Hold my Beer — Why the Torment Games Have the Best Video Game Bars
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Planescape: Torment and its spiritual follow-up Torment: Tides of Numenara are two fantastic computer role playing games. Both are set in worlds where emotion and belief are given the power to transcend the fabric of reality, reshaping space in strange and fascinating ways. Similar to other Black Isle and early Bioware titles, the Torment games attempt to portray multifaceted, speculative cultures through the perspectives of characters. Rather than relegating tertiary setting and cultural details to abstracted codexes like in Mass Effect, attention is brought solely to the experiences of individuals coupled with the context of the game’s narrative and digital space.
Yet part of what sets the Torment duo apart from their peers is a bold commitment to detailed, comprehensive dialogue. These games bristle with expansive fiction, apparent in both the sheer volume of text that NPC’s throw the player’s way and the branching dialogue trees that are as satisfying to explore as they are momentarily imposing to behold. Make no mistake, players explore these conversations similar even to the dungeons in more traditional roleplaying games. The analogy isn’t perfect, where combat takes a back seat, these textual interactions exist as the primary outlet for player expression. There is a spectrum of failure and success in Torment dialogue, and the former requires careful attention to the subject of conversation its environmental context. It’s easy to lose myself in these conversations, to focus on the text and forget about the environments in which these exchanges take place, yet locations contextualize both the characters themselves and the topics about which they speak to the player. Both Planescape’s Sigil and Numenera’s Sagus Cliff house junctions of culture, libraries, and havens for hardened travelers across dimensional rifts — all spaces that inform whatever’s being discussed. And, of course, there are taverns.
In a recent critical video over at Kotaku, staff writer Heather Alexandra analyzes how Planescape: Torment uses systems to communicate its values to the player. Among the moments she discusses is the game’s fantastic narrative climax when the player discovers their avatar’s name, an action which is assigned the largest experience dump in the entire game.The words themselves hold enormous weight, yet locations that contextualize dialogue throughout the game bring attention to the exigent value which the game communicates about both the purpose of the space itself and the reasons characters find it valuable. And what these games ultimately say is that certain places, notably bars, are venues for patrons to decompress amidst the tangible anxiety of malleable realities, war, class disparity, and city clamor. It’s the diversity of the patrons themselves, the mundanity of the bar, and the juxtaposition against an utterly fantastical setting that communicates the powerful normalcy of conversation and repose as an act of healing.
Sigil and Sagus Cliff are home to some truly memorable bars. A trait shared by both the Smoldering Corpse and Fifth Eye is how they’re a microcosmic representation of these games’ diverse, multidimensional cultures. It’s in these taverns that both fantastic beings and mere mortals alike are given momentary respite from the turbulent, mysterious worlds outside. They make themselves vulnerable, open to expression, to sharing their wisdom with the player and other NPCs alike. One of the two bars’ most curious patrons is O. Less a distinct individual than an idea given form, O is a Letter of the Divine Alphabet, a being that “encompasses truth”. He/him pronouns. As a “universal truth”, O can exist in all places at once (as in both bars) and he talks to the player character.Though a little standoffish at first, when pressed carefully he reveals knowledge seemingly beyond the player character’s comprehension. “He speaks in a pure bell-like tone…inside his mouth you see no tongue, no teeth. It’s almost as if this man were a shell surrounding an illimitable expanse”. O is an entity so beyond the player character that all Planescape describes is a feeling of eternity. No mortal can understand the Great Beyond, but O gives a glimpse. A small, though tantalizing sample of mystery is the banquet of supernatural understanding that the Torment games afford. Yes the characters were kicking back in a bar, but something important has happened. The Nameless One is permanently altered by the experience, communicated to the player once again by stat gains. +1 to wisdom. In a tavern called the Smoldering Corpse.
Initially entering the Corpse reveals a moody orange-red glow, the imposing figure of Ignus, the bar’s titular pyromaniac, blazing in the hall’s center platform. The air thick with hushed conversations that radiate from shadowy corner tables, the canteen’s Mos Eisley-esque charm contrasted with the disquieting crackle of the flaming man himself. The scene is at once disturbing and enthralling, and the image teases the player’s curiosity from first sight. Just to the left, players can speak with Candrian Illborne, a man who knows the lay of the land — planes, rather. Candrian’s been everywhere using Sigil’s many hidden portals for transport. The player might recall a panicked woman frantically pacing before the Mortuary Gate, Ingress, who’s been trapped within Sigil since she unwittingly stumbled into a portal from her homeworld. Each attempt she’s made to escape has been physically taxing, having been teleported into volcanos, vortexes, the works. These experiences have taken a toll, and she’s too terrified to leave the square. Candrian’s the man to ask for help, portals being his forte, and when prompted he agrees to see her off safely. This absurd, life threatening hell cycle she’s been trapped in her entire adulthood is solved not by some titanic quest to Slay The Bad Guy or Find the MacGuffin, but by speaking to some shlubby guy drinking whisky. The outside, terrifying and dangerous as it can be to beings both mortal and supernatural alike, feels like it’s momentarily seen from a distance, a comforting lense cast over its harshest realities.
Many other games would be happy to call the quest a wrap, hand the player a big green check mark and move on, yet in Planescape, the player is always encouraged to strike up further conversation. When asked a little about himself, Candrian recounts his adventures into the mysterious Negative Energy planes — a dark, swirling void where only the undead travel unscathed. It’s an unfathomable place, every bit as mysterious as O, and Candrian’s description affords the player’s imagination the full impact of mystery, the allure of the unknown. He finishes the tale, and out of his pocket Candrian pulls an obsidian disk, a small chunk of negativity he pulled from the plane itself. He hands it to you — the mystery is out there, never to be visited by players, but the magic is in keeping the unknown detached while placing a fragment of it here in the player character’s hand. Ingress’s savior? Pretty wild guy with all that dimension hopping, but here in the bar he’s just shooting the shit.
