The Forgotten Game of the Year: Pillars of Eternity

As the end of the year draws nigh, the discussion about the best game of 2015 is becoming more relevant by the minute. The gaming community now has a pretty good feel on what the year has to offer, ranging from spectacles such as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to apparent disappointments like The Order: 1886. It’s curious, though, that the favor of the general audience appears to lean a bit towards games released late in the year – as if their memory can’t quite reach as far back as last spring.

What’s even more curious – unsettling, even – is that nearly every list of GOTY candidates omits Pillars of Eternity, the classic fantasy role-playing game developed by Obsidian Entertainment and funded by tens of thousands of fans through KickStarter as far back as in 2012. In all honesty, after playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom PainFallout 4, and a number of other games that were supposed to change the lives of those who played them, Pillars of Eternity is the only game all year that didn’t eventually result in the feeling of quiet disappointment. Even as a huge Metal Gear fan, I ended up feeling like The Phantom Pain was a bubble of hype more than the phenomenon it was supposed to be.

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Two and a half years in the making, Pillars of Eternity is one of the best games in years.

That’s not to say those are bad games, by any means. The Phantom Pain was a very entertaining game indeed, and I did spend dozens of hours with it, and I don’t regret buying it. Fallout 4 was also a good game, and I didn’t realize I was disappointed in it until about 80 hours in, when I suddenly stopped playing and noticed I don’t feel the urge to start it up anymore. Regarding other games, such as Until Dawn, Dying Light or Star Wars: Battlefront, I must admit I haven’t played those, but I would gladly bet they wouldn’t be any different either.

This post isn’t supposed to trash all those other games, though. I am astonished all those games made it to most lists of contenders for the Game of the Year title while Pillars of Eternity is absent, but I won’t hold that against the games themselves (if anything, I’m questioning the nature of the entire Game of the Year culture, especially orchestrated by the few biggest video game publications). Instead, I’m going to explain my admiration towards Obsidian’s labor of love, and point out various reasons why that game is more than qualified to be Game of the Year. Who knows, maybe I’ll manage to shake up some of the notoriety and respect Pillars of Eternity unquestionably deserves.


Qualifications

Before delving into the actual content of the game, I’ll establish the fact that there are no acceptable reasons to exclude Pillars of Eternity from contending for Game of the Year based on the nature of the game as a release. I’ve noticed that many sites and individuals omit indie titles and other such “oddballs” from their lists, but this is not one of those titles. It was published by Paradox Interactive, which technically classifies it as a non-indie game. Obsidian Entertainment is not an obscure company; people exposed to the goings-on of the western video game industry surely must have heard of them, so they’re not that kind of a curiosity either. Perhaps some folks treat the game as an indie release because of KickStarter, but it’s not like it was made on a shoestring budget – its budget was 4 million dollars, which may not sound like much in today’s terms, but it’s more than that of many games that inspired it. It broke the record of the most successfully crowdfunded game ever at the time – that alone should be worth something.

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Not all “spiritual successors” are as spot-on as Pillars of Eternity: clearly reminiscent of the games that inspired it, yet fresh and capable of standing on its own.

It must also have an impact on the opinions of at least gamers who aren’t involved in any official capacity with ranking or analyzing games that Pillars of Eternity was released in March. That doesn’t explain its absence from official lists of candidates, since Mortal Kombat X was released less than two weeks later, yet that game’s much more prominent in the discussion. Granted, Mortal Kombat must have a much more sizable community of players, but it’s not like Pillars of Eternity is an entirely obscure cult game either; after all, there were over 77,000 people throwing money at it before there even was any game to speak of. I know that’s a tiny amount of people compared to the tens of millions of copies that big triple-A games sell all the time, but in my opinion, it’s enough to warrant a consideration in discussions that feature much less successful games.

