Serotonin: Pillars of Eternity and discovering a genre

June 5, 2015


For a guy who devotes as much energy as I do toward the pursuit of leisure, I am terrible at discovering new sources of entertainment. I can still remember the first time one of my junior school buddies showed me professional wrestling. Sure, I’d heard about it, but even when I watched The Rock run in on a Stone Cold match and listened to my friend freak out, I still didn’t get it. It obviously wasn’t real. It was a bunch of half-naked dudes punching each other. What was so great about that? As it turns out, everything. I don’t know when, if ever, wrestling and I would have crossed paths had it not been for my quick initiation in my parents’ basement on a barely-color TV.

I was never really into music that much, either. I didn’t own any cassettes, nor did I watch MTV. My love of podcasts and talk radio was lovingly introduced to me by my parents, who gave me my very own stereo for my room… and if I kept the volume really low, I could leave it on all night without them knowing! This is the origin of my bizarre sleeping habits, I’m sure, but listening to other people talk while I focus on sleep still relaxes me better than a comfortable bed and warm pillow ever could.

Children are often introduced to activities by the wiser, but what about now? I’m 31. I’ve seen it all. I’ve beaten hundreds of games. I’ve read way too many reviews and listened to too many gaming podcasts. I’ve watched far too many YouTube videos critically discussing every aspect of game design, music, presentation, personalities, walkthroughs and more. How could I possibly find anything new at this point in my life?

Thankfully, you’re never too old to learn new tricks.


Despite loving the role-playing genre for over 20 years, I never played one in the vein of Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate or Planescape: Torment. I’d read about them, of course, enviously learning about how others perceived them as monumental achievements. But I never got around to trying one out. Besides, those types of games are old and dated, I rationalized. I can’t get into them now. These computer-style RPGs aren’t for me.

Until, that is, 77,000 fans donated to the Kickstarter for a 2015 game called Pillars of Eternity. That caught my eye. Then it got incredible praise, with many claiming that it took all the pieces of the genre from the past and (mostly) updated it for a modern audience. I knew was sold. I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it.

In many respects, I’d played this game a hundred times before. I built a character. I started off from small beginnings. I got thrown into a massive world with interesting characters, while fighting my way through dungeons, finishing quests, learning secrets, leveling up and acquiring gear. But the way the game is presented and how the story progresses? It relies heavily on text, and I don’t mean that there’s just a lot of reading (though there is). Rather, major events and reveals occur solely through text, maybe with an accompanying image. There’s no flashy cut-scenes or top-of-the-line graphics, but there is a clear and honest effort to surround the player with a level of detail and atmosphere unlike any other genre.


In nearly every area, be it town, abandoned castle or dungeon, there are always magnifying glass icons to click on. What pops up? “Just” text. Can anything be declared dismissive if it’s as well-written as these blurbs? They don’t serve much purpose, except to engage the player and unravel the mystery of where you are. It adds flavor to the world. You’re already doing it subconsciously, every time your screen shows you a location. I wonder why that tree is so withered. I wonder what happened to the people that lived here. I wonder what that bookshelf smells like.

You may not verbalize these inquisitions out loud, or even consciously, but they’re there. They’re always there. Pillars of Eternity has me reading every single detail available, and I’m thrilled. It expands on my lifelong hobby of reading, and rewards me with extra details that aren’t forced upon me in an annoying manner. It’s only as big as I want it to be.

Another genre I was late to the party for was tower defense games. I’d played a custom map from StarCraft that I wasn’t even able to discern what to do; my friend mentioned that we basically had to turtle, but grow our defenses as the “waves” kept coming. Oh.. okay. I’m going to go play more regular multiplayer, thanks! The concept of staying put and just fighting wave after wave didn’t seem appealing to me at all. Until I tried PixelJunk Monsters, and all of a sudden I was enamored with tower defense.


Maybe it was the charming presentation, or the music that felt like it belonged a day spa, or the fact that it fostered an ever-growing love to play games with my girlfriend. For whatever reason, PixelJunk Monsters was the perfect foray for a rookie like me into tower defense. It’s challenging, but not maddening. It teaches you the basic mechanics quickly. There are very few controls. It’s easy to learn but hard to master. The game eases you in quickly, but also varies up each level enough to never let you get too comfortable. Each enemy defeated has a satisfying “pop” or “bzz,” and it never discourages you from trying the same level again to get a perfect score.

I cared about perfecting levels again. I actually went back to a stage I’d previously played to master it. Kyla and I were obsessed with strategies, constantly messaging each other at work with proposals, rejections and hopes of specific tower placements and what combined actions were needed to make it happen.

It’s hard to believe I didn’t grow up playing tower defense games. Some of my greatest recent memories involve the airtight gameplay of Defense Grid 2, or the maddeningly addictive nature of Dungeon Defenders. Now that I’m comfortable with the genre, I can branch out and try them solo, like I did with Sanctum or Plants vs. Zombies. (A tip: solo tower defense games pale in comparison to local multiplayer.)

With Pillars of Eternity’s success, I can only hope for future renditions of this genre. I certainly won’t miss the board on the next one, but I can’t help but think of what else I’m missing. Flight simulators? The Souls series? Handheld games? Hmm, on second thought…