Raised By Screens, chapter 17 – Planescape: Torment

Raised by screens is an intermittent autobiography, structured around the PC games I played in my youth. Most instalments are currently only available to RPS subscribers, but I shall compile them somewhere once the series reaches its eventual end.

Some spoilers for Planescape: Torment’s ending follow.

Too many games now, too many websites, too much happening each and every day. I mean only ‘too much for me personally to keep pace with’, not that this is inherently a poor state of things. I think about how I came to play Planescape: Torment, and how differently that might happen today.

I took a couple of years off PC games. A combination of too old a PC and an awkward, partial move into an alcohol-centric social life made games impossible on multiple fronts. Technologically, financially, and personally.

The first year of university was the most transformational year I’ve ever had, with the possible exception of 2013, the birth of my daughter. There is another gaming story I mean to tell from that first year, but have been reluctant to for reasons that would become clear if I ever did share it, and that is why this series has been on hiatus. Planescape: Torment happened after that. It happened after I went through a period of gaining vital self-awareness, then a brief period of not knowing who I was, followed by returning to my core essence but being healthier and a little more rounded with it.

Torment was a point of connection between my old self and my burgeoning new self. I’d been through a phase where owning a PC was something to be faintly ashamed of, I’d been through a PlayStation phase which was almost purely social – Tekken, primarily – and I’d reached the point where I wanted a PC again. I’d also begun to read PC Zone again, usually finding myself bamboozled by the games it talked about, disbelieving about the graphics in the 3D games it featured, and totally unclear about how best to spend the small amount of money I could dedicate to that hobby.

There were other games, and some of the games bear their own stories. Another time. This is about Planescape, a name I saw referred to in issue after issue, though I believe I missed the review itself. The game was a cause celebre for someone at that magazine, and whoever it was (I did not pay attention to writers’ names back them) seemed to regularly plead for readers to play it. Other RPGs were sneered at, best-of round-ups always seemed to lead to Planescape, and it worked. Would such a thing be possible now – all these games, these websites, these tweets, and most of all, all these videos with all the answers?

It took a slow war of passionate attrition, convincing me over the course of half a year that I should spend my money on this thing I did not entirely understand. I had played Baldur’s Gate. It was like Baldur’s Gate, except it wasn’t. That was all I knew.

The strangeness and boldness of its cover. A blue man, dreadlocked, scarred and scowling. It could be anything. I remember the shop assistant in Electronic Boutique frowning at it in confusion, clearly unaware of what it was, probably thinking it cheap and poor.

I remember staring at it on the bus, and this thing in my hands grew stranger and stranger as the forty-minute journey back to my mum’s house wore on.

I felt at home almost immediately. I delighted in the dark oddness of awakening in a mortuary, being told by a talking skull that I was recently dead myself. I remembered feeling deeply unsettled by the mute, monstrous figures who patrolled that mortuary.

I fell for its mystery – the mystery of who I really was, the mystery of how much Morte knew, the mystery of how I should behave. I fell for Annah. I fell for believing I could help Ignus. I fell into believing that a game’s story and writing was of infinitely greater importance than its action. I could bash buttons and kill men anywhere. This, though, was rare. I felt, for the first time, that games might be important, and not merely entertainment.

I fell too into an existential angst about how I should live my own life. Adulthood was calling me. I had no idea what to do, or who I should be. Adults knew everything, I still faintly believed. They did not know the confusions and the fear that characterised adolescents staring at the oncoming storm that was the rest of their life.

The Nameless One, steeped in regret, trying to help everyone, trying to do the right thing, and finding ruin, death and punishment instead, said otherwise. Said that no-one had figured this thing out.

How bittersweet, that ending. So much accomplished, such a journey, only to arrive in an unending purgatory. Catharsis and misery all at once.

I do not believe I ever truly recovered from discovering that a long and glorious adventure does not always lead to a happy ending. I learned that a price must always be paid. Planescape was not the only element of that time in my life that changed me, but it played its part. There is an obvious quote here. I shall not write it.

A few days ago, I went back, embraced the opportunity to do this again in a different world, with different characters, a different nameless one. It went well.

From this site

21 Comments

  1. aepervius says:

    What can change the nature of Man ?

    SPOILER FOLLOWS

    I am not sure I viewed the ending as so negative, yes you get punished and sent to fight in the blood war, but on the other hand you accept it, as shown that you immediately grasp for a weapon. I view that as a tale of redemption, a redemption which MAY or MAY NOT have come afterward. In my case it did come afterward (unofficially), as I played the neverwinter mod about it.

    So maybe that’s why the ending is not so negative in my view.

