Book Breakdown: "Beneath a Starless Sky"
Welcome to another book breakdown, a blog in which I discuss the process of writing a particular draft of one of my books and give an overview of content. This book breakdown focuses on Beneath a Starless Sky: Pillars of Eternity and the Infinity Engine Era of RPGs, a book-sized deep dive published on Shacknews as one of my “Long Read” features earlier this month.
The following stats reflect Beneath a Starless Sky’s (henceforth BASS) final draft, published on Shacknews on October 5, 2018.
Page count: 440
Interviews: Over 40 hours with developers from Interplay, Black Isle Studios, BioWare, Obsidian Entertainment
- 1 intro, 1 epilogue
- 1 citations page
- 13 "main" chapters
- 11 Pause Screens
Total project time (interviews, research, writing, revising, publication): 8.5 months
(If I lost you at “main chapters” and “Pause Screens,” don’t worry. I’ll bring you up to speed in a bit.)
I’ve written book breakdowns for two other Shacknews Long Reads: Rocket Jump, and Stairway to Badass (originally known as To Hell and Back). Each Long Read has doubled—or almost doubled—the previous one in size, complexity, and exhaustiveness. This is not to say I favor quantity over quality, but to emphasize how much effort I put into writing the most comprehensive features (books) possible.
And make no mistake, BASS is a book, the most complex I’ve written since Stay Awhile and Listen—and it’s all available to read for free on Shacknews. I’m very proud of it, so without further ado, let’s dig into specifics.
Shacknews was founded as Quakeholio, a news site devoted to all things Quake, id Software, and first-person shooters. My first Long Read (then known as Shacknews Select) for Shack covered the making of Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider. The two LRs that followed explored Doom, Quake, and first-person shooters.
CEO/editor-in-chief Asif Khan and I were excited by and proud of the Doom- and Quake-centric LRs because they reflected Shack’s roots. For the next Long Read, however, I wanted to get out from behind the barrel of my shotgun and cover a different type of game. Doing so would be a worthwhile creative writing exercise for me, as well as demonstrate to Shack readers and the industry at large that Shacknews delves into other types of games besides shooters.
Enter the Infinity Engine era of roleplaying games—that is, Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale 1 and 2. All were isometric (top-down slanted camera) RPGs released for PC between 1998 and 2003, and all were built on the same tech: The vaunted Infinity Engine.
Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity, released in 2015, had been developed as a spiritual successor to the IE games. It so happened that Obsidian was preparing to crowdfund Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire around the time I was knee-deep in Rocket Jump and thinking ahead to what I wanted to write for Shack next. Adam Brennecke, executive producer and lead programmer on the Pillars franchise, is a Shacker, a user who posts on Shack’s “Chatty” forum. After I did an interview with Pillars II game director Josh Sawyer that went over well with Chatty, Brennecke popped up in the article’s comment thread to chat with other Shackers. I sent him a private message asking if he and Obsidian would be interested in working with me on a Long Read. He set me up with Obsidian PR manager Mikey Dowling.
Dowling was interested in a Long Read. Truth be told, he and Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart—whom I interviewed in 2011 for Stay Awhile and Listen: Book II—were both interested enough to start right away. I decided to put that Long Read on ice, for a couple of reasons. The biggest was that I was still interviewing for and outlining Rocket Jump. Laying groundwork for the next big project is a good thing. Juggling two at once? Virtually impossible, considering I’m usually juggling two or more book deadlines in addition to Shacknews Long Reads.
I asked Dowling and Urquhart if I could touch base with them early the following year (2018), and they were agreeable. Rocket Jump was published on December 2, 2017. For the rest of the year I helped Shack tidy up final projects such as our Game of the Year discussions. In January, I took a sabbatical from Shack and wrote the first draft (well, third; it’s a long story best told in a separate book breakdown) of a novel.
