Diving In – A Conversation With Pillars Of Eternity II Director Josh Sawyer

Our latest issue of Game Informer released today to digital readers, with the print version rolling out in the coming days. Within, you’ll find an in-depth look at Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire,  including hands-on impressions of a near final build, in advance of the game’s April 3rd launch on PC, Mac, and Linux, with console versions (PS4, Xbox One, and Switch) coming later in the year. I also had a chance to chat with the game’s director, Josh Sawyer, who went in depth to explain the inspirations fueling the new game, what has changed since the original, and details about new features that fans may not yet know about, including an as-yet undetailed character and other clues. 

Read on for all of Sawyer’s insight into the upcoming role-playing game from Obsidian Entertainment. 

Matt Miller: I want to start out talking about this intriguing corner of your campaign setting in which Pillars II unfolds. Can you tell me about the world of Pillars 2 and what makes it unique, both tonally and geographically?

Josh Sawyer: Sure. When we started on the original Pillars of Eternity, we intentionally skewed conservative because we were doing a Kickstarter that was playing heavily on nostalgia. We were very open about that, and because a lot of the Infinity Engine games focused on the sort of very traditional western European feel of something like D&D’s Forgotten Realms. We leaned pretty heavily towards that, but we always knew at the time that for future games, we wanted to spread our wings and take a look at places, visual styles, and cultures that aren’t necessarily dealt with as much in fantasy. Early on in Pillars, because both to stir the imagination of the designers and to stir the imagination of our players, I came up with a bunch of far-off locations for the worlds there that were not anywhere near where the first game took place. Places like Rauatai, the Living Lands, and the Vailian Republic, and then the Deadfire. 

The Deadfire, when we first conceived of it, I just thought it would be cool to have at the eastern edge of the known world, at least in this part of the world, the eastern edge of the known world is this huge chain of islands mostly made up of dormant volcanoes, which is where the name Deadfire comes from. And there’s a native population there, but it’s also full of pirates and sea monsters and all sorts of crazy things. When it came time to make the sequel to Pillars, we said “Where do we want to go?” The most common reply that I got was to the Deadfire. So, when we decided to set it here, we knew right away that we were going to have a lot of opportunities to have a much different visual style to our areas, we would introduce a culture that felt very not-European while still bringing over the colonial elements of cultures like the Vailian Republics.

There is some familiarity there for people who played the first game; it’s not like there’s no connection to the first game, but the Deadfire really allowed us to really start exploring other cultures, other styles of cultures, architecture, and visual things. It also allowed us to really extend the style of our art to include things like dynamic weather and dynamic foliage. While people seem to really like the look of the first game, they also found that it felt very static because there was a lot of stiff 2D trees on a 2D background, so all of these wild weather systems and plants, ferns, trees, and stuff allowed us to really make the levels feel a lot more alive. 

In the first game, another thing thematically is that you’re kind of in a post-colonial area. It’s an area that’s already been colonized, there were already wars between the native culture and the colonizers, and most of that stuff has been resolved even though there are still some lingering issues. But in Deadfire, it’s an area that is actively being colonized despite there being a native culture there. Those themes and issues are more to the forefront. One of the reasons why we chose to have two colonizing factions is I felt that if it were simply a native culture and a colonizing culture, it would be very easy for that to fall into a trope or a lot of tropes that aren’t necessarily that interesting to explore, and some of the things that I think are very interesting about exploring colonialism in Earth is that often you will get colonial powers not only fighting each other, but also trying to play that native culture against their rivals. That’s the space that I thought was interesting to explore in Deadfire in terms of the secular conflict on the ground.

MM: It seems from the time that I spent with the game that some of those influences look to both Pacific Island cultures, as well as nods to Pirates of the Caribbean dynamic. Are those inspirations you were specifically looking towards, or was it more general than that?

JS: Well, I think that there’s a certain element, as much as I’ve tried to avoid it, people have fun with traditional views of piracy, so there is some element of that, mostly expressed through the princhipee (spelling) faction. The Principi, which is a kind of organized, but as you play the game, not super-duper organized, pirate faction. They kind of represent what a lot of people will think of as more traditional pirates in a lot of ways. Then there are the colonial powers and the native quama (spelling) culture. The native Huana culture is not specifically based off of any individual pacific island culture, but there are elements of pacific island cultures in them. There’s also elements of Japanese in the language and stuff like that. If we borrow too much from one culture, then they will seem like a literal stand-in for that culture, so we try to find ways to come at these things from right angles or introduce other elements so that they’re not direct analogues. They’re there to provide some familiar context, but they’re their own thing.

MM: In addition to real-world inspirations, fantasy settings also let you include fantastical elements. What are some of the features that help the Deadfire Archipelago stand apart as a fantasy setting?

JS: One of the things that can up early on is we talked about “what is the reason for people to come here?” The Deadfire was a known place a long time ago, within the past few hundred years within the Pillars universe, so it asked the question why aren’t people already climbing all over this place? I’m looking at colonialism, for example, the exploitation of rubber in the real world. Until rubber became vulcanized and there were lots of industrial applications for rubber, there wasn’t a huge drive to get that substance. Why would there be? In Deadfire, there is a substance called luminous adra. Adra is a material unique to Pillars of Eternity, it’s what the Pillars of Eternity are made of. They are the substance that grows naturally out of the world that seems to conduct soul energy. In the Deadfire, there is a unique type of adra called luminous adra that is so filled with soul energy, it literally glows. For a long time, people were like “that’s kind of crazy. I don’t know what we can do with this, but that’s kind of neat.”

