Retrospective: Planescape Torment

[I originally wrote this for the relaunch issue of PC Gamer, when they were introducing their extra-life section. The Long Play features are basically a critical essay, looking at a game a few years on and noting why it still matters. Anyway, this is my look over Black Isle’s genuinely seminal RPG. A few years old, every word then remains true now – and I sincerely doubt we’ll ever see its like again. Obviously enough, there’s some fairly heavy spoilers in here. Re-reading, it reminds me that I should do something bigger than this on the old warhorse. I’ve got Chris Avellone’s e-mail around here, somewhere…]

A corpse with irresistable sexual magnetisim, indeed.

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.

Don't trust the skull, apparently.

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.

C'mon, lady. What IS in your diary. You can tell me. Go on.

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.


  1. Janek says:

    I really should replay Torment. Haven’t done so for a couple of years now.

  2. Phil says:

    Thanks for the reminder, this game was sublime. I must have restated the main character’s confrontation with the witch Razel half a dozen times, just to strip mine the preceding dialogue tree. And who knew Sheena Easton could act?

  3. Andrew Mayer says:

    There’s one other videogame trope that Planescape unfortunately follows; Games don’t age well.

    I’ve got my copy, and it’s fun to go back and take a peek, but you have to be willing to deal with a substandard interface and graphics that are pretty low resolution compared to what a modern audience is used to. That’s going to turn away the majority of people who might play this lost classic, even if it does turn up on Game Tap one day.

    Its legacy will probably be a great deal more people discussing its impact conceptually than actually giving it a go. And I guess that’s something else it has in common with Dostoevsky.

  4. Brant says:

    Torment is one of those games that’s been on my “Must Play One Day” list for what seems like ever, but I’ve never been able to get back into the “Baldur’s Gate” sub-genre of PC RPGs after overdosing on BGate2.

    I’m tempted to read this article regardless of the spoiler warning because I want to know what I’m missing, but having the plot ruined would probably deter me from ever playing past that first map in the city of Sigil where my last play session ended some time last year.

  5. Kieron Gillen says:

    It’s not actually extremely spoilery – I don’t reveal the whos and wherefores, but I do hit the big themes and make explicit what’s obvious when you start reading a “Character has amnesia” story. But I marked it out, as some people always object.


  6. Richard says:

    Don’t bother reading the book version though. It’s rubbish. Not as bad as the truly atrocious Baldur’s Gate novels, but not worth your time.

    My favourite bit – right now, subject to change whenever I think “Oh, and THEN…” – is the business with Mebbeth and the market quests – a deconstruction of FedEx quests, with an extra layer that’s arguably a better bit of metagame commentary than, say, Bioshock’s. It reinforces that any quest you do is likely to be that little bit more involved and meaningful than the average RPG, and most of them do a pretty good job of that.

    Although I do like the preacher you can challenge to a suicide-off. “You first,” he chuckles. “Okay,” you reply, grinning.

  7. Richard says:

    “I’m tempted to read this article regardless of the spoiler warning because I want to know what I’m missing, but having the plot ruined would probably deter me from ever playing past that first map in the city of Sigil where my last play session ended some time last year.”

    There are no real spoilers in that. Planescape’s big arc is decent, and it’s a satisfying tale, but the beauty is in the details – horrible and heartwarming alike. I could list every cool moment I remember and you’d still have loads and loads of surprises to look forward to.

  8. Briosafreak says:

    This is the complete opposite of the regular next gen game: instead of familiar territory you have surprises after surprises, instead of eye candy you have unique art, instead of self confidence you have doubt.

    An artistic achievement, Torment, a true Classic.

    And one of the reasons when I see the 10/10s of Halo or the hysteria about Mass Effect I get a sad grim on my face.

  9. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    What I want to know is – can I play this game without being all arsey about my stats and levelling up and my AC -10 roll of ambitiousness or whatever. I love RPGs, and I can see why Baldurs Gate et al are so respected, but no matter how i try i never get that far because I’m too shit at them basically.

    Is this game a bit more light on the combat, so I can afford to be crap and still progress? I do actually own it, found it second hand a while back, but havent started to play properly yet.

