Faithless Priests

“The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened…”

A journalism test piece I wrote during a short-lived attempt to get out of the games ghetto – I never pushed to get it published. 

The outside of New Unity church on Islington’s Upper Street doesn’t look much like a church. You could believe that the pale brick and painted wood belonged to a cheap village hall. But not to a congregation that’s been around since the Great Fire of London and that had Mary Wollstonecraft as a congregant. Investigate more and you find a sign proclaiming that the current chapel is a result of the German bombing campaigns of the 1940s. But I’m not here to judge the external merits of the building. Inside, there’s the unusual item I’m here to see; the smiling Andy Pakula.

Reverend Pakula is an unusual leader for the 350 year-old congregation because he’s been an atheist for his whole life. “(I grew up) in this Jewish family where we had a Christmas tree, no one ever talked to god, clearly no-one ever believed anything.” he tells me. “I’ve always been an atheist, except when maybe when I was five and I wanted to run faster. And that had nothing to do with god – I just wanted to magic it. ”

The first recorded English-language use of ‘atheist’ is in John Martiall’s 1566 A Replie to Mr Calfhills Blasphemous Answer Made Against the Treatise of the Cross, as an insult. Indeed atheist was exclusively used as an insult in 16th and 17th century Britain, meaning ‘one who lacks moral restraint’. The first person I can find who reclaimed atheism as a positive word was Jean Meslier. This seemingly-pious French village priest wrote a strident Testament, published posthumously, which was the first defence of atheism. (We only know about the Testament because Voltaire Bowdlerised it into a defence of deism.) Meslier also seems to have been the first person we can say for certain was a faithless priest.

After studying at MIT and working in biotech for many years, Pakula joined a Unitarian church in America. Soon, after he started the long process of seminary study that resulted in his acting as New Unity’s minister since 2006. All normal, if he hadn’t been an atheist. Yet the two core pastimes of ministers in monotheistic religions seem to be prayer to, and praise of, the god. Pakula can’t indulge in either of those. So what does he do, as a priest who has declared he has no faith?

“Unitarian congregations are all different, they’re not like franchises. There’s no one to tell you what to do. Some of them would be ‘of course god exists’. I try to be open and I hope I say things that allow for many interpretations. But you know, I talk about real life and why hope and compassion are important, and why change is hard… I believe in love.”

I suggest to him that his function is something like a community social psychologist. “Yes. Especially positive psychology, not abnormal psychology… Every person has worth and dignity. Go from there. You can make that religious and say every person has an immortal soul. You can take the Hasidic, Qabalistic view about the fragments in the divine in everyone. Hinduism with Atman and Brahman is lovely. We can work with that, it’s just stories. I base (my value system) on the values that I think will make a better, more peaceful, loving just world. What else can we really be for?”

Can we still call this a religion? Well, the UK supreme court has recognised that god isn’t necessary for a religion, recently ruling that Scientology is a religion. On that reading, secular organisations like London’s Sunday Assembly may one day get state religious backing.Of course, Revd. Pakula is unusual amongst atheist priests in that he’s ‘out’. Though the numbers are unknown, many more clergy are still ‘in’, hidden away in congregations around the world. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that 1 in 6 protestant priests in Holland were either atheist or agnostic.

Of course all clergy express doubts. Many faiths emphasise that part of being a good theologian is testing your faith. But for some that process of testing can be catastrophic. Daphne (not her real name) is a Baptist Reverend in the UK. Her congregation emphasises a process of breaking down and rebuilding beliefs as part of the training process. “One of the first things that they try to do is strip down what you’ve inherited.” she says “They help you to own what you really believe. Then they question you… some people come away with a huge frustration over the institution and faith. They end up with a deeper faith, but they can’t cope with the hypocrisy of the institution.”

And some end up with no faith at all. For a priest that has lost his or her faith, the next step is hard. That’s because being a priest is more than being a font of godly power. It’s also a profession which comes with associated benefits. To be a priest, is to have a house, lifestyle, income, car, family, and community, all tied to that role. To step away from that – or even to risk it – must seem huge. Most faiths inculcate you with an ethics that praises openness and truth-telling. And as a priest and community leader, your role is to be a clear standard for that moral system, no matter the consequences.

