How multiplayer makes Divinity: Original Sin 2’s singleplayer great

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This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the inner workings of their games. This time, Divinity: Original Sin 2 [official site].

It’s the holy grail for RPGs, right, that perfect mix of a strong story and freedom to do what you want. But if players can do anything, how do you tell them a story in the right order and without bits missing? What if they kill some plot-important character or sell the magical thing that does the special thing?

Quite a few RPGs do a good job! Planescape: Torment, for one, presents a fantastically dense and interwoven set of characters and scenarios which you can approach in many different ways. But Divinity: Original Sin 2 goes a step beyond, telling a clear story and allowing – even encouraging – you to do all kinds of dumb things, all without completely breaking. How does it succeed? Well, through a feature that you’d never think is related.

THE MECHANIC: Multiplayer

Very mild spoilers follow, but nothing actually spoiling, promise.

When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. If you give players room to do what they like together, you can also give lone players the same thing. “The singleplayer is much stronger because of the multiplayer,” Swen Vincke, head of developer Larian Studios, tells me. “It enforces more freedom.”

DOS2 has many features that simply wouldn’t exist if it didn’t incorporate multiplayer, simply because – in Vincke’s words – they’ve been so challenging to develop. The key one, though, is the ability to detach members of your four-strong party so you can direct them around the world entirely independently of each other. You can have one standing on the beach on one side of the world, another in a forest on the other, a character in a dungeon and one in the main town. You can then switch between them at will.

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This feature enables connected players to occupy the same world but not be bound to the area encompassed by hosting player’s screen. It’s not a new concept, just ask Neverwinter Nights, but DOS2 develops it further. For one thing, you get all kinds of strategic options, such as positioning your party ahead of a battle. “It gives you a very strong sense of freedom, and that freedom is necessary if you want to work with multiplayer; without it the multiplayer wouldn’t be fun,” Vincke says.

And outside of battling and messing around with DOS2’s mad chemistry set, it’s also the foundation for a set of dramatic wrinkles and features, or what Vincke calls “interesting complications”, which help to bring it to roleplaying life.

Like most RPGs, DOS2 features a set of six what it calls ‘origin characters’ who you can play as and add to your party. Their backstory, motivations and aims influence the unique dialogue options you’ll be offered when you play as one of them, and when they’re companions, they can interject in certain conversations to further their own goals, if you let them. But in DOS2, your companions are independent NPCs, so you’ll only hear what they say, not hear their internal dialogue. An echo of the nature of playing with someone else, separate but together, they feel like separate beings, despite being able to direct them around the world.

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So let’s say you’re playing as Lohse in singleplayer and recruit the rogue-elf Sebille, and then detach her to wander the world for a while. Sooner or later, she’ll encounter events and characters who are a part of her individual story, but since she’s not with your main character she’ll engage with them outside of the influence of your main character. “Those are what we call orphaned origin moments,” Vincke says. “We had put logic in to account for them.”

The fact that you, Lohse, can listen into their conversations is explained away through you being linked together through Source, the magical force that runs Divinity’s world. But since you’re not Sebille, you don’t have control over what she will say. For example, she might meet a lizard called Stingtail camping at a spot outside the early-game hub, Fort Joy. Thing is, she hates lizards, so much that it’s a key point in her backstory and goal, and if she talks to Stingtail, she’ll immediately kill him.

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Now, Stingtail is important to the Red Prince, an aristocratic lizard and another of the origin characters, because he’s part of the Red Prince’s personal quest to reclaim his birthright. And yet, if Sebille doesn’t assassinate Stingtail, she can’t continue her own personal quest. So even as you have incredible freedom to do as you like, DOS2 is always careful to weigh consequences against it.

They don’t feel forced, though, because the consequences usually relate to the relationships between the origin characters. In another echo of multiplayer, where you can always turn on your friends because why not, you and your companions are not necessarily best friends 4 lyfe. In fact, the game continually puts you in situations where the aims of one character conflict with those of another, like those of Sebille and the Red Prince. It makes for deliciously hard decisions, with the constant chance that a character will turn on the party.

Powering this is a simple attitude system, where each character has an opinion that’s influenced by your actions. Say nice things and it’ll go up. They’ll like you even more if you let them take over a conversation, but sometimes that’ll land you in hot water. You can stop them, but that comes with the cost of them getting upset with you. Each character has an upper attitude threshold, which will lead to stronger friendships and even let you influence key decisions, and a lower one, which will cause them to hate you and leave the party.

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All this freedom within flexible systems presents two sticky problems. One is kind of intractable. If you don’t play the game at least 11 times, once each for the cast of origin characters and once for each of the five races, you don’t have a chance of seeing everything in the game. For those who play to feel completion, or who feel the burning sense of missing out when they sense they’re not seeing every major plotline and revelation, DOS2’s approach to the RPG will be uncomfortable. “Those players are angry at us!” says Vincke. “That’s literally it. We understand they’re angry, but it’s impossible. It’s too complex.”

