A Torment Retrospective

As you may or may not be aware, a few weeks ago a Kickstarter project was started seeking funding for a sequel to an old game called Planescape: Torment. The Kickstarter’s been phenomenally successful; it shot up to $1,000,000 funding in under 24 hours, and was the fastest Kickstarter to ever do so (until the Veronica Mars Kickstarter came along, anyway).

I’ve dropped some money on the proposed sequel, titled Torment: Tides of Numananana, but I’m not going to talk about that here. I have some reservations about it, based on the premise given, and I’m not certain that they’ll be able to capture what made the original great. But it’d be churlish to pass judgement before the thing’s even finished being Kickstarted; come back in 2014 when it’s released, and if I’m still writing this blog, I’ll let you know what I think.

Maybe I’ll compare it to the other game that shot to Kickstarter success last year, also by billing itself as Torment’s spiritual successor: that game, titled Project Eternity, got over $4 million in funding and is currently the most-funded Kickstarter game in history. Both Tides of Numejnenenadambsadjm and Eternity are being proposed by developers who worked on the original. But I don’t want to talk about Eternity either.

No, what I really want to talk about in this post is the game that started it all, the game that inspired so much loyalty in its players that they were willing to throw multiple millions of dollars at the promise of a sequel within mere hours of it being proposed, even 14 years after the original was released. Twice.

I think the model on the cover is literally just one of the game's designers. This was not a big-budget production.

The model on the cover is literally just one of the game’s designers. This was not a big-budget production.

Planescape: Torment was released in 1999, to great critical acclaim and very little public enthusiasm. It reportedly sold just under 600,000 copies worldwide, making very little profit. When I first played it, I must have been about 14 or 15 – which would place the date at around 2006 – and copies were very hard to track down. I wanted to play it because I’d read it was similar in style to the Baldur’s Gate games, another classic game that I love to this day (if my dad hadn’t borrowed it from a friend at work for me to play, I genuinely have no idea if I’d be the person I am today. I played Baldur’s Gate at that young, impressionable age where you’re just waiting for something to come along and make a profound impact on your psyche).

So anyway, I eventually hunted down what must have been one of the last available copies on eBay, and managed to get my dad to pay a semi-exorbitant sum for it. Nowadays anyone can play Torment by downloading it from GOG.com – but at the time, no-one could get a hold of it and only older gamers remembered it. I’m not trying to be a hipster here, I’m just sort of marvelling at how lucky I was to play Torment at an age when I was old enough to appreciate it but young enough for it to influence me as deeply as it did.

And that’s the story of how I played Torment despite all the odds. It was an amazing experience.Before I go any further talking about the game’s writing, I’d like to note that the music is also amazing, and an integral part of what makes the game great. Listen to this, for example, a piece which still haunts me years later. All credit goes to the genius Mark Morgan, who reportedly will be back to work on Tides of Numad.x .mbw P’Mvdsd:

Playing Torment does not feel like playing a game. In terms of structure, density, the quantity of reading it involves and the quality of the writing itself, it’s much more like reading a novel. The game contains over 800,000 words – 250,000 words more than War and Peace – and I played through it multiple times, with the aid of walkthroughs and completion guides, to make sure I had the chance to read them all. And despite the sheer quantity, the quality of the writing is also simply outstanding. Especially for video games – games offer huge narrative potential, but sadly mostly tend to squander it, preferring instead to wallow in easy cliche and dialogue that solely consists of exposition. In most games, you’re lucky if you get a generic story told well – in Torment, you get a story not quite like anything I’ve seen before or since, told very well indeed.

There are multiple reasons to be impressed by Torment. It’s a deeply weird game set in a deeply weird fantasy city full of deeply weird characters who nevertheless feel real. It’s actually often very funny, but is always able to strike a perfect pitch between the humorous moments and the serious ones, vascillating between the two effortlessly and without harming its overall tone. It’s a game where, to get the full experience, you need to put points into your Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma, because they’re considered far more important than any of your physical skills. It’s a fantasy game with no swords or armour – when you fight, you fight with clubs or axes, and occasionally your own withered, amputated arm, although physical fighting can almost always be avoided (you can complete the entire game and only enter combat twice. The final boss can be beaten through spirited debate). And armour seems pointless for a protagonist who cannot die.