Yet as the incentives against honesty include the loss of everything that defines you, it’s a hard thing to step away from. According to letters published by her postulator, even Mother Teresa managed to conceal her loss of faith for over fifty years. After all, it’s not like there’s a clear career path for ex-clergy. Thankfully, many of the more progressive Western faiths are supportive, like the Unitarians. The Church of England tacitly allows Christian non-realists to be ministers – that is, ministers who do not believe in the objective existence of a God. This has allowed ministers such as the former head of the Church of Scotland, Richard Holloway, to come out as non-believers. The PKN church in Holland is also supportive.

Gretta Vosper is similarly lucky. Her faith – the United Church of Canada – has been ordaining women and LBGT ministers for many decades. Yet until Vosper came out to her congregation, it hadn’t had an atheist minister. “I preached an utterly spontaneous sermon deconstructing the idea of a supernatural, interventionist god called God.”

Unusually, the board of Vosper’s congregation decided to follow her. “We met. I openly acknowledged that I did not believe in god although at that time I did not call myself an atheist. I used the term non-theist…I acknowledged that this took me outside of what they had called me to do in ministry with them and they considered what they wanted to do. And they decided they wanted to head out in this direction and see where it led. The leadership of the congregation has been unbelievably amazing, supportive, wise, patient, loving, and encouraging. They have offered to stand by me as heresy trials have been threatened and been with me through everything. I feel so privileged to be in a congregation with them.”

Leaving god has also allowed the values that Vosper teaches to shift. “We place (positive values) before us in the same way we once placed god which was, to be true, simply a projection of a collection of values. We have distilled the good ones and use them. And I often speak of the future as a kind of god against which we can assess our actions. Are we living and making choices that will be judged positively by future generations or are we not?”

Vosper is now a member of the Clergy Project. This community, created by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola, hosts discussion for religious leaders who’ve lost their faith. It currently has 556 members, including Christian clergy, rabbis and imams. Of those, around a quarter are still serving as ministers. A message from Richard Dawkins welcomes new members saying. “It is an aspect of the vicious intolerance of religion that a mere change of mind can redound so cruelly on those honest enough to acknowledge it.” The project financially supports ministers who want to use outplacement services to find new roles. Vosper is working to expand their remit to the conversion of congregations. “We have not yet set up a process to support clergy as they transition their congregations beyond belief but I am hoping to be able to do that with TCP’s support.”

The project emphasises anonymity because few faiths and nations are as forgiving of atheism as the Unitarian church or the UK government are. The International Humanist and Ethical Union’s 2013 report noted, “The non-religious are discriminated against, or outright persecuted, in most countries of the world.” It also showed that 13 Islamic countries have the death penalty for atheism. Last year, the UK government granted asylum to an Afghan atheist, as apostasy carries the death penalty in Afghanistan. Given that the majority of Islamic scholars agree that the punishment for apostasy is death, an imam who loses his faith is in a dangerous situation.

For that reason, all the clergy I spoke to were thankful that they lived in a society that tolerated their beliefs. Daphne says, “All the ministers in our area are basically preaching ‘let’s be tolerant, welcoming and open for our communities, however messy life may be’.”

Interviews with Pakula, Vosper.

Stupidity’s Unpopular Cousin: Intellectualism in the UK

“to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas.”

This was written in 2014. I didn’t post it because it didn’t seem culturally relevant. It does now.

Because I’m arrogant, I self-define as an intellectual. It surprises me how highly-ranked it is in my self-image, probably below ‘Jewish’ and ‘tired’, and above ‘shy’ and ‘Mancunian’. But it’s a word that’s not clearly defined and which means different things to many different people. Look, I asked twitter what they thought it meant.

That’s a huge range of definitions. For me, in contrast, to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas. To me, to understand a flaw in your moral reasoning and to correct it then requires a concomitant adaptation in your behaviour. For example, to recognise that your concept of utilitarianism is out of whack with anti-vegetarianism, and to change your beliefs and your behaviour. To me, that’s intellectualism.