When I returned to action in early February, the first thing I did was email Mikey Dowling. My timing couldn’t have been better. Obsidian’s developers were approximately two months out from finishing Pillars of Eternity II. (Actually three months out. Pillars II was delayed from April until May so the team could do some tidying up of their own.) The advanced state of Pillars II’s development meant I would be able to get a clearer picture of the game’s development from its creators since they were so much closer to the finish line than they would have been had I talked to them in 2017 as originally planned.
Interviews kicked off in mid- to late-February, to give me a few weeks to prepare. During that time, I decided on the scope of the Long Read. It would begin with development of Fallout 1 and 2, which aren’t technically Infinity Engine games but shared enough in common to be included, through the development of the five IE games (Baldur’s Gate 1+2, Icewind Dale 1+2, Planescape: torment), plus Pillars of Eternity 1 and II. Or, 1996 through May 8, 2018, the day Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire launched.
I decided that Pillars 1 and II would be the centerpieces of the Long Read, as yet unnamed. Most of the developers I would be interviewing worked at Obsidian, which gave me access to a wellspring of info on the Pillars franchise. And many of those same devs had worked at Black Isle Studios, the RPG division of Interplay Productions/Entertainment responsible for publishing (but not directly developing) the Baldur’s Gate games, and developing Torment and the Icewind Dale titles.
Mikey Dowling was a fantastic resource during these interviews. He scheduled them on his side, setting aside conference rooms at Obsidian where developers could talk to me over Skype for an hour or so at a time. However, I needed more resources than Mikey. Many of the developers who had worked on Pillars and/or the IE games no longer worked at Obsidian, or had never worked there.
Baldur’s Gate 1-2, for instance, were developed at BioWare. Chris Parker and Feargus Urquhart had co-founded Obsidian but had also produced the BG titles from Black Isle/Interplay. They were great sources of information on that side of the fence, and I reached out to James Ohlen, the director of both BG games, to gain an understanding of development from BioWare’s perspective. I also spoke with BG 2 writer David Gaider, who went on to write and direct several other notable RPGs while at BioWare.
With the Pillars franchise as the centerpiece of my story, I positioned the five IE games as the subjects of Pause Screen chapters. Pause Screens are like bonus chapters: They complement and expand on details told in the main story, but you can skip them. You really shouldn’t, but you can. My reasoning was that Pillars of Eternity was a contemporary franchise, and had been influenced by the IE games. Therefore, it made sense to tell the stories of Obsidian’s history and the Pillars franchise’s development first and foremost, with the development of the five IE games orbiting that story.
I formally introduced Pause Screens in Rocket Jump, although I’ve been experimenting with the content, form, and structure of bonus chapters since Stay Awhile and Listen: Book I in 2013. Each Pause Screen in BASS is either a narrative-style chapter, a Q-and-A interview, or an oral history. Rocket Jump had two oral histories. BASS has one, but it’s longer and more detailed than both of RJ’s put together.
Pause Screens in BASS explore additional topics as well. Let’s get into the book’s content, which includes the premiere of two new Shacknews feature, which I proposed and spearheaded.
As stated, I began interviews in February. They extended through mid-September, with both Obsidian and me taking occasional breaks to take care of other duties: They had a game, Pillars II, to ship, and I covered E3, launched a successful Kickstarter, and submitted final edits to two books: Point of Fate and Shovel Knight (Boss Fight Books).
I outlined BASS as I transcribed interviews. Slowly, the role of each chapter took shape. Before I break down content chapter by chapter, a word about how those sections are numbered. If you’re reading BASS on Shacknews, any chapter that doesn’t begin with “Pause Screen” is considered a main chapter, focused on the history of Obsidian and the making of Pillars of Eternity 1 and II. Shacknews’ internal numbering system for chapters works differently than my numbering system. My process is to reserve chapter numbers (e.g., Chapter 1, Chapter 9, Chapter 12, etc.) for “main” chapters. Pause Screens are unnumbered. Shack’s system automatically assigns a number to the beginning of each chapter, as seen in BASS’s table of contents on the site.
