Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Critique of the Story of Pillars of Eternity

This post contains major spoilers for Pillars of Eternity. Seriously, I will be discussing the ending and everything.

I bought Pillars of Eternity in March, 2015, almost two years ago. Yesterday, I finally finished the game. This post is an examination of what I see as the flaws of the story.

I should note that Pillars is a very good game, especially if you like old school Baldur's Gate-style isometric party RPGs. In particular, you may find the elements which kept me from finishing the game attractive to you.

A World With No Triumphs

My first mistake with Pillars is that I like to play paladins. And Pillars is not a paladin-friendly game. The world is somewhat dark, and the game delights in giving you quests and situations where there are no good choices, and you're usually picking the least-bad choice.

For example, in Act II you have to ally with a faction. One faction is city knights, who are arbitrarily discriminatory (basically, your soul has to come from someone who fought for the right side in the country's war of independence), and who are creating an army of clockwork knights which they are going to imbue with human souls. The other factions are a bunch of thugs and vigilantes who you generally encounter beating up people you need to rescue, and the local crime syndicate.

I didn't want to ally with any of them, but the game forced me to choose one.

But the thing is that every quest in the game is like this. There are no unambiguous wins to be found, and no one who is likable, worth saving, or even worth caring about. Or if there are such people, you won't be able to help them in any way.

Event the one good thing you do in Act I, getting rid of the cruel local lord, is arbitrarily overwritten in Act III. The lord comes back from the dead and slaughters the people you left in charge. I was like, "Really?"

I found my reaction to this to be very similar to my reaction to books like Game of Thrones. After a point, I stopped caring, and ended up dropping the game for months at a time. This position, though, is a personal one. Lots of people like grim works, and if you like this kind of work, you'll enjoy Pillars. I don't care for overly hopeless works, and as a result I didn't like much of Pillars.

Ultimate Truths That Clash

The basic structure of Pillars goes something like this:
  1. In Act I, you learn that children in Dyrwood are being born without souls, called Waidwen's Legacy. It may be natural, it may be the result of the death of a god's avatar fifteen years earlier, or it may be the work of soul mages called animancers.
  2. In Act II, you learn that Waidwen's Legacy is being caused by a conspiracy called the Leaden Key, using ancient Engwithan technology. They are acting partially to discredit and end the study of animancy.
  3. In Act III, you learn that this is really a power-play among the gods, with one of them trying to usurp the other's powers. The different factions of the gods have different philosophies on how the problem is to be solved, and you have to ally with one of them.
  4. In Act IV, you learn that the gods were created long ago by the Engwithans, because they learned that there were no gods, and they feared what people unbound by faith would do.
The major problem of the last two Acts is that the two "layers" of knowledge don't really work with each other. For example, the final choice you make at the end of the game is based on the truths of Layer III, on the gods and their philosophies, and not on Layer IV.

The main villain, Thaos, is working to empower one of the gods with the stolen souls. This works with Layer III. But in Layer IV, Thaos is revealed to be the one originally created all the gods back in ancient times. It's never really explained why he now works to shatter his original vision. The Layer IV truth of Thaos is opposed to the Layer III truth of Thaos.

As well, if you have a game with a pantheon, there are two ways you can go. The gods can be an active, literal presence in the game. Or they can be mysterious beings that may or may not exist. Act III chooses one path, and Act IV chooses a different path. The whole question of whether the gods are real or not is somewhat pointless when your character has communicated with them, obtained their blessing, and has observed that they have dominion over their portfolios.

I think Pillars of Eternity would have been far better off if they had chosen one of the two final truths and discarded the other. Either the divine power-play, or the truth about the creation of the gods, could have worked. But both together simply don't. They conflict and create holes in each other.

A final point is that the last layer of truth in particular is very heavy on the "tell instead of showing". You find out about it mainly through conversations of a past life where the conflict between telling the truth about the gods or spreading their worship was more central. This adds to a basic feeling of unimportance around the last truth.


