What It’s Like to Play Planescape: Torment

This art­icle was origi­nally pub­lished on Culture­Ramp. In an effort to reach out to ‘non-gamers’, the media blog pub­lished a series en­titled What It’s Like to PlayThe two first instal­ments focused on the sci-fi eco­system manage­ment game Waking Mars and the shooter-turned-compe­titive sport Team For­tress II.You wake up in a strange, sur­real world, where everything is an unknown. After an enig­matic opening movie filled with out­landish creatures and trau­matic memories, you are instructed to begin a “new life”. After doing so, you are quickly plunged into the game, your char­acter waking up on a mor­tuary slab, and imme­di­ately sucked into a con­ver­sa­tion with a talking, floating skull, of all things.

A show­case of some of the char­ac­ters in ‘Tor­ment’

As the talk with Morte—for ‘tis the skull’s name—quickly makes clear to you, he knows a lot more about the world you just woke up in than you do. In fact, he knows more about you than you do. The game’s prot­ag­onist, and your window onto its world, is an immortal amne­siac, The Name­less One. Your escape from the game’s first area, the Mor­tuary, will fur­nish you with the basic know­ledge you will need to make sense of the world out­side. Gradu­ally, as you start to explore the city and meet its col­ourful inhab­it­ants, it will become clear that The Name­less One has some­thing of a com­plic­ated his­tory. He’s had past lives—or ‘incarn­a­tions’— and done things to hurt others, par­tic­u­larly his former lover Deionarra, but pre­cisely what happened is anyone’s guess. The people you talk to know at best only part of the story.

From the get-go, it’s clear that in order to pro­gress, to find out more about your­self, Plan­es­cape: Tor­ment wants you to read, to talk, to pick the con­ver­sa­tion choices that match how you envi­sion your character’s responses to the world around him. The solu­tion to the game’s central problem, the enigma of your own iden­tity and past, is explor­a­tion. By sending The Name­less One across the game’s areas with a click of the mouse, you lift the veil from places you vis­ited in a past life but can’t remember any­more. Gaining know­ledge about the city, the mul­ti­verse beyond, and more import­antly, about The Name­less One’s back­ground, is done through a con­tinuous detective hunt for clues, for items left behind, and for the people who might know part of your story, as well as the motley assort­ment of char­ac­ters that can be per­suaded to join you as com­pan­ions on your journey of self-discovery. In a way, The Name­less One is a shattered person, and his pieces are scattered across the game’s uni­verse. It’s your job to put him together again, in whatever way you can.

Because of the fun­da­mental weird­ness of the Plan­es­cape setting—based on a series of books for theAdvanced Dun­geons & Dragons pen-and-paper role­playing game, AD&D for short—players without prior know­ledge of it will dis­cover its pecu­li­ar­ities at the same rate as The Name­less One. He is no more or less amne­siac when it comes to his world than the player is likely to be, and con­sequently, explor­a­tion of the game world over­laps to a great degree with the protagonist’s char­acter devel­op­ment, making rev­el­a­tions poignant for char­acter and player alike.

Sigil, the game’s big city, is at the center of The Outer Planes, realms of exist­ence which have ideas as their basic sub­stance, rather than phys­ical ele­ments. This makes for inter­esting philo­soph­ical thought exper­i­ments, some of which are incor­por­ated in Tor­ment, but it also has very prac­tical con­sequences for your actions in the game. There are many moments where you can shape and change the nature of reality around you by force of will.

An example which I’ve always found beau­tiful is that of Mourns-for-Trees, a man emo­tion­ally dev­ast­ated by the absence of greenery from the dirty, per­man­ently grey-brown city. The only plant that grows is razorvine, a blackened weed with wickedly sharp leaves. Mourns-for-Trees is caring for a single tree in the middle of the city’s slum dis­trict, the Hive. He asks The Name­less One and his com­pan­ions for help. If you’re receptive to his pleas, he will explain that the mere power of thought can change things pro­foundly in The Outer Planes. Should you choose to help him, you and your com­pan­ions willing the tree to be strong, it will actu­ally have an effect, and the tree will sprout new buds.

