The case for nostalgia: Pillars of Eternity

If a well-made game is a steak, nostalgia is my Tabasco sauce. Fortunately, Obsidian served a nice free flow of it with my Pillars of Eternity order.

They called it a return to the days of Baldur’s Gate, and they weren’t kidding: every step of the way, I saw echoes of my time on the Sword Coast in the UI, in the plot, in the wordsmithing, and in every frenetic, spacebar-spammy fight. Not the misty-eyed kind, just the kind that somehow took down any unconscious barrier to sinking deep into the game experience.

Full disclosure: I never finished Baldur’s Gate – far from it. Because reasons. But I saw enough of its characterization and combat (the latter of which I found nightmarishly tough) for Pillars to work its animancy on me. And the fact that my limited experience with its stylistic model was enough to enjoy it the way the devs intended, got me thinking.

Tapping existing fans

At what point does a ‘blast to the past’ game design become less a matter of its own merit, and more of a move to tap a well-entrenched interest base?

Pillars went beyond the staples of the Black Isle isometric; beyond rich characterization and mechanics like pause-heavy tactical combat. Look & feel-wise, it might well have been the original Baldur’s Gate Enhanced. So here’s the question: would Pillars have reaped the success it did with a different, original skin?

After all, Dragon Age had those staples as well, and yet its acclaim was far more a product of the game experience as a whole.

To answer that, I have to look back on my own 40+ hours on Eora, and cut away the filter I experienced it through.

For storytelling and world depth, Obsidian doesn’t disappoint. I personally wasn’t comfortable with the whole business of souls and past lives and reincarnation – The Elder Scrolls’ much more utilitarian approach is enough for my palate. But masterwork is masterwork (and Chris Avellone’s writing one of the finest cuts of this steak).

For combat that, at least half the time, felt less like a faceroll and more like conducting an orchestra, the game delivered as well. While considerably less punishing than its spiritual predecessor (the Hire an Adventurer mechanic would have been so welcome back then!), Pillars managed to make me micromanage in even random wilderness encounters. And winning fights with your brain instead of your twitch is so much more satisfying.

So yes. For me at least, Pillars wasn’t just a throwback. It was something I willingly stuck with to the end on its own taste. The old-school feeling was just sauce – like many sauces, a nice-to-have.

(Bad analogy, maybe; I’m aware of the culinary taboos associated with sauce in certain places, and on certain dishes – and I know, too, that certain dishes are made by their sauce! But I like a dash of Tabasco with my steak, so there…)

Not just nostalgia – what works

To further illustrate, I can point to another game I’m not sure a whole lot of folks remember – EA’s The Lord of the Rings: the Third Age.

This is a sample of how it plays, and it should be enough to ring bells for longtime Final Fantasy fans (Final Fans?). Yes. On the right. That’s the battle queue from FFX, rebranded.

I at least had the subtle benefit of hearing no such bells, being an avowed opponent of the FF franchise and all its abominations. My enjoyment of Third Age – a mediocre title little better than a movie tie-in – stemmed purely from my love for LoTR plus a lack of better games at the time. But were my tastes to the contrary, I’m sure the familiarity of that queue would have translated in no small way to the accessibility of the game at large.

That’s how I see it, anyway. Sure, maybe this doesn’t count as nostalgia, since FFX and Third Age were released within too short a time for that to set in. But the tactic of reusing a proven element is the same.

Tapping emergent fans

Nostalgia can be a risky play. The folks who played and loved Baldur’s Gate are 15 years older. As has been mentioned umpteen times in umpteen places, many of them don’t have the time for games they once did.

Going old-school to appeal to such a crowd is, in essence, banking on the power of video games as experiences – the power to bring people together even across years. That’s going up against the demands of real life. Chancy, to say the least.

However, oldbies wouldn’t be the only ones drawn by a nostalgia play. Many new-age gamers who appreciate, or are curious about, the classics (I am one) would give such games a spin on the strength of that value proposition alone – just for a shade of a feeling of what it might have been like. Bonus points if said classics were ‘before their time’.

So well done, Obsidian: you disproved the ‘aim for everyone, hit no one’ marketing mantra. Because you knew that gaming greatness is something ‘everyone’ is interested in. Even if that’s just an echo thereof – and Pillars of Eternity is, at least, an explosion of echoes.

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2 Responses to “The case for nostalgia: Pillars of Eternity”

  1. […] a couple weeks ago, I mused about Pillars of Eternity and its nostalgia play. Now, I’m looking at a Pillars-centric article full of gems about how the game sours that […]

  2. […] I acknowledged before, it works either way. I’m sure even folks who have a lot less time for gaming these days […]

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