The Pillars of the Earth began as an 1989 historical novel, written by Ken Follett, about the construction of a fictional village’s cathedral in 12th Century England. It has since been made into a television miniseries (Starz 2010), and now it has arrived to the video game medium courtesy of Deadalic Entertainment.
In both of its previous iterations, Ken Follett’s branching plot of intrigue and integrity has been successful by deceptively masking a lesson in history. By targeting the interactive novel as its newest form, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth has run the risk of boring an audience looking to be more directly engaged. To an extent, it does falter in this regard, but it also finds success in less expected ways.
There’s no doubt that Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth is an epic story. Book 1 of the game follows three playable characters in Tom Builder (a master… builder), Philip of Gwynedd (a monk), and young Jack Jackson (a wild, redheaded boy), as they all play pivotal roles in the construction of a new cathedral for the 12th Century town of Kingsbridge. Over the course of Book 1’s events, each character develops his own dirty secrets that continue to forward the plot and cause conflict. Of course, there are also villains of this story that do much to cause mayhem for our protagonists’ ambitions at every turn.
From the game’s start, it sets a doleful tone. The prologue features a tragic event between Tom Builder and his family that is easily one of the most memorable scenes from the game for its storytelling, its scene design, and its incorporation of gameplay. Although moments of lightheartedness seep their way into certain dialogues throughout the rest of the first seven chapters, the story rarely loses this tone, sometimes earning its Mature ESRB rating for good reason.
Although the vast majority of Book 1’s six-hour experience focuses mainly on establishing the plot for the fourteen chapters still to follow, there’s a fair amount of gameplay sprinkled in, especially for an interactive novel.
Characters are able to explore limited environments relevant to a scene, both physically inspecting aspects of it or mentally assessing them. Certain items can be acquired that may prove useful as the plot progresses or vital to overcoming a particular challenge. By equipping these items, characters can return to previously insignificant NPCs or environmental features with newfound purpose. Particularly important thoughts can also be collected in a character’s inventory to be applied toward the task at hand.
Notably, sometimes this exploration felt slightly hindered by poor design. Moving between areas required that characters approach an exit/entrance and tap “X” on the DualShock 4, but many times a simple tap was insufficient. I regularly had to resort to button-mashing while repositioning a character into whatever ‘sweet-spot’ was necessary to progress.
By exploring the environments, the world’s political and social climate becomes clearer, especially when you are able to locate some of the game’s highly informative documents (collectibles) scattered throughout the game for those who are interested in thoroughly inspecting an area before moving on. However, the best method of attaining information is by speaking to the other characters of this world, and there are plenty of them.
By utilizing a traditional dialogue wheel, you are able to communicate with other characters, usually choosing from no more than four options at a time how each conversation will advance. Oftentimes, these dialogue options are limited by the amount of time you have to consider each option, which could result in your character’s silent stare. Then again, maybe that’s what you were going for.
More than any other aspect of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, these dialogue trees are where the player’s actions feel they hold the most weight. You can completely explore the environment and collect every item it has to offer, but how your character acts and the person he becomes is dictated by the choices he makes in these conversations.
In typical interactive novel style, choice is ultimately an illusion. Anyone who is familiar with the plot of The Pillars of the Earth won’t find it straying too far from the source material here. However, there are opportunities to guide characters along certain moral lines that allow for slight deviation from the original story, making the experience feel somewhat unique relative to its the other mediums.
When it comes to making Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth feel like a different experience, the title’s art style also makes an impression. Although hardly original in the video game medium these days, the use of animated character models against hand-painted backgrounds is still pleasing to look at. Although perhaps underdeveloped throughout Book 1, this style also provided opportunities for the creators to design more abstract scenes.
In the beginning of the game, Tom Builder is in a cold forest with his children, telling them of the grand nature of a cathedral. The setting suddenly shifts to appear as though they are within this forest cathedral, significantly adding to the power of the scene. Although various settings in Book 1 are awe-inspiring, few others compared in quite the same way.
For a title so focused on its storytelling, the voice-acting should have been a little better. Although the delivery of dialogue wasn’t at all bad (actually mostly good!), it felt oddly paced, almost as if it had been edited with extra space between lines so that it could be delivered more slowly. At times, a lot of information gets unloaded quickly and it’s important that the player understands it before moving forward, but this mechanic made everything feel far too drawn-out.
The oddly spaced dialogue ultimately lends to a much larger pacing problem in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. Although it improves over the course of Book 1, parts of the game feel awfully sluggish. Chapter 2 has players treading through a Christian priory, interviewing monks in an attempt to save a bunch of paper from getting burned. It’s as dry as it sounds, and it can last a while if not done in exactly the right order. Certain other sections mimicked this to an extent, diminishing an otherwise positive experience.
Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth Book 1 is successful at bringing the epic 12th Century story to a new audience, albeit with a few missteps. The title finds pacing issues in its story and gameplay early and the cadence of its dialogue regularly drags down the overall rhythm, but it brings more than expected in both interactivity and style. Bringing a story the scale of a thousand-page novel to the video game format could not have been an easy endeavor, but Deadalic Entertainment has brought the first act to us with plenty of appetite for more.