  10. Richard says:

    There’s only a couple of moments where you can die. Most of the game, you just ‘wake up’ at the start of an area, and the monsters you kill don’t regenerate. You can beat almost anything in the game by attrition, not that it’s that challenging. Your party can die, but you get an unlimited resurrection spell very near the start, so again, no biggie.

    The combat is very simple in any event. Most characters only get a couple of major upgrades, armour doesn’t play any real level, and your gang quickly out-powers almost anything you might come across anyway. The main importance of your stats is to give you choices when you come to decision points and deal with other NPCs.

  11. Korey says:

    What a fantastic post. I started Planescape several years ago after buying it in a bargain bin. I made it about halfway through before school and other things got in the way. Now I’m living in Japan and brought it with me as one of those games I should finish while I’m here. I finally restarted and beat it a few months ago. It really is a brilliant, satisfying game. And even though the main story idea is cliched, it still feels fresh and interesting due to the world it’s set in. Now I need to move on to the Baldur’s Gate series, which I also started but never finished.

  12. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    Thanks Richard, I will definately try and give this a proper go at some point! Quite a busy few months coming up as it is though!

  13. Starwars says:

    This was a nice write-up. Planescape: Torment really feels like a rather unique game when looking back at it.Eeven in the realm of the “good ole cRPGs” that came out at around the same time.

    Something that really served to draw me in was the amount of detail given to less important NPCs as well. There is usually wonderful narrative text in the dialogues, really serving to give the player a good picture of the character they’re interacting with.
    This have never been used to its full extent in gaming I think, and even today when graphics are advanced, they still can’t (nor do I ever think they will) convey emotions as well as a good narrative text. It’s a bit like comparing a book with a movie. And currently, games seem to be going the way of the movies. I don’t mind that per se, but it would sure be nice to get the “other kind” as well.
    A nice example is when the Nameless One encounters the character called “O”. The description of this characters eyes could never be done as satisfactory with the help of graphics. Snazzy effects yes, but it wouldn’t give the same feeling for the player to latch on to (I can’t remember the exact text at the moment, but it’s that sense of staring out into the void).

    The fact that setting is Planescape just seemed to be a match made in heaven for the game. It feels like Chris Avellone really had lots of ‘elbow room’ to tell an interesting story.

    Great game!

  14. WCAYPAHWAT says:

    I really need to track down a copy. Shouldn’t be too hard, I’m sure a couple of my old D&D buddies have it. Right now I’m traipsing my way through all the infinity engine games. Almost done with Icewind Dale, after that, the sequel, then Baldurs Gate 1 & 2 :D perhaps I should even slip in a playthrough of Fallout2, just to mix things up a little….

    But, more on topic, I remember playing through torment over and over, with different stat choices, loading and reloading every conversation, just to see the multitude of outcomes. Ahhh, the good old days.

  15. Briosafreak says:

    On late July Chris Avellone and Colin McComb talked a lot about Torment at RPGWatch:
    Part 1
    Part 2

  16. Kieron Gillen says:

    Aces! Will read later. Also, this reminds me I actually *do* have something with some interview material with Chris Avellone in, which I’ll get around to republishing in the next couple of weeks.


  17. Thiefsie says:

    One of the best classic pc games of all time, unfortunate because in this day and age no one would play it because it hasn’t aged so fantastically interface and resolution wise. If only there was a hack much like the rom scaling programs for emulators etc. Only Fallout came close to this, and frankly Fallout was that little bit more predictable, albeit still refreshing amidst the tried and true cookie-cutter (lotr) fantasy rpg worlds out there, oh yes I’m looking at you too warcraft.

    I probably play through this once a year because it is just sooooo good, it absorbs me for weeks at a time. Kudos to the developers as not much has come close, and because of the aforementioned reliance on text to convey a real, deep description of the world, we probably won’t see something like this again ever.

    Shame really.

  18. Kieron Gillen says:

    You know, everyone’s being down about how it’s aged, but I’d honestly rather play it that a 3D RPG from the same period.


  19. Kieron Gillen says:

    (Er… or even a few years later)


  20. blackEyEz says:

    Every once and awhile a diamond in computer game world steps up and after Sanitarium (also a wicked “who am i?” adventure) Torment came along.

