I am compelled, for professional and self-indulgent reasons, to play every “great” game in existence, and thus I have become a skilled juggler of platforms and genres. In 2017, I juggled my ass off. PC, Switch, Xbox One, PS4, VR, mobile — every platform in my collection was occupied by an army of best-in-class games from developers large and small. Figuring out which game to play became less like juggling and more like a daily battle royale for my attention.
The frequent king of the hill, and my personal game of the year for 2017, was Divinity: Original Sin 2, or DOS2, a PC-only “CRPG” (computer role-playing game) of the isometric Fallout variety. This is an unconventional choice. I admit that DOS2’s rough edges appear jagged and hazardous compared to its cuddlier, more polished peers. But DOS2 stands out because it dares to question the values that many of its more popular rivals share in common.
What are those values? Look past the shiny exteriors of most big-budget games, and the same framework is exposed: You grind your way to Objective X, reveal a hidden object, and repeat ad infinitum. Each run through the loop grants you another dopamine hit, another step on your stairway to gratification. These are the building blocks for experience-based progression systems within which endless loot boxes, microtransactions, skill trees, cosmetics and mechanics can be unlocked.
The age of the grind
In an earlier, pre-Destiny era we quaintly labeled these systems as “RPG-like,” but by 2017, such features were “all-games-like” among AAA titles. This is not a good thing or a bad thing. There is no a malevolent conspiracy to pick your pocket.
Many AAA studios are one flop away from folding, so if a few AAA games prove that a given design can reliably ensnare players and make more money, it becomes financially irresponsible for other developers to ignore their success. That’s why it sometimes seems like the whole industry is governed by creative groupthink, or afflicted with some mimetic disorder. It’s also why the much-lauded 2017 Class of AAA Games are remarkably self-similar.
One could snort the prevailing design of 2017 in its uncut form by playing something as basic as Universal Paperclips, a clicker that combines simple math and human psychology into hours of addictive fun. On a more complex level, Destiny 2 polished and refined similar progression systems that Destiny originated, systems which are also de rigueur in their FPS brethren like Call of Duty: WWII and Star Wars: Battlefront 2.
These same systems form the core of Assassins Creed Origins, which fused the design of every open-world Ubisoft game into their best stealth-action map-quest yet, which it turned out is something remarkably similar to to the stealth, combat and exploration that feeds similar systems in Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Look to any number of other genres and platforms. Sports fans can pick from EA’s suite of Ultimate Team modes and the dynamic story campaigns in Madden, FIFA and NBA 2K, or grind for gears in Dirt 4, all driven by fundamentally similar progression systems. Nowhere are such systems more at home than the free-to-play landscape of mobile games like Beat Street, The Elder Scrolls: Legends and Star Wars: Force Arena, which use those familiar feedback loops to pull the player back every single day, if not multiple times a day.
Even fighting games like Injustice 2 were on trend in 2017, with experience-based progression and endless unlockables. I worked as narrative lead and co-writer on that game. I point this out because, in my biased opinion, Injustice 2 is a case study for how to successfully deploy such features in the spirit of fun and fairness. It bears repeating that I enjoyed playing pretty much every game we’ve discussed so far. These features are universal — but not universally bad.
I’ve taken to observing the ways in which these progression systems affect how I play. They satisfy a primal need for affirmation and achievement. When rewarding feedback is issued just frequently enough, it clutches and pushes me ever upward on ladders of artificial checkpoints and superficial milestones. I feel like I’m getting better, smarter, more skilled — even when my growth is illusory.
Consider this a 21st-century variation on the established hero’s journey. Our new myth is an affirmative tale in which you, the Player, travel a road of trials in a perpetual state of progression and evolution. You are safe on this journey because no matter what you do, you are always advancing, never retreating and never at risk of total failure. The road goes on forever, or at least until it can be declared one-hundred-percent beaten.
If that story sounds hopelessly delusional and idealistic, it’s because it is, and that’s why it makes such a pleasant escape from our everyday lives. We savor the aspirations and comforts of such an ideal structure, but consequently, it’s become easier for us to overlook games that reject it, and the more relevant stories they may tell us about ourselves.
Breaking down the structure
Divinity: Original Sin 2 ostensibly bears the same experience-based progression systems we’ve been discussing: maps to explore, gear to acquire, skills to unlock, literal boxes of loot scattered liberally throughout the environment. In the opening minutes of the game, it is easy to envision your usual path to glory.
