From the ages of 8 to 11, I devoured as many choose-your-own-adventure books as I could get my sticky little hands on. Give Yourself Goosebumps was my favourite series. I’d stay up late in bed, gripping the pages with shaking hands as I decided whether to take on a group of groaning zombies or run away screaming. I loved being able to dictate the story — even if I always kept a finger on the previous page, of course, so I could change my mind if I didn’t like the outcomes.
Playing Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire has rekindled this joy. That’s partly because you’re making a story-altering decision every two minutes, but also because it literally has its own choose-your-own-adventure books built-in.
Most of Pillars 2 takes place from an old-school isometric perspective in the style of classic RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate, but occasionally it plunges you into story books framed with leather bindings and sketched illustrations. Sometimes these books are part of the main story, but more often they’re self-contained tales that start when you’re exploring the Deadfire Archipelago.The scope and variety of these stories is vast. I trigger one while sailing through the game’s southern-most seas, as a giant whale-like creature with luminous organs pulls alongside my ship. Some of the crew want to hunt it but, after one points out that it may bless our onward journey, I let it be — and morale ticks up overnight. Sailors are known for being superstitious, after all.
A few hours later I get another book, prompted by a knock at the cabin door. One of my crew thinks he's been getting signals from me and…ahem…wants some company. I’m not interested and could easily tell him to “get your ugly ass out of my cabin” — but I don’t want to damage the crew's ballooning morale. I usher him in, and he passes out drunk in my hammock before the door’s closed behind him.Both of these mini-stories took a minute or so to play out, but some are longer. I’m trekking across a rocky island when a book pops up, showing me a chasm with a rope stretching across. I have options, each requiring a skill check. I can examine the rope, search my surroundings or take my chances and try to clamber across. I send my survival expert to scout the area, and he find lots of footprints, but no signs of traps. Gingerly, I grip the rope and edge across. My lead climber — who I sent first because he has the best Athletics rating — slips, and the next in line has to grab his wrist to stop him plunging to a certain death.
When I make it across, I’m greeted by a tree, bodies strung from its bare branches. Some of my crew are already searching for treasure. I could shoo them away, ask for a cut or give the bodies a proper burial. Or, because of my Cipher class, I can search the area for spirits, which pulls me into a memory about the raiders that pillaged the locals and burned the tree.
In some RPGs, you can get away with not investing in certain abilities, but these books eventually test every skill in the game, and some branches are only open if you’re a particular class or race.
On a barren, rocky island I come across an example of this: a small camp, with a hooded figure sitting on an upturned crate. After trying and failing to creep closer, I have to intimidate the silent figure’s companions — “I go where I please” — to make them lower their weapons. After some polite conversation with the companions over hearty stew, I walk up to the mystery figure, and take a peek under their hood. I find a pale grey face without eye sockets — one that I could identify, but only if I were the Priest class and, even then, only if I were the sub-class that’s dedicated to a specific God, Wael. But I’m not. So the world plunges into darkness and the camp vanishes, never to be seen again.
I fail skill checks often, usually because one of my stats isn’t high enough, and that makes me wish I’d crafted my character differently. I haven’t found Stealth to be particularly useful in the main game, but in the books I’m constantly falling over my feet when I want to be quiet, or stepping loudly on twigs in the woods. My History stat is also lacking, which makes me sound like a fool in conversations with strangers. I can’t wait to start another game with a re-rolled character that can tread softly and knows a thing or two about the makings of this strange world.
The books give this world texture, and are the perfect showcase for Deadfire’s poetic writing. The game’s dialogue and description is some of the best you’ll see in an RPG, but the regular camera crams it into a box at the bottom of the screen. Reading through four or five of these boxes consecutively is tiring, no matter how good the words are. The books give the game's language and atmosphere the space they need to shine. Sentences are punchy, descriptions to the point, and decisions normally have to be made on every page.The writing is elevated further by the illustrations. They’re stylistically minimal, black and white pencil sketches, but are clear and often do the heavy lifting for key scenes. The rest of the game’s isometric camera is too zoomed-out to capture the up-close details of whatever's going on with your characters, which means the writers often have to spend too many words describing such interplay. The illustrations in the books can focus on monsters and settings in such stark detail that the words are free to form around this core.
The storybooks are not only an elegant solution to a problem that can plague this kind of game, but also give the world of Pillars 2 a whole other dimension. The chasm scene I described above, for example, would be impossible to replicate with such dramatic detail in the 'normal' game, and indeed if it were tried would probably turn out quite dull. But turning this incident into a short story changes up the pace, engages you in a different way, and creates a memorable moment in the journey out of very little.
It's not that Pillars 2 is the first game ever to have this idea: plenty of others, including the original, have used similar-ish methods to tell stories. If you’ve played King of Dragon Pass, which seems an inspiration, then even the layout might look familiar. But Pillars of Eternity 2’s choose-your-own-adventure tales are the best use of this technique I’ve seen, and over many hours in this magnificent RPG have genuinely become my favourite thing about the experience. Any developers looking to pile in on this revitalised genre should start by taking a leaf or two out of these books.