Divinity: Original Sin II - Co-op, Roleplaying, and Design

Divinity: Original Sin II, Larian Studios' latest RPG, enjoyed some time in the spotlight this week, with prominent media outlets publishing a number of Original Sin-related articles. Let's start with PC Gamer and their story of how Original Sin's co-op multiplayer can quickly turn into a memorable competitive experience. A few snippets:

Round one

Our first mistake was to both choose archer builds at the beginning of Original Sin. Honestly, we didn’t realise quite how challenging the combat was going to be, and how important a well-balanced party is when you’re beset by sentient gargoyles and poisonous gases. It’s rarely just a group of angry chaps in Divinity, is it? Anyway, it was all fun and games as we shot through the first game’s opening like the Legolas Twins, easily downing level 1 Cursed Lieutenants on the beaches outside Cyseal and congratulating each other for well-timed and well-judged attacks. What fun.

We quickly found opportunities for get-rich-quick schemes, too. He’d keep the denizens of Cyseal talking while I’d go inside their house and steal all their paintings, then sell those paintings on to a merchant before the owner finished chatting. We’d halve the gold, you understand. Yes, in those early hours ours was a harmonious partnership, just two Source Hunters blissfully exploring a sun-drenched fantasy land with our followers, Jahan and Bairdotr, in tow.

Eight hours later, we hated each other. Not a straightforward superhero-and-nemesis kind of deal, but the silent, seething hatred of married couples cresting the hill of middle age in four-bed detached homes in the suburbs. You don’t think about how the tiny, unspoken etiquettes of a turn-based RPG can get to a pair of competitive friends, but they do.

For example, how long is it polite to leave a co-op buddy KO’d in a fight before using a precious resurrection scroll on him? What about that co-op buddy’s companion? How precisely do you divvy up gold and equipment? And does it really matter who gets the last hit, and who simply whittled down the health bar to tee it up? Given enough time, the answer to all those questions is simply fuck this other person.

We long ago discovered that Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t spawn twice the bows or arrows if you play as two archers, and entered a kind of passive-aggressive standoff every time a new one appeared in a chest. "No, you have it, I’ll make do with this one I’ve had since the start of the game, mate." Or "Ooh—that bow looks nice that you’ve just picked up, Phil. Having that one, are you?"


Round two

This time we made no mistakes about party composition. Tom plumped for a cleric build, while I went for a druid summoner. Sound logic. But again, we underestimated what the game would turn us into. I found myself getting irrationally and probably visibly annoyed when Tom gradually took his character away from the original healer remit and instead invested in several powerful magical attacks. This isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing, I screamed to myself in silence every time he landed a ranged staff attack.

For his part, I could tell that Tom really didn’t like my Incarnate. I pooled points so aggressively into my summonable chum that he quickly became the Cristiano Ronaldo of our party. What’s more, he gave me twice the turns every fight. The relationship soured before we even escaped Fort Joy.

Playing through one epic RPG in co-op is a unique experience. Playing through two of them is sadism. And Larian had obviously listened to its community’s tales of co-op betrayals and skulduggery in the first game, because in Original Sin 2 it’s sort of the whole point. Not only are there opportunities to undermine your partner in small ways at every juncture—I went ahead and won the gladiatorial combat challenge in the outskirts of Fort Joy to release my Source Collar before anyone else, so they were stuck with theirs—but also huge, looming shades of betrayal and tested allegiances in the main plot arc that the game loves to pick at. As Beast and Sebille were pitted against each other by their respective gods in the second act, Tom and I raised a smile in recognition at how we too had been pitted against each other this whole time.

Then, we can read this PCGamesN article that compares Original Sin II's Game Master Mode with traditional tabletop roleplaying:

Creating an atmosphere


Your party is headed for a dank, monster-filled dungeon, the hideout of the despicable Lich our heroes have been pursuing. Time to set the mood. You dim the lights, put on a YouTube playlist of spooky ambient music, and lay out that cool skull goblet you got at that convention. Perfect.

But, alas, trying to create a good atmosphere for a pen-and-paper game is like trying to create an atmosphere in the Longleat monkey enclosure. No-one can read their character sheets in the dim light, your music playlist suddenly starts playing ‘Anaconda’ during the climatic fight with the evil Lich, and someone accidentally knocks your cool skull goblet off the table and smashes it while aggressively celebrating a natural 20. To cap it off, phones bleep, players argue, and housemates stare in befuddled amusement.

Rating: 3/10

Divinity 2’s GM mode

Divinity 2’s toolset for creating a mood is exhaustive, complete with long lists of options for lighting, weather effects, background music, ambient noise, and on-demand sound effects. Want to create a good mood for a demonic cathedral full of deranged cultists? Easy! Lighting: Necro Cavern. Music: Exploration Theme 11 Mystic B. Ambience: Cathedral 01. Bob’s your demonic uncle!

It is also a lot easier to draw players into the ambience when they are sat at their computers wearing noise-cancelling headphones, not being distracted by the presence of their fleshy, non-medieval fantasy friends and household. Unless you are committed enough to install a complex lighting system and ambient sound system this level of customisation is pretty hard to replicate in real life.

Rating: 9/10

Winner: Divinity 2

And finally, we can check out the latest episode of Kotaku's Splitscreen podcast, where Swen Vincke talks about designing RPGs the Larian way:

Jason: So what’s an example of a corner you had to cut on Divinity: Original Sin 2?

Swen: *laughs* There are some combats that I think we could’ve done more extensively. You don’t know the narratives we cut, but we did cut quite a few of them. Sometimes if you’re unlucky you might fall in that particular pathway, and you feel it, and you say, ‘Ah this is not as cool as what I expected there to be.’ That always hurts, but on the whole, there’s really a lot of stuff to be enjoyed when you play D:OS2.

Kirk: I’m curious about something related to filler but a little different, and that’s the notion of grind in an RPG. There’s really no grind in Divinity: Original Sin 2. One of the things that strikes me as very interesting about the game is, there are areas where you can go and areas you can’t. There’s a really steep differential between each level. If I’m level 12 and I’m fighting a level 13 enemy, they’re gonna really kick my ass, where if I’m level 13 fighting a level 12 enemy, I’m gonna have a significant advantage. There’s really no point at which you can say, ‘Man I really wish I was level 13, I’m gonna go to the Cliffs of Noor and kill 5,000 drakes’ or whatever, and level up. You just can’t do that in this game. What’s your thinking behind that from a game design perspective?

Swen: So first of all, kicking your ass is important for you to feel important when you manage to kick their ass. This is one of the basic tenets of our design. It’s always possible to deal with enemies that are higher level than you, but you have to start exploiting the system. When you do that, you feel really good about yourself.

Kirk: It can be really fun.

Swen: Exactly. For that reason, we actually make the differential so high, and some people hate it, right? But it’s a conscious choice we put in the game. It has a downside—if you missed something, you might feel like you’re stuck. So that’s something we’re fighting with. But on the whole, I think people who play Original Sin 2, they get challenged, and when they overcome the challenge they feel like, ‘OK, I achieved something, and this was really rewarding. Because now I get rewarded for all the potential frustration I had to overcome to get there.’