It is a truth universally acknowledged that a studio making a fantasy RPG must find a way to crowbar in zombies. Sometimes they'll be called walkers, or infected, or weepers, or just spade-a-spade zombies, but the fantasy catch-22 remains – no matter how exhaustively the zombie trope is done to death, fantasy enthusiasts just won't let it die.
Pillars of Eternity, the upcoming old-school, isometric RPG from Obsidian Entertainment (they of Fallout: New Vegas and South Park: The Stick of Truth fame) is a fantasy RPG – so the undead are high on its to-do list. But where bread and butter zombies tend to be unlucky plague victims or the products of sinister government experimentation, Pillars' burbling meatsacks are different. In Obsidian's world, people sign up to be zombies.
Picture yourself as an ageing nobleman, swanning about your estate in your finery and admiring the rose quartz flamingos your landscape gardener has tastefully scattered over the lawn. You've everything a rich man could want – everything except time. Every morning you gaze forlornly into your gilded mirror, worrying over your worry lines, only making the problem worse. Then, one day, your assistant comes to you with news of a new scientific breakthrough – eternal not-quite-youth for a one-off mountain of gold. Intrigued and desperate, you have him schedule an appointment for you with the Animancer.
In Pillars' morally ambiguous world of scientific revolution, Animancy is right at the cutting edge of progress – stem cell research for wizards. For a modest fee, an Animancer will permanently bind your soul to your earthly body, tethering you to the mortal plain for the rest of time as a permanent middle finger to the reaper. All well and good, in theory. The only problem is that, after a while, your flesh starts dropping off.
From there, the repercussions of ignoring the small print only get worse. You start getting cravings for meat: a scullery maid here, a serving boy there. Who's to know? Like fantastical kelp, eating fresh bodies goes some way to halting your body's decay, but soon your mind starts to go as well.
Finally, you wind up your typical shambling corpse, schlepping around your palace until some questing hero or curious treasure hunter barges into your chambers, lops off your head and pinches all your jewelry.
The end result is in line with what the iron-clad fantasy charter demands. People want zombies, Pillars provides zombies. But the inclusion of Animancy and a quasi-magical renaissance world struggling to balance science, religion and morality make for a far more interesting promise than years of Tolkien tributes have taught us to expect. Yeah, it's a game about elves and dwarves and dragons and stuff, just not in the boring, been-there-done-that way it might sound.
"When fantasy feels generic, it's often because you've got these tropes that people hew to," Carrie Patel, Pillars of Eternity's narrative designer tells Red Bull. "Dwarves are all surly axe-wielders and elves are majestic tree-huggers with perfect hair. We wanted to start from scratch and say, 'If you had groups of people living in these circumstances, how might they really develop?'"
Obsidian hasn't revealed much about the competing factions in Pillars of Eternity. We have a map, which shows its cities, islands, swamps and castles (that must also be included in fantasy games by writ), but the developers are much happier talking about how they're going about making Pillars' society come alive than specifics of what it might look like.
"Most of our fantasy races are much more integrated than in many traditional, fantasy settings," says Bobby Null, the game's lead level designer. "Cultures in Pillars of Eternity are generally defined by the region of origin, and less by race. For example, dwarves aren't always stubborn, ale-gulping fighters that dislike elves. A dwarf's outlook on life greatly depends on where he hangs his hat and he is more likely to adopt the cultural traits of his neighbors, regardless of what race they happen belong to."
"We ultimately wanted to create something that feels real. Players can see how this world and the people in it have changed with the times and what kind of trajectory that's put them on," chimes Patel.
"The various cultures in the game are unique but not outlandish, and they're based around coherent principles and traditions. It may not always be clear to the player what the 'right' and 'wrong' sides of a given conflict are, which isn't always clear in real life, either."
What Obsidian will tell us is that the clash over this societal melding of science and religion is fought primarily between two factions: the Dyrwoodan of Defiance Bay, and the Glanfathan of Twin Elms.
"One of our main areas of focus has been to show a world where its inhabitants and locations make sense, where there's an organic relationship between a culture's foundations and the structure that they support," says Jorge Salgao, another of Pillars' level designers. "Dyrwoodan and Glanfathan cultures showcase major differences in predominant races, dialects, clothing styles, architecture, businesses, social classes, and politics, while at the same time coming together as single, coherent totalities."
The Dyrwoodans fill the fantasy role of the trampling colonial empire. Like Skyrim's Imperials, they're a centralized power with an unshakeable faith in their mission to civilize, forever hatching secret plots and schemes to further exert their political influence in the region. The Glanfathans, meanwhile, are a mish-mash of indigenous tribes with a long, murky history, and are, as you might expect, none too happy about the prospect of being colonized. The Glanfathans are also a more conservatively religious group, and are consequently displeased with the Dyrwoodan's ungodly research into souls and the tinkering therewith.
