The Man Behind the Mask ‒ an interview with George Ziets

  • The Man Behind the Mask - an interview with George Ziets

Few cRPGs are awaited with such high expectations as the upcoming spiritual successor of Planescape: Torment. Set in the Ninth World of Numenera, Torment: Tides of Numenera was backed by more than 80,000 fans worldwide. One of the designers who have taken upon themselves the task of reviving the legacy of Torment is George Ziets, the Creative Lead of Mask of the Betrayer.

In an extensive interview, George tells us about his sources of inspiration and his work on Torment: Tides of Numenera, Pillars of Eternity and Mask of the Betrayer. He also shares his opinion on various subjects related to narrative design.


Read this interview in Polish


Grimuar: Hello George! Thank you for finding the time to answer our questions. Using the opportunity, we’d like to congratulate you on the successful funding of your own dark corner of the Bloom! You’ve been involved in several projects lately ‒ what has been taking most of your time in the recent months? Could you tell us more about the development of the Gullet?

George Ziets: Thanks! Since May of 2014, I’ve been a full-time employee at InXile, focused almost entirely upon Torment. As Lead Area Designer, I’m designing two of our zones (the Bloom and Sagus Cliffs), overseeing the work of our other area designers, writing some dialogue, and working with the artists to develop character concepts, models, and level art. I’ve also contributed to story discussions and revisions, but the main narrative is mostly the province of our creative lead, Colin McComb.


Early sketch of an area in the Gullet


The Gullet was a part of my initial design for the Bloom, located deep in the creature’s guts. I intended it as Torment’s version of dungeon content, focused primarily on exploration and combat. In the original Planescape: Torment, I enjoyed the catacombs sequence that followed the Buried Village (including the Drowned Nations, the various crypts, and the Nameless One’s Tomb) because it contrasted with the heavily dialogue-driven gameplay that preceded and followed it and broke up the pacing of the game. I thought that the Gullet could serve a similar purpose in the Bloom, albeit on a smaller scale. It could also provide some fun reactivity to the player’s choices earlier in the zone – for example, if your actions caused the Bloom to feed upon certain people, you might encounter them again in the depths (or an echo of them, anyway).

But when we initially prioritized our scenes for the Bloom, we realized that the main narrative of the Bloom could function without the Gullet. Since our resources are limited on Torment, the Gullet became C priority, and it appeared likely that it would be cut. Thankfully, our Kickstarter backers stepped in and changed all that.

So now the Gullet is alive and well (and satisfying disturbing, I might add). Area designer Joby Bednar and I updated my original design and expanded some elements, and Joby is currently developing the level in Unity.

 

We start every interview with a question about the things that inspire our guest’s creative work. Could you list a few sources of inspiration ‒ games, music, books etc. ‒ which have helped to shape your own imagination and style?

I think the answer to this question varies by project. My tendency is to immerse myself in source material that inspires me for each game… to the extent that I almost avoid reading, playing, and watching things that will take me out of the appropriate mindset. When I’m in the design phase of a project, part of my thought process is always focused on the game, and I’m often jotting down ideas all day long. Books and movies and games that evoke the right tone or mood are like fuel to keep that process going.

On Torment, the biggest influences have been the original game, which I sometimes play in brief spurts before writing dialogue or thinking about an area design, the Numenera sourcebooks and published adventures, and Gene Wolfe’s New Sun books. I find that whenever I read a chapter of those novels, it indirectly sparks a few more ideas I can use in the game.