The tagging system only makes things worse. Just as various dialogue options are only available to certain origin characters, even more are only available to certain races or classes of character. Scholars, aristocrats, outlaws and dwarves all have their own things to say and will cause NPCs to react to them in certain ways. Fane the ancient skellington, for instance, has a knack of completely horrifying the non-dead, while many humans dislike lizards and dwarves. The result is that DOS2 features over a million words of dialogue, which mostly comprises responses that cater to all the different tags.

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“We spend a lot of work making sure you feel the things you did had an impact on the world,” says Vincke. “That goes quite far, actually, especially when you get to the endings. Nothing in DOS2 fits in a nice tree. It’s all nodes linked and mashed into to each other so it becomes very hard to get a singular view of all the options you had. And that’s because of the way we make it. It’s deeply embedded in our design methodology. It’s cool, but that can be frustrating if you’re the type of player who wants to see everything. The best thing to do for them is to read through our design docs, but that’s not necessarily the most – ” he laughs “ – fun literature in the world.”

The second problem is the sheer number of ways that DOS2’s systems can potentially break the storyline. But DOS2 stands as evidence that this one is not intractable. On one hand, it makes it clear when you’re choosing to break things, such as by letting Sebille kill Stingtail and therefore end the Red Prince’s dream of regaining his throne.

On the other hand, it pulls various tricks to keep things ticking over. Plot-important characters can be killed off because their story payloads can be offloaded to you in other ways. The old but crude way of dealing with this is to have a diary or journal hanging around for you to find if its owner isn’t around to tell you. DOS2 isn’t above using such fallbacks, but it’s more creative, too. You can, for example, talk to their ghosts once you’ve learned a specific skill during the main quest. Or you can eat corpses. This is an innate skill of elf characters: eat a body part and they’ll remember its owner’s memories. And what’s more, Fane can use his Mask of the Shapeshifter to wear an elf’s face to become an elf and use elven abilities.

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“They add extra solutions to players so they could find narrative they may have missed because they, for instance, they blew up an entire city, which is possible,” says Vincke. “We can safely say that there’s never a moment that the game completely blocks you out just because you exploited the freedom it offers.”

I have to say, once you start eating corpses it’s hard to stop, because it’s the source of even more little details and richness about this world and the people within it. And here lies the real strength behind DOS2’s blend of story and freedom: “We know if we give a tapestry that’s sufficiently dense and sufficiently broad, players will be able to pick up their own storyline, which is the most fun in an RPG anyway.” The result is choice at every turn, which is exactly what a multiplayer RPG requires. It’s rather wonderful to see that necessity benefitting singleplayer so profoundly, too.

31 Comments

  1. backwardsdog says:

    Are there any negative consequences to eating corpses (in-game)? I’ve been snacking on assorted bodyparts like they’ll stop making them, and so far nothing bad has happened to my character.

    Anyone knows if my taste for dead people bits will eventually come back and bite me in my finely toned elven ass?

    • Corwin71 says:

      I really don’t think there are (I’m playing as Sebille) It’s natural to elves, and there’s no hint that overindulgence would have any worse effects than, say, a human eating too much pie. Even eating void-tainted body parts doesn’t hurt you.

    • ephesus64 says:

      I said this before, but just don’t feed human to any dogs. I tried so hard to get out of combat with that doggo and I couldn’t, and now the friend I’m playing through the game with won’t let me live it down. Still an amazing game, I’ve never been happier with a Kickstarter.

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    Drib says:

    I played this a bit over the weekend. I’m enjoying the sorta bonkers style of things, overlaid over rather serious setting.

    I mean, highlighted in wearing bushes and rocks and things as disguises when your characters sneak.

    But I can’t imagine playing multiplayer. Someone else wrecking up all my dialogs and killing NPCs? I’m not on board with that one.

    Though if building for that lead to the game as is, I can’t complain overmuch.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Random drop-in multiplayer could be chaotic, but the multiplayer part of the game is really designed to be played as a co-op team, where you start together from the very beginning.

      I played the last DOS that way with my wife, and it was a blast. You do have to figure out who will take the lead with dialog, and if you’re on the same page with killing NPC’s. That should be easy if you’re doing multiplayer with someone you know, and not a random pickup. This new DOS 2 version has some “private” goals for each Origin party member where some conflict might occur, but on a co-op level, you can decide how far you want to go with that.