But, as that last tweet from Mark Johnson hinted at, many more of the replies I got were negative about the word – indeed, many saw it as pejorative. Here’s a selection.

So it’s posited as arrogance, out-of-touch, ivory tower behaviour; someone who might know lots of things, but nothing practical. Two jokes from RPS writers reflect that – another example of humour reflecting our prejudices very neatly. Jim’s in particular is an astounding summary of what I perceive to be the predominant British feeling about intellectuals (though, as an action-intellectual himself, I doubt he believes it.)

Wherever they’ve gone, what’s clear is that intellectuals in the UK are not well-regarded and mostly not visible. I first noticed it in secondary school as self-awareness slowly dawned. Myself, I liked getting answers right and gathering more knowledge. Yet some of my peers seemed to decide that standing out was bad, and that being smart was standing out. As we grew, it became uncool to try hard. Uncool to know the answers. I clearly remember my English teacher shaking his head at me when I was the only person to put my hand up for an answer and asking “why do you always have to be different, Dan?”

Of course, that’s different from anti-intellectualism – that’s anti-smart as a sub-set of anti-different. But it certainly feels linked. And this negativity certainly reflects a divergence of the English intellectual from the French public intellectual, where Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir and their kin were fêted, and public intellectualism is still active. As Daniel Little has said of America, “the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television” is not visible here. We have a scraping of aged public intellectuals, mostly on Radio 4 – but there aren’t new ones coming through. Our popular culture shies away from thought.

It’s possible that this a bleed-over from the more practical American culture. Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, which I’ve yet to read, so I’ll quote from Christopher Hefele’s succinct Amazon review:

“Unfortunately, America’s practical culture has never embraced intellectuals. The intellectuals’ education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege. Intellectuals are seen as a small arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, snobbish. Geniuses’ are described as eccentric, and their talents dismissed as mere cleverness. Their cultured view is seen as impractical, and their sophistication as ineffectual. Their emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.”

There’s another possible cause for the decline in the UK, pointed out by Kim Blake, which is demographic. The aristocratic / bourgeois generation of 19th century intellectuals, who didn’t have to work but merely thought, vanished with the leisured aristocrats – Tony Benn (AKA Anthony Wedgewood Benn, Viscount Stansgate) may have been the last of those. Similarly, Kim implied that many of the autodidact generation which formed twentieth century British’s public intellectual cadre came from a narrow background.

It is notable that these people have vanished. Perhaps with the slow death of social mobility and the running down of Victorian infrastructure, the reading rooms and small public libraries where they studied vanished. Perhaps the Methodist work ethic that drove many of them has also vanished. Either way, two sources of British Intellectuals vanished. Yet many people still feel like the capability to be an intellectual is out of reach, is something for another class.

To self-define as intellectual in the UK, then, is to define yourself as arrogant, out-of-touch and ultimately useless to a large subset of the population. Thankfully, intellectuals, by my definition, won’t really mind about that. They’re more concerned with being true to their own ideas and being morally right.

I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

Dan Griliopoulos, games journalist:

“There’s no inherent meaning in life, but that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. First off, you’re raised, deliberately or accidentally, with an array of beliefs, values and prejudices by family, school, and society, that mesh or clash with the things you biologically like – that is, nature and nurture shape your preferences. So there’s already things that you value, more get put on you fairly quickly, and you get to spend your life exploring their precedence, their acceptability to society and its laws, and whether you really like them or not.

So, what I’m saying is that value is inherent to us all, which provides a grounding to meaning. I’m not saying that such a meaning is justified, but if you’re smart, lucky and/or ruthless it might be internally coherent by the time you hit adulthood, which is more than most off-the-shelf meaning systems out there (whether that’s philosophies, health systems, or religions). Meaning is a human thing – to go looking for it in the alien, unconscious universe is nonsense on stilts.”

Source: I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

Heart On Sleeve: On the virtues of public disclosure.

