Like our fair, occasionally fire-breathing John, I also recently saw Dragon Age: Inquisition in action, and – against all odds – I came away very impressed. Dragon Age: Origins was a very important game to me for a number of reasons, and the crazy thing is that BioWare actually seems to *get* why its return to fantasy’s pointy eared realms made people like me chant(ry) its name to the high heavens. There’s action-y stuff in Inquisition, sure, but also plenty of tactical options (TOP-DOWN VIEW YEAH) and yummy conundrums to scramble my moral compass. But it wasn’t until I spoke with lead designer Mike Laidlaw that I really began feeling good about Inquisition. His favorite game? Planescape Torment. And, if Laidlaw is to be believed, the Black Isle classic’s influence is strong in this one.
It’s the end of an already grueling first day of PAX, and Mike Laidlaw is slumped back in a hotel room recliner. He looks like a man who’s been thrashing around in quicksand all day, only to sweat out all his strength and resign himself to a looming end. These conventions might be about play, but they’re also a whole, whole lot of work.
But then our delirious discussion meanders onto the topic of Planescape Torment, and Laidlaw positively lights up. He bolts up in his seat as he explains:
The big thing Torment brought to the table was a lot of solutions to problems – really cool solutions.
“Our goal with characters is that you should love them or hate them, but never just be like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ That’s why, when I think back to my personal favorite – Planescape Torment – it’s an amazing game. Part of what made it so amazing is that the characters who surrounded the Nameless One were such extremes. It’s like, so what’s up with Ignus? Well, he’s on fire and in pain all the time, so most of his dialogue is, ‘AHHHHHHHHHH.’ Then there’s the wisecracking guy who’s a skull and threatens to bite you. The succubus who tries to focus on her poetry. It’s just like… wow. And of course, it’s a setting that allows for that kind of rampant extremism. So I loved it!”
Admittedly, if you looked at the two games side-by-side, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Dragon Age dresses in prim and proper fantasy garb while Planescape Torment slips into gnarled, otherworldly skin and acts like its magnificent eccentricity is as normal as a stroll in the park. And sure, Planescape’s personality is utterly brilliant, but it’s hardly all that defines it.
“I mean, we’re not gonna have a Modron wandering around in Dragon Age,” Laidlaw qualifies. “It won’t fit the world. But we can still look at our characters and say, ‘Are they intriguing enough? Do they offer wildly different perspectives?’”
Perhaps even more exciting, however, is the prospect of choices heavily inspired by Planescape’s exceedingly multifaceted approach. That, claims Laidlaw, is the real meat of this Dragon Age-Planescape sandwich, and he’s quite happy to offer variety and choices with real consequences – even if that means many players won’t see a fourth of the game on their first playthrough. He continues, growing ever more animated:
“The big thing Torment brought to the table was offering a lot of solutions to problems – really cool solutions. Not everything was fighting. Oftentimes being persuasive or having certain stat checks might take care of it. It was like, ‘I have a wisdom stat of 25, so let’s shortcut the entire ending.’ I really like that kind of stuff. It also did a great job of acknowledging the path you chose in the game.”
“That’s something we’re trying to explore more deeply. You know, it’s one thing to make a choice. That’s fine. But what about the aggregate of your choices? What’s the long-term effect? And occasionally saying, ‘Well look, there’s this really cool scenario, and not every player’s going to see it.’ But as developers, we’re trying to get more efficient in our work because it lets be more like, ‘Not everyone’s gonna see this. That’s cool. That’s not a problem. That’s not wasted money. That’s awesome.’ Our goal is that it’s a significant amount showing a big degree of exclusivity. A quarter or so.”
Long after Planescape’s heyday, Laidlaw thinks that approach has actually become even more relevant due to the advent of social media, YouTube, and the like. We share everything now. It’s unavoidable, so why not have something unique to share?
“I think that’s a big thing we’re coming more to terms with as people put so much time and effort into social media and email and FAQs and everything,” he says. “There are no secrets in gaming. And if that’s the case, I think part of the joy is from having a friend who’s like, ‘Did you see this?’ And you’re like, ‘No, I didn’t!’ That’s as thrilling as seeing it. That’s something we’re getting increasingly comfortable with. I don’t want it to be a weak experience if a person didn’t do X and Y. It should be complete. But understand that sometimes – even if you never replay it – you’re probably gonna hear about it. And you’ll feel so much more satisfied by the fact that you made a choice, and something very different happened.”
“I think Planescape paved a really big path on that front.”
And yet, even beyond that, there’s more to be extracted from Planescape’s suddenly popular crypt, but Laidlaw’s not quite ready to commit. Despite already looking really nice, Dragon Age: Inquisition is still pretty early. Things like stat checks to create new dialogue/choice options and a much bigger emphasis on non-combat solutions sound tantalizing, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before anything’s set in stone.
“We’re going to be looking at more non-combat solutions,” he replies when I ask about the above possibilities. “My general rule with Inquisition is that unless I have it locked down, I don’t really want to talk about it. I’d rather under-promise and over-deliver. So it’s a direction we’re heading in, but I’m not ready to talk details.”
But he’s certainly trying, and that’s a very admirable pursuit. Planescape Torment’s legacy will live on no matter what, but there’s no hurt in spreading the wealth.