What in the Blue Beetle were you thinking, Daedalic?! In a world of Walking Deads, Mass Effects, Games of Thrones, Gears of Wars, and countless other exciting and deadly properties, you adapted a meditative 1989 book about England during the great Anarchy? Starring Monks building a Cathedral?! Go home, Daedalic, you’re drunk.
No wait, come back. I’m sorry. I..I had no idea what you had to offer would be this good. Can you forgive me?
Maybe things are different in Europe, but when I came across the not-quite-episodic adventure game “Ken Follett’s Pillars of The Earth”, I didn’t know what to expect. Playing it, and upon realizing it featured a game play mechanic involving rubbing my bible on various objects to get prudent verses from the Good Book, I knew I was hooked and absolutely flabbergasted. They don’t make em’ like this anymore. Then again, maybe they never did.
For the uninformed, Pillars of The Earth is based on a book taking place in the 1100s, during Europe’s great ‘anarchy’ where not a heck of a lot happened other than a complete power vaccuum – human progress wise. No law, no order, no progress – even the war that waged for the crown was…lacking in drive. Just millions of uneducated people living long enough to die; with no passion, no hope; their only salvation being just that – salvation; The church – the promise of reward in the next life, for suffering in this one. They couldn’t even read, most of them. At the time, something as noble and awe-inspiring as a new church or even better – massive cathedral, would give a man or woman or child faith in God…And something to live for; noble death.
This all makes for a grey, grimy, dark, and richly oppressive atmosphere. The game-world oozes with personality, and it just so happens that personality would make Eyore from Winnie The Pooh look like the life of the party. Made all the more eerie by the art-style that hearkens to those historical cartoons from the 1980s, where animation is jaggy and voice work just a hair ‘off’ causing the whole thing to become surreal because of it. It really does ‘feel’ like an adventure game of old – where part of the fun was the incredible art-direction and characterization – the plot was secondary; Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis, all looked and felt incredible due to their attention to detail; and Pillars of The Earth follows suit.
As a player you inhabit several characters who come together in the name of a common cause. As a monk you’re tasked with navigating the politics of the monastery and the mysterious death of a colleague who, allegedly, died after the devil caught his ear. Gameplay wise there are ‘choices’ as is now common for the genre; and they’re subtle and massive, an early-game example being whether or not you choose to give cheese to a hungry novice, or an elderly monk. Another involving whether you happen to take another monk up on his offer to hold a hot stone in your pocket for warmth – and what you choose to do with it. How this kind gesture is rewarded is lovely.
Unlike Telltale games, where the tough choices are the reason to play, the ‘choices’ made in Pillars are part of an overall package of exploration, world-building, and characterization. The term ‘interactive novel’ has been used in the marketing materials, and the term fits. If The Walking Dead is a pulse-pounding comic book, Pillars of Earth is…meditative; as much about the people, as the place their in. A sort of middle-ages mentality simulator. Playing the game you realize it must have been something like this, and what a…frustrating life that must have been.
And to think how important the church must have been in that life. In a pre-printing press age, they were law makers, the school system, a place of refuge and more. In many ways they held the society of the time together; corruption or not. In many cases, all people had was their faith, and it’s refreshing and a…ha…revelation of sorts to see that notion handled with respect, authenticity, and intelligence via a medium that rarely cares to consider it beyond basic parody or two-dimensional villainy. I’m not particularly religious but I’ve heard more quality bible verses from this game, than I have from a lifetime of a heavy media diet.
All that said, I *love* this game and am deliberately taking my time – as should anyone curious about the title. There is some back-tracking and the frame-rate on the Xbox One S is…poor. But the writing and clear attention to detail and flat-out love put into this game is a sight to behold. To make a game this detailed, this nuanced, about *this* subject matter, is remarkable in its esoteric nature.
And to be frank, it’s…a lot, and a little dab will do you. Which it’s why its smart the game is broken up into books and chapters; with the second ‘book’ releasing recently on consoles. Like a reader, you can do a chapter or two a day, come back the next, and so on. Because the game is its atmosphere and excellent at communicating the deliberate pace and fundamentally oppressive nature of the time, it’s relatively easy to not be ‘in the mood’ for a game that takes its time as much as this one.
It’s also worth noting that the audience for this game *has* to be relatively small – hence the title for this article. Were the masses clamoring for a game like this? Where you play as a medieval monk, literal red-headed step child, and build a cathedral? Yeah, probably not. To thoroughly, fully appreciate the game you need 1) An appreciation and fondness for middle-ages history. 2) An appreciation and fondness for the role of the *church* in the middle-ages. 3) An appreciation for classic, deliberately paced, Sierra-style adventure games from the 1990s. 4) Incredible patience and willingness to enjoy good characters over plot.
At the very least you’d need a very wide-open mind, love for old-school adventure games, and patience. Considering modern-day attention spans and general…attitudes toward Christianity and church-going at large, Pillars of the Earth probably flies right over the heads of many gamers.
Safe to say, I would *not* want to be in that pitch meeting. For real, at the concept stage, I can’t imagine anyone who thought this was a *good* idea. Yet here it is, and by golly, it’s a wonderful idea.
The specificity and its lack of mass appeal is what makes Pillars of Earth special. It *is* only for a certain type of gamer curious for a certain type of experience, with a certain type of proclivity toward history and atmosphere and religion. It just so happens, thanks to a “Middle Ages” class at my local community college, that I – and hopefully you – are such a gamer.
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