game; he’d been on the site before talking about NV and PS:T mostly but he became a more regular presence by this point. At that point he’s talking about cut content/planned content for the companions he wrote, Durance and Grieving Mother, about how the main plot ended up like it did, details of some tensions around the kickstarter, people threatening to leave if it didn’t go live, etc. Nothing damning for the company itself, but he was clearly upset about how some things went down. This was almost two years ago by this point.

I got sick of going to RPGCodex to follow devs I liked around, which was convenient because I’d become less enamored with them for posting on cRPG /pol/, so I only ever saw stuff that got posted in between then and the most recent goings on every now and again on other forums, all of which was design notes, talking about who did what quests etc. Not harmless because the gremlins there derive a sense of legitimacy from all the devs that post/have posted there, which they are very loud about, but nothing on Obsidian’s business and firing practices.

A lot of this seems to center around the practices of the Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart. Here it’s said that he was dodging paying money they owed to employees who had given up paychecks to keep the studio afloat and that it took another owner to talk him into it.

Some of this stuff gets into very personal territory that I’m not sure is kosher for the forums or not so lmk if it could cause issues. Anyhow here it talks some pretty abusive sounding practices regarding the relationship of employees lower on the rung, hours, how work was being distributed etc. as well as threatening to fire people in important positions such as Project Director if they couldn’t get the game out by a certain deadline - not illegal I don’t think, but pretty shitty regardless.

This seems to have been connected to another post regarding literal nepotism wrt family members. If what he says in this post about Feargus trying to hire on his two young children is true, that is truly bizzare and fishy.

There’s more that I’ve seen but I have work in a little bit, I may trawl through RPGCodex and get some screengrabs myself after I clock out, I’ve been taking these from the POE II forum threads on Something Awful, where I do not have an account and thus can’t reliably go back to those threads. I believe he’s been posting somewhere on Reddit too, but I’m not sure which subreddit exactly, so I’ll look into that as well. I have personally heard some pretty terrible stuff over the years about sexual harassment, pink slips after pregnancy leave, things of that nature at Obsidian from people who said they were former employees, but I can’t substantiate any of that though of course that wouldn’t be out of character for our society or the games industry.


#15

So I just read this article and, whilst I don’t want to derail the topic away from the current goings on and into criticism of their games, I wanted to share it in the context of, say, people at Obsidian posting on shitholes like RPGCodex and having gross worldviews in general.


#16

I appreciate that article’s willingness to not pin the blame on one person and I think it makes a very good point about the culture of Obsidian and how that has carried into games like Tyranny but also the reason I point out Tyranny specifically is that it is the first one without Chris Avellone as one of the major writers and he has long been known to be more than a bit of an edge lord

That doesn’t necessarily mean much here in regards to how the place is run, but might explain why you see pushback from some members of the staff still at obsidian


#17

Even the Avellone games have problems with writing women. KOTOR 2 particularly has problems letting anyone in the female cast have real agency beyond wanting to bone the male exile. This generic tragic love story crap also hits one of the party members in Planescape: Torment. There’s just so much other amazing stuff in there that it doesn’t get noticed as much.

Avellone, though, strikes me more as a guy with blindspots, too busy to really bother paying attention to the culture around him. The rest of Obsidian…eh, a bit worried.


#18

My point was Avellone is likely where a lot of that starts and that article points out that Tyranny in someways does better, with my overall point being that the reason some people at Obsidian seem to be popping up to counter some of his claims may be due to them being tired of reining him in. And with Carrie Patel being one of the lead writters on Deadfire I am optimistic about some of the direction in that regard. Though Josh Sawyer being the lead has me extremely wary of the colonialism aspect

I hope Chris continues to find work, seems like a nice enough dude on the whole who could maybe work on some of his wrotting to say the least, and Obsidian seems to a bit of a hellhole at the but it’s worth pointing out there’s likely a reason those he works with might not be as enamored with him as others are


#19

I really can’t take Avellone’s criticisms seriously anymore because of how constant they are, the timing of them, and where they are popping up. Sawyer being so transparent about the development of Deadfire and the kickass writing staff they have for their team tells me this might be purely personal beef between Feargus and Chris.


