Re-Retrospective: Planescape: Torment

By RPS on September 28th, 2010 at 2:44 pm.

A corpse with irresistable sexual magnetisim, indeed.

This retrospective post was originally published on RPS in 2007, and we repost it here to celebrate the arrival of Planescape: Torment on Good Old Games. It was first written by Kieron for PC Gamer. Some spoilers follow, but nothing absolutely critical.

Ignored by the gaming press upon release, only receiving warmish reviews that stopped well short of open adulation and the victim of one of the most ill-judged marketing campaigns (“A corpse with irresistible sexual charisma”) in history, Planescape Torment is the classic Underdog. Inevitably, it became the (relatively speaking) commercial runt of the Baldur’s Gate litter. In the years since, the coin of its critical worth has accumulated to the point where aficionados regularly cite it as the greatest of the PC RPGs. In fact, it’s rehabilitation has gone too far, with its name being a simple byword for narrative excellence without anyone really feeling the need to say why. There’s more here than dogmatic romantic myth.

Understand, there’s dozens of ways narrative can operate in videogames. Most modern examples take a cinematic bent… one which Planescape rejects. Its narrative is carried primarily on the back of pure words. While in terms of function – stats, roaming around levels, weapons, hitting the monsters – it’s got everything its sister Baldur’s Gate game, it’s heart is in its conversations. People talk. You, through the vast array of multiple options, reply. And it’s magical. In fact, in many ways, Planescape is the reinvention of the text adventure into the modern age, leaving the visuals for everything they’re good at, while leaning on the words to provide emotional resonance.

Don’t underestimate text as a tool for creating emotion. It’s brutally efficient. The effort to create a cutscene which shows a Demon destroying all reality is months of work. The effort to write it? Hey – I’ve just done it. And while it doesn’t have the immediate impact, the fact that Text allows you to throw dozens of these sensations at the player all adds up: every few minutes a line of text or a concept hits you like a nail gun through the heart. With 800,000 words of script, Planescape often feels like the world’s biggest choose-your-own-adventure book.

The numbers don’t tell the full story of how much – well – the story is stressed. For example, more experience points are gathered by simple conversations than slaughtering the opposition. Hell: this is the one RPG whose final encounter’s best solution is achieved through an exchange of words rather than an exchange of blows.

Which isn’t to say that the story it chooses to tell is original. It’s the archetypal videogame story of an amnesiac hero trying to discover what’s going on, favoured by developers since the beginning of time as a means to make the hero’s perspective of the world be identical to the players. But Planescape is the total exemplar of this plot. The issue of identity and memory permeates the entire tale rather than acting as a mere introductory tool.

It’s this following of concepts to the ultimate degree is what characterizes Planescape. Take, for example, its “lives”. In games, you always come back from an encounter, returning to an earlier save. You are, effectively, immortal. In Planescape, this is made literally true with you raising from the grave every time you’re struck down. This ability is the backbone of the plot – why are you trapped in an eternally renewing existence? – with opportunities arising to actively manipulate this odd curse. Take, for example, the woman who wants to kill you just to know what it’s like to strike someone down. Or getting people to root around in your body, in the process killing you, trying to see if anything has been left inside your perpetually returning form.

It also has style. Planescape Torment looks at the videogame, understands its structure, realizes what’s laughable and notable about it… and then takes it as far as the developers were able. It’s even got a gleeful, intelligent post-modern edge. Take, to choose an entirely throw-away example, the section where you find yourself inside a Modron cube, a mechanical auto-generating dungeon which exists as a parody of the RPG’s archetypal structure. The rooms are simple squares, as in the ancient D&D games. The robotic constructs which guard it offer self-analytical dialogue (I am a low level construct – I offer little threat) before dropping ironic treasure such as Coins!, A Magic Item! And A Clue!. Yes, it’s a little big smug, but you’re in on the joke, so all is fine.

But while capable of mockery, Planescape really can’t help but love the RPG and be enamored about its potential to move the lower, sadder registers of the human experience. Remember: “Planescape” is the baroque Dungeons and Dragon world which the story is set. The game is actually entitled “Torment”. Dwell on that a little.

Now, while it’s the cliché of the lost-memory genre that, if you are hunting a murderer, that you are the killer, Torment, with a character whose actions have stretched back centuries, has impacted on the world in hundreds of ways. You have been killers beyond measure and carry the sins of entire worlds. How do you feel about this? What are you going to do about it? Sometimes the entire game feels like a question mark. Is it going to turn into something rhetorical or can you actually provide the answers?

