[Review] Planescape: Torment
I came late to the Planescape party, and I am glad I did. When the game was released, back in 1999, I couldn't have appreciated its genius. Besides, I was too busy slashing demons in Diablo II. Some years later, still very young, I played Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn to its conclusion, and I still don't know how I did it. Apparently my teen self was much more proficient in the ways of D&D than I am. Anyway, I recently played Planescape: Torment and I utterly loved it. The friend who recommended it to me can rest assured that I will recommend him in Heaven or its surrogate if I get there first.
Introductions are in order, although I am certain that I was the only soul who hadn't played this game. Planescape: Torment (PsT) is an RPG developed by Black Isle, written by Chris Avellone, who is now with Obsidian, I believe. (I love those guys.) The game tells the story of the Nameless One, a human who has been unable to die for a long time, as his collection of scars and discarded limbs around the planes suggest. After each death, he loses his memories and sheds his current identity, so he must rediscover himself and those who accompany him in a journey to recover his mortality. Along the way, he will be confronted with complex philosophical and moral issues, with different views on existence, and with his own answer to them. Or rather your own answer.
While playing, I was analysing the game through the lenses of other, modern, video games. Actually, this was not the wisest approach, as modern video games draw their influences from a completely different source: cinema. Planescape: Torment is a text-based RPG, so much so that it could as well be considered interactive literature. Moreover, its writing is the best I've seen in the genre. Not just the writing itself, with its socratic style of discovery through dialogue, but also the plot and its dramatic structure. Even such a dismissed element as the sidequest is embedded in the narrative in such a way that it is no mere experience fodder, but an opportunity to find out more about your past.
Everything in the game is coherent with its initial premises: amnesia is not so much a rhetoric device as it is a core element of the journey, thus negating the reaction against the cliché. As a journey of self-discovery which entails the recovery of physical memories and, more importantly, one own's nature, it could not have been otherwise. The amnesia theme was developed brilliantly. Another of its premises is the clash of conflicting philosophies, depicted as factions which quite radical views on life, politics, love, death..., and how this clash, of a conceptual nature, is solved through words. It is coherent because its focus on dialogues is carried to physical confrontations too, providing an alternative, and usually more effective, way of dealing with conflicts. Even the final boss can be 'defeated' verbally. I would love to see this in modern games. I wish I would have been allowed to talk Illidan into allying to beat Arthas, for instance. Also coherent is the game's focus on frequently disdained attributes, such as intelligence, wisdom and charisma, which provide you with more insightful choices in conversations, wiser paths to solve conflicts.
What I missed from the game which is present in modern titles is a comfortable interface, with its now-assumed conveniences like a minimap, a travelling system, a decent combat AI (luckily there's few combat, and the few difficult encounters that I had, I was allowed to run away. Now, that's also brilliant as a storytelling device, because some areas are supposed to be overwhelming, not some farming spot like most of the 'dangerous' zones in modern games. My escaping from hordes of demons, although I knew that I could take them if I pulled them very carefully, is testament to the zone's real, not rhetoric, danger). I also missed some elaborate intra-party banter like the one in the latest Bioware titles, and particularly in Mass Effect 3, where the characters could be hanging around in the Normandy, talking to each other on various topics. That was surely an improvement in dynamic, as opposed to rigid, storytelling.
This game is a masterpiece. Now I can properly assent when other people mention the title. It is rare to find a game that not only stings you emotionally, but also impels you to think. 'What can change the nature of a man?', you are asked, and your answer doesn't matter as long as it is yours.
And then, the ending's catharsis. No loose threads except for those which are left for you to arrange in whatever pattern. In case you are a layman, very much like I was, and you haven't played it, I won't say anything. Go play it. Give yourself a couple of weeks, a month or two; it is a long day's journey into the night.
On a sidenote, I miss the conversation system of ye olde RPGs, where voice was almost absent, but the text was much more rich. Voiced content usually imposes an interpretation on a response, as much as acting interprets the written script (think of the many possible Ophelias that Shakespeare proposed). I like to be able to interpret it myself. I also like the amount of choice that unvoiced works allow. Such a huge narrative as PsT is would have been severely cut down because of the cost of voice acting, and what would have been gone is the roleplaying. Choosing "I promise X" over "[Lie] I promise X" would have been a lost nuance (the difference lies in the lawfulness or chaoticness of your roleplay, also along the good-bad axis, which provide alternative paths in the game). With voiced content, those long dialogues you have, thirsty for answers, would have been reduced to a cutscene. Nowadays there is little room for imagination or choice.
On a side-sidenote, the game and its protagonist remind me of this poem by Borges.
I offer you explanations of yourself, theories about yourself, authentic and surprising news of yourself. I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.