That’s another point well worth making: anywhere you look, the game received the equivalent of around 90% score from critics. It has a MetaCritic score of 89, and the lowest score it received from a critic was 70. Its score is higher than that of Fallout 4 (88), Dying Light (75) or Mortal Kombat X (86). All those other games have been solid contenders for the title of Game of the Year – isn’t it a little bit silly that one that beats them all is out of the race entirely? I’ll be one of the first to advocate disregarding MetaCritic scores as a definition of a game, but this is just to point out that even in that regard, Pillars of Eternity is above a lot of “obvious” Game of the Year contenders. The Game Awards did nominate Pillars of Eternity for Best Role Playing Game of the Year, but that really felt like a formality more than anything else – much like Tales from the Borderlands seems to have been nominated for Best Narrative just to avoid the outrage of fans who would have been stumped not to hear mention of Telltale Games. IGN did honor Pillars of Eternity with a decent number of nominations; that just further contrasts the lack of nominations from other sources. How did one party feel the game was worth three nominations, if others didn’t think it warranted any?

Of all possible excuses to ignore Pillars of Eternity, I could only think of a couple that seem possible: either the KickStarter stigma has given it a deceptive reputation (which I find unlikely); its audience is limited enough that people don’t view it as a competitor for more “lowest common denominator” type games that appeal to wider demographics; there’s an invisible rule in place, determining the “minimum budget” a game must have so that it can be taken seriously, or pitted against other games in this kind of discussion; or perhaps Obsidian just didn’t go around making enough backroom deals with websites, publications and personalities, instead offering the game to the market to compete with its own merits. It saddens me that this last option started out as a joke in my head, but I actually believe there’s truth to it.

The Labor of Love

In a recent blog post, I already made note of the fact that Obsidian is one of the precious few game developers who still make games not for the largest possible audience, but for the audience that happens to like the game they make. In other words, they make more unique, more specialized experiences at the expense of the wider general appeal in the market. That alone hints that they make games as a passion first, and a business second (which may explain how they nearly ended up going bankrupt). This game is no different – in fact, being a crowdfunded project, Obsidian was responsible directly to the fanbase rather than a producer or a publisher, so it was even more crucial for the game to be one that especially its backers could be satisfied with.

Instead of situating the story in an existing fantasy setting, they created an entirely new world from the ground up. I don’t mean they just drew a map and threw in elves and dwarves; they created history, culture, language, religion – a world deeper and more detailed than any I’ve seen since The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. There’s a sense of life in Eora – the world of Pillars of Eternity – that doesn’t come from scripting NPCs to eat bread in the morning and drink beer in the evening, but only from designing history and social aspects for the world. Instead of a backdrop or a tapestry, Eora feels like something you exist in; you can feel the motion in social and political spheres, and that adds to the sense that your actions have weight to them.

When I mentioned language, I didn’t mean that some whimsical species of creatures speaks incomprehensible gibberish at random times during dialogue – there’s actual grammar, dialects, and cultural influence involved with languages. Depending on whether a character hails from an old empire or its former colony that long since won its independence, there’s a difference to their speech, even though the language is essentially the same. One of my pet peeves is fantasy worlds where every dwarf, for example, speaks the same language – some mystical “dwarfspeak” that is injected into each dwarf’s brain at infancy, regardless of how many thousands of miles separate different dwarf settlements who may never interact with each other. In Pillars of Eternity, languages have history and natural behavior, and consist of believable elements that make them appear credible and immersive. Cultural subgroups are divided by geography and socio-economical factors rather than species alone. The social layout of the world is leaps and bounds ahead of most other games in terms of how much sense it makes.

But the world is not just about simulationism and vain detail. The world’s design all comes together very well, whether you’re looking at the architecture in a specific town, the folklore regarding a region of the land, or the political relationships between two different nations; it all feels like it’s part of the same entity, even if these elements don’t directly have anything to do with each other. That shows some unusual talent in creating a world from scratch, all at once. The developers smartly left essentially everything outside the Eastern Reach (the area where Pillars of Eternity actually takes place, and its surrounding regions) shrouded in mystery, both to not overwhelm the first entry in what will hopefully be a franchise, and to allow themselves more freedom in the future to develop the lands and cultures they need, as they become relevant.

