Degrees of Separation: an interview with Chris Avellone

Degrees of Separation grabs you by the eyeballs. With its marionette-style animation, reminiscent of one Earnest Evans on the Mega Drive, it’s immediately different.

The visuals on this page pop; they’re gorgeous. It’s alluring – beguiling, even. Norwegian studio Moondrop has done a great job of making something that does the hard work of standing out in a crowded market, and that’s a talent that hasn’t come on suddenly.

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The dichotomy of hot and cold plays a central role

See, Moondrop has been making steady progress over the past decade, releasing a couple of pretty-looking puzzle titles, each to a positive reception. Kesper’s Keep was a browser-based puzzle-platformer released in 2011, involving smart use of light and colour in its brainteasers.

Amphora saw the studio make its way into the big leagues of Steam, and the physics-based puzzler – the gorgeous physics-based puzzler – went down well with the limited audience it was exposed to.

This time, though, Degrees of Separation is gunning for the attention of far more – it wants a bigger audience, and it has already snagged a name to add credence (and quality prose) to the game’s story: Chris Avellone.

The freelance narrative designer/writer made his name on the likes of Fallout, Planescape: Torment and other classic story-heavy CRPGs. As such, the move to a less narratively-focused title was a surprising one – but it hasn’t impacted Avellone’s ability to put together a compelling tale.

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It’s a gorgeous game to look at

“From the perspective of constructing a game narrative,” he explains, “rather than adopting a linear structure, sometimes presenting story elements that reflect the player’s own pace and approach to each challenge, and also reflecting what world/area/region the player selects to explore, is more in keeping with what makes a game a game – in these instances, you’re not dictating the narrative, you’re supporting the player’s journey, and Degrees is very much that type of game.”

Degrees of Separation tells the tale of two characters, Ember and Rime, whose love for each other compels the two of them to overcome an enforced separation by harnessing each soul’s powers of heat and cold.

“I hadn’t tried my hand at writing romance and relationships in games before – or at least not to this extent,” Avellone explains. “I wanted to try it because I felt it would be a challenge – but as it turns out, Degrees provided something even more: it not only had a romantic component but a romantic component that was being presented in a mature fashion.

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Each character has their own world to travel through

“It wasn’t simply infatuation and elation and happily-ever-after and all the upsides of a relationship. Moondrop went further and presented a relationship arc that included many of the challenges we all face in relationships – conflict, uncertainty, hesitation, doubt – and Moondrop’s desire to include those elements in both the narrative and gameplay arcs felt very honest to me.”

Of course, this being a puzzle-platformer, it is something more focused on the actual game people play rather than the tale being told, but that story pushes things along and frames it in an emotional context most might not have otherwise expected.

When you’re solving puzzles because they’re there, that’s one thing; but when you solve them to drive forward a narrative you’re honestly invested in, it becomes a whole other… well, story. Just take a look at Braid, for example.

“When there’s a clear correlation between the narrative and the game mechanics, that’s something I think makes any game storyline stronger versus being divorced from the mechanics,” agrees Avellone. “In Degrees, the game mechanics mirror the emotional challenges Rime and Ember are facing, and both the game and the story are better for it.”

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The writer’s involvement in the creative process amounted to – you may be surprised to hear – writing. However, that’s not because Avellone is a man lacking in opinions or drive to help make a project better if he can – it’s just because the developers did what Avellone sees as impressive heavy lifting: “I didn’t provide input into the game design itself,” he says. “Moondrop did the system and level design and I never felt the need to interject as the design of the title was clear from the outset.

“I don’t think I ever had a single ‘gameplay mechanic’ comment on the title. And seeing the systems and levels laid out and being able to play through them allowed me to focus on a narrative structure that reinforced the game’s mechanics and level design.”

It may be a move that surprised those who have followed his career over the years, with an arguably darker, certainly more ‘traditional’ background to Avellone’s titles. But he doesn’t think the bright colours and bright fantasy of Degrees in any way holds it back: “Degrees is not a fairy tale,” he says.

“It asks deeper questions about relationships and the spectrum of emotions relationships can go through, and not all of them are positive, which feels honest. And in being honest… that’s a positive thing.”

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