Disclaimer: This is going to be a LONG read with some minor spoilers from other games. It would be super cool if LE devs and other players would read it and give thoughts!
I’m going to use games like Divinity: OS-II, Pillars of Eternity, Grim Dawn, Diablo II, and Path of Exile as comparisons for LE. Some of these games aren’t ARPGs but story-driven RPGs, but I feel like any developer has a lot to learn from the way they introduce the player to the story and environment.
1. Character introduction and development.
When you start LE, you don’t get introduced to the story or the character at all. It feels like you are kind of just plopped down into this setting without any context. You know nothing about your character, why they are there, what they’re searching for, etc. You end up getting involved in this shard business without any motivation.
2. Lack of story introduction, context, and development
You then run into a “travelers camp”. These characters have a lot to say, but they have zero contribution to your quest. Having rich character stories that have nothing to do with the plot is awesome, but the plot comes first. I feel more invested in the story of this entitled artist lady and her bitter hired mercenary than I do in my own. There are no quests to be had in this camp, no introduction to the new dangers ahead or shard keepers, nothing to develop the story or to get you more involved.
You continue to travel (for some reason), running into a new enemy that seems important but never gets any explanation. You go from fighting flies and badgers to these highly advanced bird people all the sudden.
You run into a dying guy in a robe who tells you his daughter is in danger with some shard and you agree to help with zero convincing. These people are supposed to be keeping these ultra-powerful shards, why? Why are the bird people after the shards, and why are these shard keepers even in this dangerous area? Why are the bird people introduced as the main antagonists and then never seen again in the game after this point? You find the daughter, she tells you to take the shard so she can fight off the reinforcements. Why? Did she know you would time travel? Did she sacrifice herself for the safety of the shard?
Soon you travel through one timeline, and then immediately to the next. This little intermediate timeline or zone doesn’t feel like it serves much of a purpose. Then you’re confronted with the Ruined Era, where “The Void” is the main antagonist. Why is the void there? Eventually, Elder Gaspar gives you some context for the shard and the void by saying the void fell on the world hundreds of years ago and giving some background on the shard of the Epoch, but it doesn’t really mean anything. The void is just globs of purple goo that are all the sudden there and enemies generally need motivation for destroying the world. In every movie you’ve seen or game you’ve played where something or someone wants to destroy the world, there’s always a reason.
Take Pillars of Eternity for example. When you start the game, you immediately get a small introduction cutscene. It's a static piece of concept art with a small bit of animated light and dust as the camera travels upward. You then get the "Obsidian Entertainment Presents..." then the Pillars of Eternity Logo fades in. This is a small 8-10 second cutscene, but it serves to draw you into the atmosphere and to set the tone for the game.
Then you get the loading screen, followed by another piece of concept art with scrolling text that is written in the style of a novel. It tells you that you are traveling down the road in 5 wagons towards an area called the Gilded Vale. The Lord of Gilded Vale has offered settlers land and money to settle there. You have fallen ill on the journey and the game begins with another traveler with you asking the wagon leader to stop for the night on your behalf.
The story paints such a vivid picture. It does a few things effectively:
It sets the scene and tone. The art and writing give you a sense of what the environment will be like.
It gives you a context for where your character is and what his goals are; He/She wants to travel to the Gilded Vale to inherit land and money. There is also this mystery illness, which you figure will play into the journey.
It effectively introduces you to the character creation screen. You’ve learned a tiny bit of your story and you’ve been introduced to the setting. Now you get to customize your character with a bit of back-story.
It sets the story in a way where our character can be unknowingly a part of something bigger. Whether its a prophecy, or destiny, our character is something special.
In Pillars of Eternity and Divinity, the character is a part of the history of the world, but it isn’t clear just what role they will play yet. This is a really cool plot device, and I think the direction that LE wants to take.
In Divinity, you end up being contacted by your god, visiting their realm and being chosen to become the next “Divine” so that you can protect the world against the voidwoken, all while evading the Order that wants to kill you for having source power. In pillars, you end up surviving a mysterious storm, then witnessing a powerful cultist ritual that imparts you with the power to read souls but gives you waking visions and the inability to sleep. You pursue the cultists to get healed of this affliction, but find there’s some dude who has been stealing souls to revive a demi-god so they can completely wipe out a group of people to protect a secret.
