Planescape Torment – “Undying Art”
Imagine a place of infinite possibilities, where metaphor is reality and reality metaphor, a universe where belief molds the physical realm and where a single thought can *actually* change things… Welcome to “Planescape”. It is hard to better describe the “Planescape” universe (actually, it’s a multiverse, but we’ll get to that), one of the famous “Dungeons and Dragons” realms. At first glance, it might seem like a weird, freaky, half concocted world that pales in comparison with its renowned sibling, “Forgotten Realms”, but that would be a mistake: “Planescape” is infinitely more complex, thought-provoking and original than the “Tolkienesque” high-fantasy spin-off of “Forgotten Realms”. Oh, and it makes the perfect background for a great RPG.
It starts off with a simple idea: what if anyone could change, with will power alone, the universe? How would *that* look like? What rules and laws, of social and physical nature would exist? How would balance be obtained? Who would rule such a world and how? As you can see, the premise alone opens a whole universe of philosophical questions, which is a sign of the inherent complexity of “Planescape”. Besides the well built background, the story that unveils during the course of “Torment”, written by Chris Avellone (of “Fallout 2”, “Icewind Dale” and “Sith Lords” fame), is equally profound and intellectually stimulating. Not only that, it contains some of the most unpredictable and memorable twists ever to grace a videogame. And I do mean memorable.
The narrative starts in a mortuary, where the main character, the “Nameless One” lies unconscious and completely amnesiac. Unsure of why he lies in a mortuary he starts to delve to into the “Hive” (the center of the multiverse) in search for clues about his past. He learns that he is, by some unknown reason, Immortal, a curse which he cannot fathom escape, even after millennia of trying. He then embarks on a journey to revive his memories, in order to understand the “why” and the “how” of his undying condition. He will meet many adversaries and companions that will help him regain knowledge of the multiverse and of his previous “incarnations”: different personas molded by different memories of the same man. In the end of his quest, lies a question: “What could change the nature of a man?” The answer is the key to the game’s plot. To find it, you will learn about the whole of “Planescape”, its many planes of existence (hence the name “multiverse”), its societies, cultures, philosophies and religions, and you will challenge powers greater than any mortal, such as Angels, Gods, and even… Death.
The script is superbly well written. Its dialogues are witty, complex, intellectually stimulating and also have a unique feel, thanks to the use of a language specifically conceived for the game that incorporates 17th century English (complete with proper slang). The literary dimension is used to its fullest: many actions, situations and memories are only described via text; it’s great text, mind you, that allows your imagination to capture the full magnificence of the game’s environments. However, it is a shame that certain scenes don’t make use of an audio-visual language, such as cut-scenes, or even some sort of controlled artwork slideshow coupled with soundtrack, in order to enhance the sensorial dimension of the game’s literary nature. Because of this, “Torment” is a bit like an interactive book, which might displease the more trigger-happy gamers. On the good side of things, the narrative is truly interactive. Whether you want to be evil, killing all those whose stand in your way, or if you wish to make up to all the evil the Nameless One’s previous incarnations have caused in the past, it’s your choice. Your character’s alignment (following D&D’s classic divisions: Chaotic or Lawful, Neutral, Good or Evil), is entirely determined by your actions in the game. Unfortunately, there aren’t different endings, just many different paths to achieve the same goals, which for a 1999 game was more than enough to warrant the revolutionary status (“KotOR”, “Torment’s” spiritual follower, would only surface in 2003).
Aesthetically it is also a marvelous game, even if it still uses “Baldur’s Gate” dated 2D (Infinity) Engine. Recreating the complexity of the “Planescape” was definitely a challenge for the Art Department, but it paid off: the environments are dark, gloomy and dirty, meshing dark fantasy visuals, an industrial-revolution twist and some “Burtonesque” imagery (flying skulls anyone?), all of which give the visuals that edgy and freaky dimension. However, when the player leaves the center of the multiverse, the scenarios seem to lose quality, lacking the overall attention to detail of the previous backgrounds. It’s a shame, because it makes the exploration of the multiverse less awe-inspiring then what you’d expect, considering the descriptions you’ll read throughout the game. The sound has an equally broad mix of flavors; from beautifully orchestrated synthesizer melodies, to tribal rhythms, every sound blends perfectly with the visuals, adding one more layer to the uniqueness of the “Planescape” setting.
Notice how I haven’t even touched the matter of gameplay? Can you guess why? Yes, it’s because the RPG “action” elements in “Torment” aren’t exactly as memorable as the rest of the game. They are, for the most part, completely forgettable. Basically, it plays out as a simplistic clone of “Baldur’s Gate”, e.g. classical turn-based AD&D rule-oriented gameplay. It’s dull, uninteresting, and it isn’t even tactical or challenging… it does encourage grinding and looting, which I, myself, would regard as downright wrong. On the good side, the immensity of side-quests helps the gameplay stay somewhat fresh and keep pace, making action all the more secondary in comparison to the game’s other facets.
If you can forget about the slumber-inspiring gameplay (and believe me, you will), you’ll find out that “Torment” is so grandiose, profound and unique, that you’ll be left without words to describe it. Its stories, ideas and characters we’ll linger in your memory, challenging your heart and mind to fully understand the magnificence of the game’s experiences… making you want to go back to the “Planescape” universe time and time again. Whether Chris Avellone knew it or not, “Torment” was his undying attempt at immortality through art. It succeeded.