Mateusz Felczak

Mateusz Felczak, PhD, works at the SWPS University in Warsaw, Poland. His research interests include eSports, streaming media, Infinity Engine modding, postcolonial theory and cognitive capitalism. Member of the Games Research Centre at the Jagiellonian University.

Contact information:
mfelczak at

Dungeon Pirates of the Postcolonial Seas. Domination, Necropolitics, Subsumption and Critical Play in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire

by Mateusz Felczak


This paper applies a postcolonial framework inspired by the ideas of Achille Mbembe to analyze Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, a cRPG which directly approaches topics of colonialism in the context of a fantasy setting with strong historical inspirations. The article juxtaposes Deadfire’s gameplay formula which stems from AD&D-based Infinity Engine games with the arguably self-conscious narrative structure criticizing the colonial relations. Building on three elements of an interpretational framework: agonistic domination, necropolitical subjugation and totalizing subsumption, the narrative potential for critical play is mapped against the playful structure of more traditional, power-fantasy-inducing cRPG mechanics.

Keywords: postcolonialism, Achille Mbembe, necropolitics, cRPG, critical play, exploitation, Pillars of Eternity


1. Introduction

Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire (Obsidian Entertainment, 2018) is a case of a relatively large-scale project which consciously approaches the themes of colonial exploitation while retaining the traditional gameplay framework of a computer role-playing game based on the core design principles of Infinity Engine titles such as Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series. Thus, Deadfire can be considered a hybrid which implements traditional cRPG mechanics (mainly party-based and real time with pause combat) with modernized graphic and unorthodox quest design.

The unique features of PoE2: Deadfire and its three official expansions (Beast of Winter; Seeker, Slayer, Survivor; The Forgotten Sanctum) warrant a closer look on their own, but a detailed analysis of the Pillars franchise may contribute to the ongoing debates in game studies, especially these concerning imperial imagination and post-colonial tropes (Mukherjee, 2017; Mukherjee & Hammar, 2018). Specifically, in this article I would like to open discussion on two broader research questions: 1) how can a large-scale cRPG game depict a fictitious colonial world which claims to build on historical sources, all while maintaining commercial ambitions for reaching broader audiences than its counterparts in the serious games genre? 2) to what extent can Deadfire be considered an example of consciously designed critical play (Flanagan, 2009), and what does it bring to the current debates on postcolonialism in game studies? To do so, I will analyze the chosen elements of PoE2: Deadfire design using the theoretical tools developed by Achille Mbembe and propose my own critical framework based on his works, which could be used to assess other digital games dealing with postcolonial topics. Building on works of Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault -- influential and radical thinkers who engaged with the topics of both economic and corporeal oppression, I would argue that Mbembe created a toolkit which can be especially useful in assessing conflict-driven narratives of modern-day digital games. His study of the biopolitical law, driven by the relentless “logic” of control and subjugation, aptly elucidates the intricacies of systemic colonial exploitation. Such has also been the declared goal of the Obsidian development team, with colonialism being in the center of the narrative of both Pillars games (Miller, 2018). This kind of explicit approach is still very rare outside the realm of small-scale independent game projects, and the in-depth analysis of both gameplay and players’ reception of the Pillars of Eternity games may provide an insight into new interactive projects directly engaging with (post)colonial tropes. It may also inform how to understand related games which aspire to employ elements of critical play. Thus, the rationale behind using postcolonial theory to analyze these particular titles is a simple one. If, according to the popular interpretation, all postcolonial theories “share a fundamental claim: that the world we inhabit is impossible to understand except in relationship to the history of imperialism and colonial rule” (Elam, 2019), then I argue that the Pillars games mirror this premise, and make it one of their core narrative design elements with regards to the fictitious land of Eora.

I would argue that Pillars of Eternity series in general, and PoE2: Deadfire in particular can be treated as breakthrough game design endeavors which try to directly address important -- albeit selected -- elements from the colonial history of the Renaissance era, and confront players with topics such as racism, slavery, economic and cultural exploitation by implementing a multi-layered fictional narrative. On the narrative level, the first game of the series established a network of colonial dependencies between the major political forces operating in the quasi-medieval setting. Deadfire plays with an unusual set of references regarding its worldbuilding, drawing on the historical inspirations concerning Polynesian and Maori (Morton, 2018) cultures, and constructing its main plotline around the conflict involving several factions which battle over the economic, cultural and military superiority over the titular archipelago. It can be argued that both RPGs are significantly different from the majority of digital games building on the (post)colonial tropes and thus they can be analyzed in the context of a potentially new creative avenue of game design -- one which strives to fulfill the ambitions of creating a commercially viable product, while simultaneously presenting a critical view on the mechanisms of colonial exploitation.

The overarching goal of the paper is to trace how a videogame which aspires to commercial success makes the effort to incorporate colonial tropes into its design, and what tools it implements to problematize the critical postcolonial stance in its gameplay. The article is composed of four parts. First, I provide a brief overview of the Pillars franchise and establish a connection between its core design premises and the ideas introduced by Mbembe. Next, I elaborate on the three elements of my interpretational framework, which I name agonistic domination, necropolitical subjugation and totalizing subsumption. These are the labels I provide for particular elements of colonial-themed design in PoE2: Deadfire, and each of them encompasses different subsets of mechanics and narrative which altogether form a cohesive gameplay experience. Through such distinction, the creative vision and persuasive design of the game are dissected and scrutinized through the lenses of postcolonial critique provided by the author of Necropolitics.

