Planescape Torment: What can Change the Nature of a Man?

There’s only one thing that scares me more than the thought of dying: the thought of living forever. That’s the fear that Planescape Torment explores with such subtle beauty and elegance that my fundamental understanding of what video games can accomplish has been completely rewritten. I knew this game was considered legendarily good before going in, but somehow I just didn’t think a game from 1999 could possibly live up to the hype. Surely it was nostalgia warping people’s perception of the game.

I didn’t play this game when it came out, and I’m actually glad I didn’t. I really doubt that the 11-year-old me would have had the patience for a game with so many words, and he certainly wouldn’t have been able to understand the nuances and themes of the narrative. And I’ve very glad that my Patreon backer Erik Jensen chose this game for me to review, because it was definitely an amazing journey.

My spoiler-free review of the game is this:

Planescape Torment is the most beautifully written game I’ve ever played. It’s a story about the death, the nature of identity, and the power of regret. This game is, without exaggeration, the Citizen Kane of Video Games. It made look at myself and reevaluate my own beliefs and thought processes. 

If you’ve never played it, it’s only $10 on Good Old Games and you must absolutely play it. Don’t read my review and spoil it for yourself, because it will absolutely blow your mind.

I really struggled writing this article, because the first draft was like 10,000 words and rambled between various topics. So I’ve decided to just make this a series of articles. The first is just my initial thoughts playing the game. Follow ups will concentrate on specific characters, the setting, narrative structure and anything else I couldn’t fit in here. Seriously, I could write an entire book about everything going on in this game.

 Planescape Torment:

“What can Change the Nature of a Man?”

I think one of my greatest fears when I got the game was that it was going to be a constant parade of misery and death. After all, it’s a game about death, how could it not be a never ending march of misery?

And yet the first thing I did upon waking up on that slab in the mortuary was laugh. Out loud. A full bellied, grinning laugh.

Snorting without lungs

Having Morte be there when you wake up was a stroke of absolute genius on the part of Black Isle’s writers. You wake up cold and alone in a mortuary surrounded by walking corpses: you don’t know who you are, you don’t know where you are, and you don’t even know what the world is like outside the small room that is your current universe. Letting the player wander around aimlessly in this environment would have been terrible, because we’d have absolutely no reason to care about our character or figure out who we are. Enter Morte, a floating skull with a sharp tongue…despite not actually having a tongue.

Morte not only introduces you to the world of Planescape, but also sets the tone for the rest of the game. Yes, this is a game about depressing themes like death, betrayal and redemption but that doesn’t mean you won’t get some laughs along the way. That’s important because without that juxtaposition of humor and unspeakable horror, this would have been a real chore to play through.

Morte despite being a head without a body is actually quite useful in combat and we were both easily able to leave the Mortuary. I found myself in the city of Sigil, the city that sits in the center of the Multiverse in which Planescape takes place. It’s called the city of Doors because it links to every other plane in the Multiverse. Sigil is an absolutely amazing setting because it really does make you feel like you’re in a totally alien world.

I mean I guess Planescape would most comfortably in the Fantasy genre, but only in the loosest sense. There are no elves, no dwarfs, there’s really nothing familiar about this world at all. Some of the buildings of Sigil are made from brick and mortar, rotting after centuries of use, but others are carved from bone or bits of fabric hastily stitched together. The roads twist and turn with no discernible pattern,  strange creatures called Dabus speak only in strange symbols and constantly rework the streets into new configurations. And on every street corner is a Collector, foul scavengers that linger like vultures around the slums (known as The Hive) where they wait for the sick and dying to finally keel over so they can give them to Dustmen in exchange for a few bits of coin.

So basically it was Detroit.

Actually it's kind of scary how accurate the comparison is.
Actually it’s kind of scary how accurate the comparison is.

What I found fascinating was the fact that I felt like the city was dying because of me. As you go through the streets of Sigil you start to realize something: the Nameless One is old. Old enough that stories about The Nameless One have become part of the local mythology. And most of those stories aren’t good.

