Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Critique of the Story of Pillars of Eternity

This post contains major spoilers for Pillars of Eternity. Seriously, I will be discussing the ending and everything.

I bought Pillars of Eternity in March, 2015, almost two years ago. Yesterday, I finally finished the game. This post is an examination of what I see as the flaws of the story.

I should note that Pillars is a very good game, especially if you like old school Baldur's Gate-style isometric party RPGs. In particular, you may find the elements which kept me from finishing the game attractive to you.

A World With No Triumphs

My first mistake with Pillars is that I like to play paladins. And Pillars is not a paladin-friendly game. The world is somewhat dark, and the game delights in giving you quests and situations where there are no good choices, and you're usually picking the least-bad choice.

For example, in Act II you have to ally with a faction. One faction is city knights, who are arbitrarily discriminatory (basically, your soul has to come from someone who fought for the right side in the country's war of independence), and who are creating an army of clockwork knights which they are going to imbue with human souls. The other factions are a bunch of thugs and vigilantes who you generally encounter beating up people you need to rescue, and the local crime syndicate.

I didn't want to ally with any of them, but the game forced me to choose one.

But the thing is that every quest in the game is like this. There are no unambiguous wins to be found, and no one who is likable, worth saving, or even worth caring about. Or if there are such people, you won't be able to help them in any way.

Event the one good thing you do in Act I, getting rid of the cruel local lord, is arbitrarily overwritten in Act III. The lord comes back from the dead and slaughters the people you left in charge. I was like, "Really?"

I found my reaction to this to be very similar to my reaction to books like Game of Thrones. After a point, I stopped caring, and ended up dropping the game for months at a time. This position, though, is a personal one. Lots of people like grim works, and if you like this kind of work, you'll enjoy Pillars. I don't care for overly hopeless works, and as a result I didn't like much of Pillars.

Ultimate Truths That Clash

The basic structure of Pillars goes something like this:
  1. In Act I, you learn that children in Dyrwood are being born without souls, called Waidwen's Legacy. It may be natural, it may be the result of the death of a god's avatar fifteen years earlier, or it may be the work of soul mages called animancers.
  2. In Act II, you learn that Waidwen's Legacy is being caused by a conspiracy called the Leaden Key, using ancient Engwithan technology. They are acting partially to discredit and end the study of animancy.
  3. In Act III, you learn that this is really a power-play among the gods, with one of them trying to usurp the other's powers. The different factions of the gods have different philosophies on how the problem is to be solved, and you have to ally with one of them.
  4. In Act IV, you learn that the gods were created long ago by the Engwithans, because they learned that there were no gods, and they feared what people unbound by faith would do.
The major problem of the last two Acts is that the two "layers" of knowledge don't really work with each other. For example, the final choice you make at the end of the game is based on the truths of Layer III, on the gods and their philosophies, and not on Layer IV.

The main villain, Thaos, is working to empower one of the gods with the stolen souls. This works with Layer III. But in Layer IV, Thaos is revealed to be the one originally created all the gods back in ancient times. It's never really explained why he now works to shatter his original vision. The Layer IV truth of Thaos is opposed to the Layer III truth of Thaos.

As well, if you have a game with a pantheon, there are two ways you can go. The gods can be an active, literal presence in the game. Or they can be mysterious beings that may or may not exist. Act III chooses one path, and Act IV chooses a different path. The whole question of whether the gods are real or not is somewhat pointless when your character has communicated with them, obtained their blessing, and has observed that they have dominion over their portfolios.

I think Pillars of Eternity would have been far better off if they had chosen one of the two final truths and discarded the other. Either the divine power-play, or the truth about the creation of the gods, could have worked. But both together simply don't. They conflict and create holes in each other.

A final point is that the last layer of truth in particular is very heavy on the "tell instead of showing". You find out about it mainly through conversations of a past life where the conflict between telling the truth about the gods or spreading their worship was more central. This adds to a basic feeling of unimportance around the last truth.


Pillars of Eternity has an interesting story. However, it was a little too dark, hopeless and "unlikeable" for me. As well, it has one "reveal" too many. The last reveal, rather than enhancing the story as whole, undermines and weakens the previous reveal, as well as the motivations and actions of the main villain.


  1. Thanks for the detailed critique. I was a backer of the game and excited about it ahead of time but disliked the story right from the start and never finished it. Your description makes me glad I didn't persevere. I am sure I'd have liked it even less than you.

    1. It is very much personal preference though. Like I don't really regret buying the game. The game was well-made and I think accomplished its goals. It just wasn't to my personal taste.

  2. IIRC, if you join the knights, you can convince them to change some of their policies and abort the clockwork knight project. Not sure if the Dozens and the crime family have similar "change the system from within" options.

    1. Yeah, you can. But only after everything goes badly. I did look at the other endings, and you can get "good" endings for the other two factions where they behave benevolently.

  3. I've not gotten far in Pillars, but if I run into impossible choices with no good options, I won't want to advance. I appreciate games that have you making moral choices, or that have good/evil alignments. It makes you think and can help you become immersed in the world. However, any world that has no good choices, or room for those who will always want to choose Good over Evil isn't one I want to spend time in.

    1. It's not like you can't make good choices. It's more that most choices don't have an obviously good outcomes. On balance, the outcome might be good, but it's always a balancing act.

  4. It's been a minute, but isn't the overall reveal that the gods are 'real' in that they existed, but aren't omnipotent since they were created by man long ago. I don't think there is a disconnect between act 3 and 4 like you say, its just that in act 3 you get confirmation of existence, but then in act 4 you learn why you can still change things.

    If the gods were truly gods like in most games, you couldn't change that, which would make a lot of the story pretty pointless (assuming you don't get powerful enough to battle omnipotence, which is always kinda silly IMO).

    As for the Pali thing, wouldn't it be pretty boring/stale if there was the 'always good and works out' choice in things? A Pali can still try to do that, but I don't see why the world has to confirm to that ideal and make itself work out. PoE is dark, but it still allows for a 'good side' win, its just not 100% clean. Tyranny is much the same, you can pick the 'good side', but that doesn't mean everything you have to do is clean and wholesome, because that's not how life works, real or (good) fantasy.

    1. "As for the Pali thing, wouldn't it be pretty boring/stale if there was the 'always good and works out' choice in things?"

      The opposite situation, in which all choices are various shades of bad, is just as boring/stale - and also pretty depressing, to boot. Furthermore, between PoE, Tyranny, Witcher games, the Dragon Age trilogy, Deus Ex and Fallout, there is already an overabundance of games and stories with gray-vs-gray grimy morality where the best you can hope for is to choose a lesser evil. On other hand, if you're tired of GoT/SoIaF variations, and want an unironic heroic game that you can inambiguously win cleanly and wholesomely, you'll have to go back all the way to Mass Effect 2.

    2. I don't see why the gods being real leads to you not being able to change things. After all, Thaos is changing things on behalf of a god. So if he can change thing, you can change things too, using the same mechanism he does.

      Fantasy gods, especially ones in a pantheon, are usually not omnipotent. I think it would be odd to assume they are.

      As for the second part, I think that all choices ending up with grey (or bad) outcomes is just as unrealistic. Sometimes we are able to affect change, to solve problems, to get unambiguous victories.