Remembering… Planescape: Torment
Planescape: Torment is more than a legend in the ranks of those who know their old-school games. Unlike it’s better known cousin Baldur’s Gate or its scrappy younger brother Icewind Dale, Planescape has been difficult to find in the years since its release. A used copy of the game (all four CDs worth) could run upwards of a hundred dollars. It was a relatively poor seller when it launched, despite being a critical hit, though this is perhaps no wonder: its world is bleak and grisly, a realm of brown slums and scorched earth. Even when walking on paved streets, the world’s inhabitants are always the same: selfish, arrogant, ever seeking an angle, trying to advance themselves, entertain themselves at other’s expense, or survive when they have hit rock bottom and continue to fall. The game begins in a mortuary of flayed bodies and ends in a fortress built by lifetimes of sin, and the entire motivation driving players from one end of misery to the other is the hope that they can finally, truly, die. To call the game’s focus dark is an understatement; its moments of humor are bleak laughs, and they are few and far between. The game is long, deliberate, exhausting, and even exasperating. And it may be the single best Western-style roleplaying game ever made.
Its hero is a scarred, blue-skinned man who has difficulty staying dead. He doesn’t know the reason for his immortality, his past, or his name, though several people that he meets remember him. He begins in the slums of the city of Sigil, the center of the multiverse, where one can find the portals to every plane of existence. Right from the start Planescape accomplishes a neat trick perfectly, without even seeming to realize it, a trick that games like the Dragon Age series have congratulated themselves for doing while never really accomplishing: it paints a portrait of a truly dark fantasy world. This is not dark in the sense that the characters occasionally use the F-word. This is the kind of dark with painful real-life parallels: a starving homeless population, jonesing drug addicts, howling prostitutes, orphaned children surviving in packs, all living in dirt and all with no way out. While modern RPGs have come a long way with voice-acting and lush 3D environments, they have somehow lost the feeling of being in an unfamiliar place, or among people we would see walking down the street in real life and hope to avoid.
Planescape was designed to feature no elves, dragons, goblins, dwarfs, or other traditional fantasy tropes, and as a result it feels less like a Dungeons & Dragons fanfiction and more like a devil’s brew of Dante’s Inferno and Alice in Wonderland, laced with a mildewed one-volume set of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s definitely a fantasy game, and features enough traditional elements to make us feel somewhat at home (those isometric point-and-click Baldur’s Gate environments, those dialogue boxes with pages of text to scroll through, those ever-present menu buttons at the bottom of the screen, right next to the character portraits of your party members), but they are all filtered through Planescape’s unique vision. The main character cannot equip armor, for example; few weapons exist to equip to one’s party members, at least for first time players. Similar to many games of its age, there is no safety net to ensure one meets every important character in an environment before going too far forward. It’s the sort of game where when one pulls up a strategy guide near the half-way mark for help with what feels like a sudden spike in difficulty, they read about using party members the player has never even heard of.
That sudden difficulty spike isn’t uncommon for games of its age, or the feeling of being hopelessly lost without a clue of where to go next. It’s a common feeling, that being lost, and while it can be a very effective mechanic at delivering the feeling of being completely on one’s own in a fantasy world, it’s not always a good thing, especially when one has wandered for what feels like days trying to find the right people to talk to in the right order to solve a problem no one has even assured you is going to get you anywhere. While there’s nothing wrong with setting players up for the possibility of disappointment, it can really take the wind out of their sails when it comes time to buckle down and do what can best be described as dialogue-grinding, not when there’s little reason to believe doing so will accomplish anything. And there is a lot of dialogue to grind through; as any fan of the game will tell you, it contains close to 800,000 words of text.
The sheer weight of those 800,000 words is frequently obvious: encounter a character with a name other than “Loud Tout” or “Pompous Salesman” and one is faced with at least five dialogue options, all of which branch further and further down the scroll wheel. It’s almost all brilliantly written of course (this is from the Golden Age of the PC RPG after all), but it can very easily become suffocating; the few times the game lets the player loose to just hack things to pieces for an hour or two are almost always gratefully received.
