The Pillars of Good and Evil
Well, it’s that time of year again. As November encroaches I’m staring down the throat of a rather consuming project. So my posts on this lovely little piece of cyberspace real-estate are going to be haphazard at best. With any luck my co-contributors will pick up the slack. That is the reason for co-contributors, is it not?
At the very least, I’d expect a rather surprising article from my sister in the near future. We should get a review but not a book review! I don’t want to spoil the surprise, however. That is, assuming she can tear herself away from the material long enough to scribble some words into cyber forms.
So while I do preliminary work on my novel in a month (for those unaware, November is official Write a Novel in a Month You Crazy Bastard), I’m just going to do a quick little ramble on something I’ve been working on. You see, I’ve finally gotten a hold of the new DLC for the video game Pillars of Eternity. It’s by my favourite developer, Obsidian Entertainment, who are renown for crafting interesting and enjoyable stories and characters in the interactive medium. I’d been meaning to get around to Pillars of Eternity for awhile now. You see, it was my first foray into the kickstarter experience (well, technically that’s a lie. Wasteland 2 was but my heart was always in it for Obsidian).
Kickstarter, for those unawares, is an interesting little project that was started to utilize the power of the Internet to promote grassroots development on projects that have been disappearing in the growing corporatocracy of the modern era. For video games, this meant that traditional experiences which had been deemed “market unsustainable” could still see the light of day. There’s a fancy little role-playing game called Baldur’s Gate that I absolutely adore and to see more games in the same genre come to light was something I quite gleefully supported. Course, then I didn’t touch Pillars of Eternity after it’s release because the downside of public funding is that developers are beholden to deadlines even more stringently than when funded by publishers. This is code for bugs. And incomplete features. And not fully fleshed areas.
This is most apparent now that I have my hands on Pillars DLC and can see what Obsidian can do when their name isn’t riding on the fickle goodwill of the public. But this isn’t a review of Pillars of Eternity by any stretch of the imagination so we’ll have to save those words for when I finally get around to that. If you’re interested, I’m liking it.
No, this long intro is to touch upon something that I’ve really been impressed with in regards to Obsidian’s world creation. It’s a bit of a stickler issue when it comes to fiction in general and the fantasy genre specifically. Put bluntly, it took some time but I’m really happy with morality in Pillars of Eternity.
It’s not often you’ll have much of a conversation around morals in fantasy. Mostly because Dungeons and Dragons have dominated the conversation with their problematic Alignment System of which you can see a full diatribe on that by perusing our wonderful archives. It’s the nature of the beast. People flock to fantasy for simplistic – almost idealistic – escapism and so having stark “good guys” and “bad guys” easily recognizable and behaving in predictable patterns feeds into that childlike view of the world.
Unfortunately, any person who has lived long enough can tell you that the world doesn’t run on stark contrasts. Shades of gray (and not just fifty of them either) are kind of the rule of the world. There are few instances where we can really just point and say “that person is evil” and without invoking Godwin’s Law, the list gets humorously short. And yet, in fantasy, not only is “good” and “evil” simple things but they’re something an individual chooses at inception and then just presumably follows for the rest of their life.
But while we may have certain fundamental principles which guide our lives, determining what is “good” and what is “bad” is incredibly difficult in real life. Granted, we don’t have knights in shining armour and diabolical, princess kidnapping red dragons in real life either but there’s a comforting verisimilitude in having your fictional world reflect your knowledge of the actual world. Choosing an appropriate course of action is easier for us to accomplish when we can rely on our own experiences to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of our options.
It’s one of the things that makes a Planescape adventure so enthralling because it specifically sets out to undermine your own experiences without breaking the suspension of disbelief of the world. Alas, not every adventure can be Planescape and since the default seems to be that our lives are a reasonable measuring stick for wading through dilemmas, it makes sense then for those dilemmas to reflect events of our lives.
In short, Durance is a fantastic character but only once I started to realize that he was essentially a reskinning of Edwin.
