Narrative Breakdown: Pillars of Eternity
Spoiler Warning: ALL OF THE SPOILERS.
I felt a slight narrative unease throughout much of Pillars of Eternity.
First, it was the overall modernization of an Infinity Engine style game applying everywhere except the story (and sometimes the pathing). Even then, it was halfway there. It had the genuine-feeling world of modern fantasy fiction colored with a shades-of-gray tone. It’s not quite at grimdark levels of bleakness in the morals and deeds of its characters, but there’s certainly enough ambiguity to give you pause when you’re staring at the final dialogue options of a side quest.
But then there was the incongruity of Thaos: an old school villain doing villainous things for to-be-determined (but likely villainous) reasons. The main plot felt too straightforward, too easy to figure out the what-why-how with moderate attention and reading a couple cyclopedia entries. I had the main plot and a few related side-plots pegged rather early (and was mostly right). By the half-way point I was desperately hoping for an endgame twist or modification to Thaos’s goal, the addition of some significant context beyond his devotion to a cause or plot.
Finally, it was the frequency in which side quests ended with ambivalence. Edér’s companion quest was the main tipping point on this. Here you have a grand chase across the Dyrwood, digging into his brother’s history and motivations for siding with Waidwen against their homeland. After gaining a window into the past via your Watcher-ness you arrive at a conclusion which amounts to little more than a shrug and an ‘Aww shucks. It was worth a shot.’ And even that is worlds more than you can say for Pallegina’s companion quest.
This unease was a less a feeling of “They’re hiding or lacking something” and more “There’s something more to all this.” The bricks in the narrative wall were neatly stacked but the mortar was missing in places. Like the Watcher, I was driven forward by a nagging and hard-to voice question. If this parallel was intentional: kudos to the writers, it’s wonderful. If it’s a happy accident born out of my own mindset, that’s good enough too.
Then, near the end of the game, it hits you. Click.
“That the gods aren’t real.”
It’s the best kind of twist, one that recasts everything you’ve seen in an altered light but doesn’t invalidate anything. A twist that only raises more questions and opens up a whole new angle of consideration. A truth, but not a universal one. It’s something that might have been a hard fact in the past of the game, but has come to mean something else entirely by the present. A nuclear bomb detonated 2000 years ago and now dispersed to background radiation, long absorbed by the living and mutating all it touches.
Theological and moralistic considerations aside, this twist strikes at the heart of the kind of setting Eora is and the settings from which it descends. A core component of RPG Fantasy: IF (Magic and Souls) THEN (Real Gods). Active Gods are so much a part of RPG settings that twisting them into false constructs, powerful but divorced from their supposed moralistic purposes, flips the table on player expectations. On Backer Expectations of a new IE-descended CRPG. This is a game that wears its homages and inspirations on its sleeve, which was, after all, the entire point of the project. Obsidian over-delivered on their promises, but took time to play around with their self-assigned initial conditions.
And all the earlier unease is explained. Why is this world so lacking in genuinely good people? Where are the bog-standard Lawful Good organizations? None to be found, because there’s no true, 100% real standard of morality to righteously cling to. Why do so many quests end in ambivalence? Actions are their own reward and sometimes there are no concrete answers, only what works here and now. Not only do their personal quests end ambivalently, your companions accept it. Because deep down I think the people of Eora know their faith is a lie, an excuse, a comforting construct, a shield against the reality of it all. Subconsciously, they know the Wheel of Rebirth needs no hands, god or kith, to turn. It simply turns on its own. And this life? You’re on your own, buddy.
Hence Waidwen/Eothas’s actions that figure so heavily into the backstory. Indeed, those weren’t the actions of a god. But they were the actions of a metastasized set of ideals given form and power by old magic and modern mortal belief. A fiction run rampant, but trying to stop a different set of fictions.
“There is bliss to be found in the things we create, but sorrow as well. Every creation bears the imperfections of its creator, and its creator’s creator. Art and song are creations but so are weapons and lies. We must be careful that our creations do not consume us.”
I screenshotted that dialogue box as soon as I read it. There’s the true crux of the game. Pillars of Eternity is about the angst and adaptations of imperfect creations and imperfect creators. Of self-sustaining self-deceptions. Just look at a few of your companions…
Pallegina: An ill-fitting person who filled her life with dedication to cause and country, but still can’t get over the why of her existence. Hylea could give her no satisfying answers. How could she, when godlike are no more than bizarre rounding errors in the wheel of souls, an echo of whatever power created the gods. All Pallegina has left is rueful anger of a creation without a purpose.
Kana: Seeks insight into the creation of an ancient song, a song that by his own admission has been changed and adapted for centuries. Yet he presses on to the embittered end: a useless fragment of the original text and an undead mad scientist for a composer. He dug so deep for no context. No answers. But that doesn’t matter, because the original creation lives on, modified and mysterious.
Sagani: Created a cult of personality around Persoq. His deeds become grander in her mind for every year on the long hunt. And when she finds that white stag? Doesn’t matter. Still counts. All worth it. Behind a pleasant exterior are layers of walls, anchored in tradition and duty and purpose. Lies she and her people willing accept and celebrate. Because the truth is just too hard.
Thaos rightly accuses your companions of being lost. Chasing unspoken questions they don’t really want the true answer to. And who could blame them, when their world is fundamentally rudderless, an endless machine of souls spat out onto Eora. It’s not that answers are unknowable or difficult to find. It’s that there’s no answers to be found. No matter how deep you dig, and the Engwithians checked, there’s nothing there. Best fill the void with something, anything.
Then there’s the Watcher. You were created by Thaos. Twice. The past self was sculpted into a tool of the Grand Inquisitor. The present self was a mistake. You pursue Thaos because of a gnawing question you can’t quite voice and the threat of losing your mind to the Awakening. You learn the question, certainly. But the Why? There is no Why for the Watcher’s situation. You were merely the wrong soul at the wrong place at the wrong time. A cosmic coincidence.
So you craft your own reasoning. After you meet Maerwald, the Watcher might have three responses as to their motivations. By the end of the game, there’s five or six and the answers are varied and at best tangentially related to the main plot. The player is tasked to role play (fancy that) and fill in the blanks, to carve out a disposition. You create a narrative of your Watcher’s actions and motivations out of nothing. Another false creation. Another lie, irrelevant but integral. What some would call a plot hole or deficiency, I would call an intentionally imperfect creation. Because there is no guide, no gods, no answers. There’s only the here and now. Make of it what you will.