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RPG Codex Report: Gamescom 2016 - Divinity: Original Sin 2
Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Wed 24 August 2016, 21:59:25Tags: Divinity: Original Sin 2; Gamescom 2016; Larian Studios; Swen Vincke
[coverage by Bubbles, with impressions by JarlFrank]
Last Thursday, the Codex got to spend almost three hours in Larian's Gamescom booth to check out Divinity: Original Sin 2. I had initially booked the meeting as a half hour presentation and interview with producer David Walgrave; instead, we got almost an hour of hands-on time guided by Swen Vincke himself, another hour to interview Swen about all sorts of in-depth issues, and finally the presentation that I had originally booked. That's the kind of treatment that Larian extends to its biggest fan communities, and we highly appreciate it.
We appreciate it even more because the actual presentation – i.e. the only stuff that most people were able to see – was quite weak. This wasn't the fault of the presenters (Walgrave and Larian's writer/artist Kieron Kelly), but rather of the absurdly small amount of time they were able to devote to such a complex RPG as D:OS 2. After some digging, it emerged that the team often held 2+ hour presentations; unfortunately, Gamescom journalists seemed to prefer booking their appointments into neat 30 minute slots. Thus, they had to cram their presentation into a very small amount of time just to get a good amount of visitors into the booth. The end result was that many important features of the game – like the competitive questing – were not shown to normal booth visitors at all. Apart from announcing the Early Access release (coming September 15th!), the presenters could only share a few scraps of new information; thankfully, I also had the hands-on and the interview to properly educate myself.
I'll refrain from recapping all of the core features of D:OS 2 here; if you need any information about the game's basic concepts, feel free to consult our award winning in-depth coverage of the game from last year.
Instead, let's talk about the new additions and changes to the formula. D:OS 2 seems to have been fine-tuned and expanded in every aspect of its design; it's been massively improved in comparison to the prototype I played last year. Even some of Larian's most outrageous ambitions seem to have been successfully implemented. The tags and origins systems, for example, have transformed character creation into an even more complex experience and brought a staggering amount of reactivity to the game. When you make your character (only one this time), you can choose from a range of races (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Lizard in the Early Access version; Undead will be unlocked later) and pre-written origins (currently four, from exiled prince to vengeful former slave). Each of these selections will add a “tag” to your character, and this tag is then frequently (!) checked during character interactions.
For example, if you choose the The Red Prince origin, you will get the “Red Prince” tag; this identifies you as male lizard who is trying to reclaim his noble birthright. This tag also unlocks a personal questline to regain the throne, which you can pursue alongside the game's main quest. You can then add two other tags like “Jester” or “Scholar” to further flesh out your character's personality; other tags can gained during gameplay. Each of these tags unlocks unique NPC reactions – some good, some bad – and gives you access to special dialogue options. If you have the wrong tag, an NPC might refuse to speak to you or even try to kill you; conversely, NPCs who react positively to your tag might offer you an alternate quest solution or give you information you would otherwise not have been able to find.
While the prototype still seemed slightly gimmicky and offered room for doubt about the large-scale viability of such a complex system, the new Act 1 gameplay felt very “real” and convincing. I talked to well over a dozen NPCs in the rather sizeable prison colony of Fort Joy (the first Act of the game, and the area featured in the Early Access version), and the sheer amount of reactivity I encountered was jaw dropping; every conversation I had seemed to be influenced by my character's personality, race, or background, and many of these reactions seemed to be quite meaningful, affecting quest solutions and forcing me into battles I might otherwise have avoided. I can't think of any other game that has offered this level of character-based reactivity; if Larian can maintain this level of detail throughout the game, I will be deeply impressed.
You can make a character without an origin, but then you'll only get simple background tags like “Female” and “Elf”. These also provide plenty of reactivity in the game, but they lock you out of your origin-specific quest line. Consequentially, I see very little value in making a character without an origin. The origins you did not pick will become your companions instead. These companions can also be used to affect NPCs in dialogue and change quest outcomes, based on the tags they have; however, the origin quest is only available to the main character. You may still see the personal stories of the other NPCs unfolding if you play with them in your party, but these stories “might not go very well.” Fair enough.
Last year, the writers still described indirect dialogue options as an “experiment”; by now, they've become fully entrenched in the game. The difference between two options like “Who are you?” and *Ask him who he is* seems minimal to me, but passionate role players will probably like it. The same goes for the addition of a “personal instrument” in character creation; when your character does something special, like landing a critical hit, the chosen instrument will play a personal melody for them. To some players, this will seem like a total waste of resources; for others, it may be one of the most important mechanics in the entire game.
Stealth gameplay has also been improved; enemies now create very useful detection indications on the ground that make sneaking far more fun than it was in the first game. Conversely, the developers have added a system of “alert levels” to signify whether a group of guards is on high alert, on low alert, or totally oblivious to your presence. More robust stealth systems are always very welcome, and it bodes well for the game that the developers have given them some extra attention instead of focussing solely on the combat gameplay.