2. Postcolonialism, Mbembe and dungeon pirates

There is a growing volume of game studies literature that uses postcolonial theories as a means of critiquing of videogames. Literary theory and cultural studies tools are used to dismantle the postcolonial themes of orientalism, race, empire, cartography, hybridity and identity in videogames (see for example Magnet, 2006; Martin, 2018; Mukherjee, 2017; Mukherjee & Hammar, 2018; Murray, 2018; Shaw, 2015) which can be traced in popular high-budget titles (with iconic examples of the Age of Empires or Civilization series) as well as in independent productions. The rising awareness of such traits, along with the success of crowdfunding campaigns which allow for large-scale independent products to be shipped, leads to the emergence of titles that present a certain level of self-awareness when it comes to the topic of postcolonialism.

The Pillars of Eternity series began as a crowdfunded project aimed at reviving the mechanical and graphical convention of party-based isometric cRPGs, especially from the period of Infinity Engine titles. The keyword used in the marketing campaign for the first game was “spiritual successor,” which suggested that the new Obsidian project would not only be inspired by the mechanical, narrative and worldbuilding conventions of the aforementioned titles, but would also aspire to achieve something more: a design approach that stemmed from one of the most successful digital adaptations of a tabletop Dungeons & Dragons system. Josh Sawyer, a director, lead designer and writer for the first Pillars of Eternity, had extensive experience as a designer (Icewind Dale) and lead designer (Icewind Dale II, Neverwinter Nights 2) on several successful games based on the Wizards of the Coast / Hasbro AD&D license. However, the Pillars games did not acquire rights to this popular system, and instead relied on a brand-new setting of a land called Eora; with its own rich and complicated history of ethnic, economic and religious conflicts. Whereas the first iteration of the series explored well-known tropes of pseudo-medieval, sword & magic and quasi-feudal power relations between the various subjects and in-game factions, the second game, Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, modified the setting quite drastically. The focus shifted from yet another iteration of a fantasy neverland into a colonial- and pirate-themed age of exploration, mixed with several droplets from the fantasy-like lore from the first game. Both Pillars games are party-based cRPGs with a top-down perspective and real-time combat featuring a pause function, with Deadfire offering an optional turn-based mode. The player-character is called the Watcher, and the main plot of the second iteration of the series revolves around the hunt for a god-inhabited statue wreaking havoc in the titular Deadfire Archipelago. To achieve the game’s main narrative goal, players must navigate the complex environmental, military, political and cultural landscapes actively shaped by the main four factions operating in the area.

To perform an in-depth close reading of Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, I propose a framework inspired by the works of a Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, whose interpretation of key theoretical concepts guides me through the three stages of colonial process presented in the Deadfire: agonistic domination, necropolitical subjugation, and totalizing subsumption. These stages are tied to the right to exercise violence and changes pertaining the authority which oversees this right.

Mbembe is perhaps best known for the idea of necropolitics, a theoretical concept that he succinctly defines as “subjugation of life to the power of death,” which “profoundly reconfigures the relations among resistance, sacrifice, and terror” (Mbembe, 2003, p. 39). It is important to note that Necropolitics is the title of both Mbembe’s seminal essay introducing this term (translated to English in 2003), and the newest English translation of his book Politiques de l’inimitié (2018). However, the theoretical underpinnings of the latter work are more tightly connected to the ideas developed by Frantz Fanon, and the focus of The Society of Enmity (which was the initial English title of an excerpt translated for the Radical Philosophy journal in 2016) is slightly shifted towards the historical reflection on Africa’s colonial past.

In the press material released prior to the game’s launch, Deadfire was advertised as a title which consciously and willfully confronts the history of colonial exploitation and weaves its elements into its fantasy-esque setting. Sawyer explicitly stated that at Obsidian Entertainment, “we’re definitely trying to draw connections to things like the East India Trading Company, and various Belgian and Dutch trading firms as well” (Benson, 2017). The detrimental influence of colonization on European Renaissance in the cultural and social fields has been noted by historians (W. D. Mignolo, 2016). The creators of the PoE franchise seem to be aware of the lasting consequences of colonization and wanted to acquaint the players exploring the fictional Deadfire archipelago with them. In the interviews they explicitly stated that for the second Pillars game “we're getting into the age of exploration and colonization and the expansion of imperialist powers” (Ricchiuto, 2017). The settings of both games were largely built on the premise of a violent clash between the military powers over a particular piece of land. As Sawyer goes on to explain, “the Dyrwood has already been colonized and that was the setting for Pillars I, but Deadfire is currently being colonized and sort of imperialist forces are moving in and either trying to set up their own colonies or set up their own deals with the native cultures for you know whether its shipping rights or access to resources or various things” (Ricchiuto, 2017).

Given the history of the franchise and outspoken ambitions of its creators, in this analysis I decided to juxtapose two theoretical perspectives: one focused on how videogames can be designed “for artistic, political, and social critique or intervention, in order to propose ways of understanding larger cultural issues as well as the games themselves” (Flanagan, 2009, p. 2), and the other investigating “politics of the living beyond humanism” (Mbembe, 2019, p. 2) in the modern postcolonial framework which can be applied both to historic and present-day cultural discourses. To this end, I treat the term “critical play” broadly, without many references to Flanagan’s examples of playful artistic interventions. Instead, I am interested in the interplay between the critical (and, to some extent, self-conscious) game design and the actual agency offered by the game to pursue certain ethical, political and military goals. I would argue that the three key elements of the interpretative framework employed to analyze the Pillars franchise -- domination, subjugation and subsumption -- can also be applied to assess the modern-day mid- and high-budget games which aim to utilize some critical elements to their (pseudo)historical narratives. I also believe that the insight based on the in-depth reading of Mbembe -- whose strong stance on topics concerning the very core values of human dignity in the context of broader socio-political analysis invited not only postcolonial, but also powerful decolonial (i.e. non-canonical) readings (see Sithole, 2014) -- could become a meaningful contribution to the already existing body of well-established postcolonial theories used by game studies scholars.

