When searching for your next role-playing game, what do you look for first? While you’re looking high and low for a game with a compelling story, fluid combat and excellent customization, difficulty is sure to rear its slightly annoying-looking head. Somewhere deep inside you ask: “Is this game going to kick my pimply white behind?” It’s a fair question, and one that I ask before beginning a new adventure myself. What makes a game difficult, I wonder. Is it enemies with high health pools or multiple splitting paths with some leading to doom and others salvation? Let’s take Dark Souls for instance. There was a recent remake, so it should be top of mind. Dark Souls plopped you into a world of shifting shadows, bleak enemies and very, very little narrative. Sure, the enemies themselves were difficult at times, but it was actually the general lack of direction that did me in initially.
Some games just…insert you into a living, breathing universe and metaphorically say, “have fun!” If I were a game developer, I’d be very much concerned about the level of spoon-feeding going on in a typical session. In this world of glowing map-markers and linear story-telling, it’s a damned rarity for a game to present choices to the player. The difference between Divinity Original Sin 2 (or its predecessor) and say…Trails of Cold Steel 1/2/3 is the difference between riding a roller coaster and building, designing and putting into action one yourself. It’s really that stark a contrast. While I absolutely love the Trails in the Sky / Trails of Cold Steel series, I know it for what it is. It’s an elaborate ride that you can choose how much and how in-depth you’d like to experience. If it’s not your bag of bones, cup o’ tea or whatnot, then you simply get off the ride and pick something else. The developers know this and have crafted a wonderful world for you. If there’s someone out there that dislikes the Legend of Heroes series, then I really want nothing to do with them. Come on, how can you not like that?! Anyway…
Who Likes Roller Coasters? The People Who Matter.
Divinity doesn’t roll like that. Right at the beginning, it’s all business, sure. Make your character, watch a cut scene with a vague story, and then you’re in a place. There’s a very, very short tutorial that essentially makes sure you are intelligent enough to use a real world can opener. Then it says, okay, do whatever you’d like. Other game series have toyed with similar concepts. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (and its sixteen re-releases) give you a short dungeon experience and then set you free in the world. There’s a key difference between Skyrim and Divinity. Skyrim is a theme park of roller coasters. It’s tempting to see the plethora of concept and assume that that in itself is a form of difficulty. The only substantive question I ever found myself asking in an Elder Scrolls game is, “Where do I want to start first?”
In Divinity, however, after the initial dungeon-y experience of the ship level, you’re simply set free upon a beach that lies adjacent to a fort and its prison. The game does not tell you where to go, who to talk to, nor if there are any consequences to doing so. It does not tell you how to spend your attribute points, talent points, socket your skills or anything substantial to your mission. Your overall goal is to escape the prison ghetto, but that leaves you with several more questions that may or may not have answers. Why should I leave the ghetto? What lies beyond? What’s even in here? Who are these people?
Skyrim answers each of those questions with, “It doesn’t matter. They’re NPCs, bro. They’re going to want you to do something and once you do it, it’s done. It won’t affect anyone or anything else in your experience.” Divinity’s take is to give you ultimate choice to talk to whomever you’d like, skip quests, kill everyone, steal everything, promise false things, trick people in conversation, and dies glorious and/or horrifying deaths.
Larian studies enjoys surprising you more than anything. You have absolutely no idea how two spells are going to react to each other or if/how your abilities will affect your enemy. You don’t even know if your enemy is actually an enemy, or if you’re the fucking bad guy. Morality is subjective, combat is subjective, everything is left to your choice. Who would you like to do battle with, and how? Who would you like to strike deals with? Who would you like to ignore altogether and scrounge together your own idea of how to progress?
My friend and I played this co-operatively for maybe six hours the first day. We absolutely managed to make asses out of ourselves more than a dozen times. Accidentally stealing and getting murdered by whomever we transgressed against or saying the wrong thing in dialogue and ending up with a quest like being locked shut from our reach.
Oh Boy, An Arena
One particularly hilarious episode was when we went down below the ghetto to fight in the arena. You remember the arena in Oblivion, right? Fight some random enemies and become a victor. You could do it at level one and got decent loot. Of course you do. Yeah, Divinity doesn’t go quite like that. Sure, you fight a group of maybe five bad guys. It’s not…easy. I admit. Doable at level two, though. Use your head, figure it out. That’s what I thought anyway.
After we emerged the victors, the woman who offered us the fight in the first place offered one more addendum. “There can only be one One.” The fuck does that mean? Oh no, really? I felt like Missy Elliot, flipping it down, reversing and the like.
With our health pools that we ended the first fight, it was now a two-on-two team deathmatch between myself and my friend. We both knew from the first Original Sin, that dying was a hugely bad idea in any fight, which meant we were both stunned as to how to progress. Do we want to kill each other’s players? What if we have to waste our limited resources resurrecting the fallen? Is this some sort of perverted permadeath thing that there’s no coming back from?
You can only know once you do it. I won, of course, as I was playing a summoner/ice mage and a cleric versus a tanky dwarf and an elemental ranger. They were low on health at the start, and I buried them in ice and fire quickly enough. What ended up happening is that we were all resurrected for free with full health back at the beginning of the arena and I was given phat loots. He was shunned and told never to return. I was “The One” and it felt good. Being as Skyrim is a single player game, you can’t ever really have that kind of experience. You’re always told from each NPC that you’re the savior of everywhere from Indiana to Narnia and that becomes ever more boring as you mow down dragons and demons alike. When nothing can stand in your path and even the mightiest beasties fall silent to your sword, you must know there is an inherent problem. When in life has being put on a pedestal before earning it ever worked out? When did that ever feel good. No, seriously. Think about it. Skyrim is that creepy dude who tells he he loves you on the second date, offers to marry you on the third. No one likes that.
So Much Uncertainty
Divinity is able to give meaning to accomplishment through difficulty and uncertainty. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and unlike a book, movie or average video game, I have a good hand in shaping what this world becomes. Depending on which companions you pick, which items you steal, which people you slay, different things happen. Things! It’s no mere illusion of choice, either. Dragon Age was one of my favorite game series of all time, but it offered two sides to a coin at every juncture. Side with the good guys or the bad guys. At the end of the second game, the devs adroitly decided that no matter what choices you made, you’ll have to fight both the good guys and the bad guys. What a waste, I mean, it’s been what seven years and I’m still mad about that. Let’s spend forty hours giving the player all these tough choices and then at the end send them through the fucking garbage disposal and shrug our shoulders.
Divinity Original Sin 2 does so many things right. It obscures the consequences of your actions long enough for you to completely make a mess of things. By the time you realize how vital is was for you to save that girl in that cave, it’s already been sixty some odd hours and now you’re hosed. Or maybe you built your characters wrong and you absolutely cannot beat one of the boss fights. That’s what happened to me on my maiden run-through of the first Original Sin. I could not beat that damned four-elemental penultimate boss fight. So much rage. So much rage.
I remember every bit of Divinity: Original Sin because it was difficult. I screwed so many things up and had to sit there in my impotent rage. Original Sin 2 brings back that same maddening frustration. Larian Studios’ message to all players is as such, “Learn from your successes and your failures or else you’re going to leave empty-handed. If you can’t handle that, then there’s always Skyrim :P” If I wanted to be an all-knowing, all-seeing omnipotent wizard, sure, I’d play that instead. No, I want to be challenged. I want to make mistakes. I want to see something truly spectacular happen in front of my eyes. I want to use my pet pal ability to talk to a fucking exploding sheep so I can learn about a curse that threatens the entirety of a region. And then get blown up. Fuck.