Planescape: Torment (replay)

I’m currently replaying Planescape: Torment, a CRPG released in 1999 by Black Isle Studios (Interplay). It’s not a text adventure, but it’s surely one of the most text-heavy video games out there (along with Disco Elysium, which it influenced) and is often compared to interactive fiction. It’s also quite well regarded for its strong writing and bizarre setting. I’ve played it once before, several years ago. It’s been long enough that I remember the broad strokes but have largely forgotten the details.

Planescape is one of the more bizarre and original Dungeons & Dragons settings, a sort of nexus between realities. At its center is a city called Sigil, also known as the City Of Doors due to the abundance of portals to other realms found there. Sigil is ruled over by the Lady Of Pain, a powerful entity (who appears as an enormous woman covered in blades) perhaps more powerful even than the gods. The Lady shapes and re-shapes the city through her workers the dabuses (strange little fellows who float on air and speak through glowing symbols that appear over their heads), and she punishes violations of the few rules she has established (no literal gods allowed within the city, no worshipping the Lady, no interfering with the dabuses, etc.) by trapping violators in their own personal maze-like pocket dimensions.

Other than that, the Lady Of Pain is hands-off and allows the day-to-day management of Sigil to be handled by various factions established by the inhabitants of the city. These factions are characterized by their extreme ideological stances (Zeb Cook, who developed the Planescape setting, said he wanted the politics of Sigil to resemble college students arguing philosophy they probably didn’t really know much about).

In Torment, the player assumes the role of The Nameless One, an immortal amnesiac who is constantly dying and returning to life (often with no memories of his previous life). At the start of the game, he wakes up in a mortuary run by a faction called the Dustmen, who believe that it is virtuous to die. In the mortuary he meets a floating skull named Morte, who is able to read the verbose tattoo on The Nameless One’s back, which basically says “Read your journal, and talk to Pharod” (this is a year before the film Memento). But what happened to your journal? Who (and where) is Pharod? How did you die, and why are you still alive?

So far I’ve completed most of the goals in the Hive (the slums where the game begins) and made it out of that area into the Lower Ward (a working/middle class area less dangerous than the Hive), where Morte has been kidnapped by were-rats.

Have you played Planescape: Torment? What did you think? And, most importantly, what can change the nature of a man?

11 Likes

Oh man, Torment. I haven’t gone back to it in something like 20 years, but I vividly remembering getting it for Christmas in 1999 and falling in love with it (I also vividly remember seeing the trailer for Memento and thinking “this isn’t going to be as good as Torment”, though I wound up liking that too); I’d already played Baldur’s Gate, which originated the engine it used, but this was clearly a different beast entirely.

It certainly held up when I did a replay a few years later, but I’m unsure how it would land for me now; I suspect it’s a fairly adolescent game (which I don’t mean as a critique! I hadn’t heard that Zeb Cook quote before, but the vibe is indeed very college student-y; at the risk of crossing into spoiler territory, I think one theme of the story is that you can’t simply reject or avoid the hard realities of life, and instead need to come to grips with them, which is to say, it’s about growing up). Plus there’s the Chris Avelloneness of it all, both with respect to having seen its approach played out in many other games since then, as well as the Me Too stuff about him personally.

Despite all that, if you asked me to name my favorite non-IF game, it’d be a leading contender. I adored Dak’kon, for one thing – running through his history lessons and teaching on space Buddhism is a great sequence (to say nothing of the revelation about where his text actually came from…). And I’ve ever been as angry at a video game as I was when I found out what happens if you try to redeem Trias with Vhailor in the party – admittedly it was my fault for bringing a fascist along just because I had an empty slot, but it was immensely satisfying to argue him into nonexistence as a form of revenge.

More on-topic, how the game handles that climactic question is one of the key things I think about when considering how choice-based IF can be effective even without a huge amount of branching.

Anyway, not sure if you’re planning on doing updates as you go through, but appreciate the opportunity to reminisce! Might be time to give this one a replay myself…

3 Likes

Dak’kon might be my favorite companion character from any video game. I still haven’t touched the Unbroken Circle Of Zerthimon in this playthrough, though I think I will start on it soon (being at the beginning of a new area and being without my sidekick seems like a good place to step back and do some intense dialog-based side-questing).

Your comments about Vhailor have made me curious. The first time I played the game, Vhailor and Ignus seemed like such jerks that I didn’t bring them with me, so I actually know next to nothing about them. I imagine there’s some interesting content there.

I’ll update if I have anything interesting to say. It may take me a really long time to get through this. I read pretty slowly and like to see as much dialog as possible.

I’ll still pretty much stand by the writing in Planescape: Torment. It’s pulpy and weird and adolescent in its ways, but it’s still some of the best writing in video games. It’s probably been outclassed by Disco Elysium, but I don’t know what else I would even put on the same level with those games.

