Pillars of Eternity Post-funding Update #73: Narrative Design and AMA Q&A

The latest post-funding update for Pillars of Eternity has been penned by lead narrative designer Eric Fenstermaker, and includes a look into his regular workday (more or less), some insight into companion's design and some undead lore. Here's a snip:

So Alone

Companions may be my favorite things about RPGs. Long after you've finished the game, looking back, if they're done well, they feel like old friends. Lately we have been ramping up our companion writing. (We really did have a discussion about one of those designs today, and did some iteration on it.) As such, I've been giving a lot of thought of late as to what our goals should be in creating the companions for Pillars of Eternity, and I thought they'd be worth sharing with the people we're designing them for. These are a few of the benchmarks I want us to try to hit:

Interactively Dynamic

It's common in most types of fiction for major characters (or the protagonist at the very least) to follow an arc, in which their character begins a certain way and ends up being changed by the events of the story, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But for a video game, that's not really taking advantage of the medium. This is a story about the player's character, told by the player's actions. It stands to reason that the ways in which a companion would change should be dependent on what the player does.

So we have an arc for each of our companions, but each arc has multiple potential endpoints, in just the same way that the plot has multiple endings. Which endpoint the arc ends up at will be, in one way or another, determined by what the player does - whether it's something they say or an action they take or some other choice they make. This was an approach we last took in Fallout: New Vegas and I thought it was something to definitely keep.

Unique, Varied, Relatable Ambassadors

Chris Avellone touched on this in a previous update, and it remains a core goal for us. Pillars of Eternity takes place in a brand new setting. Most players won't know their boreal dwarf chanters from their hearth orlan ciphers. Getting to know companions that run the gamut of races, classes, and cultures will help the setting come alive and hopefully become a place players will find themselves wanting to stay awhile. Each companion, in a sense, becomes an ambassador for his or her race, culture, and class.

And we only have so many companions. So they can't all be snarky elves (or can they?) - they need different characterizations, different voices, different struggles. As a designer, you never know what's going to strike a nerve with a given player. Rarely for our games is there a universal favorite companion - almost always there seems to be an even distribution for how many players like each character. In some ways that's maddening, because how do you adjust for that, but it's also one of the best things about writing companions - as long as you write a character that is authentic in its humanity, somewhere, somebody is going to identify with it, and that will be the character they enjoyed spending time with the most. By varying widely the particulars of each companion's persona and struggles, the hope is that while not everybody will necessarily love every companion, most will find at least one that means something to them.

Lanterns to the Themes

"Why should the player care?" is a question we try to ask ourselves for all aspects of the narrative. When it comes to plot, the question is answered by its themes - they make the plot about something more than a physical struggle.

But again, our narrative is interactive. The themes shouldn't be predetermined morals. There should be many facets to them, and it should fall to the player, not the designer, to decide what his or her perspective winds up being on the theme. To take a well-worn example, if the theme is about the struggle of good vs. evil (don't worry, it's not), the ending shouldn't simply assert that good always triumphs over evil. It should ask the player what he or she believes, given everything they've learned on their journey. Maybe they even surprise themselves with their choice.

That's where companions come in. If we're designing them well, their struggles should tie into the themes on some level. And the resolution they come to, which, because of the interactive dynamism discussed above, is influenced by the player, gives them a distinct perspective on the theme. The goal is that in the process of helping the companions resolve their conflicts, we give the player something to think about for what that might mean in the context of his or her own character, and in the long run, that gives the themes personal meaning when it comes time to resolve them for the player character.

I'd be interested to hear, what do all of you think? Not so much specific characterizations, but more, what are the abstract qualities that make you enjoy and remember a companion? (e.g. They made you laugh, they seemed like a real person, their quest was engrossing, etc.)

Also worthy of note: the team did a Reddit AMA Q&A with team members Adam Brennecke, Tim Cain, Steve Weatherly, Dimitri Berman, Eric Fenstermaker, Bobby Null, Matthew Sheets and Brandon Adler. A few choice quotes, given Reddit's format isn't exactly conducive to reading or maintaing sanity:

Not too long ago, I played through Baldur's Gate I: Reloaded, the NWN2 mod, and it was awesome. Have you given any thought to releasing or open sourcing development tools for modding the game, if not at release, then eventually?

Brandon Adler: We have talked about it a lot internally. We are still figuring out what we will be able to make moddable for the community. I wouldn't expect full development tools any time in the near future, though. It would take a huge amount of time and effort to do it well.