That’s the central premise of Torment, by the way – you wake up on a mortuary slab with amnesia, and realize (thanks to a tattooed note on your back) that you’re immortal, with the caveat that every time you ‘die’ you wake up having lost your memories. Amnesia is one of the easy cliches that video games fucking love to indulge in – if the main character has no memories, it’s easy to justify dumping exposition on their character – but the amnesia in Torment is treated with incredible depth and nuance. As an immortal, you’ve lived countless aeons – and the actions of your previous ‘incarnations,’ some of whom were mad, some of whom were terrifyingly evil, are constantly coming back to haunt you.

Sometimes literally.

Sometimes literally.

The latest incarnation of your character the Nameless One, however, has for the first time gained the ability to retain his memories after death. And the game uses this premise as a springboard for a really clever and insightful examination of video game tropes and mechanics – the Nameless One dying and then re-awakening sometime later in a mortuary is a mechanic which deliberately mimics saving and loading, and suddenly you have a protagonist who’s just as aware of their own in-game immortality as the player is. And the quest of the Nameless One – the epic journey he undertakes – is the search for a way to actually die and finally escape the endless video-game cycle he is trapped in. The entire game is a search for a way to stop playing – both you, and the protagonist, are looking for nothing more than the ending. And the way the game does eventually end I won’t spoil, because it is one of the cleverest things I think I’ve ever seen in fiction – at least, some of the endings are. Torment has an enormous variety of branches and paths to follow, and approaching it in an overtly ‘gamey’ way – killing everything you see, skipping over dialogue, burning quickly through levels rather than taking the time to think and explore, treating the final boss as just an obstacle rather than a character – is a sure-fire way to get the least satisfying of the many endings. But Torment is so self-evidently not a normal game, that I think to approach it like this must be very rare.

A flying skull talking at you in incomprehensible slang isn't the best thing to awaken you from the throes of death.

A flying skull talking in incomprehensible slang greets you as you awaken from the throes of death. I’ve had mornings like that.

There’s more good things to say about this game than I could in ten posts, let alone one, but I’ll leave you with what I think is the single most important thing about Torment, the thing that is the reason it’s the best game ever made, the thing it does that is absolutely unique in this medium (at least amongst everything I’ve played). Torment is a deep and interactive narrative, and many games are like this – the best games adapt their stories to reflect the choices you make. But what Torment does that I’ve never seen anywhere else is that not only does its narrative develop a number of strong, coherent, intricate themes treated with real nuance – themes of regret, of belief, of love, of symmetry and of paradox – but the development of these themes is also subtly influenced by the way you play. These themes play out in the story the way you guide them to; and your guidance can lead these themes to very different conclusions. The central riddle, a refrain repeated throughout the game, is What can change the nature of a man? By the end of Torment, you’ll know the answer to that riddle, and it’ll seem as though every tiny detail, every insignificant sidequest, will have been building up to providing you with that answer – but actually, there are multiple conclusions you can come to, many of which exclude the others, and yet each will seem to the player to be the one that’s exclusively supported by the aggregated thematic weight of the game’s narrative. And as such, each will resonate with you powerfully.

And that’s why, 14 years later, people are willing to pay so much money at the merest hint of a sequel by the same developers. Torment was not only unique, it was unique in a way deeply, deeply resonated with those who played it, and in such a way that the experience of playing it hasn’t been replicated by any game since. Games are a ‘young’ medium – much, much younger than film, let alone literature – and are still developing. Many people who realize this, including a blogger I deeply admire named Film Crit Hulk, argue that, in order to mature as film did, gaming needs its own Citizen Kane.

I would argue that, in Torment, gaming already got a Citizen Kane. It didn’t sell very well. Maybe we’ll get another one, one day.

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The New Deadwardians is Bloody Good

I promised you I’d talk about something I actually liked on my blog this time, and the opportunity came along sooner than expected – the very next day, I got my trade paperback copy of Dan Abnett’s The New Deadwardians in the mail. I’d read it already, but decided to devour it a second time for good measure.