I walked into a building called the Smoldering Corpse Bar where I found, unsurprisingly,  a smoldering corpse. Except it wasn’t a corpse, it was a powerful mage named Ignus who was engulfed in flames. His flesh had been melted from his bones and yet he was alive, but trapped in a coma-like state. After asking around about him I found out that he almost burned the entire city to the ground before an alliance of mages, sorcerers and anyone with even the slightest magical ability managed to contain him, turning him into a living conduit for the element of fire.

I eventually found a way to free him, and found that he was totally insane, but during one of his lucid moments I managed to question him. It turns out I was the man who taught him magic, or rather one of my previous incarnations. This incarnation was a mage of great power, and even greater cruelty, who drove Ignus insane by torturing and tormenting him. All in the name of unlocking Ignus’s power.

ignus-smoldering

Unfortunately Ignus’s story is just one of many and as you uncover more of your past history you’ll come to understand The Nameless One’s torment. The lives you’ve ruined, the destruction you’ve caused, and the chaos wrought by your actions… your very existence is your torment. You’ve become a wound on the multiverse, one that’s begun to fester and spread, possibly threatening to unravel the whole thing.

After scouring the city of Sigil for evidence of your identity you finally come to the person who made you immortal; Ravel the Hag. I came seeking Ravel expecting some conniving schemer, like basically every other “hag” character in the history of storytelling. What I found instead however, was a sad and tormented old woman who had been waiting for so long she barely remembered why.

But after talking for a while she did finally remember: Ravel loved me, had always loved me, and had granted me immortality because she wanted to see me free. I should have been revolted at the advances of a crone with mottled grey skin, long curling green talons and grey lidless eyes. But I found it quite the romantic scene because if you look past the shallow identity of physical appearance, she was really just an enamoured girl who had waited untold millenia for you to arrive.

And this is just the first in a line of deeply humanized villains you encounter throughout the game. Eventually we had talked over everything and before I departed she asked one question:

“What can change the nature of a man?” – Ravel

Not only was I impressed by the question, I was impressed by the number of responses I could give. In fact this was something that had impressed me in through the entire game. There is a ton of dialogue in this game, and it’s all utterly fantastic. I read somewhere there’s something like 800,000 words in this game. It’s really an incredible achievement. I just needed to say that.

So out of the dozen or so answers I had available, I chose the honest option: I had no idea what can change the nature of a man.

Frustratingly Ravel didn’t give me an answer, but I’ve been thinking about that question every day since. Even after learning the answer at the end of the game, it’s still a fascinating philosophical question.

Granted, it's not a new question, but it's still damn impressive for a video game.
Granted, it’s not a new question, but it’s still damn impressive for a video game.

And Ravel, in the tradition of the finest romances, sacrifices herself to try and save you. Though you see her sacrifice in a cut scene, The Nameless One never knows the lengths that Ravel went to in order to repair the damage she caused.

Frankly I was a bit emotionally exhausted by the time I arrived in Curst, a city in the Outlands. I felt like I had just watched a Game of Thrones marathon, that’s how good the writing is. It does what all good writing does, it skips your brain entirely and speaks directly to your heart. But here I was in Curst and there was still a lot of work to be done, there was no time for rest.

I knew that my first incarnation had sought out immortality from Ravel, but Ravel couldn’t restore it. Instead I had to seek out a Deva (an Angel basically) named Trias, locked away somewhere.

To make this already long post shorter, when you free Trias from his imprisonment he tells you that you must seek out your mortality at the Fortress of Regret, whose location is only known to the Pillar of Skulls. Which is, unsurprisingly, a tower of skulls. What was disturbing is that it could speak.

Gee, that sounds like someone we know.
Gee, that sounds like someone we know.

Yes, this is where Morte came from. You see he led your first incarnation to his death by telling you a lie, and his punishment was to forever suffer among that pile of other lying skulls. Turns out your previous incarnation freed him from the pile and took Morte with him.

That’s why he was waiting for you in the Mortuary. What I thought at first was a rather convenient plot device, an easy way to introduce you to the world, turned out to have a plausible reason for its existence. He’d always been there waiting for you, guiding you when you forgot yourself. So why didn’t he reveal himself to you? Because sometimes you woke up crazy.