    You need to like reading and storylines because there is where its strength holds. And for me one of the very few games where the story was so intriguing that i couldn’t wait for the next cut-scene. A must-have for anyone who like twists in videogames

  21. Allen72 says:

    Interesting this article should be here and now. Just yesterday I dug out my old Planescape:Torment disks (untouched for nearly 8 years), downloaded the patches and fixes (some new and player made) and started playing (never did finish the first time through due to life interfering with having fun).

    Right away, I noticed that PS:T dialogs are better, more emotion generating than more recent crpg dialogs (e.g. KotOR, NWN, NWN2, Oblivion). I noticed that a lot of characters who would be “window dressing” in a current crpg had value. Pretty much what this article says — more depth than expected in a current crpg.

    Otherwise, I have no real issue with the graphics and game interface. Even “turn of the century” (literally in this case) graphics show more than a book would :) Interface has fewer bells and whistles, but at the end of the day it works like a recent crpg (e.g. NWN2). I do miss having more inventory slots — on the other hand, PS:T is balanced for limited inventory, I suppose.

    This article helps me better appreciate Torment — and the points made seem accurate, so far.

  22. Richard says:

    Sanitarium was fun. Much weirder-for-the-sake-of-weird than Planescape though, odd though it sounds…

  23. Kieron Gillen says:

    Allen: Seriously, you’ve got a great ride ahead of you. And I recommend replaying it too – first time through I loved it, but second time I played it “deeper” and got more from it.

    Oh – tip. Going for amping up your IQ is a good idea to get the most from the game, IMHO.


  24. Allen72 says:

    Seems you are correct :) I maxxed INT. And, I seem to be getting a lot of conversations and information I do not remember from the first time (I’m sure INT was average back then). As luck would have it, I attempted to go deep right from the start — heck, I’ve played enough ‘hack and slash’ crpg — so, its engrossing to try the “brainy” angle :) Thanks for the tips — now I know I am on the right track.

  25. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yeah. There’s a “bit” near the end which… well, is one of the better bits in the game and you don’t get unless you’re SUPER smart.

    Come back when you get to it. You’ll know it.


  26. Richard says:

    Wisdom is your friend in Planescape, more than INT (IIRC). Although you want to max both of them to get the best sequences.

  27. Kieron Gillen says:

    I think the key sequence I’m talking about requires a higher INT than WISDOM, I believe. The (er) levelling experience one.


  28. Al Binewski says:

    I completely agree with the assertion that this game is the best rpg ever, though it was marketed as a rpa (the a standing for adventure – a clue to the wordiness of the game, which I, as an avid reader, LOVED).

    INT gives you more dialog choices in game, CHA is important for one part.

    The only frustrating aspects of the game for me were realizing that while the spells themselves look awesome, they really arent very effective in game. Frustrating that while the INT helps with the dialog choices, play as a mage will make you wanna play as a fighter (which I totally did the second time around, and enjoyed highly, even though I could contribute a lot less to STR because I still wanted the dialog choices).

    That said the main thing I really loved about this game over the other BG games was that is wasn’t so damn difficult for me to get through in terms of balance. While many have said they had less probs, I couldn’t get through the beginning of BG2 or IWD w/o health cheating, and you just shouldn’t HAVE to cheat in my book to get going in the game. The first actual tough battle was with Ravel quite a ways into the game, and it was easy to buy the needed items to mop her up with the hoard of gold you would have normally amassed in-game. I really wish modern game designers would strive to make it so players could progress through most of the game w/o feeling compelled to cheat just to keep characters alive.

    Anyhow, this game managed to pull off the most incredible storytelling that I imagine will ever be seen in any kind of game.. EVER.. And as I mentioned, I read quite a bit, so I have a lot of good and bad to compare it to.

  29. Finback says:

    One of my favourite games, I always lend it to others to experience. Not just play, but to *experience*. This game had it all – drama, interesting character twists (Falls-From-Grace, being but one), and sometimes, just plain fun – who can forget the first time Morte gets to use his Litany of Curses on an enemy? Or when Nordom asks Annah about her “pillows”?

