The making of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire's greatest quest

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This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 320. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

The piece contains spoilers for activities in Fort Deadlight.

Early in Pillars of Eternity II, the Watcher has the first of many pirate encounters in the Deadfire Archipelago. A swine called Benweth orders his crew to kill you and take your ship. But before they get the chance a cyclone blows in and saves you. It takes a while to repair your storm-battered sloop and get back on the high seas, but when you do you can exact revenge on the bilge-sucking cur by sailing to his hideout, Fort Deadlight. 

The design of Fort Deadlight and the quest that takes place there, Blow the Man Down, was led by Jorge Salgado, a senior designer at Obsidian Entertainment who has previously worked on Fallout: New Vegas, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and the original Pillars of Eternity. “I designed it pretty much from the ground up,” he says. “I like to have my hands on a project from the beginning to the very end.” 

When you arrive at the fort, Benweth is holed up in the donjon, a secure keep patrolled by his personal bodyguards. You can fight your way to him, but there are smarter and more fun ways to complete the quest. “We had a few high-level goals for Fort Deadlight,” says Salgado. “It had to be an area that was accessible early on, that would showcase Pillars’ breadth of gameplay. We wanted players who enjoy dungeon crawls to have that experience, but also offer other ways to complete the quest, using stealth or talking to NPCs to get past certain obstacles.” 

There are several ways to infiltrate Fort Deadlight, ranging from flying the colours of its pirate owners from your mast and sailing in unchallenged, to simply climbing in through one of its windows. And once you’re in, there are large areas where you can blend in with the crowd and wander around freely. Some areas are off limits, however, and the guards will escort you back to a public space if you’re caught—and eventually they’ll attack if you continue to trespass. If this reminds you of a mission from Hitman, that was the idea.

“I’m a big fan of the Hitman series,” he says. “I love that kind of emergent gameplay. There are so many ways to solve problems, and a lot of them are really funny, too. So when I designed Fort Deadlight I wanted to have a couple of amusing ways for the player to deal with Benweth, not just fighting or intimidating him. And this is where the idea of him being a virtuoso harpsichord player came from.”

Killer tunes

Arguably the most enjoyable way to kill Benweth is to rig the harpsichord in the court, where the fort’s residents come to eat and drink, with a bomb. But he’ll only come down to play if you can get a sufficiently rowdy party started, which involves, among other things, stealing a case of expensive rum from under the noses of some patrolling guards. 

Arguably the most enjoyable way to kill Benweth is to rig the harpsichord in the court, where the fort’s residents come to eat and drink, with a bomb.

A cheery orlan pirate called Mirke helps you arrange the party, unaware that really you’re using it to lure Benweth out to kill him. She’s one of the quirkier characters that you’ll meet in the Deadfire Archipelago, and as of the release of the free Rum Runner’s Pack DLC, you can recruit her as a companion. 

“I knew that players would be smiling mischievously to themselves as they booby-trapped the harpsichord with a bomb,” explains Salgado. “But you don’t have to do it at all. You can lure Benweth down to the court and instead use this as an opportunity to talk to him and make him look like a fool in front of his crew. You can humiliate him and convince him to back down from a fight, which is a nonlethal way of completing the quest.” 

Building a quest that offers this amount of freedom was a challenge, even for an experienced designer like Salgado. “Building a single space that allows for three or four different types of gameplay at once was probably the biggest challenge,” he says. “But that’s how we keep the game varied, rather than it just being combat all the time.”

Because Pillars is an incredibly text-heavy game, Salgado also had to work closely with the writers when designing the quest. “Once I created the bare bones of the quest and worked out how everything flows, I passed it over to a writer,” he says. “In this case it was Megan Starks, who was the writer for this area, and she did a great job. She gave the pirates of Fort Deadlight a lot of personality, and she had suggestions about the characters that would inspire me to develop different kinds of gameplay.” 

The pirate fort is filled with interesting, colourful characters, including Snake Eyes Condwen, a shifty gambler, and Ungwith the Craghearted, the hard-nosed captain of the guard. “I wanted the fort to feel almost like a little town,” says Salgado. “It’s a place where a lot of different pirates meet up, and that made it more interesting than it just being populated by Benweth’s crew. This let us create tension between him and the other captains, which opened up lots of new avenues for different kinds of gameplay. 

“We have a group of drunks,” he adds. “And then we have the teetotal Captain Ungwith, who hates that they’re always drinking. So that was a way to lure her away from her post, giving you access to the forge.” In the forge you find a group of sailors working for Benweth against their will, and with them you can set up a chain of events that leads to him watching in horror as they sail away with his ship. This is just one of several ways to stick it to your nemesis without resorting to murdering him.

Brick by brick

Another of Salgado’s goals for Fort Deadlight was making it a visually striking environment, and for it to draw you into the fantasy of the game’s exotic setting. The fortress, although largely drawn from his imagination, is loosely based on a star fort, which first appeared in Europe in the mid-15th century. “The problem with star forts is that they’re massive,” he says. “You need a lot of space for defences, gunpowder storage. So instead I created a design reminiscent of one, but not completely accurate.” 

To actually build the fort, Salgado began with simple, untextured 3D blockouts, one of which you can see at the top of this article. This helped him figure out the shape of the fort and the flow of the quest. “If you look at those blockouts, the interior spaces fit perfectly into, and match, the exteriors,” he says. “A lot of work was put into that, to give the level consistency and a good attention to detail. Sometimes I have doubts about something I create and I have to keep iterating on it until I’m happy, but from the start we knew Fort Deadlight was going to work. 

“There also are some elements of the design I drew from my own personal experience,” he adds. “I was born in Spain and there are a lot of castles and ancient ruins there.” But the flow of the mission was always the priority for Salgado, and that dictated the overall layout of Fort Deadlight more than historical accuracy or real-world examples of castle design. “You’ll notice how the back of the fort is a lot higher than the rest of it, which isn’t exactly realistic, but makes the structure more interesting visually.”

Team effort

Fort Deadlight and the Blow the Man Down quest have been singled out by many, myself included, as the highlight of Pillars of Eternity II. I ask Salgado if he was expecting this kind of reaction when he was designing it. “I did,” he says. “I’m not going to be falsely humble, because I’m really proud of it! But I also have to thank Megan, who gave voice and nuance to the characters; Demi Warren and April Giron, our environment artists, who were a joy to work with; and designer Bobby Null for his highlevel work on the Príncipi sen Patrena faction questline, which Fort Deadlight is a part of.” 

Obsidian’s reputation as one of the best RPG development studios in the business is well earned, and Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is some of its strongest work to date. Not only in terms of the rich, expressive writing and vivid, fleshed-out world, but in how it gives you the freedom to create your own stories—which is the mark of any great roleplaying experience. Fort Deadlight is a perfect distillation of everything that’s exciting about the game, whether you talk Benweth down, go in with your sword swinging, or arrange a comically elaborate, explosive death for him.