“One time you woke up and you were convinced I was your skull.  You spent days chasing me through the Hive before you were crushed by a horse-drawn cart.”

Well okay, hard to argue with that logic. What the Pillar of Skulls reveals is that it doesn’t know where the Fortress of Regret… but Trias does.

That lying bastard lied to me! THE LIAR!

Plus he was voiced by John DeLancie, and I wasn't about to kill Q.
Then again he was voiced by John De Lancie so I should probably have seen that coming.

When I returned to Curst I found that it had been shifted into the prison plane of Carceri. Trias the Betrayer had bargained with the lords of the Lower Planes to deliver Curst to them and open the way for their demon hordes to attack the Upper Planes directly. Why? Because his superiors were secretly arming both sides of the Blood War so that the demons wouldn’t turn their sights on the heavens. Trias believed they should attack now while the demons are divided, and hoped to force the Devas into conflict.

In the end I forgave Trias, not because I condoned what he did, but because after everything my past incarnations had done who was I to pass judgement? And as I urged him to go to his people and beg their forgiveness I was reminded of a line from Dragon Age Origins:

“I am the Penitent Sinner, who shows mercy in the hopes that mercy will be shown to him.” Dragon Age: Origins, Temple of Sacred Ashes.

And in showing mercy to Trias I had hoped that the powers-that-be that ruled the Multiverse would show mercy to the Nameless One.

Come on, look at how ugly he is. Don't you think he's been punished enough?
Come on, look at how ugly he is. Don’t you think he’s been punished enough?

Which leads us to the finale of the game. Trias reveals that the entrance to the Fortress is back in the Mortuary, a stone’s throw from where you woke up. The Nameless One’s entire life has been a long unending circle that’s never been allowed to close, so I found really thematically fitting. It ends where it all begins.

When you finally arrive at the Fortress of Regret you’re forced to fight your way through the Shadows that have hunted you through the game. It’s here Deionarra, a girl who a previous incarnation got killed specifically so she could serve as a scout, reveals the nature of the Shadows that have been hunting you.

Death cannot be avoided, it can only be deferred. Every death you suffered meant some innocent person somewhere else died in your place. The Shadows are the souls of those people, trapped here in the Fortress of Regrets, unable to rest. Quite frankly I thought this was the most horrifying thing I could possibly imagine. That’s when I met the only other soul more tormented than those that died.

Your soul.

He calls himself the Transcendent one, but he’s simply tormented. Your mortality has experienced the sum of all the rage and hate and fear and pain that had tormented you through the thousands, possibly tens of thousands of years you’ve existed. He brags that this means he has all of the skills you’ve ever accumulated, the spells of the sadistic Mage, the killer instinct (and possibly the insanity) of the Paranoid Incarnation, and the brilliance and callousness of the Practical Incarnation, as well as all those countless others lost to history.

Yet in this boast he also reveals the reason he hates you so much; he’s been suffering all that time. Your mortality never got to forget the pain you’ve caused through your life times, the suffering you’ve wrought and the lives you’ve ruined. Your mortality remembers the face of everyone you’ve killed and he spends his entire existence locked away with the innocent but tormented souls of everyone who took your place when you died. Of course he hates you, how could he not? 

You know I'm sensing torment is a major theme here.
You know I’m sensing torment is a major theme here.

I could have fought him and forced him to return, but instead I decided to ask my mortality a question.

“What can change the nature of a man?”

Belief, I told him, belief can change the nature of a man.

Holy shit.  Planescape you have blown my mind.

I wish I had had the presence of mind to take screenshots of the whole explanation because it was one of the most thought provoking and quite frankly beautiful things I have ever read. Unfortunately I was sitting in slack jawed amazement that I was reading this in a video game and not Plato’s The Cave.

I’m going to replay the ending so I can grab the quotes, because I’m pretty sure I need to do a whole “All that Matters is the Ending” article just on this ending. Which is probably what I should have done rather than make this long rambling article that took a week to write. That’s how good this game is. So good I forgot how to organize a fucking list article.

