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 Play. The 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.
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.