Reading into Pillars Of Eternity’s wordy approach to lore
No one reads the lore. Oh, don’t look like that. We don’t mean no one reads any of the painstakingly crafted words that RPG writers take the time to squirrel away in fictitious volumes and menu screen tips, but hardly anyone devours every dusty tome that games put in their path. Adventure calls, so you delight in a few of these ancillary texts, skim a lot more, and filter out the rest. You close your inventory and mean to return, but never quite find the time.
At least, you suspect that’s how devs see it. It’s the reason that audio logs became a fad after BioShock, because they provide a way to offload backstory while the player plunges on with killing Splicers with murderous bees. It’s why in This Month On Edge you’ll find us poring over a real-world volume that collects together the in-universe writings of Skyrim, paring away the endless distractions of the northern reaches to deliver a concentrated seam of Elder Scrolls fantasy. It’s why Thomas Was Alone’s memorable narration won a BAFTA. All are alternatives to screen reading.
Still, when your PC’s fans are humming, game lore generally works more by osmosis. It’s about weaving together complementary notions that expand a world beyond the limits of its engine’s draw distance, but it’s just one channel of many, all working in concert to convince you of this fabricated world’s authenticity. All those palimpsests add depth, colour and occasionally humour to a place, and your impression of it is enriched for their very presence, just as you needn’t consciously listen to every song on the soundtrack to be stirred by a tug of strings in the overworld.
In this context, then, Pillars Of Eternity represents a countercultural approach to worldbuilding, being unashamedly predicated on the written word to drive its metaphysical tale of souls and flesh. It even presents tiny snippets of description as a flourish to complement its art team’s work, rather than expect the assets to speak for themselves. It is the very opposite of the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra that Hollywood screenwriters are so enamoured of. Through sheer craft and effort, Obsidian’s talented wordsmiths have wrought something of rare delicacy and breadth: a game world that excites and depends on the power of the reader’s imagination. Designers often talk about a lack of handholding as respecting the player, but leaving space in your world for them to fill is kowtowing on an entirely different level. And that is perhaps the greatest homage Pillars can make to its core inspiration: Dungeons & Dragons.
Of course, that is exactly why Pillars would not exist without Kickstarter too. Publishers tend to revere current trends and sure bets, and as we’ve established, such a wordy, lore-heavy world looks far from either. But there is a place where this kind of storytelling, if done right, was sure to flourish: in the heads of those who fondly recall the Forgotten Realms RPGs of the early 2000s. And the magic of the Internet is that while 74,000 people is still niche compared to Skylanders or Call Of Duty numbers, you can deal with them directly, cutting your costs and cutting risk.
But while Pillars’ writing leaves a lot up to the player, perhaps going as far as to give players a space to write messages in the game was a mistake. It’s not just the moderation burden, or the unsuitable content that slipped through. Rather, when your whole world is being honed and refined by carefully deployed, occasionally optional prose, even a stray sentence can poison the well, let alone whole memorial plates of Internet in-jokes. It’s a strange abdication of power, though the intent is obvious and innocent. Pillars wouldn’t exist without its backers, but even a world as detailed as Eora cannot withstand taking a club hammer to the fourth wall for their sake. Here’s hoping return trips to Eora find its bolshie approach to written fiction intact, without feeling the need to compromise that for the sake of a few more funding dollars.