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    Iamblichos says:

    I am having serious problems with DOS2, which makes me sad because so many people whose opinions I value are squeeing madly away at it. I find the combat ponderous and difficult, the camera angle far too low even at max distance, and I detest that the same encounter you pwn the first time can pwn you the second time, even though nothing has changed. Needing to prepare is one thing, but having to reload just because RNJesus got his knickers in a knot is deeply un-fun, at least to me. Maybe I’m not the target audience?

    • Corwin71 says:

      Maybe not, because random chance has rarely if ever influenced my success or failure in a battle. There are two many things that go on for a miss or two to matter all that much, and most outcomes (like how long a status effect lasts) are completely predictable and can therefore be planned for.
      As far as the camera angle goes, though I don’t share your problem with the default angle, maybe you’d prefer to switch to tactical view once in a while? I think it’s “O”.

    • Jeremy says:

      There’s a good solution to the camera problem here. The only annoyance is that you have to run the .exe after you run the game each time, but it’s minor. The author defaults max zoom to 60 (it’s 19 in the game), but I found that to be a little too far away, and ended up setting it to 40.

      I can’t speak too much to the combat, because I’m squarely in the other camp, and have been enjoying it a lot. There are a few battles that ended up squashing me, but with the right skills and whatnot, I came back and was able to finish those off. Are there any particular fights that have been problematic?

      • MrLoque says:

        Nice mod but the game isn’t meant to be played with a different zoom/angle and it will sometimes show black areas and/or weird “halos” around stuff :|

        • Jeremy says:

          Yeah, for some that’s probably going to be a no-go, but for me, it’s worth it… that viewing angle makes me feel too claustrophobic.

    • jellydonut says:

      I agree entirely. I feel like there’s some sort of enjoyable game underneath here, if you just drudge through all the immensely dull, grating combat.

      Considering a refund because it isn’t getting any better.

      • jellydonut says:

        Nevermind, turns out the limit is 2 hours and I’ve been stupid enough to bang my head against this game in search of fun for 6 hours.

      • Jeremy says:

        Did you enjoy the original’s combat?

        • Zenicetus says:

          I enjoyed the last DOS game’s combat, but it can’t be used as a comparison because the new mechanics are very different. In the last game, you could throw a status effect immediately. Now, you have to chew through the enemy’s physical or magic armor before anything happens.

          It extends combat unnecessarily, and then makes the actual kill far too easy, once armor is down. The balance between magic and physical attacks is off too, because spells have a cooldown and physical attacks don’t, so it’s easy to min/max with pure physical attacks. It’s the reverse of the last game, where mages were overpowered.

          I really dislike this new armor mechanic. But I’m still playing the game because everything else about it is great.

        • jellydonut says:

          I never played the first one.

    • Scraphound says:

      You need to change your approach to combat.

      Don’t just roll a traditional warrior, thief, wizard, and healer party. Remember, one or two points in a skill opens many abilities. Hybridization is key.

      Also, don’t save items! Chuck those grenades, invoke those scrolls, gulp down those potions and meals.

      Use your environment to your advantage. Lead enemies into choke points. Seek higher ground. Never approach a tough fight straight on.

      In my experience, RNG has nothing to do with it. Winning or losing comes down to thinking outside the box and making the most use out of each and every AP at my disposal.

      When I played the first game I had the same problem as you. I’m so used to playing RPGs that are completely derivative and designed to be more or less mindlessly easy. This is a game that rewards thinking and clever tactics.

      • jellydonut says:

        That still does not solve the chief problem with it – it’s not *fun*. It’s drudgery.

        • Someoldguy says:

          It’s hard to comment without knowing a little more about what turns you off. What sort of combat is your idea of heaven? It’s hard to argue over turn-based vs real time, people often greatly prefer one type over the other and that’s not going to change. Is there a style of turn based that appeals more?

          It took me a little while to get into DOS2 but now that my team are more than just one-trick ponies it really feels fun. A turn or two of setting the stage by whittling down defences and then you can start electrocuting, tripping, polymorphing or eviscerating your enemies. It wasn’t this much fun when the team only had knockdown as a crowd control plan.

          • Silent_Thunder says:

            He might be playing on Tactician mode, which in OS1 retolled several encounters, but in OS2 just… adds horrible 50% buffs to every important stat of enemies, making the fights quite akin to using your face as sandpaper on a brick wall.

          • Fade2Gray says:

            Mixing up your powers is definitely one of the keys to fun (and success) in this game. I repeatedly bounced off of the previous game, but there are just so many more options in this game that I’m having a blast.

            For example, my avatar is primarily speced for scoundrel with a heavy dose of necromancer and a bit of polymorph mixed in. One of my favorite combos is to open with the teleportating backstab skill to get into position behind an enemy and then use rupture tendons to add a DOT that ticks whenever the target moves.