#20

As much as Obsidian stumbled (Honest Hearts maybe most prominently) I still think their writers, Avellone included, were/are creating things far better than what most triple A studios focusing on “story” are cranking out (Ubisoft, BioWare, Bethesda). I would put them in the top tier with like Supergiant or Arkane or something in terms of skill at world-building. I’m trying not to take this chance to talk about how much I love New Vegas but it had a bunch of LGBT characters (several of whom were companions), a mute character, several with PTSD, and I think a lot of it is handled well and made that world one I wanted to see more of across like the 300 or so hours I’ve put into it by now.

Given his history I doubt he’ll have trouble finding work. He would be a good asset to another studio, hopefully one that has diverse voices to give him some more perspective and hone his writing some more. I think it’s an understatement to say that Obsidian absolutely doesn’t sound like the place to be right now, I hope their staff in general finds a less hostile place to bring their talents as well.


#21

Content Warning: discussion of rape, violence against women.

I think this article makes for an excellent, and very complete - it pulls from parts of their back catalogue that I haven’t even experienced - analysis of some of Obsidian’s consistent failings in writing women, and I found myself in particular agreement with its skewering of their frequent use of the suffering of women characters to highlight the capital-E Evilness of a given faction or individual. (Much like the writer, I remember being consistently skeeved with pretty much everything to do with Christine in New Vegas, for instance. Like holy fuck they just kept going there.)

The ‘every woman falls in love with the (male) protagonist’ stuff struck a chord, as well–I think this is probably the area where they’ve improved the most over the years, but it was undeniably a persistent failing of their games for a very long time. You could try and excuse KotOR II for it, on the basis of its whole story being, essentially, a deconstruction of the ‘RPG hero at the centre of their party’ trope, buuuuuut I think that’d be being very generous, honestly. The fawning of Visas and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Handmaiden - who, of course, is only present if you’re playing as a male Exile - goes well beyond that of your other party members, and when placed in the broader context of Obsidian’s previous handling of woman characters, Atris’ obsession with the Exile can read in a similar way.

I do have some issues with the comparison drawn between Pillars’ hollowborn - children who, in the Pillars lore, have been born without souls - and children with learning disabilities, though. While I see where the argument is coming from - and agree that it’s basically impossible to do any kind of story dealing with declining births/reproductive ‘concerns’ and have it not draw unfortunate parallels with real-world right wing reactionaries - I think the hollowborn, as established by the game, are much more akin to coma patients/people in a permanent vegetative state - that is, brain dead, excepting basic bodily functions - than “severely developmentally disabled” children, to quote the specific language used.

I also think the racial component ascribed to souls in this piece is not supported by the text. The writer’s analysis of Maerwald’s story is generally excellent, as it at once reinforces their point about Obsidian using the suffering of women - in this case, outright rape - as a crutch, either to highlight a given male character’s evil, or to present the impression of ‘Dealing With Serious Topics’, and also delves in to the studio’s recurring utter failure to handle writing indigenous people with anything so much as resembling respect.

However, it also states that, “The “soul” in this case, incidentally, doubles as an idea of genetically transmitted racial essence”, following on from an earlier mention of how Maerwald was ‘born with a “split” soul, half settler and half native’. This is not accurate to what actually transpired in the story, which - to be absolutely clear - was still a load of shit, but a different load of shit:

Basically, in Pillars lore, no new souls are ever created–when a child is born, the soul that animates them will, inevitably, have had several past lives. Generally, the memories of these past lives, while a component of the soul, are inaccessible to its current incarnation. However, on occasion, an individual will, for whatever reason, gain access to one or more of their past selves.

This is where Maerwald’s - edgy, awful - story comes into play: one of his soul’s past incarnations was as a - indigenous, ‘cause holy fuck, Obsidian - warrior who raped a woman in a raid on her settlement. The incarnation immediately following that one, was the child that warrior - who died soon after the raid - conceived in that rape, who ultimately went on to wage a bloody campaign of violence against the indigenous people. Maerwald, as a ‘Watcher’ - an individual with access to their past lives’ memories and personalities - had both of these people in his head, and trying to reconcile that ultimately killed him. Like I said, it’s fucking awful, in so many fucking ways - not the least of which is how it can be read as an analogue for conflict between native and coloniser heritage! - but it’s not the exact kind of awful outlined in the piece.