You gotta play this game.

You know maybe if you shut up once in a while, you could actually do something right for a change.
Because clearly the people who made Dragon Age Inquisition never did.

So I finally merged with my mortality and did what was necessary: my existence ended and descended to Baator to take part in the Blood War.

The Nameless One had been running in fear of death for countless centuries. I played my Nameless One as someone filled with regret, because that was honestly how I was feeling playing this game and listening to the shit my previous incarnations had done. So I tried to do good as much as I could, but in the end I deserved to go to Baator. The damage I’d done in my previous incarnations, the damage caused by his desire to avoid death.

But I wasn’t disappointed by the ending, it was emotionally satisfying because as the Nameless One picked up a mace and walked into the Blood War to do his penance, behind him was the Rune of Torment. He walked into that maelstrom of unending war having finally left behind the torment of a life without end. Compared to the hell he’d just gone through, the punishment in Baator he’d feared so much must have paled by comparison.

And I think Grace’s words were probably ringing in his ears:

Time is not your enemy. Forever is.

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Patreon Updates

I’m still writing my review of Planescape Torment, which should hopefully be up by next week, but in the mean time I thought I’d give my patreon backers a few updates:

First of all, thanks to Jared and John for becoming my second and third backers on Patreon. I’ve already hit my first two milestones, which means that the WordPress Wordads will soon be joining the Darkspawn in the black abyss of the deep roads and my blog will be moving to a private host instead of WordPress.com. WordPress is a great site and it’s served me well, but it does have it’s limitations. I’ve been wanting to redesign the site for years now so that readers could see and read articles in an intuitive way, where as now it’s easy to miss the fact that an article might be part of a larger series. Unfortunately to do that on WordPress requires you buying one of their Premium Themes, which are ridiculously expensive, it would be far more cost effective to move my stuff to a private server and then I can tweak the wordpress code however I like. Thanks to Eric, John and Jared I can now do just that.

I’m currently in the process of looking for a good host, so hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll be on a private server with a completely revamped website layout. In theory this shouldn’t affect you at all, the site will still be at the same URL (www.johnswritersblock.com), the switch should happen entirely in the background. However that’s just the theory, so in the case something goes terribly, terribly wrong and my site leads you to a 404 error or something similar, send me an email at j.stevenson88@gmail.com and hopefully I can get it fixed quickly.

Secondly, my Patreon now has a fancy Header graphic thanks to a terrific artist I know!

WritersBlock

 

Thanks to the outpouring of support I’ve already received, both in actual dollars and supportive messages from people who couldn’t afford to contribute, I’ve been thinking of expanding the Writer’s Block to include my own works of fiction. I’ve been reluctant to do this because, and this isn’t easy to admit, I can talk the talk but walking the walk scares the shit out of me. Yes, I love getting up on my soapbox and criticizing writers who, even if they failed, put themselves out there and tried to tell a story. As badly as I piled onto the writers of Dragon Age: Inquisition, they at least actually published a story for the world to see, and I respect that. Unfortunately because my ego is held together with chewed bubble gum and ancient mummy-wrappings I’ve always been a bit reluctant to open up myself to similar criticism.

Well no more. I already have a series of stories that will be published on http://www.fantasyrockopera.com, one of my freelance writing clients. I also have a science fiction short story that’s near to completion that I’ll be publishing.

Now only will this help me become a better writer, but I’m hoping it’ll also greatly improve my chances at finding a job in the game industry. The one thing holding me back, I think, is my lack of actual content that I created with my own fingers. The storytelling reviews and copy writing  experience on my résumé is all well and good; it shows my experience in professional settings and the ability to relay complex information to an audience, but it doesn’t really showcase my creativity. At least not in a way that would make a potential game company look at it and say “yeah, this guy could create a world for our game.” Basically I’m Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2, I go around ripping things off the wall with a gravity gun and giggling like a maniac.

"You have destroyed so much, what is it, exactly, that you have created!?" - Pertinent Half-Life 2 quote.
“You have destroyed so much! What is it, exactly, that you have created!?” – Pertinent Half-Life 2 quote.