For the forgetful or unknowledgeable, Edwin was an evil mage from Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. You knew he was evil because it said so on his sheet. Correspondingly, his personality was based around the accumulation of power and he only adventured with the player character because he foresaw the player as being a path to obtaining more power. Such a selfish character would normally be unmanageable in heroic fantasy if the designers hadn’t cleverly written Edwin as, essentially, a comedic sidekick. He got into petty arguments with other members of his party and his shortsightedness led him to discovering that the goal of his great ambitions was ultimately a belt that transmuted the wearer into the opposite gender. And here we had an interesting development where, for but the briefest glimmer, an evil character was forced through the powers of the world to actually confront the consequences of his actions.
Of course, Edwin doesn’t truly learn anything about misogyny or his poor treatment of women as a woman. When he gets turned back into his regular form he’s just as abrasive as ever but otherwise such an event would require a change in his alignment which the game simply wasn’t going to support for a sidequest to the player’s own journey. And that’s one issue with Dungeons and Dragon’s system is that it discourages and hampers the sort of personal growth that is quite common and encouraged in our actual lives.
But to get back to Pillars of Eternity, it took me quite a while before I realized the parallels in the new game. For one, Durance is not a mage but a priest of Magran. Since Pillars of Eternity is a new intellectual property, such a designation meant nothing to me. It took many hours for me – as a player – to learn that Magran is a rather cruel deity who delights in punishment and strength over community and charity. Not that she’s evil, per se, since few things in Pillars could be deemed as such but she is oppressive in her own way while also serving as the leading deity to a nation of freedom fighters and revolutionaries.
However, Durance doesn’t project himself with the cartoonish villainy that Edwin does. When you first meet him at the crossroads, he simply informs you that the two of you are meant to travel with each other for a time. He insists that there are trials which you as a character must undergo and that he is responsible for guiding – if not administering – several of those trials themselves. It’s the Old Wise Man of Jungian archetypes… until you start peeling away the surface.
Over time and through numerous conversations you learn that Durance isn’t quite the holy preacher he pretends to be. He was, instead, an architect of a great weapon utilized by the Magran church to obliterate the leader of an army rallied beneath another god’s banner. Ironically, this “god” which Durance helped explode was the god of rebirth, light and compassion. Not your stereotypical evil warlord figurehead by any means. Furthermore, the detonation of this device to end said god’s existence had many unintended consequences for those who participated in its use. For Durance, this was a complete spiritual crisis wherein his faith in his goddess was shattered to the core. Durance had lost touch with Magran and did not feel her favour despite having been one of her most blessed disciples. After the explosion of the bomb, he had participated in numerous inquisitions in service of his goddess much as he would have before. However, no matter what he did he could not regain that connection with her that had been severed.
Now, I’m not finished Durance’s story arc yet but it’s quite clear that he is hardly the wise teacher meant to guide the player on the hero’s journey. In fact, he’s perhaps more flawed than many of the other colourful characters I’ve met along the way. Here is a man silently struggling beneath the murders of children and civilians carried out solely by the fearful ordinances of a population desperate for revenge against a broken enemy and turning their ire on any that could potentially have allegiance with those foes. When you dig beneath the surface, Durance is more “evil” than Edwin and follows a path more closely wedded to the blind obtainment of power yet he is far more believable despite his extremes. Couching his morality in deeds and behaviour and justifying it due to the political and ideological landscape rather than an esoteric Linnaeus classification system made for a far more engaging tale. When you learn of Durance’s role in the Purges, the horror that he performed resonates on a level that simply declaring him as a “violent murderer” does not. Edwin killed Dynaheir but it carries so little investment and meaning to the player that it’s just a statement. Durance murdered unnamed and unseen individuals but your view of him is irrevocably changed because of it.
It’s so subtle and sublime that I’m just in love with the artistry of the execution. I’ve read numerous people complain about how drab and boring Pillars of Eternity is. But, honestly, I think those people had expectations for the bombast and ludicrousness of high fantasy. Pillars of Eternity delivers something far greater but requires more investment to unlock. It provides us with reasonable people living and reacting to a world that, ultimately, they simply don’t understand.
And I can’t think of a perfect representation of our reality than that.