Making Stuff Up
Anyone who looked into Josh Sawyer’s office would have reasonably assumed he was preparing to host the most epic Dungeons & Dragons campaign of his life.
Sawyer’s desk was covered in reference materials befitting any RPG director: player guidebooks, monster bestiaries, Dungeon Master manuals, notepads, writing utensils. Project Eternity’s Game Director sat in front of three monitors, each displaying documents and map images.
“It was a lot of sitting at my computer, looking at old reference material, talking with people, and then listening to ideas from other people on the team,” he said of building Pillars of Eternity’s world from scratch.
Tight deadlines were as intrinsic a piece of Obsidian Entertainment’s DNA as rich dialogue and real-time-with-pause tactical combat. Pillars of Eternity’s Kickstarter campaign was no different. Development on the game was happening concurrently to the Kickstarter, which was still going gangbusters. Knowing backers would want details as the campaign progressed, Sawyer cranked out lore and expanded it into a three-dimensional world brimming with interesting peoples, places, and things to do—all while juggling myriad other responsibilities of a project director, from weighing in on camera angles to the minutia of game systems.
“During the campaign, people would say, 'I have this feeling you're making this stuff up as you go along,' and I'm like, 'No shit, dude,'” Sawyer recalled. “We didn't necessarily know the game was going to get funded, so I didn't know the whole world going into the campaign. It was an ad hoc style of design.”
Sawyer knew from experience that the first step to building a world was planting a hook. Pillars of Eternity’s hook was Adam Brennecke’s idea of reincarnation centered on souls. Certain individuals were blessed—or cursed—with the ability to read souls, and were aware that their souls had been recycled countless times over eons. The world in which these souls found new vessels time and again was called Eora, a realm of exotic cities, quaint farming villages, and vast wilderness regions.
Sawyer rooted Pillars of Eternity’s story in the Dyrwood and Eir Glanfath, two nations set in Eora’s Eastern Reach peninsula. “I went with a setting that was fairly conservative in terms of how it looked and felt, so it felt like Forgotten Realms,” Sawyer explained. “I looked at a map of the Dalelands in the Forgotten Realms, and I didn't literally flip it, but I sort of mentally flipped it and drew out what became the Dyrwood and Eir Glanfath.”
The team had good reason to stick close to the Forgotten Realms. Obsidian had billed the project on Kickstarter as a game baked in the mold of Infinity Engine-style RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. Pillars of Eternity’s target audience expected a game that looked and felt familiar.
Still, the team deviated in some ways. As Sawyer came up with ideas, he fired off emails and went around the office to poll developers for feedback. Eora differed from the Realms in its adoption of sixteenth-century architecture and technology, namely guns, a weapon type that Brennecke had written near the top of his wish list. Some of the races that inhabited Eora’s continents and seas would be familiar as well, yet Sawyer added twists. Humans were a given, but Sawyer labeled them the folk and divided them among the meadow, ocean, and savannah cultures, or sub-races.
The godlike were one of Sawyer’s first creations. Stemming from Pillars of Eternity’s core conceit of reincarnation and religion, the godlike are born from humans and blessed with the physical features of deities. To create the godlike, Sawyer borrowed some characteristics from D&D’s genasi race of humanoid creatures conceived of humans and elementals. Genasi exhibit characteristics of their elemental heritage, such as the fire genasi’s flaming-red skin or the blue, scaly flesh of water genasi.
Sawyer distinguished the godlike by concentrating their most striking characteristics on their heads. Nature godlike are covered in vegetation and fungi. Hard, shell-like scales cover the faces of death godlike, while fire godlike have heads of flame. Working with lead character artist Dimitri Berman, he wanted to focus first on drawing cool-looking characters and leave practicalities for later.
“Dimitri, as a character artist, is always worried about how helmets and stuff work, how things fit on characters,” Sawyer recalled. “So, I said, ‘They can't wear helmets,’ which is one of their defining characteristics. I said, ‘Let their heads have horns, or wreaths of flame, or weird growths, and they'll never be able to wear helmets. That will be a drawback of playing that character type.”
“For both projects, the godlike are my favorite. I really like weird stuff,” Berman added.
In popular fantasy and the Forgotten Realms in particular, the drow, or dark elves, are often portrayed as evil, with the exception of R. A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden character. Sawyer liked the concept of dark elves and put his spin on them to create the glamfellen, a race of elves that inhabit Eora’s icy southern region called The White That Wends, and so pale in appearance that players may believe them made from ice.