I didn't spend a lot of time in battle this time, but what I saw of combat still seemed fairly similar to the prototype from last year – and that's a good thing. The smaller AP pool still works very nicely, and the new skills still encourage lots of clever combinations and trickery with status effects, especially in the PvP arena. The new magical and physical armour pools add even more tactical complexity, and work as a good counter to status effect spam; you cannot be afflicted by a negative magical or physical status effect until the corresponding armor pool is completely drained. The AI also seems to be fully capable of dealing with the new mechanics; at the very least, I never saw it make a mistake. Basically, this seems like an improved and expanded version of the classic Original Sin system, and that suits me very well.
However, there is one wrinkle to all this greatness: you absolutely cannot change combat speed. As Swen tells it, the engine is set up to synchronize characters who are in combat with characters who are outside of combat (very important for co-op and such), and increasing combat speed could not be done without increasing global speed. It's been my long held opinion that any modern turn based game should have a speed slider, and I'm not particularly happy with this news. However, at least in the first hour of the game, the combat was fast, challenging, and varied enough that the length of combat animations didn't feel like a big deal. We'll have to see if that'll still be the case after 60+ hours of playing time.
Finally, a word on the writing: what I saw was surprisingly good. I'm among the people who didn't think very highly of D:OS 1's writing; I actually didn't dislike the humour at all, but the storylines and characters seemed rather too slight and clichéd for my taste. D:OS 2, on the other hand, presented me with me much stronger themes. I met religious people abandoned by their gods, trying to fill that void with some strange substitutes. I saw the varied exertions of power in a prison colony; I saw lunatics who seemed to have broken under the pressure. I encountered so many liars and murderers that I began to distrust the people around me. This is good stuff – much better than what I saw in the prototype – and it represents a major evolution in the writing style of the series. And don't get me wrong: there's still a good amount of jokes and puns in the game. Making a game that combines dark themes and humour can be very difficult, but so far, Larian seem to be succeeding.
Overall, I enjoyed my hands-on time with the game greatly; the combat was fun, the reactivity was impressive, the graphics were pretty (see the screenshots) and the writing seemed more mature. But I was thirsty for more in-depth knowledge, and so I pinned down Swen for an extended interrogation.
From what I've seen of Divinity: Original Sin 2 - which is way less than Bubbles had seen, due to me coming in 15 minutes late (the traffic around Cologne is hell), and then going off to see both Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord and Kingdom Come while Bubbles still interrogated Swen - it's essentially going to be "Original Sin Plus", so to speak. It retains all the features people liked from the first game, such as the skill synergies in combat and the co-op play with two characters, while fixing some of the first game's issues. You can read the details - such as how the new armor system works - in the interview. I only got about 15 minutes of hands-on play, and what I saw there was basically more of the same, which is not a bad thing if you liked the original Original Sin.
First thing I noticed was that my female character didn't wear high heels anymore (yes first thing I did was check out her bare feet, shut up), and character models are overall more realistic, which is a good direction for the artstyle to go into. The interface looked very similar if not the same, so it'll feel instantly familiar to players of the original. When I encountered an enemy, I went into sneak mode and was told that the bushes and barrels you disappear behind now look more realistic and blend into the environment, so it's easier to sneak up on your mate in co-op mode. Enemies now show their line of sight when you're in sneak mode, so getting past them is a very Commandos-like affair where you move between obstacles and try to avoid the big red sight cones. Whether they are a good or a bad thing has to be seen in practice. They definitely make sneaking easier, which some could see as dumbing down - the sight cone as sneaking's quest compass, so to say. Stealing paintings to make a quick buck should be much easier than before with this new tool.
During my exploration of the starting beach, I met a companion - the Red Prince, the character Bubbles was playing on the PC next to me. The way companions work this time is that they're tied to backgrounds, and if you want, you can choose one of them as your own character - in that case, he obviously won't appear as an NPC, and the background will sometimes offer you unique dialogue options. While I played a female character with no special background and recruited the Red Prince, Bubbles managed to get himself killed by a potential companion because that companion hated lords and lizardmen, and considering that the Red Prince is both... well...
Then I got into a few fights, and they are what you expect from a sequel to Original Sin: lots of area effect spells and synergies between different types of spells. Use an area effect water spell that deals low damage to enemies, then follow it up with a lightning bolt to shock everyone standing in the puddle, that kind of thing. I got into a fight with a couple of bullies who wanted to beat up some girl for not being able to pay her debts, and until the end of the fight, she stayed neutral - I helped her out, but we hadn't met before and I was just a random stranger to her, and had I hit her with a badly placed area effect spell, I might've turned her hostile. That means neutrals who can change their stance towards you based on your actions in combat are a thing in Original Sin 2.