Writing

Being an Obsidian game, Pillars of Eternity is expected to be composed of quality writing – that’s arguably one of the things Obsidian has always excelled at. I admit I was personally a little bit worried at times before the game’s release, due to my realization that my expectations for the narrative of the game were sky-high – that usually amounts to bitter disappointment in any game. I was pleased beyond measure to see that I was worried for nothing: most of the game’s writing is simply extravagant, whether it’s the characterization of a companion, the contained narrative of a side quest, or the nation-wide goings-on happening in the background of the actual game. Even being as impatient as today’s world has made me, I constantly found myself sucked into a box of text, containing unique dialogue between my character and a companion, or an NPC.

The companions are indeed quite fascinating for the most part. The lack of the alignment grid from Dungeons & Dragons actually serves to open up the characters for more multi-dimensional character development, and allows for the player to organically get to know them, little by little. Most of the characters are more complex than they seem at first – the stand-up guy who appears to be full of empathy and zeal may eventually reveal some rather unpleasant characteristics, and vice versa. A precious few characters in the game are quite as simple as just a “bad guy”, or anything else describable with a couple of words. There’s depth and believability in all of the characters in Pillars of Eternity, which furthers the impression of a living world in motion.

Arguably the bigger challenge, however, is writing the main character. In a game such as this, where the path they take isn’t entirely decided from the start, it can be difficult to write a coherent role for the hero without making the player feel like their choices don’t matter. Pillars of Eternity succeeds in allowing room for the character’s imagined personality, enabling the player to affect the outcome of quests as well as the world’s disposition towards themselves, while keeping the hero relevant and fitting to the narrative. The character develops an organic personality not through a binary dialogue system of saying the same thing with a different emotion or some such garbage, but by making actual choices of how to resolve a situation at hand; instead of presenting a choice to either be nice or mean to an NPC, Pillars of Eternity has you choosing the course of action most fitting to your character in a specific situation, such as lying their way out of a tough spot, bullying someone into helping them, choosing to do the “right thing” instead of what they were told or what seems easiest, or taking the high road and going through some extra trouble in order to help everyone else.

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People familiar with Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale may recognize the dialogue format. They’ll also recall that choices tend to make actual difference, instead of just making the character sound meaner or nicer.

No single instance shapes the character in any definitive way, but over time the consistencies of their actions will begin to form a tapestry of wholesome personality – for example, my main characters is a no-nonsense type mercenary, who isn’t strong on empathy and doesn’t shy away from maiming or killing people for a cause, but she can’t stand liars, and never lies herself. That’s something I didn’t have in mind as I started out, but a few hours into the game, the character concept began to take form, and before I knew it, she had become an actual multi-dimensional protagonist of the narrative.

Design

A quick look at Pillars of Eternity will remind most people of Baldur’s Gate, which is not a coincidence, obviously. But a closer glance will reveal that this game actually does have its own, original look, and while the map designs and art style resemble that of older games of similar nature, it’s clear that the point isn’t simply to pay homage to those games. Great care has been taken to create settlements and towns that have a wholesome, believable look, and after immersing themselves in the game for a while, the player will start to notice the influence of in-game cultures and history in things like architecture and infrastructure. The maps are designed in 3D and then rendered into 2D, which results in a look similar to those old Dungeons & Dragons RPGs, yet it’s clear we’ve come a long way since then – this game looks much better in every way.

3D models, including the player’s own party, are fair-looking, even if they’re nothing special or stunning. They’re not ugly or bothersome, and the simplified models have a significant effect on framerate, so it’s quite excusable in my opinion – besides, who would buy this game to see cutting-edge graphics, anyway? During my time with the game, I’ve run into a precious few animation bugs, which were regrettable but had no effect on gameplay.