As a consequence of both this and my earlier points about the hollowborn, I disagree with the notion that Pillars, “puts the player in the shoes of an eugenicist trying to safeguard the future of the race”. It does a lot of things, plenty of them bad, but not that–well, at least, not as I read it, anyway. I do think the piece as a whole is extremely on-point in its analysis of Obsidian’s failures, however–including within Pillars itself.


In any case, as to this situation with Avellone and Obsidian… Yeah, I’m really conflicted about it, honestly. Obviously, the accusations made are extremely troubling, but I’m also very dubious of the fact that the only venues Avellone has used to express them have been, well, places like RPG Codex.

Even putting aside the fact that the site is a disgusting cesspool - which, for the record, I don’t think anyone should - there’s also the way that using such channels implies that aspects of his story wouldn’t stand up to the scrutiny of an actual publication, that would actually attempt to get verification, ask for a response, so on and so forth. Now, that’s not to say there’s no truth to Avellone’s statements by any means - it can be impossible to find proper proof of workplace abuse, after all - but his vendetta against Urquhart is obvious, and some of the accusations made against him - the stuff about his children in particular - are just odd.


#22

I read the article and quite liked the examination. (I’m Chris Avellone, and I worked at Black Isle, Obsidian, Arkane, Larian, inXile, etc. – I noticed the topic thread, but this article is what made me stop and keep reading.) I’m not 100% sure who to thank, but thank you nevertheless.

Just to correct the record, I will say while I contributed to story feedback on Numenera, I only did work on Erritis and some quest lines – but if Erritis falls in the category of characters you dislike, that’s fine. ; ) I haven’t had a chance to read the Numenera piece yet, so I can’t fully speak to it – but I did want to make my role in the game clear.

Also for the record (since one of the posters comments on this), there were many projects at Obsidian and Black Isle where I wasn’t a writer beyond Tyranny that would be worth examination (Dungeon Siege 3).

Even though you didn’t bring it up, I will say we didn’t have much choice in making the Nameless One a male, which I didn’t support, and had we done more Planescape games, there would have been much more in the way of actual character creation. Some choices came down to resources.

Some things I might be able to clarify:

  • The Nameless One hurts a lot of people in Torment, and while Deionarra was intended to be one example of that, I attempted to make Morte and Dak’kon’s backstories equally unpleasant and broken (along with many others, regardless of gender). This wasn’t intended as a power trip, it was intended to make you realize how bad your previous incarnations were as a person and (ideally) be something you as a character wanted to oppose or move away from. I did model Deionarra too closely on Opehlia in some respects, and I bring that up in support of your piece, because that reinforces what you’re saying, and shows how tropes can continually roll forward over time and should be questioned.

  • Ravel gives you gifts if you flatter her because it felt like a fairy tale thing/fable thing for an evil creature to do not because she’s a creepy ex-girlfriend, sorry if that came off wrong, but it wasn’t the intent – it’s much like flattering Smaug and being rewarded by being able to live a while longer. Also, another reason for it was it was an explicit means by which a Chaotic character would be rewarded for being Chaotic – if you didn’t have those, then it makes the alignment choice skewed and arguably isn’t role-playing.

  • It’s also why she asks the riddle as well (I don’t know if I’ve ever said this explicitly, but Ravel inspired the question theme for the game because I was trying to think of something a mythical figure would challenge a protagonist with, not the other way around). I credit Ravel for making the game better than it could have been, imo.

  • Since your article made me think about it (which is good that it’s made me examine this), is that I do think there’s abuse issues present in the Icewind Dale games that bear equal examination, too – again, I feel a little bit bad your article made me think of them, but it’s relevant to the discussion and they always stood out to me (I didn’t write them, but it may have contributed to the process).

  • Durance’s attitude was born from a combination of someone who shows how important gods are to people in the world (in a bad way) combined with someone who I would believe would have the emotional energy to kill a god, so he was written pretty extremely – it was to give credence to the arc of the franchise. I can’t speak to the franchise’s underpinnings that merited this, though.

  • Grieving Mother’s name, like Durance, Ravel, Morte, Nordom, the Nameless One, etc. is because I like metaphorical names, but it wasn’t intended to demean her or any of them as a character (before I went into computer games, I did a lot of work in superhero games, which also made me enjoy giving larger-than-life names to people).