After killing the thugs, the girl wanted me to follow her, but I decided to just explore the town for a bit. I talked to a handful of NPCs, and one thing I noticed there is that the writing is much improved over the original Original Sin. The companions are well-written and actually have interesting backstories this time, and it seems Larian have taken the criticism of D:OS having a cookie cutter story to heart. The writing of the first game is one of the things that received the most criticism, so it's good to see them spend some effort on improving it.
And then I left my cute little water-and-lightning magegirl behind to go to the Mount and Blade 2 presentation. I hadn't played much, and by the end of it I still had the same impression as I had at the beginning: Original Sin 2 is, in its essence, Original Sin Plus. It tries to improve on some of the first game's shortcomings and fix the things most players complained about, but it's still Original Sin. It has the same combat, along with the great spell and skill system that made the combat so much fun, and adds some improvements to the formula, like the new system of physical and magical armor. If you liked Original Sin, you're going to like this. If you hated Original Sin, you're going to hate this. It's a new and improved version that attempts to fix what was broken, but it doesn't fix what isn't broken and follows the same design principles as the first game.
Unfortunately, JarlFrank was far away for most of this interview, busily covering the events that I was forced to miss due to our extended appointment. In his absence, I worked extra hard to ask the most thoughtful and incisive questions possible.
Bubbles: In the first game and in the Enhanced Edition, enemies seemed to be clustered a little too tightly together, making them vulnerable to bombs and other AoE attacks. Have you made any changes to enemy positioning in encounters?
Swen: Actually, that's a really good question -. if you look at this scene here [a large open space in Fort Joy], this is a potential combat zone, so all the guys that you're seeing are going to be [part of the battle], and it shows you how they're spread. When we were making OS, we were making up the combat system as we went; now we know what combat system we have – so combats have also been taken into account in level design. It's no coincidence that this guy is here, that this guy is here – he's gonna be rushing in when the combat starts – and this is the guy you're gonna be triggering the combat with. So they're spaced around, which makes it a lot harder, and they're also taking advantage of verticality.
Bubbles: I see one guy standing on the balcony...
Swen: Yeah, so if I'm here [he positions a player character on the balcony and selects a ranged ability; its range indicator is now extended by an extra area shaded with little green plus signs]. See, that's the height advantage that I get. You get extra range because you're at a height; the little pluses that you see basically show you how much benefit you get. So, yeah, a lot of things have been taken into account in our design.
Bubbles: How does character level influence combat difficulty? Are level differences still a major factor?
Swen: Everything's changed. Maybe I should talk to you about the memory system first, because there's a lot of confusion about that, because I fucked it up in my explanation. This is the memory interface – by the time it's in your hands, it'll look different. I can unlearn all my skills, and I can click on them to learn them again; I never forget a skill, but I only have a limited deck that I can use in combat. In the new interface, you can actually have pre-set decks [so you can switch between deck A, deck B, etc. on the fly]. We're doing it like this because in the past, the limiter for the amount of skills you had was in these abilities – the points you put in Aerotheurge, for instance, would determine whether you had novice skills, medium skills, etc. – it determined how many skills you had. We got rid of this [progression] because it simplifies it, and we put that into the Memory [stat] instead.
That allowed us to put much more into these [abilities] in terms of actual levelling. [He highlights one of the magic abilities and reads the tooltip.] "Increases all damage you deal to magic armour." You can put up to 15 points into each of these abilities, and they can increase damage or protection depending on which abilities you select. Because of these, your skills are going to become more powerful as you level up. This was not really the case in OS 1 or the EE. Enemies also get these benefits, so they're going to hit you much harder if they're at a higher level than you.
Then we have the armours [the magical and physical armour pools that protect a character and make them immune to status effects until they are drained] which are obviously important. An alpha strike isn't going to work very well against a guy with a lot of armour. At the start, you're not going to see a lot of magical armour; later on, you will see more physical armour, more magical armour, there's going to be play with resistances going on, these abilities for the enemies will be going up, which will make them hit harder, and obviously they'll get more skills that they can use. It should lead to a more challenging mid- to end game than in was in the enhanced edition.
Bubbles: If you encountered an enemy who was, say, three levels above you in the original game, you'd have a tough fight. Comparatively, what kind of fight would you have here? Would it be harder?
Swen: You would still have a tough fight; it wouldn't be the same because of the changes in stats, but it's doable. You'd have to use the environment, you've have to use all the tricks like grenades, maybe plant a mine, take some barrels with you, plant them by sneaking behind the enemy, seek a height advantage, or what you've been doing – I saw that you were sneaking all the time. That will be techniques you can use, but you'll still be able to [beat] it. But I hope it's gonna be tough.
Of course you have to take into account that we're not making this for a small hardcore audience; we're making this for the same audience we made OS for, so we can't make it too hard; that's what we have Tactician mode for.