Other stock fantasy races such as halflings, orcs, and gnomes went under the knife as well. “I included those,” Sawyer explained, “but then thought, You know what? I don't think that many people are into halflings and gnomes, and I really don't want to have orcs, and I don't think that many people are into orcs and half-orcs as player-characters. I knew some would, but it wouldn’t be a big percentage of people. So I decided to not to do those, but I did say, ‘Let's have a small race and a big race.’”
The towering aumaua were born out of Sawyer’s distaste for stereotypes such as all orcs being bloodthirsty savages, a preconception dated all the way back to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Their gigantic physiques and colored skin make them the subject of racism by the folk, the most prolific of Eora’s races.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the aumaua are the diminutive orlan. While the orlan are partially inspired by halflings, they crave more than languid summer days spent celebrating one-hundred-and-eleventh birthdays and shying away from adventures. They’re small, they’re frequently oppressed, and they’re tired of it. “That's where a lot of the orlan background, especially in the first game, came from,” Sawyer said. “They're physically small, so most cultures that come into contact with them wind up at least trying to push them around. Their history as a people, at least in the Eastern Reach, is defined by various forms of enslavement or resistance to the interference of other people.”
Sawyer never designed in a vacuum. His usual process was to leaf through books, chat on forums, and read articles, then dump his thoughts into a document and sort through what he’d written. After he cleaned up a document, he’d send it off in an email to colleagues and then drift around the office, listening to feedback and rapping about design ideas. George Ziets proposed backgrounds and alignments for gods, so Sawyer turned those parts over to him. Bobby Null proposed dozens of monsters, and Sawyer ran with many of his ideas.
Adding wrinkles that positioned Eora and its inhabitants as both a touchstone for players familiar with Infinity Engine RPGs, but also fresh. Early on, Chris Avellone mentioned that many of the classes Sawyer had devised hewed too closely to D&D. Fighters and clerics were a given, he said, but maybe a few classes should be as different from the norm as possible.
“My idea for that was the cipher, which wound up being more of a psionicist,” Sawyer remembered. “You could say it's like D&D's psionicist, but I think they do feel distinctly different.” Where psionicist harness the power of their minds to perform techniques rooted in mental abilities, ciphers draw energy from their souls as well as mental energy.
Instead of bards, the chanter class manifests abilities by rattling off phrases that can be combined to manipulate powerful magic. “I think it was Tim Cain who had the idea of overlapping phrases that gave these buffs and things like that, where your goal was to construct chants out of phrases and overlap as many recurring effects as you could,” said Sawyer.
“I love the chanter class, because our take on the bard class is not at all the old D&D, combat-and-thief type of guy. He's his own person,” Cain added. “He sings these chants that make crazy effects happen because he's calling on ancestral spirits. I love playing that class.”
Through the combined efforts of Sawyer and the feedback he received, Pillars of Eternity carved out its own space beside the Infinity Engine games by mixing classic computer RPG tropes and its own flourishes. The fact that it succeeded computer CRPGs rather than pen-and-paper games—the antecedent of classics such as Baldur’s Gate—made it particularly distinctive.
“In a tabletop game, it's hard to keep track of all the numbers,” Cain explained. “Someone puts a status effect on you that lasts so long, and its effect changes all the time, and it puts an aura on you, so if you move around, it affects anyone who comes within such-and-such a distance. That's just really hard to do in a paper-and-pencil game, but it's trivial for us to do in a computer game.”
Although Josh Sawyer laid the groundwork for Eora and its peoples and cultures, he was not the lead narrative designer on Pillars of Eternity. That mantle would go to Eric Fenstermaker as soon as he was done writing for South Park: The Stick of Truth. “One of the realities of development at a studio with multiple projects is you can't always get everyone exactly when you want or need them,” Sawyer explained.
“My involvement at the very beginning of Pillars of Eternity was limited to a series of meetings where a group of us discussed what we could do to make the setting feel unique, and then began to brainstorm story ideas,” said Fenstermaker. “The rest of the time I was writing fart jokes for South Park. Which, you know, I can’t complain.”
While the line between designer and writer blurs easily, Fenstermaker had always wanted to be a writer. “Even at school, I was spending all my electives on English classes and little else, so I had some sense I wanted to angle more towards writing and design. When I graduated, I went looking for places where I might be able to write, of which there were very few offering full-time, entry-level positions in either writing or design.”
Fenstermaker applied to studios across the industry and got a hit from Obsidian. He turned heads by submitting a mod he had made for Neverwinter Nights using the toolset BioWare had packaged with the game. He cut his teeth programming scripts and worked his way up to writing on Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and South Park.
As soon as South Park was ready to ship out, Fenstermaker joined Pillars of Eternity’s team of narrative designers. “When Eric came on, he was very largely focused on the story, themes, defining the major characters, and bringing on dialogue and things like that,” Sawyer said.
