The real challenge – and the agony – of a traditional role-playing game lies at the beginning, in the dungeon named ... "character creation." It inspires a dread worse than any stone golem or world-eating viper, because you want to make someone fit to save the world and gallivant through it for at least a hundred hours. Will she wield an axe or a bow? Tall or short? Pointy ears or wizard's cap? Is this name going to sound like high fantasy, or like fantasy fiction while high? And no matter how many times you save the world, you don't want to be forever known as that guy with the weird eyebrows. Let's just lower them a bit.
Obsidian's new old game, Pillars of Eternity, lets you make a person in this same tradition, with a few simplifications – and the ability to import a custom portrait, so you don't have to faff with eyebrow height.
After you decide on one of six races, including the familiar Dwarf and the mysterious Godlike, you sculpt your avatar for class, gender, appearance and ethnicity. A Human from the savannah, for instance, won't share the same pale skin as those from the meadows, and that's if you don't change your mind and turn yourself into an Elf instead. Movement through the different steps in character creation is non-linear, so you can make a small change in history without backing up over all your selections thus far.
Making changes to your hero, who will enter Pillars of Eternity as a traveler chasing the promise of treasure, is more like an act of rewriting – where they came from, who their family was and how they'll survive. This is really what makes Pillars of Eternity old-fashioned: there's a degree of authorship from the player, who configures attributes, appearance and even something as simple as a name to create a unique, partially imagined presence in the world. It's not just about your hairstyle, but how the rest of the game is built around you.
Though the general quest structure in Pillars of Eternity is compatible with any character you write, combat is compartmentalized in a way that supports that writing. You're familiar with "strength" and what that means, but in Pillars of Eternity it's been replaced with "might." Now it signals the damaging power of any kind of attack, not just the kind connected to a beefy arm. A mage with might makes sense, whereas a mage with "strength" conjures the image of a frail, hooded wizard barely tapping a wolf on the head with a magical tree branch. Meanwhile, "intellect" concerns the area of effect of all kinds of attacks – so yes, you can have a muscular barbarian with a brilliant intellect. That's OKCupid gold right there.
The idea of authorship spreads to the game's conversation system too, which is more in line with RPG classics like Baldur's Gate – heck, even more recent BioWare games like Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age: Origins had interesting text responses that implied personality, not just obvious moral opinion. In your conversations you'll have opportunity to take action and express certain attitudes that build your known reputation. Certain characters won't care for your rude or oil-slick personality, and so playing in one way may disqualify you from broaching certain topics elsewhere or negotiation a peaceful end to a tense dialogue. But if you hate being taunted by closed-off content, Obsidian is including an option to simply hide conversations options for which you aren't qualified.
Conversations and decisions can also lead to fallout within your own party. Obsidian showed me an injured party taking refuge inside a cavern, with members debating over whether to stay the dangerous night, while a soul-sucking magical storm groans outside, or head deeper into the cavern immediately. If you snooze and recover your health, you may lose one of your heroes, who is squirming to get out. If not, you'll be weaker, but you'll have an ally to help disarm the traps that wait in the heart of the mountain.
Rather than appear as a binary choice in the narrative, the decision feels rooted to the persona you've made in Pillars of Eternity. This is how you've written them to be, and the dialogue system gives you the power to disagree and even part ways with other characters.
I can't yet say whether Pillars of Eternity is a quest on par with the greats, but I can tell it's an authentic attempt to rekindle the old soul of role-playing games. The more sophisticated role-playing games become, and the more they show, the less room there is for us to insert ourselves as authors. Compromise, then: Obsidian makes the world, and we make the person who saves it.
Pillars of Eternity is about to enter beta for Kickstarter backers. It's coming to PC, Mac and Linux this winter. For more on the game's exploration and combat, have a look at the Joystiq preview from last month's E3.