  • The points you raise aside, I did enjoy researching writing her character because it provided an opportunity to speak to an actual midwife (a wife of one of the designers at the company) and ask her about her profession, what the experience was like, etc.

  • Overall, I was trying to stretch my writing skills into unfamiliar territory with both Durance and the Grieving Mother (both believe things I’m strongly against, but I think it’s wrong to keep writing characters who believe only the things you do because you can come off as one-note).

  • I did write Kaelyn – but I do think Obsidian wanted permission to tear down the wall, but other designers could speak to that. Wizards did tell us that we couldn’t make Gann bi-sexual, even though we proposed that as well, so there were constraints on characters and plots that weren’t solely Obsidian’s or Black Isle’s – it’s what happens when you write for a franchise, so it might be unfair to blame Obsidian for all the points with storyline and characters.

To round this out, though, I can’t speak to the rest of Pillars (I didn’t shape the lore) or Tyranny or Honest Hearts or Caesar’s Legion, etc, etc. although when reading this, there’s definitely elements within the core game of New Vegas I think are relevant to your examination beyond Caesar’s Legion, and would be worth examining as well if you had the time for it. (I didn’t particularly like the Legion for many reasons, especially the misogyny.) I don’t know anything about Pillars 2, but I have read Carrie Patel’s books and liked her writing.

Anyway, I wanted to say I read this piece and gave a lot of thought about it, and I appreciate you took the time to examine these stories and characters, so thank you.


#23

Well I guess I can add “Somewhat Lightly Shit Talk Chris Avelleone In A Forum Thread Chris Avellone Would Later Post In” to my resume

For what it’s worth while I stand by what I have said (though I would have worded it differently had I known you would read it obviously, though I assume you already knew that) I do also understand that a lot of the stuff talked about in that article is fairly old and maybe not stuff you would stand by now, which you do touch on a bit above, and I don’t think you can’t learn from, or have not learned from it by any means. But! You really need to rethink posting on RPG codex as that place is a painfully obvious neo nazi hive. Like straight up. I understand not wanting to leave a place you’ve been a part of for a long time in some capacity and that you may be trying to speak to the parts that are less of a nightmare but it’s time to move on in my opinion. And secondly you maybe need to think about what you posting in threads like this means. Now that you’ve posted here you’re going to draw attention to this thread and the people who have posted in it along with that article and one of those places who’s going to show up now is the aforementioned neo nazi hive (You can tell I like your work because I am trying to use words like Aforementioned in an attempt to sound smart around you and also that I am keenly aware of this instinct I have and find it rather absurd and am now lampshading it) which is kind of an issue to be honest. Maybe even a really big one depending on how it goes! And while I totally understand wanting to explain yourself here and think it’s valid to do so it’s worth pointing out that maybe the email for the blog the article was posted on would have been a better venue or even getting a hold of Waypoint proper and asking about the best way to do it. I will say if you want to have your post deleted you can do so and a mod should be here on the quick to do so and I would be fine with deleting this post to match but that’s all up to you. I’m not saying you have to or should do this just pointing out your options

Also your work on Prey was killer good job on that for real


#24

Thanks for the reply, Chris, I wasn’t expecting one and I appreciate it a lot.

The Ravel reasoning is especially interesting to me, because I very much did think that she’s maybe the most interesting character in PS:T, despite the problems I described, and the reason it stayed with me as something to be bothered by is that, as I mentioned, she’s really unceremoniously disposed of by the story.

I find the insights about the constraints you were working with extremely interesting as well; one of the reasons I shy away from assigning sole responsibility is because I understand the collaborative nature of gamedev work, the weight of publisher demands, etc, which are very different to what one works with in, say, novel-writing.

That said, I did go very hard on Grieving Mother specifically, not because I think the main themes of her and Durance’s arcs categorically shouldn’t be there, but because – I thought – in conjunction with what I believe to be an already unfortunate narrative about a reproductive catastrophe, her story dovetails a little bit too neatly with real-life political narratives that I am all too familiar with, living as I do in Poland, where women’s reproductive responsibility for the future of the nation is a constant refrain of the conservative Catholic-dominated culture, government, education system, etc.