Fenstermaker found material waiting for him: summaries of Eora’s races and cultures, a timeline for the Dyrwood nation, and biographies of the two major cities, Defiance Bay and Twin Elms, that players would visit. “There was a lot to work from, which was good, because worldbuilding is time consuming and the story needed to be done in a hurry,” he said.
Fenstermaker gravitated to the notion of playing around with reincarnation. In early story treatments he combined rebirth with high-level concepts such as creating animancy, a branch of science based on the study of souls. From the outset, Fenstermaker liked the idea of the player becoming a special type of character able to see, interpret, and manipulate souls. Morality had been a core theme of the Infinity Engine games, and soul science would give players opportunities to decide whether to apply their abilities toward noble ends or selfish and nefarious ones.
The term Sawyer had coined for this expert was a Watcher. Sawyer’s initial idea was that Watcher’s should be able to communicate with spirits. Fenstermaker riffed on that idea by granting Watchers their soul-manipulation powers. “We also toyed with making resurrection a big deal and not something you buy from the clergyman on the corner, but that one needed to be part of the story if we were going to use it, and we ended up not,” he said.
Fenstermaker’s first stab at a treatment picked up after the Saint’s War, a piece of lore Sawyer had written before Fenstermaker got involved. In the Saint’s War, a farmer named Waidwen became the host for the god Eothas, organized a revolt, installed a theocratic government, and invaded the Dyrwood. Fenstermaker’s treatment saw Waidwen reincarnated and pick up where he left off at the end of the Saint’s War. He ran the idea by Sawyer and others, but was met with concern over the scale of the climax, a battle at a stronghold central to the game’s plot.
“We’d done something similar in the third act of Neverwinter Nights 2 and it was a notorious resource hog both development-wise and engine-wise,” he recalled. “Neverwinter Nights 2 had inflicted a kind of trauma on the people who’d worked on it, and even almost a decade later the hard lessons of that project were so fresh in our minds that we were all maybe a little prone to overcorrection. It’s funny,” he added, “looking back at this treatment now, part of me thinks maybe we should’ve done it, if only because it was cleaner than the later pitches, and would’ve been ready to go a lot quicker.”
Sawyer liked the metaphysical aspects of Fenstermaker’s pitch and encouraged him to go further in that direction. “I think, from Baldur’s Gate, what we were taking was the broad scope of exploration and the companions,” Sawyer said of some influences culled from Infinity Engine titles. “With Icewind Dale, we hoped to get the really evocative, beautiful environments, and tactical combat. From Planescape: Torment, it was really about the metaphysical concepts: the philosophical, the metaphysical, and the religious aspects.”
“One of the interesting things about Josh is that even though he is thoroughly detail oriented, he is not at all a micromanager. It makes him well suited to a directing role,” Fenstermaker said. “He had a vision and certain things he was passionate about, and as long as you could work within that vision, he was very open to ideas and suggestions. I could very occasionally talk him out of something he wanted that I had a competing idea for, but that was only maybe like once a project so I had to save it up and spend wisely there. There really wasn’t much need to.”
Working alongside George Ziets, Fenstermaker wrote a second treatment by mashing together ideas from other developers. It had promise, but plot ideas from other treatments were gumming up his creative works. Fenstermaker discarded the treatment and started over. By that time, Ziets’ contract had expired and he had moved on to other work. Fenstermaker wrote another story pitch, one in which religion played a key role. “I focused on trying to streamline what we had, and to make the story more personal,” he said. “I was also just looking for some kind of unknown ingredient that would give the story a kind of reason for being.”
His next treatment embraced souls and reincarnation as the pillars of Pillars of Eternity, along with theology. “I spent a long time thinking about reincarnation and why it would be there in this world and how it would work and what relationship the gods might have with it. And at a certain point I had an answer that I was happy with because I wasn’t aware of any settings that had done it that way, and because it gave me the core of a mystery for the game. And from that answer, the last treatment started to take shape.”
Fenstermaker’s mystery concerned the existence of gods and Eora’s collective belief in them. Centuries ago, the peoples of Eir Glanfath, once a melting pot of races, had built monuments and other structures out of adra, a living substance that acts as a conduit for animancy. Long after the original races that inhabited Eir Glanfath had died out, other races from surrounding nations such as the Dyrwood fought over first dibs on plundering the adra-wrought structures. The player joins the story in the middle of the action. Assuming the role of a Watcher, players travel throughout the Dyrwood and Eir Glanfath and discover that Eora’s faith in their gods has been misplaced—because their gods never existed.