Adam Brennecke: Since we are developing with Unity (third party engine) our hands are tied a bit when it comes to open sourcing the engine. However, our policy is that we want to be as open as possible with the mod community. Our current plan is to release our file formats (that we own) and any possible tools that we can to help modders out. Since we are still in development, I can't say for certain what we will release, and what exactly you can mod or what you can't mod. We love modders and want to do everything that we can to facilitate the community.


Hi! You have developed character systems and combat and such for Eternity. Do you see these as bound to the franchise or could we one day see "sci-fi RTwP CRPG featuring ruleset adapted from PoE"?

Tim Cain: I could easily see extending our systems. Some of them, such as the cipher, could already be in a sci-fi game, and most of the basic rules for abilities and combat would make sense in any setting.

Adam Brennecke: I don't see a reason why the rules couldn't be applied to another setting.

Brandon Adler: Yeah, the rules are pretty flexible.


I found Josh's write up of what he liked and disliked about the Infinity Engine games to be really interesting, and it gives an idea of what we can expect to be carried over into PoE. So I'm wondering, what specifically did you guys like and dislike about the Infinity Engine games?

Brandon Adler:At the time, I was in love with the fact that the IE games felt so true to the D&D experience. To me, more than any of the previous D&D PC games.

I was a huge fan of the hidden areas that you felt like the developers placed in the game just for you to find. There were quite a few in BG2.

For what I really disliked, I wasn't a fan of the inventory UI in most of those games.

Eric Fenstermaker: I've been replaying IE games for the past few months in my spare time. Some things that stood out:

The big setpiece combats in BG2 were really engrossing. I found myself clearly underpowered against a shadow dragon, a lich, etc., and I'd have to reload maybe a dozen or more times in some cases, but that feeling of "Almost had it! One more try!" kept me going, and the wealth of strategies you could choose from made those fights all the more addicting.

Obviously they didn't have much in the way of high fidelity cutscenes back then to sell their narrative. But I was very impressed at the way Torment was able to leverage prose to help convey the visuals. Made their characters so much more memorable. That's something we'll be bringing back with Eternity.

Adam Brennecke: BG1: I really liked the low-level campaign feel, the exploration, and that it was a good D&D game.


One of your developers (I forget who) said Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen has influenced Pillars of Eternity. Can you talk more about this? Erikson is my favorite author, and I was ecstatic when I read this tidbit several months ago.

Eric Fenstermaker: I've only read some of the first book, and that only lately, but one thing I've noticed that the two worlds share is that the gods play a strong role in shaping the setting and its major events - even when they're not necessarily "supposed to."


How long do you expect an average play-through of the game to take?

Brandon Adler: We aren't really giving numbers just yet. Really, we can't. We won't know until we are finished creating everything and get lots of playthroughs.

I will say, though, it will take a lot of time.


Hi guys - really excited about the project! This and Numenera are basically my hope for the revitalization of the old-school Western RPG genre, and I have happily thrown piles of money in your direction as a result. Everything looks fantastic so far. And please take all the time you need to get it right.

A couple of things, one game-related and one not:

Can you give us any sense yet of how much content each companion will bring? Companions have often been the best part of RPGs to me (Viconia FTW), so I'm curious if each companion comes with their own questline, or if some companions have more in-depth questlines than others, or if most of the interaction is just reacting to how you deal with the world and play the game. Basically, any more detail in this area would be great.

Will there be any sort of launch event in LA? I live in LA and would absolutely love to come celebrate when Eternity finally launches.

Brandon Adler: The companions will likely be comparable to the other IE games. Think BG levels for the companions. All of the companions will be pretty tied into the world you are exploring and they all have their own motivations.

We are still talking over any kind of launch events. When we figure everything out we will let our backers know.


Will there be any more video updates? Office walkabouts, behind-the-scenes, interviews, etc.? Love to watch those.

Adam Brennecke: I can make a video update right now.


Matthew Sheets: There's the documentary for our Backers that's being made. That being said... I hope I don't come off as a fool in my small interview for it. I was tired...


Hey guys! I'm really looking forward to Pillars of Eternity and can't wait to try it out. I think it's really awesome that you're bringing back the old-school CRPG style.
But anyway, do you have any funny stories about lore or gameplay ideas that you've had to scrap from the game thus far?