    Pure comedy gold – if only THIS could get one of those bargain-bin rereleases.

  30. slerch says:

    Torment is an apt name for the game. I recall thinking about it all day at work when I was playing it. I was tormented by the fact that I just wanted to know what more was coming. I even stayed up to try and finish the game before the Y2K bug consumed us all. When 12:01 hit and nothing happened… I kept playing until I nearly fell asleep at the keyboard. Woke up the next morning and finished it.

    Amazing game with a great story line and a great way to tell it. I think it didn’t do well because it was more linear than the Bladur’s Gate games and other PC RPGs we were/are accustomed to.

  31. LlamaFarmer says:

    I think it was this piece in PCG that made me want the game, so I found it on ebay and I loved it. Truly original game, there’s nothing like it, and everything is described *so* well, it’s a pleasure to play (read?). I didn’t see it through to the end though, which I really must do sometime. I don’t think it’s aged that badly, it’s still a weird and wonderful environment to explore.

  32. Jan Goh says:

    I LOVED Torment. I still play it. I still play BGII to this day as well. I think they scaled much aged much better than games like Final Fantasy VII, which looks like hell now.

    Mario doesn’t look great either, but the graphics weren’t the important bit. The graphics in Torment are good enough to get the story across, and the story is the important bit. Those words aged way better than graphics in any game.

  33. Sucram says:

    Even on release Torment’s camera felt a little claustrophobic, the situation has only gotten worse with time. Which is a pity since I desperatly want to play through Torment again but the low-res is overly distracting.

    I’ve been assuming a fan somewhere would have created a resolution hack by now. now

  34. Dakkon's Blade says:

    Best crpg ever made, never again will anything be made that comes even close, I hate people who won’t read. Sad, and no mods were made for it either. :(

    Graphic, whilst being 2D pixels, are wonderfully atmospheric, totally suited to the setting, I’ll take a storied game that looks like this over NWN2 ANY DAY OF THE YEAR!, and some absolutely fantastic voice acting, (although as a Scot I absolutely revile Sheena Easton’s “acting”, for a wee Glasgow lassie, her accent was atrocious, it was all put on, you know, and sounded more Irish than anything else, she was the low point of the game (imo), where are you now? LOL)

    Have played it many, many time.. it’s still the best game I own.

  35. Morgan says:

    Torment is still my favorite game of all time, 8 years later. It’s perfect. They just don’t make it like this any more, it’s so sad.

  36. Sady says:

    “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.”

    Quoted for truth.

  37. Thelps says:

    Following the thread of ‘incidental’ characters carrying more weight in Torment than their classic roles in other RPGs, I feel I need to mention the Sensates in Torment. I was bowled over by the level of philosophical detail written into their faction, and the manifestation of the philosophy in their headquarters. I ,ust have spent hours running around the Sensatorium (or whatever its name was). Heck, all the factions in the game carried truly believable world-views, yet also made more interesting by the polarising extremity of them. The sheer ‘cultishness’ of their dogmatic belief in absolutes, if you get my drift. I know these are all staples of the the Planescape universe, before Torment was ever conceived, but the depth the developers were willing to go into, realising many factions that were wholly incidental to the main plot, and allowing you to join them, based on character alignment, was a real act of generosity to someone who likes to get really wrapped up in the narrative’s universe.

    I suppose this all circles back around to the point about the game mostly operating, like a novel (or, as more accurately mentioned, a giant Choose Your Own Adventure book), through the medium of text, allowing the developers to weave huge detail into the most irrelevant of NPCs, since it’s all just a matter of writing down the words, as KG much more eloquently explained.

  38. meregistered says:

    Hmmm… While I haven’t played Torment a lot of the devices mentioned sound an awful lot like Fallout 1 & 2 (two being a more involved slightly upgraded version of one….).
    It was fairly common in Fallout that you gained a decent amount of experience from how you handled a specific situation… as in, you had multiple options and the best (sometimes no violence route) would provide you the greatest amount of experience.
    Also, your dialog options were dependent on your intelligence.

    Fallout also had a very nicely done reputation engine… if you generally helped people then most people liked you better and you’re game was a different game than if you murdered & thieved your way through the game (which was, of course an option).