“We'd had the notion of these big, ancient machines from earlier drafts, but their function had been quite different,” Fenstermaker said. “So it was very late in the process. I think I was still at that point searching pretty actively for something that would make our setting stand apart from the sort of boilerplate fantasy setting that everyone defaults to. I had some concern that the soul mechanics of the world, while an interesting focal point, weren't distinguishing enough on their own. Like, if the whole adventure could've just happened in the Forgotten Realms, then why should this IP even exist? I think I zeroed in on the concept of manmade gods because I liked the existential implications of it. Fantasy doesn't usually get to deal with those.”
The theme of religion was relatable to most Obsidian developers regardless of their personal beliefs. “We have people on the team who are religious, or not religious, or strongly atheistic, strongly Christian, or other beliefs,” Sawyer said. “We have a lot of discussions about this within the context of the world, and come at it from different perspectives. I think that's what makes the subject rich for exploration in the game.”
Growing up, Sawyer had not taken part in organized religion. He labeled himself atheistic while recognizing the importance of religion as a vital part of human nature. “When I got my history degree, it was focusing largely on religious history. It was hagiography in late medieval and early modern Europe, and witch hunting, which has various interesting religious aspects associated with it.”
Fans of Sawyer’s earlier projects had accompanied him on journeys steeped in theology. Honest Hearts, an expansion for Fallout: New Vegas, introduced content that centered on religion. “I think there are a lot of interesting things to explore, whether you are a believer or you aren't. It's interesting to think about why we conduct ourselves the way that we do,” he continued. “When you get to that root of, 'How do I behave? Why do I behave? What are the underpinnings of my beliefs, and how do those influence how I go about my daily life?'—I think those are interesting questions, whether you're talking in a fantasy context or a real-world context.”
Sawyer and Fenstermaker hoped that the revelation that Eora’s gods were artificial constructs would spur players into asking themselves interesting questions while, simultaneously, the game’s characters wrestled with their beliefs. “What does it mean if gods are artificial?” Sawyer pondered. “What does it mean to know that, well, they're still powerful, and they still control the cycle of reincarnation, but they did not create the world itself? They did not create the cycle of reincarnation of itself. Does that matter? Does it matter if a god is dead?”
Fenstermaker shaped Pillars of Eternity’s story, but like Sawyer, he was as much a manager as he was a designer. “The ‘lead’ part means you have to go to more meetings, you probably have people reporting to you—although I didn’t on South Park—whom you have to manage and review, and you’re doing a lot of feedback. You’re reading every design document you can and giving input as an advocate for your department and for the narrative. You’re watching scope and telling level and system designers when an area or system is asking for more dialogues than you can cover in the schedule.”
Fenstermaker was interested in writing many of the quests and characters that players would encounter along the game’s critical path. For the rest, he recruited help. Chris Avellone had already joined the project’s narrative design team, along with half a dozen others including Josh Sawyer, who wrote as his other responsibilities allowed.
One of the Fenstermaker’s best designers was a new hire who benefitted from an odd advantage.
Oudtshoorn holds significance for Carrie Patel. The small town in South Africa’s Western Cape hosts the continent’s largest cave system and holds the honor of being the ostrich capital of the world. It’s also the place where Carrie Patel landed a job that became a career.
After working a day job, Patel talked with her husband about her dream of writing novels. They agreed that she should focus on writing for a time. Patel had written The Buried Life, the first installment in a trilogy of novels, and was shopping for an agent. Angry Robot Books signed her to a trilogy, and she continued writing but found herself missing the structure of a regular job. Thinking of the point-and-click adventure games she had played as a kid, Patel hunted for writing positions in the games industry by searching for games with stories that had sucked her in, such as BioWare’s Mass Effect series, and sent in applications.
On a Thursday, a manager from Obsidian replied to Patel’s query and asked if she would be willing to take a writing test. She agreed, and was given the weekend to work on a multi-part evaluation. The first part asked her to explain her tastes in games and design. The second consisted of sample text commonly found in games: character dialogue, item descriptions, and exposition. Her job on that segment was to revise and polish.
Patel believed she was reading between the lines and had discovered a test within the test, like a Trojan horse. “I edited with a fairly light touch, just tried to make it a little more coherent and mechanically correct,” she said, believing that what Obsidian really wanted her to do was touch up the writing rather than overhaul it. She submitted the test a couple of days later and left for a planned vacation with her husband. On October 30, she received an email asking if she had time for a phone interview sometime the following week. Patel wrote back and explained that she and her husband were out of the country, and calling Obsidian would be more convenient due to time zones.