On a more general level, I was heavily influenced by the D&D campaigns I ran every weekend from age 9 to 17, and also by the rudimentary RPGs I built for my friends with Adventure Construction Set (on the Apple IIe!). Those experiences got me thinking of storytelling as a collaborative endeavor, and watching / adapting to the responses of my players was perfect training for game design. In my younger years (the 80s – early 90s), I was inspired by Greek mythology, which I read voraciously after being awed by the original Clash of the Titans movie, as well as movies like Dune, Labyrinth, Flash Gordon, and nearly all of Terry Gilliam’s films. More recently, I’ve been inspired by many of Miyazaki’s animated films and a few anime series like Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit. On the video game side, my most significant influences were probably the Ultima series (especially 4 and 5), early open-world, player-driven games like the original Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Seven Cities of Gold, and the Infinity Engine games. Picking out specific books is difficult because I devoured so many fantasy novels as a kid, most of which… weren’t very good… and it’s hard to remember the most influential ones. Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn stands out – it had a dark and unforgiving tone that I found appealing, and it depicted “elves” in a way that I found more interesting than in Tolkien’s work. And I can’t forget to mention the Fighting Fantasy series (the four Sorcery books, Deathtrap Dungeon, and Citadel of Chaos were probably my favorites), which were dark and chaotic and imaginative – those made an impression too.

 

You mentioned once that you’d be interested in creating a hard science-fiction RPG. While Numenera can be loosely classified as such, were you ever thinking about different sci-fi settings? What themes would you like to explore?

Yes! Numenera is a lot of fun, but it’s more of a far future, science fantasy setting. I’d be interested in developing a nearer-future setting with technologies that can be realistically predicted by present-day science. I’d also want to get away from Earth – too many science fiction settings today are post-apocalyptic futures. I’d rather visit our solar system in about 300 to 500 years when humanity has expanded beyond the home planet, established dozens of semi-autonomous colonies, and begun to modify ourselves and other life forms to survive on Mars, in the clouds above Venus, and on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. I think that particular future would be a wild and chaotic place with unregulated technology of all kinds and hundreds of competing interests… which is a great, conflict-rich setup for storytelling.

Thematically, one idea that interests me is fragmentation - what will it mean for humanity to branch out into the solar system, gradually forming new societies that are separated by vast distances? The early European colonies in the Americas were founded by all sorts of different groups - what sorts of people from our present-day world would choose to leave the home planet and establish new societies throughout the solar system? How would those nascent societies evolve and grow apart? When we’re no longer stuck on the same planet together, can (and should) humanity still remain a coherent whole?

I’m also interested in the creative instinct – the human drive to change and manipulate everything around us. I think this tendency could become even more pronounced as we move into the future – for example, modifying biological life forms to serve human needs in other worlds and environments… or manipulating the intellectual capacities of other species, as in David Brin’s Uplift series… or even modifying ourselves into entirely new forms, as with the Ousters in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books. Exploring the implications of such major changes could be really interesting.

 

Most role playing games based on the popular “reactivity and choices” don’t really prove to a player that there can be “middle ground”. We’re stuck with ending each conflict either as heroes or villains. Do you have any ideas for introducing more neutrality while keeping the choices meaningful and rewarding?

One way is to create adversaries who aren’t stereotypically evil. If the player comes face-to-face with an enemy who turns out to have good reasons for what he did, it’s going to be harder for a “hero” player to slay him and happily walk away. The same goes for allies – the player’s friends need not always be helpless, virtuous peasants – they should be complicated, imperfect characters too, and if you make the wrong decisions (from their point of view), they might turn against you. Creating adversaries and allies who are multi-dimensional – not entirely good or bad, just like real people – can complicate the player’s decisions and make them feel a lot more interesting.

Sometimes the problem is the morality system that’s built into the game. For example, if your game is explicitly tracking good-evil (as in D&D) or light side-dark side (KOTOR), then you’re encouraging designers to engineer choices along the stereotypical hero-villain divide. If instead you design a morality system that focuses on a different set of distinctions (as we did with the Tides in Torment) then you’re forcing designers to think about moral choices in a different way, which will discourage hero vs. villain thinking and help avoid the classic trap.

Choices in the real world can almost never be reduced to good vs. evil, so if I’m ever stuck trying to think of a more interesting sort of choice, I usually think about conflicts I’ve witnessed, read about, or heard in the news, which can provide good inspiration. (Of course, sometimes it’s fun to give players an outrageously evil option too, even if you know most people won’t pick it – we are making video games, after all.)

 

In one of our interviews Colin McComb stated that “writing goodness without being boring is *hard*”. Would you agree on that? Do you have any thoughts on how to approach “good” themes without being too idealistic or monotonous?

