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Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter Update #73: Eric Fenstermaker speaks!

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Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter Update #73: Eric Fenstermaker speaks!

Development Info - posted by Infinitron on Wed 26 February 2014, 01:03:02

Tags: Eric Fenstermaker; Obsidian Entertainment; Pillars of Eternity

In this week's Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter update, lead narrative designer Eric Fenstermaker finally gets to take center stage. It seems that the man was well chosen for the role, because the update is of large, almost Torment-esque proportions. Here's a small part of it, in which Eric describes the process of companion design:

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.)
Watch out, Eric, you ask for advice like that and at least half the audience will describe Minsc and Boo. Other than that, there's the usual introductions, a tongue-in-cheek description of Eric's work day, and also a nice bit of lore about the Eternity setting's undead. Oh, and also the news that the development team will be doing an AMA on Reddit later today, at 17:30 PST. Might be worth checking out if you're still awake then.

There are 38 comments on Pillars of Eternity Kickstarter Update #73: Eric Fenstermaker speaks!

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