Brandon Adler: Backpack baby. I won't explain this.

Eric Fenstermaker: Who said we scrapped this?

Adam Brennecke: soul cigars. I won't explain this one either.


Hey guys, as long-time developers in the business, you all have had to deal with a lot of pressure from publishers to get things out on time. Obsidian, more than probably any other studio, has had kind of a reputation of making amazing games that are just slightly too rushed. How is your development on this game different, not having any time constraints put on you from anyone (except some extremely mild pressure from your loving and adoring backers)? Are you LOVING IT?

Steve Weatherly: For me, as a programmer, I love that I don't have to put together a "dog and pony show" for anyone with fake code that's going to get ripped out. If I'm writing code, it's something we will potentially ship with and that's a really refreshing difference.

Brandon Adler: Steve's reply is a good one. Sometimes, the team's time can be spent polishing systems or areas that are going to have to be redone just because it needs to look nice for a demo. That can really set the team back.

That said, we are trying to move at a brisk pace and be smart about what goes into the game. We want to make sure everything that goes into development will get a good level of polish before we release it.


The main things I most disliked in BG2 were how the reputation system tied in to party relations and how being evil almost always was a lot less profitable (both in exp and gold) than being good. Also in many other RPGs being evil usually means just means being an asshole and not actually evil. Can I expect to do some truly evil stuff and not get totally ripped off on rewards?

Brandon Adler: I would like to think that we are creating everything in a way that will be fun and balanced for all types of players - evil included.

Bobby Null: Reputation works much differently in PoE. People will react to how you handle things, but there is not an over-riding system to penalize you for being an a-hole. And there are some really "bad" things you can do in this game if that is your thing.


What thing about PoE has you most excited? Also, what would you say is the most unique thing about the game?

Steve Weatherly: Hahaha, as a regular redditor I understand your excitement getting to one early.

I'm a programmer, I don't actually play more than little pieces of the game at a time. I'm actually looking forward to playing through when the mains story line is all put in and stuff. I love these types of games just as much as you guys do.

The most unique thing? Well we have a complete role playing rules system built from scratch. That's, by definition, unique! As far as unique tech, like I mentioned in another answer, our levels are all just flat 2d textures. But we have some really cool tech that makes it look 3d and can even be lit like a 3d environment. Watching my spell missiles fly through a dark cave and light it up is still cool to me.


Student in UCI's Informatics program, here. You have a number of talented Unity engineers on your team, I'm sure. What resources did you guys use when you were first starting out with Unity (whether at Obsidian or elsewhere) that you found were particularly helpful? I want to dedicate some real time to familiarizing myself with the engine this coming summer; suggestions on where to start would be incredible! Thanks!

Tim Cain: I already knew C#, so I read "Unity 3.x game development essentials" and then made a few little games at home. That helped ramp me up on the Unity way of making games, and I was ready for Eternity.
Great book, BTW.

Steve Weatherly: At the beginning of the project Adam, myself, and Jay Fong (who as since moved to another project) were all sitting near each other trying to make different things happen. We watched tutorial videos and got our hands dirty trying to make something happen. I would mess around with things like movement/pathfinding, Jay investigated graphics, and Adam handled assets and other logistics. We shared our discoveries and learned by doing.

The best way to learn this sort of thing is to take on a small project, even if it's just one of the Unity example projects, and try to change stuff. There's a ton of great tutorial videos out there, you can do it for sure!

Adam Brennecke: Just keep at it. I spend hours and hours in Unity everyday. It can be unusual at first, but with experience you start to get the hang of how things work. Google search is your friend with Unity. You can find an answer to almost everything on Unity's forums.

It's really easy to iterate in Unity, so take advantage of it. Get things running quickly and play it. Rip it apart, and do it again. Every iteration you will learn more and the games that you make will be better.


How much of the world outside of the area explored in PE do you guys have plotted out? You're very in-depth, and as a world-builder I know how hard it is to resist going whole hog on a very expansive setting, but then again, maybe that's what you have producers for.

Brandon Adler: I think that Josh has a good idea of the various parts of the world that haven't been explored, but not much in the way of documentation exists.

That kind of work would be out of scope for the project and we are already on tight timelines.

Just read the last kickstarter update and you talk how undead are "people" that had their souls bound to their bodies, wouldn't that make them rare occurrences? I mean, they aren't contagious or anything.