It was interesting to read it again, because I attended a creative writing event at my college in-between reading it before and reading it now, and while I was there, I actually got the chance to meet and speak to Dan Abnett as well as attend a talk he gave about the process of writing his comics and novels. And what I learnt there, that I didn’t realise when I first read The New Deadwardians, was that Abnett mostly works on other people’s IP – he’s probably most famous for the Warhammer 40k Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, which I’ve heard great things about but haven’t read, but he also does everything from DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes to Scooby Doo. As such, The New Deadwardians is actually quite rare as being one of the only original IPs Abnett’s worked on amongst a huge body of work – reading it with this in mind, it actually only becomes more impressive.

I get the impression that Abnett really relished the chance to create his own universe to play around with for once – and it shows, because the universe he comes up with is both fascinating and strikingly original. The New Deadwardians is a mystery story set in an alternate history where a zombie plague struck Victorian England soon after Prince Albert’s death; in order to protect themselves from the walking dead, who they termed “the restless,” wealthy aristocrats willingly took “the cure” – and became undead themselves, pale vampires who will live forever, if you can really call it “living.”

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The cover, by the way, does a great job of neatly encapsulating this. Although it’s technically inaccurate, as in the book the vampires keep their fangs filed-down, it’s so striking that this hardly matters.

As I spoke about in a previous post, one of the best things about zombies is the wealth of damningly satirical metaphors they open themselves up to – the example I used was that zombies were, in Dawn of the Dead, a satire on consumerist culture, and this is the prevailing metaphor that surrounds them to this day. Vampires offer themselves similarly to allegory and satire – vampires are a literal representation of the “blood-sucking upper classes.” In the modern day, they’d probably be bankers and CEOs, but when vampire folklore was first codified into fiction it was the landed gentry who were the ones representing an economic drain on a lower class who had to work very hard to support their social superiors’ lavish lifestyles.

In this context, the idea of putting zombies and vampires together as one sort of great, unified class satire – where the vampires are the blood-sucking elite and the zombies represent the “great unwashed,” as the Victorians (and subsequently, Edwardians) characterized the public* – is obvious, in retrospect, yet so are most truly original ideas. And it works beautifully.

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GNNG GNNMG might be the best textual representation of a zombie moan ever

Stuck between the zombies and the vampires are the “bright” – the poor old normal humans of London, who must contend with an army of zombies surrounding the city’s walls on one side, and an army of vampires ruling over them in the Houses of Parliament on the other. The New Deadwardians follows George Suttle, the only homicide detective left in the Met, investigating the murder of one of his fellow “Young” – the term which this universe’s vampires use to describe their undead state, and by the way I love the way that words like “vampire” and “zombie” all have a coy euphemism, which not only gives the universe a unique flavour but is also a pitch-perfect parody of the Victorian/Edwardian attitude to the things they found distasteful.

The mystery plot is good, fast-paced and intriguing with a well-executed ending, and it does admirably well in economically packing a lot of content into just 8 issues. But the real attractions here are the character and thematic work, and the worldbuilding. There are many moments when Abnett would reveal a little bit more about the world he’s created – often subtly, through dialogue or background details, but always to great effect – and each tiny detail would suggest a wealth of further possibilities. For an excellent example of this, see the moment where George Suttle meets a young suffragette, who is campaigning for the right for women to be made Young, even as George tells her it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – hell, I could read a whole 8-issue comic series about her.

The other great strength of The New Deadwardians is, as I’ve noted, the themes which Abnett develops throughout, themes which also do a great job of reciprocally establishing subtle and effective characterization. The cast of The New Deadwardians are, for the most part, typically Edwardian; but the Young, who seem to lose all passion and vigour once they are made undead, take this cultural repression and understated stoicism to an extreme. More than once, George Suttle reflects that he doesn’t miss life, but he misses the idea of missing things. The effect is a potent critique of the systemic cultural and sexual repression which really was endemic to the 19th- and early-20th-century upper classes; and the zombies, hungry at the gates of London, represent not so much the British public as the aristocrats’ disastrously flawed conception of the British public.

"Spare a copper, mate?"

“Spare a copper, mate?”

