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.
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.
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.
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…?