Monday, March 27, 2006

Sticks and stones may break my bones...

This past Saturday I was blessed with an overcast, rainy day. Not one to let such a thing go to waste, I spent the day powering through the final quarter or so of Planescape: Torment. I thought I'd share my thoughts here now that the game has finished.

I'm wondering how spoiler-aware to be. This game is such a relic (created in 1999, commercially unsuccessful, no sequel coming) that I'd expect me to be one of the last people who will ever play it. That said, at least two readers of this blog have expressed interest in playing it, so I'll try and be considerate. Overall impressions first, and the meaty reaction inside a spoiler block.

I've gotten at this a bit before but I would like to reiterate: this game is incredibly dark. First of all, it is dark in visual design. Virtually all the characters, environments and items are mixtures of brown, black and grey. The overall feeling is one of squalor and filth. Secondly, it is dark in tone. There is almost no humor here, and what little humor there is usually deals with decapitation and dismemberment. Finally, it is dark in philosophy. The game is pretty nihilistic, and the things you're motivated to do are very different from things that motivate us in ordinary life.

Let me expand on that last point a bit. Often times, the motivation in a fantasy game is the same as a motivation we would feel in our own lives, but magnified to a grander scale. For example, we tend to value family, and in some games you need to rescue your relatives from the Dark Lord; we value country, and in games you need to save it from annihilation; we value truth, and in games you need to solve the Big Mystery. In Planescape: Torment (henceforth Torment), the player character's motivations feel wholly alien: he seeks annihilation, oblivion, the ending of things.

Almost all this post will be about the plot and philosophy, so I should address mechanics before I forget it. The controls are pretty annoying. It's stuck between BG1 and BG2, and unlike BG2 there isn't a convenient way to discover the containers on a screen, so you'll need to mouse over each and every barrel before finding if any of them have stuff inside. Combat is fine, though the party AI is weak. I was generally much happier with combat earlier in the game; when you get party members with ranged attacks, your melee fighters no longer charge enemies, so there's a lot of micromanagement of positioning to keep your weak characters from getting slaughtered.

One bright visual spot is the magic spells. I don't think I cast any offensive magic until about halfway through the game, and when I finally did, I was extremely impressed. The animations are wonderful, looking far more impressive than the rest of the game.

In a way, it's almost a shame that there isn't more combat. I mean, yeah, it was nice to play for days and days without ever needing to fight, but when you did fight (with magic) it seemed so colorful (brilliant red fire, stark blue lightning bolts) that it washes away the drab white-text-on-brown that fills half your screen for the majority of the game. The story is awesome, I love it, but once I had a couple of epic battles I realized how starved I was for color.

Combat is pretty much an afterthought. There are some places where you can fight, but if you really tried, you could probably get through the game only killing 5 or so enemies. You wouldn't be too penalized for that, either. Individual kills will often net you around 65 XP, versus the thousands of points you get from finishing quests or, heck, just talking with people. In that regard, this game curiously felt more civilized than most RPGs, the subject matter notwithstanding.

There is an unbelievable amount of conversation in this game. That's one of the only things I'd heard about Torment before starting, and I was still surprised. Virtually everything you do requires finding people and navigating through elaborate conversation trees to extract every bit of information.

That said, this is a place where their interface could have been improved. It's still basically the BG1 engine, which was fine for the conversations in that game, but can get unwieldy here. The text window takes up half the screen, and you still need to click every paragraph to advance. When choosing your response, your options can go up to 20 or more different topics, requiring some awkward scrolling to find what you want. The content is good enough that it feels worth it, but it shouldn't have to be an obstacle; Bioware should have invested in a new conversation engine for this game, even if they kept everything else.

A point of occasional annoyance is the quest log, which shares the same big problem that Morrowind has. When you get a quest it tells you who gave it to you, but not where they are; therefore, once you finally finish it, it can be really hard to remember exactly where to go to finish it. Even worse, in Torment sometimes the quest will be marked as "completed" and removed from your active log once you do what you were supposed to, even though there might be additional XP and items waiting once you report back to the person who gave it to you.

The character selection is good. Each NPC is unique (both in personality and in ability) and interesting. Like BG2 they occasionally talk with one another, and some especially like or dislike others. They also are frequently involved in your conversations with non-party NPCs, and might open up new conversations or provoke them to attack. You can develop relationships with them; I got in the habit of periodically chatting with them about our quest, and found that they often had a lot to say. This isn't just good for the fun of it; by doing certain threads you can increase their abilities or otherwise help them out.

