Wot I Think: Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth (chapters 1-7)

The Pillars of the Earth

Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth [official site] is a book which passed me by, even though I’ve devoured historical novels which must have been sitting mere inches away on the shelves of the library. The action of the story orbits the building of a cathedral in the town of Kingsbridge in 12th century England. My experience of the story comes solely from Daedelic’s conversion of the novel into a point-and-click adventure, taking you through intertwining stories from church and state, and allowing you to bend your own pathway a little as you explore the gorgeous and evocative environments.

The first seven chapters of the story comprise a first book of sorts and are now out with two more sets to follow as part of a season pass deal. Here’s Wot I Think so far!

The Pillars of the Earth

In this point and click the story moves between the point of view of the monk, Philip of Gwynedd, the master builder Tom, and a child Tom meets up with called Jack, who lives with his mother in the forest at the start of the tale. Most of the time you’re doing traditional point and clicking, although it has been streamlined in some nice ways. Along the way there are a few points where you get some light rhythm action minigames to see whether you execute an action well or muck it up. They’re not about gating progress, but about giving you another way to make a choice which felt pleasantly tabletop RPG-ish.

The first thing which struck me was the artwork. You start in a bitter winter and the palette is a similar one to that of The Banner Saga, or the Winterfell parts of Game of Thrones – you know the one – dingy with that thin, cold light which makes the greys greyer. Even though games often revel in muddy colours, they don’t often go full winter as it’s such an unwelcoming and depressing look, and its novelty makes it peculiarly refreshing.

As I made my way through the first seven chapters there’s a gradual lightening and brightening as time passes but I ended up turning the brightness up early just to help with the visibility. It was a curious moment as I found myself conflicted over whether to do so – continuing in low light was uncomfortable, but it was also part of reminding me that this was a 12th century midwinter, so what light was I expecting?

The Pillars of the Earth

That awareness of being in a very different historical period was a recurring feature. I have a working knowledge of cathedral architecture because of my undergraduate degree and The Pillars of the Earth has more than a few scenes which breathe life into that knowledge, tying the end result to a struggle for construction resources, a need for patience because the whole thing takes decades (sometimes even centuries), and fleshing out what these buildings were intended to actually DO for the lives of the people of the see. Sometimes The Pillars of the Earth gets clunky on that front, though, with Tom veering from “enthusiastic craftsman” into “pedagogue” while chatting with his kids about building. It’s not terrible, just a bit awkward.

The sense of being set at a particular time isn’t just confined to cathedral architecture – there’s a sense of religion’s function within the society and the general unrest during the Anarchy. Most obviously, those aspects of 12th century life are expressed in terms of the variety of people who have taken religious orders and the various allegiances you uncover as you talk with them. You also get repeated reminders of the brutality of life, the position of women – or indeed anyone considered not powerful in society (and brutality/power dynamics/sexual assault around that), the sin attached to kinds of sexuality and living outside marriage and so on.

Chatting with Adam (who read the book a million years ago and played snippets of the game earlier this year) we agreed that there’s sometimes a thin line between an admirable exploration of the cruelties that arise within a setting, historical or otherwise, and a shift into unrelenting grimness. Along with the wintry palette, the treading of that line is another way in which the show reminds me of Game of Thrones. There’s enough in common in terms of tone and the positioning of women and other disempowered people that, as with Martin’s books and the TV show, I’m a bit wary of how this game is going to play out on that front. That said, through mine and Adam’s conversation it seems like the game definitely has its own voice and that the writing team seem to be approaching critiques of the source material thoughtfully so it’s wariness tempered with hope.

