Traditionally, I have little love for isometric roleplaying games. I liked them well enough in the 90s, sure, because that was the best angle we could get. I certainly preferred them to side-scrollers, with their claustrophobically limiting 2D prisons. When I started playing video games, the isometric perch, at a 45 degree angle in the air over the character, was a few years yet from evolving into a standard, but you could see it coming. A child, I called them “see yourself games.” As opposed to those where you could not. I preferred them.
But over time, what I wanted from games changed, and so did the distance I desired to have from them. I grew to hate the isometric perch, floating so far away from details I wanted to see: the graffiti scrawled on mages’ desks; the contents of various bowls in a kitchen. From the isometric distance, everything was limited to a blur of pixels, and detail depended upon someone having bothered to code in a description triggered by your click. Perhaps, coddled first by text adventure games and then by MUDs — where such details would most definitely have been added — I was spoiled.
There is too, though, the fact that I’m less desirous of seeing myself in games now, in third person. I’m less interested in having to see the necessary disconnect between the character and myself, maybe: whereas before, I delighted in the appearance of a new cloak or sword on my character in accordance with my having added it to my inventory, now all I wanted to do was meld into the game, without the prop of the character between me and the environment. When people gather to discuss this or that game and the talk turns to mechanics I want to dig a hole in the ground. I don’t care about mechanics, I want to snap. Just give me a world I can vanish into, and don’t bother me there. I’ll jump through whatever hoops you want me to vis-a-vis how the character or combat is controlled. I don’t care. Just let me in, and let me shut the door behind me.
I had little interest, then, in Pillars of Eternity, when it came out in 2015. People tried to get me hyped; I took one look at the isometric angle and said no. Not gonna happen. Not when I can fade into Skyrim, or at least drag the camera down over my character’s shoulder in Dragon Age or, you know, most other modern games. Games that wouldn’t force you to keep that damning distance between you and the action. Diablo, Darkstone, even remasters of old point-and-click adventures: I had tried them already, and found them lacking.
But I bothered to pick up the first Pillars last week because its sequel just came out. And the sequel boasts free DLC that places the members of Vox Machina, whose Critical Role voice actors already voice tons of characters in both Pillars games, in as recruitable characters for your party. And I mean. I’m not made of stone.
And it turns out I love this game.
I love the immense amount of writing that sits within it, waiting to be discovered — or not. As with the Elder Scrolls games, you can read all the in-game books — or you can not. (I always do.) As with the early Sims games, you can read the lengthy, often tongue-in-cheek stories behind every item’s description — or you can not. (I always did.) The very fact that reading all that text was optional makes it more valuable to me — maybe how books I chose to read automatically had more value to me than those I was forced to read. It’s juvenile, I know. It’s artificially limiting. But I hate being led by a flagrantly obvious carrot on a flagrantly obvious stick. Unless we are talking romanceable NPCs, which is another question entirely. Having the choice to do all this reading of details, of stories-within-stories, will always invite me to read them. Forcing it all to be read as part of some ham-handed fact-finding mission will curdle my tongue. I have never liked mystery novels or hidden object games, and don’t like have to engage with a warped version of either.
In Pillars, though, I do care about the written details behind these characters. Yes, these characters I can barely see — and I have no doubt that the portraits (themselves visual callbacks to older games, older ways of looking for identity in a sea of pixels) of major characters that appear next to their text when they speak go a long way toward warming me to them. Even frozen into stillness, they still give you more of the character than the sprite. (This is probably a deficiency in me, peculiar to the specific time I came into games, and the nature of the games I played first, but there it is.)
There’s the plot, too — which, like the characters, is not crap. “This must be upsetting for a lot of people,” I murmured to my husband, who played a little of the game when it came out, but not much.
“Well, anyone who’s lost a baby, or had it dragged lifeless out of them, or had it show up breathing but a vegetable. It kind of touches on all of that with zero subtlety. Look.”
I know people to whom all of these situations apply, and when this is the backdrop to your story, it demands attention:
I get that it’s dark, but…I appreciate this particular darkness. Like how I appreciate an adult losing their shit over their lost mother, as appeared to happen during Critical Role two weeks ago (however briefly). It’s…affirming, surrounded by those who have either not experienced hardship or who who have dealt with it but seem unphased by it (the curious emotional immaturity of the vast majority of Californians I’ve met here has at its root, I assume, as least as much wealth and luck as it does climactic or societal ease)…affirming that in this soft, beautiful land of soft, beautiful people, who seem unable to be stirred to extremes of anything, to see someone break down is just a relief. Ah yes, the thought is. So you still believe in some kinds of precipitation out here.
This sounds irrelevant to Pillars of Eternity, but it’s not. All day I listen to people talk about games, but about the parts of games that are entirely interchangeable for me. Economies of this or that, balance, meta, I don’t care about any of it. I never have; if I have appeared to it’s only to look polite. And it’s frustrating, to be neck-deep in something you should love, only to find everyone most caught up in the minutiae that does not move you. Or for them to be so, so close to doing something meaningful, only to veer sideways into frippery or a cheesy joke instead. Oh just have the balls to be earnestly dark, I want to tell them. Just bring people to their knees and don’t apologize for it.
Pillars does that. The character of the Grieving Mother, for example. At first I glowered, thinking how debilitatingly shallow of them, to define a woman and sure, a mother, by what she lost. The losses she continues to feel, magnified throughout compounded losses of those who follow in her wake. But then it became clear that even proffered with other names, other options if she could not remember hers (and she can’t), this is the name she chooses to go by. She claims it. And probably that is more helpful, and empowering in a way, than if her sorrow were swept under the rug after one or two paragraphs. “Sorry for your loss lady, now let’s call you Pam, shall we? Because The Grieving Mother is just such a downer, amirite?”
Well, yes, she is. (Speculative spoilers: she’s probably also some sort of amnesiac maternal goddess, temporarily dissociated from powers and her identity as a result of The Legacy, and my hope is that like Meridia in ESO she’ll burst out of her sad shell in a blaze of blinding light and roast everyone who caused harm, before the end. But that’s just hope and speculation; I haven’t finished the game.) But that’s the point. There are plenty of rogues with hearts of gold out there — every story ever has its obnoxiously charming rascal. I’m looking at you, Mat Cauthon. But rarer are the stories to show women wracked with grief — and not as flavorful background noise (think banshees) but as actual party members, who sometimes speak past or around their grief with insight or shrewdness, without having to erase the sorrow that shapes them. Or having it vanish after a single sidequest and a couple lines of follow-up conversation. The Grieving Mother is barely even seen by other characters. Her sadness makes her invisible to them. She doesn’t know why you see her, and you don’t, either. But you — I — want to. I want to know what makes a sad woman worth seeing. What they’re saying it is burning in there, waiting to burst forth and blind everyone.
With characters like this, both heavily written and yes, heavily voiced (having grown so coddled by the gift that is modern voice acting in games — even going back as far as Inherit the Earth, whose then-rare voices entranced me as a kid — returning to older or cheaper games that lack it is disappointing), I can stomach the isometric distance. I still have no desire to float up there at 45 degrees, so damned distant from everything and everyone…but with so much accessible to me through words, it’s an acceptable distance. One I am willing to put up with, even if I can’t disappear into it.
*Also, holy shit that puberty is the dealbreaker for animal souls shoved into human bodies (?!), but…that’s a whole post in itself.