I wanted to have an in-depth first look at The Pillars of the Earth, mostly because it triggered something in my dusty memory banks. It wasn’t until the brief description mentioned it is based on the novel of the same name that it finally hit me: I have that book somewhere in the mounds of sci-fi and fantasy books that took over my office. I don’t remember anything about it though, so I feel like I’m still approaching this as a new narrative and experience. I did say at some point this year that I was done with episodic games, but then I watched the trailer and decided I could at the very least give some first impressions of The Pillars of the Earth/obsessively play it end to end.
The most striking thing about the game from what I’ve played so far is easily the art style – hand-painted scenes are always beautiful. It’s clearly evident the developers put an immense effort into the visuals, and it certainly seems they’ve tried equally as hard to deliver a rousing narrative and game. The prologue opens with a picturesque yet bleak forest in winter. With snow falling and nothing but trees and cold ground as far as we can see, or walk, it casts an unfortunate circumstance for the characters we meet. A small family sit around a weak fire, wearing little better than rags, and with no bags, shelter or food to be seen. To make things even worse, the mother is very heavily pregnant and has a greyish tinge to her face. Before anyone even spoke, the portrait told me enough to grasp their hopeless and dangerous situation. I knew what was coming.
The dialogue provides some enriching backstory for the family, but, before I was even ready, I was given a choice (luckily it didn’t seem like it would have huge immediate repercussions). It felt like it weighted me, though, and, considering I’d known these characters less than 5 minutes, I was surprised how quickly they pinpointed such a small question that made me decide on the spot what kind of family and what kind of provider I intended to have. There were a few interactions followed by a sweet moment of revelation and complemented by subtle animations I almost missed: the slightest sigh and drop of the head before the father regained his composure for his family’s benefit. This is a subtle animation I noticed several times, and one which I felt added personality and sobriety to the 2D character’s interaction, as well as insight into thoughts of the NPCs.
The prologue was building toward a climax I could see coming, but what got me is how the game positioned me within a perspective I wasn’t expecting. I felt awkward and stressed as the obvious unfolded in front of me. The woman was in labour, and, in her condition, I knew she or the baby weren’t going to survive. As someone who has been through childbirth, I didn’t think it would shock me, but The Pillars of the Earth had me play as her husband during this ordeal as his horrified children watched on. I had to help as best I could yet my options were all uncertain, nervous or useless – I suddenly felt a pang for every partner who ever helped a woman give birth. I wasn’t sure if I should send the children away or get their help; I was useless, everything I tried made her more uncomfortable or highlighted the fact that all I could do was ask “what can I do?” Furthermore, after the natural course of events unfolded, it stung, even more, when the chapter summary said, “you were no use to your wife…”.
While the narrative slows down from here, I was excepting that – it is, after all, a historical novel, told over three decades. I’m not usually a fan of historical novels, but that only applies to the era. The actual story entwining the three playable characters is dark, driven, and unhindered by genre-staple chaotic controls. The incredibly simple gameplay meant less time was spent doing what I usually do in point ‘n click adventure games; namely, losing my shit because item-based puzzles and interactions follow some magical moon logic I haven’t yet learned. The game even offers a short and sweet tutorial. It’s all very straightforward while still managing to provide speed, access to an entire wheel of possible items, and different ways to interact. Not having to fiddle around with controls that break immersion also meant the story was able to unfold more naturally compared to other similar titles.
The setting, novel breakdown, and 2D point ‘n click style of The Pillars of the Earth isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and that’s a real shame. It’s a game that has an intense, swelling tale that reaches over more than 30 years and introduces us to three characters that are each deserving of their own chapters. The hand-painted art, easy handling, and epic tale all feel as if they’re coming together really well so far, and with enough conspiracy, betrayal, and evil to make a Game of Thrones look tame. Whether or not you know the novel doesn’t matter, because what little I did remember still couldn’t help me when the dark and far-reaching choices were in front of me, ticking away ominously.