The late nineties was a golden age for PC gaming, and many creators earned their place in history around this time. One such person would be Brian Fargo, who served as executive producer of Interplay’s 1997 game, Fallout. It stood out from other RPGs at the time by being set in a post-apocalyptic California as opposed to a generic fantasy land, and having a tactical element to its combat system. The game was a tremendous success, so, naturally, a sequel had to be made. The development of this game was handled by Black Isle Studios, a division of programmers that had formed the previous year within Interplay.
Fallout 2 was released a year later in 1998. Though the game was initially plagued with bugs and unfinished ideas, it was warmly received nonetheless – even more so than the original in some circles. During the development of Fallout 2, Black Isle Studios began an entirely new project, utilizing the engine that BioWare had used to create Baldur’s Gate. The lead designer of this project was one of the main developers of Fallout 2: Chris Avellone. This game, originally released in 1999, is the fruit of their labor.
Playing the Game
Planescape: Torment is a computer role-playing game. It is a licensed game based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG. The game abides by the rules of the second edition, though modified to run on BioWare’s Infinity Engine. The most notable deviation from the tabletop version is that combat takes place in real-time. However, in the strictest sense, it is not a real-time strategy game, as the player can pause the game to issue commands to each character more easily. With physical attacks, characters will keep attacking until the target has been neutralized or until he player issues a different command. As far as magic, items, or other special abilities are concerned, the player usually has to manually input the appropriate commands in order to use them.
Characters have six parameters that determine their proficiencies: strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, intelligence, and charisma. Strength determines a character’s chances to hit as well as their damage output with melee attacks. Dexterity determines the likelihood of dodging enemy attacks and accuracy with ranged weapons. Constitution allows characters to gain more HP upon leveling up. Wisdom and intelligence measure the effectiveness one has with priest and mage spells respectively. Finally, charisma plays a role in character interactions; the higher the score is, the more a character can influence others with his or her words.
Planescape: Torment differs from most games bearing the Dungeons & Dragons license in that you do not create a character. Instead, you distribute a set amount of character points to the game’s protagonist; the lowest score he can have in any given parameter is 9 (average in D&D terms). He starts as a fighter, but can become a mage or thief after completing certain sidequests. Upon leveling up, you are given one extra character point that can be used to permanently improve any attribute of your choosing.
To be honest, the combat in Planescape: Torment feels underdeveloped. This game only features four character classes: fighter, mage, thief, and cleric. Baldur’s Gate had eight – sixteen if you count the specialist mages as separate classes. There are also only seven companions compared to Baldur’s Gate which had more than twenty. This means that there are very few ways you can deal with enemies in this game. As a strange counterbalance, this game also doesn’t have that many boss fights or powerful enemies. Even though you will obtain a lot of power by the end of the game, there aren’t that many situations in which any of it will come in handy. If you’re particularly savvy, you can complete the game only having killed two enemies – neither of whom have a name. |You can even talk the main antagonist into surrendering if you so choose.|
Consequently, Planescape: Torment could be seen as a significant downgrade in quality from Baldur’s Gate despite the latter title having been released a year earlier. Those unfamiliar with the game would doubtlessly wonder what the point is in playing it.
Analyzing the Story
This game, as is suggested by its title, uses the Planescape campaign setting of Dungeons & Dragons. The setting encompasses multiple planes of existence, including what is known as the Outer Planes. Dungeons & Dragons is well-known for featuring character alignments based two dimensions: the balance of good and evil and the conflict between order and chaos. Each of the seventeen Outer Planes is shaped by the ethos of every single one of these alignments. Sixteen of these planes form the Great Wheel. All of these realms serve as the afterlife for people of the corresponding alignments – the souls of good people are sent to the peaceful higher planes while the souls of the wicked are condemned to the hellish lower planes.
