Obsidian’s kickstarted throwback to the Infinity Engine games is a unique, lopsided affair. Rather than drafting an everyman/woman into a save the world plot–though traces of one show up over time–Pillars of Eternity sees an immigrant looking for answers when s/he gains mysterious powers after stumbling across an ominous ritual. They can peer into a person’s soul, or even speak to those of the dead, see lives and memories no longer remembered. A Watcher. Often, the game assaults players with scenery-screwing purple bursts, usually followed by a prompt to “reach out” to a soul, discover its owner’s story(s). The price is steep, though: sleeplessness and nightmares plague the Watcher, memories of past lives bleeding together. Madness approaches. Answers must be found, a cure gained–and if not, revenge–so the Watcher seeks out the man responsible for the ritual, who by all appearances seems unaware and unconcerned with this side effect of his own, shrouded crusade. This embroils the Watcher in the nation of Dyrwood, crossing with various cultures and subcultures, native and foreign agents acting in their own interests.
Thematically, this makes Pillars more a piece with the Fallout series. Members of Obsidian previously worked on the series at Black Isle Studios, and the developer returned to the franchise in the spinoff Fallout: New Vegas. The Courier, New Vegas‘ wild card protagonist, and the Watcher have similarities: both have multiple-choice pasts alluded to in branching dialogue segments, survive should-have-been-fatal encounters, then set out to equalize their situations. Fallout has always been about the struggle of societies to organize, to build and flourish, about who or what gets destroyed in the process of progress. Deserts, half-abandoned villages, and junkyard cities created the feeling of Wild West lawlessness. This sensibility informs Pillars of Eternity‘s pre-Renaissance Europe-inspired fantasy world. Dyrwood is experiencing a cultural upheaval: there’s an influx of foreigners and the rise of a science known as animancy (involving the understanding and harnessing of souls), both promising great advancements. At the same time, a blight threatens the land, rendering Dyrwood children “Hollowborn” (soulless, zombie-like creatures). Tension brews, often erupting in violence against non-natives, animancy researchers, or even practitioners of minority faiths, blamed for the country’s woes. Rendered in the fixed, dispassionate-god language of the isometric perspective, the effect is chilling. The first (small, rural) town players arrive at displays a massive tree, from which hang various men and women deemed undesirable. It’s here the Watcher meets his first two story companions: Aloth, an elf (and fellow immigrant) suffering split personalities, and Edér, a war hero who has become a pariah in his own community.
Though he served Dyrwood, Edér is a member of a religion which fronted the opposing army in the war he fought in. Despite his loyalty to nation, and the long history of peaceful cohabitation of his congregation in Dyrwood before the war, fellow countrymen turn on him and other practitioners. Rubble, corpses, and bitter memories remain. Edér’s story is steamrolled by the march of history, which peddles hegemony in service to politicians shoring up their influence. Personal and cultural voice is silenced.
Other characters and situations reflect this culture war: an ogre used as a scapegoat in an heiress’ abduction; back and forth dialogues between party members over historical events simmer with nationalist pride; individuals manipulate the debate over animancy for profit. In character creation, with both the Watcher and hired adventurers used to bolster ranks, Obsidian rethinks the process to bolster theme. Sliders adjusting body proportions are out, selections of social, racial, ethnic, even religious makeup are in. Each contribute their own attributes and skill bonuses which carry over to dialogue and exploration, emphasizing the role in role-playing. The Watcher isn’t intended as a mere avatar, but an individual, scrambling like everyone else to prove they matter.