I tried to play Baldur’s Gate several times before I succeeded at enjoying it. Admittedly, most of the reason I failed was THAC0. But one of the other reasons was that I didn’t know enough about the world at that point to get hooked into it immediately. You had to hunt for plot, and I felt less impetus to do that. Years later, Pillars of Eternity came out – a spiritual successor of sorts to the isometric games that came before it, like BG. But Pillars was so, so different. It had me hooked from the start, and it’s all due to its incredible worldbuilding.
I still had to hunt for quests, and still had the ‘I need to do sidequests to gain levels to be able to survive this main plot quest’ (hi, Raedric’s Hold). This didn’t seem like a chore with Pillars, though. It was exciting and fun, and everything I found had me interested and engaged. Now the sequel is out, and it’s even more incredible than the first. The huge plot drops that the first game ramped up to become the foundations of the next.
And their worldbuilding? It’s even better this time. So let me talk you through five things we can learn from their amazing worldbuilding.
Here be spoilers. Avoid this article if you haven’t finished either of the Pillars of Eternity games and don’t want to spoilered for them!
1. The information overload is solved by footnotes.
There are a lot of names, places, and dialect words to remember in Pillars of Eternity. In the second game, the problem of this information overload is solved by a fantastic addition – footnotes that appear when you hover over the word in question.
These tooltips provide a short history or explanation of the term. And best of all? It doesn’t just appear the first time – it appears every time. So if you keep having to look up what some of those Old Vailian words mean every time they come up, or want to understand precisely how it is you’re being insulted (postenago!), these tooltips are invaluable. Also, can we spare a moment to mention just how wonderful the inclusion of those dialects is? A++ for creating a vivid culture.
Why do I mention tooltips when talking about worldbuilding? It’s a great reminder that the way to get people invested in your world is by explaining it to them, but also that sometimes you really do need to explain it more than once. That’s a lesson we can learn whether we’re building games or writing novels. Of course, we don’t want to go overboard – that can just get tedious. But sometimes, you do need to mention important things more than once.
2. Dialogue options aren’t rote; they’re influenced by your background.
I’ve played some games where I’ve felt disappointed that there weren’t a range of dialogue options through which I could build my character. Pillars? Well, it definitely doesn’t have this problem.
It has a breadth of dialogue options of different personality types – and the personality you pick affects how people respond to you in the future, and if you’re a Priest how close you are to the tenets of your chosen Deity. But not only that, it also gives you dialogue options based on your skills, knowledge and – most importantly for worldbuilding – who you are.
At the beginning of the game(s) you pick a place of origin and a background. For example, you might be an aristocrat from the Aedyran Empire, or a dissident from Old Vailia. If you get put in a situation where those things would or should become relevant, they do. This is something that they’ve put a lot more of in with the second game, and I absolutely love it. Worldbuilding starts at home, kids!
3. You don’t know everything at once, and that’s okay.
Learning the history and present reality of the world is built into PoE2, just like it was with the first game. Just as you don’t know at the start of the first game that the Gods aren’t real, you spend much of Pillars 2 trying to work out what the ever loving hell Eothas is doing. And then you get to decide what you think of it. And if you’re anything like me, you got there still not knowing what to think of it, totally overwhelmed by emotion, and loving every second of it.
I adored the series of revelations so much that to be honest, I sped through the main plot on my first playthrough. I’ve since gone back and replayed the first game, bringing that save forward into the second. I’m a Priest of Eothas this time – I’m here to be emotionally obliterated, thank you very much.
But even now on this second playthrough, and even replaying the first game for what I think is the fourth time, I am still learning new things that were completely undiscovered to me. I know more open world games with this sort of breadth aren’t for everyone, but I absolutely adore them, especially when this amount of care is put into everything – and so many of the side quests are relevant to the main revelations.
4. The world is the life of your party.
Being a massive Critter, it was of course overwhelmingly wonderful to me to learn that I would get to approach the Critical Role actors in the same way one might Pokemon – by catching them all through the game. And my goodness, their characters are all wonderful. Granted, Aloth and Edér will always be the most precious of my darlings, but still.
The cleverest thing about these other characters, however, is not just their amazing voice acting or that they’re cool and interesting. It’s that every single one of them has a strong link to a part of the plot. For many of them it’s a faction (as with Serafen and the Principi, Maia and the Royal Deadfire Company, etc). This gets fun and messy when you start picking sides in the fight for control of the Deadfire. In my first playthrough I took no sides, just as I had with the character in Pillars 1, but I’m looking forward to choosing this time.
It’s just another way that they hook you into the plot. I know people who have chosen their sides in the conflict purely based on which party member they liked the most. That’s how much sway they can have, and how useful a tool they are to reinforce the game’s worldbuilding.
5. Nothing is black and white.
There are ways to play the game as a ‘good’ character. Ways to play it as a ‘neutral’ or even ‘evil’ one. But none of them is necessarily right.
This is entirely down to the incredible skill with which the game delivers moral choices. Most games will present you with “good outcome”, “bad outcome”. Pillars doesn’t do that. Often you are given multiple choices, and all of those choices have consequences. It’s about weighing up what aspect of the choice is most important to you. Sometimes this makes a ‘good’ choice clear – save all the people! Sometimes it makes it less clear – save all the people, but doom some others?
These choices are hard, and I absolutely love that. It’s risky and a strong way to take the game, and it makes me want to take more risks in my own writing. So often I’m concerned about my characters doing the right thing that I forget to blur the lines a little. Pillars has shown me how brilliant it can be when you do the less obvious.