After years of silence in which I have played games casually while studying philosophy I think it is evident that some problems may be persitent or it may be, that what I think is problematic and a flaw in the design is not something the community or the designers feel urgent to correct and change. Many things can be said to strengthen such a view, but I will leave it at that. I will in the following make a comment to the combat system and how it handles the translation from program structure (mechanics or systems) to meaning for the player.
Pillars of Eternity is a game I backed from the beginning and I played the beta a little while, but soon found that the game was a dissapointment. Beeing a game made by my childhood heros of sorts I did not give it much thought and was sure that in time things would come around and the game would ship in perfect order.
Struggling to make a character with a historical depth due to my age mostly (39) I managed in the end to come up with a roleplaying idea of no small measure. I am playing an aged and tired Korgan Bloodaxe. Yes, the Dwarf from Baldur's Gate. A retired mercenary that no longer have the taste for blood and axes and just want to settle in a new land away from the problems of the world and the men and organizations that tend to hunt him for his past deeds. Korgan is now a greyhaired stoic and deceptive dwarf and he refuses to get involved in the world around him, but as the story goes, beeing a Watcher, he soon finds that one last involvement becomes a pressing matter.
Before Korgan Bloodaxe, I played around with forty different avatars trying to get a sense of the mechanics and power of the different defenses, classes, weapons and so forth. This is probably due to my current studies and the fact that I have played games for over 20 years and is hard to please. I attend a master at a local university studying games. The only university in fact, that has such a program. I am from Denmark, Copenhagen and have a bachelor in philosophy.
Design is all about creating structures that gives the player a good sense of depth and meaning. In games such as this one, structures should support and account for pyschological depth and philosphical thoroughness both formal and non-formal.
What is a beeing you could ask? It does not matter whether such a beeing is an elf, dwarf or human. They can all be mercenaries and originate from the same region so all races should have a generic pychological potential and therefore be restricted, "controlled" (Foucault) and moved by the same cultural instituitions and phenomenons. The question of; what is a beeing, comes down to the question of; what we as humans are, since whatever races or other beeings we "construct" are mediated by the way we see ourselves and have seen ourselves throughout history. There is nothing else. Everything is first and foremost humanoid no matter what horrors or extraterrestial creatures we construct. A ghost is a memory, a horror is a nightmare and so forth. Nothing otherworldy can be created in reality and what is otherworldy to us, is only our way of making a thing obscure, secret and dramatic. This is the strength of art. In fantasy video games specifically, we can make a magic system and by so doing say something about the existence of Man in subtle ways.
I see a string of questions. The first one is whether it is possible to play Pillars of Eternity without a some way besides defenses of surpressing afflictions? I will see past difficulty. The normal difficulty should be the only difficulty in my opinion. Here the game should be perfect and should tell the story vivdly and make the right challenge appear at the right time all the time.
Korgan Blood axe is a physical powerhouse of proportion. He has poor reflexes and not much brawl in him any longer. He is old and the passion for war and his fearful demeanor has all gone. Korgan is a troubled man now with countless of deaths on his conscience. He has super strength (21), super constituion (18), high dexterity (16) and high intelligence (16). Perception and resolve is rock bottom (this is how i translated and made him). As such, his reflex and will defense are poor, but his fortitude defense is extreme. He is basically a fighter made as if he was a barabarian (Berserker in his case). I looked forward to see how such an avatar, the famous Korgan Bloodaxe would fare in-game and I was stunned..
Korgan fights a single ghoul and is almost killed. How is this possible? Well the ghoul has a high attack speed and can reaaply the weakness affliction permanently. Korgan hits the ghoul 4-5 times and it dies, but Korgan is hit maybe 10-12 times and looses 100 health and almost goes down. Is Korgan tough? Do I feel a sense of power as the player playing him? I most certainly do not. The entire battle gives me sense of a flawed combat system and Korgan Bloodaxe is nowhere to be found.
Mushroom cave (prone)
So I venture into the cave to collect mushroom samples for a cure. Three sentient mushrooms attack. Korgan is surrounded, but a battleworn mercenary like Korgan will surely just dispose of theese neutral enemies defending there mother hen. Korgan is prone. Korgan is down. A flawed combat system?
The combat system does not commute to the player how things should and would be in real battle, but tries to uphold a structure or mechanic. This is a serious issue. A mechanic should serve an intellectual purpose or meaning and never rule. If the combat system begins to repair itself just so it can exist, then the combat system is flawed (Nietzsche). It should not be possible to knock a character like Korgan on his heels and then pound him to grinded meat with 6 attacks dealing +15 damage. Korgan has ONE defense and my entire roleplaying idea hinges upon this defense. When both a ghoul with indefinte weakness apllication and a few sentient mushrooms just pummels him to dust, something is wrong. The problem can be corrected. To make apparent my point and not to give technical recommendations, it is done by resolving how afflictions work in relation to GRAZES. A graze should not be able to knock Korgan out for 3 seconds! This is contraintuitive, it kills the mood and the battle realism. My story crumbles and I am lead to believe that this game can not be played without a priest or by drinking potions. Hence I reload and begin with the spell "suppress affliction" and set Korgan loose. The battle is over in seconds. But if this is inteded, then it is no longer Korgan I am playing - it is nothing but a damage MACHINE with an immunity field! It kills the "person" Korgan Bloodaxe (commuted in combat primarily through attributes and defenses) or at least I have to "repair" him with another story to justify such a flaw. Obviously this is not a solution. This then, in turn, removes the impact and cultural meaning of the entire defense system. The pyschology, history and any philosphical notion about our existence, that such a system should serve and support, is removed from the game and this can not be intended. If in stead, Korgan would have resisted all but very few seconds of weakness and perhaps 1 sec of prone, then Korgan as a "person" would have been present. I would have felt his presence – attacks grazing, strengt applied, damage soaked, vicious damage dealt etc. Combat systems CAN NOT remove the historical fleshy personality and replace it with a mathmatical structure like an ORC in Warcraft or a Hydralisk in Starcraft you just need to buff. The stuctures we program to commute personality should serve and never rule. What I experience should be "Korgan Bloodaxe" and hence his defenses and attributes, not the fact that he is some-thing that needs a buff or a potion to modify a number or else he will stop operating. The numbers and structures should be invisible and serve a well thought of intellectual scheme. In a game where an avatar is core such flaws are just not welcome. It reduces the combat system to the systems known in real time strategy games. I do not want my avatar to be a piece in a puzzle, I want my avatar to be special and want my choices in character creation to have a huge impact on how I experience the game.