Face-ripping & identity theft: Divinity Original Sin 2’s Undead

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“And now we just use the Face Ripper on this elven corpse so we can polymorph into an elven form and learn more about what happened by eating the limbs we found earlier.”

At Gamescom, Swen Vincke, CEO of Larian, was showing the playable undead race in Divinity: Original Sin 2 [official site] for the first time. Faces were ripped, children were startled, feasting on cadavers quickly became routine. I love Divinity but in among all the elves and dwarves, I sometimes forget just how weird it is. When you’re playing a skeleton, it’s going to be weirder than ever.

When you create an undead character, as with the other races in the game you can choose to play with a pre-built ‘Origin’ character or create a custom one of your own. The Origin characters have their own backstories that branch off into quests and stories as you play, and they all exist in the world as NPCs that can be recruited or killed. When you find the undead Origin character, he’s cutting the face off a dead person. Ask him why and he tells you that he needs it because people run away when they see his naked skull,

He hopes to address this by wearing somebody else’s face as a sort of moist balaclava.

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Undead characters, whether custom created or otherwise, will get hold of the Faceripper device early in the game. Sadly, for the purposes of gruesome comedy, you don’t get to hang the actual flesh of your victims from your hairpiece. Maybe that’s not actually a sad thing. Maybe it’s a very good thing.

Instead of wearing an actual face you use a magical mask that takes the detached face and allows you to transform into the person you stole it from. Divinity’s Undead have quite a lot in common with Hitman’s Agent 47, it turns out, from their love of disguises to their shiny domes. And behind all the bizarre brutality of the face-ripping, their inclusion in the game as player characters ties into what Original Sin does best: systemic storytelling.

As far as I’m aware, there’s nobody else in the world making RPGs quite like the Original Sin games. This is a large, story-driven game in which four people can play together, sometimes cooperating and sometimes working toward contradictory objectives. There’s a deep, turn-based combat system, with skill-crafting and elemental cocktails. But even the complexity of the (optional) multiplayer and combat are surface level; the actual machinery driving the game is even more intricate and influences everything from individual questlines to the entire structure of the world.

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Deep down, Original Sin 2 is all about choices and solutions. Branching stories and big decision points are a familiar part of games, from Telltale and Life is Strange to dialogue options that drive morality systems in big budget RPGs. Divinity doesn’t deal with decisions as things that happen in discrete moments though, instead it’s built on a set of rules and mechanics that assume players might do anything that the ruleset allows.

That means there are failsafe options allowing you to complete quests even if you massacre the quest-givers and other important NPCs. In some cases, an item might be hidden somewhere, providing you with the information a character might have told you if you hadn’t chopped them to bits, but you could also have a chat with the ghost of the dead character if all else fails. Every time exploitation or fair use of an in-game skill or ability could lead to new possibilities, rather than building an invisible wall to block off those possibilities, Larian figure out what the ripple effects would be if a player were to cause mischief and mayhem, then expand the framework of the game to deal with the after-effects.

That’s why you can talk to ghosts and retrieve memories by eating corpses (and sometimes by eating things that might contain traces of corpses). You can also do those things because they’re fun, but even the weirdest possibilities are driven by some rationale. There is method to this madness, and given how much madness is possible, a whole lot of method is needed to back it up.

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The Undead are the ultimate expression of this design philosophy. I could happily spend a few hours mucking around with the face-ripper and writing about the hilarious, macabre ways it allows me to play, but there’s as serious side to the silliness.

As an Undead, you’re governed by uncomfortable social rules, namely that people either flee when they see your skull or attack you on sight. You can wear a hood to hide your skull, but the magical masks and severed faces essentially make you a blank slate of a character. By taking faces and slipping into new forms, you can trick NPCs, and by extension the games’ systems, into thinking you’re just about anyone in the world. That means you can evade or engage with the racial profiling that plagues parts of the world, or become a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or vice versa.

In a world where elves are cannibals and dwarves are a social underclass, it’d be unusual if the Undead weren’t stranger than the norms of a D&D type fantasy world. In Divinity, they’re the ultimate polymorphs, spies and secret agents, and the most malleable of player characters.

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That’s not to say they’re not also grotesque, villainous, cadaverous delights – that’s all true as well, and the beauty of the game is that all of the rule-breaking and systemic trickery hides in the background. You just get to see the results rather than worrying about how it all fits together. Knowing that all of the complications of the design are in place is important though, because it encourages you to push the logic of the world to breaking point just to see how it holds together.