Pillars of Eternity has an interesting story. However, it was a little too dark, hopeless and "unlikeable" for me. As well, it has one "reveal" too many. The last reveal, rather than enhancing the story as whole, undermines and weakens the previous reveal, as well as the motivations and actions of the main villain.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Exchange of Material

I've been thinking about Magic: the Gathering lately. One thing I've been musing about is the complexity of "fat" creatures, that is creatures with toughness greater than power.

For reference, creatures in Magic have power and toughness. When one creature blocks a second creature, they deal damage equal to their power. If that damage is higher than the toughness, the creature dies. Two important differences between Magic and Hearthstone. First, in Magic the defender chooses which creatures block (or not block) which attacker. Second, damage done to a creature is wiped away at end of turn. It isn't permanent like in Hearthstone.

In any case, consider a very simple board. Jane has a 2/2, and Sally has a 2/2. Jane attacks with her 2/2. Now Sally has a choice: she can either take 2 damage, or block with her 2/2. If she blocks, both creatures will die. It will be an even exchange of material.

A similar situation happens if Sally has two 2/2 creatures. She can block, but will still exchange material.

However, let's consider what happens if all the creatures are 2/3 creatures. In the first scenario, if Jane attacks, Sally simply blocks and both creatures bounce off each other. There's possibility of a simple exchange here.

In the second scenario, it becomes foolish for Jane to attack. Sally would block with both 2/3 creatures, and kill Jane's creature without losing one of her own.

Simply adding that extra point of toughness makes exchanges less likely. But exchanges are good for the game. They simplify the game state. The high toughness creatures lead to a more "stalled" board, which becomes more and more complicated.

High power doesn't display this. If the creatures where 3/2, exchanges would be just as prevalent.

I think it's good for PvP games to be able to exchange resources. Otherwise, the board state builds and builds, until one side gets a sudden advantage and overruns the other side.

I think healing plays a similar role in MMOs, especially PvP. It prevents the exchange of material until a certain threshold is met. For example, Eve PvP might be more interesting without logistics ships. An outnumbered force could attempt to come out slightly ahead in each exchange of material.

But with healers, you either have enough firepower to get past the healing, or you don't. Or you have enough crowd control to disrupt the healing long enough to kill something.

In any case, evenly exchanging material in PvP is good. Anything that makes exchanging material harder, even as small as a single point of toughness, should be considered very carefully.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Buff Spells and Abilities

A couple weeks ago, a Blizzard CM posted the following in response to a forum thread:
Why do you feel blessings and auras are fun? I can understand that it feels "nice" to help other players with buff spells, but, in general, they were just niche spells that actually didn't contribute much to meaningful game play (Seals are a different story, I guess). I never thought to myself on my Pally that turning on Retribution or Devotion Aura was going to result in an exciting change besides some passive armor or thorns-like-damage reflect.
Buff spells are fun, but articulating exactly why is a bit of a challenge. They're not difficult decisions, which leads to the claim of "not meaningful gameplay." But not everything needs to be a difficult decision. The mere presence of a buff spell means that before the group even starts playing, people in the group are better off. Buff spells enhance the idea that the characters are stronger together.

It's also part of the ritual before starting something. Food, flask, buff up and then pull. When all decisions and actions occur in combat, I think something is lost. These actions in preparing for combat are important too.

I think buff spells might be most important to healer players. They're a concrete manifestation of your support. You buff your allies, you buff random people. I liked joining a group with a druid and seeing Mark of the Wild go up. I liked having Blessings and Auras.

Now, buff spells do have a lot of problems. The presence of buff spells mean that you want specific classes, rather than letting people play what they want. If the class was balanced around the buff spell, then the best plan was to only take one person of that class, and not multiples.

(Though, it seems that without buff spells, play what you want basically becomes "take the top parsing specs", so I'm not sure that we've truly gained anything.)

Blizzard tried to get around that in previous expansions by handing buffs out to every class. But that kind of watered down the whole concept. So in Legion, they've pretty much removed buff spells, or made them "interesting". Of course, it turned out that the new Blessing of Might was too interesting for Retribution paladins to handle, and so it had to be removed.