All in all, The New Deadwardians is proof of a pet theory of mine – that there’s always, always, room for originality in the archetypes and concepts (like vampires and zombies) which the unimaginative tend to label as being “stale.” And there’s got to be a demand for much more of this kind of originality, if it’s going to flourish – so buy The New Deadwardians now, if you’re one of those people who thought vampire or zombies stories were “stale,” and prove yourself wrong. I really, really hope Abnett writes another series set in this universe, and it’d be a damn shame if he didn’t.

Footnotes:

* More specifically, this phrase was coined by Victorian playwright and novelist Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, who – as you can probably imagine – would certainly have been a vampire rather than a zombie.

Disembowelling the Zombie Handbook: Part 3

WARNING. THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK.

If there’s one thing that really annoys me about the Zombie Handbook, it’s how goddamn lazy the whole thing is.

I mean, if you’re going to be puerile, gross, juvenile, and stupid, at least put some effort into it. Maybe that would have generated some goodwill – if Rob Sacchetto was trying his gosh-darned hardest to make the best gosh-darned zombie book in the world, and fell short on that promise not for lack of trying, I’d be more inclined to sympathize with him, rather than immediately set my critical phasers to “destroy.” Hell, maybe with more effort, he could’ve pulled it off – just because something is puerile, gross, juvenile, and stupid, doesn’t always make it bad. Gross-out humour is kind of the big thing nowadays – you’ll see it in almost every new Hollywood comedy out recently – and it’s not unfunny, if approached with talent and commitment. Look at things like Harold and Kumar, or The Inbetweeners, or Bridesmaids – gross-out humour can be subversive! I’m not opposed to it, in principle!

Of course, the fact that most Hollywood comedies are 1) shit and 2) of the “gross-out” genre is not a coincidence. Gross-out humour is hard to do right, but very easy to just do, which makes it the go-to standby for the lazy comedian. Just throw in a couple of jokes about farts and poop and sex and penises and call it a day. Admittedly, Sacchetto’s a bit of a weird case – his philosophy seems to be “just throw in some jokes about farts and poop and intestines and Jewish people” – but it’s basically the same. And it all comes from that fundamental core of laziness that is one of the things that grates me most about the Zombie Handbook.

This thing, according to the back cover, costs $17. For that amount of money, I’d want more than under a hundred pages of lazy, god-awful writing that serve as little more than an excuse to shill some mediocre zombie art. But Sacchetto can’t even live up to the low standards he sets himself – the book is intended to be little more than a showcase for his gore art, but he apparently sometimes forgets to put in the art at all:

Zombie10b

Let’s not even get into the level of intelligence which this page ascribes to zombies. The Zombie Handbook is only a hundred pages long, and even within so small a space it can’t keep itself self-consistent.

I suppose it’s unfair to call the Zombie Handbook “lazy” when clearly a lot of effort went into drawing the illustrations, but the images are clearly the only area where any level of talent, effort or investment can be found. The book itself is a poorly-designed mess, with the images thrown onto the page seemingly at random with no real overall aesthetic effect in mind, and the writing is truly unforgivably shoddy. There are some strange pretensions, however, to be found in amongst all this. The Zombie Handbook is lazy, but also curiously self-important – in a book that elsewhere reads like it knows that it’s silly fluff nonsense, it will occasionally embark on a ham-fisted attempt at satire which comes across as oddly earnest. It is also, of course, very badly-done:

Hmm. A lazy satire attacking laziness. Meta.

Hmm. A lazy satire attacking laziness. Meta.

Yes, amongst a list of different “zombie types,” Sacchetto sees fit to include the “Apathy Zombie,” who are “most heavily concentrated in the United States and Canada.” It’s apparently an attack on lazy, socially-maladjusted nerds, nerds who “are quite adept at repelling the opposite sex,” which begs one, significant question – who the hell does Sacchetto think is reading his book??? Does Sacchetto really think that his zombie book full of full-page shots of intestines and eyeballs and gore is being bought only by social success stories who are the pillars of their various local communities? Or party animals, who love to invite people back to their place to view the new piece of Sacchetto art they have on the mantle, a tasteful depiction of a zombie eating its own guts?