    Is there anyone who has played both willing to provide a quick comparison?


  39. TehTypoCop says:

    While I totally agree with you on your thoughts on this classic game, I can’t help but see the irony of bringing up great Russian writers, while committing typos that most learn to avoid in grammar school.
    it’s = “it is”
    its = singular posessive.

  40. Janek says:

    Typo Cop: That’s not particularly ironic. And “most” people don’t go to grammar school. Although I do appreciate the pun, if it is intended as such. Good job!

    Meregistered: Yeah I’d say Fallout is a decent point of reference. Although Torment is much more verbose, and has considerably less of a focus on combat. Think of it as a novel to Fallout’s short story. Although I dearly love them both, so please don’t ask me to choose which I prefer ¬_¬

  41. Kieron Gillen says:

    meregistered: I’ll agree they share much genetic structure, but Torment is more verbose. It’s also /driven/ in a way the more freeform Fallouts weren’t. (That’s not a criticism of either game. It’s just two different approaches, and both are interesting in their own way.


  42. meregistered says:

    lol I guess I didn’t have anything to say? (actually I used greater than less than brackets… I guess the script for this page/site doesn’t like those).
    Well I’m sold.

    I hugely enjoy games that: have clear results to your choices, don’t take themselves entirely too seriously, have meaningful innovation, and can build a great story from the choices you make as you play…

    Thank you both… now I just have to find a reasonable price/place to get it:
    link to (which these are not… reminds me of when I told a friend to get the X-Com bundle that I paid 30$ for in the store… can’t get it for less than 100$…)

  43. Kieron Gillen says:

    Only place I know where it’s definitely available is on GameTap…
    link to


  44. Richard says:

    Only in the US, though (it’s not available in Canada, or the odd blind-eye international accounts they seem to be making available on the sly as part of Uru Live).

  45. Rock, Paper, Shotgun » Blog Archive » Last Rites, she said… says:

    […] always fun when a story generates another story. Regular readers will recall the Planescape retrospective I posted recently. The ever-lovelySlashdot picked up on it, and one of their commentators pointed everyone in the […]

  46. Rock, Paper, Shotgun » Blog Archive » Word Play says:

    […] reworked in some of the quotes I couldn’t fit in Edge’s word-count. Which were many. If you’ve read my Planescape Retrospective, you’ll recognise some key riffs. This feature very much grew from that one. And enough […]

  47. Kdansky says:

    To make a long story short: I still strongly believe that Planescape Torment is the best PC (including consoles) game ever made. It is one of the very few games that let a chill run down my spine. Even now, when I read: “What can change the nature of a man?”, I felt all this sadness and fun again. I’m really sad though that I cannot play it again with the same amusement, since I already know all the good bits (played it twice).

  48. Kdansky says:

    To add on topic of fallout: They are very similar, true. Also the humour has a lot of overlap (ironic, sadistic). But they differ widly in scope of their story. Fallout is about an unimportant person who saves the world. Torment is about one of the most importent figures (who does not know that fact) who tries to discover it’s past. I would say it’s like Quake 2 compared to Half Life. Both do roughly the same, both are fun, both look similar and have decent technology, but there’s just miles of difference in content, since ones story is just a filler and the others is what everything’s about.
    It’s hard to come up with a good explanation on the spot, but you’d like PT if you liked fallout. PT is by far the better story. Less mechanics, a lot more content.

  49. Freeammo says:

    In my opinion, the definition of a great game (or book or film, come to that) is one that, every time you come back to playing/reading/watching it, still sends shivers down your spine. It grows with age – you know what’s going to happen, and yet you still are almost sick with anticipation as you progress through the story and events. Torment is one of the very elite games that manages this – more so than any RPG I’ve played. To the extent that I STILL – eight years and about 10 times through – cannot play as an evil character – I care about the world that much!

  50. Richard says:

    “Fallout is about an unimportant person who saves the world. Torment is about one of the most importent figures (who does not know that fact) who tries to discover it’s past.”

    The Nameless One isn’t particularly important. His quest only really matters to the handful of lost souls who find themselves drawn to him, and even then, usually to their cost.