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Mega-Impressions: Obsidian's Pillars Of Eternity

Project Eternity No More

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It’s official! Project Eternity finally has a real big boy name: Pillars of Eternity. On its own, that’s hardly the most exciting news in the world, but it also means that Obsidian is finally ready to take the wraps off more than, like, three screenshots and precious little else. I had the good fortune of traveling to Obsidian to witness plenty of gameplay and conduct multiple eternities-long interviews, and The Artist Formerly Known As Black Isle sent me away with some video to boot. See, hear, read, and – I guess if you want – taste and touch so very, very, very much of the newly rechristened Kickstarter darling below.

I get the feeling that everyone at Pillars of Eternity developer Obsidian is very, very busy. I walk through the gently sunlit office, which is made up of wooden floors and – naturally – copious black surfaces, conducted by the melodious hum of tens of purring computers.

And pretty much nothing else.

It is eerily silent. Everyone’s cracking away on various projects, not a moment to lose. Time, even when you’re dealing with something titled Eternity, is of the essence.

There’s much to be done. It’s nearly time for the Big Update. Everything must be perfect. And what exactly is the Big Update? Well, in part, you’re looking at it. The first real trailer. A new backer website. Press impressions. And, of course, a shiny new name. Project Eternity, after all, sounded so clinical, so tentative, so stitched together on a dingy laboratory gurney by a haggard Chris Avellone screaming, “It lives! It liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiives!” Pillars of Eternity, however, is much more fittingly fantastical. But of course, there’s more to it than that. Project director Josh Sawyer, tattooed forearms resplendent in their natural habitat (a shirt with the sleeves pulled up just so), explains:

“It ties into something players will see a lot in the game, even very early on, which are these pillars that are spread all over the wilderness of the Dyrwood, which is the area that they first come into, and also Eir Glanfath, which is the more wilderness-y area of the game. As for why it’s Pillars of Eternity, that’s kind of more of a plot-connected thing. It ties into the specific story, but also how the world works in general. The meaning of it will become clear as people play the game.”

Vague! Mysterious! Arguably insubstantial! But that’s just the beginning…

A Whole New World

Pillars of Eternity might be a spiritual successor to Black Isle classics like Baldur’s Gate, but its fantasy realm is cut from a cloth all its own. At the heart of it all is the concept of souls. In Eternity, everything has a soul, and people are starting to figure out how to control them. A potent ability? You bet, but also one with cavernous room for catastrophic consequences. Sawyer and co describe it as “the beginning of a golden age,” but it’s not all roses, dandelions, and dandy lions. Discovery begets questions – both of scientific fact and of human nature. What’s ethical? Where do we draw lines? Are we toying with forces far bigger than ourselves, tickling the ginormous piggy toes of the gods themselves?

“The traditional fantasy thing is, like, the ancient empire that figured out everything, and somehow they had a great cataclysm and everyone that follows is nothing compared to these dudes,” Sawyer points out. “We wanted to make this more of a golden age, where now people are just starting to understand the details of how souls work. They’re asking all these important questions, like do animals have souls? How are their souls different from our souls? How do our minds, our actual physical brains, interact with the soul that is in us? If we put an animal soul in a human’s body, or a human soul in an animal body, how does that change those things? And in this world, a lot of people have big ethical problems with that.”

“The conflict is, because they’re in a golden age, they’re moving very quickly. So when animancers, the people that study souls, find out, ‘Hey, if we use this machine this way, we can splice off pieces of a person’s soul, and we think that if we were able to do that, we could take someone who’s a serial killer and splice out the parts of their soul that make them do that. We could reform them that way. Let’s give it a whirl, guys!’ A lot of people are saying, ‘Whoa. You just figured out how to do this. Maybe we shouldn’t go that quickly into doing that sort of stuff?’ There are solutions for doing this. But they’re unproven, untested.”

Questions of religion, too, are wrapped up in the burgeoning conflict, traditions that are equal parts circling the drain of obsolescence and proving more relevant than ever in a world where the existence of souls is known fact. Sawyer and co are not shy about noting that there are many direct allegories to our own modern world buried beneath all of Eternity’s spell-slinging and soul-severing. Golden ages of science and technology, rapid cultural and technological advancements, tradition vs progress. These are familiar tunes, but they’re being played against a very different sort of backdrop.

Also unique is the game world’s geographic setting. This is no mighty empire or crumbling, er, empire again, but rather a series of liberated colonies. The game’s regions are cultural and ideological melting pots, the ecstasy of fresh freedom fueling revolutions of all sorts. But a melting pot stirred without care is a civil war just waiting to happen, and while Obsidian makes no mention of things escalating to such a level, there is certainly conflict brewing.