EDIT:
I’m tempted to give Vhailor and Ignus a shot, since I haven’t seen their content, but man… they’re just awful people.

4 Likes

A note on video game writing:
If people can cry when Aeries dies in Final Fantasy VII, surely they can spare some empathy for Morte or Dak’kon.

2 Likes

Nice! Yeah, I replayed it in the past year or so after Mike mentioned it in a thread here. I took my time with side quests and conversation before working my way to what I consider the best ending.

I almost didn’t pick it up back in the day. I’d always hated the look, distinctive as it was, of the Planescape setting. The invented slang, used insistently rather than evocatively, really drove me nuts. This was me as a tabletop AD&D guy.

I did pick it up, though, because it was D&D and the reviews were good. I was right about the art and the slang. However, I loved the emphasis on dialog and choice. Most games had a morality system in which you were either a complete jerk or a saint, and Torment was so much more interesting and complicated than that. The protagonist is unique, even now, in his backstory and complexity.

Over the years, people have implied that it is more like a JRPG than a WRPG. I think that they mean that it should be less interesting narratively and more wonky in terms of its simulations. It’s true that the combat is not very good. It’s just there because no one had written Disco Elysium yet, a game that shares a surprising number of story beats (and themes) with Torment. It just wasn’t possible to have a AAA RPG without combat in 1999. I strongly recommend setting the combat to the easiest setting, unless you’re having a great time with it. Mechanically, the combat is a massive step down from the other Infinity Engine games, probably because it’s largely irrelevant to the game’s narrative.

Does it hold up? I think so. You have to make allowances for the aesthetics, technology, and conventions of the day, but it is still an excellent story with vivid locales, fascinating conversations, and meaningful choices to make. It’s a really good choice IF for a game that people don’t consider IF. I’m not sure how many times I’ve replayed it over the years. More than five, I’m sure.

Dak’kon is a real dude, I always keep him on the team.

3 Likes

The aesthetics don’t bother me at all. If anything, I prefer them to Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. I tend to like weird fiction and dark fantasy stuff though. It’s not the prettiest game, but it’s not trying to be either… more emphasizing how weird and unpleasant the setting is. I can see how it would not be everyone’s cup of tea, though. I recently had a discussion with someone who generally hates the look of all the Infinity Engine games.

The combat generally doesn’t bother me either. It’s not particularly strong and feels kind of superfluous, but for me it doesn’t detract from the game. But yes, it would be an even better game if it either: A) had more thoughtful combat, or B) didn’t have any combat at all.

1 Like

I don’t care that it’s weird or dark. I like weird, dark things. The Planescape tabletop setting has a very specific art style that I don’t care for.

1 Like

I’d also like to add that, if I had the capabilities (or a like-minded team with the capabilities), I would very much like to be making games that resemble this (possibly with turn-based tactical combat). Planescape: Torment, Disco Elysium, early Fallouts, and the Shadowrun Returns series would be the types of things I’d aspire to. I like to write text and make music, but I’m not much of a programmer or visual artist.

2 Likes

I’m pretty sure it took twenty years of everybody digesting P:T before DE was even conceivable.

(I never played much of P:T though. I came to it late; everybody had already played it and I missed the wave. I didn’t get over the starting hump of “this sure looks like a CRPG.”)

1 Like

It definitely is a CRPG based on D&D, albeit one where dialog is at the forefront and combat feels like an afterthought (if Baldur’s Gate was the middle of the story/combat spectrum, Torment and Icewind Dale are near the opposing extremes). I think the script has something like 800,000 words.

3 Likes

One ridiculous thing I loved in the Hive: there’s an insignificant side quest where the owner of a flophouse wants you to convince a crazy old man to leave because he’s causing too much trouble. The only reward is a free place to rest in the Hive, which you can actually do a couple of screens over if you complete a more serious sidequest.
The madman carries a severed ear that he keeps talking into as if it can hear him and keeps insisting that he can’t go home without his fork. It just seems like a bit of lolrandom chaos, but if you poke around the area behind the flophouse you will find a thug who is missing an ear and picking his teeth with a fork. You realize that the thug tried to rob the old man, the victim bit the robber’s ear off in self defense, and the only thing the robber got away with was was a fork. Totally superfluous quest, you don’t need to do it, but if you really feel like reuniting an unstable man with his fork, you can!

3 Likes

I managed to rescue Morte by trading the skull of a wererat Dustman missionary to Lothar,, who also informed me that my immortality somehow comes from the evil hag Ravel. I went through the entirety of the Unbroken Circle Of Zerthimon, gaining some spells and levels as a result. Now I’m backtracking to the catacombs for the Decanter Of Endless Water.