I addressed this to some extent in the previous question, but I think the best way to avoid “good” options that are boring is by dropping the player into realistic situations where the morally good path is not obvious. Put complicated characters on all sides of a conflict so that the villain is not necessarily evil, and the player’s allies are not entirely good. Introduce significant negative repercussions to seemingly “good” actions. Give the player multiple, competing visions of what it is to be good in a particular situation, so that the player has to choose among them.

Writing the stereotypical version of good is nearly always boring. But writing “good” in the complicated world of real life can be much more interesting. It’s just a matter of where we, as game designers, draw our inspiration from.

 

As a designer for the upcoming Torment game, you deal with the Numenera system on a daily basis. Which elements of the Ninth World do you find the most interesting?

I love the intentional weirdness of the Ninth World. The setting actively encourages us to indulge our crazy ideas and depart from the usual fantasy conventions. We can draw upon nearly any subgenre of fantasy or science fiction, as long as it’s presented in a way that feels consistent with the rest of the world. In order to do good creative work, it helps to have a setting that feels fresh and new and lets us combine elements from a variety of sources, and the Ninth World is perfect for that. (In that sense, it reminds me of some of my other favorite settings, like Planescape and Dark Sun.)

I also love the fact that it’s a world that rewards players for making discoveries. Player-characters can fight monsters and save villages if they want, but it’s no accident that the PCs are called “explorers” instead of “adventurers.” The real objective is to discover new places, creatures, and artifacts, experiment with the numenera, and investigate ancient mysteries. The world is layered with the detritus of countless civilizations and technologies, and it’s up to the player to make sense of it as well as they can.

On a related note, I think the concept of “oddities” is great too. Instead of generic gems and jewelry, the Ninth World has these weird objects from previous worlds. They usually don’t have any practical purpose, but they can lead to a fun or bizarre interaction if the player chooses to experiment with them.

 



Toment: Tides of Numenera ‒ first glimpse at gameplay


 

There are many interesting similarities between Planescape: Torment and its spiritual successor ‒ from eternal conflicts (the Endless Battle and the Blood War) to the player’s maze, a mysterious enemy chasing the protagonist, Sigil/Bloom bizarreness etc. Can you share with us any other links to PST that we did not mention?

Sure, here are a few:

  • Uncovering the past. In our case, it’s the past of the Changing God, the other castoffs, and your companions. In PST, the Nameless One gradually learned about his own previous incarnations, the important people in his past, and the deeper stories of Morte, Dak’kon, etc.
  • Factions with competing philosophies. These played a big role in Sigil, so we wanted to be sure we had some joinable factions in our main city of Sagus Cliffs. Just as in PST, the player can try out more than one faction, but they can only be a member of a single faction at a time.
  • Solving problems through dialogue instead of combat. In this, we’re attempting to go even further than PST did. If we’re successful, your character should be able to avoid combat entirely (and not just by running past enemies), though it will be challenging to do so.
  • Death. Just like PST, death won’t end your game (most of the time). When you die, you’ll be sent to the Castoff’s Labyrinth, which will give you access to Reflections (echoes of people your character knows in the “real world”) and Fathoms (strange places to explore in the depths of your own mind). In some cases, dying may provide access to “real world” content you wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

 

When you employ such links 15 years after the original game’s release, does it feel like re-telling certain elements of PST in an updated, perhaps more mature way? Is it a way to explore some areas which may not have been given enough spotlight in the first game? Or are those similarities simply a “wink” to the players familiar with the original?

All of the above. I think PST was a pretty mature game, but we are certainly exploring some elements in our own way and taking them in a somewhat different direction that resonates better with our team. Our themes, in particular, feel like they’re coming from a more mature and experienced point of view, probably because the average age of our team is greater than it was for PST. (Colin has mentioned a few times that mortality and legacy resonate more strongly to him now than they did when he was in his 20s.)

We’re also attempting to take some concepts from PST even farther than the original game did. For example, PST broke the rule that death is a bad thing and requires the player to reload. We’re applying that concept more broadly to other sorts of “failure.”