Thus, this article aims to contribute to the existing debates in the field by assessing the liminal case study of a title which merges well-established narrative and gameplay conventions of Infinity Engine games (and their significant cultural impact connected with Dungeons & Dragons) with arguably self-conscious, critical design touching upon subjects such as race, social hierarchy as well as economic and cultural inequality. I argue that reading Deadfire through a postcolonial lens highlights how heroic, power fantasy tropes in cRPGs can be intertwined with the game’s persuasive interventions aimed at fostering critical reflection on historic and contemporary sociopolitical issues.

3. Agonistic domination

The first framework to assess the gameplay in PoE2 encompasses ways of achieving control of the gameplay through exploiting competitive aspects of the game mechanics -- hence the name agonistic domination, which builds on Roger Caillois’ famous notion of pursuing success in play through direct rivalry (Caillois, 1961). Mbembe identifies domination among the two other conditions which characterize an enslaved subject: natal alienation and social death (Mbembe, 2003, p. 21). An “absolute domination” is tied to “loss of a ‘home’,” and thus signifies spatial detachment from a place which has a name and concrete location. Agency in Deadfire is primarily negotiated along this framework, which requires liberal application of violence resulting in a separation of the in-game subjects (player characters, recruitable companions and various NPCs) from any stable cultural identities. The game world is full of exiles, economically or racially discriminated individuals or misunderstood characters with ambitions and life goals which go against the social dogma.

In Deadfire, the main quest is inextricably tied to one of the four major factions fighting over the control of the Archipelago. Each has its own interest, and most implement some sort of colonial violence -- whether in the form of military occupation, aggressive trade or exploiting techno-cultural domination. There is a meaningful discrepancy between the amount of freedom to exert violence in the territories controlled by the game’s factions and in the areas located outside their interests. While tampering with the islands under the influence of Huana, Royal Deadfire Company, Príncipi sen Patrena or Vailian Trading Company has serious narrative consequences (for example, many quests are mutually exclusive), violent free-roaming in West Wakara Reef, Razai Pasage or The Burning Shoals goes largely unnoticed by the game’s political and military forces. Using the terminology introduced by Shoshana Magnet, one can say that the peripheral islands which constitute the vast portion of the Archipelago can be labeled as gamescapes, as they are “dynamic and require the active involvement of the player in their construction” (Magnet, 2006, p. 143). Conversely, the “civilized” parts of the Deadfire remain -- perhaps paradoxically -- largely agnostic to the players’ actions and retain their political and structural properties throughout the game. For example, players can help the starving families in the Gullet (the poorest district of Neketaka) or resolve peacefully the inner tribal conflicts in Tikawara, but this does not expound the inherent structural problems with social hierarchies, inequity, defunct laws and political turmoil in the Archipelago. Social and political landscape, contrary to the gamescape, cannot be altered, which leads to numerous concerns expressed by the players on the official game’s Reddit and forums. Players’ dissatisfaction pertains mainly to the inconsequential agency; as the user ThePatrician25 notes, “if you go to Ukaizo alone without the help of a faction, the Deadfire Archipelago is thrown into chaos and war regardless of what you did during your playthrough; you cannot affect this in the slightest. You'd imagine that the Príncipi sen Patrena would be severely weakened if not exterminated altogether if you wipe out their entire leadership and hunt down literally hundreds of their ships, but apparently that's not the case, and it's nonsensical.” [1] Failing the players’ expectations in that regard and deliberately signaling critical flaws of each and every faction directly subverts the heroic tropes of epic gaming narratives. Even if the players decide not to team up with any of the Deadfire’s major political forces and reach the final destination through their own means, the game’s epilogues still are far from delivering a happy ending. PoE 2 tries to escape the pitfalls of perpetuating the colonial image of “good natives” posed against their aggressive counterparts, although the game’s main plot -- a search for legendary place named Ukaizo, a lost city of the Huana -- nevertheless capitalizes on the colonial fantasies of an exotic, yet hidden, paradise. As noted by Richard Grove in his book on “green” imperialism, “tropical environment was increasingly utilized as the symbolic location for the idealized landscapes and aspirations of the western imagination” (Grove, 1995, p. 3), and both graphic and narrative elements of the second Pillars game are in line with that trope.

“Imagine how many Rauataians we could feed with plantations here” [2]

In the players’ journal, quests are clearly divided into several categories: the main storyline, factions (four separate instances), each of the three expansions, generic quests and tasks. Through such division, the game discloses a hierarchy of actions to be performed in order to advance towards the game’s goals. The main storyline and the most rewarding quests are tied to factions which are synonymous with political and economic powers fighting for the control over the titular Archipelago. Sawyer discloses the agonistic principle of such a design by stating that “each of the colonial cultures has a different interest in the area. They overlap a little bit, and they are in direct competition” (Benson, 2017). The subsequent analysis of the game’s quest design would be directly linked to the analysis of the right to use different measures to solve particular tasks, usually in accordance with the values and interests aligned with one of the factions. The framework which can be applied to the aforementioned game’s logic essentially revolves around exploiting resources -- from the excavation of valuable ores to establishing trading outposts and supervising laborers. The interconnection of human and non-human subjects forced under subordination of the competing factions in Deadfire resonates with Mbembe’s concept of colonial plantation. According to him, it is “not merely an economic measure,” but also represents an effort to transform bodies “into an available reserve or stock” (Mbembe, 2019, p. 10). This goes in line with the biopolitical premises which can be identified in VTC and Royal Deadfire Company’s questlines. The in-game dialogue involving the representatives of these two factions strongly echoes the colonial epistemic division between the humans and the “nature” (W. Mignolo & Walsh, 2018, pp. 153-154), which must be tamed and taken care of in a proper manner and preferably only by people with a fitting, “civilized” background. Rauatai’s Fleet Master Okaya explicitly says that “we have as much right to this land [i.e. Deadfire Archipelago] as they [the Huana] do. If they plan to do nothing with it, it’s our duty to steward it for them.” To this end, players’ character can express either contempt or acquiescence, with the latter option stating that “Rauatai’s intervention will be a net good in time,” which is flagged as a “diplomatic” choice and makes the particular chain of quests more accessible through the dialogue options. Again, following the logic of compliance with colonial rationale brings not only profits measured by the potential experience points and items acquired through new quests, but also enriches the gameplay experience through the acquisition of epistemic power. Those who are willing to brave the walls of text rationalizing colonial exploitation without any interruption are rewarded by getting a better understanding of game’s narrative as such. Non serviam is not a viable option; the potential to resist joining in the colonial fray is signaled in the dialogues, but never truly fleshed out through the allowed in-game actions.