The Outlands lie in the center of the Great Wheel. It is the manifestation of the true neutral alignment, and serves as a popular meeting ground for various powers. There are sixteen settlements on the edge of the Outlands, all of which are built around a portal that leads to a different plane on the wheel. In the very center of this plane is an infinitely tall spire, on top of which rests Sigil. It is also called the City of Doors due to the countless number of portals that exist within it. These portals can lead to anywhere imaginable in the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology. In order to use them, one needs a key. A key can be anything from a physical object to a passing thought. Sometimes just having a pulse is enough to open a portal. Because it’s impossible to enter or exit Sigil without the use of a portal, it can be seen as a prison for those who don’t possess a key.
Sigil is ruled by the Lady of Pain. What little is known about her is that she has control over every single portal within the confines of the city and can forbid gods from using them. Numerous deities have tried to invade Sigil, for the ability to send armies anywhere they want would be an invaluable asset to their cause – none have succeeded. She never speaks nor does she get involved with the politics of the city’s clashing factions, thus her motives remain a riddle with no answer. There are only two unwritten rules that she actively enforces: do not threaten the city’s existence and do not worship her. Those who violate these rules are killed on the spot – and that’s if they’re lucky. If they’re unlucky, these people get thrown into pocket dimensions located in the Ethereal Plane called mazes where the victim cannot die, but has only a minimal chance to escape with their sanity intact.
The city of Sigil is where a majority of Planescape: Torment is set. The main character of this story awakens in a mortuary with no memories of who he is or how he got here. He is immediately approached by a floating skull named Morte, who offers him advice and aids his escape. The protagonist, or the Nameless One, is immortal; his wounds heal much faster than that of a normal human, and every time he’s killed, he makes a full recovery, regaining consciousness a short time later. After reorienting himself, he vows to regain his lost memories and discover the mystery behind his immortality.
This is where Planescape: Torment truly shines – its story is beautifully written. Chris Avellone and his team set out to create an avant-garde fantasy, challenging the conventions of the genre. It certainly shows in the final product; it’s almost as if Mr. Avellone and his team took every single fantasy trope and turned them on their heads. Rats are powerful enemies, the undead have their own society, and not a single member of your party is a normal human – and that’s just scratching the surface. The most notable deviation from your typical fantasy premise is that you’re not questing to save the world from some powerful evil. Instead, the driving force behind the plot is much more introspective and character-focused. The game even breaks the basic fundamental rules of the medium by introducing a protagonist that cannot die |whose overarching goal is to become mortal and kill himself|.
Though Planescape: Torment was built on the same engine as Baldur’s Gate, the presentation of its story is quite different. Character interaction in Baldur’s Gate was almost exclusively conveyed through dialogue trees. When addressing another character, you’re given a number a responses to continue the conversation, thus making the process akin to a script, albeit one you have some control over. Planescape: Torment also presents its story this way, yet it features a writing style one would expect from a novelist rather than a playwright. As a result, interactions tend to be more complex than in most games; sometimes the options involve performing actions rather than just conversing.
If you were wondering what the point was in distributing character points in a game that doesn’t feature a lot of combat, then this is where they really come into play. Depending on what stats you chose to specialize in, different dialogue options become available. What makes this interesting is that no matter what kind of Nameless One you decide to create, the writing complements what the statistics say about him. For instance, should you decide to give the Nameless One 18 intelligence, the ensuing dialogue options convince you that he is indeed a genius – and not in the fictional sense of a character who merely uses big words all the time. In a creative twist, constitution affects the speed of the Nameless One’s healing factor. Once it has reached its maximum level, he can recover faster than enemies can damage him. Ironically, even though it’s impossible for the protagonist to become a cleric, wisdom reigns supreme above all of the other stats because it dissuades you from making dumb decisions and gives you a bonus to the amount of experience points you receive.
In another creative twist on the D&D formula, you do not actually choose your character’s alignment. Instead, what you say and do when interacting with other characters shapes the Nameless One’s morality. He starts as a true neutral, but depending on your choices, he could shift to any of the other eight classic D&D alignments. In general, lying, bluffing, and empty threats make the Nameless One more chaotic while telling the truth and swearing oaths makes him more lawful. On the other axis, demanding payment, real threats, and harming others results in an evil Nameless One whereas selfless, virtuous actions make him lean more towards the side of good.
