Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Gift of Torment

Released with no fanfare in December 1999, Planescape: Torment was one of the best games of the year largely on the strength of its one-of-a-kind story about immortality and human nature. Even though it wasn't a commercial success, I believe it's one of the most influential role-playing games of the last decade and ideas it pioneered have since found their way into much better-known games (mostly from BioWare), such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age: Origins. Apart from the overall quality, size, and depth of the game's ambitious story, on the surface Torment was basically just another Infinity Engine game, a "total conversion" of Baldur's Gate with a weird cast of characters and an awesome voice cast. But even though Torment relied on the conventional mechanics of the time, I believe it introduced a radical idea that's had a profound influence on story in Western RPGs: player dialogue with subtext.

In other words, Torment is the first RPG to introduce player intent into dialogue, which may be contradictory to the substance of the dialogue -- it's a game in which you can say one thing and mean another, and use this to deliberately lie at times, by means of the authored choices presented to you.

In a typical RPG, you might be asked by a character to retrieve an item, and tell that person "Yes, I'll do it" even if you as a player don't really know if you're going to do it or not -- probably you just want the quest logged in case you stumble upon it. You don't think about these types of interactions, and, as evidenced by the completely disposable text content for quests in games like World of Warcraft, they do little to build a meaningful connection between you, your character, or the gameworld. But in this same type of situation, Torment typically would give you at least two options: "Yes, I'll do it" (Truth) and "Yes, I'll do it" (Lie). And it would fully support these choices -- lying would affect your character's moral alignment, leading to other changes in gameplay. But even when it didn't really matter whether you told the truth or not, the game made you stop and think about what you were saying.

I remember encountering this type of choice in the game for the first time and feeling frozen in my seat -- never before had I considered my options so carefully around a straightforward dialogue choice. Some previous RPGs, such as Fallout, might have let me play as a smartass, who might make a sarcastic quip instead of answering a question directly. But no game prior to Torment made me feel like I could, if I so chose, look another person in the eye and lie to him with a straight face.

Plenty of RPGs before and after let you play as morally evil characters, letting you randomly kill people if you want, usually just after saying something terrible to them. But this type of psychopathic villainy, while potentially exciting for a little while, tends to feel hollow because your ability to empathize with your character rapidly breaks down as you start massacring entire towns and looting people's corpses for their boots and gold. It's out-of-character and not the "right" way to play, even if it doesn't outright break the game. On the other hand, in Torment you could do some really deceptive, scheming stuff simply through talking to people -- and it made you feel connected and close to that evil, because everyone knows what it feels like to lie, and in Torment you have reasons not to be up front with everyone you meet. As well, the option of lying made the default act of telling the truth feel more consequential. By letting you get inside your character's head as well as your own head, Torment created such a strong connection with players like me.

It took years for anyone to improve on Torment's basic idea of letting you determine your character's intent and not just the content of his speech, but the Mass Effect games finally took this a step further through their system of subtext-driven dialogue. In those games, it's genuinely exciting to see the protagonist act out your dialogue choices, because you don't know exactly what Shepard is going to say or do -- you tend to just pick the emotion or intent behind the outcome you want, and your reward is seeing Shepard act it out faithfully, in most cases. The basic consequence of this is that dialogue sequences tend to be worth watching and listening to, something that's rather important for a game that's bothering to have tons of story content.


  1. It was your (and the nature of the casting) review of Planescape: Torment, that got me to buy it, circa 2000, in a EB Games. The funny thing is, it took me a WHILE to get into it. Like, 2 years after the fact. I remember the Mortuary was so boring, and I had un-installed the game at least 3 times, prior to actually making it out of that place.

    The game is fantastic, and holds up, even today. Hell, I would love a Planescape game, built using the Dragon Age, or Mass Effect engines. While I think the game had a few issues here and there (like, the only playable class being a mage), Planescape made an indelible impression on me, as a gamer. It consistently ranks in my "top 5 games" list, and from this guy's heart, thanks for giving it a good review, and making me take a chance on it.

    P.S. I dug C&C 3, and Red Alert 3 quite a bit. Good work on both. Especially in light of C&C 4's somewhat lackluster reviews

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  3. The problem I have with dialogue choices like in Mass Effect is that I feel obligated to stay on one path (Good vs Bad) in order to get certain abilities, gear, consistent storyline. In that sense, it's not much of a choice anymore though I am fully capable of choosing whatever I want. In a way I am screwed by my own freedom to choose what I want to do, which is probably the opposite effect that BioWare wanted.

  4. The most important thing that Tempest (and games that it later influenced) brought to gaming was the idea of unintended consequences. Beforehand, games had predetermined or at least easily perceived paths that they would send the player on. When you inject a little bit of uncertainty into the process, it makes the player connect with the gameworld on a whole other level. You will pay much closer attention to your actions if you don't actually know what could happen from them. I know that some of my most memorable gaming moments from games in this vein are the times when things didn't go as I had planned.

  5. @Eric -- I thought Mass Effect 2 handled the issue you're describing pretty well, better than most RPGs with moral choice. There were times when it felt natural to me in that game to do the "Renegade" action even though I was generally playing a good guy. I think this comes from having a plot with grayer choices than "saint" vs. "devil". I'll write about this in more depth at some point because I think it's an interesting issue.

    @Joe -- Good point. Unintended consequences and things not going as planned are fundamental to storytelling, so on the surface at least, it's surprising how few games deal in it. But yeah, in Torment you really weren't sure about what was going to happen, in a good way. Who can forget that climactic conversation around "what can change the nature of a man?" -- I must have sat there for a good several minutes before I answered. But I don't remember what I said. Either it was "Love" or "Nothing".

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  7. Great to see you writing about games again, Kasavin!

    This post made me go dig out my copy of Torment and try to get it running on my Vista machine. After a couple hours it became apparent that it wasn't going to work so I looked for an updated version on GOG. They didn't have it, but they did finally have Arcanum. I swiftly bought it, again.

  8. Torment, along with Arcanum, Baldur's Gate, Deus Ex, System Shock 2 and (to a lesser extent) Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, happens to be a game that can stand the test of time (as well as the test of the-almost-obscene-emphasis-on-realistic-graphics-and-physics). Despite the overall fantastic quality of today's RPGs, there's still a feeling that something is missing, like the sense of wonder or the weird or the uncanny (or am I the only one who feels that?). From the day I bought Torment til now, I've always compared RPGs to Torment and find the majority of them lacking, despite the production quality.

  9. @Ty -- Install Torment on Vista by following this guide:
    Runs like a charm.

  10. Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment are the best rpgs I have ever played. They are gems that no other rpg in the last 10 years came close to in quality.

  11. Loved the article, and LOVED the game - still remember it to this day

    @HumanityPlague: you said it all...I could have written the 2 first paragraphs myself, exactly the same case and the same thoughts