Príncipi and Huana’s routes conversely “thrived by excreting those who were, in several regards, deemed superfluous, a surfeit within the colonizing nations” (Mbembe, 2019), even if -- as in the case of Huana -- the racial and class politics are identified as intrinsic to the “indigenous,” hierarchical tribal structure. Forceful imposition of a preferred social and economic structure over a given territory also belongs to the recurrent themes of the game, and factions provide a cohesive narrative scaffolding to such policies.

In some aspects, Deadfire shares many traits with games exploring settler colonialism tropes, especially in its depiction of “a continual process in which settlers seek to expand their territory at the expense of indigenous lives and their ancestral connections to specific places” (Euteneuer, 2018, p. 4), as settler colonialism is defined. Thomas Lecaque observes that in one of the most successful mainstream RPG games, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios 2011), “all of the factions and groups the player can interact with are, on one level or another, settler societies established through the destruction of the native cultures,” and the second iteration of Pillars of Eternity is not much different in that regard. In the Deadfire Archipelago only the native Huana somehow struggle to adopt the agonistic modes of social and political interaction imposed by the other factions, and even they have to face divisive forces within their own ranks, as is proven in the players’ confrontation with the Wahaki tribe. The entanglement of slavery and agonistic exploitation -- themes which are central in the whole Huana questline -- echo Mbembe’s observation on the colonialism as something which “posited the issue of contingent human violence” (Mbembe, 2001, p. 13). What is more, the connection between “cultivating” and overseeing livelihood of Deadfire’s indigenous inhabitants and the exploitation of resources of the land is not limited to agriculture, minerals, ores and livestock. The urge to drive other party away from the land -- the chief premise of settler colonialism -- can be identified as a predominant driving force behind the politics of Rauatai, that is Royal Deadfire Company faction. Throughout the course of main storyline, the player must reclaim territories previously occupied by the RDF (especially the Hasongo island, which is crucial to the main plot). Even though the outcome of these actions may be alleviated by not siding with Rauataians, player’s support for the territorial expansion favored by RDF is inevitable. The logic of agonistic domination is exerted in the fashion inherited from the mechanics of Infinity Engine games -- to bring peace on a given land, players must eradicate all the opposing forces, only later (optionally) learning about their right to be there in the first place. Vailian Trading Company very much follows “the [settler colonialism] idea that the land and its resources belong to those who seek to improve it” (Euteneuer, 2018, p. 9), albeit with a scientific twist. The narrative portrayal of this particular faction bears some resemblance to historic colonial strategies employed by Hispanic Monarchy during its conquest of the Americas. As noted by Yolanda Fabiola Orquera: “Spain imposed its cognitive paradigm over local preexistent communities, using 'scientific' reasons to refuse the validity of their forms of thinking and converting them into residual knowledge” (Orquera, 2007, p. 168). Deadfire echoes this approach in its take on the Trading Company, mixing it with a number of ibero-romanian cultural traits -- VTC employees speak with a distinct, Italian/Spanish-esque accent and use equipment modelled largely after weapons used by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. Ignato Castol, head of the VTC, wishes to conduct experiments on the unique natural resources scattered among the indigenous lands in order to pursue rapid advancements in medicine, technology, and animancy, which stands for a magic-like ability to communicate with souls. However, during the course of VTC missions it is revealed that the Company’s Congress, operating on terms similar to modern capitalist supervisory boards, merely wishes to strengthen the Company’s military power. As a result, Castol becomes a subject of several power plays and intrigues which, left to the players’ discretion, may even lead to his dismission and prompt banishment. Positioning even the major NPCs as commodified bodies in the high-level diplomatic power games in Deadfire subverts the players’ heroic agency and points towards the next important aspect of game design: the necropolitical liminality of the interactive subjects inhabiting the Archipelago.

4. Necropolitical subjugation

In the center of post-Foucaultian philosophy of Mbembe lies necropolitics, which can also be understood as “symbiotic co-presence of life and death” (Haritaworn, Kuntsman, & Posocco, 2014, p.2). In Deadfire lives of the others are weighted on the scales of profit, oftentimes measured against the interests of the living. The main narrative gives players a suitable excuse for drastic measures (the party is chasing a gigantic god-operated statue which wracks havoc across the whole Archipelago) but the actual quest design is largely detached from the heroic tropes. To eventually become saviors of humankind, players need to accumulate certain amount of resources, which is nearly impossible without exerting extreme violence towards the inhabitants of the Deadfire Islands.