Something which was curious to me as a newcomer to Follett’s world was that the game feels both light and heavy when it comes to the story. I made my way through the seven chapters in a few hours (probably an afternoon, if I hadn’t been taking breaks for other work tasks) and I never felt lost or overwhelmed. In fact I was surprised at the speedy pace! On the other hand a few things which happened and which my characters would find out about through letters seemed incredibly dense in terms of information and were hard to weave into the story playing out in front of me given they involved people who only got passing mentions in the dialogue. It’s not a big thing, but occasionally I would gloss over a letter thinking it was setting the scene and then find myself a little confused in a conversation, or uncertain about the choice I was making. Overall I’d say the effect is a positive one because it gives you the impression that the world is built on these hefty foundations and it helps give the sense of a fully realised setting without battering you with lore/historical documents.

The Pillars of the Earth

I also want to note the streamlining in Daedelic’s interface. I really appreciated that you never have too many items to keep track of, all visible by glancing at the bottom of the screen, nor do you ever have a list of more than about three tasks. There’s a chance some people might find that a bit on-rails-y but for me it helped with keeping the story moving.

There’s an neat twist on the ‘look’ verb as well. When you right click an object, instead of getting a visual description, you hear related thoughts from the character you’re currently controlling – sometimes those are just an assortment which give you a sense of how the character relates to the world and its inhabitants, but other times it’s used really effectively to communicate fear or urgency, just showing you the same thought over and over again. You can also use your bible on objects and people when playing as Philip of Gwynedd, and this often yields a relevant snippet of scripture, which is a nice touch.

You get to make choices about how the characters act and there seem to be actual consequences to those actions, but I have no idea how much is illusory or superficial given the game would need to follow the basic major plot beats of the novel. For example, I definitely got a novice into trouble in my playthrough by choosing to report his misdemeanours. There was a consequence to that action for him in that he got punished but I’m less clear about whether that affects anything beyond how I relate to the characters involved. It might have altered how a particular meeting played out in terms of the opinions of the monks (although I think that meeting ended up playing out a particular way regardless because “story”) or it might come back to bite me in a later set of chapters but I’m not sure how much is flavouring and how much is me doing any of the steering here.

The Pillars of the Earth

Before I finish I’m just going to go back to the strand of sexual violence in the story which I mentioned in passing a few paragraphs up. The game has a 16+ PEGI rating which didn’t exactly surprise me because I’ve read similar historical novels that don’t shy away from cruelty and suffering. As the game’s rating isn’t explicitly given on its Steam page, the art style and a sense that it might be a lighter period piece might wrongfoot some people, especially those not familiar with the sort of grim historical or semi-historical style.

PEGI give their reasoning for the rating as “Realistic looking violence – Strong language” but for me that doesn’t impart information about sexual violence. The sexual violence in this game is verbally rather than visually explicit, but that doesn’t make its impact any less forceful. Reading the PEGI description I don’t think I would have been able to accurately gauge the strength of that particular content so I wanted to make sure I gave a clear “this is a thing which is strongly present in this game” note in case that influences either you buying it for yourself or buying it for others. I’d need to see more of how it plays out across later chapters to know if it’s making a more interesting point than just underscoring brutality or painting a character as an awful person through that violence, though.

In terms of where this opening salvo of game leaves me, I’m interested to see how some of the characters progress and wary of others. The latter is because some of the jerks are so clearly going to take their douchebaggery too far and I don’t trust historical novels to give people their comeuppance! In terms of where I’m the most emotionally invested, though, I’d say it’s actually in the fate of the cathedral. They’re so complicated and prone to expense/disaster/overrunning/all of the above and I really want to know if this one is ever completed!

All of the above bodes well for my interest in future instalments BUT it also raises a question. The game is not complete but the book is so… do I buy and read the actual book or not? ARGH!

The Pillars of the Earth: Book One is out now, with two further releases coming in December and early 2018. It’s available via Steam for Windows, Mac and Linux, and is bought as a full season for £26.99.

25 Comments

  1. Daymare says:

    I once made the claim that you could open “The Pillars of the Earth” on any page and find some form of sexual act, thought or gaze in the first few sentences you look at. I couldn’t make it far into the book, mind.