But that hacking and slashing quickly becomes miles more tedious than the dialogue, especially if one hasn’t taken the time to grind a few levels or followed through all the sidequests thrust upon them at any given moment (it’s not uncommon to see five or ten open quests in your journal at a given time, including some from twenty hours ago that you completely forgot about and will never take the time to go back and complete). The combat is almost always cumbersome; if one doesn’t take the time to micromanage each party member on a turn-by-turn basis (i.e., hit the space bar every six seconds and dole out commands), you will frequently find your healers running up and punching demons with their fists, or fighters standing still while being eaten alive by an army of spiders. It’s fast moving in a way, but not in a fun way; rather than feel like one has any hope of succeeding, you’re frequently left to run away to thin out crowds of enemies and take them down one at a time, and/or double-back to town every five minutes to rest and recharge healing spells. As much as one feels antsy and hemmed in during endless dialogue, as soon as you go to blow off some steam you find yourself missing those five branching options and that scrollwheel.
As faithful as it is to the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons ruleset, the strictures of a pen-and-paper play style can feel needlessly finicky when played on a computer, not to mention overwhelming if one doesn’t have a copy of the AD&D Player’s Handbook by their side (or committed to memory). There’s still something about finding a mace with the words “+3 crushing damage” that tickles a pleasure center near the base of the spinal column, but when one finds one’s inventory filled with seven or more weapons with no obvious advantage over the other (or worse, perform in no way like their description would lead one to believe), one can’t help but feel like they’re floundering as a player, or just completely wrong in every way about how they think the game works. The combat’s only saving grace is the fact that death is not a short-cut to a load screen, but merely an inconvenience: the Nameless One’s inability to die merely means a respawn at the most recent door he passed through, though the death of an ally takes a little more fixing.
And yet it’s somehow not as bad as it sounds. As aggravating (or simply dull), as the game can be, one never really loses the motivation to push through and see what awaits them on the other side of the challenge they are facing. And it almost all has to do with those 800,000 words: they are a wonder to behold. Planescape’s story isn’t about its cutscenes, voice-overs, or its quiet interludes; Planescape’s story is an entire world that convinces us that it has been around for thousands of years, and that we are merely players on a very grand, grisly stage. Angels deceive the innocent; demons make good on promises. A pillar of caterwauling skulls will answer any question, for a price. A town slips from one plane of reality to an abyss of chaos. A religious group pays scavengers money for corpses so that they might do… something… to the bodies they are brought. And a hag waits in garden of shadows to ask any who would dare: “What can change the nature of a man?”
Somehow, despite its flaws, Planescape feels more endearing than most every big budget title made today. While almost every modern game feels so focus-tested they never leave players any doubt as to how to progress, and feature perfectly crafted difficulty curves to climb, they are also so slick, shallow, and risk-free as to risk losing all sense of emotional connection. By not challenging us to do anything other than sit and follow a straight line of breadcrumbs from opening tutorial to three-stage last boss, so many games have lost their sense of adventure, of risk, of discovery and accomplishment. And while Planescape is not, by any means, perfect, it is something more interesting than almost every game found today. In not doing all of our thinking for us, by not rushing ahead, by not laying its entire story out in front of us from the opening scenes, Planescape feels less like an interactive movie, as most games of today are trying to be, and instead creates the feeling of wading through a dense, dusty, 1,000 page fantasy novel. It meanders and sprawls and hints at two dozen paths before finally working its way back, brilliantly, to an answer that’s been staring us in the face the entire time.
It can be musty and poorly paced, but at its core Planescape is something shocking: a truly wise game. Its maturity is not based on its sex or language or vaunted moral choices, but on the wisdom of knowing how painful it can be to know one’s mistakes, and the terror, the necessity, of facing the consequences of our actions. It is a game that knows that the only way out of our problems is to pass through them, and the only way to make peace with the world is to make peace with ourselves. And most incredible of all, instead of simply telling us these things, it forces us to trudge through and disentangle them for ourselves over the course of its 40+ hours. By its ending, when all its pieces are in place and one practically feels the sensation of turning pages with the clicks of a mouse, Planescape presents what is easily one of the most moving closing passages of a game in memory. While it has multiple endings, its best is reached when the player avoids a final boss fight altogether; the game is, after all, about saving oneself, not saving the world. And when it closes, it does not try to market for a sequel, tease with a rushed finale or infuriate with a sudden stop. It ends, in a way no game seems capable of these days, with a resolution. It closes its back cover on itself, and it leaves us gaping.