My past errors bear testimony to a tendency to public disclosure; this doesn’t always seem the wisest thing to do, but I have a sharing preference. It’s probably the same reason I’m a liberal – all things being equal, I’ll do something rather than not; I’ll share, I’ll change the system, I’ll take the red pill, I’ll talk about something I shouldn’t. (e.g. I’m currently writing this in a local pub in Swiss Cottage. Any passerby can read over my shoulder.)

To the tune of: Blind Willie Johnson – Nobody’s Fault But Mine

I wrote this late last year, but forgot to post it. 

My past errors bear testimony to a tendency to public disclosure; this doesn’t always seem the wisest thing to do, but I have a sharing preference. It’s probably the same reason I’m a liberal – all things being equal, I’ll do something rather than not; I’ll share, I’ll change the system, I’ll take the red pill, I’ll talk about something I shouldn’t. (e.g. I’m currently writing this in a local pub in Swiss Cottage. Any passerby can read over my shoulder.)

No openness – I’m hiding in this picture.

That said, this could be what my ex- Jill always called a “post-hoc justification” – after the fact I come up with an explanation why I’ve done a thing, even if that reason wasn’t present ahead of time. There’s that imperative, inside me, to tell a passerby all my secrets. This absolute honesty has served me well in making friends, occasionally, but also driven my friends away, occasionally – if I’d thought things through more carefully, there are many things I might not have said (telling friends about mutual friends’ affairs, for example.) There are still hugely embarassing things I have trouble admitting – normally sexual things, in part thanks to my Middle England upbringing – but the events are outgrowings of that same lack of self-control. Akrasia, I’ve called it in the past. It’s the same reason I admire people who seem to make this decision rationally, like Louise Hewitt – I’ve never known a person so pensive about her mores, frank about her deviance from the norm, and who seemingly both benefits from and enjoys that openness so much.

(It’s also the reasoning behind my love of the Roman poet Catullus and why I seized on the recommendation of Crow from friend Chrissy, who curates the Poetry library. When Catullus splits with his lover Lesbia, he’s horrifically open about his heartbreak, and he turns from the highest, purest abstruse poetic language, to angry jealous ranting. It’s how I’ve felt from moment to moment about my relationships  – I’ll paste it at the bottom of this article.)

This is the reason why I’m an early adopter of every social network going. I want to be tracked, I want to embrace this future where organisations and friends know everything about me. I feel, with only a semi-rational urge, that I will benefit from this sharing, that it’ll skip past the tedious catching up, the inappropriateness that conversations often fall into. You read my blog, my Facebook, you know my predilections; if you talk about your faith, you should know I’m going to undermine it; I like folk music and books so don’t talk about metal or wrestling to me, unless you’ve a wider lesson to share.

I feel there will be benefits from corporations having access to my data too. For example, the more information about me that’s out there, the better targetted the advertising I see on my computer – I wouldn’t be using adblock if the adverts actually said something I wanted to read. I don’t care that the information is in the public domain; in this instance, my interests coincide with those of the major corporations.

Of course, those interests don’t always coincide, so sometimes I need a proper governmental safety net. For example, if my DNA data gets out there and it proves hugely aberrant, then no health company would insure me – so I have to thank god that the NHS  is around to cover that base. I’d love my data to be in the public domain, so I can get marketing messages from companies that might have identified root causes of problems that I’ve not even considered either solvable, but I need the base level of care, because patients simply shouldn’t be culpable for many genetic and medical conditions.

It speaks to a Rawlsian basis for society, the justice principle – that, all things being equal, I would want there to be enough security for everyone in society, so that whatever situation a person ends up in they have nothing to fear, that they’ll be supported in their openness by a society that recognises that any individual could be in any situation, given the luck of circumstance (by luck I mean ‘our ignorance of enough information to predict our deterministic universe’). This reflects my desire to remove culpability, meritocracy and deservedness from public discourse altogether because, like Tolstoy’s God, I just don’t think they’re useful concepts.