Bubbles: Now you've given me a great set-up; you're making a game that is more complex to a certain degree, right? You can change your skills per encounter, you have two additional bars for physical and magic armour, …
Swen: Yes. But it comes naturally, I think. Because all these things are introduced as you progress through the game. You don't start with physical armour or magic armour. You don't start with cursing or blessing surfaces, you get to learn these things. Source points – you currently have a Source collar, but once that goes away, all the Source skills come into play. See these little holes [beneath the character portraits]? Those are Source points – in the beginning you'll have one Source point, then you'll have two, then you'll have three. If you have three Source points, you get real “Source combinations” – that's the later level skills. It continues to become more complex, but it starts... simple, I guess?... like the first Original Sin. With less action points in combat, which makes it more manageable tactically... actually, let's do this: we'll do a little bit of the arena; it allows me to show combat easier.
[We fight in the arena for 10 minutes; Swen gives me plenty of tips to help me beat him. I cure a crucial status effect with the Bless skill, use my rogue's special ability to get more actions in one round to loot a chest, use the looted items to combo with environmental objects and create a huge explosion, drain magical and physical armour pools to make my enemy vulnerable to status effects, and used poison to negate a second chance ability on Swen's fighter. It's great fun.]
Swen: This is the moment where I would yield, but we don't have a yield button right now.
Bubbles: Can you play co-op in Early Access? I'm not trying to distract you or anything.
Swen: Yes... yes. You can have up to four players, and it's really cool. I think you should really try the co-operative stories, they're really cool – each player gets an origin story, and they're made to compete with each other; that's where it gets really cool.
...ahhh, the poison killed me in the end. But there you go – you have a feeling for combat; you can see the differences to the first game.
Bubbles: It feels amazing. You have more to do and it's fun if you know the first game pretty well. I'm not sure how it's going to feel for people who are new to this system. For argument's sake, if you're a Fallout 4 fan, you might find this style of combat much more complex than you're used to. Would you encourage newcomers to play on lower difficulties?
Swen: I encourage them to play Classic. I've been doing this press tour for a couple of weeks already, and I've seen all kinds of players get through it. They curse, but you get that sense of satisfaction when you figure it out. And the game offers you a lot; at the beginning, there's a conveniently placed poison barrel next to one of the enemies. You can shoot it, it explodes and take away half their heath points – and you can feel good about it, because you figured that out for yourself. So as you progress, we help you, and then we start taking away the help, and the game becomes harder and harder, but you get to know the mechanics better.
Bubbles: Some other games are doing things with delayed spell effects; you cast a spell, and it comes into effect after a certain time. Are you doing stuff like that?
Swen: Now you're asking me one of these details that I can't tell you; [unintelligible] has an entire list of things that he requests from the coding team, and I think it's on his list: the type of spell that grows stronger and stronger each round after you've cast it.
Bubbles: On no, I meant... basically, the type of spell that has a casting time, so you might only finish casting after somebody else has taken their action.
Swen: Ah, the multiturn thing? Oh no; we actually had that planned for OS 1, but it broke so many systems that we removed it in the end. So it is, ah... ...we have skillcrafting coming – it's not in the EA version, but it's coming –, so we have this entire system where we can easily make skills. It's gonna be essentially combining elemental skills with the schools – well, you'll see when it comes out.
Bubbles: We've had a couple of requests from people who'd like to create their entire party from scratch at the start of the game.
Swen: Yeah, I've heard that quite a few times. In the single player campaign, that's currently not the case. I'm not gonna say “No” - we'll see where we end up with that. But we won't ship it with that option for sure; it would be an enhancement or a modification afterwards. Because I really want people to try out the Origin stories. And if you give [full party creation to them] from the get go, people are perhaps not going to pick the Origin stories; they're going to miss out on all the fun, because they won't realize how deep we went on all of the dialogue options.
[The following exchange can also be seen in the latest Kickstarter video.]
Bubbles: Since you mentioned the origin stories, let's talk about the writing…. I've played more of this version than I played with the prototype, but I still remember what was on the prototype. I saw some changes in the prototype from the original game, but I wasn't fully convinced that it had changed. What I'm seeing now is a radically different style of writing; stunning, absolutely...
Swen: I'm happy to see that you recognize it.
Bubbles: It's hard to imagine it being in the same game series. Bioware sometimes changes writing throughout their game series, but I can't think of many companies that would allow an example like this; this is actually a very strong example [of a stylistic change] for me. It's good writing… it convinces me. It's real – it's an enormous achievement compared to Original Sin 1 for me.
Swen: ...took sweat and blood and tears...
Bubbles: …how much has your writing team changed?