Thus, failing at Difficult Tasks or being defeated in combat won’t always mean you have to try it again. Sometimes failure will have interesting consequences that will change your experience but won’t block you from proceeding. In fact, you may discover that you actually prefer the outcome of a failure state – it may not be exactly what you wanted when you attempted a task, but you may find it to be more interesting.

 

Like its predecessor, TTON will feature mature themes, such as one’s legacy. Are you planning to explore some other themes connected to the nature and state of humanity (such as indifference, struggle for power, slavery, poverty or addiction)? Do such themes prove to be still valid in a world set a billion years in the future? Should we prepare for new major issues which may seem alien to our contemporary mentalities?

In addition to legacy, we’ll be exploring the theme of abandonment, which resonates strongly in the Numenera world (where the remnants of countless civilizations have been abandoned and forgotten over the millennia) and in the player’s story (where you and your siblings have been abandoned by your sire, the Changing God). You’ll encounter many other instances of this theme throughout the game.

Likewise, slavery, poverty, and addiction all appear in the Ninth World, and you’ll encounter them in TTON too. We’re not avoiding dark thematic content, though we never tell the player what to think about these issues, and you can react to them in a variety of ways.

For the most part, I think these themes are universal human issues – they’re as valid today as they were in ancient times, and they’ll probably be just as valid  in the far future. How they are expressed will differ, though, based on changes in technology and culture… and that’s what you’ll see in TTON. The themes will be recognizable, but in many cases, their specific manifestations will be unique to the Ninth World and the player’s unusual narrative.

I can’t think of any themes that will be entirely alien to the contemporary audience… but that’s mostly intentional. We want the Ninth World to be fun and weird, but we also want our players to identify and sympathize with the characters in the game.

 

Do you know if there’s any chance that Torment or Pillars could feature ambitious, morally ambiguous and existential dialogues like this? In other words, to what extent will the character’s intelligence level affect their dialogue options?

In Torment, the player’s Intellect pool won’t affect their response options. Partly that’s because of the nature of the Numenera ruleset – the player’s Intellect pool represents a lot more than just intelligence (it also represents willpower, wisdom, charm, likability) and it rises and falls as the player uses skills and is damaged in certain combat situations. Some response options will be based on the player’s lore skills, though.

As far as I know, Pillars isn’t going to have special response options for “dumb” characters either.

 

You have been a Pillars of Eternity stretch goal ‒ however, we feel you haven’t had too many chances to introduce your work on the project. We remember you writing interesting stuff about Woedica, one of Eora’s deities. Could you elaborate a bit on your work on PoE?

I was involved in the early narrative and world-building work on PoE, when the team only consisted of Josh and a few other people. It was a fun phase of the project – I love world-building, and Eora (which didn’t even have a name at the time) was almost a blank slate, except for the player races, the map, the focus on souls, and a few lore elements that Josh wrote during the Kickstarter campaign.

First I came up with a bunch of deities, which made good sense to me as an initial step. (It seems like a society would use gods to represent things that are important to them, so defining the deities was a good way to get to know the people of the Dyrwood and their neighbors.) Then I wrote a lot of lore about cities, dungeons, prominent people, organizations, and important places in the region, including a detailed breakdown of Defiance Bay. I think the team has expanded the city a lot since I worked on it, but some of my neighborhoods are still present (e.g., Brackenbury, Ondra’s Gift), and it sounds like they’ve retained some of the other lore too.

In appx. March of 2013, when more people started to roll onto the project, a number of us (Josh, Chris Avellone, Eric Fenstermaker, Jorge Salgado, me) wrote up ideas for a main storyline. Then Eric and I spent a couple weeks on Skype (he was in California, I was in Ohio) synthesizing many of those ideas into an initial draft. During that time, I also assisted with some writing on their vertical slice (Dyrford), though I don’t know if any of my dialogue is still in the game.

Around May of 2013, I shifted my focus over to Torment during a lull in my PoE work, but my role on Torment quickly expanded, and InXile ultimately offered me a full-time position. That turned out to be a good fit – the only downside is that I never had a chance to do any additional work on PoE.