Enter your hero (or anti-hero) and their group of noble (or ignoble) followers. Cribbing reverently from the golden age of PC RPGs (while Obsidian founded in 2003, many of its staff were hoovered up after the closure of Black Isle Studios, the Interplay subsidiary responsible for classic 90s RPGs like Fallout, Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale), your merry band will travel from town to town, picking up quests and getting tangled up in the shady dealings of the game's warring factions – to the benefit or detriment of the world around you.
"Your party consists of your protagonist and up to five others," says narrative designer Matt MacLean. "These five other spots in your gang can be filled out with the companion characters that you meet in your travels, or by building your own custom hired companions from scratch. The companions that you meet in the course of the story come from a broad mix of race and class combinations, and each have character arcs that react to the choices you've made in dialogues and in quests.
"The companions you make from scratch will be the strong, silent types – but the companions you meet in the critical path will have insights and opinions on your actions. As you travel with the characters and get to know them, your choice of word and deed might change their political outlook, help them understand a problem in their past, or give them a spiritual change of heart.
"Companions will support or protest your decisions, but they won't readily abandon you without a serious difference of opinion – a companion that leaves you in the first act because you said one wrong line isn't the epitome of fun. While it might be possible to be such an onerous ponce that a companion leaves you late in the game, we generally wanted to avoid having companions ditch you because you wandered into someone's house and stole a copper coin."
As you explore the world, you and your party will earn a reputation as do-gooders or unscrupulous cutthroats-for-hire. This will affect how citizens react to your presence. Save enough kittens from trees and the bards will sing songs of your beneficence, but the game's unsavory elements might take you for an easy mark.
Drown enough babes in ponds (not a confirmed mechanic) and the powers that be might put a bounty on your head, but your ruthless nature could open up new, 'grey market' opportunities with Pillars' criminal fraternities.
"There are two types of reputation in Eternity: personal reputation, which we call 'disposition', and faction reputation," says level designer Jeff Hughes. "Disposition covers how your character behaves toward NPCs. Constantly making threats, turning down quest rewards, or being a total smartass are all tracked. A character with a known cruel disposition will find that some NPCs will decide against attempting to cheat you or decide that you're the perfect guy to send to shake down the orphanage for protection money.
"Faction reputation is very similar to the system in Fallout: New Vegas and covers the things you actually do to certain groups in 'Eternity, whether that's completing quests on their behalf or killing lots of their dudes. Make a faction hate you enough and they'll send an elite squad of assassins to take you out. Make them love you enough, and the faction leader will turn to you when he needs to make a decision that has long-term consequences for the faction and the region as a whole."
But the choices you make in Pillars won't be as black and white as choosing whether or not to bump off innocent faction members for jollies. As Obsidian's first crowdfunded game (Pillars briefly held the record for the most money raised for a game on Kickstarter, pulling in a staggering $3,986,929 during its 30-day funding period, almost $3 million over its $1.1m goal), the team have the luxury of building the game without publisher oversight, which means that thematically Obsidian can go as dark as they like without having to worry about alienating the money men.
"While designing the world of Pillars of Eternity, we drew from the full spectrum of the human experience, touching on broad subjects like religious and cultural conflict, oppression, and political upheaval alongside the smaller-scale travails of day-to-day life," says Olivia Veras, another of Pillars' level designers.
"We don't need to shy from the depiction of sexuality, or pull our punches when it comes to the effects of violence on individuals and communities. The people of Pillars of Eternity, as in our world, are multifaceted, and prone to the same virtues and vices. They might hold superstitious or bigoted beliefs, or covet their neighbour's wealth. They might visit brothels or indulge in narcotics after a long day.
"Our characters live in a world where conviction or desperation can drive people to terrible acts, where children aren't spared from the effects of violence, and where long-lasting tensions between races and cultures have led to the rise of xenophobic factions. It's also a world where even small acts of kindness can have a far-reaching effect.
"We don't include these topics simply to titillate players, but to provide a rich and grounded framework for an engrossing and memorable experience."
Like gaming's other Kickstarter success stories, Obsidian are only making their first foray into crowdfunded games with Pillars of Eternity. Given the studio's history with isometric fantasy RPGs, the switch from the standard videogame funding model seems like a good fit for a genre that, not that long ago, proudly eschewed fancy-pants visuals and famous voice actors in favor of telling deeper stories.
But since fantasy's isometric halcyon days, the genre has moved on. Fantasy games aren't niche retoolings of Dungeons and Dragons anymore – now the industry's Elder Scrolls, Dragon Ages and Dark Souls are front and centre at every expo and awards ceremony from E3 to Gamescom. We can chop zombies to bits in painstakingly textured, digitally hand-painted 3D these days, so what, if anything, do your top-down, text-rich RPGs have left to offer?
"Skyrim and Dragon Age are both great examples of high production values, each in its own way," says Null. "To achieve these levels of production value, it is usually necessary to cut certain 'old school' features from the equation. Party sizes get smaller, dialogue options become limited and combat is streamlined.
"Now I want to make it clear, I like [those games] for what they are. I also like, and miss, the older style RPGs I grew up on. Pillars of Eternity is being made for over 70,000 generous donors that apparently miss those games too."
Pillars of Eternity is out at the end of the year on PC, OS X and Linux.