As our Undead character killed, cannibalised and face-swapped, I naturally started to think about where the possibilities ended. And then I saw it. Using the Pet Pal ability, which allows characters to talk to animals, Vincke had our hero (and I use the term very loosely) strike up conversation with an ox.

If he can talk to an ox and take on the form of an elf, who can read the memories of the dead by devouring their corpses, what happens when he goes to KFC? Every nugget a cacophony of clucking horror.

I might have to wait a while longer for Skeletal Pet Detective Adventures, but Original Sin 2 looks like it’ll have just about every other base covered. With the Undead, it now has a character type expressly designed to explore the detail of its design, and I can’t wait to pick through its bones when it comes out of Early Access in a couple of weeks. And, look, if you don’t care about all of that high concept design stuff, you can still rip off a few faces and pop ’em on your skull.

18 Comments

  1. wombat191 says:

    An undead faceless man from game of thrones.. sold :)

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    subdog says:

    This is some real Ultima 7 style “feed Spark bread baked with a bucket of his dad’s blood” level of macabre sandboxing.

    (also that KFC line is best thing I’ve read this week)

  3. Danarchist says:

    I have been playing the pre-release alpha for…well for ever. I seem to have clocked 150 hours so far on 3 complete playthroughs, although I imagine a good chunk of that was me and my mate mixing drinks or getting distracted by pizza.
    This has been my most anticipated game for a couple years now. Having spent so much time in the alpha, and seeing how polished that is, I cannot even imagine what the finished product will be like.

    I am seriously looking forward to using my patented “Ivanball” attack where I catch my friend on fire, throw oil on my enemies, then throw Ivan on them like a flaming archon of death. And if he gives the ultimate sacrifice for our victory I will take just as much glee in ripping his face off, wearing it, and parading around town talking about Cheese.

  4. EvilMonkeyPL says:

    If I allowed myself one pre-order (or early access) a year – this would be it. Giddy with anticipation.

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Have they toned down the spell goo on the ground mechanic from the first game? It was cool for a bit but after a while just made every fight so tedious.

    • Admiral Snackbar says:

      Sorta. There’s still all kinds of stuff on the ground, but in order to be effected by crowd control, you have to break ( or have broken) a character’s magical or physical armor first, so it’s less of an AOE stun-off.

      • Danarchist says:

        There are a couple abilities that allow you to float above the puddles, which are basically must have’s for melee types. One problem this game has always had is playing melee is a PITA.

  6. Behrditz says:

    “who can read the memories of the dead by devouring their corpses, what happens when he goes to KFC? Every nugget a cacophony of clucking horror.”

    This is exactly the theme of the comic The Chew. By eating flesh, this detective can experience everything the owner experienced. He had to become a vegetarian after his power awakened because every time he ate a burger or something he would feel the suffering and death of the animal in the factory farm.

    • MrCrun says:

      Chew was great! Logged in to say what you said. Also in the first issue he solves a murder because the Chef cut himself. It’s good, it’s good.

    • Neurotic says:

      Also similar to iZombie, in which the heroine experiences glimpses of a dead person’s life (amongst other things) by eating their brains.

  7. Zenicetus says:

    Looking forward to this. My wife and I played through the last one in co-op and had a blast. I just hope they’ve balanced it so it still works well in 2-player mode, now that it supports 4 players.

    • BlankedyBlank says:

      Yeah, it works the same way as the previous – you can have up to four characters in your party. The difference is only that this time all four can be separate players; if there’re only two of you, you can take on two other companions (not allowing for ‘One Man Army’).

      • Zenicetus says:

        Thanks! I’ve been holding off buying the early access because I didn’t want plot spoilers. Maybe I’ll pick it up now, just to get familiar (or re-familiar) with the mechanics before it’s released and we go full co-op.

  8. Chillicothe says:

    Still slightly less gruesome than the bloody swath I cut thru in 1.

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    Benratha says:

    “Faceripper device”…
    I’m sure that is one of Alice’s new AMD chipset names?

  10. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    I hope you can hire an undead and not just roll them. More lore sounds nice, but I want my avatar to be beautiful.

  11. LagTheKiller says:

    How do we do it Sir?

    Its simple Watson we kill all the Immaculates, cultists, creeps and non quest givers/vendors.

    Brilliant deduction Sir!

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