The power of introspective narrative
How I’ve grown up to play and appreciate Planescape: Torment
By Lukasz Lewandowski
Fourteen years ago I was still in high school, and my expenses usually exceeded my revenues. Nowadays I would say I had a cash-flow problem. Back then I just blamed my parents for not giving me enough pocket money.
One of my many money-making schemes back then was making t-shirts (with copyrighted prints that I had no rights to), and soon I got to know a guy in a copy shop who’d always print a few t-shirts for me. I’d then try to sell (or rather had already sold) them online. One day this guy, whose name escapes me, proudly showed me a game he’d just purchased. It featured a weird blue-faced, over-saturated guy on the cover. “Planescape: Torment”, he said, “a new role-playing game.”
“What a weird title”, I thought. “With a colon in the middle.”
I shrugged. I couldn't afford a boxed game; in Poland forty bucks was still a fortune for a high school kid back then. Not only that, but I somehow couldn't make myself play any cRPGs. Too long, too complex, too slow-paced. I was no stranger to pen-and-paper RPGs though. A handful of encounters I had had before with computer incarnations only strengthened my belief in their inferiority. Their narrative was too linear, and reactivity too limited when compared to a session with a flesh-and-blood GM. I’d rather fire up Quake 2 or Half-life, have some simple, unapologetic fun for a few minutes at a time. The prospect of spending long hours at menial tasks such as reading dialogues, running back and forth across the same levels and figuring out complex numerical mechanics of combat didn't appeal to me at all.
I forgot about Torment for a few years. Then one day the game’s title surfaced in an online article I read. I recalled the box with a funny picture I once saw. Having some spare time, I promptly downloaded a pirated copy of the game, watched the intro, then played for maybe ten minutes and got bored immediately. I yawned, deleted it and that was it. “I was right all along”, I must have thought.
But the stubborn game kept coming. Every few months it would resurface somewhere online, mentioned in a seemingly unrelated story or a comment to a blog post. It was like a bee, that I couldn't chase away: relentless, patient, annoying, always nearby.
Eventually, ten years after it had been first published, I had learned Torment sported somewhat of a cult status among cRPG nostalgists. It was a frequent guest in obligatory lists of annual rankings: “best games of all times”, “best RPG in history” etc. Similarly to ‘cult’ movies and books, it shared their lack of relative commercial success, only to carry on in a sort of ‘slow-burn’ year after year, refusing to leave collective consciousness.
Normally it would be enough to pique my curiosity and finally take it for a spin. And yet, I somehow couldn't bring myself to sink all this time and sit through it. It was a tad bit like a work of classic literature: talked about, something I knew I should get familiar with but couldn't.
And then a few months ago, I finally snapped. I don’t remember the exact circumstances. It may have been the hype around Project Eternity, one of the early Kickstarter darlings playing to the nostalgia of Torment, Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. Or maybe it was a GOG sale of old Interplay titles (I knew what Interplay was; Fallout is a game I did manage to complete shortly after it came out). I can’t recall exactly why, but I eventually got a copy (legally this time around), downloaded mods and patches making the game playable on my PC (and Mac!) and took the plunge.
I watched the same cut scene, which immediately brought back memories like a proustian cookie. I clicked through the monologue of an annoying flying skull. I walked around a bit, killed some undead, trying to get used to a very old-school, outdated interface. And I’d almost given up again. What saved me was paying more attention to the dialogue. I read it more carefully. Maybe my English got better? Anyhow, I finally made it out of the starting location, into the city of Sigil.
And it was full of wonders.
True works of art often defy easy categorization. What makes art ‘art’ and sets it apart from good craftsmanship is subtle and subjective. It may be an unusual property an artist gives an object otherwise mundane (Dali, anyone?). It may be a juxtaposition of two unrelated or opposite concepts, controversy it attracts (remember a Benetton campaign with a picture of a priest kissing a nun?). It can be innate beauty of a light ray on a photograph.
Torment is all these things.
In a nutshell Torment is a tale of self-determination, commitment and redemption. It is told by a troupe of bizarro characters: The Nameless One, a scarred barbarian-looking amnesiac with a mysterious past; Morte the flying skull; Fall-from-grace, a succubus turned intellectual courtesan; Ignus, the ever-burning wizard, whom you yourself sentenced to eternal torment (!) in a previous life… . It takes place against a backdrop of a caricature fantasy world where magic, gods, planes of existence, angels, demons and every other supernatural trope are common-place, matter-of-fact occurrences.
It may seem a bit self-indulgent at first, but it does come together well. Like a good drink, each ingredient stands on its own, yet if gently shaken, it creates a potent, memorable experience.
There are many individual qualities that set Torment apart from its siblings. As if to prove a point it takes every computer game cliche and throws it out the window. It is a game in which you achieve more by insulting, persuading, lying and guessing rather than fighting. A game in which there are no magic armors or flaming swords, in which you can sacrifice your companions for your own selfish goals. It compels you to make moral choices that make you cringe at the keyboard, and makes you second-guess and doubt your own moral spine. Torment is a game in which the main characters has no name.
A game in which ‘to win’ means ‘to die’.
As I progressed through the story, I was torn apart by two opposing forces: that, which obsessively wanted me to press on and find out what would happen next, and that, which made me savor each nuance in the descriptions, each side quest and each supporting character.
I repeatedly cursed myself for waiting thirteen years to experience it.
And then came the revelation. I realized why the game resonated with me so much now and why it didn't before.
Over the years everyone inevitably experience episodes of betrayal, loss, envy, happiness, wonder. One starts to appreciate the complexity of choice, futility and hopelessness of an impossible situation, burden of high hopes, regret of a path not taken, or despair of unrealized dreams. And so have I.
This time I could relate.