One thing I’ve always found baffling about games which feature a morality system is that it usually doesn’t make sense for your character to be evil – at least not in-universe. Fallout 3 has an especially bad case of this; why would someone who has been raised by his or her father to be a good person detonate a nuclear warhead at the behest of a random man they’ve never met? One could make a case that the player character botched the job in an attempt to disarm it, but it’s a flimsy excuse, especially if they commit more evil deeds afterwards. The same could be said of the previous Fallout games as well; why would an endangered community leave their fate in the hands of a blatantly evil person? You have the ability to commit various atrocities in these games, but it never seems like writers put the same amount of effort into creating believable scenarios involving an evil protagonist as they do a good one.
This is definitely not the case with Planescape: Torment. With no memories and no canon personality, the Nameless One is a blank slate. Therefore, it makes just as much sense for him to be a noble paragon of virtue as it does a raving lunatic. If you decide to be evil, you end up creating a horror story about a sociopath who keeps others in check through psychological manipulations and emotional abuse. Should you go down that route, you will feel absolutely horrible about yourself. It is a true testament to this game’s writing quality that there are some players who are genuinely afraid of playing as an evil Nameless One.
As intriguing as the Nameless One himself is, the supporting cast is also memorable. Though there are only seven characters that can join you, each of them is fully-fleshed out in their own right and have fascinating backstories. Because the game doesn’t have an emphasis on combat, your companions play more of an advisory role than in most RPGs. Having certain characters in your party can even add new dialogue options. Interestingly, other than Morte, every single one of them falls under a neutral alignment, giving the game a subtle degree of moral ambiguity. What also helps in bringing life to these characters is the voice acting, which includes many recognizable professionals in the industry, including Rob Paulsen, Mitch Pileggi, Jennifer Hale, and Dan Castellaneta among others. It’s true that Black Isle Studios had good voice acting in their previous game, Fallout 2, but considering how Planescape: Torment would ultimately be glossed over in favor of the more combat-heavy Diablo II, which would be released half a year later, it’s still remarkable that they were able to enlist the help of such talents.
Arguably the best aspect about the writing is that, while it’s dark, it’s not afraid to have a sense of humor about itself. I was surprised how many funny moments were present in this game. There are many games out there whose creators I feel take themselves too seriously for their own good. The humor in Planescape: Torment is dry to be sure, but to me, it demonstrates a level of self-awareness sorely lacking by other artistically driven teams.
Drawing a Conclusion
Video games tend to have low standards when it comes to writing. This is usually forgivable as long as the gameplay is excellent. This is why it’s such a big deal when big-name creators announce projects that promise story-heavy experiences. A common trap I’ve seen many teams fall into when creating such games is that they try to make their games cinematic experiences. It’s not necessarily a bad method of storytelling, but at that point, they’re directly competing against films. Considering all we’ve managed to accomplish with motion pictures since the medium’s inception, it’s a competition between two severely mismatched opponents. The primary weakness of this method when it comes to video games is that often fails to take the player into account, thus creating a work with two different, and often mutually exclusive, stories: one implicitly told by the gameplay and the other one presented by cutscenes.
It’s a gamble when one thinks about it; if the story of your work is the forefront of the development process, you can’t use strong gameplay as a fallback. You have to make sure that the quality of your writing is on par with professional authors. To put it another way, there is exactly one instance where developers can get away with forsaking gameplay in favor of story: when the writing is just that good. I have no doubt in my mind that Planescape: Torment is one of those games.
Although one could easily describe this game as an electronic book with its truly impressive length of over 800,000 words, it is a story that was very much made for a computer game. With the way the Nameless One’s alignment changes depending on one’s actions, it’s like a novel where the plot details change to reflect the nature of the person reading it. I find it remarkable how a game that relies heavily on its words could be so engaging; Chris Avellone has a rightful claim as one of the best storytellers in the industry. Planescape: Torment is dark without being pretentious, emotionally-gripping without being whiny, and intelligent without being insufferable. I could go on for another dozen paragraphs detailing how good the story is and it wouldn’t even begin to do it justice. Do whatever you can to check this game for yourself; I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.
Final Score: 10/10