    On the other hand I read “The Name of the Rose” multiple times and very much enjoyed the vivid description of Adson’s sexual experience there. So I don’t believe I’m biased against historical novels OR text-sex.

    Maybe if someone made that novel into a game, that’d be the one for me, then. You play William of Baskerville, and it’d be sort of detective game like those Sherlock Holmes games, only better.

    • Niko says:

      Right? There was a Spanish game based on The Name of the Rose on ZX Spectrum, it’s about time we get a new one. Although I’d be even more excited about an open world medieval fantasy RPG loosely based on Baudolino. Well, one can dream.

    • Alberto says:

      La Abadia del Crimen (Abbey of Crime).

      If you go to “external links” thete’s a few lunks to play on your browser.

      But guess it’s bot translated?

      I played it on a friend’s Amstrad, like 100 yers ago.

      link to es.m.wikipedia.org

      • YogSo says:

        @Niko, @Alberto:

        “La Abadía del Crimen” had a modern remake/reimagining a few years ago, titled “Murder in the Abbey” (or simply “The Abbey” in Spain); it’s available via Steam here, and apparently that’s an English-only version.

        • Daymare says:

          Sorry, I posted this below the wrong thread, here it is again:

          Ooh, thanks to all three of you! Will look into it.

  2. Dlarit says:

    Coincidently I’ve been listening to the audiobook the last few weeks to dull the commute, I was thinking that you could make a quite good game out of the medieval trading experiences in the book.

    A trading game set in 12th century would be excellent, all NPC’s have a set amount of money (that the games tracks) and must use some of it for food living etc, they can trade with other NPC’s for goods or money and with the player.

    Minor spoiler alert

    I particularly enjoyed the idea that the character Aliena was rising from rags to riches in the wool trade, buying raw bags of wool from farmers, trading them with town traders who then sell it on to larger merchants and then building up her empire even creating cloth from the wool and increasing her trading empire even more.

    can anyone recommend a game that recreates this?

    • Umama says:

      One game I can think of is Grand Ages: Medieval. It is literally a medieval trading game, though perhaps not as complex as you may be looking for.

      Other than that, perhaps The Guild 2? It is more complex, but notoriously buggy. I haven’t tried too much of it yet myself.

  3. Alien426 says:

    Also available on GOG.com:
    link to gog.com

  4. Archie Lock says:

    “(…) another way in which [The Pillars of the Earth] reminds me of Game of Thrones. There’s enough in common in terms of tone and the positioning of women and other disempowered people (…)”

    I often think that Game of Thrones can be quite sexist, but I have never felt that the show treated women, as a group, like a bunch of “disempowered people”. Quite the opposite, actually.

    TPOTE is more problematic in that regard, and the excuse of “historical accuracy” only goes so far.

  5. tsff22 says:

    A Daedelic Games review just isn’t the same without John Walker reviewing it and getting legitimately enraged over how crass and tasteless the games’ “humor” (and I use that term VERY lightly) is.

  6. FurryLippedSquid says:

    I’ve only played a couple of hours of it so far but I’m finding it really dull. Not sure what I expected from a game based on a book about cathedral construction but there we are.

    It also suffers from something a lot of adventure games do, stilted lines. The conversation between characters, even in cut scenes, is painfully drawn out as there are seconds-long gaps between lines. I don’t know why this issue exists, doesn’t seem like a hard thing to fix but then I’m no developer.

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      Angstsmurf says:

      Those pauses between the lines are really weird and reminds me of the absurd dialogue in the first Silent Hill. They nearly ruined the game for me, despite otherwise excellent writing and acting. I wonder what could possibly be the reason for them.

  7. Alberto says:

    I read the book a few weeks ago, by pure chance. It’s full of Passions and Drama and Sex and all that. The cathedral is just the excuse to put together all the characters and let them love and hate each other.

    Maybe I’ll play it trying to bend the original story and choosing other paths, just to see what happens.