“Everyone is rich, no one is hungry!” [3]

An important element of gameplay in Deadfire are the so-called bounties -- a lengthy series of assassination mini-quests commissioned by various agents. Some are directly tied to one of the factions, but many are simply orchestrated personal vendettas. All bounties have similar quest structure: players are provided with approximate geographical coordinates and vague description of the targets, which helps to assess the difficulty of the upcoming encounter. The mechanics behind bounties is in fact the model example of Deadfire’s quest design: most offer non-violent solutions, but they require a specific check, usually measured against numerical value of a passive skill, oftentimes belonging to the diplomacy-bluff-intimidate triage. There are also certain benefits coming from the origin, race and profession (class) of the characters, albeit all of these measures finally serve one purpose: to convince the others to subsume to the will of one of the factions whose questline players currently pursue. The open-ended narrative design in Deadfire warrants that it is profitable to pursuit quest of the competing factions up to the point of mutual exclusivity. The lives of those that need to be killed are sometimes referred to as obstacles in the omnipresent rule of the market. Commissioning the bounty to kill Urnox Breinth, a Goldpackt knight named Okauro explicitly says that “we have forged a coin bond to see him killed,” and “the coin does not wish him to stifle trade.” Bounties can be taken from all factions without influencing the “Relations” tab, even though they serve conflicting interests of the key parties fighting for the control over the Archipelago. In the end, players’ parties function similarly to the unsupervised military forces, “armed formations acting or not behind the mask of the state,” with “the right to wage war” and eventually transforming “war and terror (…) into modes of production” (Mbembe, 2019, p. 36).

There is a quest involving slave traders on an island named Crookspur. Players have the option to either support the traders, free the slaves without resolving to violence, or simply eradicate all the people involved in the process, which effectively means leaving an island with one single person alive -- the “neutral” merchant near the sea shore. There is also an interesting legal aspect of the quest -- players can learn that in the Deadfire archipelago the slavery itself is not illegal; only the human trafficking and trading is frowned upon and punished according to the common codes of conduct. This distinction partially resonates with the historical pirates, which by no means presented a unified stance towards slavery. Peter Leeson succinctly sums up the (pop)cultural image of pirates as progressive and inclusive when it comes to ethnicity or skin color: "some pirates participated in the slave trade. Others granted equal rights to blacks and whites aboard their ships" (Leeson, 2009, p. 21). While on several occasions the in-game narrative ridicules slave owners, there are virtually no long-term consequences associated with players taking their side other than the automatic failure of one chain of quests associated with Huana faction path. The balanced approach to the game’s mechanics, which theoretically makes all playable races and character stats equally effective during gameplay, trickles down to the game’s narrative, effectively flattening the consequences of players’ actions in favor of the seamless gameplay experience.

There is a discrepancy between the rewards for choosing “good” (free the enslaved) and “bad” (aid the traders) paths, although the difference measured in experience points is negligible. This is yet another difference between the Infinity Engine games and the Pillars of Eternity series: the “correct” path in Deadfire is not as disproportionately more beneficial than the “evil” path, as is the case in Baldur’s Gate games. Players can decide whether to back Principi in their business endeavors which along with exploring ancient ruins to obtain artifacts leading to great treasures also involve slave trade. Although, in congruence with the Deadfire's leitmotiv, the pirate faction covers both sides of moral spectrum: while captain Furrante wishes to support Crookspur slave traders, captain Aeldys offers the party a possibility to directly dismantle the operation and ruin Furrante's exploitative economic scheme. Deadfire’s quest structure also touches upon racial discrimination, albeit in a peculiarly light-hearted way, especially given the weight of other sensitive topics explored elsewhere in the narrative. Master Kua, the head of Crookspur, belongs to the race of Orlans, who due to their physique and hobbit-like demeanor are openly mocked by numerous characters in Deadfire -- including the good-inclined “canon” companion from the first game, Edér Teylecg. This element highlights the other aspect of necropolitical subjugation, which is the specific use of humor and satire to mask a particular inequality produced by the oppressive colonial system. Mbembe elaborates on the racial outcasts employed in the machinery of colonial exploitation, noting:

Side by side with humanity’s other rejects (those expropriated after the enclosure of the commons, peons and deported criminals, impressed sailors on board military and commercial marines, reprobates of radical religious sects, pirates and buccaneers, those absent without leave and deserters of every name under the sun), Negroes are located throughout the length and breadth of the new commercial routes, in ports, on boats, everywhere that forests must be cut back, tobacco produced, cotton grown, sugar cane cut, rum made, ingots transported, and furs, fish, sugar, and other products manufactured (Mbembe, 2019, p. 158).

Deadfire factions, barring few borderline cases, are not racist in terms of employing manpower on proto-capitalist terms. Players can find Humans working for Aumana-dominated Royal Deadfire Company, the Vailian Republics employ Dwarves among their ranks, and Principi are historically a mixed bunch -- although their canonical heritage suggests a certain level of privilege for white-skinned Humans. The ethnic tensions are presented predominantly as a problem tied to caste systems of races indigenous to the Archipelago. However, the critique of the social hierarchical structure of the Huana, despite being signaled in the narrative (especially during the players’ optional investigation of the “disaster relief” housing in Sayuka), remains on the margins of the actual gameplay. The tensions between the inhabitants of the “Huana longhouse,” who come from different casts and are unable to resolve the structural societal inequalities in the context of an emergency are only a narrative backdrop optionally explored in the dialogue. This dialogue almost stands in direct opposition to the critical underpinnings of key postcolonial notions, stating the need to give voice and agency to the subjugated and oppressed. Here, the subalterns -- to use the famous term employed by Gayatri Spivak -- truly do not speak, as their underprivileged predicament, conditioned both by the colonial subjugation (in this case: by the Rauataians owning the town of Sayuka) and the petrified state of the inequal societal relations effectively alleviates any form of meaningful in-game agency that could alter their state. The vast majority of the gameplay is framed in terms of economic, proto-capitalist exploitation, which presumably remains blind to the biological features. Interestingly, this is also true for subjects which fall into the fantasy category of the living dead.