At midnight on November 5, Patel made her way downstairs to the lobby of the hotel where she and her husband were staying in Oudtshoorn. For the next hour she spoke with Josh Sawyer, Chris Avellone, and Eric Fenstermaker. The conversation flowed easily. When they asked about her history with roleplaying games, Patel admitted she lacked experience in the types of RPGs that were influencing Pillars of Eternity, but made up for it with her knowledge of writing other types of stories as well as playing other types of story-driven games. She got up to speed on the classics before starting at Obsidian a couple of weeks later. “I did play Planescape: Torment once I got to Obsidian, in part because I knew that was such a big touchstone for us as a company and as the Pillars team, and because it was such a groundbreaking game in terms of narrative design and storytelling in games, but I had not played Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale. We've always been looking for a balance in the Pillars games between hearkening back to that flavor and style, and updating it and creating our own world and story.”
After starting, someone brought up her writing test. “What I heard later was, ‘Actually, we'd been looking for ways to get people to take more risks and authorship on these tests, but everyone tends to edit dialogue pretty lightly, which was not what we were looking for.’ I thought that was interesting,” she remembered.
By the time Patel arrived, Avellone, Fenstermaker, Sawyer, and other designers had written up documents detailing areas such as Twin Elms, the second of Pillars of Eternity’s two large cities and a Kickstarter stretch goal. Some quests had barebones direction for the narrative designer who would be assigned to it. Others were blank slates for Patel to fill as she saw fit.
It didn’t take long for her to get a handle on the narrative team’s work flow. First, she would reference the design document associated with the character, quest, or region to which she was assigned. Then she would touch base with the level designer working on that area to see where her character or quest fit in the game’s structure: a main quest that would move the player one step closer to the ending, or a side quest that could be undertaken to earn extra experience and items. Finally, she would check for any notes from leads such as Sawyer or Fenstermaker in case they had a specific tone or direction in mind.
Patel got into the habit of using her email as a scratch pad, jotting down thoughts in a draft she could refer to later. Once she was ready to write, she fired up OEI, short for Obsidian Entertainment, Inc., the studio’s proprietary set of tools for narrative design, and did a writing pass. “That could be as simple as creating a dialogue tree from scratch for the content, if there wasn't something already, or editing an existing tree for mechanical consistency, or a clear sense of direction for the player, or different characterization, any of those things.”
One of her first projects was The Final Act, a multi-part side quest. “They got me into quest-writing fairly quickly, which was exciting and a little bit intimidating,” Patel recalled.
The Final Act sees players associating with Kurren, a cipher investigating a spate of disappearances. He confides to players that animancers may be behind the work, hence recruiting the player, a Watcher, to employ his or her innate soul-manipulation abilities. Players track down three individuals and eventually make their way to a seedy playhouse where they find a scarf belonging to Kora, one of the missing persons. An aspiring actress with a cheery disposition who wanted nothing more than to finally get her big break, Kora was lured to the theater and murdered in the fantasy equivalent of a snuff film. Players proceed with the quest until they confront Kora’s murderer.
Patel got wrapped up in plotting the quest and fleshing out its characters, and was pleased to discover that that’s exactly what Fenstermaker wanted from his narrative team. “I think for me, figuring out, ‘How much leeway do I have? Do you want me to give this a light touch and clean up the prose? Do you want me to look at structural story stuff and say, 'This doesn't make a lot of sense, this doesn't feel great,' or 'Here's an option we're neglecting?' Where's the authorship with this, and how do you want me to approach it?’ Those were my first big questions,” she explained.
Diving head-first into quest writing gave Patel time and space to learn the delicate balance between audiovisual elements and text, the collective backbone of Infinity Engine—and Infinity Engine-inspired—roleplaying games. Audiovisual elements, for example, were not ideal for showing fine details such as facial expressions because the camera was set too far back and above the action. That was where writing came in. “We do communicate a lot more through prose and dialogue: writing out actions, gestures, facial expressions, a lot of things you'd include if you were writing this game as a novel or short story,” she said.
Writing prose was often more of a pragmatic rather than a creative decision. The four million dollars Obsidian had raised through crowdfunding was going toward studio expenses ranging from employee salaries and healthcare plans to snacks and drinks for the kitchen, to computers and software licenses. “I made the choice to use prose early on in part so that we could capture whatever we needed to in the narrative without getting art support for it,” Fenstermaker explained. “So basically the way it worked was that we did it all in text, requested art where it was considered high priority, and if we didn’t get it, the text had it covered.”