I’ve also recently gotten back into playing Freespace 2, one of the greatest space simulators ever made: it also happens to feature a powerful mission creator so simple even a poorly trained monkey could use it. I used to make dozens of my own campaign when the game came out in 1999, so with everything I know now and the much more powerful FRED editor provided by the Open Source Project, I should be able to create some really cool stories. Not only will this get my own stories out there, but it’ll give me a chance to experience making a story using gameplay and having to keep things like game balance and pacing in mind while creating a story. After my Planescape Torment review, I’ll be doing a review of Freespace 1 and 2 and why they did a terrific job telling their stories.

So prepare yourselves, for stories are coming. They might be bad, but they’ll be mine. So we’ll just see how this goes. My Patreon page may eventually expand to include milestones for short stories and perhaps novels at some point, but for now, just enjoy.

And support my Patreon if you can, and if you can’t, share it on Twitter and Facebook!

 

The Importance of Death and Failure

Well it’s been an exciting two months here. Lots of new readers who apparently all agree that Dragon Age Inquisition is perhaps the most disappointing Game of the Year in history. I’ve had my first, hopefully of many, backer on Patreon (Big thanks to Eric!) and am playing through Planescape Torment now to review the story. I’ve been playing it for about two weeks now and it’s become clear that it’s going to take a while to write a proper review of the game. The narrative is deep, the characters believable, and there are important facets of the game’s multilayer, in media res, checkovian, greek-tragedy style storyline that must be analyzed and meticulously um…analyzed to um… provide maximum reviewyness.

You’re… you’re not buying it are you?

Okay I’ll admit…

I suck at the combat!

Awaiting death should have been my character's name.
Awaiting death should have been my character’s name.

I remember classic RPGs from the 90s being hard, but after years of playing games that go out of their way to help me win, they’re almost impossible. The part of my brain that used to see games as a challenge has completely atrophied. I’ve woken up on that lonely slab so many times I consider it a close personal friend. Not to worry though, I’m sure I will eventually get the hang of playing a game that doesn’t hold my hand.

Eventually.

In the meantime, I want to talk about how refreshing it is to play a game that’s actually difficult and why difficulty is important to a game. I touched on this in my review of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the inability for the character to fail in anyway cheapened the story and completely undermined the stakes. Now I’m not going to sit here and say how much better games were back in my day…

Now that's a game!
Now that’s a game!

Games are definitely far more fun and accessible now than they were when I first started playing them in the early 90s as a kid. UI’s have been streamlined and made more intuitive, improved graphics have made it easier to actually tell what the hell your shooting at, and on the whole, writing has been greatly improved. Still, in the effort to make games appeal to wider and wider audiences, the difficulty of games has gone down dramatically.

For instance a few weeks back I played Dying Light, which is actually a pretty good game at the beginning. You’re so pitifully weak and out of shape that trying to take on more than two or three zombies at a time will either send you running for your life or screaming as they feast on your flesh. And because I felt so weak during the day, Night was an absolute nightmare. Nighttime is when the freaks come out, they’re fast, strong and utterly merciless. When you first encounter them, you have to run through the pitch black streets and try and make it home again while dozens of these monsters are tearing after you. As a complete and utter coward even in video game settings, my heart was pounding in my chest as I ran through the streets while hearing their grunting and screeching cries just behind me.

And then they caught me.

In my panic I’d run into a dead end, and I couldn’t parkour myself up the walls fast enough to escape.

maxresdefault (1)
Wait! Stop! Do over! DO OVER!

So I splashed some cold water on my face, psyched myself up and hit the continue button. This time I’d remain calm, avoid that alley, and try to stick to the rooftops.

And then suddenly I was back at the Tower, a safe zone.

And like that, all tension in the game evaporated. Your death in game has absolutely no penalty aside from the loss of XP if you die in the day time, but at night there’s no penalty at all to dying. Without that, the game loses any sense of threat or challenge because you know, no matter what you screw up or how hopeless your situation seems, you’ll wake up back in a safe location. Now I wasn’t expecting an Ironman mode where dying would result in a complete reset, that would just be annoying, but I was at least expecting the game to put me back at the beginning of the chase scene.