  8. LethalBrignull says:

    Long time reader, but I registered an account just to say this:

    I absolutely understand where your coming from with the appraisal of the PEGI rating. I agree that it should make a specific mention of the sexually violent content the game contains. As you say, whether it is is literal and physical, or as it generally was in this first collection, verbal, PEGI should have taken that into account when rating the game, and warned people accordingly.

    However, I feel that as measured as you have been, and you have not been unfair, a paragraph to discuss this lays a problem at the feet of the game which, frankly, is not the titles fault, or responsibility. This might be something that is worth a separate article.

    I had a really great time with the game, (full disclosure, I’m also a big fan of the book) and just feel that it would be a shame if the game attracted even a slight bit of ire due to it’s PEGI rating/classification

  9. tres says:

    ” the show reminds me of Game of Thrones. There’s enough in common in terms of tone and the positioning of women and other disempowered people that, as with Martin’s books and the TV show”

    ???

    Game of Thrones is literally girl-power fantasy with female rulers in every kingdom at this point, women warriors and girl with dragons coming to save the world from the evil male threat, what are you talking about?

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      People claim GoT being historically more correct than tPotE because they wish it were so including swordgirls and dragon mothers.

    • mavrik says:

      I guess he actually read the books and considers the whole GoT story and setting instead of doing what you’re doing.

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    alison says:

    I have never watched Game of Thrones because from what i gather it involves a shit-ton of rape, torture and gore, which are things i don’t enjoy watching. I am a huge fan of Daedelic, though, and was going to buy this blind. Is the sexual violence alluded to “just” misogynistic/homophobic language and tasteless jokes a la Deponia or is it straight-up “grab them by the pussy” rape-sploitation? Not sure i’ll be into the game if it’s the latter.

    • mavrik says:

      Considering the fact that GoT contains practically nothing of what you listed, it’s hard to give you recommendation. What do you consider “rape-sploitation”?

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        alison says:

        How much rape do you consider “practically nothing”? There are countless articles online about the graphic violence in the show. The Wikipedia page has a 6-paragraph section about it. I’m sure it’s very well-made – it’s certainly highly acclaimed – but sorry not sorry that i have no interest in going out of my way to watch graphic depictions of sexual violence and torture.

        I consider the whole trope of lingering on people’s experience of sexual violence – particularly as a trite setup for an equally violent revenge arc – to be rape-sploitation. Your mileage may vary.

        • Ragnar says:

          The Game of Thrones books and show are full of rape, in the same way that medieval history is, but 90% of it is mentioned rather than depicted. These people are rapists, soldiers are raping the villagers, he raped her, that sort of thing.

          The books only depict a single rape, in book 5 iirc. There is still torture and violence, obviously, and the threat of rape, though they’re tempered by being described or alluded to rather than depicted visually.

          I say this because I’d hate for someone otherwise interested in the books to miss out because of a mistaken belief that the books are filled with graphic depictions of rape.

          The show, for what it’s worth, has four depictions of rape across seven seasons, iirc, with one of those scenes having rape briefly occurring in the background rather than being the focus of the scene.

          Torture is slightly more frequent. The show is however filled with graphic violence, there’s no denying that.

    • Herring says:

      I’ve not played the game, but in the book I don’t remember it being particularly graphic but the effects on the characters was very explicit, if you see what I mean (it was a long time ago).

      I remember wanting the characters involved to get their come-uppance (it was one of many examples of “medieval life was really quite grim) which was the intent I imagine.

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        alison says:

        Thanks for the useful reply. I have played several games (and watched several shows) where a prior experience of sexual abuse was used as a back-story for a character. Personally i tend to find that kind of back-story a bit lazy – there are plenty of ways to make strong/motivated/complex characters without needing to dwell on rape – but it’s not unrealistic that some victims lives are completely defined by that past violence. It sounds like this might be a bit too revenge-y for me, though, so i will probably skip it. I think shorter games like Emily is Away and The Beginner’s Guide might be my limit. Thanks for weighing in.