 

The plot of Mask of the Betrayer focuses on the Wall of the Faithless, a controversial and rather grim concept. At one stage of the game, we get to visit the remains of the dead God of Death. As for the characters themselves, they represent extremely differentiated views in matters of faith. What inspired you to take on such ambitious and original themes?

At the time, I didn’t really think of our content in those terms… they were just elements that I found personally interesting.

When Chris Avellone offered me the role of Creative Lead on the expansion, I had a lot of flexibility as to what the story could be about and where in the Realms we could go. I also had a few months (while NWN2 finished up) to brainstorm, so I read all the Forgotten Realms material I could get my hands on. The elements that stood out were things like the Wall of the Faithless and the afterlife, the dream-theft of night hags, the spirits and witches of Rashemen, the nature of Faerun’s gods, and the idea of “death” for a god. The Wall of the Faithless was definitely my favorite, and I wanted it to play a central role, but I set out to craft a story that united all the elements I liked. The themes arose naturally from the narrative, and I didn’t know what the game would be about, from a thematic perspective, until I had a solid draft of the story and main characters.

In retrospect, I’ve always found religion and mythology to be interesting topics, so it’s probably no accident that MotB’s themes veered in that direction.

 

Psychological depth and originality of the characters of Mask of the Betrayer really attract attention. One of Many, composed of mass consciousness of all sorts of criminals, and Okku the Bear God are especially unusual companions. How did you come up with such vivid characters?

On Mask, my goal was to make the companions feel unusual and different, partly to reinforce the player’s impression of being a stranger in a strange land. Okku was mostly inspired by the giant animal gods in Princess Mononoke. When I first saw that movie in the early 2000s, I wanted to *be* one of those guys in a game… or failing that, I wanted to travel with one. I also loved the idea of a companion with the truly massive, overwhelming physical strength of a bear. So Okku was one of the first companion concepts I developed (right after Safiya, who arose naturally from the main narrative).

One of Many was the last companion to be fully developed. When I was conceptualizing the companions, I knew I wanted some sort of undead companion that players could somehow shape themselves. (I think that idea arose indirectly from some characters I wrote on NWN2 – the Silken Sisters, whose souls had been smashed together by the King of Shadows.) But beyond that, I didn’t know what this undead companion would be. The idea of him being an amalgam of murdered criminals and psychopaths came later, when I was finalizing the main story draft and needed more details about the companions. It seemed like a recipe for the most evil and psychologically disturbed companion I could imagine… which was perfect for that character. But I didn’t know exactly how the player would create One of Many until I started designing the Death God’s Vault.

(Side note: One of Many’s name was suggested by Tony Evans, who ultimately wrote the character’s excellent dialogue.)

 


Mask of the Betrayer spoilers


You supposedly managed to include Kaelyn as a companion at the last moment. Did you have to give up completely on introducing certain story arcs?

Not really. Most of our planned content for Mask got into the game, and the things that were cut generally made the game stronger. For example, we originally had another whole module that took place on Myrkul’s floating “island” in the Astral Plane, but we cut it down to a single scene, which worked a lot better for pacing.

We did cut a planned romance with Kaelyn. That made me a little sad, but she’s still my favorite MotB companion, and having no romance with her makes sense for the character.

We also did a poor (i.e., rushed) job of concluding Kaelyn’s arc if you chose to fight against her in the City of Judgment. In that case, her grandfather is supposed to appear to save her, and the player can either allow him to take her away or try to kill him. Originally, all four of her siblings were also meant to be there, but we weren’t able to get them all in. The player would have a chance to kill all of them in front of Kaelyn (and then leave her for the demons or just kill her) – a really horrible ending for her, but appropriate for evil PCs. Avellone wrote a great scene with her grandfather, and I think it plays sometimes, but the game scripting is buggy and the scene doesn’t always get triggered.

(The same thing happened with Kazimika the witch, who is supposed to ambush you outside Mulsantir if you devour the Wood Man, giving players who hated her the chance to exact revenge. I don’t think that was fully implemented, but I’m pretty sure the dialogue exists.)


