I keep thinking about Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. Its mood, storytelling methods, design and aesthetics. How much it drifted away from its predecessor.
I don’t find PoE2’s plot fascinating, even though the game itself is more than satisfying and pleasant. The really interesting stuff for me are the differences between PoE and PoE2 and different decisions made by their respective developers and writers. I realize that the main writer left the company and it may had large impact on the game’s shape and tone, but let’s focus on the games (art?), not the behind-the-scenes stuff.
Both parts of the series are entitlement simulators, just like the majority of computer RPGs released since the genre was born. In both games you are The Chosen One who, one way or another, saves and changes the world. Your character quickly meets the most important politicians of the realm, makes decisions too large even for the gods, rescues innocent people and kills thousands of sentient creatures without becoming an emotionally-shatered monster.
However, both games approach their power fantasies as differently as they can. PoE1 gives us a gloomy world filled with sad people, while PoE2 is your regular fantasy-swashbuckling adventure with sunny beaches and goofy sea shanties.
In PoE1 a lot of focus is put on being unable to achieve one’s goals, the acceptance of unpleasant reality. You can’t bend the world to your whims, nor to the most essential desires. Your companions — characters which you get to know better than anyone in the game — have to accept their mistakes, shortcomings and injustices they faced, but they can’t really fix them. The brutal existence becomes an appropriate background for conversation about faith, gods and spirituality.
There is nothing fun about getting to know Grieving Mother, a soul-reading middle-aged midwife that tries to find her place in a world without children. This destroyed by life person doesn’t even have a regular “go-and-kill” side-quest — instead, you get to know her by being a part of her dreams and memories, discovering her own misdeeds. And it takes a lot of time and patience.
In PoE2 you can’t make a character like this. You can, however, add a trouble-loving wacky pirate, an obscene rule-breaking priest or a soldier who doesn’t like the dark side of her job. Someone with clear personality and simple motivations. And you can have sex with almost all of them, so they have to be likable.
You can’t have sex with Sagani, a PoE1 companion. She’s a huntress trying to fulfill her distant tribe’s traditions, what will allow her to return to her husband and children. But you can have sex with Tekēhu, a flirtatious and confident bathhouse enthusiast from PoE2 who’s just tired of everyone expecting him to make great things and be a leader. Even his birth was marked by his people’s main goddess, but it’s not like he asked for all this power. Jeez.
One of the most important characters in both games is Edér, a warrior-companion. In the first game, his long quest ends with unsolved mysteries and lack of any sort of answers. The search for truth just ends and no matter how much he would like it to be different, it’s over. However, he finds some comfort in his journey, in all the effort he made trying to achieve his goal. He didn’t find the truth about the past, but your support and his will allowed him to learn more about himself.
The sequel is unable to introduce such a bittersweet story line. Instead, you can help Edér find the truth about yet another person that was important to him and ultimately help him find closure. A true happy ending, even if it had some rough path leading to it. It portrays the differences between both games in a nutshell.
Almost nothing in PoE1 makes you feel confident. Confidence is a villain-only trait that helps them keep their insanity intact. At the same time, almost everything in PoE2 makes you feel strong, potent. Even when you make questionable choices, people just tend to assume your decision was wise and right. And if they don’t like it — well, it’s their turn to learn something about accepting the reality. You already went through it.
Even though at the end of PoE1 I literally saved thousands of children, the game was like
yeah, but you know, you didn’t save ALL of them. just think how sad now are the parents who decided to euthanize their babies because they thought there is no help for them. now be sad with them.
Well, shit, game, thanks for trying to ruin the moment.
One of your companions may even commit a suicide off-screen. That’s not cool. Yet it matches the tone — the constant despair surrounding the tragic nature of the world.
In PoE2 you have some important decisions to make and you can change the known world, but at the same time you just swim around in your big ship and kill pirates or go on simple adventures on beautiful islands. While most plotlines in PoE had cohesive taste of misery, PoE2 offers you actual good endings and find some warm feelings.
Both games make an effort to show various perspectives and you can see that some problems are not as simple and obvious as the participating sides of the discussion would like you to think, nevertheless in PoE2 you can actually fix problems and make things better. You want to do terrible things during your playthrough? You can. But if you want, for example, return the freedom to the local slaves, the devs don’t really try to paint it as something gray and morally challenging.
Reading this you can think: how the hell such different approaches can fit into a single world? And the answer is — they really don’t. PoE2 is mostly its own thing and a complete reimagination. We moved from small kingdoms spread on a single continent to an anarchistic archipelago where various organizations actively fight each other to control as many of the natural resources as they can.
