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Obsidian's CEO on Pillars of Eternity backer's hateful joke (correction)

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

More than 77,000 people contributed money to Pillars of Eternity's Kickstarter campaign in 2012. Some of them — 579 to be exact — gave $500 or more. Their reward, among other things, was the privilege of having a memorial stone mounted in the game world with a custom message on it.

About two weeks ago the text of one of those stones turned into a social media firestorm, derailing an otherwise fairly successful game launch. Feargus Urquhart, along with his team at Obsidian Entertainment, had a real crisis on his hands. One of the Kickstarter's backers had used their in-game memorial stone to print what many consider to be a hateful, transphobic joke. By making it part of the final game, Obsidian was seen by many to be supporting the abuse of the trans community.

The memorial stone as it was originally shown in the game.

"How I encountered it was on Sunday morning," Feargus Urquhart told Polygon. Since the launch of Pillars on Mar. 27, the CEO of Obsidian has been personally monitoring the game's Facebook page as well as its Kickstarter page, where his team has communicated with the game's community now for nearly three years.

The morning of Sunday Mar. 29 a message came in through Kickstarter. Someone had found the memorial stone in question, and later that day they posted a picture of it in a tweet. The feedback, from all corners of the internet, was swift and fiery.

"This would have been fairly early, Sunday morning," Urquhart said. "Probably 8 or 9 a.m.. And I got back to her and said we would look into it, and so as I was responding to that I was starting to get texts and emails from people that Twitter was exploding.

It's at this point that Urquhart said he and his team did something unusual; they waited. Instead of responding with a solution, they watched. And they listened.

"What a lot of us did that day was we just read what people were saying. And then, we got together the next day — Monday — and we talked about it. And as we talked about it more and more and more, I think that two things came to light.

"The first, which is in our official statement. It says this is something that we missed. It was not something we, not anybody, had read — had vetted, I think is what we said — which was the truth.

"The second thing is, what came out of it was that ultimately this is something that one of our backers put in. And if anyone should be involved in the decision as to what we do about it, it should be that person. And so that’s how we took it."

Yes, it stands to reason that Obsidian could have said no to what the backer put into their game in the first place. They missed that opportunity. But now that it was in the game, it wasn't merely Obsidian's problem. It was also their backer's problem. And therefore, it required a joint solution. Together with that backer, the team at Obsidian discussed their options via email.

Many saw the final outcome as bowing to the desires of an angry mob

Many outside observers saw the final outcome of that discussion — the decision to remove the memorial's text and replace it with something different — as bowing to the desires of an angry mob. But Urquhart says he can't bring himself to see it that way.

"I know there’s a lot of conversations about censorship and about lots of stuff," Urquhart said. "Believe me, I’ve read all of it. If people think we’re sort of ignoring it, that’s just not the case. I think in the end it was just important to us, and myself in particular, that the backer was involved. And that’s what we did. We talked with them through email. It was a great person, who understood the predicament, and he made the decision to have that [text] changed."

Here's the amended quote, found in a fan-made wiki page.

Here lies Firedorn, a bard, a poet

He was also a card, but most didn't know it

A poem he wrote in jest was misread

They asked for blood, so now he's just dead

"That’s ultimately how it was. We tried to separate ourselves from — I don’t know — just the explosion of stuff going on, and just said, 'OK. If that was not going on [out there in the wider internet], how would we deal with it?' And that’s what we did."

What attracted many backers to the original Pillars Kickstarter was the promise of a mature role-playing experience, and the final product certainly delivers. Its opening chapters deal with mass executions, religious conflict, child death, sexual assault, matters of the soul and reincarnation. It is a heavy game that deals with weighty topics.

But what does "mature" mean to Urquhart, and the rest of the team that made Pillars? Where do you draw the line?

"I have kids," he said. "So the first thing is if I was making a game for my kids, that kind of changes the kind of content you talk about. And it talks about the sort of games that you would stray away from if you were making a game for them. So, a lot of what we do in making a mature game in particular, it’s all about the themes.

"Is it about language? Yes. But it’s not specifically about language. It’s about talking about things that adults talk about. They talk about where are they going in life. They talk about — in the case of Eternity — about souls and a lot about what happens with children that are being born without souls.

"Mature to us ... is talking about things that matter, that are difficult, that are worth talking about with adults."

Talk about hate. Explore hate. Don’t promote hate.

So, if that's the case, were there any red lines for the team? Themes that Obsidian didn't want to explore, even in an admittedly mature title?

"I think the question, ultimately, is it’s all coming down to hate, right?" Urquhart said. "Is hate a topic that is being explored in a game, or is the game saying something hateful about someone? And so I think that’s the line.

"I think for any of us, whether we’re making a movie, or if we’re making a comic book, or we’re writing a novel, or we’re making a game it’s [a matter of] are we exploring the subject in a way that makes people think, or are we saying something hateful through it. And if there’s any red line, that’s the red line for me.

"We can talk about hate, and we can explore hate, but that we don’t promote hate is the key thing in the end."

Correction: The picture originally accompanying this story did not show the correct memorial stone as amended. We've updated the story with the correct text, in the form of a blockquote, above.

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