I’m not saying all nerds are basement-dwellers like Sacchetto describes. We live in a post-nerd culture, to be honest – with The Hobbit raking it in at the box office and Game of Thrones one of the most popular TV shows in the US, nerdy is the new cool, which is absolutely fine by me (hint: I’m blogging about a zombie book and I write fantasy fiction in my spare time, if I’m not a nerd, no-one is). But I’m just saying that I can only imagine the most socially-maladjusted of people would actually get a kick out of Sacchetto’s work – the gross gore isn’t the half of it, as you’ll see later on in this post.

Yet there’s no hint of self-deprecation in the “Apathy Zombie” – it’s a joke that goes on too long, lasting several pages, and seems to exclusively (and scathingly) target the exact kind of people I imagine when I try to imagine who, exactly, would be buying this book or Sacchetto’s art to begin with.

This is a zombie book. People did not buy this to view pictures of dirty armpits, Sachetto.

This is a zombie book. People did not buy this to view pictures of dirty armpits, Sacchetto.

See, this is what I don’t get. Sacchetto has been drawing zombies for years. Surely he must understand that zombies are not only already a satirical creation, they’re already a satire on the exact same target that he’s trying to satirize with the “new” Apathy Zombie. Except, unlike the Apathy Zombie, the satire represented by actual zombies is subtle, which is probably why it shot approximately sixty miles over Sacchetto’s head. Night of the Living Dead was a 1968 film which basically invented the modern idea of zombies, but zombies were turned into a bona fide cultural phenomenon by the sequel – the 1978 Dawn of the Dead, by the same director, George A. Romero. NotL is pretty much straight horror, but the idea of zombies as a satire on consumerism and on the “brain-dead” (heh-heh) apathy of the public is codified by Dawn of the Dead – where the zombies are drawn by instinct to the shopping mall where the movie takes place. Given that Dawn of the Dead is one of the most influential zombie movies ever made, you’d think Sacchetto would be passingly familiar with it, but if he is, he apparently didn’t understand it. The Apathy Zombie takes the satire which zombies already embody, makes this satire incredibly, glaringly obvious, and thinks it’s being very clever for doing so. The only reason zombies lend themselves so easily to your hard-hitting “subversion,” Sacchetto, is because THIS WAS THE WHOLE IDEA BEHIND THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE, YOU’RE *30 YEARS LATE.*

Ahem. But the satire doesn’t stop there. The less said about this, the better:

Notice the tasteful bullet holes. Why do I get the feeling Sachetto is a member of the NRA?

Notice the tasteful bullet holes. Why do I get the feeling Sacchetto is a member of the NRA?

Yep. Hard-hitting stuff. I don’t know if Sacchetto is trying very hard to show us how much he rebels against “the Man,” or whether he just really really hates Obama in particular. To be honest, I don’t want to know.

Oh God, I’ve run out of things to say about satire. Which means… we get to the Worst Thing.

I’m tempted just to put up images of the Worst Thing and let the images speak for themselves. But… that would be a let-down, if you’ve read this far. And I can’t do that to you. If you’ve put up with everything so far, you’re probably thinking you can handle the Worst Thing, but you can’t. You can’t. You’re going to need my gentle guidance. You’re going to need a voice telling you that yes, the Worst Thing is bad – in fact, it is The Worst – but at least now that you’ve seen it, you’ll have a metric against which all other Bad Things can be measured, and found to be actually pretty okay in comparison.

Two words… *sigh.* Zombie rape.

WARNING: HORRIBLE IMAGES TO FOLLOW.

I'm sorry I made you all see this.

I’m sorry I made you all see this.

Yes. That is a page titled “Zombie Mating Habits.” At the top, a picture of a screaming woman being attacked by a zombie “for mating purposes.”

For me, this is where the book goes from “incredibly stupid, but essentially harmless,” to “genuinely upsetting.” I could handle the gore, the inane satire, the laziness. I could just about handle the anti-semitism, although believe me, only because it’s over quickly and doesn’t crop up anywhere else. This, though… This is why I hate this book.