Swen: You'll be surprised, maybe, to hear that the leads on this team are the same writers that wrote OS 1. But they have time now, and time makes a very big difference. We've been iterating the writing [a lot]; if I would show you the initial dialogues, you'd say “that's shit!”, but that's just the process, right? Writing is something were you need to have time to go over it, start to get into the characters. We now have 8 writers, and they now have time to get into the heads of every single character and they have to “speak” like that character. So we think about each character: “What would they say? Would they say that? No, they probably wouldn't say that.” So it changes and changes, and the result… it feels a little better. We were also very explicit that it had to be the way you talk… it's a much more natural conversation style now. Of course, you played that noble [The Red Prince] and he still talks like a noble, but that's “him”; that's because of his upbringing. If you take Lohse [a lady who acts as a vessel for demons and spirits], she's gonna be talking like a jester, which is a completely different tone; same thing goes for Sebille, she was a slave in the Ancient Empire, so she's very bitter, she hates everything. It really changes from character to character; it's also different writers who write each of them, so they can really get into their heads.
Bubbles: Which part of this writing is by Chris Avellone?
Swen: He's doing the Undead origin story, and that one you're not seeing. That's gonna be something very special, so we're keeping that for later. So you haven't actually seen any of Chris's writing yet.
Bubbles: You mentioned 8 writers – who are they?
Swen: Let's see, we have Sarah Baylus, we have Jan Van Dosselaer, Devin Doyle, Charlene Putney, John Corcoran, Steven… uhmmm… Steven, so that's six, then Kevin vanOrd, then Chris, eight, and Kieron [Kelly], nine. So it's actually eight and a half, cause Kieron does writing as well as other artistic stuff.
Bubbles: Do you think that's a good amount of writers for the kind of project you're doing?
Swen: Yeah, I think so. The output of these people if they “just write” is enormous; I could fill what other games have in ten days with a team like that. But they don't [“just write”], because they take so much time with each dialogue.
Bubbles: If you've hired more people over the last few months, does that mean that the game has expanded in scope?
Swen: We've hired more people because we've learned we needed more. I will be brutally honest about this: we only figured out the identity of the game a couple of months ago. We were looking a long time for the right tone, and now that we've we figured it out – it's easy!
Bubbles: What did you figure out?
Swen: How people should talk. The length of the dialogues, the length of the phrases, the way that they talk, the things that they say – we figured that out a couple of months ago because of Sarah. It started with that one character that Devin did; we were playing Act 1, and we said, “That's a really good character!” Sarah picked up on that; she changed all of Fort Joy to fit that, and then we all played it and said “Fuck, this is good!” And then we started expanding it everywhere and we rewrote pretty much everything.
Swen: Fuck, you should see that city! Arx has been split up into two parts, actually, because it was too big. It's now a place called Driftwood, and a place called Arx. So…. Act 2 is… ahhh…. yeah…. it's big. And there's also a village. The joke at Larian is that the level designer screwed up and the map was four times the size it was supposed to be. So we blindly started filling the map with content and we kept wondering “Why are we not ending with this? Why do we keep putting more content in there? Joachim, are you sure it's the same size as Cyseal in OS 1?” And he was like “Yeah, yeah, I'm sure, I'm sure!” And after a while, he was no longer so sure. So we made it a bit smaller, but we kept all the content in there.
Bubbles: Is Driftwood basically the harbour district?
Swen: Driftwood is indeed the harbour… well, the name says it already. It's a harbour where the fish are infected by Voidwoken. But that's for later – that's not part of this Early Access.
Bubbles: Apart from the city, are all of your other ambitions from last year still being realized?
Swen: I think that we're succeeding in pretty much all we set out to do – the competitive questing, the origin stories, the origin quests – that's working out. It's more work than we expected, of course. I'm very happy with what we're doing with combat… I still have to see how it's gonna play out in the end for us, if theory matches practice. The arena is more fun than I ever expected – I'm not an arena player, but I'm having fun with this. Visually, I think it's fantastic; I really like the art style. I know there's some Codexers who say “ugh, looks like shit”, but they will always say that. Honestly, I think this is going to be the best thing we've made so far.
Bubbles: I remember you talking about the endgame last year; it'll be some sort of end for the character quest, and some sort of “general ending”, right?
Swen: Yeah, there's gonna be different endings; the ambition is that your origin stories and quests are intertwined in that. You should really see one of David's [co-op] presentations, to see how the different origin stories already conflict in Fort Joy. [I did, but the co-op conflicts were omitted for lack of time.] It's competitive, errr, narrative questing… I don't have a good word for it! It really just boils down to “you get different objectives with the same resources.” You want to kill that person, I need that person – what are we gonna do? You really get a lot of fun out of this. I had a section with some youtubers where we played with four players – Avellone was one of them – and the things that happened were fantastic. You can have one guy just go off into another direction, and the game supports that. Escaping Fort Joy, I reckon there's about 11 ways to get out of Fort Joy – that I found –, and it gives you a lot of freedom, which is what we're trying to do. If you choose your starting skills right, you can get out even without entering the Fort.
...oh, and you missed out on several secrets right from the very beginning already.
Bubbles: That's great! I think this kind of stuff makes D:OS 2 feel more like Ultima.
Swen: [grinning] Yeah, you know that's my biggest inspiration.