            Now, I have options. If the enemy’s physical armor is gone, I’ll polymorph the target into a chicken so that they commit suicide by running around helplessly flapping their wings. If the enemy still had armor, I’d instead cast chameleon on myself and turn invisible so that he would have to move to find another target. Or maybe I’m just feeling extra mischievous and I’ll use adrenaline to get a couple extra AP and then summon a giant skeleton spider to mix things up.

            And that’s all one turn with one character without using any of the elemental tricks the game is known for.

    • Carra says:

      I’ts a hard game the start is very high, even on normal difficulty. It gets easier once you get going.

      Still, it’s the same issue as with the previous game. They could have balanced it a bit better so you don’t get killed time after time in the first few hours.

      • Loony1 says:

        I would disagree, though only because I played through the first act when it was in early access and all of the fights that I required multiple attempts at have been nerfed on release. Replaying through I’ve only had to use a single res scroll in the first act on tactician.

  4. flashlight_eyes says:

    Really love coop in games but scared multiplayer might take away from my ability to soak up all the detail/dialogue. Whats the word? Is coop frustrating or fun?

    • ZigomatiX says:

      You’ll need to find people interested in reading and sharing to the groupe what they learned from NPCs, which items they found and plan fights together. Basicaly people into at least a slight RP mood.
      With friends it’s easier to find the right people,from what i’ve red, in random mp it can range from great highly immersive RP sessions and interesting fights, to boring headless chicken fest.
      Also it’s a bit time consuming, in a 4man group it took us 16h (nearly a full week nights) to do the 1st act during early access.

  5. racccoon says:

    I been playing this game for few days now in single player classic as an elf archer, I’ve destroyed every single npc whoever they maybe, its been hard to do, incredible fun, yes. The games brilliant narration & awesome story I’ve proceeded to see “closed”. :)
    The lack of directions to give us any real idea how to combine stuff within destructive madness seems to have no explanations, yet anyway, I may of eaten it all up in my delirious appetite as a lone destructive force. I’m restraining from using my fav..Duck Duck Go.
    I believe I have read and sold all the books.
    I feel I’m in game rich as I am on board the boat now, with 14k pocketed, all brill stuff. The fate of all aboard will be soon as i crack the boat. I feel sure the combine thing should tell a tale on the next isle if there is one..
    Game is friggin awesome, is currently my major attention, halting me from playing my long awaited game…Mu legend online, Another brilliant game!
    There are not many games that hold this category of brilliance. A very tiny, weeny, few, like these two..:)

  6. shagen454 says:

    Gotta say, I bought this in early access a couple of weeks ago and was about to refund as well. I think my problem was, is that I had an inability to sit down with the pacing at the beginning (it’s a sluggish beginning and not very interesting – let’s be honest)

    But, after spending some time in co-op with friends I became hooked. Combat in coop is so much fun. Just for an example, when I played the first time in single-player mode I snuck out of the castle. But, in coop we explored the guarded Fort, got caught, went into a battle that seemed impossible to win, ending up defeating the guards and getting tons of loot, let down the draw bridge for an escape. We also did the arena battle in coop, below Fort Joy which is highly recommended for multiple reasons.

    But, I went back to playing solo and have now spent about 30 hours playing in the singe-player – the game gets so good after you get out of Fort Joy (or towards the end of the Fort Joy zone & big boss battle), I almost feel like I’m actually playing a modern Baldur’s Gate 3 and also like a kid playing with army men like a kid because you really have to set up the battles before you enter certain conversations and it’s really a part of the fun, including the gear which actually feel magical, important & one of a kind.

    If it’s too hard, just play it in explorer mode, I think it’s difficult enough… and probably you may need to assume defeat and try something else… many times there are dialog options out of a needlessly difficult fight, or just try to sneak around it… Oh gosh, I’m frothing at the mouth… need to go back to playing.

  7. DeepSleeper says:

    So it seems like if you don’t want recruitable NPCs running off and independently messing with the plot and removing potential hooks and options, the only thing to do is to mercilessly stab them to death the moment you can.

    And then possibly eat the remains so they don’t come back.

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    syllopsium says:

    Independently send your characters off to do their own thing! New, like Ultima VI in 1990, which also ran the entire world at once so you hear statuses such as ‘pirate hits squid’ because they’re fighting miles away ;)

    This does sound fab though, have but haven’t started to play OS, looks like I’ll be buying this in the future.

    • Jekadu says:

      Wasteland comes to mind.

      The reason it’s not done very often is because it’s a pain in the buttocks to program, design and implement for, though. It also makes testing extremely complex. It’s a lot of effort for everyone involved.

  9. Catchcart says:

    It’s no good, Larian. I have this 20 year old compulsion to gather my party before venturing forth. I don’t think you can change that.

  10. LegendaryTeeth says:

    “I have to say, once you start eating corpses it’s hard to stop”
    – Alex Wiltshire, 2017