“The Dyrwood and Eir Glanfath, it’s a colonial land,” Sawyer says, practically looming from his seat like a proud tabletop DM. “It’s like America in some regards, in the sense that it’s been colonized by people who’ve left another country and declared their own independence. Animancy wasn’t allowed to be practiced in a lot of these old countries, because of religious beliefs or ethical concerns. Now this is the land of freedom and independence, so you have a lot of these groups that are saying, ‘Let’s go buck wild. We’re free to do this. We don’t have to follow the religious prohibitions that existed in the old world. We should feel free to do this as far as we think is sensible.’”

Religious conflicts, class warfare, and issues of independence vs the need for some sort of structure are all mentioned. This melting pot is nearly ready to boil over.

Totally Not Dungeons And Dragons

We fire up a demo, which plants a party of five (though the plan is to set max party size at a higher number) in a small ramshackle village. Before long, we stroll inside a tavern, which includes many of the usual suspects. A lord looking for his daughter, a bartender with goods for sale, etc. For the most part, it’s a nicely idyllic fantasy setting. Warm and inviting with only a hint of foreboding.

So I ask if it’s possible to kill everyone, because I am a well-adjusted individual.

“Theoretically, you could,” replies senior producer Brandon Adler, chuckling. “Normally if you attack a villager, they would all go hostile and kinda fuck you up. You can kill [important quest-givers] too. It’s possible that we could change that, but right now, everybody is fair game. So if you kill somebody that’s key to a quest, you’ll probably get a screen pop-up saying, ‘You killed an important NPC’ or something like that. But there’s only a few people in the game that are that important where if you killed them you’d just kill the entire quest line. And for the most part, we’re getting around that. If you kill someone, we might just divert the quest in a different way. We’re trying to handle it pretty gracefully.”

For the time being, however, we choose to pick on somebody our own size. Adler guides the party to a location called Heritage Hill in the larger city of Defiance Bay. It’s spooky and dilapidated, a graveyard twisted and defiled by souls that – for various reasons, some of them presumably caused by the living – cannot find rest. A mysterious old woman greets us under the auspices of needing assistance, but her true colors show seconds later. She lashes out with an icy, ethereal hand and does a serious number on Adler’s party. They win narrowly, but at what cost?

That question, facetious though it might be, actually yields a rather complex answer. The party, you see, immediately springs up as soon as battle concludes. In a departure from traditional D&D rules (for Eternity, Obsidian has developed its own completely new system), health and stamina are separate stats – the former long-term and the latter short-term. This decision, Sawyer elaborates, was made in the name of minimizing frustration on lengthier journeys.

“They’re separate resources, but every time you take stamina damage, a quarter of that you also take as health damage,” he says. “The reason we do it this way is because previously in D&D games, it was easy for parties to be severely limited purely by healing output. Do you have a cleric? Do you have a druid? How many do you have? That limits how far you can go before you have to stop and head back to wherever you came from. Stamina and health, health is kind of like your long-term ‘owie’ zone. So the easy way to think about it is, you can get knocked the fuck out [and then get back up when battle ends] four times before you will die. You don’t need a cleric come and heal you to keep going. You need a cleric to keep you in a fight because they heal your stamina.”

By default, losing all of your health will result in characters being maimed, a temporary stat reduction until you can get them to a place of rest or more permanent healing. However, a quick flip of a menu switch can enable a more permanent death or put you into Expert Mode, so you need not worry about easily unraveled threads in combat’s tapestry of challenge. Difficulty is there for those who want it, and different difficulties don’t just buff or reduce stats. If you want a sterner test of your abilities, monster sets and their respective combat strategies change entirely, becoming more about positioning, mitigating buffs and debuffs, singling out especially key enemies, and things of that sort. Good luck.

It is, however, natural to worry that general encounter and system design will be skewed in one direction or another. Could this hardcore golden age RPG treat players like recently thawed remnants of the stone age? Obviously, Obsidian claims there’s nothing to fear – that everyone will feel challenged if they so choose – but it’s still something to be wary of.

But what about the graceful art of battlemaimkillblarrghfighting itself? Once again, Obsidian’s approach is to keep the complexities of older D&D-esque systems while carving off the fat. Classes, for instance, might occupy traditional rolls, but they can evolve in all sorts of directions. Want a multi-rogue party? Go for it. So long as you get clever with your character builds, it’ll be entirely viable.

A lot of that stems from serious house-cleaning on combat mechanics. Sawyer practically beams as he tells me how redundant many old D&D systems were, pantomiming as though ripping the rotten entrails from some ancient machine.