The music is pretty good, nothing spectacular but nothing embarrassing either. There's only one theme that I really like, which you can hear early in the game and is later repeated. For the most part the music is atmospheric and moody. In a lot of places there isn't music at all, just background noise.

Hm. I think I've covered my bases here. Now, for the next section I'll be talking about things you find out in the game, but which don't directly address the main plot. A lot of it is probably old news to people who play D&D. So, I will call these


The metaphysics of Torment are kind of fun, and I'd like to go into them a bit. As far as I can tell this is based off D&D books and not original to the game. If any of you are more familiar with it than I, please forgive any mistakes I'm making in describing how everything fits together.

There are many dimensions. The first of them is called "Prime," and roughly corresponds to what we would call "The Real World." It is populated by mortals who are born, live, and die.

Beyond Prime, you have the Planes. Where Prime is a mottled place with clashing emotions, beliefs, cultures and motives, each Plane is a more unified place that represents a principle or orientation. For example, one plane is "Limbo," and is a manifestation of the "Chaotic Neutral" alignment. Limbo is filled with chaos, with matter appearing and disappearing, and whorls in the ether regularly sweeping away anything which is built. Opposite of Limbo is Mechanus, the manifestation of the "Lawful Neutral" alignment. Mechanus is filled with gears and levers and machines. Everything is orderly and logical. The main race there is the Modrons, perfectly logical robots who oversee the order of the plane.

The planes are separate universes, and so one cannot, say, fly a space ship between them, but they are still capable of influencing one another. The beliefs and actions of those living in Prime influence what happens in the Planes; in turn, the Planes can affect what happens in Prime. For example, if enough people in Prime believe in a god, that god will be created in the Planes. The more people who believe in him, the stronger he will become; if, over time, they change their idea of what that god is like, he will change to fit the belief. The god's strength is greatest in his own realm, but with enough followers, he will be able to influence events in other planes, or even on Prime itself. To kill a god, one could travel to his home and fight him in full glory; or, one could simply convince enough people to not believe in him, and, like the monster under the bed, he will go away.

Powerful magics can actually move people between planes. If you've played BG2, the company of Players are very clearly from the Planes. In Torment, such travel is usually accomplished by means of Portals, wormholes that stretch across space and even dimensions.

This isn't just background; this philosophy has a huge impact on the game itself. The power of belief is extremely potent and should not be ignored. I read an FAQ after beating the game and learned that, if you lie enough times in the game and say "My name is Adahn," enough people will believe in Adahn, and later in the game a new character called Adahn will actually appear. This sort of thing is realistic here on the planes, far from Prime, and makes all sorts of strange events possible.

Besides belief, the setting of the game means you'll encounter tons of archetypes, and unlike in normal games, they don't feel cheesy, just natural. I mean, if you met a single-minded champion of Justice in, say, a Final Fantasy game, you'd be a little disappointed if there weren't any other complications in his character. But here, yes, he actually is a MANIFESTATION of JUSTICE itself, the avatar of an abstract principle. This isn't to say characters are all one dimensional. Some of the most poignant characters are those who struggle against their natures and try to become something else, or whose experiences have changed them from what they were. But even when something is one-dimensional, it is that is such a stark and uncompromising way that it is enjoyable.

