Pillars of Eternity: Be Careful What You Promise

Posted by The Architect on May - 24 - 2015











(Warning: massive spoilers ahead.)




If you’ve been playing Pillars, you will (eventually?) recognize the above picture as a shot of the final battle in the game, which is pretty easy if you have two wizards casting Gaze of Adragan and somewhat challenging if you don’t. (I had, and I’ve been too lazy to try it out otherwise.)

People have started discussions at many places throughout the web about various aspects of the story, mostly the final revelations about the “gods” and the companion sidequests. The respective threads in Obsidian’s own Pillars forums have seen just about every argument one could think of, so I’ll only touch those matters shortly: First, the fact that the discussion about the deities can be as open-ended as it is shows Obsidian has done quite the job there, in my opinion; and no matter how the populace stands to the gods in the end, they should at least question the reasons they are following them. This also means that there is no excuse anymore to just blindly following their teachings, thereby “delegating” moral responsibility. No easy answers here.

In the same vein, none of the companions really get satisfying answers to their questions at the end of their storylines, and their final fate depends in no small part on how you help them find their own conclusions. Again, there are no easy answers; if there’s a lesson, it’s that you have to find your own way how to deal with such situations. In a certain sense, it’s very “grown-up” storytelling in contrast to the fairy-tale “hero kills evil wizard and marries princess” plots with definite solutions that have defined fantasy storytelling for long.

But then, that’s not the point of this post. When I had come to the end, I was certain to have explored just about every gameplay possibility there was, from the lowliest side quest to building up Caed Nua to the full extent and, of course, dealing with the Adra Dragon. My gripes were not with the story, but rather with the gameplay promises Obsidian had made throughout the game, but failed to keep. Of course, that’s in no small part because they aimed pretty high… but let’s see, in no particular order:

Promise: You can take prisoners once you have built a dungeon in Caed Nua.

Disappointment: So can I interrogate them? Turn them to my side? Extract information that helps me on my quest? Nope. If I’m lucky, I can sell them for a handful of copper to wandering alchemists.

Promise: You can also set up shops in Caed Nua.

Disappointment: The stuff they offer is pretty low level. Even Might & Magic IV from 1993 did this better – your fortress Newcastle at least had the best trainer and the best weaponsmith of the game world once it was complete! I had hopes that things might improve with the growing fame of my castle (improved by other buildings), but it didn’t. Oh, and the Caed Nua merchants still greet you with “Hello, stranger”. I beg your pardon?

Promise: Oh, while we are at it… “The library of Caed Nua holds countless volumes of ancient knowledge.”

Disappointment: Even after restoring the library, the only books I can find there are those I have collected by myself.

Promise: You can craft just about anything with the right ingredients, even further enchanting enchanted items.

Disappointment: As all items have the same enchantment threshold, finding enchanted items, even quest rewards with lots of in-game lore, very often makes no difference.

Promise: Then there’s the reputation system. My previous behavior – cruel to benevolent – will affect how characters in the game world will perceive me.

Disappointment: Well, the various reputations only come into play two-thirds into the game, and even then only sparingly. The example from last post – where I could avoid a fight and take a prisoner using my reputation – was one of few high points. There were no quest/location unlocks, price reductions (as far as I could notice), which are otherwise staples in similar situations. My character stats, especially Resolve (so much for balancing), were far more important.

Promise: You will regularly happen upon scripted interactions, where your character skills will influence the success of your decisions.

Disappointment: There are too few of those interactions, and my inventory (especiall the tools, i.e. rope and hook, hammer…) was more important than my skills. I wonder why they didn’t include any as small random events when travelling between regions? Would have added a lot of color to the countryside and given numerous of options for using the various skills.

Promise: The “Expedition Hall” in Copperlane offers expedition quests for experienced heroes.

Disappointment: Or maybe not. “Expedition” sounds like risky exploration of a far-away location. The actual role of the hall in the game is to serve as a contact point for the Dozens faction, so the (few) quests are more political in nature.

And finally… well, this one’s about the story yet:

Promise: Original background, spirit storms, rocks of a magical mineral, hollowborn children, ancient machines that seem to manipulate souls, shadows of previous lives, answers that spawn even more questions…

Disappointment: …the overall plot is “high inquisitor collects souls for his evil goddess”? Hrm. That could have been done without any of those other elements, which renders the premise a little moot. A little more Numenera would have served well here.


Now if that seems like complaining on a really high level, that’s because it is. But my point is actually something else. All of those “disappointments” ultimately have the same source – Obsidian set my imagination on fire, but then let it burn down without adding further fuel. And in many cases, it would have been easy to do so! I think it’s important to harness the power of imagination. In this case, it’s not about fleshing out the immediate perception of the game world, but rather about making the player imagine what might be out there, which can greatly enhance the enjoyment of exploring a world – but only if these promises to the imagination are sometimes fulfilled.

I won’t deny this is a tricky and sometimes difficult thing to do, if only because you obviously do not have absolute control about players’ imagination. The game as a whole might serve as a fine example here – some people imagined that Pillars would be a reborn Baldur’s Gate II, as Obsidian had promised (ha!) that their game would be designed with especially this classic in mind. However, if you keep in mind that Pillars would have to start with characters at experience level one, aka “here’s that cellar full of rats”, there was pretty much no way it could be a modern version of Shadows of Amn, since much of that title’s content depended on the party being quite powerful already, being able to deal with dragons, liches, mindflayers, believably survive a trip through a city of drow, not to mention to fight for the Throne of Bhaal itself – all those epic things you just can’t reasonably expect from a fresh party.

So, I’m pretty certain that Pillars is actually Obsidian’s promise that its successor will be to Baldur’s Gate II what it itself is to Baldur’s Gate. I hope they will deliver – oh, and cut the loading times while they’re at it. Please?


Categories: Allgemein

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