Words About Video Games

Pillars of Eternity's Undercooked Polytheism

I am going to talk about a very particular aspect of Pillar of Eternity’s story. There are plenty of other places on the internet you can go to read about and debate the game itself. My thoughts about the game can be summed up thus: I really enjoyed diving into PofE’s combat, and I was delighted to play a game in which exploration once again mattered. It’s an extremely accomplished RPG. The rest of this post will be about how the game handles religion, and it will be very spoilery.

I am a religious person, and I’ve spent a great deal of time studying religion. So when fantasy or science fiction games attempt to address the subject of religion, I brace myself. I don’t expect games to handle the subject well. They have the opportunity to create and explore systems of belief that are genuinely alien, but more often they fall back on a shallow, poorly-defined theism that primarily acts as a strawman for an anachronistic argument against faith. If they do come up with something properly strange, they often fail to think through the implications.

In Pillars of Eternity, people are polytheistic, but they act like they are monotheistic. The players are supposed to be surprised to learn their gods are created, not transcendent, which pretty much makes them unique among polytheistic societies. How do I know what the players are supposed to think? Because of the options the writers have provided for responding to the big reveal. I had the choice to conclude that all faith was in vain, or to spout some platitude about faith being worth holding onto even if the gods weren’t real. What I was missing was a choice to say, “so what?” The gods clearly are real, even if they were created by some advanced ancient society.

And the gods in Pillars of Eternity are real. I talked to them. One of them appeared and led an army (in the game’s backstory.) Another helped imbue a hammer with the power to destroy the first. Were they present when the universe was void? No. But neither was Zeus, or Athena. The expectation of transcendence or of gods that pre-date creation is not essential to many polytheistic belief systems. This characteristic belongs to monotheistic belief systems and to the first mover of Greek philosophers.

Since our society is informed by monotheistic religions, we take for granted that to be God, God must be the transcendent creator, but that is already impossible once you start talking about multiple gods. This is why Christians have the doctrine of the Trinity–to reconcile the demands of monotheism with the three persons in which God has revealed himself. This is also why Muslims reject the Trinity–because they see it as a kind of polytheism that strips God of transcendence by making him into three separate gods. Actual polytheists don’t have this problem because the gods for them fill a different role. They don’t need to be transcendent, they only need to be powerful and willing to intervene.

Perhaps you think I’m picking nits, but I don’t see the point to creating an entire pantheon and expending so much time and energy on it (loss of faith in the gods is one of two major themes in the entire game and the only one that gets carried through all of the companion stories and the ending) and not think more deeply about the religion as a unique set of beliefs and practices. Religion is not a one-size-fits-all category. Belief informs practice, and practice informs belief. We only get fleeting glimpses of what it’s like to practice religion in the world of Pillars of Eternity, and those glimpses are hopelessly generic. A temple here, a shrine there, a mad cult over there. Simply put, religion is too important of a theme in Pillars of Eternity for the in game religion to be as half-baked as it is.