by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
A Story of Faith
As hit franchises like The Witcher and the Metro series can attest, video games based on books have a history of producing some extremely satisfying experiences- even if they aren’t quite as common as their celluloid brethren. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, an adaptation of 1989 novel of the same name, looks to continue this trend in the form of a slow-burning, dialogue driven point and click adventure about the difficulties of life and faith in the 1100’s AD. While the initial buy-in price of the game will net you the whole experience eventually, you’ll only be able to play the first third right now, and it’s proven to be a unique experience that definitely has be looking forward to more- even as someone with no experience with the source material.
Pillar of the Earth’s narrative is sweeping, even in this first third of the overall story, involving political intrigue, religious corruption, economic struggle, war, and interpersonal drama of varying scales in England’s 12th century. To go much more into the plot would be a disservice to an experience so dependent on uncovering its story unspoiled, but the contrasting personalities and lifestyles of the player characters, and the unique struggles and moral dilemmas each find themselves in, are satisfying. What impressed me is how literary the whole thing feels. Despite being a game, it does still feel like a novel given the amount and quality of the dialogue. Conversations are extremely well-written, from the serious, plot-altering reveals to the relatively inconsequential quieter moments. Of course, given the nature of a three-part, episodic experience, the challenge in judging the narrative fidelity of the experience is that you won’t be seeing a complete story here. Given the success and acclaim of the novels, paired with the fact that it seems like the game is paying immense respect to the source material, leads me to believe that the story will be worth following in the future, but there’s always at least a slight risk of uncertainty about whether the next two thirds of the total package will be satisfying or not.
A Passive Experience
The make-or-break question you’ll have to ask yourself to determine if this is a title to pick up or pass on is how much you’re looking to watch a movie and how much you’re looking to actually play a game. Pillars of the Earth definitely isn’t terribly interactive, even by point and click standards. A fair amount of the experience isn’t much more than a glorified cutscene, though there are parts that open things up a bit more, letting you do a bit of less controlled exploring and chatting. What gameplay is there is pretty standard for the genre. Click somewhere on the screen to have your current character move there, collect inventory items and “clues” and use them by clicking on relevant things in the environment, and... that’s about it. There aren’t really any nasty puzzles to solve or complicated interactions, and you can always see every available interaction in an area by holding the space key, so there isn’t really any reason to ever get stuck or miss something. The other way Ken Follett’s novel has been “game-ified” is the introduction of narrative choice, though at this point I’m not terribly sure how impactful these decisions will ultimately prove to be. Dialogue options do let you play with the player-character personalities and effect some events in the story, but so far none of the branching effects seem to be as rippling in their effect as I’d like. I know it’s a tall order when trying to tell an established and focused narrative, but I hope that my choices prove to carry weight in the hours to come.
A Slow Burn
As you can probably surmise given the nature of the narrative, Pillars of the Earth is a slow burn. This isn’t an action/adventure story, or even an experience with as much excitement as any of the Telltale games, which this is sure to be compared to. It plays like a melancholy book reads, with each chapter releasing bits of plot and conflict drip by drip instead of in tidal waves. The pacing is sure to turn some potential players off, but think that the writing, narrative, and characters are of high enough quality to warrant the slow trudge the story takes through their experiences. The orchestral score, which is quite sweeping, also does more than its fair share in adding gravitas to the unfolding happenings. I think adding more action or cutting out some of the quieter stretches would have been a disservice to its own goals and ultimately made Pillars of the Earth a less satisfying experience.
One does have to adopt a certain intentional mindset and set aside the right amount of time when playing through Pillars of the Earth. Don’t boot it up in the middle of the day at a rigid desk with the distractions of everyday life vying for your attention. Instead, load it onto a laptop, throw on some comfortable clothes, sink into your most comfortable sofa, and clear an evening’s schedule for the five or so hours this first volume of the story runs. The narrative, which functions and thrives through strong characterization and interpersonal relationships, isn’t meant to be played in 30 minute bursts, but instead soaked in as the sweeping tale that it is.
Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth is a fairly unique experience. While some may take issue with the slow pace and dour subject matter, it’s already a journey filled with beautiful moments when the visuals, music, and narration come together to create some truly affecting moments. With no knowledge of the source material it’s too early to tell if the story will end up with worthwhile payoff in the two installments to come, but to me the first is engaging enough to warrant the time and attention of anyone looking for a tonal change of pace.
Excellent dialogue, nuanced narrative, moving music
Slightly inconsistent visuals, decisions lack impact