Retro Rewind — Planescape: Torment Reviewed
In our weekly Retro Rewind feature, GameFront examines the best (and worst) that classic games have to offer. Check back every week for forgotten gems, sacred cows, and fresh new insight into the gaming past.
At nearly a million words, the script for Planescape: Torment is one of the longest ever written for a video game. It unfolds via vast slabs of text, settling them deep into the player’s brain and building the foundations of the game’s bizarre, weather-beaten world.
The quality of the story is evidenced by its beginning. Waking befuddled on a metal plinth, surrounded by corpses, the player character — a grey, scarified brute known as The Nameless One — has lost his memory. The only clues to his purpose or identity are tattooed on his back (the game was released in 1998, one year before Memento). They are read out to him by a foul-mouthed, floating skull named Morte, who serves as his boon companion for most of the game. Morte’s first revelation? The Nameless One can’t die, which is why he just woke up, despite lying on a dissecting table, in a building called The Mortuary.
Fumbling into the next room, players are confronted with the writing’s other strength: its descriptive power. Detailed, evocative prose descriptions accompany each clickable object, making The Nameless One’s surroundings — stained with dried blood, rife with vivisection — spring to imaginative life. The game’s tabletop heritage is unmistakable; if ever there was a game written by verbose former dungeon masters, Planescape: Torment is it.
The title’s more immediate forebearer is the AD&D Planescape ruleset license, acquired in the late nineties by Interplay, who in turn set Fallout scribe Chris Avellone loose on it as project lead. Presented with a universe made up of unforgiving, wildly-different planes, and the central hub that serves to connect them all, Avellone and his team created a unique, dystopian fantasy.
Upon escaping the mortuary, The Nameless One is ushered into the city of Sigil (the aforementioned central hub) where life is cheap and sex — as offered by the “harlots” lining its streets — apparently even cheaper. Each NPC you meet is meticulously described, and each seems more repugnant than the last; weeping sores, crazed mutterings, fetid body odor are all brought to disgusting life in vivid paragraphs.
Sigil’s architecture is similarly striking, a riot of rusting metal spikes that blend barbaric primitivism, high fantasy, and Victorian, almost steampunky designs. As the game wears on, the people you encounter tend to be less diseased, and the surroundings better maintained, but its designers never lose their appetite for the bizarre. Sigil is a teeming, living city; so alive, in one instance, that you actually witness an alley “giving birth” to another alley.
Avellone and the rest of the design team at Black Isle were keen to create an RPG that stood out from its contemporaries, and Planescape: Torment is certainly that. In the broadest sense, conversation is preferable to combat. The Nameless One can’t just beat his lost memories out of people, and here, again, the title’s massive script comes into play. For much of its middle third, the game almost begins to resemble a classic adventure game, all item collection, puzzle solving, and wheedling information out of people, with nary a critical hit or magic missile in sight. Stats come into play more often as checks in conversations — having high Intelligence or Charisma can reveal an additional option — than they do calculating weapon damage.
There are no swords in the game. Period. No permanent classes, either; The Nameless One can periodically “remember” the long-lost fighter, thief, and mage skills he’s accrued over his endless lifetime by speaking to a trainer, though he can only remember one class at at a time. A particular fetch quest, instrumental in becoming a mage, offers a surprisingly incisive critique of the idea of fetch quests in general — a neat little “meta moment,” in the benighted parlance of our times.
Sigil’s “Cranium Rats” can actually be quite dangerous in large numbers, when their hive-mind biology kicks in and they start casting spells. The undead are mostly sympathetic characters, especially considering their similarities to the game’s immortal, corpse-like protagonist.
The entire concept of video game death is thoroughly re-worked in Planescape: Torment. Since The Nameless One can’t really die, being reduced to zero hit-points simply results in your respawning back in the Mortuary, or at a particular point in the area you perished in. This can work to the player’s advantage, and often does. One puzzle is impossible to complete without purposefully dying. Later, you are able to indulge a misanthropic NPC who wonders what it would feel like to kill someone, and live to be rewarded. At one point, you can even ask a deranged character to root through your innards for valuables, effectively looting your own corpse.
The Nameless One’s dogged immortality drives the game’s story. Centuries of impermanent death have warped his memory, so that he can no longer remember how he became immortal, or why. Guided by the player, the ugly, haunted hero attempts to find some answers to these questions. Along the way, he crosses paths, wits, and axes with people he has encountered in the past, and then forgotten. For crafting their strange picaresque, the writers deserve much credit; the game wrestles with complex philosophical concepts – love, forgiveness, and death – and does so with nuance and wisdom.
That being said, the narrative is afforded a reverence rose-tinted by hindsight. Though there are many clever twists and goosebump-inducing revelations, there are also a few abrupt, arbitrary shifts. Characters grappling with the weighty issues mentioned above have a tendency to speechify, and at a certain point, you just have put your head down and plow through all metaphysics. The confusion is amplified any time the complicated, shifting system of Planes gets involved. Planes are defined by many metrics — inner, outer, upper, lower, lawful, chaotic — and its hard to keep them all straight.
These foibles are easily forgiven; they’re born out of Planescape: Torment’s ambition and creativity — qualities that both damned and saved it. When the game was first released, people didn’t know what to make of it — the ugly blue character on the cover isn’t exactly the EverQuest Elf (#15) — and it didn’t sell. More than two decades later, it is mentioned in the most distinguished company, and lauded as one of the best PC RPG’s ever created. But without its bizzare hero and its gigantic, iconoclastic script, Planescape: Torment would likely be forgotten — like one of The Nameless One’s eroded memories.