A Design for Class Buffs

Here's what I would do to reintroduce buffs:
  • Three buff types - 5% damage increase, 5% damage reduction, 5% healing taken/output (numbers are subject to tuning)
  • One cast buffs the raid. 
  • Buffs of the same type don't stack.
  • Healing specs get the buffs
  • Holy/Disc Priest - Prayer of Fortitude (healing)
  • Resto Druid - Mark of the Wild (tanking)
  • Mistweaver Monk - White Tiger statue (damage)
  • Holy Paladin - Blessing of Might (damage), Wisdom (healing), Kings (tanking). Only one blessing at a time.
  • Resto Shaman - Totems: Windfury (damage), Strength of Earth (tanking), Mana Tide (healing). Only one totem at a time.
Basically, your healer brings a buff to the group, an iconic spell for most of the classes (I'm not entirely sure what monks had). Paladins and shamans, being the traditional buff classes, have versatility. A full raid heal team with several classes will bring all 3 buffs. The specs and classes who I think most enjoy buffing get them back, without overloading everyone with complexity, or needing a spreadsheet to fill out a raid.

Thursday, January 12, 2017


Since I don't seem to be doing well at actually writing posts, here's a round-up of what I've been doing gaming-wise.

World of Warcraft

My paladin has gotten the 35th point in The Silver Hand, and I'm at 34 in The Ashbringer. I've done all the Suramar quests, and am pretty much ready for 7.2.

I have a Horde warrior at 110, and have finished the class order campaign. However, I haven't done much else with it.  I also levelled a Demon Hunter to 110, but that character hasn't even finished the class order campaign.


This is pretty much dormant, waiting for the next patch. The interesting thing here is that I haven't done the second 24-man raid, or the 2nd and 3rd 8-man raid. I play a tank, and I seem to have concluded that those pieces of content are too complicated for me, for some reason.

Diablo 3

I started a Demon Hunter in Season 9. Really, I did this because my 70 Crusader has the same name as my current 70 Demon Hunter, and I want a Demon Hunter with a different name. I'm not sure if this character will make it to 70, though.

Pillars of Eternity

I made it to Act 3, and I just can't seem to push myself further. Maybe I'll spin this out into a full post.

The basic problem I'm having is that I don't like anyone in this world, so I have no real impulse to keep going. It's kind of like my attitude to Game of Thrones: if you kill all the characters I care about, I'm left with a book full of characters I don't care about, and that rapidly becomes a book I stop reading.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Diablo's 20th Anniversary

It's the 20th anniversary of the release of Diablo, and the various Blizzard games are celebrating. These are the events I've tried.

World of Warcraft

In WoW, there are Treasure Goblins which spawn in the Broken Isles, in the Dalaran Sewers, or at the end of instances. Kill them fast enough, and you can take a portal to the Cow Level, which has a lot of diabolical tauren, cows, and the Cow King. Killing the Cow King gives you a toy.

I recommend going for a Treasure Goblin in the Dalaran Sewers. You can pick up a guard from the guard captain for 5g, and that will keep you out of PvP (for 5 minutes or so). There are usually lots of players in the sewers, making it easier to kill the Goblin.

You can only loot the Cow King once, no matter how many times you kill him. However, you can loot multiple Treasure Goblins. Apparently the Cow King is a mess on PvP servers, but that's what you get for rolling PvP.

All in all, a short, fun event with some Diablo-themed loot.

Diablo 3

Diablo 3 has a small area and dungeon which mimics the original Diablo. There's a filter making all the graphics look old-school and pixelated, though all the mechanics are still Diablo 3. There's 16 levels in total, and four old bosses.

I recommend that you start with a new level 1 character in an Adventure game on Normal. You can portal right near the entrance to the new area and enter it without killing anything. Completing the dungeon on normal with that character gives you an achievement and pet. Plus it gives you the enjoyment of low level gearing and gaining levels and abilities.

One thing I wasn't sure about was if you were allowed to go back to town before finishing and still get the achievement. I ended up just dropping all the blue and yellow items that I didn't equip.

I did it with a new Crusader, and it was pretty easy. If you're thorough, you can get almost all the seasonal achievements in that one run. The only one that takes multiple runs is the achievement to kill all the unique mini-bosses.

This was a lot of fun, and the old-school graphics did a good job at invoking nostalgia. And at the same time subtly pointing out that normal D3 is a pretty good looking game.