Changing gears slightly: without giving too much away, I'd like to give some general gameplay tips to people who are thinking of playing the game and would like to avoid making bad decisions.
  • Save early and often. After the first section of the game I didn't run into many gameplay bugs, but you don't want to risk it. And with conversation so important in the game, you'll probably want to have a game to go back to if you accidentally offended someone or otherwise messed up a quest.
  • You control your alignment in the game. Probably 99% of this comes from your conversations. Lying makes you chaotic, telling the truth or making vows makes you lawful. If you say something like "I will help you" it'll make you good, if you say "What's in it for me?" it'll make you evil. If you do a lot of good stuff early on, you can do some evil stuff later and retain your alignment.
  • More on alignment: mostly it's just what kind of character you want to play. There are a few things that are only available to certain alignments, but nothing crucial for the game. Being Lawful Good allows you to use one of the best weapons in the game. (If you'd like to do this, give yourself Edged weapons.) Being Evil gives you some other good weapons. There's one faction you can only join if you're Chaotic, but it's not really worth it. I was Neutral Good for most of the game and ended it Chaotic Good. It seems like your alignment should affect your relationship with NPCs but it didn't seem like it did; Lawful members didn't seem to care when I became Chaotic.
  • There are two points in the game where you are teleported to another Plane using an item in your inventory. In both cases, you will be able to find and invite another party member, but when you do so you risk abandoning one behind; if you do this, I think they're lost forever (well, once you go back to Sigil). You MIGHT want to only take four NPCs with you in these cases, though it's possible you'll need all five. Don't stress out about this too much - no single NPC is indispensable.
  • You can increase your stats whenever you level up. Wisdom is definitely the best (I wish I'd figured this out first) - it opens more conversation threads, helps you recover memories (which give you more experience), and gives a bonus to all future XP you receive. Consider getting your Wisdom all the way to 25 (either naturally or with tattoos and other items) before you invest in other stats.
  • It's often better to have one really high stat than a bunch of mediocre ones. Consider raising either your INT or your CHR really high instead of splitting between them. A high INT will sometimes let you logically persuade a person, while a high CHR will let you emotionally persuade them, but a medium of both will get you nothing. This doesn't apply often, but for really important things, you'll want a high stat.
OK, those are the big gotchas. One more topic to cover before hitting the plot.

Names in this game are fascinating. In keeping with the general metaphysics of the planes, everyone has a name that indicates their essence. There's a zombie called Post where people hang notices; there's a skull called Morte; there's a criminal printer called Scofflaw Penn. Sometimes it gets absurd; obviously you won't believe something Lyra tells you. It's less clear when names are given in a non-Common language, but even then, if you can find the name's translation you'll have an excellent idea of what the person is like.

Given all that, it's fascinating that your player character is called The Nameless One. I think there are a lot of ways to consider this. First, one can think that he is unchained from destiny; not having a name, he is free to make his own choices and determine his nature. It feels very significant that you are the only person whose alignment can shift. Secondly, so much of the game is about wanting to KNOW who you are; in this context, it's unfortunate that you are Nameless, because that leaves you with no information about your self, no sense of history or purpose... no YOU.

There are other cases where names make me really curious. The big example I'm thinking of now is Falls-From-Grace, a reformed Succubus. I've been trying to parse that almost since I met her and cannot. She is no longer in the Abyss, but wouldn't she be better called "Rises-From-Damnation"? Or is the name more about what she DOES than what she IS? One can consider the name ironically, I suppose... "grace" being considered a pure or natural state. Still, this game doesn't seem real big on irony. I just don't know. Without this very complex and faithful system of names, though, her particular example wouldn't grab me nearly as strongly.

All right, time to tackle the plot. We now enter the territory of


This is FAR from the first game to use amnesia as a major plot device. I can well understand why it is so tempting to developers; amnesia gives you the best of both worlds, both identifying the player with the character (because, heck, neither of you know what's going on) and giving you a rich and vibrant backstory to explore (because the character did a lot before getting amnesia).

Each game, though, uses amnesia to different ends. Final Fantasy VII uses a very localized kind of amnesia which pays off in the second-biggest shock of the game. The Metal Gear games exploit amnesia to heighten paranoia.

In Torment, your amnesia is probably the single most important thing in the game. It's not just an obstacle to get around; it's something you explore and pursue. For most of the game you just want to know why you can't remember things. This pays off in the game, too; regaining a memory you had previously lost is surprisingly satisfying.

The overall effect is wonderful, sinister and ominous. I think the best example of this is Ravel's question, "What can change the nature of a man?" By the time you actually hear it, late in the game, you (the player, not The Nameless One) will have spent a lot of time pondering that question and turning it over. The echoes of your previous lives both reveal and obscure, giving you little snatches like this question without providing the context you need to make sense of it.

Ah, and a quick side note on Ravel: how cool is her name? You first hear murmured references to her early on, and as the story continues you begin to realize just how important she is, perhaps even thinking that she might be the Final Boss. But it wasn't until I started talking with her that I finally "got" her name, which sent me off on a kick about the English language. If we can talk about unraveling, why not raveling? I love the mental image she conjures up, like a spider, tying things together.