Anyway, there’s me being open on openness. And as I promised, here’s Catullus being horrifically open:

Furius and Aurelius, companions of Catullus,
whether he will penetrate into the farthest of the Indies,
where the shore is pounded by the far resounding
eastern wave,
whether to the Hyrcanians or the gentle Arabs,
whether to the Scythians or the arrow bearing Parthians,
or the sea which the sevenfold
Nile colors,
whether he will walk across the high Alps,
visiting the monument of the great Caesar,
the Gallic Rhine, the terrifying sea and the
farthest Britain,
whatever the wish of the celestial gods will bring him,
prepared to attempt all these things at once,
announce to my girl a few
not good words.
May she live and may she be well with her adulterers,
300 of whom she holds at the same time in an embrace,
loving none (of them) truly, but repeatedly breaking
the groins of all;
and may she not look back at my love as before,
which dies by her fault like the flower of
the farthest meadow, after it was touched by the plow
passing by.

Furi et Aureli comites Catulli,
sive in extremos penetrabit Indos,
litus ut longe resonante Eoa
tunditur unda,
sive in Hyrcanos Arabesue molles,
seu Sagas sagittiferosue Parthos,
sive quae septemgeminus colorat
aequora Nilus,
sive trans altas gradietur Alpes,
Caesaris visens monimenta magni,
Gallicum Rhenum horribile aequor ulti-
mosque Britannos,
omnia haec, quaecumque feret voluntas
caelitum, temptare simul parati,
pauca nuntiate meae puellae
non bona dicta.
cum suis vivat valeatque moechis,
quos simul complexa tenet trecentos,
nullum amans vere, sed identidem omnium
ilia rumpens;
nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit uelut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
tactus aratro est.

Planescape Torment: Retrospective – What can change the nature of a fan?

Amidst the dusty annals of video gaming, there are games only mentioned in hushed tones. There are games that are traded in back-alleys, games where the few extant copies are guarded in by hooded, pale-faced men who worship the old gods Mintah, Ammygah and Com O’door. Games where only one person has ever played it, and he whispers its plot endlessly from his isolated, padded rooms in Bedlam…

To The Tune Of: Bolt Thrower – Drowned In Torment

This originally appeared on Eurogamer aaaages ago, but I’m reposting here cos I can.

Amidst the dusty annals of video gaming, there are games only mentioned in hushed tones. There are games that are traded in back-alleys, games where the few extant copies are guarded in by hooded, pale-faced men who worship the old gods Mintah, Ammygah and Com O’door. Games where only one person has ever played it, and he whispers its plot endlessly from his isolated, padded rooms in Bedlam…

Planescape Torment isn’t one of those games.

Cuddly Nameless One

Planescape is the game most likely to be name-dropped by PC journalists, after Deus Ex. Planescape is the game that took the fag-end of the superb Baldur’s Gate engine-based games and immolated their legacy in a ball of conspicuous failure, followed shortly by the apparent collapse of its publisher, Interplay. Planescape is a game that, shamefacedly, one of Eurogamer’s writers gave 7/10 to, though his reasons were just. Planescape is the only game I’ve ever borrowed and not given back (I do hope they’re not reading…)

More interesting facts about Planescape; it has the longest script of any videogame ever written at around 800,000 words, itself adapted into a strangely-addictive novel and another book. It’s an adaptation of the Baldur’s Gate engine to the one of the most abstruse elements of the Dungeons & Dragons universe – the planes, the mythical realms that were Venn diagrams of moral alternatives made physical; sod Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, if this were a book then you’d call it unfilmable. For a retrospective it presents a unique problem; when a game features nearly a million brilliant words, it’s easy to write ten times that in analysis. (Sadly, Eurogamer didn’t pay by the word, otherwise I would have.) Most of the words I’m going to write are spoilers, so if you want to play it STOP READING NOW.

You take the part of the Nameless One, a heavily-scarred, tattooed and frankly ugly amnesiac who wakes up in the morgue. So far, so Grisham. Yet this morgue is staffed by Zombies, and is built in Sigil, the city of doors. You soon learn your task, from a chatty skull who reads the tattoos on your back (this was the year before Memento, so if anything that plagiarised this); to find out why you cannot die, why you forget more every time you do, and what you’ve done with the hundreds of lives you’ve lived before. You’ve lived these lives across the planes but mainly in Sigil; this in planar lore, sits in a neutral zone and is scattered with portals that might send you round the corner, or all the way across the planes, if you know what their hidden keys are. It sits atop on the inside of a torus that circles the tip of an endless spire and is overseen by the sadistic, arbitrary Lady of Pain, who even gods fear, and whose multi-pronged shadow features heavily in the spiky, nasty architecture.