“I think the fewer unique mechanics you have to teach to people, the easier it’s going to be for them to understand things. Second edition D&D has To Hit Armor Class 0, THAC0. First off, what the fuck? You have skills that only exist for certain classes, and they’re on a percentile scale for some reason. Almost every other die roll is on a D20 scale. Sometimes high is good, sometimes low is good. Some rolls always succeed on a 20, fail on a one. Some don’t. You have six different types of saving throws. You have abilities that scale at different intervals. You have all these things that are completely unique mechanics, not shared anywhere else.”

“For Eternity, we’re approaching it from a perspective of… Unless there’s a really compelling reason to have a mechanic be fundamentally different from similar mechanics, make it the same mechanic. Your accuracy is this, their defense is that, the difference is this, that shifts your chance to hit, graze, and crit by this amount. Always. Everywhere. We try to be very consistent and up front about that. The number of damage types we have is very clean and simple. An attack from a sword is a different damage type from a fireball hitting you, but the way the damage is ablated from it, resisted, whatever, it’s handled in a similar mechanical way. It’s very up front. Once you understand the way one element works, you understand the way all of them do.”

Things are, as a result, also much easier to learn. Strategic depth is still available in plentiful quantities (Sawyer offers that both Monks and Ciphers have their own unique combat resources, for instance), but the unification of systems allows for greater elegance and classes that can branch into a much greater variety of skills and tactical options.

Everybody wins, in theory. Unfortunately, the implementation of combat I’m actually shown is still very basic and quick. I like what Obsidian is going for on paper, but there’s still plenty of room for error. For now, my eyebrow is raised with tiny bristled blades of skepticism held aloft. That said, I’d very much like to see Obsidian succeed here.

Choice, Consequence, And Talking To The Monsters

Our next stop takes us to another region of Defiance Bay, the gorgeously haunting Engwythan Tower. Its walls are covered in a green-gold ore streaked with shimmering veins of pure soul. Ornate runes dot dampened soil as a gray sky looms overhead. This is a place of powerful magic, but a curse stirs beneath it all. Mankind’s clumsy fingerprints are all over the ancient structure – evidence of a crime some long-dormant force did not like one bit.

Inside the tower, Adler’s party comes across a ghoul-like creature who turns out to be a once-human victim of the curse. The former animancer is trying to set things right (perhaps not entirely for selfless reasons), and we have the option of aiding him or striking him down. A fairly simple and immediate binary in the grand scheme of game choices, but Obsidian promises things will get more complex and varied the further into the game we go.

“For every choice, we want to have a reaction to it,” says executive producer Adam Brennecke. “We have immediate, noticeable changes, where you get a sense of, ‘Yeah, I did change the world, I did change this quest.’ But then we also have longer-term impactful things, where you might not know right away that you changed something that time. Those come out of you just playing the game, and then maybe two hours later you’ll notice that something you did changed something you’re doing.”

Obsidian’s also a big fan of reputation systems, and the latest refinement of the role-playing powerhouse’s take on that infernal judgment machine will be present in Pillars of Eternity. This time, it’s not just about factions either. Your choices affect what sort of person people see you as – the public perception of your moods, habits, and tendencies. So yes, picking every snarky asshole dialogue option is great fun, but be prepared to answer for it sometimes, and not always in ways you might expect.

“We have a more nuanced reputation system in place to track the type of character you are,” Sawyer explains. “So beyond just, like, ‘Hey, I’m friends with these dudes and enemies with these dudes,’ we wanted to allow you to make dialogue choices that have attitude and personality to them, and not just throw those out the window. For example, if you keep picking dialogue options that are super hotheaded and aggressive, you start developing an aggressive reputation. That becomes a reputation that is tracked separately.”

“What I personally like about it is, in previous games, when you have these sassy lines or stoic lines or silly lines or whatever, they kind of were just good for the immediate response, and then they went out the window. With our personality and reputation system, it allows you to feel like you are developing a reputation for being that kind of a person in the world.”

Choices will manifest elsewhere, as well. While things like race and sex probably won’t matter quite as much as in, say, Wasteland 2, they’ll still come up. Physical options like bullying with a strength stat or stealing with dexterity will be available too. Perhaps even more prevalent, however, are quick, hand-drawn vignettes that offer options outside the typical realms of combat and person-to-person dialogue. They largely involve still images, but with written descriptions of activities and choices. No, we’re not talking the sort of pomp and flash one might associate with, say, Dragon Age, but this leaves room for arguably more options and reactivity. Sawyer offers the simple example of interacting with a statue, saying:

“Because this is all taking place in imagination land, it can be whatever we feel fits with that. The player could use their strength to push over a statue. Or there’s a lock. The lock is to move the statue out of the way. If you have a high mechanic skill, you can pick that lock. If you don’t, a guy with high strength can just take the statue and be like, ‘EAAARRRGH!’ and just shove it. We want to make it feel like, if you were sitting at a table with a DM, you’d say, ‘Hey, my dude has 20 strength. I want to fuckin’ push that thing over.’ That’s the great thing about scripted interactions or dialogues that allow you to do that. You can just say, ‘Sure, yep, okay!’ Because it’s more about the description and your imagination, not about, ‘Oh, we have to animate this.’”

