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We Spoke To Obsidian About Avowed, Internet Reactions, And A Surprise Sci-Fi Inspiration

Avowed directors Carrie Patel and Gabe Paramo open up about the game’s development.

Avowed has a lot of eyes on it. The latest fantasy-action RPG from legendary studio Obsidian Entertainment, the first-person adventure had barely a 90 second reveal trailer to its name before the Skyrim comparisons started flowing. This was in some way inevitable given the eternal dance between Obsidian and Bethesda Softworks, the two studios having circled each other in the zeitgeist thanks to the duology that was Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas. Each studio’s ravenous fanbases celebrating, or decrying, one approach or the other. The grand irony of course is that both developers would wind up umbrellaed by Microsoft in the coming years after its extensive acquisition sweep through the industry. This, in turn, brought even more pressure to Avowed, the latest game (after the likes of Redfall and Starfield) to be saddled with the expectation of being the one to define Xbox’s seventh console generation.

All of this before Obsidian even begins to consider how its die-hard fanbase will react to the studio’s return to fantasy and to a pre-existing IP, Pillars of Eternity. When I asked Avowed’s game director Carrie Patel about how it felt to be marching back into the Living Lands with decades of player expectations at their back. “It’s very exciting,” Patel says, “I worked on the first two Pillars games and the DLCs… Pillars 1 was actually my first game with Obsidian! So it definitely feels really special to be returning here, taking a slightly different approach to combat and gameplay and I think building an experience that’s going to welcome in a lot of new players.”

As we unpack the strange balancing act of emotions working within a studio as storied as Obsidian brings with it, Patel reflects on the simultaneous pressure and comfort such history brings. “I mean, honestly, it’s a bit of both. It is so heartening to know that we have people who love our games, are familiar with them, and are always interested and ready to check out what we’re doing next. But obviously you want to make sure that you’re delivering on those expectations. But it’s definitely been gratifying to see with games like Grounded and Pentiment, where we’ve done something that’s a little bit outside of our normal mould, to see those games still finding their audience, finding a lot of love, even again, when they’re doing something that is not in the same vein of RPGS that we’re necessarily known for.”

Both Grounded and Pentiment, two smaller-scale releases from Obsidian since its time with Xbox, have been met with critical acclaim and a fairly positive audience reaction. Patel is right of course, neither are what you would consider typical Obsidian outings, one being a co-op survival experience and the other… well, I’m still not sure how one describes the brilliance of Pentiment. But Avowed Gameplay Director Gabe Paramo talks about how, while different, these games kept the Obsidian spirit alive. “Our mantra is kind of ‘Your world, Your way.’ Even though they seem very different, their core is Your World, Your Way. So even though they might feel to the players ‘experimental’, they are still not far off from where we’re trying to have that nugget of giving the player the freedom and choice to kind of play the game and do the things they want to do, just maybe in slightly different contexts.”

Obsidian fans who have been craving a more recognisable experience from the studio don’t have much longer to wait though as Patel explains how Avowed’s storytelling and quest design stems from the studio’s lauded narrative skills. “Players who are familiar with our RPGs will feel right at home in Avowed and in its quest structure and the cast of characters we’re creating,” she says, “Quests are primarily how we reveal the world to the player, how we immerse them in the themes and the conflicts and the personalities and factions that play in the world. And that’s exactly what we’re doing with Avowed as well. We’re not pursuing the structure of having factions where you have sort of tracked and metered formal relationships with them like we did in, you know, New Vegas. This is kind of a more organic approach to choice and consequences and letting the player set their alliances, make their decisions, sort of push the world in one way or another as they go through and see those consequences play out in their interactions with other characters further on down the line.”

Paramo chimes in as we discuss the shift to first-person magical combat and how Avowed’s take on it came to be. “The challenges with first-person, and again, because it’s a fantasy action RPG, we really wanted to focus on that momentum and trying to make sure that we’re not slowing the player down, making sure they’re feeling kinetic, immersive,” he says, thinking on how this differs from previous Obsidian titles, “So I think on kind of a top down perspective, you get a little bit of a higher view, whereas you’re now embodying the character. And so the animation requirements and then as well as the dual wielding system, you can put something in your offhand, in your primary hand, and trying to kick up the fidelity a bit, but while trying to just make the player feel, again, immersive but also flexible.”