Bubbles: And you had some people saying that D:OS 1 was too linear in that regard; you had a lot of freedom in the city, but the game also funnelled you along certain paths.
Swen: Yeah, I can promise you that… well, Act 1 is linear in the sense that you try to get out of it, and Act 2 is [grinning ever wider] spectacularly free.
Bubbles: Even more free than this?
Swen: Oh yeah.
Bubbles: Do you really have no concerns that new players might get lost in all of that?
Swen: We're going to add a character to the beach [the Fort Joy starting area] that's gonna be telling you that you actually have to escape. That's the guidance that you get.
Let me get into the game again, I want to show you a particular scene from one of the origin stories. This is Ifan: he's your party's backstabber, potentially, because he starts with a note in his inventory that says… well, you'll see; this is the Red Prince, you played him; there's [unintelligible], the dwarf; he's another one of the origin stories that's not in here. Let's see…
Bubbles: This almost sounds like too many already.
Swen: I really like that, because… you know, you always get the save scumming thing, right? But you can't save scum in this one, because you can't keep track of all the permutations. The result is that you think “Fuck, I have to live with the consequences of what I do!”If you play Sebille, and you meet Red Prince, then you'll most likely get into a fight. But if you do it as Red Prince, then Sebille will put a needle in your neck, and if you fail a persuasion check, you'll just die. [Social checks are now governed by character stats instead of the rock paper scissors system.] She's a former slave with a hit list… I'll show you that later.
So this is Ifan, and he has a mysterious note on him telling him that his kid is still alive. That's his origin quest, getting his kid back. Ifan used to be an assassin, and they want him to pick up his old job. And one of the assassination requests he's gonna have is to kill somebody you need as Red Prince when you're trying to get your kingdom back.
Now, let me show a secret… I'll show you two. [He walks his character to a collapsed bridge over a chasm right next to my starting point.] You went here, right? And you didn't see anything?
Swen: Well, if you'd had a teleport skill, or you'd come back with a teleport skill, you'd have been able to go here [he teleports across the chasm], and then you'd discover, over here… [he explores a small area and finds two corpses and a treasure] two guys, who were fighting over this pouch. And then you'd discover [he moves the camera around], hey, there's this entire new area here – that wasn't on my map! Where is this on my map? And then you start exploring the map – that's the Ultima thing, right? “How can I get there?”
And here's the other secret – you passed by here, because you're not used to this sort of thing in the game. There's a secret area here – I'm spoiling it for you now, but this is another way you can get out of Fort Joy. You can sneak through here, and… [omitted for spoilers]
Bubbles: Are there things that deliberately cannot be highlighted?
Swen: No, we don't do that anymore. There are still switches, but they're integrated into the environment, like this [he shows a “ladder” of vines that's hanging off a cliff face, blending into the scenery]. And then you can enter this secret area, there is a camp of [NPCs] here; I won't talk to this one, I'm a human and she hates humans. And then you can run over here and find more stuff… so that's how secrets work!
Bubbles: Do any quests lead here?
Swen: No. None whatsoever.
Bubbles: Are you doing this throughout the game?
Swen: Yes. Of course.
Bubbles: Of course.
Swen: Okay, now I'll show you how Sebille starts, and then I'll let you play the dialogue with her as Red Prince. [starts rummaging through savegames]
Bubbles: Everything I've seen here seems much more expensive than the first D:OS.
Swen: That's why our team is three times the size!
Bubbles: So your budget is pretty high?
Swen: Yeah, for a top-down RPG it's unseen, a budget like this.
Bubbles: Any top-down RPG?
Swen: No, not Diablo, of course. But… er… yeah, I think that's… I don't know the budgets of the other guys.
Bubbles: How would you compare it to D:OS 1, for instance?
Swen: Oh, it's much higher than that. Rest assured, it's much higher. You see it in the [2D] artwork as well.
Bubbles: Oh yeah, it looks beautiful. Are you expecting to reach a larger audience with this game?
Swen: If I reach the same audience, I'm happy; I don't need a new audience for it. The audience that's bought OS is very appreciative, and we're, you know, we're at over 1.5 million units or so. That's really a lot for a top down RPG. If we can keep on doing that, then we can keep making things like that for sure. You can do a lot of stuff with an audience like that.
Bubbles: So you have a much larger budget but you're satisfied with your current audience?
Okay, what I am I doing here? Sebille. Sebille starts with this needle; she tattoos the names of the ones she hunts on her skin. She was a slave in the Ancient Empire, and she ate her master.
Bubbles: I like this writing style [for Sebille's dialogue]. It's darker than in the first game, but it still fits the game. Who wrote her?
Swen: Sebille? That's gonna be Jan. Red Prince and Sebille are his characters. Sarah is Lohse, and… who was the other one? Ifan! Ifan is Charlene.
[JarlFrank rejoins us at this point.]