“What the goddess of Death has marked, I will leave untouched” [4]

Mbembe notes that necropolitics pertains matters of both the living and the dead, and the function of the latter is to remind the living about the universal laws imposed on them by the various regimes of power. In Deadfire, all cities are characterized by the set of metadata, which are displayed in a separate section of the visual interface of a schematic, hand-drawn mini map. They include the following categories: population, religions, imports, exports, government, ruler and races. Such data serve two purposes. First, players can assess the political situation beforehand and use that information to their benefit during the quests. Second, these categories put a certain city on a geopolitical map -- for example, the goods listed in the imports/exports sections can assist players in their long-term decisions whether to support a certain faction or not. However, there is one city hub (a mockery of the game’s own economy, placed in the remote region of the map), the city of undead named Splintered Reef which has question marks in the place of economic statistics. It has a top-down architecture, mirroring the capital city of the Archipelago - Neketaka. Similar to the main urban hub of the Archipelago, its uppermost parts are initially unreachable; players must battle their way through the sequence of districts to finally confront the vampire Menzzago, an ominous ruling figure which oversees the premises with his governmental authority. After resolving the quest’s plotline, players can recruit one of the undead inhabitants of the island into their crew.

What’s more, the Splintered Reef is a good example how cities operate in Deadfire mainly through their mechanical façade: even after complete eradication of all the island’s inhabitants (barring the token survivor) players can access the special interface menu available in “The Pickled Eel” tavern which allows for selling and obtaining supplies, re-training NPCs and recruiting new team members as mercenaries. The basic economic and mechanic premises of the city function with or without the people. Although it may be a simple oversight on the developers’ side, this unusual fact is in line with the colonial logic of material subsumption. In their spatial analysis of cities in selected single-player fantasy RPGs, Daniel Vella and Krista Giappone observed that they “reflect a particular cultural understanding of the lived city space” (Vella & Bonello Rutter Giappone, 2018). The common denominator for cities in those titles was identified as a specific type of pre-industrial neomedievalism, which manifested in the specific use of the cities by the players: “it is the experienced functionality of the in-game city space, then, that carries semiotic significance.” Deadfire’s Splintered Reef city thus fulfills its purpose -- and retains the meaning of being a city proper -- despite the status of its inhabitants. The chief premise behind the economical raison d'être of a city does not vary according to the location, ownership or the type of business supporting a particular city. Players are free to pursue their goals in the form of trading and exchange regardless of their actual actions or moral choices. The merchants on Crookspur’s beach will commence business as usual even if the players decide to slay every slave trader on the Island, and the tavern in which players killed all the undead is still able to offer something to the party -- for a fixed amount of coin, of course.

Another aspect of necropolitical subjugation in Deadfire manifests in the narrative entanglement of scientific, magical and economic interests connected with a special resource called adra. This organic material crystalline [5], especially in its luminous form, is a powerful resource able to shift the scales of dominance over the whole archipelago. The conflict centered on the issue of how to make use of adra constructs one of the most important conundrums for key political and military forces in the game. VTC concentrates its efforts on its efficient extraction in order to conduct scientific experiments on the mineral’s special abilities, which may ultimately enable to build ultra-mobile war fleet. Deadfire plays with the trope of a natural resource which is simultaneously poison and medicine, a pharmakon of sorts (Mbembe, 2019, p. 6) -- the abundance of luminous adra can boost the economy of the Archipelago, but also ignite conflicts regarding the control of the deposits and methods of its usage. The interplay between the economy, life and death lies at the core of issues explored in the Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire.

One of the most important deviations from the Dungeons & Dragons formula and Infinity Engine games in the Pillars series is how experience points are earned. Classic isometric RPGs usually rewarded every enemy killed with a fixed experience gain. The occasional departures from this rule were made in direct relation to maintaining game balance -- for example, Icewind Dale II introduced diminishing rewards for eradicating monsters which have too low level relative to the level of players’ parties. Instead, the Pillars series incentivizes exploration and completing quests, which are the two main activities yielding significant experience gains. However, both Pillars games grant experience for killing up to a certain point, measured by the in-game encyclopedia (named “cyclopedia”). The mechanism is quite simple and goes well with the historic (and colonial) notion of sampling, collecting and processing knowledge as well as material artifacts harvested from the extinguished creatures. Each type of enemy creature has a separate entry in the cyclopedia, which is filled with information every time a certain species is killed by the party. When the indicator reaches 100%, the party no longer receives any experience points for dealing with additional enemies of a certain type. There are two main things to take into consideration. First, all enemies in the Pillars of Eternity series are treated as subjects of algorithmic control (see Švelch, 2013) -- they are quantifiable objects existing in the ready-for-death, necropolitical state. The AI animates them only in the presence of players, and (with small exceptions) they do not respawn, eagerly awaiting the conquering strike of the players’ party. Second, the encyclopedia of monsters includes “Kith” category, which stands for six playable humanoid races. This discursively equates human enemies with other monstrous creatures as a potential resource of experience points and items, further strengthening the proto-capitalist biopolitics arc in Deadfire. Third, the notion of gradually filling the catalogue of slayed creatures with new knowledge corresponds with the colonial (and post-Enlightment) sentiment of collecting, preserving and cataloguing “foreign curiosities” for the owner’s pleasure (Pomian, 1990).

5. Totalizing subsumption

The term “subsumption” has been extensively used in Marxist thought to describe the ways in which capital takes over the economic process (Fumagalli, 2015; Vrousalis, 2018). Here, I propose to join this meaning with the postcolonial discourse of appropriation and achieving ownership of both human and non-human subjects. In Deadfire’s gameplay, this manifests in the mechanics that allow seizure over large areas of land along with their resources and inhabitants. The first one involves a well-established trope of a treasure map -- or, at least, an effort to subsume the newly explored territories to the logic of economy and material exploitation.