The breakthrough in the Pillars world was that an animancer, people who study soul energy and the science of souls, discovered several very useful properties of luminous adra, including an elixir that temporarily restores vitality and feelings of youth, and a youthful appearance. That immediately became extremely popular among wealthy people in the Eastern Reach, which is actually to the west of the Deadfire Archipelago, the place where Pillars of Eternity took place. Once this became a precious commodity that could be refined and used for a variety of valuable purposes, those colonial powers decided to rush in and make all these crazy ways to use it. It’s physically prominent in the environment, luminous adra does grow throughout the Archiepelago. It’s also notable for a number of physical features that are very imposing. Magran’s Teeth, which is a chain of volcanoes named for the goddess Magran that is very dangerous. There’s also an enormous, supernatural storm called Ondra’s Mortar, that is a barrier to any farther exploration eastward. To all sailors, it represents the eastern edge of the known world. It presents a real-world problem, but it is very obvious by looking at it that it is not natural, so there is some supernatural cause to that, in addition to the various beasts and creatures that lurk in the sea.

MM: Sure. One of the things I noted with my time playing that game is that it seems like there’s a bigger focus as a gameplay idea on exploration than maybe in the first game. Do you think that’s true?

JS: That is true. I wouldn’t say it’s a dramatically different focus, but I would say that the focus has been refined. In Pillars of Eternity 1, we relied a little more on our wilderness areas for exploration and because of how they were laid out and how we had to populate them, a lot of players were mixed about how that exploration felt. I always liked the style of world exploration found in a game like Fallout 1 or Fallout 2 where you have a world map that you can navigate in any direction you want to. Because the game is set in an Archipelago it felt like a natural fit to explore that by boat, providing the player with specific points that they can go to. You’ve got a ship, you got a big ocean, and a bunch of islands. If you know where you want to go, you can go there, but otherwise, just set sail and find what you can find. That sense of exploration and adventure is much more of the focus. To be honest, it’s challenging in a much different way, but as we work on it, it’s going to be a very rewarding experience. You really are setting off into this big ocean and sometimes you’ll go several screens of open water and wonder “am I going to make it out here? Do I have enough food and pay for my crew? What am I going to find when I get there? Is it going to be worthwhile?” Hopefully, that really feels like something where there is a sense of excitement, of risk and reward.

MM: Part of the challenge there has to be that you’re also a narrative-based game. How do you balance those needs? If people can go wherever they want, how do you make sure that you also get across some semblance of a linear narrative?

JS: Well, it just has to be some semblance of a linear narrative. Going back, I’ve actually used Fallout 1 as my model for the open storytelling structures. It’s what I also used for Fallout: New Vegas, even though people debate that. In New Vegas, you can go straight from Goodsprings to the strip and Benny is there and the story will make sense by doing that, because he’s always there. You’re just trying to find out where he is and get there. In Deadfire, we put a lot of effort into continually asking “What if the player goes here before going here? How does the story respond to that? What if they want to leapfrog that?” In shockingly few cases do we restrict that. In most cases, we say this can make sense as long as we account for this in this way. My focus in a game where we are trying to stretch player agency is not only in the sort of character they make, but the choices that they make in terms of dialogue – what they choose to say and the way they want to resolve quests, but also how they explore the world. Instead of constantly backing up and saying “don’t” to the player, we want to embrace the sense of role-playing and the player being in control of their destiny. As much as possible, we want to allow them to do that.

In certain cases, the story will still hold up. It won’t feel as tight as if you played it in the intended order, but I firmly believe that most players are going to play the game linearly. If we set up the game and the world and the story in a certain way, they’re going to play it in that way. If you think of Fallout 1, it is theoretically possible for you to find the water chip without going anywhere other than Vault 13 and the Necropolis. But nobody plays the game that way on their first try because they would never know to go there. I believe that players appreciate having that flexibility and the openness of that game. For us, we try to make the linear story a really good and engaging one that is paced well with emotional highs and lows, and also account for the fact that we want to allow players to skip around and do the things that they want to without the story falling apart when they do.

MM: A central element of the story involves this chasing down of reemergent god. One of the things that I found really interesting in the couple of spaces I saw was the idea of very clear marks on the world that indicate his presence or his passing. Is that something that is in mind as you design, that looming over any of these side quests and discovery of these islands that you also have this giant, titanic force that’s making its way across the islands?

JS: I will say that in Pillars 1, I handed Eric Fenstermaker a difficult problem for him to solve. We have an illness that is driving you crazy, and portraying madness from an isometric camera is really difficult to do, especially in a supernatural world. Is that a ghost? Sure, there are ghosts in the world, but is it a real ghost, or one that I just imagined? That’s a difficult thing to communicate. Regarding Thaos as a villain, which I think Eric developed a very cool villain, one of the problems is that Thaos is part of a secret organization that no one knows about and everything he does is very covert. When he pops up, no one has any idea what he is or what he’s doing, and if you contrast that with Jon Irenicus, he pops up and just starts popping people, and people know who he is and he’s a big deal as an antagonist. People can go “John Irenicus, that dude is psycho” and talk about him. For Pillars 2, one of the things I said right away is that Eothas is coming back, and he’s in this big statue. He’s as tall as skyscrapers in Chicago. We did the measurements. There’s not a big chance that people aren’t going to notice that he’s walking around, and he can leave physical marks in the environment. We wanted to make sure that it felt like he had a real presence in the world so that players didn’t feel like they were pursuing this thing alone and the world was not responding to it.

Next Page: A look at ship-to-ship combat, and the unlikely connection to a cartoon named Street Sharks

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