So, to me, Chapter 1 is “Leave or Die,” but to Shack’s internal system, that’s the second chapter: “2. Leave or Die.” BASS will eventually be published as a standalone book, and it will incorporate my numbering system to more overtly distinguish Pause Screens and main chapters.
With that said, here’s how each chapter shook out.
Pillars of Eternity 1 and II chapters. These include the Introduction and Epilogue. I focus on Pillars 1 and II, but other games over the course of Obsidian’s history (Knights of the Old Republic II, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Alpha Protocol, etc.) are covered to varying degrees. All of these chapters are written in narrative form to let you walk side by side with Obsidian’s developers as events unfold. I split each chapter into sections, which begin at headers, to better organize the story. I spoke with over 30 developers, and letting each of them talk in every chapter would have resulted in a tangled narrative that would have been no fun to unravel as a reader, much less as a writer. Therefore, most developers stick to their sections, with a few exceptions. Josh Sawyer, Pillars’ director, and Adam Brennecke, the franchise’s executive producer and lead programmer, pop up more often than most because they were involved in virtually every discipline and aspect of the franchise’s creation.
Pause Screen: World on Fire. An oral history of Fallout 1 and 2, and the single longest chapter of BASS. In addition to developers currently working for Obsidian—namely Fallout co-creators Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky—I contacted Chris Taylor, the game’s primary designer, and Interplay founder Brian Fargo for input. Fallout was not made with the Infinity Engine, but so many Fallout developers went on to work on IE games (artist and designer Scott Everts, writer and designer Chris Avellone, Black Isle director and Obsidian co-founder Feargus Urquhart, co-creator Tim Cain) that I felt the first two entries in the series, made by Interplay and Black Isle, respectively, warranted examination. Unless I’m overlooking another article or book, this chapter presents the most comprehensive overview of Fallout’s development in extant.
Pause Screen: Green Team. A narrative-style look at the development of Baldur’s Gate 1, written based on interviews with former BioWare director James Ohlen with plenty of input from Black Isle producers Chris Parker and Feargus Urquhart. I wrote this chapter in Texas over three mornings and early afternoons. It was one of my favorites to write because it gave me a chance to demonstrate how popular culture is a pond, and show how far one stone’s ripple effects can spread.
Pause Screen: Where Winter Never Ends. A narrative-style account of Icewind Dale 1 and 2. The first part focused on how a ragtag team of untested designers utilized an ad hoc-style approach to design. There was no director. The inmates largely ran the asylum, and the game they pieced together turned out really well. The second part focused on the relationship between Josh Sawyer and Feargus Urquhart, and Josh’s desire to stretch the envelope of fantasy stereotypes.
Pause Screen: Realmsplay. This chapter is almost as lengthy as “World on Fire.” It’s composed of four parts: a Q-and-A interview with former Wizards of the Coast acquisitions editor Philip Athans; a Q-and-A interview with Forgotten Realms creator and bestselling author Ed Greenwood; a narrative-style look at writing novels in the Forgotten Realms and Magic: The Gathering shared world settings; and a narrative-style interview with R. A. Salvatore. The second, third, and fourth parts consisted of previously published material that I combined because the Forgotten Realms and some of its most prolific authors were relevant to the Infinity Engine games, most of which were set in the Realms.
Pause Screen: Romancing the Throne. A Q-and-A interview with Baldur’s Gate 2 writer and BioWare designer/director David Gaider. I wanted to cover all five IE games, but I didn’t want to cover them all in the same way. “Green Team” offered a narrative-style view of how Baldur’s Gate 1 came together. For “Romancing the Throne,” I decided to talk with Gaider about BioWare culture and Baldur’s Gate 2’s development, with a focus on how romance became a staple of BioWare’s RPGs beginning with BG2. Our conversation was deep and fascinating, and makes for a good read.