Bubbles: I've noticed that you have tons of optional content in dialogues, like when Sebille looks at her tattoos, she can also browse through the names of her past targets. Is that purely a fluff option?
Swen: Yeah... actually, that will link up when you get later in the game. There's a whole lot of stuff happening here that's being set up for later in the game also.
Bubbles: [makes a face]
Swen: Yeah, yeah. We didn't make it easy for ourselves.
JarlFrank: How easy is it to sequence break the main plot?
Swen: We have Act 1, Act 2, Act 3; Act 1 is escape from Fort Joy, Act 2 I will not tell you, otherwise I spoil too much, and Act 3 is the culmination of everything. So that's a traditional structure. Within the Acts, you're free to do whatever you want to. You can kill everybody again, etc. etc.
JarlFrank: I ask because, in OS 1, I managed to do the mine area before the snowy area, and I was quite surprised by the difficulty spike, and then afterwards I had to go to the snowy area anyway. Will this be possible again in OS 2?
Swen: Well, you should be able to... so, Act 1 is just “get out of here; get to the boat.” And that's it, that's your mission. Act 2: … I will not tell you, but there you have also one goal.
So, this is the build, and I'll let you talk to [Sebille] with Red Prince.
[I start talking to Sebille; almost immediately, she grabs me, presses a needle to my throat, and threatens to kill me.]
Bubbles: I really like this writing; I also like the descriptions of the physical interactions, how she grabs me and puts me in danger. You can't see it visually [on the character models], of course, but the text description is great. I don't know if you were afraid of doing that kind of thing in the first game…
Swen: Just time, man.
But visually would really be cool.
Bubbles: Visually would basically make it a AAA first person game [well, sort of]; I like it better this way.
[I keep dithering between dialogue choices, trying to figure out which options might defuse the situation. Eventually I get murdered; afterwards the game tells me that I've failed a “Seduction” check.]
Bubbles: So Seduction is your ability to… charm people? Sweet-talk them?
Swen: This should actually say “Wits/Seduction”. So you have secondary persuasion stats [like Seduction] derived from your primary stats [like Wits], plus the Persuasion ability. It's the stat check that we've done here, so you've failed in your Seduction stat. But we're now going to put [the stats] in there, so you can see what stat it is, and we'll experiment with that.
Bubbles: [reading Sebille's final line] “Night night, Red Prince.” That's a cute reference.
JarlFrank: So if you don't choose an origin, you can still get that character as an NPC?
Swen: Yeah, they're all in there. They'll become your companions then. That's the cool part of the system, with the tags and how we organize it.
Bubbles: [pondering the Red Prince's corpse] Can I get rid of him?
Swen: That's a good question, because he stays in the party… that's actually a really good question. We assume that you'd wanna revive him, otherwise you'd have to talk to him and get rid of him.
Bubbles: So… more questions, I think. Last year, I got the impression that the “main ending” was somewhat pre-set or that we might not get a lot of choices in that regard.
Swen: Yeah, we're currently on the track where we might still cut something...
Bubbles: So, you don't want to be say how many endings there'll be?
Swen: No, because I will be quoted on that, and I want to be at liberty to cut something.
Bubbles: So it's basically in flux… you probably not anticipating a final release very soon then?
Swen: Well, it'll take as long as it takes, but I think it'll slip for sure into the next year.
Bubbles: How much are we going to see in Early Access ?
Swen: We're putting the entire Act 1 in there. We're still deciding whether we'll do half the island first, and the other half later… we'll decide that next week.
JarlFrank: How much larger will this game be in comparison to the first one?
Swen: Well, on the surface, it's not much larger, but in depth, of course, it's a lot larger. We have this rule to aim for 40 hours, that's what we actually make. Why do we say 40 hours? Because that takes one week for review for us. But when you play, it's not 40 hours, it becomes 80 to 100 hours. We do not do any item interactions, we do not do any trading, we cheat like hell, and so it's really a walkthrough for us.
Bubbles: You do all the quests and so forth?
Swen: Yes. It's essentially a one week QA round, if you want.
[JarlFrank excuses himself again, eagerly running off towards Kingdom Come: Deliverance]
Bubbles: Do you have a rough estimation of how much of the content is based on replayability? How much of the game can you see in a single playthrough?
Swen: No. That kind of estimate… every situation we have normally has all kinds of different angles, we make them for that. If you… ...like the content you just saw with Red Prince, I should probably theoretically say [that the game is replayable] four times, or five times or six times to see the content. Because if you take one origin story, you won't see the others. You select an avatar, and only the avatar gets his origin quest. The companions don't have their origin quests.
Bubbles: And the competitive questing…
Swen: That's multiplayer.
