Planescape: Torment

This is a very strange game, in that so much of the stuff that's memorable and even moving about it is pretty much extraeneous to its mechanics. You can 'play' Torment badly as a typical CRPG where you kill things for cash and experience, but you would miss maybe 90% of the content, which is in the reams and reams of text you read. Even then, the 'conversation battles' that you have (which tend to be a more effective way to gain XP and levels anyway) are not actually the highlights for me. Instead it's the descriptions of certain key memories you unlock, all of which are optional extras there to fill out the story.

In another game these memories would be conveyed visually through cutscenes. In Torment you read about them as you would a novel – your dialogue options stripped away to just continuing or stopping. They are chunky intrusions into the gaming experience, and normally when a visual medium does this it is an irritant (particuarly noticable and egregious in comics). But here it becomes a test case for the power of the written word in evoking character and emotion. 

Three memories in particular stand out for me. They are all examples of a previous incarnation of you (the 'practical' one – although that's quite a polite way of decribing what is actually a highly-functioning sociopath) tormenting other NPCs in the game. The justly-acclaimed sensory stone 'experience' with Deionarra is the most ambitious, in that it's told from three angles simultaneously – with the account diving into Deionarra own feelings of heartfelt devotion, then switching to your previous incarnation's heartless manipulation of her, and adding your present day reaction to the unfolding events, which heightens the sense of stakes in what to a completely external observer would be a rather unremarkable exchange between two potential lovers. The dramatic tension is created by the contrast between what is in these characters' heads, and the knowledge that Deionarra's small-scale decision to accompany this man has proved fatal.

The other two memories both involve this previous incarnation physically abusing two NPCs that you can recruit into your party – Ignus and Morte. In a game where you can slaughter scores of low-level criminals without much thought beyond how irksome it is that they keep attacking you, it is another testament to how words can bring out the reality of violence so much more powerfully than visuals. It is in the specific descriptions of flesh burning and bones cracking, the sounds and smells that are evoked, which underscore how cruel your previous incarnation was, and how much you have to atone for his crimes.

This would be really great writing anywhere, but in the context of what is ultimately another Dungeons & Dragons CRPG made in the Infinity Engine it is particularly novel and striking. Sometimes you do need a lot of words to bring out the detail of the interactions between characters, and perhaps it's not possible to get to the depth of characterisation Torment achieves without that wordcount.

So maybe it's fair that detractors of the game suggest that it would really work better as a novel. There is no player choice in those three memories. It's just flavour of a particularly bitter kind – underlining just how much of a shit you used to be. Actually, the Enhanced Edition comes with a novelisation when you buy it on GOG, but it's telling that I haven't really been tempted to read it. Although player choice isn't a feature of the game's emotional highpoints, it is still a significant part of the conversations and decisions you make when playing, to the point where having a single definitive version of events doesn't feel like it will capture the richness of the game itself.

If the above sounds like I'm downgrading the importance of visuals in telling Torment's story, I don't actually think that's the case. It's just that Torment employs them in the right way – realising the fantastic world that provides the backround to these small but poignant character moments. This is actually a better-looking game than its Infinity Engine precursor Baldur's Gate, but in both games the visualisations of the characters isn't the main draw. Instead, much of the beauty lies in their richly rendered maps and the well-designed soundtrack, which even in Baldur's Gate is full of incidental details that deepen immersion in the world. And while Baldur's Gate is purposefully traditional in scope – aiming to faithfully translate the Tolkienesque Forgotten Realms D&D setting into a computer game, Torment reflects the oddball sensibilities of its Planescape setting, where literally anything is possible if you believe in it hard enough. Sigil is a feast of spiky buildings and spikier inhabitants. The visuals are there to do something that the words will have a hard time doing – which is to easily evoke an environment and atmosphere that is literally otherworldly. Contrast that to the next iteration of CRPGs like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, which went 3D and put lackluster character animation to the fore, and it's hard not to conclude that the isometric display of the Infinity Engine was the right way to go.

A note on the combat, which gets a bad rap everywhere. Maybe the Enhanced Edition has tweaked the game to make it more balanced, but I generally didn't have a problem with it. By the time I got to the first big dungeon I had two fighters in my party to protect my squishy mage, and they were robust enough for me to face down Many-As-One, which in one of the many inversions of the game makes rats (normally a weak tutorial enemy) into a tough and scary boss fight. The only actively irritating part of the game was the Modron Maze, which is a dungeon designed by computers and is almost purposfully unenjoyable, and I had no qualms about cheating to get myself through it. By the time I got to Curst Prison I was geared up and had unlocked stat boosts for my main fighters, and could use my thief to scout and backstab. So for me it was actually pretty fun to pull enemies out with Morte's taunt ability and chop them up one by one, or mess them up from afar with AOE debuffs. Torment lacks the four-dimensional chess aspect of the magic system in Baldur's Gate II, where preparation, combos and counters can make you feel exceedingly clever in finding the right solution to get through an encounter. But there is still a certain kind of satisfaction in having your specced up party be capable of taking down hordes of beasties in UnderSigil, a totally optional combat dungeon at the end of the game.

Torment scales back the variety of spells, weapons and monsters found in Baldur's Gate. Instead its development resources were spent on its wordcount, which meant delving deeper into a smaller number of companion characters, and fashioning a more intricate and satisfying story. The conceit of the game – an immortal who has lost his memory and must find out who he is – is shaped into a metaphor about facing up to the mistakes you made in the past, and accepting responsibility for them even if they were in some respects committed by a different person. The game keeps circling back to the question of "what can change the nature of a man", but the answer is ultimately individual and not especially relevant. Instead it's the premise of the question that's important – your nature can change. And while that sounds hopeful it does not liberate you from having to deal with the consequences of the actions of your past selves. And for me it's the excellently written memories in the game, which detail the specific personal torments you have inflicted, that really hits that message home.

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