Obsidian Entertainment is a revered name in the RPG space, with a legacy that includes plenty of acclaim. Its latest title, Avowed, has been in development for several years now, with multiple teasers and trailers painting a multi-faceted picture of fantasy adventuring, swashbuckling combat and an intriguing, choice-based narrative. For game director Carrie Patel and gameplay director Gabe Paramo, the excitement and pressure around the game is motivational – incentive to push their creativity forward, and ensure Avowed arrives imbued with Obsidian’s magic.
“You love to see people excited for the thing you’re making, excited for the thing that you’ve probably been thinking very quietly [about] for several years,” Patel told GamesHub.
“Certainly you do want to make sure you’re living up to those expectations, and also setting them appropriately. It’s definitely been very exciting for the team to see the wonderful response to things like [the] key art, environments, and even the approach we’re taking to combat.”
Fresh blood in the mix
In speaking of Obsidian, the studio often becomes abstracted. Conversations revolve around legacy, or individual video games. But no studio is a solo entity, and it’s with the experiences of many voices that Avowed is coming together, both industry veterans and new voices alike. It’s only in this mix that Obsidian is able to harness fresh ideas, and continue to innovate within the RPG space.
“It’s definitely a mix of experience levels and a mix of Obsidian veterans and fresh blood, which we love to get as well,” Patel explained. “One of the wonderful things about working at a mid-sized studio like Obsidian on projects, the sort of scale and scope we tend to tackle, is that there’s a great balance of ambition.
“We can take big swings, make exactly the kinds of games that we also love to play as gamers. Even someone who’s relatively new to the industry, maybe someone who’s having their first job with us or making their first Obsidian game can tackle some pretty impactful content – whether it’s writing a companion, designing a pretty key dungeon, or getting some leeway to go wild with a pretty big quest.”
As Patel describes, one of the major locations in the game, The Leviathan Hollow, was designed by Tyler McCombs, who’s making his first game with Obsidian Entertainment. With the support of the wider Obsidian team, he was able to “go a little bigger with the space that had been originally designed to be smaller” and significantly expand his ambitions.
Working to foster and guide newer talent like McCombs is a range of Obsidian veterans, many of whom worked on projects including Pillars of Eternity and The Outer Worlds, both of which feature choice-based narratives and deep combat systems. It’s from these games that Avowed is taking its shape.
Learning from the past
“RPGs are definitely in our DNA,” Patel said. “Pillars of Eternity was a long-standing franchise for us, that we had a lot of experience with, and many of us on the [Avowed] team – myself included – worked on the original games in that series.”
“Particularly after shipping The Outer Worlds, shipping another first-person action RPG that we built in Unreal, I think that gave us a good model for translating this style of gameplay … It was wonderful to return to this world fresh, with a lot of the lessons we learned from The Outer Worlds.”
Avowed was inspired by all the facets of Obsidian – its history with action RPGs, lessons learned from the past, as well as younger ideas. Paramo told GamesHub that Avowed felt like a “natural progression” for the studio, as it built on what came before with the aim of heightened immersion, greater choice, and more opportunity for exploration.
It was also a chance to analyse the wider history of the fantasy genre and its depiction in video games. In the creation of Avowed, the Obsidian Entertainment team initially studied The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a touchpoint, before pursuing their own ideals.
“It’s impossible – at some point – if you’re building a first-person fantasy-action RPG to avoid that comparison, because it just looms so large,” Patel said. “But for us, I think where we really do our best work as content designers is around a really curated experience that’s more focused on tighter region design, and very intentional placement and escalation of the player experience across those regions.”
Patel also spoke to intentional narrative design as a means to escalate the player’s experience and their immersion in the narrative, and spoke of the importance of choice in allowing a game’s world to feel alive. After working on games like Pillars of Eternity and The Outer Worlds, the importance of that choice was clearer.
Choice and consequences
“[To effectively integrate choice], it comes down to a few things,” Patel explained. “There’s understanding the different domino effects, and [how] particular spots in the content are guaranteed – these particular moments are on the ‘crit’ path, and the player will have to move through them at some point.”
“You can find the little points … that point to, or foreshow, or that seem like they might have an impact on those decisions that you’re going to come across later … One thing we’ve definitely had success with is looking for those connections, seeing where the natural inflection points [are] between the content that we’re creating… and I think there’s also something to be said for framing these key moments in the crit path around the player, and leaving the interpretation up to them.”
That level of expression is designed into the heart of Avowed, with choice laced into the overarching narrative and exploration, but also into combat – which takes cues from The Outer Worlds and other first-person games from Obsidian.
“For combat, we tried to focus on flexibility, to empower the player with a lot of choice,” Paramo said. “We have a dual wielding system, the ability to put weapons in your off-hand and your primary hand … Avowed is a classless game, so you’re not committed to a class at the start of the game. You’re able to take abilities that are from Pillars, classes that people might be familiar with, but [you’re] able to configure [your] character in the way [you] want.”
As Paramo and Patel made clear in conversation, Avowed is a game built on firm, familiar ground, but ground rich with new, more ambitious ideas. With Pillars of Eternity and The Outer Worlds shaping the studio’s approach, and fresh voices contributing to its creation, it set to arrive as a unique fantasy adventure inspired by Obsidian’s past and future.
“We want [Avowed] to take the spirit and the colour and the chaos that [Pillars of Eternity] promised and build a really interesting experience out of it,” Patel said. “The finish line is in sight, and [we’re] just trying to make Avowed as wonderful, as polished, as strong we possible can with the time remaining to us.”
We’ll learn more about Avowed and its multi-faceted ambitions in the coming months. It’s currently set to launch for Xbox Series X/S and PC later in 2024.