• Speaking to inanimate objects in Divinity: Original Sin
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07.16.14

Speaking to inanimate objects in Divinity: Original Sin

There’s a short sentence I read almost twenty years ago and never forgot: “BECAUSE NO ONE DEMANDED IT.” It was on the cover of a comic book, a riff on the Stan Lee-style hucksterism that pitched every event as long-awaited, every appearance promised, and so on. But the joke’s tone was almost maniacal, exceeding the context of the gag. It stands as bizarro advice for living: throw off the yoke of expectation by giving people what they don’t want.

The best parts of Divinity: Original Sin exist because no one demanded them. For reasons of its own, the game often prompts you to argue with yourself. Every lost dog and talking seashell in the fantasy world of Rivellon is a fresh issue for the two protagonists (who are both you) to bicker over. Controlling both of them at once is an unfamiliar sensation, like managing the conflicted halves of someone else’s mind: you manufacture emphatic agreement or discord as you like.

The binary choices are too glib to suggest character, but the narrative double vision does make you laugh. All evil deeds are flamboyantly co-signed by your partner; you propose to rob someone, then respond to yourself with something like “Too right! Such a fool deserves to starve!” In co-op, these exchanges might feel less like completing your own high-fives. But the obtuse UI hides much of the game’s voluminous script from Player 2, and few will be willing to devote tens of hours to a half-illuminated text.

For a good 15 hours, novelty carries the day. The starting town of Cyseal, which looked raw for most of the game’s Early Access period, emerges fully rounded and glittering with incident. There’s a glorious meta-gag behind every talking statue, and a long quest hidden in every talking well. If the game has one defining nobody-demanded-it feature, it is that everything talks.

But you gradually realize you’re in a world full of speakers who share the same voice. The writers’ favored mode of address turns out to be the gratingly verbose non-joke. The first time you read something like “no sooner had the water closed its spurning jaws around the perishing vessel below than the extent of my offense dawned on my beleaguered mind,” you expect the building affectation to be converted, at some point, into humor. But no punchline looms on the wind-whipped horizon of that sea of words. And the joke that seemed to lurk under them is diluted by the great volume of mannered speech made by other ostentatious characters given to exclamation and tongue-in-cheek digression. Clicking through a mage’s winking dialogue, you feel like punching the tongue right out of his mouth.

Quicksaving brings our view back down to earth, but the plot keeps climbing into thinner air. 

For every cornball gag that lands—“Legion’s greetings!” chirps a legionnaire—there’s one that bombs: a gravestone for “Mark Sism, whose ideas never really worked out.” (Though some major characters are minimally voiced, the graveyard inscriptions are all read in full by a narrator—just as nobody requested.) Nevertheless, the stream of jokes is your chief reward for trudging forward as the narrative widens from a local mystery to a profoundly boring cosmic conflict. The story works much like the game’s camera, which is nudged higher and higher by the tips of trees and ridges in the game’s rougher areas, rising like an observation balloon until it barely tracks the figures on the ground. Quicksaving brings our view back down to earth, but the plot keeps climbing into thinner air.

The game’s vaunted combat isn’t quite in step with the story, either. Early on, it’s bracingly layered and physical—shoot the enemy with arrows, use lightning bolts to electrify their blood, teleport an oil barrel into a nearby fire, etc. The first zone’s boss fight is a classic test, a backpack-emptying encounter where you read every scroll and chug every forgotten potion. But once you crack that boss, the fight goes out of the game. Later battles are less taut, and you stop feeling the clean lines of the system beneath the gauze of miscues and irritation caused by a fidgety targeting system.

I can only compare Original Sin to Divinity: Dragon Commander, another Larian Studios title made with a noble disregard for the world’s demands. In it, the player leads an army of fantasy races that demand judgments on every hot-button issue under the sun, from taxing churches (the undead disapprove!) to approving smoking in schools (dwarves approve!). It was about finding balance between the private and the political spheres, and between its own incongruous mechanics. Like most good comedy, it circled a real concern: the absurd burdens of leadership.

Dragon Commander was a strange idea, but it was clearly an idea. I’m not sure Original Sin has a clue what it’s about, beyond “feeling like an old game.” It gets more strung out as you go along, introducing towns that feel curiously bereft of quests and dungeons padded out with tedious switch hunts. There’s no strong character to center it, no perspective to ground it, no consistent challenge to weight it. It’s an impressive novelty, but it fades fast.