Pillars of Eternity and Obsidian’s Wonderful Use of Virtue Ethics


For the last several years, one of the better companies for producing both inventive and nostalgic RPGs is Obsidian Entertainment. Many of their games have taken existing properties and created sequels that took them a bit further (e.g. Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout: New Vegas). Last year, however, Obsidian released a game based on an IP that it created, called Pillars of Eternity (PoE). PoE began as a Kickstarter project, which I funded because it looked incredible and I like the company. It’s a throwback in design to the Infinity Engine games (like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale), but with many new features.

One of these features is the traits system, which assigns your character values to various character traits that they have exhibited through conversations that they’ve had with different people and factions in the game. It’s a wonderful system because it reflects a moral theory that I’ve mentioned before in this blog—virtue ethics. What makes PoE’s take on virtue ethics great is that it assigns numerical values to various qualities that you’ve exhibited, and then other people in the world will hear about your reputation and act accordingly.

An example might help! I am playing as a druid character (you have a party of six characters, but one is the main character, i.e. the character you are playing). She is a good person, very helpful and mostly honest. If there is a conflict between producing good and honesty, she will choose to produce good. Those do happen in the game, but for the most part, she has been able to be honest. As a result, she has an ‘honesty’ score of 3.

This means that when I am first meeting a new NPC in the world, I am sometimes given the option of using my honesty trait to convince them that I’ll do what I say. Characters in the world will react to me accordingly, saying things like “They say you are an honest person. So I think I can trust you.” This really helps with immersion, of course, but it also has in game benefits. By being trustworthy, I am told things I might not otherwise find out. Of course, there are other characters that will not like me because I am so honest. They will know that I am unlikely to lie on their behalf, and this could make them wary to give me certain tasks.

The system that incorporates all of this is not perfect. I cannot always tell which option will be seen as the benevolent one (my highest trait at 4 right now). I try to do good, but you aren’t told which option will raise benevolence or honesty or any other trait. Still, you can get pretty close. I would prefer a system where you are told which option matches which trait. That way I can be sure that I am choosing the one my character can do. This might undermine immersion though; so I understand why it isn’t present. Maybe there could be a setting to make this visible of invisible, allowing players to choose. I can, of course, go online and find this information, but I don’t want to pause my game during every conversation in order to look at walkthrus, which often have spoilers.

Overall, though, the system feels about right. There are many traits. My character is seen as slightly stoic, but mostly passionate. She’s clever. She even has a one in ‘deceptive’, probably from the times where I chose benevolence over honesty. If you play a different way, you can get traits like ‘aggressive’. I don’t know all of the traits that might be seen as more negative. I assume there is a malevolent trait to counter benevolent. Perhaps I’ll play the game again and see how that goes.

But it’s a big game; one of those epic, sprawling RPGs that you remember companies like Bioware and Black Isle making. Obsidian is a continuation of an approach to RPGs that makes you feel like you really are playing a video game version of a roleplaying campaign. The characters have distinct personalities and issues they wish to resolve. Some of them are unlikable (I’m looking at you Durance! I do not like you!). Others are simply exotic, in the sense that they represent ways of thinking that reflect the fact that they come from non-human cultures. For example, one of my favorite characters prefers eating raw meat. She’s on a journey to find the reincarnated form of a village elder that died several years earlier.

There are factions that you can find favor with or who might become enemies. There are entire new cultures to learn about; different approaches to magic, psionics, even chanting (bard-like abilities). I’m glad games like this are still being made. The inclusion of a virtue ethics approach to morality helps me see the world as a living place, where my actions and my value (or my character’s values anyway!) matter. I’d love to see other developers extend this idea further.

Let me know if there are other games that use a similar system. I’d love to hear about them.

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