Stairway to Eternity
In the first part of our editorial about Obsidian Entertainment, we discussed their origin, early years and rise to fame. Obsidian Entertainment has garnered a reputation for releasing buggy yet deep and mesmerizing role playing experiences by 2010. It was no secret that many of their products suffered from meddling from publishers and producers. Yet Obsidian needed to push out games and without a publisher’s backing they couldn’t stay afloat. Obsidian was in a tight spot by 2012. Despite the success of New Vegas and Stick of Truth, they had difficulty finding a reliable publisher for their next game. It was at this time that fellow game developer InXile Studios headed by ex-Interplay CEO Brian Fargo and Jordan Weisman’s Harebrained Schemes found explosive success in a crowdfunding platform known as Kickstarter. Kickstarter allowed developers to advertise their ideas through the platform and giving people worldwide a chance to fund the game directly. Thus, eliminating the middleman known as the publisher. Fargo’s Wasteland 2 and Weisman’s Shadowrun Returns promised fans of the crpg genre, a trip down memory lane to the golden age of rpgs. Both these games were advertised as true oldschool crpgs with the studios taking complete creative freedom of the development. This move paid off and the fans showered both projects with more money than originally asked for. In return, backers were given the opportunity to watch the game develop and evolve in front of their eyes.
Obsidian knew that it was now or never. They decided to go all in and drop their Ace on the table. On September 10, 2012, Obsidian’s webpage began teasing about a brand new game titled “Project X. The next day a countdown began. On September 14, the Kickstarter campaign went live revealing a role playing game code-named Project Eternity. Project Eternity was proclaimed to be a spiritual successor to the Infinity Engine games from the 90’s. Taking inspirations from Baldur’s Gate, Planescape- Torment and Icewind Dale, Eternity would put the players in an engrossing original world with deep rpg mechanics and a real time with pause combat system. Project Eternity was received with widespread reactions from crpg fans worldwide. You could even say that the reveal even made some eyes wet. Eternity sparked an ember in the dimming forge of crpgs. The Kickstarter campaign was a make or break move for Obsidian. If Eternity failed in its objective, then the guys would have to pack their bags and Obsidian would close their doors forever. People often underestimate the possibilities of a ballsy move. Project Eternity didn’t just get funded, it literally exploded into the crowdfunding platform. The project achieved its original funding of 1.1 million USD objective in just over 24 hours. In the last day of the campaign, Project Eternity surpassed Double Fine Adventure as the Kickstarter’s most-funded videogame. On October 16, 2012, the campaign concluded with a total of $3,986,929, becoming the most highly funded video game on the Kickstarter platform yet.
Project Eternity was built from the ground up as a successor to Baldur’s Gate. Obsidian frequently released updates and dev diaries to the public. The human stretch goal and then-Obsidian writer Chris Avellone also tried to do an abysmal Arcanum playthrough as part of the deal. Despite some delays, the development of Eternity went smooth. The project was soon officially titled as Pillars of Eternity. Obsidian could feel the eyes of the public and the hopes and dreams of hardcore fans upon them. To say they were under some pressure would be a great understatement. Pillars of Eternity had money from over 75,000 fans riding on it. After a few delays, Pillars of Eternity was released March 26, 2015 to positive reviews. The game was praised for its oldschool roots, lore and gameplay. While the casual rpg crowd hailed PoE as one of the finest modern crpgs, some of the “hardcore” fanbase was not-so pleased with the game. Especially the fans over at RPG Codex. They criticized the game for its weak writing, failure to topple Baldur’s Gate and some of the combat mechanics. Most of the criticism was aimed at lead designer Josh Sawyer’s supposed obsession with balancing of the mechanics. It’s basically a meme right now. But the other end of the fanbase spectrum was quite pleased with the game. PoE offered deep gameplay mechanics, an original fantasy world, well-written lore, fun character classes and a lot more. The game sold well and Obsidian went on to release two full-fledged expansions White March Part I and II in the following year, as well as a console version.
After the success of Pillars of Eternity, Chris Avellone, the resident writing intellectual and human stretch goal left the company. Avellone was one of the co-founders of the studio and responsible for titles like Planescape: Torment, KOTOR II, and Alpha Protocol. He has always been an industry figure and wrote some of the most memorable video game characters and stories ever. His artistic mind gave birth to iconic personalities such as the Nameless one from Torment and Kreia from KOTOR II. So one can understand the frustrations, confusion and crazy theories put forward by the fans on his reason for departure. People began to see it as studio politics and started pointing fingers. But Avellone himself has come out to say that the reason for his leaving the company has nothing to do with personal conflicts nor internal politics. Some fans still has trouble picturing Obsidian without Avellone’s handsome smirk. Theories originated in RPG Codex suggests that Avellone’s departure was due to his creative potential being wasted at Obsidian, as the last games he properly contributed to were the dlcs for Fallout: New Vegas. But he has moved on to freelancing works and has done works in games like Divinity: Original Sin 2, Prey (2017) and is busy in the works for the upcoming Pathfinder rpg.
