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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.