Topic hop: I was pleased to see them continuing (or, I suppose, beginning) the romance tradition from BG2. I wooed Annah in my game; I'm guessing Falls-from-Grace is also a potential lover. That said, BG2's system felt far more satisfying. Here you just had a couple of conversations past a certain plot point. In BG2, it took a long, long time, with conversations initiated both by you and your lover, and the resolution of some special events and plot points to bring to a conclusion. Anyways... yeah. That's a fun aspect, and I wish more games would take advantage of it. It's those little touches that make you feel like it's a ROLE-PLAYING game and not a "kill monsters and loot their gold" game.

My party at the end of the game was myself, Vhailor, Annah, Ignus, Nordom and Falls-from-Grace. As always I wish I had more slots in my party. I reluctantly left Dak'kon behind on Carceri (right?) to get Vhailor; Dak'kon was one of my favorite characters personality-wise, but he just wasn't that good of a fighter or a mage, and wasn't doing much for me in combat. Annah had similarly felt like a dead weight for much of the game - there are far fewer locks and traps for a thief to contend with here than in the BG games - but around the time I got Vhailor I had finally come to realize how useful she was as a scout, and even an assassin. My standard combat technique was to put The Nameless One and Vhailor in front as shields, with Nordom and Ignus behind as artillery and Fall-From-Grace in the backfield for relief. Annah would go stealth, find a group of enemies, backstab one, and then lead the rest on a chase back to my main party, which would mow them down. Sometimes she could do this a few times before our forces collided, and it wasn't unusual for me to resolve potentially lethal conflicts with hardly any damage on my side.

The other name that isn't there is Morte. He was fairly amusing; I gave him up to get Ignus, because he seemed to overlap too much with The Nameless One in combat purpose. Still, he had his qualities... he was the only Good-aligned character, the only one with a sense of humor, and did a lot of the intra-party chatter that I enjoy.

I was briefly very excited when, near the end of the game, I met some earlier incarnations of mine. This all felt very Freudian and clever. There was the "Practical Incarnation," who was obviously plot-focused; there was also the "Good Incarnation" and the "Paranoid Incarnation," the latter of who was obviously crazy. I thought at the time that this was probably the result of the way I had been playing, since I was Chaotic Good by this point; I figured I was speaking with aspects of my personality. I read the FAQ after beating the game, though, and was disappointed to learn that you always meet those three incarnations no matter what. Pity.

And for the very ending of the game... wow. You know, like I was talking about before regarding motivations in RPGs, there also seems to be a limited number of acceptable endings. There's the Dragon Warrior I ending: "Congratulations, you have defeated the Dragon Lord and saved us all! You are Now the King of the Land!" ending. There's the Zelda ending: "Congratulations, you have defeated Gannon and saved Hyrule! Now you can go back to being a pig farmer again!" There's the Ultima ending: "You have shown us all the path to enlightenment! Now you can return to Earth!" In each case the ending is something the player would want, whether that is power, peace or normalcy.

But, geez, the ending of Planescape: Torment? "Congratulations, you have recovered your mortality! You are now damned to spend all eternity in Hell!" I mean, wow. I'd sort of been mentally preparing myself for just dying at the end of the game, since that seemed to be the direction things were going in, but it ended up being way worse than I had thought.

So that kind of got me thinking. Why did I still feel so good after beating the game? The mere thought of going through a fraction of what my character went though was horrifying, and the end of the game just magnified all that to an even more gruesome extent. Part of it is likely because I've been programmed well by video games, and automatically produce a rush of endorphins or whatever when I defeat one. In that case it's the fact that I have "won" which I'm celebrating, not what actually happens within the text.

In another respect, though, it's not the victory that's important, just the fact that it's over. I'm used to playing games in fantasy worlds that are more attractive than my own: even though they may have aspects that are horrifying, the worlds themselves almost always feel elevated above my own: more exciting, more clever, more colorful and magical. My experience playing Torment was the exact opposite: in every conceivable respect I enjoy my own life more than the one portrayed in that game. Oddly enough, I still tended to feel better after playing it, but I think for very different reasons. In a typical RPG I get on a certain high in the game, connected to my admiration for the world it presents, and that pleasure stays with me once I end the game. Here, I felt like a man being led out of a cave; the contrast between the dismal world I was playing in and the wonderful world I am living in was so great that, in an odd way, the game made me appreciate things more. No matter how bad a day I have, at least people aren't ripping out my internal organs, killing my friends and refusing to let me die. Life's pretty good out here.

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