In the first game you start as a nobody who becomes a Watcher — a person who can speak with souls. At the beginning of your journey people don’t know you, but as the time goes on, more and more of them get interested in your unique (chosen-one-y) abilities. Your talent makes you special, your word can change the world — if a priest has doubts about their faith, you can either make them leave the church or keep their ideologies stronger than before.
In the sequel, every important NPC seems to know who you are, what makes a lot of sense. In PoE1 you came to own a large castle, damage many organizations, kill multiple monsters and became a favorite pet of the gods, so your reputation moved with you to the new place. The world you travel through shifts geographically, but also the people treat you in a completely new way. And the deeper you look into it, the clearer it becomes that even the worldbuilding of the both games has nothing in common.
I appreciate the design of PoE1’s setting a lot. It’s focused and theme-oriented. The geography of the game is not really important — the crucial thing is that every nation has all the evidence it needs to know that sentient beings are filled with souls. The souls are real and they participate in some sort of reincarnation cycle, even though many rules are still not clear and people keep developing religions and ideologies to figure out how this process works. As many modern worldbuilders, the writers asked themselves — how can we milk this idea as much as we can?
And oh did they milk it. So, the reincarnation occurs, right? What if it someone would stop it? Can a soul be imprisoned? Can you transfer souls between bodies? Can a body have multiple souls at once? Can soul remember things it experienced during previous lives? Do animals have souls? If yes — can people somehow use them? May items be modified by souls or connected to them? How about mechanisms? Are souls somehow present in natural world, maybe rocks? Are there non-magical soul-scientists? What do people think about such science? Can a soul be destroyed? Can it be devoured? Can it be sick?
And so on. It works really well with some of the main topics and questions the topics game tries to explore, such as dealing with your past or the relationship between humans, nature and divine beings.
The sequel doesn’t throw these ideas away, but doesn’t care about them either. It’s just there as a part of established world, pushed somewhere to the background. Being able to talk with the dead becomes a plot convenience tool that provides you information unavailable for other in-game characters, very often used as an alternative to reading a journal found in a dungeon.
PoE2 has no interest in souls, nor it cares about faith, religion or spirituality. The topic it focuses on is completely different, so it used a new set of tools to explore it.
PoE2 is about power and control. About forcing people to do your biding, achieving high social status and all the nice things that come with it — money, security, fame, respect. And what does the game about pursuing power need? Well, it needs conflicts, of course! And the most spectacular conflicts happen whenever people want things they can’t all have. Such as land. Such as an island.
We get five fairly balanced organizations that try to beat the other political groups with varying levels of hostility. It’s very complex and impossible to quickly describe them, but here is a taste of it (feel free to read through it quickly, it’s just an example):
* native Huana tribes are quite disorganized. They kind of have a queen, but she doesn’t have a complete control over the tribes… Though she would like it a lot;
* since Huana tribes are not centralized and try to keep their individual traditions, they often become exploited by big merchant nations — Vailians and Rauatai. Some of the tribes accept it and exchange their goods for protection, some become hostile and isolated;
* Rauatai is a a big nation that was a part of Huana tribes, but gave up on their culture, became more modern-oriented and strong enough to defend itself from Vailians (“main colonist nation”), who control the seas;
* the isolated Huana tribes are often attacked by pirates since nobody cares about them;
* pirates support illegal slavers — though not all of them, since pirates also have subgroups that don’t like each other;
* so some pirates don’t like the slavers (for political, not moral reasons) and are ready to support Huana and focus on attacking Vailians instead;
* Rauatai and the queen of Huana actively hate slavers and are ready to help Huana, though some of the Huana won’t accept their help, fearing it would be a new power-play camouflaged as friendliness.
Got all of it? Yeah, it’s a perspective of ONE out of five big organizations. And there are smaller ones as well, such as city criminals, religious groups, intelligent lizards… And, of course, there are rivalries between leaders in specific organizations. Add to the mix gods themselves and only then you can put there the main villain. He fits the theme well, but has a hilariously small amount of screen time and becomes a cherry on top of a larger power cake.
