On… the Infinity Engine and Abstraction

As with a lot of gamers my age, I suffer from the first-world problem of having a massive backlog of things to play through. Every month the list of games I own that I’ve either never played or barely scratched the surface of gets bigger and bigger. As problems go, it’s not a bad one to have and, of course, is all really of my own making.

Anyway, it’s because of this that I’ve only just got around to seriously sitting down and playing Pillars of Eternity. This is a Kickstarter-funded RPG by Obsidian and is a call-back to the old Infinity Engine games of the late ’90s/very early 2000s.

And, well, it’s pretty damn great.

Some pillars.
Some pillars.

Back in my not-so-fevered youth I played all of the mainstream IE games, from the original Baldur’s Gate through to Icewind Dale II, and PoE certainly looks the part. Crucially, despite looking like a game built on the same technology as Baldur’s Gate, it’s been refined with just enough ‘modern’ functionality that it feels like a substantial improvement. Yes, okay, at the end of the day you’re still moving character models around pre-rendered backgrounds in an isometric view, but Obsidian have done a very good job and adding things that were missing before. For instance, you can now zoom in and watch virtual dice roll up close, and there are visual highlights for area-of-effect spells.

In some ways I guess it seems a bit odd that you would really want to create a new game in an engine first created before Tony Blair was prime minister. I can’t really see many people wanting to make games using Doom technology. What it shows is the amount of esteem that those original games are still held in. Part of the reason for this is that they were good games to start off with: well-written, deep and detailed. Another factor, though, is that they were abstract enough that they are still playable today and, in many ways, that abstraction improves the relationship players have with the games. To be honest, Baldur’s Gate looked dated back in 1998. By that point games had moved into the 3D era and, games such as Daggerfall had two years since shown how immersive a first-person RPG could be. Yet there was something about the Infinity Engine and the way it showed you the world that made you feel more involved. The limited viewpoint, combined with the detail that the pre-rendered environments could offer (particularly in comparison to 3D games of the time) worked wonderfully. In the absence of much provided by the game, your brain had to ‘fill in the gaps’, which generally speaking it’s a lot better at doing than people give it credit for. It seems to me the same effect that made 8-bit games so immersive despite the fact that no matter how good the art style, the graphics were inherently poor.

If anything, the creators of PoE have gone further in this abstraction than was ever done with the older games, perhaps with the notable exception of Planescape Torment. Dialogue is interspersed with character descriptions, and numerous in-game events are dealt with via a textual options accompanied by a static line drawing. It sounds lazy, but in actuality – providing you have a decent enough imagination – works fantastically well. Certainly, given the limited budget it’s a lot better than you would have got had they aimed for a more graphic-intensive depiction.

I’m not too far into the game yet, having barely made it through the first few locations, so I don’t want to pass judgement too early. Thus far I am very much enjoying it, although it doesn’t quite seem on a par with how good I remember Baldur’s Gate II being. That may just be rose-tinted nostalgia clouding my opinions, though. I’ll try and continue to add my thoughts here as I progress (assuming I don’t get distracted by anything else).

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