Note: this review was adapted from an article originally written for Video Gams.
I didn’t play Planescape: Torment until after the sequel hit Kickstarter and reminded me that everyone had been putting the game on a pedestal all my life. I backed it at the time anyway, based on the personnel at inXile (Patrick Rothfuss?!) and its concept: you are the discarded shell of a body-swapping immortal, left with a sort of residual aptitude for that kind of magic. Torment is a story-driven experience, and it makes sense to decide how interested I am the way a person might decide that a particular book is worth reading.
Breaking the mold
PS:T had a fantastic character premise as well: you play as a man who cannot die. The main character can stand up from any injury, but every so often death robs him of his memories, and he has come to not know who he is. He has died probably thousands of times, and is a walking pile of scar tissue.
Amnesia may be a cliché, but ripping your own eyes and intestines out and carrying them in your inventory is not. It’s refreshingly unique, as are the circumstances these character quirks lead you to. This is startling in a world where the modus operandi in video game protagonist design is to make people as bland as possible. As Obsidian game designer J.E. Sawyer, a master of balance and of choice-consequence mechanics, put it:
PS:T’s other party members were non-standard, too. They weren’t the creepy indentured servants we’re all somewhat accustomed to in RPGs–each has their own will. Some of them are real bastards. Most of them hate each other. They tend to join because of the protagonist’s magnetic personality, but can only take so much abuse. It’s not such a shocker anymore to see party members revolt or cause trouble–Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic, and Dragon Age 2 have all done it to some extent–but in PS:T, they pretty much only follow you to the gates of hell if they’re literally in love with you or if they’re your slave. In either case, you’re consciously leveraging some power over them.
Memories and dialogue
In a genre where the baseline atmosphere typically involves some kind of war or pestilence or widespread crime, PS:T stands out as a very dark game. The hero is constantly suffering, or tormented by the suffering he has inflicted upon others. The humor is dark, too: for most people, the first hour of gameplay probably involves reading a lot of jokes about having sex with corpses. It’s not just “edgy” though–I found the overall tone of it quite funny. The fact that you can later come back with a magic power that allows you to converse with some of those corpses, though, that deserves tremendous respect. That there could be a hidden hour or so of gameplay just in backtracking and hearing tales from the dead really demonstrates the absurd level of polish and care present in the early content, and it was one of the most positive experiences I had with the game.
There were a lot of little stories like that, just off the beaten path. In one case there was a room full of stones, and each one provided some vignettes from other peoples’ lives. There was one about a naval captain, stifling his moral qualms as he followed his orders, bombarding a great city until nothing remained of it. There are also the stories of the main character’s own past. Times of inflicting immense pain upon former companions. As a compilation of short stories, the game works quite well. Several times, the stories resonated with me.
Regular dialogue, the stuff with an interactive component, was occasionally less interesting, but had a few tricks of its own. You’d often get identical dialogue options except that one would say [Truth] and the other [Lie]. Characters couldn’t tell when you were lying–it was basically just there for roleplaying and determining alignment (Lawful Good etc). It fit in very well with the game’s exploration of the standard RPG protagonist as a manipulative bastard with a different face for every NPC he spoke to. If you’re like me, you say whatever gets you the biggest quest reward. In other words, you’re lying all the time.
You can also [Vow] something. If you lie by breaking a vow, penalties to your alignment are much more significant. Usually as a manipulative person you’d want to avoid making a vow in the first place unless it was the only way you had to get an NPC to cooperate, whether you aligned with the vow ideologically or not, since rigid codes are a tricky business. I’d love to see deeper explorations of vows as a game mechanic, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.
Flaws and conquered problems
PS:T was less combat-focused than, say, Fallout–another big RPG of that era–but combat was also considerably more tedious, and there was still a considerable share of it. And yet it would be a waste of time to discuss the combat shortcomings in depth. People don’t still talk about PS:T because they loved the combat. If the developers at inXile have paid any attention to contemporary games, and not just the nostalgia trip their Kickstarter largely earned its success from, the new title’s combat will not retread the old ground too much. They’ll also have time to adjust their systems based on the reception of Wasteland 2 (and Pillars of Eternity). Suffice it to say that PS:T guides list the less combat-oriented stats of Wisdom, Intelligent, and Charisma as the most important. While that does betray a choice imbalance, it’s not an unwelcome sign in a game which people routinely exemplify as good game storytelling.
But I also didn’t always like everything in the writing. The romance seemed to meet the awkward standard for dialogue-tree romances, and one particular idea, the “Brothel of Slating Intellectual Lusts,” sounded like an extremely dorky idea straight out of Reddit. At least it got on top of its romance issue somewhat by giving the protagonist overtly manipulative and self-serving options–you don’t run the risk of appealing to the Nice Guys so much when being a terrible person is perceived as a feature.
Without spoiling anything too thoroughly, my main emotional response to both Annah and Deionarra was one of pity, and I didn’t think Fall-From-Grace was very interesting, so the range of the female characters was quite limited–though I was somewhat drawn to Deionarra’s story and character (she does not join your party, which probably works to her advantage).
One last interesting component of the Dungeons & Dragons setting–which I would have perceived as a flaw, but which the game manages to own up to and sublimate into something quite interesting–is just how much of a goddamn Mary-Sue everybody in that world is. It’s kind of a staple of D&D–for everybody who wants to play as a simple Human Fighter, someone else wants to be an Elven Wizard, and there are two others who want to be a Shardmind Battlemind. It’s the MMORPG problem where the larger social environment clashes with the individual’s unique snowflake power fantasy. I’d hate to be a census taker in the City of Doors.
D&D has clearly been building settings around that kind of bizarre impulse for decades, and you can’t use that setting and just expect to weasel around it. So, before long, you get to a point where you suddenly feel like you’re in on the joke: An immortal walks into a bar, followed by a floating skull and a girl with a tail. He sees like two gods, a demon, a man who is perpetually on fire, some minotaur things, a guy who technically doesn’t exist, and some monsters that look like they were designed by H.R. Giger.
“Oh,” he says, “I must be in the Smoldering Corpse Bar, an actual location in Planescape: Torment.”
If you can appreciate a good-if-sometimes-ridiculous fantasy novel, It’s not hard to love Planescape. It’s judged better as a story than as a game, as its writing knocks it farthest out of the park when the interactivity is not the focus, but the game is decently strong as either a novel or a game.
The Tides of Numenera developers have priorities that maybe no one working in video games has focused on and succeeded with since the last Torment. Keep an eye out for its release–it can’t fail to be interesting.