The interface in Pillars of Eternity is, again, reminiscent of its spiritual predecessors, but much more fluid and clear. It’s intuitive to use whenever looking for a specific action or piece of information, and there’s practically no learning curve – the mechanical side of the game is extremely easy to learn. Many terms used in the game’s rules and lore may appear strange at first, but most of them have explanations available either by simply hovering the cursor over the term, or by finding it in the appropriate section of the in-game journal.

The overall visual feel of the game does have some familiar nuances to it, but the truth is that it mostly comes across as new and fresh; even with all its similarities, I never felt like I was actually playing Baldur’s Gate – and that’s a great thing. I was constantly aware that I’m in a new, unexplored world, entirely unrelated to Forgotten Realms or any other fantasy setting I had seen before. Initially, that was because the game world just looks like nothing else – it might be hard to distinguish from screenshots or demo clips, but once you play the game, I’m certain you’ll feel the same.

Gameplay

I love Baldur’s Gate, but to be honest, the worst thing about that game as well as others of its kind is probably Dungeons & Dragons. While a great system for table-top role playing games, it never quite suited a computer game as nicely. Pillars of Eternity has a gameplay that feels similar – if not outright identical – to that of Baldur’s Gate and its like, but the mechanics have been developed specifically for this game, which practically automatically results in a much more tailored and satisfying system.

The mechanics are complex and deep enough to allow for meaningful micromanagement and character specialization, yet logical and self-explanatory enough to not overwhelm you just trying to understand what’s happening. I personally love how there’s enough statistics to immediately distinguish characters from one another in some concrete way, while the specialization and development still happens over time by accumulating experience and learning new skills and talents. For example, a character may be especially strong or unusually keen-eyed from the start, but they won’t have access to a lot of special combat moves or anything until they’ve gained some experience.

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The game’s systems resemble those of older, more complicated games, but are actually quite straightforward and make a lot of sense.

From a very early point on, the game begins to gain its girth from a variety of quests, which are likely to distract the player from the main story, which isn’t too intrusive in the first place. Quests never feel like filler or pointless busywork – there’s always a story there, and that story is never as shallow as getting a local man’s stolen sword back from a bandit camp. Nearly always there is a chance that the quest will take an unexpected turn, or at least you will have a chance to affect what happens as you finish it. More often than not, conflicts between NPCs turn out to be more complex than what was apparent at first, and an item someone may have asked you to retrieve is revealed to be an artifact of malign power. The game encourages following your character’s nature, instead of looking for the “correct” solution, as often there isn’t a single outcome that’s clearly more beneficial to you than others. The quests are most rewarding when you make the choice your character would make, and accept the consequences.

Over the course of most quests, the player has opportunities to mold the way the world perceives their character. Pillars of Eternity employs a clever Reputation system, which truthfully is one of the best individual mechanics in the whole game. As the game progresses, the character will accumulate personal reputations tracked by a numeric value; there are ten different types of reputations, such as “benevolent”, “cruel”, “honest” and “deceptive”. The accumulation of these reputations is very gradual, but after a while you’ll notice the numbers start to paint a very clear picture about what kind of impression the character has made to the game world. What’s more, these aren’t simple binary traits comparable to the black-and-white alignment grid familiar from Dungeons & Dragons; instead, every reputation has a different meaning depending on the context. For example, an “aggressive” character can be known as a violent loose cannon, or in another situation, as someone who gets things done and doesn’t hesitate in the face of challenging odds or unexpected turns of events.

