The prologue almost had me in tears. Little did I know that this would set the tone of my entire playthrough of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, constantly dreading the results of my actions. Practically every time I made a choice, I winced in fear of what it might set in motion. It’s rare that a game manages to do that to me, but alas, this one did.
The Pillars of the Earth follows several playable characters that you will switch between as the game progresses: a monk named Philip, a mason named Tom Builder and his family, and a boy named Jack and his mother. The story is set right after the death of King Henry I of England and the subsequent usurping of the throne by Stephen of Blois. It is a time in which the church was very much still involved in politics and, as such, is full of political intrigue. However, rather than focus on the larger influences on the war, it focuses on a few seemingly ordinary people and their small bit of influence on what is happening. The destitute priory of Kingsbridge is at the center of this often nerve wracking story and much of the first book details how all of the main characters become entangled in its uncertain future.
Perhaps because of its setting, the game offers a fairly unique glance at the darkest depths of humanity’s sin. It offers up characters that embody the contradictions of their positions and their own personal desires. There are some shining moments of human decency in there, but the vast majority of the game is characterized by a realistic outlook on the selfishness of the average person and your choice to either follow suit or be the change that you want to see in its bleak world. Often, your attempts to better the world around you miss their mark and cause unintended grief. The Pillars of the Earth is unafraid to expose you to the horrors of the world and subsequently ask how you intend to cope with them, which makes the story all the more powerful than it otherwise would have been.
The weight of your decisions is made heavier by the fact that the game excels at ensuring that you are intimately acquainted with all of its characters. Those that take the time to talk with them will quickly learn, among other details, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, and who or what they care most about in the world. You can even gain insight into the inner thoughts of the game’s playable characters by right-clicking on interactable objects. These are deep, relatable characters that almost feel as if they were ripped straight from reality. You feel their suffering because you know so much about them that you will begin to grasp the manner in which the choices you’re making will affect them as you make them. This, in turn, brings on the utmost feelings of regret when you realize that you should have known better than to make a specific choice.
While many character traits are written in stone, the game also leaves a number of them up to you. In certain moments, which are mostly optional, you are driven to make even more difficult decisions that will drive the plot forward in different ways. It’s not always about following the task at hand exactly as the game tells you to, as there are many hidden paths out there. The question is whether you want to take them. Sometimes, these paths are better left alone, as you can never be sure of who’s watching and how your actions will affect their view of you. Because these paths are optional, built on the idea of making you manually perform the actions required to follow them, the effects of these actions weigh more heavily on you. Oftentimes, however, the game does an excellent job of tricking you into thinking that such paths are mandatory, your instinct being to complete them, with its heavy religious themes leaving you mortified when you realize that they were not.
As with many of Daedalic’s other games, The Pillars of the Earth plays much like your average point-and-click adventure game. The entire game is controlled with the mouse, which you will use to move around, interact with people and objects, and use various objects that you pick up in coordination with other objects to solve puzzles. It features several quality of life mechanics, such allowing you to highlight all interactable objects in the area with the press of a button and allowing you to double-click an exit in the current area to automatically move to the next zone without having to watch your character move to the exit, but it is largely standard fare.
However, the game’s focus has shifted slightly. Whereas Daedalic’s past games have been more traditional point-and-click games with linear stories and a focus on puzzles, The Pillars of the Earth marks a distinct change in the company’s design philosophies, one that trends more towards that of Telltale’s more recent games and Heavy Rain. While it still features a few puzzles, it is driven primarily by conversations and the choices that you make in those conversations. It is driven by what you choose to tell people and when or perhaps whether you choose to tell them at all; as with many games like it, many choices offer the option of remaining silent by waiting for a timer to run out.
Conversations are augmented by a unique system of information. Whenever you receive key information from a character, it becomes a pseudo-item that is added to your inventory. You can then use the information on any character in order to inquire about what they know about the subject in question. I found this system to be quite interesting, allowing brief moments of detective work as I attempted to learn more about the deeper conspiracies at work and decide whose side I would take.
Surprisingly, some of the more interesting choices that you can make are made outside of dialogue. While the game is largely played in traditional point-and-click adventure format, there are several points throughout the story that are played on world map of sorts, which is used to better represent moments during which your character is traveling. As you are traveling, you are required to make choices about where you and your companions will go. Where you choose to go will then play a significant role in how the story progresses and one choice I made in this regard had me shuddering in fear for the characters I had chosen to send to a specific location, as the impact of such a decision hadn’t hit me until its consequences were already upon me. That being said, it seems that, one way or another, the main characters will all end up where they are meant to be, regardless of your choices.
The reason for that may very well be that, while you can influence smaller parts of larger story arcs, the game is meant to closely follow the plot of the book. However, I cannot confirm this myself, nor can I speak to the game’s faithfulness to it, as I have not read it.
At the end of each chapter, the game relays your decisions to you and takes note of the impact of some of them, clearly denoting that chapter’s important moments. Unfortunately, unlike similar games, it does not tell you what percentage of others made the same choices that you did. It simply recaps your choices in preparation for the next chapter.
It should also be noted that the game’s art style is absolutely stunning. The almost cutout-like look of characters without outlines combined with more realistic-looking backgrounds is a wonder to behold, even managing to look great in motion. It may very well be Daedalic’s best work yet, creating an experience that, despite being mundane and historical in nature, comes across as almost magical.
The stunning art is complemented by fantastic voice acting. The characters’ voices are distinctive and easily recognized, each offering a convincing performance that never once feels out of character. There are some issues with odd pauses between various lines of dialogue, but they are few enough that they don’t spoil the overall experience.
Common complaints aside, I am a huge fan of Telltale’s recent games, with The Wolf Among Us ranking particularly highly with me. Until Life Is Strange was released, I had thought that Telltale had reached the pinnacle of its craft, but I was proven wrong. Until I played The Pillars of the Earth, I had thought that DONTNOD had reached the pinnacle of this particular subgenre of adventure game and, once again, I was proven wrong. The Pillars of the Earth is, without a doubt, one of the best adventure games that I have ever played, offering a beautiful, treacherous world full of political intrigue and turmoil. It is gripping from start to finish, constantly forcing you to make tough decisions and live with the consequences of those decisions. Unafraid to make you stare into the abyss, it will tug on your heartstrings until they are frayed. By some manner of miracle, it has achieved all of this in the span of one-third of the complete product. I am both excited and terrified to see where the story goes from here, but, in the meantime, I cannot recommend the first book highly enough.
Important note: Daedalic Entertainment sent us a copy of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for the purpose of writing this article.