When Obsidian made the world of Pillars of Eternity, they flipped over a map of the Forgotten Realms and stuck a bunch of different labels on it.
Read more: here's a comprehensive breakdown of what Pillars 2 is all about.
That might sound glib, but it’s true - designer Josh Sawyer took a map of the Dalelands, the temperate woodland that birthed meddling wizard Elminster, turned it upside down and called it the Dyrwood. If you squint a bit, you can still see the resemblance in the finished game - the same squiggly coastline, huge central forest and Tolkienesque mountain ranges bordering an inverted peninsula.
Project Eternity, as it was known then, was a conscious act of nostalgia - a way of getting back to the place that birthed Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, even if the names were different. And it worked - the game was Kickstarted and released to wide acclaim. But can it work again?
“Will people be mad at anyone who comes back for a second try on Kickstarter?,” asks Sawyer. “Will they be mad at us for coming back? There’s a lot of stuff to question, especially I would say having been so fortunate to have such a successful Kickstarter project to begin with.”
Make no mistake: despite their doubts, Obsidian have jumped feet first into this sequel. Most of those who worked on the White March expansions have moved straight over to the Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire dev team - a rolling katamari that’s picked up animators and writers from last year’s Tyranny along the way.
In Deadfire, you’ll pick up the story of the Watcher of Caed Nua just as that title becomes redundant. Caed Nua itself - your stronghold in the first game - is smashed to pieces by a returning god of light and rebirth. On the brink of death and with your soul under threat, you’ll follow that god to a Pacific-style set of islands far to the south of the Dyrwood: the Deadfire Archipelago.
Obsidian promise pirates, volcanoes and conflict between colonists. Having grounded players in the largely vanilla fantasy world of Eora two years ago, they’ve freed themselves up to go a bit weirder.
“Just in the same way that Baldur's Gate II is not Baldur’s Gate, being able to take that step away allows us to do some neat things,” Sawyer explains. “I think it’s fresh for the audience. If you’ve gotten tired of seeing temperate forests and meadows for 80 hours, well OK: let’s take a look at something else.”
Of course, weird is a relative term in Pillars. Don’t expect Planescape.
“I've worked on shipped games that were really incredibly bizarre, and that can be very off-putting to a lot of people, so I am trying to be cognisant of people’s comfort zones,” says Sawyer. “Especially with the audience that came to this expecting a very traditional D&D-style RPG.”
In that sense Sawyer and his team are still beholden to the commitment they made way back in the Project Eternity Kickstarter: to build a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale.
“I will say that Forgotten Realms high fantasy is not my first choice for my style of setting,” Sawyer admits. “But I grew up playing in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms and even Dragonlance. When I first got started in the industry, I was making games in the Forgotten Realms. It’s a setting that I had a lot of fun in, and also we know that our fans have a ton of fun in.
“I think we’ve tried to grow it a little bit, but fundamentally, it’s your traditional high fantasy. There are restrictions on that, but they're restrictions we knew going in.”
If that limitation is one Sawyer and his team are at peace with, there’s another they’ve still to navigate. The Pillars community hardcore is made up of players reared on a whole series of games that exploited the same combat engine. By the time they’d finished two Baldur’s Gates, two Icewind Dales and a Planescape, their tactical nous was already honed to the point of mastery.
It’s Obsidian’s unenviable job to cater to the challenge level demanded by those players, providing deliciously intricate encounters that necessitate plenty of pausing, while keeping Pillars II playable for newcomers.
“Overall, we do want to actually step the challenge level up,” says Sawyer. “It’s making sure we’re not doing that at the cost of people who aren’t necessarily as good. Ideally, there are going to be a bunch of people playing this who never played Pillars, who went, ‘Oh, I heard that was such a cool game, let me jump right in.’ If it just kicks them in the teeth repeatedly, that’s not a good intro.”
While Pillars was created specifically to fill a void left gaping since the ‘90s, that doesn’t mean Obsidian have bowed unquestioningly to the demands of genre veterans. For instance: those who, the first time around, didn’t like pistols and blunderbusses intruding on their vision of high fantasy.
“There were people that were really mad about it,” Sawyer recalls. “We did it anyway because we knew it wasn't that big of a deal, and it fit the vibe we were going for, which was more late Middle Ages, early Renaissance - to show a world that was a little more technologically advanced than what you typically see in a fantasy setting.”
Funnily enough, there were firearms in the Forgotten Realms. That’s something else the team have had to contend with on Pillars - the fuzzy memories that influence player expectations. Particularly those altered by the hyper-responsive storylines of latter day Obsidian games like Tyranny and Alpha Protocol.
“There’s not a lot of reactivity in either of the Icewind Dale or the Baldur’s Gate games,” points out Sawyer. “There’s a little bit more in Baldur’s Gate II, there is some reactivity with the classes in Icewind Dale II, but it's not a branching storyline. So people expect a game the size of Baldur's Gate II, which is over 200 hours, but with all the reactivity that RPGs have developed over the past 15 years. That's one of the most difficult things to deal with, actually, in terms of the spiritual successor legacy.”
Just as Eora started off as a rough photocopy as the Realms, players have mapped out their own slightly smudged versions of the classic RPGs in their minds. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, however - since it spurs Obsidian on to match that rather unrealistic picture of what an isometric role-playing game can be.
“With the isometric viewpoint, you can make really big worlds that look very pretty, so you can have a huge round of exploration,” says Sawyer. “[And] because the camera is not right up in someone's face, we're not really spending a ton of resources on trying to bridge the uncanny valley. We're focusing on good dialogue and cool prose, and having a bunch of dense reactive content.
“It’s crazy sometimes now to go back and look at the [backgrounds] in Pillars 1, which I still think looks nice, but looking at Pillars II is pretty incredible - the technological jumps that we've done within the space. We’re just doing stuff that no one else is doing.”