Candrian’s story and the terror felt by Ingress are contextualized by the terrestrial pleasures of the bar. There is a tension between the mundanity of the space and the unfathomable beyond. Biting alcohol, dim lights, and hushed voices exist within the same context as demons and fleshy manifestations of cosmic ideas, closed off from an outlying city so rife with danger. The Torment games generally employ a similar dichotomy between the abstract and mundane, but it’s in the compact, low-key bar where intimate engagement with the patrons’ most personal concerns brings attention to that contrast between its normalcy and the larger setting. It’s in bars where diverse people come together to unwind, share their stories, and take refuge from a hostile world, no matter how powerful or supernatural they may be. Sometimes even interdimensional superbeings need a drink.
Numenara’s Fifth Eye functions as a similar kind of sanctuary, this time for psychics. Unlike The Burning Corpse, this hall is less crowded, the understated energy of thrumming conversations replaced by a somber quietude. Founded on an ancient pumping station, the bar is built around pipes channeling vile sludge which the owners have since categorized by safety of ingestion. Spigots were affixed, a few chair installed, and boom, you’ve got yourself an enticing bar. Yet the Fifth Eye’s appeal for psychics goes beyond the novelty of dangerous liquor — the walls act as a “psychic dampener”, softening the “noise” of the city outside. And like Sigil, there’s plenty of noise in the city of Sagas Cliff. Where Planescape’s “bar values” existed mostly in subtext, Tides surfaces them to both the quests themselves and the narrative function of the space.
In the Fifth Eye the player is greeted by a woman named Clarion, who’s looking to hire bodies for war. The bar’s proprietors, she says, are five powerful psychics perfect for the job, but she hasn’t had any luck winning them over to the cause. Because this is a role playing game, she naturally asks the player to to finish her quest. And because this is a role playing game, the player accepts. When questioned, the squad discloses that while they’re retired veterans of many conflicts past they have one last struggle, more personal than any merc job. Dhama, the leader of the five, explains how creatures known as Adversaries have overrun their homeland and forced them to take up residence in the city. Apparently psychics are the only ones who can take the creatures out, and Dhama fears they let one slip by.
Asking around reveals that the bartender is a psychic projection of Feriok, the crew’s only fallen comrade. And he says that solicitations in this bar are offensive. The Fifth Eye is important to psychics, and this projection is the crew’s way of keeping both the bar and their friend alive. It’s a place for healing, no matter how temporary in capacity, so barging in and pestering the group about some mercenary job doesn’t sit well. While Dhama says he’ll sign up if the player helps his squad hunt down the Adversary straggler, two of five flat out refuse to join despite their leader’s decision. There is nothing the player can do to buy them, which is important. These characters’ fictional wills takes precedence before the player’s narrative preeminence, reinforcing their worth as individuals and their connection with the Fifth Eye. That NPCs are allowed to ascribe value to meaningful places is profoundly humanizing — it subverts player expectations of NPCs as player-centric quest givers. The characters love this bar both for its association with their friendship and for their desire to cope with the noise of the outside world. Dhama and crew are not wallpapered quest boards, it’s their bar, and they give it value beyond its perfunctory use. The psychics won’t stand for the player callously turning this refuge into a recruitment station.
Worldbuilding details that may have been relegated to an in-game glossary are smartly integrated into how the game ascribes narrative value to the characters’ relationship with space. A bar is where Ingress is allowed to find sanctuary, where Candrian can tell his wild stories. It’s where a member of the Adversary hunter crew can angrily vent about the lack of public recognition and compensation they receive. This is how these games convey the purpose of taverns as interstitial spaces between the mundane and fantastic. In the Torment games, bars mean finding reflection and escapism amidst confusing worlds so vastly different than our own, yet with characters so strikingly resonant when given the chance to unwind. Speaking with characters, learning about their pasts and their cultures, what this place means to them, is valued alongside the protagonists’ player guided self-discovery.
MMO’s and CRPG’s tend to position bars as generic quest hubs with a window dressing of respite, hell even even Planescape: Torment’s very own Traitor’s Gate Tavern basically acts as late-game quest notice board. One consequence of employing bars for their aesthetic value is that it risks reducing both complex spaces and their patrons to a collection of signifiers that merely denote broad concepts like “seediness” in the Mos Eisley’s Cantina or “merriment” in the The Shire’s Green Dragon. What these scenes satisfy is an impression that establishments have a community, without providing any further definition. Contrasting these bars to Shaun of the Dead’s Winchester for example, which briefly characterizes the regulars and management, it becomes apparent that depictions of detailed, idiosyncratic communities evokes a more authentic sense of place. The Winchester becomes more than pig snacks and lock-ins because we can remember that Big Al claims that “dogs can’t look up” or that The John is possibly affiliated with the North London Mafia, among other absurdities.
The Smoldering Corpse and Fifth Eye are allowed to be more than themed scene dressing because the Torment games engage with the bar goers, their stories, and the larger context that shapes their lives. As a result, the games are able to create a defined sense of community by imparting the idea that humanization comes from a character’s interests and relationships, both to places and other characters alike. This is why it’s crucial that these NPCs value this space in a way that is separate from how the player values it. The Torment games present the player as an interloper in the outside world and the bars alike while the characters, in all of their diversity, have a greater sense of belonging. Bars aren’t just rooms with Tables, Beer, or maybe the occasional dart board. Every CRPG and Grand Theft Auto has all that, but too few games get the people and the context right. For all of their fantasy, the Torment games succeed at making these bars feel necessary and human, filled with people who need somewhere to relax and swap stories with a friendly stranger three dimensions away from home.