The spectacular in-game appearance of the city is an argument in itself for forsaking the rotational delights of true 3D gaming; hand-painted scenery mixes Victorian urban grittiness and tremendous variety of scale with avant-garde fantasy. Magnificent architraves and naves loom from nowhere over sewage and decay; brain-bending buildings loom over the map with obscure functions and names, while an interplanar bazaar fills the streets with any possible race or device. Hieronymous Bosch landscapes meet colossal statuary and no other game has met its implied scale. When the game breaks out of Sigil it does so suddenly and the new areas – the hell of Baator and the border prison-town of Curst – are equally bizarre, though more cursorily designed. And, curiously, despite the lushness of the built environment, much of the description comes in those massive chunks of text.

That Off-putting Box Art

Take the introduction of Ignus, a pyromaniac wizard, channel to the realm of fire and former student of the cruelest incarnation of the Nameless One, who can be persuaded, gingerly, to join your party. You first encounter him in a bar named, eponymously, The Smouldering Corpse. His sprite hangs in the middle of the foyer, impressively flaming, but not really enlightening. It’s in the text that you interact with him, seeing him hissing with idiot malice and insanity from his decades of agonising imprisonment; the game even gives you the option to sacrifice parts of yourself to his flames in return for permanent weakness, increasing disability, and access to his unique spellbook.

Whilst talking about Ignus, it’s worth noting the number of purely optional, totally bizarre and entirely bypassable party members; the entire game can be completed without comrades (indeed, for a speed run, it’s pretty much necessary) and half the party members are extremely difficult to access. Save for Ignus and the puzzle of extinguishing his eternal flames, there’s the Nordom the Modron, a corrupted minion of the computer-like realm of logic Mechanus. You can only encounter him by buying a puzzle box from a particularly strange store, which opens up into a whole procedurally-generated dungeon floating in limbo; it’s both one of the most challenging parts of the game and a bluntly comic parody of D&D and role-playing computer games altogether. (The puzzle box itself can, incidentally be swapped later for the most powerful evil weapon in the game, as long as you don’t mind dooming the universe to eternal war). Then there’s Vhailor (an empty suit of armour motivated only by justice) who’s walled up underground somewhere, the intellectual succubus Fall-From-Grace, and the half-demon thief Annah.

The party members you do take on board are developed almost entirely through dialogue, which allows you to unlock more of their story the longer you play with them. Your first potential party member, the endlessly gabbling Morte is a cheeky flying skull whose bite is as bad as his bark. His levelling up is done partly by learning horrible new insults. Meanwhile, the ancient Githzerai Dak’kon, is a particularly strange example; interacting with a puzzle item he gives you results in more of his story being revealed, new combat buffs for your character and more dialogue choices with him – that unlock more abilities and a greater story about the planes themselves and his race in particular, a story that’s ambiguous and leaves him both a hero and a villain (and one of your former incarnations either a villain or misanthropically pragmatic). There’s even characters mentioned in passing who demand stories of their own – a former companion of yours, the blind archer, whose zombie you find; or the Lady of Pain herself (the godlike overlord of Sigil) whose name cannot be mentioned (but about who theories abound that she’s in fact six squirrels with a headress, robe and ring of levitation). It’s emphasised throughout the game that you are, and always have been, doom for those lost souls who tread your path, and that all these who walk with you are fated to die, soon.

Planescape’s deliberate weirdness doesn’t finish with the characters, or the world. The deliberately contrary design decisions continue throughout the game. The language of the game is close to Chaucer or Iain Banks Feersum Enjinn, relying heavily on old east London “cant”, a mixture of the lingo used by cony-catchers, pick-pockets and bawdy-baskets. A typical sentence might be, “It’s a right berk who thinks a blood or cutter will spill the chant without some jink.” There are almost no swords, despite you starting as a fighter character (the nameless one can shift classes between thief, fighter and mage repeatedly, as he remembers his previous lives). Rats can and do beat you up, especially in large numbers, though your main character can never die.