Brandon Adler: Eric mentioned that there are a bunch of ways that someone could get their soul bound to their body. As far as I know in the lore, though, they aren't contagious.


Are you going to provide full exposure to all combat and other rolls in PE? I really like it when I can bring up the combat log and get every roll combo from a recent fight. Thanks again.

Adam Brennecke: Yes. It's almost too verbose. Tim and Brian have implemented a neat feature where you can mouse over the combat log to see even more details. I hope you like it.


I think you recently said you won't include romances in the game. They are almost standard in these kinds of games. What was your reason for not including them?

Brandon Adler: Josh's response was that he didn't feel we could do them well with the time and resources that we have available to make the game. Take it from the guy who makes the schedules, he isn't wrong. Romances are very expensive to do well and we would have to cut things from the game to make them properly.


Is the main musical theme still the same one as was in the Kickstarter video? Any music updates in the cards?

Brandon Adler: On the musical theme, Justin Bell is composing the music as we speak. We will have new music for all of that, but it is possible he could borrow from the Kickstarter music a bit.


Have any cool, unexpected elements made their way into PoE yet?
I know it wasn't the biggest commercial success, but I played the bejeezus out of Alpha Protocol.

Any chance at a sequel, or similar game in the future?

Brandon Adler: For me, I didn't realize the Stronghold system would be so expansive. It is cool that Tim was having fun with it, even when it was just his own little text-based game.

Little to none I would guess. I am not aware of Sega approaching us to do a sequel.


What are your favorite bits of lore so far?

Tim Cain: I like the Endless Paths of Od Nua. I like that there is a deep dungeon to explore for the plain visceral fun of it, but at the same time the dungeon fits with the world lore very well.

Brandon Adler: I think the lore of the statue in Od Nua is pretty cool too.

Adam Brennecke: Right before the AMA we just had a play through of level 4 of Od Nua. It was good fun.

Brandon Adler: Probably the cipher class. I love the way they use soul magic to wreck foes.


Is there a particular part of Eternity that feels extra special for any of you? No spoilers of course!

Tim Cain: The most special part of Eternity is that we are making this game for you. You are both the publisher and the customer, and that is a rare thing to happen in the game industry (although hopefully it will be a lot less rare in the future).

Brandon Adler: Well, I think that it is so reminiscent of the old BG games makes it special. When I first came onto the project it took a few weeks to get over seeing someone playing the game. The first thought in my head was that they were playing BG.

Eric Fenstermaker: I second this. The IE games were some of my favorites growing up, and some of those experiences were a big part of the reason I both got into the industry and wanted to work at Obsidian over anywhere else.


Hi, there. Is Reflex(REF) an exclusive defense stat against AoE spells or, depending on the type of AoE spell, other defense stats are used?

Tim Cain: The defense used (there are four) depends on the type of attack. Reflex applies to any attack where getting out of the way quickly will help mitigate its effects.


How much character interaction do you think is going to be in the game? One of my favorite reasons for liking the Baldur's Gate series was because of how often I got to talk to my party members and how they interacted with my character.

Bobby Null: There will be quite a bit of character interaction. Writing deep companions is a high priority for the title.

Brandon Adler: We are making it a priority for companions to speak about the situations that are happening around them. We would like for them to be at least as interactive as the games we are taking inspiration from.


How large are the cities in the game going to be, are they going to be larger than Athkatla? And in regards to content, is it going to jam packed or more spaced out? Is one city going to be larger than the other?

Adam Brennecke: Not quite as big as Athkatla, but pretty big. One city (Defiance Bay) is larger than the other one (Twin Elms). The content is spread out, and we have lots of maps in the wilderness to explore including villages and dungeons.


Do you really like Icewind Dale more than Baldur's Gate 2?

Adam Brennecke: I like the BG games more than IWD. People have different opinions!


How many projects are you currently working on?

Tim Cain: Just this one! I'm 100% PoE.

Adam Brennecke: Just this one. We have other projects going on at the studio, but most, if not all, the developers work on one project at a time. (Besides Dave... poor Dave.)


Do any of you guys play games while developing them? What are you playing now?

Brandon Adler: Depends. I go in cycles where I play tons of games, then I go for a period of time where I do something else.

Right now I am playing Bravely Default. It is the first JRPG I have played in a long time. It has its issues, but overall I am having a good time.

Matthew Sheets: Except towards the end of a project, I'm generally playing games while doing QA stuff. I was playing the Titanfall Beta... and now I'm waiting for Titanfall.