“Were they easy to find, they’d be called the charted islands” [6]

Deadfire employs two main visual perspectives. First one is nearly identical with isometric view used in the Infinity Engine games, with top-down camera and RTS-like control over the players’ party. The second one is an overworld map, where isometric approximation is replaced with schematic icons travelling through a simplified world map. There, party members are represented by a portrait of the main protagonist, and naval exploration is depicted by a ship icon moving through the game’s titular archipelago. The overworld mode employs mechanics which equate colonial presence with spatial ownership, manifesting in the automatized process of harvesting goods and claim-naming the newly “discovered” islands of the Deadfire Archipelago. This mechanism is affiliated with the notion of flag-claiming, which in the context of videogames Souvik Mukherjee juxtaposes with British colonial practice of labeling and (re)naming the conquered land as means of exerting forceful legal domination (Mukherjee, 2018, p. 5). The islands of the Deadfire Archipelago are studded with icons representing ponds (source of water) and blossoming trees (source of fruits) -- the only thing needed to claim and transfer them to the players’ ship inventory is to appear in their vicinity; “harvesting” is automated through the means of spatial proximity. This transformative production of the in-game space mirrors Mbembe’s take on colonial occupation:

The writing of new spatial relations (territorialization) ultimately amounted to the production of boundaries and hierarchies, zones and enclaves; the subversion of existing property arrangements; the differential classification of people; resource extraction; and, finally, the manufacturing of a large reservoir of cultural imaginaries (Mbembe, 2019, p. 79).

However, contrary to Mbembe’s take on the spatialization of the colonized landscape, the “charted” territory of Deadfire remains uninhabited regardless of the players’ efforts to catalogue and subjugate the conquered lands. “Named” islands do not get claimed in any way that would be substantial from the standpoint of the game’s mechanics or balance of powers. Players are spared the projected consequences of damages to the natural environment and harm to the indigenous inhabitants of the freshly acquired lands; no ancient ruins are purged to make way for the factories, no natural wonder is erased to make way for pasture lands or mines. In that regard, on the map interface level Deadfire resists even the playful “moments of gaming actions” (Lammes & Smale, 2018, p. 4) that players can exert in other games inviting postcolonial reading, such as Civilization VI.

In that context, it is important to note that the abundance of resources necessary to maintain ship travel quickly makes exploration of smaller islands less profitable. To incentivize players not to leave any piece of Deadfire untouched, there is a special quest chain named “Mapping the Archipelago.” In the game’s main city hub, Neketaka, there is an NPC named Sanza, who eagerly pays significant money (and grants experience points) to the players wishing to embark on a journey to discover and name the uncharted islands. Each of the five mapping quests is completed upon fully exploring the given region, which usually means that in order to name the key location and complete the quest players need to enter, plunder and kill all the enemies in the mini-dungeon located somewhere on the main island. Thus, exploration is rewarded predominantly when paired with violence: a small amount of experience points rewarded upon entering a new location is negligible. Deadfire also plays with the common cartographic trope in videogames: maps display only functional objects and places, and players are the sole agents who are capable of a successful exploration. In the second iteration of the Pillars series this game design practice goes in hand with the discourses of sovereignty and power -- even though key forces of the Archipelago are aware of the treasures and goods laying in the unexplored territories (the main quest and axis of the conflict between the factions revolves around the search for the quasi-mythical Ukaizo), only selected groups are capable of achieving the goal of exerting agonistic domination over the given territory. As Majkowski puts it, “the knowledge of the indigenous population means nothing: only the protagonist (and the player) has the ability to make discoveries, as the act is directly related to marking newly-located places on the map that only the player can access” (Majkowski, 2016, p. 56). The originality of the narrative in Deadfire lies in the fact that players have the same goal as all the factions: to seize the Ukaizo also means to finally confront a superpower which in the game’s narrative exposition destroys the lands acquired by the protagonist in the previous iteration of the series.

The territorial discourse permeating the quest design in Deadfire has also been identified as a deliberate design decision. According to Sawyer, “each of the colonial cultures has a different interest in the area. They overlap a little bit, and they are in direct competition” (Benson, 2017). Thus, mapping the uncharted islands is only one of the games’ side quests, but the division between the “landscape” exploration of the city hubs and “gamescape” conquest of the peripheral islands persuasively delineates the borders of player’s agency in Deadfire. In this regard, the second Pillars game shares some traits with Here Be Dragons (Red Zero Games, 2019), in which a whole game is a living map, and the player bears the task to help Christopher Columbus to conquer the New World. In both cases, the map is also a synecdoche of success and fulfillment: the more is visible and known, the less there is to do in Deadfire. Politics and the effort to govern the conquered is far less interesting than the act of exploration, as it inevitably follows the exploitative politics preferred by one of the factions. It is especially visible in the game’s ending, where players are shown a sequence of slides. If we did not manage to sail to the vampire island or resolve a local conflict, the consequences are dire; after the players’ party departure from the archipelago the state of the world consequently follows the once established scenario. Thus, there is a distinctive discrepancy between the level of players’ agency declared by the narrative and the actual agency expected from the title which operates on the high political and heroic undertones suggested by several elements showing its Dungeons & Dragons legacy. One of the most important aspects of the critical game design in Deadfire is that virtually none of the factions holds moral high ground above the other. Each has their agents commissioning a series of murders (that is bounties), and each also requires that the player put up with structural social inequality (Huana). All factions impose cultural and economic domination (RDF), usurp land and resource ownership to pursue economic goals (VTC) or are complicit in slave trade and plunder (Principi). Discussions among the players’ communities reveal that the dilemma of choosing the sides remained a divisive topic, although the general consensus favored the progressive Vailian Trading Company [7].

