What do you call cheese that’s not your cheese? Nacho cheese!
What do you call humorless German cheese that announces the death of God and all morality? Nietzsche cheese!
I recently put a few hours into the 2015 cRPG (“computer roleplaying game”, ASTERISK!) Pillars of Eternity from the vaunted masters of buggy and wordy videogames, Obsidian Entertainment. It is a sprawling, gloomy tale of magic and elves and lingering souls and ancient machines that turn the air a spooky color of purple. I quit around what I estimate to have been just past the halfway point of the story, due to boredom.
It wasn’t because of the vertiginous word count so endemic to the once dead (and probably again dying) genre. I happened to enjoy the endless reading. There isn’t enough of that in videogames, a medium that in yesteryear produced countless scripts of crushing prolixity but now seems bent solely on soothing the player into such mindless docility they willingly open their wallet again and again for the most pointless digital trinkets, and reading would very much get in the way of that. Rather, it was the normal tedious videogame things that did me in, like constant load screens interrupting the flow of the story experience and a grating number of pointless combat encounters between narrative beats. I’d already wiki’ed the plot summary before playing, so I didn’t feel I was missing out on much by quitting halfway, either.
Heretic!, you cry.
Pillars 1 (there is a sequel) is celebrated for its narrative. I’m not precisely sure which part of the narrative, besides “narrative” as a vague, abstract thing one feels required to celebrate when detected. I liked the characters and setting well enough, which are original to the game but in the end still comfortingly familiar, like a hip new sandwich shop that has the exact same sandwiches every hip new sandwich shop has slapped together for the last twenty years. The writing is mostly pretty good, hampered here and there by the comically frequent descriptions of facial expressions and hand gestures during dialogue and an occasionally overbearing portentousness (which is not as bad as it was in the probably-overrated 1998 cult classic Planescape Torment, however). From what I played, it was better than okay, which is far more than one can say about the vast majority of videogames.
I wonder if its esteem derives from its (weirdly cliched) Nietzschean plot twist. While chasing a madman causing all sorts of magical mayhem in the dreary Game of Thrones-ish realm of Dyrwood, your character learns that the pantheon of gods revered in the game’s world aren’t quite gods at all, but are instead (in sum) very big science experiments. A long dead but very advanced ancient civilization, we learn, was on the hunt for real gods to settle the question of religion once and for all, but found none, and wishing to nip further religious strife in the bud sacrificed themselves to create beings powerful enough to call gods. These “gods” are spiritual stews, amalgamations of thousands upon thousands of sacrificed human souls cooked in a giant magic Instant Pot to form deities to be feared, loved, and worshipped. God is dead, but we killed ourselves to cook you some new ones, you ungrateful twits.
The conceit here is probably meant to raise all sorts of serious questions about the nature of belief, religion, scripture, etc. etc. etc., and if you are twelve years old, I imagine it does. I was twelve years old when first exposed to Xenogears, which raised all the same questions but did it with a mix of giant robots and clinical insanity, and back then I certainly thought it Tackled the Big Questions. However, Pillars, like Xenogears before it and like all “God is dead” discourse past, present, and future, so misses the fundamental ontological distinctions that mark out what God is that it cannot begin to have a proper discussion about God at all. The deities the ancients searched for and then attempted to build themselves are infinitely different than that logical antecedent of reality, that ground and source of all being, that mysterious and unapproachable metaphysical beyond of which we can only faintly conceive, that vast and frightening otherness we call God. The gods the ancients failed to find and then tried to build were categorically unlike the God of Western faith and more alike to supernatural powers like angels, demons, and the pantheons of Norse and Greek mythology—and remember, it was a very short jaunt up Mount Olympus if an ancient pagan wanted to see if Zeus was hanging around there or not.
Now that I think about it, writing a backstory where a civilization is so depressed it can’t find real incarnate aspects of its mythological beings it literally kills itself to make its own gods…well, that not only misunderstands the metaphysics of God, but also the reality of ancient belief and practice in our own world. It’s an anachronism at the very least. Quite frankly, the projection of postmodern nihilism and despair onto a pre-modern pagan culture is perhaps the biggest stretch of the imagination in a game world where your half-hobbit, half-Ewok sex addict friend can transform into a tree monster and call down lightning from the skies.
Ah well. The sequel has pirates. That’s got to count for something.
ASTERISK! CRPGs (or even “Western” WRPGs) is a genre generally made up of long single-player videogames with heavy story elements, lots of choose-your-own-adventure dialogue, difficult tactical battles governed by complex stat systems, and at least one quest taking place in a brothel.