As if the personal reputation system wasn’t enough, there’s also another reputation mechanic in Pillars of Eternity. This one resembles the one familiar from Fallout: New Vegas, where the character’s choices and actions directly affect how a specific faction is disposed towards them. In other words, helping out a faction will make them treat your character more favorably, possibly opening up new quests or services that may be off-limits otherwise, while assaulting them or consorting with their rivals can make them dislike or even fear the character, affecting what kind of role that faction will play in the rest of the game. These two reputation mechanics ensure that there are numerous ways to play the game, and that the main character will actually feel like a part of the game world; the changes that happen aren’t always directly scripted, but they’re prompted by the relationship the character has with other characters and factions.

Combat is a significant part of gameplay in Pillars of Eternity, although in a different way than in its spiritual predecessors. Killing individual enemies doesn’t award any experience, which removes the desire to look for pointless fights – you get experience for filling out the bestiary, which happens as you defeat the first few of a given type of monster, but beyond that, experience is only awarded through progress in the game. Therefore, combat takes a fairly different role in this game, mostly as a change of pace, and a challenge to overcome as a test of ability. Avoiding combat through diplomacy can be as satisfying as beating the opposition, since the reward doesn’t come from the kill count, but from making progress.

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Combat situations may look chaotic, but you’ll know what’s going on when you’re playing it yourself. Sound tactics not optional.

The combat itself, especially on higher difficulties, requires savvy tactics and situational awareness. You must understand what’s happening in the fight at all times, and be able to react whenever the situation calls for it. You must note enemies who have high defenses against specific attack types, and figure out a way to override them; you need to find ways to avoid foes who utilize devastating offensive abilities; the placement of characters in the field of combat is crucial, and can easily make the difference between victory and defeat. A lot of time in combat is spent with the game paused, giving out orders and studying the enemy combatants as well as the layout of the area. That’s something I love beyond almost anything in a video game – when a lot of the game happens inside your head, without anything really happening in the game itself.

Generally, gameplay is very satisfying: combat and general adventuring is fluid and intuitive, difficulty is fairly balanced, and dungeons and quests are varied but always of appropriate length; not too long, so that they don’t become a chore, but not too short or “trivial” either. Whatever kind of activity I’m undertaking in the game – fighting monsters, solving a mystery, or going through an extensive dialogue of important matters – I constantly feel enjoyment and fulfillment, to an extent unrivaled by most games. Pillars of Eternity feels challenging and rewarding, and moments of frustration are few and far between – and even then it’s often frustration in my own mistakes, rather than the design of the game.


Conclusion

I really don’t care if Pillars of Eternity wins a Game of the Year award of any kind; only one game can win, and it’s obviously a tricky task to determine the one most deserving, because that game must be compared to others that are usually vastly different in content and purpose. That’s not the point of my grief; I’m just astonished that this game is neglected in lists of nominated games. It’s not completely new information to me that there’s a certain form of politics involved with awards and such, but it only now dawned on me that the situation is this bad, and this ridiculous.

Pillars of Eternity is a game worth 10 points out of 10 in my opinion, and the general disposition isn’t far off. It’s a game completely deserving of any nomination that also includes games such as Fallout 4 or Dying Light. This game, as I said at the beginning of this post, is the only game all year that didn’t fall short of what it promised; a feat even the mighty Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain failed to accomplish, even though I am a die-hard fan of that series.

I know it doesn’t make any difference, but this year’s Game Awards made me decide on denouncing the entire award culture in the video game industry. I also know it’s the same deal with any other form of entertainment, and the big awards are always about something else than what they’re pretending to be about. I mean, what’s the point of rewarding the best game of the year, if the quality of the game isn’t what it’s really even about? The same goes for the endorsements some games receive from big-time gaming-related websites and publications, who promote and hype the game whose publisher goes through the trouble of paying them for it; just don’t pay any attention to what they’re saying. It’s not good games that they’re interested in.


Pillars of Eternity official site

Obsidian Entertainment official site


 

I sincerely congratulate the developers that won any awards, as well as of those that were nominated, and those that weren’t. They are talented, hard-working people and deserve recognition for their efforts and the quality entertainment they create.

 

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