Requests for audio, such as a sound effect that a narrative designer wanted to play at a specific moment, were as difficult to get fulfilled as art requests due to the small size of the audio team. “There usually wasn’t time to get, for example, a sound effect to accompany every prose mention of a sound,” Fenstermaker continued. “Instead we concentrated on key plot moments, and also the scripted interactions, which we figured out how to do relatively cheaply both for art and for audio, and those were great bang for the buck.”
Audiovisuals get their due by way of the game’s isometric camera. Many 3D roleplaying games such as Mass Effect and Dark Souls keep cameras close to the action, hovering behind and above the player-character’s shoulder. That limits the player’s view to the environment ahead and to either side.
Sawyer appreciates the benefits of that level of immersion, such as forcing players to turn around and letting designers stage scenarios such as enemies creeping up from behind. Even so, he believes isometric RPGs offer another way to tell and be told a story. “We do things like banter conversations where we bark things over people's heads while they're walking around, just talking with each other,” he said. “In this iso view, where you're looking at a big picture and your characters are really small, barking back and forth, snipping, getting into arguments... It's just a different experience than when you play a first-person game, and even a 3D, top-down game.”
For Patel, Pillars of Eternity’s isometric angle facilitated storytelling and gameplay. Players who most enjoy tactical battles are satisfied with their expansive view of goings-on, as are players who prefer to be taken for a ride by characters and plot. “One thing I've heard a lot, that I'm not a huge fan of, is this question of, ‘Story or gameplay? Gameplay trumps story every time.’ Well, I guess if you decide that one doesn't matter, but if you approach that question with the idea that both matter, you can make both work. For that to happen, you have to have both parts present together and working together,” she said.
Any audiovisual requests for the player’s Watcher were considered high priority, an ace that Fenstermaker and his designers kept up their sleeves. Players begin their journey as a Watcher when a sudden storm leaves them the sole survivor of their caravan. They stumble across a ritual performed by cultists who use a contraption to strip souls from bodies and, due to their proximity to the machine’s energy, become a Watcher. Players put their abilities to use at critical junctures in the story such as solving the Hollowborn Plague, a rash of children born without souls and left in a catatonic state that’s sweeping across regions of Eora.
As the story unfolds, animancers receive the blame for the Plague until players root out the true cause: Thaos, a rogue priest with animancy powers. Thaos has lived for centuries by transferring his soul to new hosts and harvesting the souls of children for his schemes. Late in the story, players learn that Thaos belongs to an ancient civilization called the Leaden Key whose practitioners were adapt at reading and manipulating souls. Thaos and his brethren created gods for the purpose of instilling law and order. Thaos is the last of his order, and has been harvesting the souls of children to resurrect Woedica, one of his deities, for the purpose of rooting out and destroying animancy. Out of self-preservation, the other manmade gods ally with players as they complete the game’s main series of quests.
Freedom of Choice
Patel was among the newest members of Pillars of Eternity’s narrative team, but she was shooting for the same goal as experienced designers like Fenstermaker and Sawyer. “When you're creating something, you'll write out this dialogue tree and say, ‘I thought of everything! The story's great, and it feels great.’ Then you'll play the game, and in a lot of cases it feels very different. Adjusting your sensibilities accordingly can be challenging,” she said.
Some of Pillars of Eternity’s most memorable quests are those that give the player freedom to make choices. Not coincidentally, those were also among the most difficult to get just right. In Blood Legacy, players follow a breadcrumb trail and uncover a blood pool in Dyrford Ruins, where characters have been sacrificed—have been, and still can be.
Players can choose to sacrifice one of their companions in exchange for a slight boost to one of their Watcher’s attributes. Only players with a “Cruel” disposition can perform a sacrifice, and they must weigh the reward against the fact that many characters will treat them differently as they slide toward an evil alignment.
“One thing we allow players to do that is both really interesting and the bane of a designer's existence at times is, you can kill anyone,” Patel explained. “With any bit of content, we have to say, ‘Okay, but what if the player kills this person?’ To a certain extent, with side content, if you kill the quest giver and fail the quest, that's fine. But if we're talking about critical-path characters whose existence is necessary in some way to moving the story along—they're providing critical information at some point, or doing something at some point for the game to continue—we have to ask, ‘What if the player kills this person?’”
Pillars of Eternity’s designers did their best to put players first. They avoided writing dead-ends where players were unable to make a choice that would have been true to how they wanted to play their character. Their approach was to give players a say in making choices that open some story doors but close others. Their adventure will continue regardless of the outcome.