Bubbles: Ah, so you don't have that in single player anymore? Because you talked about getting that to work…
Swen: No, we removed that. What I said, and I was misquoted, I think – or I talked too fast, which I sometimes do –: QA has it. The guys who have to do the testing can just activate competitive questing at all angles. Maybe we'll release that as a mode. But in single player, the experience that we want to have people [sic] is that you're the avatar, and then you have companions; and if you pick another avatar, you get an entirely different experience. If you give them all together [all the origin quests], it becomes super complex, of course, and it's not necessarily as good as you'd have it if you had a single avatar.
Bubbles: How do you see the role of the player character in the game then? As a sort of focal point of the story? As somebody who influences the events? Somebody who is socially involved with other people and has to negotiate the story?
Swen: The avatar is the focal point. He's the focal point of his origin quest, and of what's happening in the main quest, and they're in conflict with each other.
Bubbles: So you're the person who has to solve this stuff?
Swen: There's other persons who want to solve the problem of this particular world, but it's not necessarily going to be in your best interest.
Bubbles: So there's no chance that you'll play second fiddle to a companion, for instance?
Swen: No. That's why we're removing the… ah, in single player, the companions have special scripting, which is the [character?] relation system, which is deactivated right now. They'll have their own thing that they want to do, so you're going to have that conflict going on inside your party.
Bubbles: Can you start a co-op play of competitive questing, basically playing against yourself?
Swen: ...yes, you can do that. If you play both [characters]. You can actually start two instances, and you can do that. That's actually how QA tests; if they test multiplayer, they just run multiple sessions on the same machine. You could actually join in now and start a second session.
...but! But! You have to start the game together; you can't join in into somebody else's session. The Red Prince has his competitive quest here, but Lohse doesn't. So if you're gonna join in now, you will not have Lohse's competitive quest. If you start together, she will have her quest. So that's how that works; it's new stuff… you haven't seen anything like that before. There's a lot of new – let's call it “game grammar” – involved.
Bubbles: Did you get any inspirations from other titles or what other games were doing?
Swen: Well, there's a lot of games and a lot of influences that you see. It's not necessarily new, but the way we're applying them is more systemic, and that makes it new.
Bubbles: I remember you were talking about the Dungeon Master mode in Sword Coast Legends last year.
Swen: Yeah, but the idea came way before that. … SCL didn't turn out to be what I expected it to be. I know what their ambitions were, and I think that Unity was a mistake there. I think that was a very constricting environment. That's a pity, because there was a whole bunch of criticism that was all… Unity-inspired. That's why we're making our own engine; we are free.
Bubbles: Are you pushing it further to the limit?
Swen: Yeah, you can see it: this is physical based rendering, everything, – that's why you can see everything so well. It will only improve over time… like the portraits that you see? [In the dialogue window? On the character bar? I've forgotten.] They will be, like, literally your portrait in game. That will be in Early Access, actually. This will be one of the last times these icons will be there.
Bubbles: Do you have a [redacted] mode?
Swen: Yes! But it's called “Game Master” mode. It's very close, but it's not...
Bubbles: Oh, of course, sorry; I will correct that in the transcript. You will not be saying “Yes” to having a [redacted] mode.
Swen: No! [laughs] It's not in the Early Access right now; it's gonna come later. But it is working, we are hosting Game Master sessions, and it's very good. And it's different than what you expect it to be.
Bubbles: Okay! Last one, I think… but for time reasons only: Modding!
Bubbles: What have you managed to improve?
Swen: It remains complex. It's just a complex environment. We have a new dialogue design, which is better, which allows you to do things, that also has templates, which make it easier to start from the get-go. Obviously, since the engine has evolved, there's a whole bunch of usability improvements. There's a whole lot of stuff being done in the back-end to make sure that something [unintelligible]… there's new effects tools, the importing and exporting of art should be there from the get-go – it wasn't last time, that was a big mistake. The way of making houses or terrains or placing template objects… it's all been improved. There's a whole bunch of little things also. There's a whole list of stuff that the content designers – writers and artists – have asked, and it's being done one by one by one. There's a new animation tool, also – Genome, it's called.
So you can mod a lot. If you want to make a new arena, you should be able to do that very easily. If you want to tell a story in Game Master mode, it makes that a very easy thing to do. If you want to make an RPG like what we're making here, you'll be spending some years. … I gotta go.
Bubbles: Thank you kindly. A great pleasure...
Swen: Yeah. Yeah.
Bubbles: …and I don't care about the games I've skipped to cover this at all.
Swen: [laughs loudly]
Bubbles: This is the best game I've seen here so far, by far.
Swen: Tweet it! Just tweet it! [laughing]
Is it any surprise that we left the Larian booth in good spirits? D:OS 2 is shaping up to be not only a very good game, but also a very ambitious one. Many of the “big hits” of the past few years have either failed to bring any meaningful innovations to the genre, or were riddled with so many flaws that they were difficult to recommend. D:OS 2 seems to be on track to provide an exception to that trend, and a very welcome one at that. We'll just have to keep a vigilant eye on the game's Early Access to make sure they don't screw it up.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 will be entering Steam Early Access on September 15th.