In a very con­crete sense, playing Plan­es­cape: Tor­ment con­sists of rel­at­ively few actions. Much of it involves dir­ecting The Name­less One and his gang through the game areas that make up city of Sigil and beyond. In some situ­ations, they will encounter hos­til­ities, and this is where the game’s tac­tical AD&D legacy comes into play. The game takes a dis­tanced approach to fighting which mostly involves thinking out what strategies would work in a par­tic­ular situ­ation and instructing your char­ac­ters to take the appro­priate actions with a few clicks of the mouse. No advanced motor skills or split-second reac­tions are required on the player’s part, because the game can be paused at any moment. This gives you time to think of the dif­ferent ways in which magic spells and weaponry—not to men­tion the sec­ondary char­ac­ters’ unique battle skills—can be com­bined, allowing strategies to emerge in the few cases where combat is the only way to go for­ward in the game. What truly drives the game on, though, is not the combat and strategy, but the uncov­ering of new areas, new people to talk to, and pieces of the very per­sonal his­tory you are recon­structing.

A way in which the past can creep up to you is through objects left behind in an earlier life. These illus­trate some of the unique design choices of Tor­ment, where soph­ist­ic­ated inter­ac­tions with inan­imate objects are pos­sible. For example, being immortal means The Name­less One can replace his eyes, limbs, and tat­toos with others, some­times trig­gering a memory of a past life. Some of the most important items in the game are almost char­ac­ters unto them­selves, and allow you to interact with them in-depth, again through a text-based approach. Just as you can talk to people, the game lets you ‘talk’ to cer­tain items, describing what they look like, and the way you can interact with them. Making a choice about how to manip­u­late a com­plex item works the same way as choosing what to say to someone. One such item is a journal in the form of a metal dodeca­hedron, con­structed by a para­noid former incarn­a­tion of The Name­less One, and filled with traps, but also vital inform­a­tion on his past scattered through the various diary entries. And then there’s The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon, a col­lec­tion of myth­o­lo­gical texts with magical sig­ni­fic­ance, housed in an intricate stone circle with inter­locking plates. Unlocking all its secrets leads not only to new magical powers, but also a pro­found psycho-spiritual trans­form­a­tion in one of your com­pan­ions.

As you dis­cover more of The Name­less One’s past, a moral dimen­sion becomes evident as well. His past incarn­a­tions have approached life in rad­ic­ally dif­ferent ways, and you can be con­fronted with these through the reac­tions of others, par­tic­u­larly some of your com­pan­ions and other major char­ac­ters. It’s up to you how to approach these issues in your cur­rent incarn­a­tion, and per­haps right old wrongs. Because the game forces you to act—to make decisions—if you want to access new parts of its text and story, you become com­plicit in the way the journey unfolds.

As will be clear by now, Tor­ment’s text is its main asset. Although the game has an ori­ginal, col­orful art style, atmo­spheric music, and a solid game system to handle combat and magic, its true weight lies in the world revealed through descrip­tion and con­ver­sa­tion. Cru­cially, while Tor­ment involves a lot of actual reading of words, you are more player than reader. The game never goes any­where without you act­ively steering a con­ver­sa­tion in a par­tic­ular dir­ec­tion, without you act­ively hunting for the pieces that make up The Name­less One’s his­tory, or even his whole being, and put­ting them together again. The fur­ther you get in under­standing your protagonist’s past, the fur­ther you also have to drive him towards his ulti­mate des­tiny, two tem­poral dir­ec­tions con­ver­ging into one.

In the end, you are left with the game’s central question—”what can change the nature of a man?”—to which you’re free to devise your own reply. You’ve found the clues, but you’ll have to con­struct the answer your­self.