Almost every quest and plot point, every tragic character you encounter will resonate with a mature player much more, than with a teenager. Sometimes it is subtle; something in the story reminds you of a real-life situation you've only heard about, something that happens to someone else. Other times it gets into you,evoking long-lost memories. And even though these plot points are diverse and may mean different things to different people, everyone will experience a few episodes that put them in a deeply contemplative mood. Over the course of dozens of hours these little shout-outs build up.
Torment’s greatest artistic achievement is the emotional bond it builds between the player and the characters.
And then, as if watching you play and scheming against you, the game takes it all away. You've reached the endgame. Your friends are gone, dead, lost, suffering for their own sins.
All that remains is to face the ultimate enemy. Yourself. And if you win, you also lose a little. And if you lose, it is a win for the world. And then, when it is finally over and you stare at the credits, a very real sense of loss overcomes you.
Human beings are introspective, whiny creatures. As we struggle with our own lives, we begin to muse whether we could have done things differently. We reminisce at our own choices, ponder at our decisions and at begin to ask ourselves the inevitable questions: could things turn out another way? Could they be a different person? Would they if they could?
The more I think about it, the more I suspect the passionate team of then up-and-coming game designers, now household names (Avellone, McComb, Heine), begun discovering some of these inevitable truths of life themselves exactly then; and that this mixture of self-reflection and ambition is what was Torments genesis.
The game caught them exactly at the height of their formative years, captured their creative output in a very raw, primal form. Like many young artists in history, they channeled their musing and poured their own weltschmerz not into poems or novels, but into the things that they were so passionate about: a computer game. And unlike many aspiring artists, they set their bar high and — against all odds — succeeded.
A team of designers involved in the original Planescape: Torment is at it again. Brian Fargo, the head honcho at Interplay’s Black Isle Studios back in the Fallout and Torment days, runs his own company nowadays, inXile entertainment. The company doesn't really have any runaway hits in their portfolio (notable exception is an medium budget, tongue-in-cheek action RPG Bard’s Tale), it does have a few smaller titles and one bigger dud.
That hasn't prevented Fargo from trying to reach for the skies. Buoyed by Kickstarter success of “Double Fine Adventure” project, Fargo and co. pitched a sequel to another RPG classic of yesteryear: Wasteland, in itself a precursor and spiritual father to Fallout. The campaign brought in 2.8 million USD, and is on plan and on budget (give or take two-three months) to deliver a game of unprecedented fun and reactivity.
Obsidian Entertainment, another small studio where a group of ex-Interplay, ex-Black Isle people took refuge a decade ago, smelled blood too. Soon after Wasteland campaign concluded, they pitched a traditional RPG,a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, with lead designer of Torment (Avellone) on board. They ended up taking 4.1 million dollars.
Inevitably, the two groups of (largely) ex-Interplay, ex-Black Isle employees joined forces, and under leadership of Fargo — sharing Avellone and some technology — they pitched what tens of thousands of people dreamt about: Torment: Tides of Numenera.
Finaly tally: 4.3 million dollars.
Tides of Numenera is hailed as a ‘spiritual successor’, a ‘thematic continuation’ to Planescape: Torment and promises to deliver an instant modern classic.
These are lofty goals and great expectations, but great expectations are notoriously hard to meet.
The game deliberately takes certain design risks: to spice things up, it moves to a new setting: an everything-is-possible Earth of the far future, a world littered with artefacts of eight previous bygone eras, titular “numenera”. In some ways the setting seems similar to Planescape, being an eclectic collage of science fiction and fantasy archetypes. But it is also unproven.
Moreover, none of the beloved characters of the previous game will make a comeback. It is supposed to be a game “like” Torment, sharing its thematic qualities, but nothing more. This is vague at best, and can be misleading at worst.
The game will also feature a unique ‘alignment’ equivalent, in the form of ‘tides’. It will attempt a unique game-after-death mechanics, echoing the immortality of the Nameless One.
Last but not least, the twenty-something designers of 1999 are now in their forties. Their creative output has matured. They have all fallen from grace themesleves after Planescape, and are no strangers to commercial and artistic failures (though to be frank also a few critical and commercial successes: Knights of the Old Republic II, New Vegas).
Will this result in a more serious game, a more cautious and less self-indulgent one? Or a boring one? Can this team deliver the same juvenile passion, dark humor and bravado again, after a decade?
More than seventy five thousand people put their money down in a belief (hope?) that this team can indeed deliver.
I don’t doubt that inXile will approach the project professionally, equipped with superior technology, advanced content creation pipelines and a fantastic design team. They will also enjoy one of the benefits of Kickstarter funding, that removed the pesky publisher from the equation: total creative freedom.
But even if the new game is on par with the original Torment, will it satisfy nostalgic players, who are mostly also older by a solid decade? Will it hit the same notes? Can it enamoure the same audience again?
Will it be just be a very well done sequel, with some high points, but no magic?
It is a tough call. If I am right about the driving force behind the original game, they’d have a fighting chance only if they recreated the same conditions in which the original game was conceived. Time will tell and I’d love to be proven wrong on this one.
The thematic symbolism in the original Torment revolves around the question of predestination, consequences and redemption. It communicates its take on the archetype in a variety of different ways: through quests, allegories, myths, legends, truths and lies.
What makes it unique in its presentation, and serves as a good example of juvenile bravado of the designers, is that it cuts to the chase quickly, dialing down the pathos so prevalent in other RPGs. There is no world to save, no princess to rescue. There is only a character, and his introspective quest to answer a specific, explict question. The game reiterates the phrase many times over, nagging you, with an ever increasing frequency. It reaches a fever pitch in the grand finale:
What can change the nature of man?
For me it’s an easy one: a game of Torment.