That’s what makes it so disruptive, almost dissonant, when DOS2 mocks your silly assumptions, flaunting your craving for a traditionally structured narrative with its playful-but-painful chaos. DOS2 rejects the notion that you are constantly progressing. Instead of following a finely tuned arc that bends ever upward, you will often confront situations for which you are hopelessly unprepared — much like in real life. In other words, shit happens.
For many, the earliest example of shit happening in Divinity: Original Sin 2 comes in combat. Your mage character may cast a fire spell intending to weaken a group of enemies who are susceptible to fire damage. A perfectly reasonable tactic to the uninitiated. Trick is, your Undead character, Fane, can only be healed by poison, and the poison cloud he is using to heal himself is flammable. As a result, your mage’s spell backfires. The battlefield becomes a raging inferno that consumes the lives of you and your party.
Was this unfortunate event a bad thing? No. It was an opportunity to learn about how this world works. Now that you know poison is flammable, you’ll be a bit more careful. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to make quick work of this fight on your second try. There’s no shame in saving and reloading here.
So maybe you reload the game and try the fight again, and this time you slay your enemies, but Fane, who is your favorite party member, dies in the effort. You reload the game, try the fight again and again and again. Try as you might, Fane dies on every single run-through. Later, you can find a Resurrection Scroll that will reanimate him, but for the moment, Fane is dead and unavailable to aid your party. You must contemplate the possibility of continuing the game without Fane’s dry wit and insightful commentary. Even when Fane is eventually restored by a scroll, there may still be a cost for his death, such as the possibility that Fane’s side quests will be left incomplete.
Incomplete. This sounds like such a dirty word to the contemporary player. How can anyone go about one-hundred-percenting such a game?
The answer is that you can’t, or at least, you’re not intended to “complete” DOS2. This is inherent in every aspect of the game’s design. The Quest system is managed through a borderline obscure Journal interface; those accustomed to a simple and straightforward goal accompanied by a mark on a map with a breadcrumb trail and a box to check will instead find vague suggestions for potential paths ahead. Skill trees and upgrade paths that seem vital or special in the early game may be rendered useless or conflicting as the game continues, leaving your party impotent in critical situations. The killing of a character whom you barely remember fighting may, hours of gameplay later, prevent you from completing your current quest.
The lack of a clear, progressive path through DOS2 can cause anxiety for players trained to expect such structure, myself included. “Where is the guidance?” we ask. “What the hell am I supposed to do next?!” we cry out. Much like shouting at the sky in the real world, our cries are met with silence in DOS2. Much like the existential limitations of reality, no matter how hard we work, no matter how carefully we plan, we’ll never be able to see, do and conquer all that DOS2 has to offer.
Accepting the simple truth that I could never complete Original Sin 2 was the single most difficult leap of faith I took as a lover of video games in 2017, and I splurged on a room-scale Oculus Rift setup. Taking the leap into DOS2 required me to let go of expectations for progress and perfection that have been imprinted on me as a player across a thousand hours in its contemporaries.
The rewards that awaited me in DOS2 are, I suspect, the reason why the game holds a 93 on Metacritic and sits among the top 10 bestsellers of 2017 on Steam. These rewards are manifold: a refreshing (perhaps masochistic) palette cleanser, an exercise in not always getting what we want, a clarion call to find grace and satisfaction in the face of insurmountable hardship and a command to blaze our own damn trails and make up our own damn quests, because DOS2 has no magic breadcrumbs to spoon-feed us between billboarded signposts.
Some call DOS2 a best-in-class CRPG, I’ll call it what it represents to me: a parable on accepting failure, a struggle simulator on par with the likes of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Getting Over It and Dark Souls. After my first 75 hours of DOS2, I returned to other games a liberated player, aware that the grinding tendencies which previously compelled me are, in fact, well within my control. I crave the thrill of one-hundred-percenting a little bit less, and I’ve opened myself to the possibility that an imperfect and incomplete playthrough of a game can be satisfying in its own way.
DOS2 won’t be for everyone. But games like DOS2 can be a necessary, even therapeutic antidote for the conditioning we subject ourselves to by playing so many other, arguably more accessible but also self-similar games. Life is not an ascendant arc of endless achievement. Plans don’t always go as planned. You can’t have everything, but in DOS2, you can have the most epic failures, and for all the untold wins I had playing games in 2017, it’s the failures I remember most.
Shawn Kittelsen is a freelance writer and narrative designer. Most recently, he has co-written Injustice 2 for NetherRealm Studios, and written the Medved-Taiga DLC in The Hunter: Call of the Wild for Expansive Worlds.