Death is one of the most basic and effective means to establishing the stakes of a story and creating challenging gameplay. When you take that away you better have a damn good mechanic in place to replace it, Dying Light didn’t and after that the game just didn’t have any thrill to it. Beating zombies to death with a baseball bat isn’t nearly as intimidating when you know that losing just means waking up in complete safety with ammo and health available for purchase at the nearest store. In fact sometimes when the game made me run off to remote locations to complete a quest, I’d jump off a cliff or something just so I could use the Magic Teleporter of Death to warp back into the city.

And the game only gets worse from their as you unlock abilities and weapons that allow you to take down hundreds of zombies at a time.

You see zombies, I see a crop of XP waiting to be harvested.
You see zombies, I see a crop of XP waiting to be harvested.

Allow me to compare Dying Light to the only game I feel did zombies correctly: State of Decay. Now in State of Decay you could gain experience points from killing zombies, but these didn’t unlock special abilities so much as it simply represented a character becoming more familiar with his weapons. If your character takes a baseball bat to zombies, he’ll naturally progress in melee skill. A character who runs at the mere sight of a zombie will become more athletic and able to run faster and farther. But even when all your stats are maxed out, more than a handful of zombies will ruin your day unless you have a gun with a suppressor.

More importantly, if your character dies… he dies. Though you can recover his equipment if your fast enough, death in State of Decay is permanent. And when your first character dies screaming in terror because you stupidly thought you could take on a dozen zombies, it really reinforces the stakes of the game. And when you see a character taken down by a feral and literally torn in half, through no fault of your own but bad luck, it makes the game world feel dangerous and unpredictable.

Now Dying Light has some great things going for it, it’s one of the few games where I felt like melee combat had any real weight to it. I could practically feel the impact of my blows while playing Dying Light, and its physics engine is top notch, with zombies tumbling over and picking themselves up in realistic ways. Once you play it, the zero-mass rag-dolls of yesteryear’s physics engines will seem utterly ridiculous.

crackdown2_small
You know, just in case you didn’t already think they were ridiculous.

But if you’re looking for a satisfying sense of danger and fear, Dying Light will not scratch that itch in the slightest. In fact you’ll probably find yourself doing more missions at night because you get bonus XP.  And while I’m using Dying Light as the whipping boy here, it’s only because it was the most recent example, there are plenty of other games guilty of reducing difficulty to the point where there’s no satisfaction to winning.

And I do understand why games have become easier. As a person with increasingly less and less time to actually play video games, I don’t want to have to repeat the same level four times. However, there’s streamlining the difficulty for the player’s convenience and then there’s just holding their hand the entire time, and tutting us like an irritated mother when we fuck it up. Dying Light falls distinctly into the latter category. When you die in Dying Light, the game gently soothes you, wraps you in a blanket and gives you some hot coco before placing you safely back in the game. What it should have done is tell you what a disappointment you are to them and then toss you back into the streets with the monsters.

Now some of you might be finding this stance a bit hypocritical given that Planescape Torment does pretty much the same thing. You die, you end up back in the Mortuary safe and sound. The difference is that Planescape Torment’s death mechanic makes sense in its world, and not only that, it also fits into the themes of mortality and identity. Plus I’ve heard, though not yet experienced myself, that certain powerful deities and creatures you meet in the game can Permakill you if you piss them off. That’s the key, Planescape Torment makes its death mechanic part of the story and thus it doesn’t undermine the stakes when you’re reborn.

Dying Light just teleports you to safety with no explanation and no penalty.

maxresdefault (1)
Yeah, if you could just carry me back to my room, that’d be great thanks.

My brain’s ability to deal with difficulties has been completely atrophied after years of playing games like Dying Light that go out of their way to make sure I never feel challenged. Planescape Torment, aside from having an amazing story, has reminded me just how important difficulty and the possibility of failure is to a satisfying video game. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with a full review and story breakdown of Planescape Torment.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll support my Patreon page and keep on reading the site!