Again, that’s the reason why I do not ascribe personal responsibility – it’s the context that informs my perspective, not necessarily something that any particular writer can be expected to be aware of. All the same, I want to encourage a high level of understanding about issues such as these in general, and I know for a fact that anglophone countries have their own reproductive justice and bodily autonomy struggles.

Anyway, I’m going to link to your reply here in the piece.


#25

I’m sure this is obvious enough now, but I’d feel bad if I didn’t explicitly state unhaunting is the author of the piece, not me. :sweat_smile: I just came across it on Twitter.


#26

Hey Chris, can you give some insight to what the writing process for the female cast in KOTOR 2 was like? I’m aware production was really rushed but I’ve been curious if there were any other ideas floating around that didn’t get to be implemented.


#27

I didn’t take offense to anything you said at all, so please don’t say you’d have gone back and reworded anything (I’d feel bad if you did any censorship of your opinion and word choice). I certainly didn’t mean to cause any trouble responding to the article, but I did appreciate the article and the responses to it. A large part was thanks, which I feel is of more value when said publicly, and a small part of it was to correct comments (which I try to do everywhere I see it because if facts aren’t corrected, it’s used as a way to discredit an otherwise valid perspective, if that makes any sense – including this one).

If this post causes any trouble for Waypoint, though, I have no issues with them deleting it or taking it down (consider it auto-approved) – but if they do, I wouldn’t want you to take down your post as well or anyone else’s, I don’t want you to feel like you can’t express yourself.

Thanks for the kind words on Prey, it was a lot of fun to work on.


#28

Hey, thanks for replying (sorry, Dream). Again, I appreciate what you wrote.

I left a way out for Ravel purposely, and she shows up in other games – although I see what you mean. In more than one draft for sequels, her presence is the forefront of most of the plot of the games (although those didn’t ever come to fruition). I did care about her as a character very much.

I understand what you’re saying about real-life narratives, and I sympathize. I do have a personal writing philosophy (and some have attacked me for this as well, as they’ve said I should be political) in that I purposely leave any real-world political connections out of my characters and focus their reactions solely on what’s transpiring in their game worlds, not real-life. My philosophy about this is that if I were to make a connection like that, it would cease to be writing for a game and become a political platform, and I don’t think that’s fair to the players who are there to play a game.

I have been attributed a number of political and personal labels, some of which I am ashamed to say I’m not even well-versed in politics to even understand what they’re talking about (I vote, but I don’t follow politics nearly as deeply as some). If you ever read the foreword of “Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us,” that sums up my philosophy about writing for games. And I will say, that while I do vote, I don’t talk publicly about what I vote on, even if I feel strongly about it – nobody on the net is ever following or talking with me because of things unrelated to games, so I keep it to games.

I was interested in the VtM:BL critique, though, along with the others – IWD, DS3, and the FNV core game have some pretty interesting material that I think definitely is something you’d find worthy of examination, as I kept thinking about similar material in those games as I was reading in your article that I think you’d find interesting from a similar perspective and perhaps have even more relevance.

Anyway, again, I wanted to say I appreciated your piece. So thanks!


#29

As for the process, the development was rushed in almost all games, and it’s worse when on multiple titles at the same time, but that doesn’t mean you don’t take responsibility for your works (Fallout 2 and Torment at the same time was especially brutal). For Tyranny/Pillars, that was probably the last time I could take a workload like that, as I’m not as young as I used to be, and I didn’t even do any writing on Tyranny.

If you have to write 10+ companions in a much shorter span of time than anticipated (a good companion takes about 2 months, imo, it’s usually much less than that in reality), it’s pretty crushing and I think there’s definitely an erosion in quality and depth.


#30

I can understand that train of thought, but I also think you should be aware of possible unintended connotations your work can cause. That doesn’t necessarily mean being political in the definition you seem to have (relating more to direct politics and political philosophy when it’s usually used now to refer to any sort of stance on how a society should function, including how people are treated).

Basically, just listen to marginalized voices and consider some of what you read when deciding on a character or plot point. I’ve been loving going through your work lately and I think you’re pretty good at this, and the fact you’re responding to criticism here and taking in what we say is a great sign, so I’d say just keep doing what you’re doing and pay a bit of attention to a few critical circles here and there.

I can say from personal experience that keeping yourself in the discourse constantly will kill any and all creative drive.