Bobby Null: Dark Souls, Mass Effect 3, The Walking Dead


Thanks for doing this! Obsidian is one of my favorite underdogs in this industry.

What do you think was the most important moment in Obsidian's history that was not seen as important at the time?

Along with this, who at Obsidian do you feel best embodies the company culture?

Brandon Adler: I am not really sure how to answer this.

I think when you are creating games there are tons of moments that don't seem important at the time, but end up being a big deal.

I think Eternity might have been a good example. I came on after the project had already started, but I feel like it may have ballooned bigger than most people expected. That, coupled with the fact that it is the first time we will have our own IP, and it makes it pretty important.

For who embodies the spirit of Obsidian best... I think all of the owners in their own way represent a little bit of Obsidian. The culture is crafted after what they find important.


Do you plan to make a sequel that follows the main character and supporting cast of Pillars, or will the future games all follow the "same setting, different story and cast" plan?

Bobby Null: Direct sequels would follow the main character the player creates.


Can some of you maybe comment on your favorite moment from any video game, and what makes it special to you? For me this would probably include stuff like the Tuchanka mission in Mass Effect 3 and the revelation in Kotor 1.

Tim Cain: I recently finished Dishonored, and I can tell that I did NOT get the good ending. And I was surprised by how far they let me go down that dark path, especially at the end.


Did you guys build a new Infinity-style engine from scratch for Eternity? Were there any special technical challenges in creating it?

Steve Weatherly: Pretty close! We've taken Unity and built a pretty cool Infinity-Style look but with a more modern approach to engine design (following the "Unity way"). I'd say our most impressive technical hurdle was getting the look down. We showed this off in our first video, but being able to take a bit map and apply dynamic lighting to it (like from a fireball) still amazes me when I see it.


What game have you worked on that most disappointed you in how it came out? By the same token, what games (post-Infinity Engine) are you most proud of?

Tim Cain: I worked on a game in the 90's that I actually had my name removed from its credits. Good luck finding that one, though.

And I really like how Arcanum turned out. Is that one post-IE enough?


I've seen a lot of references to "doing this like (insert Fallout: NV, or any infinity engine games)

You guys are borrowing from some greats, but what are some new things that you're trying to breathe into the genre?

Eric Fenstermaker: Personally I am super impressed with the tech our guys were able to put together. Dynamic 3D lighting of a 2D scene is just the sickest kind of programming mojo and as someone who studied computer science it brings a tear to my computer nerd eye.

My hat is also off to Josh for pushing for linguistic consistency and authenticity in our setting. And in general I think you'll see a lot more thought put into the "rules of the world" than you'd typically see in a fantasy video game - the language, the sociopolitics, the historical plausibility of the way the world developed its technology, that sort of thing. You don't just make up whatever name or place - there are rules, and those make the world feel more real and less generic. Everything is grounded, and for me as a narrative designer that's the best thing it could be - it makes it easier to find conflicts and lore and plot points that people can relate to.

Adam Brennecke: We have a new conversation disposition system that expands on our already great branching dialogue trees. It adds more depth to conversations and gives the player more chances to role play his/her character.


With the recent changes to zbrush, specifically zremesher, will you guys go back and enhance the visual fidelity of the characters, since you can quickly create models that were over a million polys be a dozen thousand that look nigh distinguishable?

Also, I mentioned in the forum an idea I had but I don't know realalistically how hard it would be to do, but can you guys adjust animations to our attribute scores so they coincide? For example, if I have a low dex skill, maybe I stumble when I walk, but a high dex would be very smooth and graceful, or might have animations like putting hand down on ground to turn quickly. Or a person with high intel might use more gestures when they talk, or have more follow through on big magic attacks, etc.?

Adam Brennecke: I don't think we will go back and redo the modelling unless there are glaring problems that need to be fixed in alpha. Our low poly models are topologized by hand. I think most of the gains for zremesher would be from higher poly meshes than we see in Eternity.

Your animation suggestion is pretty neat idea. I've seen you post something similar on our forums. - maybe we could do something like that down the road or on a future project. We don't have plans to do that for Eternity - we want to have some unique animations for PCs depending on the race/sex combo, but attribute scores is not a possibility due to the amount of animation required. Also our animation fidelity is not quite to the point where we have nuanced things like stumbling/hand placement on ground, etc.