PoE1 was dropping edgy no-good-answers stories all over the place. Here is an example from the first hour of the game:
* a hunter claims that his friend was killed by a bear;
* so we find this friend’s body and talk to his ghost. Turns out he was murdered by the first guy!;
* so we go to the hunter, but he’s nowhere to be found. However, we can notice a conveniently lost love letter written to him… but the dead guy’s wife! A perfect motive!;
* we go to the dead-guy’s home. The wife and her lover — the murderer — are in the middle of packing their things. They want to run away;
* the lovers claim that they got close because the dead guy was an abusive husband;
* when the romance began, the hunter couldn’t stand his lover being bitten. He decided to end it.
Now what? Will we bring them to the judge? It just so happens that the local law enforcements love to humiliate and hang people even for minor crimes. Let them go? A murderer and his partner? The classic thief needed money for his sick mother drama, just pushed further.
There are little to no such threads in the sequel. It wouldn’t match the tone, nor the main themes. Instead, we can get to know some small communities and see how they struggle with the power intrigues led by the large organizations. Isolationists are afraid of losing their identity, progressives are willing to sacrifice as much as they have to to secure the future of their families and those who they are responsible for.
Through the entire game we see the webs of lies and intrigues covered by smiles, words about standing up in the name of the little guy and, if nothing else works, excuses and ideologies. After all, none of these groups considers themselves to be villains.
Our avatar climbs the hierarchy of the groups by completing quests and choosing the appropriate dialogue options. By the end of the game, we have an option to choose a final ally for our world-saving journey. If we do this, we’ll consciously give one of the organizations enough resources, prestige and knowledge to help them become the most powerful group in the whole archipelago. It even consumes large part of the epilogue, much larger than the whole saving-the-world thingy.
It’s no surprise that none of these forces even considers an alliance in the face of oblivion.
The final in-game decision allows you to to decide who should keep the spiritual power as well. Gods? Some of the gods? Humankind? For the sake of avoiding spoilers let’s not sink too deep into it. Nevertheless, you can spot a thematic pattern here.
The power and control are not shown in PoE2 as something innately good or bad. We keep seeing its various forms, approaches of different sides and the way it changes people and communities. We’ll see incompetent idealists and corrupted, merciless backstabbers. Our ships, crews and companions add to our growing influence, since our mobility and independence allow us to completely shift the status quo among groups and cultures. If you find an unmet island, you can name it — and this name will forever be a part of your world.
As an entitlement simulator, PoE2 gets pretty weird. Yes, you get to kill the most powerful monsters in the world and gather insane wealth, but it doesn’t make you a king, a pirate lord or a guild master. Instead, you become the ultimate voice, the shaper of change. You are not a card in a deck, but you are the one who shuffles all of them. Even though the world has its gods, it is you who becomes the “mover”. You even dictate the pacing of the game — unlike PoE1, which had strong plot points blocking parts of the map until you get do what the writers want you to do, PoE2 is almost completely an open world game — you can play for dozens of hours without pushing the plot even by an inch.
Because, as I said, “the villain wants to destroy us!” is only camouflaged as the main story. All the traveling and becoming a part of the ever-present power struggles is the core of the experience, not the path to the real goal. You can find reviews according to which the main plot is too short and too basic, but that’s mostly because Deadfire acts like it’s a continuation of the previously told story — even if it really isn’t.
The more I think about it, the fewer reasons I see to set PoE2 in the same franchise as PoE1. Yes, there are multiple spots where the things you did in PoE1 directly impact the world of PoE2, but it turns out very fan-service-y and doesn’t impact the game’s core much. I’m not saying that it would be impossible to move from rainy, grim PoE1 to sunny islands and keep the main themes alive, but PoE2 a) explores new themes, b) in a completely new realm, c) with an unrecognizable shift in mood, d) with a completely different pacing and tension.
At this point it would be better to make a completely new setting and forget all the soul stuff from the previous game. I mean, the previous game doesn’t even need a sequel. Watcher already saved the world. Let her or him just sit in their castle and relax.
I would even dare to say that PoE1 becomes just an annoying hindrance that Deadfire has to struggle with through the entire game. The castle I just mentioned… Remember how initially it wasn’t even meant to be in the game, but it was one of the stretch goals in the Kickstarter campaign? Because, you know, people loved having their “strongholds” in Baldur’s Gate 2? It didn’t match the tone, nor the theme of the game at all. But well, people wanted it because nostalgia. So the decision was made.
What the Black Isle games were for PoE1, the PoE1 was for PoE2. Deadfire is fun, fresh and new. It deserved fitting foundations, appropriate setting that would support it in every way. Instead, it got a large, heavy baggage to drag around and spent a lot of time doing its best to ignore it. The game is not held back by the nostalgia factor, but it is held back by trying to be a sequel.