3 Likes

Got the decanter, gave some water to the stone face in the catacombs (who gave me a tip for later in the game), looted Pharod’s corpse and vault, ratted out Pharod to the Dustmen (I figure it’s okay if they know what he was up to now that he’s dead anyway). I think I’ve already locked myself out of spying on the Silent King for Many-as-One and finding a ruby for Jarym, so I think it’s time to return to the Lower Ward and see what else I can get up to there.

2 Likes

What always struck me about Planescape: Torment is that the source material is very adolescent. Don’t get my wrong, I’ve spent many very enjoyable hours playing D&D with friends; but the universe of D&D (and especially its earlier versions) does not emphasize moral or philosophical complexity and nuance, from the moral absolutism implied by the alignment system and spells like Detect Evil, to the clichéd and pastiched cosmology, etc.

Planescape: Torment asks itself, “ok, but what if we take this simplistic setting and take it completely seriously? What are the consequences to characters in this world and their relationships?” And the result is a game that is far more complex and interesting than the source material.

(Incidentally, my favorite game of all time, Deus Ex, pulls the same trick with the ridiculous premise, “what if all conspiracies are true?”)

And, most importantly, what can change the nature of a man?

Though the game pushes you in this direction at points, “there is no right answer” is a cop-out. I’d argue that, internal to the narrative of the game world, there is one answer that is unambiguously best-aligned with the themes of the game:

belief.

Plus there’s the Chris Avelloneness of it all, both with respect to having seen its approach played out in many other games since then, as well as the Me Too stuff about him personally.

I don’t know if you’ve followed the later developments; IMO if he hasn’t been 100% vindicated by now, I’m not sure what more people would want to see that would vindicate him.

Planescape: Torment, Disco Elysium, early Fallouts, and the Shadowrun Returns series would be the types of things I’d aspire to

Disco Elysium is easily my favorite game of the last ~5 years and I hope to see much more like it in the future. (I do think Planescape: Torment holds up; I’ll have to wait a bit longer to see how Disco Elysium fares against the test of time. My sense right now is that Planescape: Torment had more to say, but Disco Elysium said it with a lot more flair.)

3 Likes

Eh, I would do that advisedly – not that I really know since I’ve never put Ignus in the party and I only had Vhailor for a very short period of time (I think there’s one small area in between when I recruited him and when I, uh, dropped him), but seems like there’s a lot of potential for things to not go your way given how quickly Vhailor was able to make me blindingly angry. Besides, what, you’re going to drop Nordrom for one of those chuckleheads? C’mon.

I had some of the PnP stuff too and had similar, but more muted reactions – the spikes-‘r-us art is a little much, and as you say the slang was way overused, but at least it was based on something real (~19th Century English thieves’ cant) which put it head and shoulders above stuff like the Shadowrun slang: I’ll take a dozen “berks” over one “chummer” any day. But as you say none of that dramatically impacted my enjoyment of the game.

Again, I mostly agree, though I think the combat, dull as it is, does serve a helpful role in pacing out the game and breaking up all the walls of text. One of the many reasons I bounced off of the “spiritual successor”, Tides of Numenera, is that it felt like nonstop, wordy dialogues in an engine and genre where there should be something to do besides yak. I’m curious how Disco Elysium handles this, actually, since I haven’t played it yet.

Doesn’t Shadowrun have an editor of some kind bundled in? It might be easier to get started on something like that than you’d think!

Nice!

Oh I hadn’t thought of that plotline in a while, that’s one I really liked, small as it is.

Ha, I think it says something that I was nodding along with this paragraph, but then did a total double-take when I saw what you thought that answer was!

My read is that while the game is clear that belief can change the nature of the Planes, for purposes of the Nameless One’s story the one thing that can change the nature of a man is regret.

…eh. This is off topic and kind of a bummer so I’ll put it behind a cut, but having followed things fairly closely I have a different perspective.

Chris Avellone stuff

I’d say that the text messages that his attorneys got from discovery and selectively put out to the gaming press certainly do make it seem like the scenario his initial accuser put out at minimum has some holes in it; it doesn’t seem to me like he’s straightforwardly guilty of sexual assault. So if the charge is “he should have been arrested and charged with a crime,” sure, I guess I’d say he’s vindicated on that front, which is why I’m still OK replaying and discussing games he contributed to that I’ve already bought.

That’s not really the end of the story, though. Even taking his account in the most favorable possible light (which we are, because after that initial accusation we just got his side and the discovery leaks from his side), it’s still clear that he made a habit of going to gaming conventions, hanging out with much younger women who had many fewer connections and relationships in the industry than he did, getting them drunk, and then hooking up with them in situations where establishing clear consent is quite difficult – and doesn’t admit to being aware that this could be problematic behavior. Not great!