When Mbembe writes about the “territorialization of the sovereign state,” he refers to “the determination of its frontiers within the context of a newly imposed global order” (Mbembe, 2003, p. 23). Consequently, establishing a frontier in the colony has nothing to do with a peace treaty after a war, as the indigenous inhabitants of the colonies do not, according to colonial mindset, possess a status that warrants equality in the time of war. Deadfire’s exploration interprets peace as an eradication of all the subjects located in the particular area, albeit the side quests involving plunder and exploration are all located beyond the scope of the factions (including the indigenous Huana). The occasional local trading outposts and hostile human inhabitants located in the uncharted territories are detached from the political, ethnic and military conflicts in the Archipelago. What lies outside the key inhabited hubs in Deadfire is thus “savage” and has different, inferior status, regardless of its proximity to the lands claimed by one of the main factions. What’s more, there are some special locations marked on the map which trigger a separate event presented in the form of a static paragraph novel. The interaction in such instances is limited to dialogue choices (sometimes accompanied by skill check) and is illustrated by static images. Once resolved (peacefully or otherwise), such locations just disappear from the charts and cannot be interacted with for the second time. The same happens with generic locations marked as “burial sites,” “old battlegrounds,” “abandoned villages,” “ruined towers” or “shipwrecks.” After the area is “searched,” the spoils (usually items) are automatically put into inventory, and the map icon vanishes in the same fashion as in the case of paragraphed mini-adventures. Interestingly, this method of plunder and acquiring resources takes time -- selecting a dialogue option prompts further investigation of the premises, and players are informed about the passage of the in-game time. This connects the act of charting the unmapped territories and appropriating their resources with the logic of colonial investment. More importantly, it also signifies the crucial transition: in the age of colonial conquest, time becomes a valuable, quantifiable resource, which is further amplified in the developed capitalist economy (Crary, 2013).

“We can tame and transform this place” [8]

Relentless, non-stop exploration is a viable strategy, as it is possible to gain unique character bonuses which stack up and do not disappear until resting. Unlike in Dungeons & Dragons, fatigue builds up very slowly, and on normal game modes has only minor effect on exploration. Even though it is treated as a detrimental status effect which supposedly builds up over time, most of the time players are only affected by it occur during paragraphed events. When a party member tries to perform particularly taxing action and fails, this status effect can be applied automatically; a similar penalty is connected with injuries.

The pace of the game is also dictated by the slightly changed -- from the traditional AD&D approach -- system which constrains the use of magic. While the first iteration of the game used more conventional per-rest refresh of the available spell casts, in Deadfire the system has been changed into per encounter. This effectively means that during each fight characters which have the ability to cast spells or use special, magic-like abilities have a fixed number of their uses which gets refreshed with every new encounter. Such a change drastically influences the game’s pace and flow, as there are very few abilities which can be used only for a fixed number of times in between “rests.” In Deadfire, camping and resting in the taverns is incentivized by providing additional bonuses to the party’s abilities and attributes, although in most of the available difficulty settings it is largely irrelevant to the game’s mechanics. Juxtaposed with prevalent conventions of magic use in fantasy settings, the Deadfire resource management system uncovers its clear departure from the so-called “Vancian” magic. It can be characterized by the three core rules: strict categorization of spells, a coherent system of “preparing” and invoking spells for a fixed number of instances, and measuring the power of magic users by the number of spells that they are capable of successfully use in a given period of time [9]. The term Vancian comes from Jack Vance, an American fantasy & science fiction writer and author of the Dying Earth book series. It has been a major inspiration for many pen & paper as well as digitalized RPG systems, and abandoning it in Deadfire for the sake of a significantly different alternative makes the continuous exploration less cumbersome for the players; arguably diminishing the need for strategic gameplay pacing.


The case study analyzed in this paper occupies an interesting spot between the “casual” treatment of colonial tropes and a more radical, “critical” approach. While Deadfire appropriates at least some colonial tropes for “recreation and entertainment” purposes (Harrer, 2018, p. 2), during the gameplay players are repeatedly confronted with racism, economic exploitation, social inequity and almost omnipresent violence. Even though Deadfire offers plenty of opportunities to voice concerns in such matters, the core gameplay mechanics inevitably follow the traits leading to establishing (neo)colonial domination and/or fossilizing structural inequity among the inhabitants of the Archipelago.

Although Deadfire has not been a financial success (Partleton, 2019), the legacy of Pillars of Eternity series proves that there is a potential for digital games to reconcile at least some elements of the critical stance towards colonial tropes while staying true to the playful, adventure-driven roots of AD&D inspired cRPGs. The game also disproves one of the key solutions offered by Mbembe to break the (post)colonial condition -- the “ethics of the passerby,” a mode of living one’s life through constant openness to the Others while not forgetting about own struggles and idiosyncrasies. Mbembe’s argument that “becoming-human-in-the-world is a question neither of birth nor of origin or race” (Mbembe, 2019, p. 187) is directly contradicted by the Pillars narrative: it is exactly the birth, origin story and race that matter, as every other character feature is just a marginally significant (thanks to the game balance) backdrop against the diverse, but somehow flat ethics governing the imaginary world of Eora.

At their core, both Pillars games remain rather conservative takes on the classic, party-based RPG formula. Counter-colonial readings of the Deadfire’s plot -- albeit heralded by the developers and possible to explore through the various elements of the narrative expositions -- remain unrealized on the mechanical level. The application of the interpretative framework built on the works of Achille Mbembe highlights focal points of the game as illustrations of agonistic domination, necropolitical subjugation and totalizing subsumption. However, the potential to perform a truly critical playthrough of the game is impossible without getting involved in colonial activities. To conclude the main quest of Deadfire and accumulate enough wealth to obtain (or steal) a ship required to sail to the end point of both the Archipelago’s map and the game’s narrative, players’ party must submit to the exploitative logic of dungeon privateering. This time, critical narrative was not enough to establish paths for critical play.



Thank you to the Game Studies reviewers who helpfully provided feedback that improved this article.




[2] Hazanui (Admiral) Karū, commander of RTC forces in Deadfire. All quotations used as subsection titles appear in the game.

[3] Aenia, one of bounty commissioners in Queen’s Berth district, Neketaka.

[4] Lucia Rivan, captain of the Floating Hangman, addressing the player character.


[6] A quote from a play presented during the final cutscene of “A Tidy Performance” quest.


[8] Injured soldier in Hasongo during “A Distant Light” quest.

[9] .



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