End of spoilers


 

There is an ongoing discussion whether or not games should (can?) be considered to be works of art. If the artist of the past heard of a tool that would let them connect theatre, music, literature and make the spectator live and breathe in their interactive world, they’d consider it a gift from the heavens. What is your personal opinion on this matter?

Games can absolutely be works of art… but most of them are not. For a game to be a work of art, I think it needs a unified vision that is reinforced by every element (gameplay, story, level design, music, art, etc.). When so many disciplines are involved in building a game, it’s incredibly difficult to achieve that level of synchrony – on big projects with enormous teams, I’d say it’s virtually impossible. Smaller games with a strong central vision are more likely to succeed as works of art, in my opinion – with a smaller team, there’s a better chance that all the team members will understand the artistic vision and work toward it. So I’d say that we’re more likely to find “games as art” amongst indie titles.

Probably the “biggest” game that I’d consider a work of art is Planescape: Torment. The most recent game I played that I’d classify as a work of art is To The Moon. I’m sure there are others, but I don’t get to play as many indie games as I’d like.

 

Do you often read reviews of the games that you work on? If so, what has been the toughest criticism you faced? Do you regret any choices or design decisions you had made in the past?

Yes, I always read reviews – both official reviews and user reviews are interesting and instructive. Even the angriest rants have some nuggets of truth at their core, and a game developer can learn a lot from them. Possibly the most valuable lesson is in seeing which elements of a game garner the most passion from fans – sometimes those elements are not the ones we assumed would be most important.

I don’t have many regrets about specific design decisions on other projects, especially if they were made for good reasons at the time and I learned something from them. In the case of Dungeon Siege, I think my biggest regret was not pushing harder against some of the narrative goals and constraints that I didn’t agree with… and which ultimately led to a bland experience, in my opinion.The toughest criticism I’ve faced was on Dungeon Siege 3, which wasn’t as successful as we’d hoped. Many players found the narrative (which was my focus as Creative Lead) to be a disappointment. Even though I knew why the narrative didn’t meet these players’ expectations, and I agreed with most of the criticisms, it was disappointing to have spent two years on a project that didn’t excite our fans.

 


Throne of Bhall, MotB and New Vegas spoilers


What are your favourite gaming moments, story-wise? (We’ll warn about spoilers, so feel free to mention anything that comes to mind.)

My favorite moments are almost always the ones when I get to make interesting decisions. These aren’t even confined to RPGs. A really old-school example is an Interplay game, Castles, that occasionally confronted the player with decisions to make as a ruler. The consequences were not always monumental – sometimes I’d get more of a resource, sometimes I’d get an extra knight in my army – but the decisions themselves were excellent for immersion. Like real-world choices, they weren’t structured around abstract notions of good or evil, and they were effective in making me *feel* like I was playing the role of a medieval king.

I’m also a fan of decision moments when the player gets to do something that’s completely unexpected and surprising. (Oftentimes these are “evil” options, like the bad ending for Kaelyn in MotB, but not always.) One example is from KOTOR, when a dark-side player can command the wookiee companion, Zaalbar, to kill his best friend Mission Vao… and the wookiee actually does it. It’s a really dark option that surprised me when I saw it.

A few other moments that I’ve enjoyed…

  • All the interactions with Deionarra in Planescape: Torment (tragic characters are my favorite), including her great sensory stone dialogue.
  • The ending of BG2: Throne of Bhaal, where I can choose to embrace my heritage and become a god (and leave behind my companions and love interest) or remain a mortal ‒ a satisfying capstone to the whole experience of that series.
  • The ending of To The Moon was fantastic – not especially reactive to player actions, but emotionally one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen in a game.
  • Any moment that makes me truly hate an antagonist, like the moment in Lonesome Road (Fallout New Vegas DLC) when Ulysses steals the robot companion I’ve come to like and rely upon.
  • Any interesting or dramatic opening to a game, like the plane crash in Bioshock. I thought the opening “growing up” sequence of Fallout 3 was clever, too.

End of spoilers


 

Thank you for your time and effort, George. This year might bring some memories back with both Torment and Pillars hitting the shelves (well, hopefully). We sincerely wish you to keep up the good work and remain creative.