You can finish nearly the whole game without fighting or killing anyone and the experience system reflects that; it rewards combat third, quest-based experience second, and character roleplaying, party development and introspection first – towards the end of the game just talking to yourself once can give you more experience than you’ve got in the whole rest of the game. You only get a chance to use nearly all the powerful spells once during the game. The largest, most interesting portions of the game, are completely optional – the undead city and the rat hive mind can be mostly avoided, Coaxmetal (the towering, monstrously-evil smithy-golem that manufactures weapons for the eternal Blood War) is hidden in a doorless tower, your old journals, body-arts and tombs are scattered in the most remote parts of the world – even being mazed by the Lady of Pain is dependent on you being an idiot.

The shadows swarm...

Why, if Planescape is so good, did Eurogamer give it 7/10 back in the day? Why didn’t it sell? Like most of the games produced by Black Isle and its successor studios Troika and Obsidian (KOTOR 2, Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines), PST was far too ambitious. Massed community-patches are needed to add in the missing content. There’s a wide range of them, with several collated by the ever excellent Spellhold Studios who also have fixes and extensions to a range of other Infinity Engine games, including Baldur’s Gate. The most useful patch allows you to run the game at modern resolutions (unfortunately, we’ve had trouble running that alongside other fixes from Qwinn that reinstate lots of missing content and voices that were hidden in the shipped game.)

Also, let’s face it; that box art was bloody awful (the Nameless One’s scabby, impassive face looming at you like Judge Dredd in his Dead Man days – Tony Benn is sexier) and Interplay would have been better sticking with the original name, “Last Rites”. Even the design document, though a joy to read, admits that ““We were initially worried that a game with a severed head in it wouldn’t sell. So we said, ‘well, Interplay might go for it,’.” That design brief also has a million other brilliant ideas that would have delayed the game by a year if they’d all been implemented, like talking weapons, and a planned alternative super-good ending.

What has the gaming world taken from PST? No-one seriously considers going back to the imaginative indistinctiveness of painted 2D although it is demonstrably beautiful – only the CG-art backgrounds of Guild Wars approach it. Even Chris Avellone has said he wouldn’t make a sequel – though he’d like to follow up on the Planescape setting itself. The only recent heir, beyond Avellone’s own Neverwinter Nights 2, is Lost Odyssey, and that, though a similarly wonderfully-crafted story about immortals heavy with regrets and memories, also sadly bought into the cloying immaturity, repetitive battles and heavily stereotyped characters of modern JRPGs. Even in D&D proper, the Planescape universe isn’t supported anymore and it’s implied that it’s been written out of existence. The one thing we gamers did learn; if you play one of the descendant studios games within a year of release, it’ll be almost certainly be broken. Hold off until the community patches are done, if you want a perfect experience. (That is, if you can stand not playing what will be one of the best games ever, on the day it’s released.)

PST is 800,000 words long – but when numbers get that big they become meaningless. The key point is that every single one of those words has been stitched into place like . Torment, as a book, is one of the best fantasy books ever written – and having the opportunity to work that twisty, painful bloody story out for yourself is almost a moral lesson. Hmm. Perhaps I should give my copy back…?

I Won A Book!

Congratulations to Dan Griliopoulos, winner of our Medical London competition. We asked for a piece of trivia connected with medicine in London, and Dan provided this:

“The premier London medical story has to be that of Samuel Pepys’ stone. Not the actual operation – which was long and painful (without anaesthetic) or highly dangerous (without modern medical techniques they had to cut up through the perineum to actually reach the kidneys where the stones were forming) – but his later love for the tennis ball-sized lump of crystalline urine. He’d carry it in his pocket everywhere, show it to friends, and once considered spending 24s (a hefty sum) on a display case so he could show it off in his house. He also had yearly dinners to show his appreciation at surviving, where guests would drink and eat themselves into an absolute stupor, pretty much guaranteeing that they too would end up with similar kidney problems to his…”
So a copy of the much-praised tome Medical London is on the way to him.