While we’re a long way from the videogame equivalent of a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky, for what it’s worth, Planescape is as close as we’ve come, and worthy of real literary consideration. Of course, such dry analysis always turns people away from the Great dead Russians – when it should be remembered these are works full of life and joys and – yes – deep sadness. The same is true here. It’s a philosophical buddy-hatey road movie based around the search for the self and the endlessly reiterated question “What can change the nature of a man?”. And you find yourself lingering on that. Not just what can change the nature of your character – but what made you and what manner of man are you anyway.

Irony – a game all based on amnesia turns out to be something you’ll never forget.

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48 Comments »

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  1. apricotsoup says:

    Sweet,

    What I really want is a version with high quality fog.
    Played through it again a couple of years ago and found that was the only bit that really irked me.

  2. empath says:

    I really wanted to like this game, but man the first 2 hours were a chore. I gave up the 3rd time I had to go to gamefaqs. I don’t mind a challenging game. I do mind tedious hunt quests and terrible user interfaces. If someone remakes it with a modern engine, I might take a shot at it, but this just wasn’t for me.

    • Lewis says:

      I agree that its first few hours are dreadfully paced. Something that seems to get glossed over.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      They’re dreadfully paced? Aside from the morgue, the beginning of the game is perfectly fine. You spend a lot of time talking to people and that’s exactly what the game is good at.

    • ShaunCG says:

      I was hooked from “I shall wait for you in death’s halls, my love.”

    • disperse says:

      @empath

      I had the same problem. Also, I hated the random encounters in the city. They were a drain on my resources and discouraged me from exploring.

      I’m wondering if there is some sort of cheat or tweak I could use that wouldn’t completely remove the challenge but would at least make it so I wouldn’t fear exploration in the early game. Yes, I know the character is immortal, but dying early on is still annoying.

    • Ozzie says:

      Planescape: Torment is indeed deeply flawed. The user interface is absolutely atricious and uncomfortable to handle. And yes, it takes some time to get to the interesting parts. I’m not sure if you’re patient or willing enough to stick with it and wait until they come, but I promise that it’s absolutely worth it!

    • James says:

      “Deeply flawed” is not anywhere close to fair, even given the explanation that follows. You’ve made baby pandas all over the world sad, you know.

    • Ozzie says:

      Serves them right, stupid pandas. ;)
      If you want to hear more of the flaws, so be it.
      The team AI is useless since it isn’t clever enough to figure out what enemy should be attacked next, so you better deactivate and pause every few seconds to give an attack command. A bug (I suppose) veered me into an dead end. The combat that just isn’t very fun and doesn’t allow for that many tactics like Baldur’s Gate. Or maybe it makes it so much harder to use tactics since the interface is so terrible.
      And for a game that tries so hard to subvert the cliches of the fantasy genre, I find it odd that it uses the D&D rules. All in all, I don’t find a lot of the gameplay, especially the combat, very compelling.

      Still, its extraordinary strengths make it a must play for everyone who calls himself a hardcore gamer! And yes, the narrative can only work in a game.

  3. Premium User Badge

    DollarOfReactivity says:

    Might give this a try if I can decide whether I care for GOG anymore. I recall seeing ads for this in my gaming magazines when it came out, but the marketing must have been off because until recently I thought it was an emo-ized Unreal Tournament clone. Sad, because I loved the BG games and would have bought this in a heartbeat back then.

    • Pemptus says:

      “Care for GOG anymore”? Don’t care for GoG. Care for the games themselves, and the prices. If the price is reasonable and you feel you need all the extra stuff that comes with it (wallpapers, artwork etc.) – go ahead and get it. If it’s somewhere else for cheaper and also without any DRM – buy it there. It’s not that you’re obliged to visit the GoG site ever again after the purchase. It’s just a store.

      Capitalism ho!

    • Premium User Badge

      DollarOfReactivity says:

      It’s not just a store. Buying from them doesn’t magic money into the original devs pockets. It puts money into GOGs pockets. I don’t hate GOG, but I didn’t like their stunt. If I can find PT elsewhere I will get it.

    • user@example.com says:

      “If I can find PT elsewhere I will get it” and not magic money into the original devs pockets.

      After a point, virtually nothing will result in any money going to the people who developed a game.