The Hermit of Hadret House, a main quest, is an exception to that golden rule. Players are summoned before Lady Webb, a recluse who knows much about them—too much, perhaps. As the quest continues, players will interact with certain members of one faction or others depending on how they handled earlier quests. Hermit of Hadret House stands out because it is the only quest players can fail. If players kill Lady Webb, the game ends. “There are times when there's only so much you can do,” Patel admitted. “Like, ‘Look, if you kill Lady Webb at this point, that's a game over, because there's no one else who can tell you what she tells you.’”
As evidenced by Blood Legacy, Obsidian’s emphasis on player choice extended to companions, adventurers whom players meet as they play, and one of the most important elements of roleplaying games. Like game designers, companions wear several hats. They have their own stories, motivations, enemies, and friends, but they also serve as vehicles to explain the world and its inhabitants and cultures. “The Watcher's awakening is also new to the player, so those things get explained to the player and the Watcher at the same time,” said Patel. “That's a thing that a lot of games and films do, because it's easier to keep the player and main character on the same page.”
Just as Obsidian’s writers were careful to avoid dead-ends, they took as much care in never assuming that players would feel a certain way about a character or situation. They knew that not all players wanted to create do-gooders. Some would be cold-hearted killers. Others would fall somewhere between altruistic and evil. Companion characters, however, are given alignments to help players understand different perspectives on an event.
Companions run the gamut in Pillars of Eternity, from Eder, a physically fit character with blonde hair whose pipe and cocky grin speak to his laidback demeanor, to Durance, whose physical appearance and seemingly bottomless well of anger inform his cynical worldview and propensity for testing players.
Chris Avellone wrote Durance as well as the Grieving Mother. Both characters became fan favorites. “A lot of the character books I did for pen-and-paper games helped me refine the process of character bios when doing computer role-playing games,” Avellone said. “For example, the Grieving Mother in Pillars of Eternity transitioned off of a supervillain I had once created for Champions’ Underworld Enemies, a villain who was so unremarkable, she was mentally invisible to people around her, including her own family, so she did dangerous stunts and crimes to force people to notice her and help her. I’d never been able to do more work with the character, so I decided to expand on the concept in a video game.”
The Grieving Mother is a peasant woman just past child-bearing age. Her plain clothing contrasts with her true nature: She is a cipher who uses her abilities to assist mothers with childbirth, the Pillars of Eternity analogue of a midwife. When the Hollowborn Plague strikes her area, she takes a different tack, weaving a spell to convince townsfolk that their soulless children are healthy. When the illusion becomes too complex for her to hold, it shatters. The community turns on her to enact revenge, forcing her to flee.
Players who take up with her will find themselves pulled into moral debates, particularly when Durance, who scornfully views the Grieving Mother as an abettor of the Hollowborn Plague, is in their party. “Mystery might be the most powerful tool a writer has for engaging their audience,” Fenstermaker said. “There’s no mistaking right away that the Grieving Mother is different from everybody else. There’s something going on with her, but you know it’s going to take work to get it out of her. You want to get to know her, because to get to know her is to solve her mystery. And I think because there’s so much deception embedded in everything she does, you also don’t know if you can trust her. I tend to like characters you can’t trust. That’s another kind of mystery. The scenes were evocative, and the solution was gratifying from a roleplaying perspective. Also, I remember it being a deliberate choice on Chris’ part at the design stage that the character’s story would be rooted in the Hollowborn crisis, so that she might give a face to it and help players connect with it emotionally.”
Fenstermaker proposed that the personalities of players can be a major factor in determining which companions they bond with, and which they bounce off of. “My guess is that since these NPCs are basically cast as your friends, or at least your most intimate relationships, the player’s personality tends to play an important role in whom they want to spend time with,” Fenstermaker opined. “Which is to say, that to a degree, for any companion, your favorite may say as much about you as it does the companion. Not just who you want to hang out with—after all, there are plenty of great terrible-person companions in RPGs—but what you find interesting, what emotions and inner conflicts resonate with you, and what rubs you the wrong way.”
Another reason players warm to or are repulsed by a companion could be their writing style. Grieving Mother is enigmatic, but when she uses animancy to share images and memories with players, they see a woman who is damaged by her misguided effort to help, and who only wants to fade away. It’s a different take on a character that another writer may have portrayed as a literal grieving mother, rather than one who lived vicariously through the mothers she aided.
Still other players favor companions who provide boons to gameplay. “I’ve used this example before, but many people loved or hated Boone in Fallout: New Vegas not for anything that I wrote, but because there was a bug when the game shipped where he could one-shot just about anything with his sniper rifle,” Fenstermaker said. “It’s very difficult to gauge a companion’s success by the fan reception. Ultimately you have to just decide whether you thought the companion was effective and trust that.”