Rob Sacchetto, I get it. You market yourself solely through gross-out art. By now, you’re probably bored of drawing intestines, but you have to keep going, have to keep occupying the weird, revolting niche you seem to have trapped yourself in. And yet you are at the point in your book where your “tastelessly depict horrible things for laughs” shtick will have worn thin even for a diehard fan. And you tried to up the ante, I suppose – to out-do yourself by breaking more and more taboos. You were trying really, really hard to gross out your target market of Apathy Zombies who think that your tacky gross-out shit is cool and funny. Thing is, Rob, I don’t understand why you – or anyone – would think that going in this direction is a good idea. I mean, it’s offensive to women, but it’s almost more offensive just in how God-damn-fucking-stupid it is. I mean, really? Zombies can impregnate living people, and other zombies?

Thing is, it’s more offensive because it’s so stupidly out of the ordinary for zombie fiction. Because since it’s not something that any zombie fiction has ever included or even considered, it just gives the impression that Rob desperately wanted to draw a zombie raping a woman, and decided to make any old shit up in order to justify it. If this was a vampire book, it’d still be tasteless and grossly offensive to show a vampire assaulting a screaming woman while biting her neck, and to caption it with something that makes it clear that this is a depiction of rape, but at least vampires have always existed in culture as seductive sexual predators, so the author/illustrator would have the excuse that they were mining from existing lore. Here, Rob is blatantly going against zombie canon, scientific fact, and common sense, because he so badly wants to show the reader a zombie rape. Well, thanks, Rob. I didn’t buy your stupid fucking book, but you’ve shown me this anyway. Congrats.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Remember the seductively-posing bikini zombie from Part 2? There’s an overall trend in the Zombie Handbook to really overtly sexualize zombies – who are, explicitly, walking, rotting corpses. Don’t believe me?

WHAT THE CHRIST

WHAT THE CHRIST

Zombie8a

That first image, by the way, is a warning to all the readers (this book assumes that its readers are male, which I guess is a self-fulfilling prophecy) to avoid getting so turned on by a scantily-clad female zombie that you can’t bring yourself to kill it.

WHAT. THE. FUCK. IS. THIS. SHIT. There’s something just so, so mysogynist about the fact that this book is talking exclusively to men and telling them not to be tempted by sexy dead women. Like Sacchetto thinks a woman, even a dead woman, can only be viewed sexually. Or maybe he just likes reducing a woman into a sex object, even if that object is a lifeless corpse. It’s just – this is – THIS IS A BOOK FOR SERIAL KILLERS.

I would never have bought this book, given that it’s a book of illustrations where the cover is badly drawn, but if I had, I’d have expected something like the Zombie Survival Guide. Something silly and maybe gross, but crucially, something NOT AIMED TOWARDS SERIAL KILLERS. Something that at the least – at the very fucking least – looked at zombies while conforming to basic zombie rules, the kind established in almost all zombie fiction, like – for example – that zombies don’t have sex with each other and don’t have sex with people and aren’t fucking sex objects themselves. WHY INTRODUCE SEX INTO THE EQUATION AT ALL. UNLESS YOU ARE CATERING TO YOUR OWN GROSS FETISH.

Oh God. Maybe it is a fetish. I think… I think I just worked out why Sacchetto spends so much time drawing zombies. This is his version of porn. And that means that all his readers, that “target market” I’ve been wondering about…. groouruuhghgh

This book is brain poison. It is the worst thing Amazon could have sent me by accident apart from possibly a bomb or anthrax spores.

But the thing is… By having this reaction, I’m falling into Sacchetto’s trap. He wants this. He wants his book, full of gross sexualized zombies and mysogyny and anti-semitism and stupidity, to be viewed as “weird” and “alternative” and “outside the mainstream.” He wants it because it’s the only thing that can lend him some legitimacy – the idea that he, and all his fans, are “subversive,” and that therefore they’re cool and interesting.

When the reality is, the fact that the Zombie Handbook and Rob Sacchetto’s artwork are outside the mainstream only goes to show one thing; that there’s hope for the mainstream yet.

Next post, I’ll talk about something I actually like, because doing this has infused my blog with a whole lot of ambient negativity. Let us never, ever mention the Zombie Handbook ever again.