Both of these games start out with mundane character backgrounds, but drop you into the plot in such awesome ways. They allow your character to get involved in the big picture world-saving story authentically.
I think LE has a very cool premise for a story. It involves time travel, which is super interesting. Ever since I played Chrono Trigger as a kid, and then like 10+ times as an adult, I've been drawn to games with this premise. You have an amazing opportunity here to create something unique in the ARPG world. I have some ideas which might help to improve the way we are introduced to the story of LE.
I think there are two ways to go about this:
1. Drop the random adventurer INTO the story of the shard.
In this scenario, the adventurer has a mundane backstory like in Pillars. You are traveling to a location to do something totally normal. If you’re an acolyte, you might be traveling to a coven to study under an ultra-powerful necromancer. If you’re a sentinel, you might be traveling to join the royal guard, as a rogue you might have been hired to assassinate or steal from a noble in the area, etc. Dragon Age did this really well with the various character backgrounds and starting areas. You had to work through a background story before you even got to the main plot. I remember starting as a dwarf, being framed for a crime and sentenced to death by being forced to wander the deeps that nobody has ever returned from.
You work through the first zone, ending up in a settlement or camp. You see people in white robes in camp, but they aren’t interested in speaking to you. People around the camp tell you they are “shard keepers”.
You ask more questions and find out about the history of the world, possibly in a cutscene. Here’s something off the top of my head:
Out of nothingness, the (random number) gods create the world. The amount of power put forth into the universe was immense, and from it the void was born. The gods and the void were locked in an eternal struggle, the gods to protect their creation and the void to destroy it. The gods were able to hold the void back by creating the Epoch; An artifact more powerful than space and time. The gods housed the Epoch in a sphere made of pure light, which bathed their entire creation and held back the void. Over time, the void slowly penetrated the house of the gods, poisoning the mind of the weakest of the group. He began plotting to destroy the Epoch. The other gods eventually discovered his plans, and in an effort to protect the Epoch, they shattered the relic into (random number) pieces and sent them down to earth. They created a powerful divine being to lead the Order of Blah Blah, which would protect the shards from the void and the evil god. The shards allow the order to alter the fabric of time, which enables them to continually evade the void and the evil god. (The turned god can eventually become the void leader, potentially the boss of the game). As long as the Order of Blah Blah kept the shards safe, the void could not penetrate creation.
Maybe the gods could even manifest themselves as beings on earth, the evil one in search of the shards, and the good ones in run-ins with our character to help with the journey. I can see the evil god having run-ins with the character, void-tainting enemies and sending ultra powerful creations and constructs as mini-bosses throughout the story as you start to become more and more of a threat to him.
At this point as a part of the story you might sleep by the fire at camp. You awake to find the robed figures gone. Further up the road, you run into one of them injured and he gives you some more short plot points and asks you to help his companion/daughter. You hesitantly agree, not wanting to get side-tracked much from your original quest.
Side note, I don’t know if bird-people are the right enemy for this stage, unless they are a part of a future bigger picture that wasn’t clear from the current campaign. It feels like you’re introducing the major enemy of the story but doesn’t set up their motivation for stealing the shards. They feel sort of out of place and don’t fit the feel of the game very well.
2. Make the shard a part of a hero backstory and motivation.
Maybe each class would have a different motivation. For example, as a sentinel or mage, you could be traveling to join the order. This might open up special dialogue options with the white robes in camp. As a rogue or acolyte, you might want to steal the artifact without really knowing the implications or back story. Rogues would want to sell it, while Acolytes would want to use it to become more powerful. Eventually, after learning the history and finding out that it could mean the end of the world, your character would inevitably want to save the shards, and be tasked with doing so.
STORY PROGRESSION & TIME TRAVEL
- How do we become the hero?