    • LokisDawn says:

      Pemptus: Haha, a Recettear reference. Let’s make this a classic.

  4. Lanster27 says:

    Come to think of it, no other RPG games released to date have impacted me the same as Torment did. Dragon Age might have came close, but not as many emotional up and downs compared with Torment.

  5. ShaunCG says:

    Superb game, and sadly one which I never finished thanks to an perpetual animation hang in the middle of a crucial conversation 4/5 of the way in. :(

    It’s also the only game which I own a big box copy of; space is at a premium but PS:T always makes the cut.

    I don’t *know* this but I imagine that GOG’s versions will be compatible with various PS:T (and other Infinity Engine-based games like BG) mods and tweak packs. Gibberlings 3 is a good place to start:

    http://www.gibberlings3.net/widescreen/
    http://www.gibberlings3.net/pst/

    …oh, looking at the front page again I see that another RPS update linking to an old post has beaten me to this:
    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2008/05/29/planescape-landscapes/

    I am not hivey enough for the hivemind.

    • Giant, fussy whingebag says:

      Better, newer mods and fixpacks can be found at Spellhold Studios. For those who are interested. I would personally recommend that anyone interested in playing, even for the first time, install the ‘fixpack’ and ‘unfinished business’ mods for fixes and cut content.

      Also worth noting is that all the Infinity Engine games can run just fine on even Windows 7, with the right workarounds. No need to buy it again, if you have it. Of course, it’s certainly easier to just buy/install the GOG version.

    • ShaunCG says:

      Cheers Whingebag, I look forward to trying out these new mods & fixpacks. I knew there was better out there for BG but wasn’t sure about PS:T. :D

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    Faldrath says:

    Still the best game ever made, in my humble opinion, especially with the fixpacks. There’s an excellent guide to optimizing PS:T for modern computers and installing the essential mods here:

    http://thunderpeel2001.blogspot.com/2009/01/planescape-torment-fully-modded.html

    (I have no idea how that would work with the GoG version, though)

    • Giant, fussy whingebag says:

      Good call Faldrath. That’s much more helpful than just pointing to the fixpacks, like I did.

      I imagine it’s much the same with the GOG version, with no need for steps 1a, 1b and 2…

    • Ignorant Texan says:

      Skip steps 1-3, including 3a and 3b(it’s running in widescreen for me), and from 4 on, it’s golden.

  7. Pijama says:

    Torment excels by far in terms of narrative. It’s brilliant and it wasn’t afraid of being original.

    Though to replay it, ah… I think a vacation is needed.

  8. Souldark says:

    Don’t trust the skull.

  9. Gundrea says:

    I wonder what it was I said that made death reject me.

  10. Kyle says:

    Nailed it. Lovely.

  11. tomwaitsfornoman says:

    Looks like the dusties lost another deader.

  12. Adam says:

    @disperse have you tried turning it to e lowest difficulty?

  13. Arathain says:

    Finally meeting Ravel herself and having her ask the question… whew, shivers. One of the gaming moments I have never forgotten.

  14. Jimmy Z says:

    PST is one of the greatest games I’ve ever played…

    …and not finished.

    The fact that you don’t have a set character class in the game and can just switch between fighter, rogue and mage at will, means that you can also seriously gimp your character. To such an extent that some encounters might become nigh impossible. This was the case with me anyway, had switched from fighter to rogue to fighter to mage and the end result was a horribly weak character that was unable to defeat one of the key encounters in the latter part of the game. I didn’t have an earlier save and after dozens and dozens of tries I just gave up.

    I’ve been meaning to pick it up again for AGES. But somehow I’m also afraid that the years have gilded my memories and if I started it up again, it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered…

    • tomwaitsfornoman says:

      ALWAYS go straight mage in the old Infinity engine games. Nothing else is worth your time.

  15. Pdahl says:

    Yeah, it’s a shame the combat in PS:T is pretty terrible, especially as a level 1 character.

  16. Bob's Lawn Service says:

    The first 1/3rd of the game is utterly tedious. It really does open up into something special though.

  17. Jaedar says:

    Updated my journal.

  18. james says:

    Love this game, nothing else has come close for me in emotional impact or narrative hook.

    I don’t worry about the difficulty as I invariably cheat like hell — I just want to get to the next conversation, so am happy to be invincible.