Not all companions are human. All races are represented. Every character was created in part to twist stereotypes and represent diversity, two staples of fantasy writing independent of medium. Fenstermaker urged his writers to explore alternative lifestyles and customs to avoid creating a fantasy game full of diverse settings and peoples. “It seems like such an easy thing to do,” Patel said of creating a diverse world, "but I think it's also something that, to do it well, you have to be very methodical and deliberate about it because it's easy to fall into the habit of making things roughly the way you've always seen them.”
Sawyer found a way to bring orcs, ogres, and other traditionally evil races onto Pillars of Eternity’s stage by classifying them as wilder, one of five types of creatures—outside of selectable races such as godlike and folk—that roam and live in Eora.
“It's pretty rare that we portray wilder as being inherently malicious, nasty, or anything like that,” he said. “I've tried to make wilder feel like there are reasons why the other races don't accept them, but they are not inherently evil, or cruel. I think, going back to Icewind Dale 1 and 2, that's where the seeds of that idea came from. And then continuing through into Pillars of Eternity, we've tried to make all the wilder races that are intelligent feel like they do have a place in the world, but that place is largely marginalized. Not because they're inherently bad, but because the races that call themselves kith don't view them as their equals.”
Like most designers, Fenstermaker bit off more than he could chew. He had embarked on Pillars of Eternity with every intention of writing every quest and character that players encounter along the game’s critical path. That approach had worked on the well-received Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer expansion set, which he had designed under the leadership of George Ziets.
“It worked well because there was this very strong beginning-to-end consistency of the main story,” Fenstermaker said of NWN 2. “But in the case of Pillars, I started out in a hole because I came on to the project late, and there was lots more to figure out in terms of narrative systems and style, and a much larger game to oversee. I was going to write the gods originally, but I gave them to Carrie instead because she had done so well with everything else I’d given her, and they’re some of the best conversations in the game.”
“I remember I was really excited because Eric Fenstermaker gave me a lot of ownership over those,” Patel said of the conversations, which take place near the end of the game during a quest titled Council of Stars. “It was late enough in our development process that I felt like I had a good sense of my role as a narrative designer, my authorship over the tasks given to me, and I had a lot of confidence in what I was doing with those.”
Fenstermaker’s only guidelines to Patel were that she write each god in such a way that made them feel otherworldly. He also hoped she would couch them in metaphor. One of the reasons he had signed off on hiring Patel was because of a short story she had submitted that had made impressive use of figurative language. The Council of Stars quest seemed tailormade for her.
Patel came up with the perfect approach. “A god based around an idea, at least as we were envisioning them, should not approach you the way a person would. They should approach you as the personification of this idea. So, for each of these gods, I asked, what do they want from you? What is the weird way they're going to explain this to you, and what are they going to push you at the end of you fulfilling their quest, if you do that?”
One by one, false god by false god, Patel wrote dialogue and prose that answered her questions. Berath, god of life and death, is concerned by beings who have stepped out of the circle of life, so Patel represented him as a tree whose roots strangle everything it touches, and as a druidic man who takes the form of a sac of flesh filled with the blood of the people whose lives he has leeched away. “I looked at that as being a way for Berath to explain how he sees it as a problem, and how to communicate to you what a horrible thing this is and why you need to fix it. Then, when you come back, how Berath uses that illustration to say, ‘When you confront Thaos, this is what you need to do with the souls.’”
Beautiful music and stirring visuals punctuate Pillars of Eternity, but many key moments, such as the player’s interactions with the gods as well as the Watcher’s animancy powers, are enacted through prose. “We also had the Watcher mechanic that let you see into a person’s soul and their memories, and there, since it took place in an imagined space, we allowed ourselves more freedom to describe whatever we wanted,” Fenstermaker said. “I think some of those scenes were some of the most successful because of that flexibility and because it was more directly engaging the player’s imagination.”
Sawyer appreciated being able to design an Infinity Engine-like RPG in an era when even the most robust roleplaying games seemed to relegate text to character dialogue. “With an isometric game, there's so much that you can't see from your camera angle that it's fun to go back to writing prose that is out of the camera's eye, but is within the mind's eye,” he explained. “It's a thing you can abstract and think about.”
Buttressing animations with text came with the benefit of allowing the art and audio teams to concentrate on evoking emotion rather than showing it explicitly through photorealistic graphics. Complementing the beautiful animations and characters rendered by Obsidian’s artists with text was evocative of listening to a dungeon master describe a scene or series of events and watching those scenes unfold via the world’s most powerful graphics processor—the mind’s eye.
“I think that's a very cool feeling,” Sawyer said. “I think that's why we lean so heavily into those elements.”