This is built off of the above suggestions and is ultra important as well. The way your character becomes the chosen one, the prophecized, the fated, etc. The character has to feel an obligation to save the shard and the people. This has to be authentic, and if you have a neutral or even almost evil aligned character like a Rogue or Acolyte, it has to make sense. If I’m some power-hungry warlock who will stop at nothing to become more powerful and is well-versed in necromancy, why am I helping some old dude save his daughter? I’d probably kill him and raise him as a skeleton and continue doing whatever I was doing in the first place. Maybe the motivation to get the shards becomes the chase of power at first for evil classes. Giving the player some choices can really make the world feel alive.
- How do we continue to learn the story and the power of the shards?
As our character becomes the hero, we need to understand why, and we need to understand the power of the shards. We need to learn about the way they influence time. Maybe after we collect the first shard, we are thrown into the time travel sequence and end up in some sort of “end of time” zone, where we are confronted by the good gods and they explain what is going on, giving some more good lore and backstory.
You could continue the story I laid out before. They could talk about how the various periods of time if influenced by the shards, can alter all of the others. This means if the evil god gets his hands on any shards in any timeline, the world will change. You might start to see void creatures in all timelines if he ends up capturing a shard or something. At this point they give you the task of saving the shards. Any non-pure motivation for saving the shards goes away when gods are asking for your help.
This gives justification for you traveling to the future to when the void has pretty much overtaken the entire earth. In the future, the evil god has corrupted Elder Panini (I forget his name) and the shard he possesses, you’re tasked with traveling to that era to hunt down and kill Elder Panini. This gives us reason to help the citizens of this era. We have become a hero. Regardless of our original motivations, we are now in it to save mankind and the universe. Afterall, whats the use of being an ultra powerful warlock if everything ceases to exist?
You could even lock ultimate abilities or super powerful passives behind shard progression. Once you find your first shard and you visit the gods at the end of time zone, they give you a prompt to unlock your first specialization which comes with innate powerful passives aligned with it. Otherwise, we are just some arbitrarily powerful being with no destiny or context.
ENEMIES AND HOW THEY FACTOR IN
You could easily give context for the different factions of enemies and give them deeper lore. Some enemies might be shard cultists, who worship the shards and void and want to steal them to give them back to the void god. Some factions might be mercenaries the manifested void god hired to search the land for the shard. You could also have void-tainted people and animals, corrupt warlocks who want the shard to increase their power, etc.
A lot of games do these “factions” really well, especially in the post-apocalyptic genre. There are nuke worshippers and cultists in fallout, cultists in Grim Dawn, Kitava worshippers in Path of Exile, etc.
So you've just saved the world, you've killed the void god or at least weakened him enough to retreat back to his celestial lair. In doing so, you haven't completely vanquished the void. The void will always be there, it is the counter force to light and creation. There are still artifacts on the earth that are evil and factions that will forever try to capture the shards and eliminate mankind.
The monolith can be some sort of mysterious evil artifact. The good gods are not completely sure what it is, they just know that the void god created it as a method through which to capture the shards or even worse - create a something just as powerful as the Epoch.
One idea could be that the evil god used his power to create a monolith that would allow him to travel through a multitude of different timelines and worlds, all of which he could corrupt to create armies to serve his purpose. Ultimately on attaining the shards / Epoch he would use it to open portals to all of these timelines, allowing the armies to spill through to destroy the earth. The gods don’t know how many timelines there are but task us with using the monolith to destroy as many as possible.
This leaves an open-ended end game with the potential for many expansions.
- The void god is weakened, but will surely try and come back
- The monolith has an infinite amount of corrupt worlds
- The monolith is still mysterious, maybe the void god was successful in creating an alternate dimension where he HAS the epoch
- Maybe the void god doesn’t even understand the full potential of the monolith, perhaps an evil force was created in an alternate timeline that is even stronger than him
- We still have many gods left, do all of them continue to fight to preserve creation?
- There are other timelines where players are also fighting to collect the shards. Surely we have to go through and kill them?
- Maybe we end up getting corrupted in another timeline and are forced to travel to it and kill ourselves to stop us from helping the void god.
Anyone have any thoughts?