Tyranny- Out of the Blue
Obsidian’s next game Tyranny basically popped out of nowhere. Tyranny was another role playing game set in an original high fantasy setting. The most advertised feature of Tyranny was that it put you in the shoes of the bad guys. People always like to play as evil pricks in rpgs and Tyranny basically let you do so. In Tyranny, you and your party are tasked by your a cruel autocrat to suppress a rebellion brewing against him. The story and setting of Tyranny was based on several of Obsidian’s scrapped ideas from the past and it used the engine and some of the mechanics from Pillars of Eternity. Tyranny was the last game Chris Avellone worked on before his departure from the company. Despite its novel concept and decent reviews, Tyranny was deemed a failure. It suffered from a lack of proper marketing and rushed development cycle. The game was shipped with a lots of bugs. Since the game was published by Paradox Interactive, it had to feature one of their signature dlc schemes. The dlc content for Tyranny; Tales from the Tiers and Bastard’s Wound was received with unanimous negative reception. People called it out for being cut from the base game, overpriced and extremely buggy. Tyranny had lots of potential and despite it flaws, presents the player with a unique story and settings. There is enjoyment to be had with Tyranny. But it could have been much more. Only time will tell whether Tyranny will be blessed with a sequel or not.
Choosing to follow their newfound crowdfunding success, Obsidian Entertainment announced Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire in May 2016. But this time around they chose the crodfunding platform Fig. Deadfire promised to be bigger and better in almost every way. The campaign launched on 26 January 2017 on Fig with a funding goal of US$1.1 million with $2.25 million open for equity. The funding goal was achieved in under 23 hours, and surpassed $4.4 million by the end of the campaign. Deadfire is now one of the biggest crowdfunding success stories. By the looks of previews and early impression Deadfire is not going to disappoint and is likely to bring some of the agitated fans’ faith back. Deadfire features reworked game mechanics, more open-world feel, naval battles and much more. In a sense Deadfire would be to the first game, what Shadows of Amn was to Baldur’s Gate. PoE 2: Deadfire was supposed to come out on April 8 2018, but now has been pushed back a month for further polish and bug testing.
The Prodigal Son(s) Returns
Before the departure of beloved Chris Avellone, two rpg veterans from Black Isle Studios joined Obsidian. They were none other than the creator of Fallout; Tim Cain and project lead behind Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines; Leonard Bopyarski. The duo previously owned the short-lived Troika studios and has left a mark on the history of rpgs with their contribution. In 2017, Obsidian entered a partnership with Take Two Interactive’s new indie publishing label; Private Division to develop an original IP. The IP which might be named The Outer Worlds is being kept in the wraps and everyone is pretty hush-hush about it. Fans are thrilled as the dream team of Cain and Boyarski has proven to leave behind some of the most mesmerizing rpgs in the history of video games. Their works such as Fallout, Arcanum, Temple of Elemental Evil and Vampire: TMB are still remembered fondly across rpg forums worldwide. This could be just the thing Obsidian needs to wash off the bad stain left behind by Tyranny.
Cult of Obsidian
Like I mentioned in the last part, Obsidian has released some of the most polarizing rpgs ever. Some people see nothing in them beyond bugs and technical issues, while some others hails games like KOTOR II and New Vegas as modern masterpieces. To me, Obsidian defines flawed masterpieces. If you take a look at the top 10 rpgs of all time, you can be sure that at least half of them would have been a technical mess on release. Some people fails to see beyond that. It’s a damn shame too because what lies underneath is worth wading through some bugs. Obsidian games are no exception. They are one of the handful of rpg developers who would rather stick to refining the classic formula rather than selling their soul for a mass market audience. And the fans adore them for it. Another selling point of Obsidian is their nuanced storytelling method. Whether it be a licensed material or an original IP, Obsidian always manages to weave and bind some intriguing story and characters while strafing on the edges of the canon lore. Morality, existentialism, regret, absolution; Obsidian titles tackles these issues quite frequently and deeply. To them, story and writing holds the same importance as the rest of the gameplay. KOTOR 2 made Star Wars morally ambiguous and darker way before The Last Jedi. New Vegas brought Fallout back to the world of pop culture and black humor. Most of the credits goes to Chris Avellone. While the last two games from Obsidian failed to impress me from a writing standpoint, I’ve not yet given up hope. Chris Avellone might be gone, but there are still some competent writers left in Obsidian.
Obsidian Entertainment is not a perfect studio. They have made plenty of mistakes in the past and they could definitely use a better Q&A team. They have survived countless catastrophes yet still stands tall and is now in a better position than ever. They are one of the candle holders and lightbringers of the new rpg renaissance. Obsidian follows Interplay’s classic motto of “by gamers, for gamers” to this very day. This makes them the perfect underdog of the video game industry; the Rocky Balboa in a ring full of 7 feet tall Ivan Dragos waiting for the right time to throw the knockdown blow.