Pause Screen: Long Table. This chapter is a transcript of the inaugural Shacknews Long Table, a panel-style discussion with game developers. I conducted this interview with seven developers from Obsidian (co-founders Feargus Urquhart and Chris Parker, director Josh Sawyer, exec. producer/lead programmer Adam Brennecke, narrative designer Carrie Patel, programmer Dan Spitzley, and artist/designer Scott Everts) on location at Obsidian on May 8, 2018. The conversation went nearly 90 minutes, and covered a range of topics from Obsidian’s history with RPGs, to the state of the genre, to what particular components make up an “Obsidian RPG.” Connected with the Shacknews Long Table is…
Pause Screen: 24 ‘Til Launch – Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. A week or so before Pillars II was set to launch, I got an idea. I asked my editor-in-chief, Asif Khan, if he would be willing to pay my way out to Obsidian’s headquarters in Irvine, California, to film a documentary about launching the game. The idea would be for Asif, lead video editor Greg Burke, and me to embed ourselves in Obsidian and interview developers before, during, and after launch to find out what goes on in a studio the day before a game premieres. Asif gave me the green light, and I was immediately set upon by huge case of nerves. What was I doing? I was no documentarian! How could I lead such a production? Then I reminded myself that change is scary, and that this move seemed like the right one for Shacknews, and for my career as a writer. I pride myself on trying new things, and directing a documentary was bound to be one of the biggest. I ran the idea by Mikey Dowling at Obsidian, who also gave me the all-clear. The 35-minute documentary-style feature that came out of our time at the office over May 7-8 is one of the best video features on Shacknews. I’m immensely proud of it, and couldn’t have done it without Greg’s and Asif’s help.
Pause Screen: Tim Donley’s Toy Story. A Q-and-A interview with Tim Donley, lead artist at Interplay on a number of RPG projects, about his time at Mattel before he entered the games industry. I love when I’m able to use Pause Screens to explore a developer’s career outside of games. Tim is an engaging and garrulous speaker, and made this interview a great read.
Pause Screen: Stone by Stone. A Q-and-A interview with developers of Planescape: Torment. I was able to run questions by Chris Avellone about Black Isle, Obsidian, and Pillars of Eternity, but his other writing duties—the ones that pay his bills—pulled him away from me before I could ask him about writing Planescape: Torment. I hope to revisit this topic with Chris down the road. In the meantime, I was looking at a Pause Screen that would be devoid of the feature most Planescape fans, who revere the game to this day for its plot and characters, would want to know about. So, I pivoted by writing an interview that explored elements of Planescape: Torment that haven’t gotten nearly as much attention over the years.
Pause Screen: Chopped Up. Q-and-A interview with John Romero. Yes, that John Romero. How does the co-founder of id Software and co-creator of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake factor into a book about RPGs? Because once upon a time he and Josh Sawyer, director of Icewind Dale 2 and the Pillars of Eternity franchise, worked together to create a new entry in the Gauntlet franchise. Read all about it in “Chopped Up.”
Pause Screen: In the Guts of Game Design and Fighting Randomness. Q-and-A interviews with Josh Sawyer and Feargus Urquhart, respectively. These interviews round out BASS’s Pause Screen by talking with Josh about the nitty-gritty of RPG design, and with Feargus about how Obsidian crowdfunded Pillars of Eternity II and where he hopes to take the company in the future.
Writing Beneath a Starless Sky was nothing less than a Herculean effort, but one of which I am tremendously proud. I don’t think I’ll be able to top it by writing an even longer Shacknews Long Read for a while. BASS took a lot out of me, but it was worth the exhaustion. I could have downsized this project significantly, but I wanted to think big. (Rest assured the next Long is significantly shorter, but no less focused and compelling.)
Thanks for hanging out while I write even more about these RPGs. I hope you enjoyed—or will enjoy—Beneath a Starless Sky.