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    jaheira says:

    Disarmed it

  20. Axess Denyd says:

    So this is worth picking up, then?

    I never played it. Or any of the Baldur’s Gate games. I know, I’m a poor excuse for a gamer, but I imagine I was engrossed in some sort of flight/space/battlemech sim at the time.

    • TCM says:

      Depends on your view of CRPGs as a whole, and beyond that, what you look for in a CRPG.

      I was in similar straits ten years ago, so I freely admit I’m not fully qualified on this matter — I am FINALLY starting a run of Planescape I’m happy with (THANK GOD I finally fixed those stupid graphics errors that kept plaguing me), and may even get outside of Sigil this time — I know enough about the game to say that it’s not about the combat, or anything resembling most modern, more combat focused CRPGs (and ARPGs, but those don’t really count).

      If you want to read a whole lot while enjoying a story commonly lauded as amazing (I wouldn’t know — still starting out, but its opening is promising!), then yes, by all means, grab Planescape. If you’re looking for something with more action, look elsewhere — maybe at Baldur’s Gate, but I’m not exactly qualified there either!

    • DrGonzo says:

      Same here, I’m currently playing it through. But I’m finding the combat parts to be waaay to hard for me. Can’t seem to find an invincibility cheat though, if anyone knows one it would be much appreciated.

      The other thing I’m finding frustrating is finding the doors. I’ve wasted hours in the game simply because I haven’t been able to find where to click to enter or exit a building.

  21. Wolfox says:

    “Sometimes the entire game feels like a question mark.”

    That describes the game quite well, actually. In fact, the “motto” for the game is a question:

    “What can change the nature of a man?”

    ALERT – Minor spoiler follows:

    Ravel asks you that very question. The answer you give has no gameplay impact, but it’s oh-so-effective from a role-playing perspective, that it’s… genious. Pure genious.

    And the question is somewhat answered by the end of the game, but you have to play the whole game to fully realize what the answer is and why.

    Planescape: Torment is brilliant, some of the best fiction I’ve ever read/played. Definitely a classic.

  22. JackShandy says:

    Text! Fuck yeah! So many games these days try to be movies- Planescape was a book. And such a fantastic book.

    Who remembers the memory stones in the sensorium? Ahhhh.

  23. blainestereo says:

    What always bugged me about Torment is how it inexplicably turns bad at Curst/Carceri point. Before that you had an awesome game with an awesome plot filled with awesome characters that you could interact with awesomely, then suddenly bam! Endless boring clumsy combat sequences and writing goes straight to the crapper.

    It does pick up at the end, boy, how does it pick up, but still – you have something like what, 1/3 of the game? 1/2? – that was apparently made by monkeys.

    Also it is worth noting that Chris Avellone never made anything that was even close to Torment, so maybe Curst was precisely the moment when he got his soul removed or something.

    • KillahMate says:

      The fan patches help alleviate some of that. The fighting is still there, but when you remove bugs and bad scripting and add the lost quests, it adds spark to the previously more tedious parts of the game.

  24. BreakMyFinger says:

    For a near infinity of reasons (the dialogue / text alone is so insanely novel it stands out over just about anything..where else do you break off part of your finger in a semi-dreamish haze and level up from it..), this game > any BG.

    Though that just might be me speaking, who prefers a touch of color, humour, adult themes and nutty ideas vs rather bland overly classic RPGing.

    PST dared, and most others didn’t. I think that’s the long and short of it.
    And barely a game past year 2000 / the early 2000s still does that.

    There are interface / high-res mods around for this one afaik.

  25. Pedro says:

    Do yourself a favour and start with 18 Wisdom, 17 Intelligence and 13 Charisma.

  26. Carra says:

    I remember reading the review in my favorite PC magazine where it got a glorious review.

    But I’ve only played the game about three years ago. And I’m glad I did. The game still managed to look great as one of the last 2D games. And the stories, ah.

    It’s a game I can’t see being made today. Which company would put millions into a mostly textbased game these days? People prefer playing Call of Duty. Just as thrillers sell a lot more then Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But in fifty years people will still read the classics and remember Planescape Torment.

    Personally I just enjoy both. Reading mostly thrillers and then put in a great classic from time to time (reading The Idiot now). And mostly playing/watching mainstream games & movies while now and then trying out an indie or classic production.

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    oceanclub says:

    I already own the recently released DVD version of Torment. Any idea what exactly has been changed in the gog.com version?

    P.