Avowed’s marketing kicked into high gear just weeks ago at the Xbox Developer Direct event, a showcase of upcoming titles for the system that gave us our first extended look at the world and systems of Avowed. The reaction was largely positive, though some viewers found themselves wary of the first-person combat, but for veterans like Paramo, this has become somewhat old hat. Toward the end of our chat we were openly discussing how development had been tracking with Avowed and Paramo opened up about how it felt on his side of the fence to see the internet talk about the project.

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“You’re going to get feedback on a lot of things, right? The gameplay that we showed was alpha. We’ve shown gameplay in the past where you’ve also gotten comments and then you’ve gotten the new comments that are like, wow, that looks better than what the previous one,” he explains, “So anything that we can do to just keep showing these incremental improvements to the player, I think is all positive. Whether or not the feedback might come back as maybe not so positive. But it’s just to say that even the pieces of feedback that we’ve gotten on the internet already, like through forum posts, we’ve already been addressing those things and we’re going to continue to improve those things between now and when we release. So again, it’s exciting. We’re happy to show it again. The more the player can kind of see the game in the current state and then see that there’s been changes is, to me, always a positive thing.”

Patel agrees, “One thing that we don’t always get to talk about and show as much love and appreciation for is just how much iterative work goes into a game and how much of the team’s process is trying something, finding the fun, and then building more and more on that. I was actually really pleased to get to talk about this a little bit in the Xbox podcast segment on Monday. But the dungeon that you see, the little adventure space, the grotto that Tyler McCombs built out and that Peter Wayne and Seth May did the interior and exterior art for, was originally a much smaller space.

“And every once in a while, you end up in that wonderful situation as a dev, where you actually are a little bit ahead of something and you have a little more time than you thought. Usually it’s the opposite, and all three of those guys had been super on the ball. With the work they were doing… And so I think a lot of times it’s easy to sort of see pre-production and then see the end product and everything in between is just sort of this steady path up. But I think what gets lost and what’s hard to see if you’re not in the process is just the trial and error and the lessons you’re learning and the way you’re building on what you’ve done before and just how much progress comes from that process, even though it’s certainly a lot of work in the moment.”

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Sitting (even virtually) across from Patel and Paramo as they unpack these thoughts, the energy in the room tangibly changes. Launching a new game must be a complicated thrill of feelings, and while our brief discussions of the game’s size (think The Outer Worlds) and immersive-sim-light elements (players can use elemental magic to change the landscape and access new areas) were certainly enjoyable, it’s the look at the studio and its emotional makeup that brings the three of us to life. Likewise, as Patel and I unpack the thematic elements of Avowed, a surprising connection is formed.

“I think that’s something that we’ll get into probably in a few months when we get closer to talking a bit more about the story. But I mean, being said, in the Living Lands, there’s definitely a theme of exploration and discovery. You’re coming to understand this very big, mysterious, dangerous land, and also, as the player character, some very important things about yourself…there is a mix of conflicts and challenges that you’re going to face that are both enmeshed in the political world and the different factions of characters you’ll meet, but also in the metaphysical world, in the realm of the divine.”

This is my shot, and I’m glad I take it. As part of the Developer Direct marketing blast for Avowed, the game’s key art was unleashed upon the world. The art is a stunning work depicting a skeletal warrior with sword in hand, its flesh and internal systems exposed as creeping, fantastical vines, coral, and other naturally forming substances. It’s striking, evocative, and immediately reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel Annihilation (the Alex Garland film adaptation is equally brilliant). In Annihilation, a strange metaphysical occurrence engulfs a portion of the United States, warping anything trapped in its boundaries at a horrific, but beautiful, cellular level.

Given that Avowed’s plot synopsis hints at a strange virus running rampant through the lands, I had to know if I was reading too much into things or not. “So again, without getting into story details, I will say you are not reading too much into things!” Patel practically beams at me, “I am so glad you’ve made that connection. I had perhaps heard that that one was a little too esoteric.”

It is the single most exciting thing I personally could have heard about Avowed, and it skyrockets the game up my list of things to look forward to in 2024.

Avowed is slated to launch on Xbox Series X|S and PC in 2024.