Spoilers for Divinity (computer game franchise).
Whilst the denizens of the Internet are collectively baying for Baldur’s Gate 3 to be released at long last, I have been replaying Larian’s other darling, Divinity: Original Sin II (D:OSII), with a friend. I did not play the original, but have been reassured that, much like penny-farthings and floppy disks, it is of historical interest only.
Like most games with a colon in the title, D:OSII has probably wasted a lot of time and pixels unnecessarily, but at least the two titles do vaguely allude to the themes in the game. Not only that, but although the “Classic” version was/is a buggy mess with frequently broken quests or dialogue trees that accidentally gave away the twist whenever the wind changed, I did have a lot of fun.
The plot, in brief, is that the main character is a Sourcerer [sic] whose magic attracts interdimensional gracklers called Voidwoken. To protect the world, the para-military religious authorities sentence him to life on Azkaban, from which he promptly escapes thanks to a rag-tag band of plucky/ANGST-RIDDEN allies, his ability to hide fourteen exploding barrels in his pockets at all times, and the backing of the actual gods. From there, the story takes a convoluted route to the end, partly based upon the party composition and choices the player makes. By the end, the player has learned – either through dialogue trees of varying quality, or by reading the avalanche of in-game books, each consisting of only one to three pages – of the existence of the disappeared Eternals, their return as sapient undead and Voidwoken, the necessity of a character ascending to Divinity, and that the real treasure was the gods we ate along the way.
Yes, it is a rip-roaring tale of ancient conspiracy and deicide. How effective that story is probably depends a lot upon the stability of the game when one plays it, and how one engages with the framing devices employed – I thought the comedy in the game was better than the narrative, for example – but we are not here so much to worry whether one can ever have too many in-game book fragments (one can, and between this, Baldur’s Gate and Skyrim, one has). We are here to talk about the world-building. And the world-building is fine.
D:OSII has a surprising amount in common with the more famous JRPGs: turn-based combat, high fantasy sprinkled with a little science-fiction, and a quest to punch the gods in the face. The way in which the player learns of the world – incredibly necessary in-game books to one side if you can pry yourself away from them for just one second – is by interacting with it: learn about lizard culture by speaking to lizards; about Sourcerers because of one’s experience as a Sourcerer, and so on. I get the impression that there was probably a master document outlining the intricacies of dwarf culture somewhere, and had I been interested, perhaps I could have poked around in the game more. I was not and did not, but even if we do not get a socio-political overview of the world, or even a good sense of its geography, the world-building sufficed to give the impression that there were answers to any questions that I might have, even if some of the explanations bordered on the info-dumpy.
Likewise, although there is an unfortunate tendency towards the Snark Singularity, in that everyone seemed to have at least one insufferable and unnecessary quip, the various cultures encountered throughout the game had enough substance to be engrossing, rather than coming across as humans in silly costumes. The cultural realities present in the game also did not come across as arbitrary, because of how they related to cultures’ physical realities, such as the elves’ ability to devour flesh and harvest memories from it.
The exception, perversely, is the humans who, yet again in a fantasy work, are stated to have a Christian-esque religion whose distinct spiritual and philosophical claims are never explored, and which simply acts as a persecuting agency, i.e. the same old tired, do-it-yourself tropes that take up space in A Song of Ice and Fire, Dragon Age, Angel Mage, The Wheel of Time and countless others. Perhaps it is explained in the other Divinity games, or in one of those incredibly necessary books to which I keep referring, but given how central the Magisters (sic) are to the plot, it seems bizarre that so little time is spent exploring their motivations beyond the simple (albeit, I concede, important) matter of Sourcery potentially causing the end of the world. Two massive subplots revolve around elves turning into magical trees, for Lucian’s sake!
Contrast this with, and it pains me to type this, the maesters of Final Fantasy X, who by the time their conspiracy is uncovered have effectively come up with a self-justifying, semi-mystical apparatus with which to salve their consciences and justify their actions. Yes, both the maesters and the Magisters are driven in the plot to stop “evil” magic/machines for the sake of the world, but the maesters are fleshed out more because we then see how they are forced to change and justify themselves ideologically. The best that can be said of Bishop Alexandar, by contrast, is that he is some sort of caution against nepotism.
One of the problems with writing high fantasy stories is that, inevitably, the writer’s energy becomes sapped. There is just so much to cover, and if one is not passionate about what one is writing, looking upon the prospect of having to come up with a philosophical framework for the antagonists can be tiresome, or even be overlooked entirely. It is such a staple that the hero needs to strive against a persecuting agency that it can be tempting to give the agency some sort of justification, however feeble, and leave it at that. Alas, that inevitably leads to a grey, amorphous vagueness which detracts from the whole picture of world-building like trying to look through dirty glass.
D:OSII has a lot to teach the player about world-building and writing generally, but it is easy to see where the writer’s attention wandered and waned. When embarking upon a huge story, sooner or later, things which are included require a certain amount of commitment from the writer. If the writer wants to be able to include sympathetic villains, anti-heroes, tragedy and drama and the rest, it is motivations – of people, of cultures, of institutions – which require the most detail, not the dietary habits of the sapient lizard-monkeys of the Ap’ost’r’o’phe’ne Coasts. Although there is fun to be had with two-dimensional, simplistically evil antagonists, most world-building requires the opposite. Leave simple acts of persecution to cultural forces; leave cackling, card-carrying villainy to cosmic forces. Institutions are a natural consequence of society, and good world-building requires that they be fleshed out and able to give a good account of themselves: they are, effectively, main characters in their own right, and they need to be treated as such.