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.