Then there’s the lawsuit/PR campaign he ran, which I also think was pretty shitty. I’m not a practicing lawyer, but I do have a law degree and have a reasonable sense of how this stuff works, and I was curious enough to dig into the case records. What basically happened was:

  • He got some lawyers to sue his accuser for defamation in California, in a complaint that was pitched at the public rather than the court (it was full of “defamation per se” and puffing up what a big important public figure he is, which is 100% the opposite of what you want to do to win these kinds of cases).

  • This was dumb, both because of the aforementioned issues with the complaint and because California has a strong anti-SLAPP statute, which helps level the playing field between deep-pocketed plaintiffs and poor defendants by allowing them to collect attorneys fees if they win their case, among other protections.

  • So after they lost this case on jurisdictional grounds and got an order saying they had to pay the accuser’s legal fees – again, these lawyers seem to be bad lawyers – they refiled in Illinois, which doesn’t have a good anti-SLAPP statute (note the attorney fee award wasn’t actually paid, since that’ll be important later).

  • Unsurprisingly, they got a settlement in Illinois, which was probably at least partially driven by the accuser now being out of money (regardless of the merits this is unsurprising, given the expense of litigation; her public employment history seems to consist of intermittent stints as a community manager at a couple indie game studios you’ve never heard of, and even in the California proceeding she was having trouble paying her lawyer). Avellone’s lawyers then crowed to the gaming press was a “seven-figure” settlement, while of course selectively disclosing only some details of a confidential settlement. I find this hard to take at face value, since based on the above the defendant sure seemed to be judgment-proof. Far more likely, the deal was “don’t try to collect the attorney’s fee award you won in California, write an apology, and we’ll leave you alone.”

This is all leaving aside the actual merits of the case – but using the legal system to silence accusers is something that pisses me off, to say nothing of using it to take advantage of the gaming press’s lack of legal sophistication in order to rehabilitate your reputation.

TLDR: Avellone doesn’t seem guilty to me of the worst stuff he was accused of, but I think even his admitted behavior is pretty gross, and the way he weaponized the legal system to launch his comeback tour at the expense of his accuser is itself pretty abusive.

I’m generally OK engaging with art by not-great people – hell, I love Dostoevsky! – but I don’t financially support them when I can avoid it, and in some cases it unavoidably impacts my enjoyment of their work. Like, one of Avellone’s core philosophical moves is to question or undercut altruism (Kreia was one of my all time favorite characters), and that hits quite differently when, IMO, his behavior has revealed him to be a petty, selfish person.

7 Likes

Instead of combat, Disco Elysium has a lot of skill checks. Most skill checks, if failed, can be retried once you’ve levelled up in the relevant skill. Certain checks are one-shot deals though. Equipment can give you boosts and/or penalties in certain skills.

2 Likes

It’s a detective story, so what you’re doing is primarily gathering information. This includes yakking, inspecting things, and talking/sneaking/bullying your way into places where you can yak with more people and inspect more things. It’s a good range of stuff to do.

The game also establishes up front that you are a colossal loser and your life story is, essentially, one massive failed skill check. Failing a few more is just not a prospect you should fear in this story.

1 Like

It’s a great game. I was recently playing it again as I think I got it from GOG. Really even though you move around and such , the story is what makes it so amazing. I remember many years ago playing in a game hosted my a friend on table top.

2 Likes

Yeah. It’s regret. Sure, the game will let you pick something else, but it lets you be wrong all the time. That’s one of Torment’s distinguishing features. I don’t think the question of which ending is canon is ambiguous, either, even if there are other endings.

Immeasurably better. I really hope you find time for it soon. It’s probably a top five game for the 21st Century so far. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

As I suggested earlier, I think Torment could have learned a lot from a game like DE, but we will have to be satisfied with DE learning from Torment. And I am! I am satisfied.

Even on easy, the combat in the Modron Cube and the Fortress of Regret (of Regret!) is completely miserable. You can see the game’s machinery sag under the load. Yes, you’re supposed to run in the Fortress of Regret, but you’ll probably have to throw down at least once or twice.

Hopefully you did a static save before and after reaching the Fortress of Regret, since you can quick save your way into an unwinnable state (too many greater shadows blocking exits).

I always cape for the Dead Nations. Many-as-One is insufferably condescending.

Heh. Yeah, it’s brilliant.

2 Likes

As The Nameless One, I don’t have any love for the Dead Nations (they’re a cult of undead corpses who imprisoned me!) or Many-As-One (it’s a bunch of rats that formed a hive mind!); but as a player, I love that they’re both in the game (they’re cool concepts!). The only reason I’d help Many-As-One with this task is so that I could learn about the Silent King myself!

PROGRESS REPORT:
I’m still running errands and doing side quests in the Lower Ward. I just got allowed into the Foundry, so next time I pick up the game (probably tonight) I will be exploring that location.

2 Likes