I witness a cave section in which there’s a crevice to cross, and sure enough, a vignette pops up. Options include leaping it with brute strength, shimmying, or – if it’s been discovered – simply tossing a grappling hook and swinging across like a Batman who’s also an ethically debatable soul wizard (aka, The Best Batman). Really, though, it’s all about offering every potential option a player could conceive. No more mutterings of, “Ugh, this doesn’t make any sense? Why can’t I just…?” Or at least, that’s the idea.

Even when painterly vignettes aren’t in the picture, Obsidian still aims to offer plenty of wiggle room. Combat is sometimes avoidable entirely, both through dialogue and stealth. Sawyer, a professed fan of finely tuned sneaking, breaks it down:

“It varies from area to area, but [you’ll be able to avoid] a decent amount of combat. You don’t have to fight everything. If you use your sneak skill and you bump everyone’s sneak, you can sneak around pretty darn well. There are places where you’ll find it’s pretty hard. There’s a guy right next to a doorway, and you’re probably not going to be able to get through the door without alerting him. But we also set up guys on patrols to make that more interesting.”

It all operates on a system of circle icons surrounding characters. Stealthy, roguish sorts (which can be any class, if you allocate points properly) will have minuscule circles while less subtle types’ increased obviousness will be denoted by much larger circles. You want interesting stealth-centric strategies? You’ve got ’em, if that’s your thing.

“You can use stuff where you have a couple of characters go into a room, the melee guys, and they wait,” enthuses Sawyer. “The stealth wizard on the other side of the room comes in and says, ‘Fireball!’ He blasts it, and you have the other two guys on the side just rush in. Or if you have a character with a high enough stealth, you can sneak around entirely. You could have a character go off and open a door or something.”

You will not, however, be able to pick and choose your way around every encounter. This is more of a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate than it is Planescape: Torment. Sometimes, push will invariably come to shove, and you’ll have to test your mettle (and metal) against some ghastly creature from the beyond. I’m disappointed that a full combat-avoidant playthrough isn’t an option, but it’s understandable given Obsidian’s goals. “Fighting is a core principle of the game, so you’re going to be doing a lot of it,” Sawyer chuckles. “We’re not designing it to be ghosted or pacifist.”

Old Habits Die Hard (Or Not At All)

Pillars of Eternity, relatively early though it still might be, is shaping up to be an impressive piece of work. I’m not quite wowed like I was when I went to see Wasteland 2, but so long as Obsidian sticks to The Plan, I think it’s got a good chance of pumping out another strong RPG. In many ways, Eternity is an evolution of its biggest inspirations – not a total reinvention – but then, that’s exactly what backers paid for. It’s big (Obsidian claims that designers can already spend a whole day playing and not even touch most of the content), marvelously attractive, and comfortingly familiar while spicing things up with a handful of new ideas.

That said, I still worry that aiming to remix familiar genre staples with new explanations might result in a predictable world, especially in light of the fact that I came across what amounted to a missing princess quest, an undead graveyard section, and – while I was told of others – a series of somewhat tame choices.

But if anyone can subvert tried-and-tired tropes, it’s Obsidian (see, for example, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II’s series-deconstructing brilliance). The developer’s track record is uneven in places – especially in regards to technical troubles – but it’s also never been entirely free of a publisher’s suffocating yoke. Countless flashes of brilliance and a Black Isle pedigree ensure that Sawyer, Avellone, and co have plenty of talent and passion. Oodles, even. So then, is full control the missing ingredient from a perfect storm? I have no idea, but Obsidian (unsurprisingly) seems to think so.

“The funny thing is, you would think that with all the constraints with the Kickstarter, it would cause a lot of issues and problems,” Adler grins. “But it’s almost the opposite, to some extent. Because we have certain constraints, budgetary concerns and whatnot, we’re actually more lean and mean and efficient in what we do. We end up getting a lot more done, I think, because we’re taking special care every single time we do something. Does this fit in the game? What’s the best way to do this?”

“Let’s make sure we get it right the first time.”

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