    • Someoldguy says:

      The ending is a fitting fate for someone who has done what he did, but it can feel a bit harsh if you’ve tried endlessly to right some of those wrongs during your playthrough. It definitely works even so. It would have packed even more of a punch if I hadn’t seen Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart before playing it. That movie really got me.

  2. KillahMate says:

    For anyone interested in the game: the obligatory Planescape Torment patching/modding guide that I obsessively link to in every discussion concerning PST!
    link to thunderpeel2001.blogspot.com

    This will help you easily and cleanly drag the original Planescape Torment into the modern era, including arbitrary resolutions, widescreen, UI mods, ZERO bugs, dialogue corrections, optional restored quest content (not fanfics, but original quests lost due to bugs and budget cuts), optional playability tweaks… This is highly recommended, Planescape was a lot more buggy than people remember. Plus the artwork looks amazing in 1080p. There is no reason you should ever play the game without this!

    • Someoldguy says:

      Caveat: replaying recently, the game did hang on rare occasions when I used the ‘Q’ quicksave button. You might want to avoid this and use regular saves.

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      Aerothorn says:

      Thanks – was gonna piece this together myself from older mod guides. Hopefully this is updated for Windows 10!

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    Dorga says:

    I’m very happy to see Raised by Screens once again; thank you for sharing.
    My brother bought the game allured by the face of the Nameless One, back in ’99, and then we fumbled through it, at 12 and 6, our collective English wasn’t very good, waiting for an Italian translation (shoutout to project TIFONE). We never got to the end, not even the midpoint I’d say, but the game stuck to me. I would return to it, on different machines across the years, only to be immediatly enraptured by it’s worlds and words, but for some reason or another I would always leave it early.
    Knowing that Numenera was coming, I felt that I needed to complete my journey with the Nameless One; and so I did, parting with my companions just two days ago.
    And now I’m ready to leave once again, one foot in front of the other, ready for a new discovery.

  4. Ravel says:

    Thanks for this “Raised by screens”. I can relate, “Planescape: Torment” is the single most important game of my live (you can probably tell by my name).

    I was quite young at the time (14 years old) and granted, I played the (excellent) German translation. But it was with this game that I truly understood that games aren’t simply fun, they aren’t something to kill time, they are an artform. To me, “Planescape” proves that outstanding games are art, they belong with literature, paintings, music.

    It also made me interested in philosophy. What can change the nature of man? What does it mean to be truly immortal? What are ethics? What does it mean to live life in a morally good way? Can one even define what that would be?

    It’s the best game ever made, in my opinion. The Baldur’s Gate titles are really close behind and imo so is the ever so extremly underrated “Neverwinter Nights 2” and even more so the expansion “Mask of the Betrayer” (why this doesn’t have a cult following is beyond me), but “Planescape: Torment” reigns supreme to me, due to it’s impact and it’s masterful execution in every single aspect of the game.

    Thanks for the nostalgia trip, Alec!

  5. aircool says:

    So is combat turn based or what?

    • Someoldguy says:

      Realtime with pause like the other D&D Infinity Engine games. Combat is its weakest point.

      • welverin says:

        Yes, but the nice thing about the IE games is the combat behaviors have enough depth that you can set things up to where you can sit back and let the computer handle most of only issuing commands where necessary.

        Best of all, unlike more recent games, you can allow the computer to control all of the characters and don’t have to manually control anyone. Great for fluff fights. The lack of this is my greatest annoyance with the Dragon Age games.

  6. Ross Angus says:

    That feeling of uncertainty of ones early twenties seems to be well covered in modern games – for example Night in the Woods, released only yesterday.

    I wonder if a game which more accurately matched young Alec’s state of mind would have had more impact or less?

  7. Zekiel says:

    Yes. Yes. PST had a profound affect on me too – only my second CRPG ever (after Baldur’s Gate) and the first videogame that demonstrated that videogames could raise big meaningful questions.

    As much as I love the ending (and I really do), the most affecting moment of the game for me was Deionarra’s sensory stone in the Civic Festhall. Just thinking about it still makes me tear up a bit. Amazing writing.

    • Singular says:

      For me…

      (do I need a spoiler warning for a spoiler thread?)

      .. it was the moment when you meet the first, the original you. And realise who he is, and wonder at the evil he must have committed. Felt like a goddam punch in the soul. I still tingle a bit when I remember.

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      Kryzn says:

      The sensory stones were indeed amazing. I was trying to explain how emotional and artistic video games can be to a non-gamer friend recently (frequently a tiresome conversation to have, but in this case it was born out of genuine interest), and this scene is one of my go-to examples of how impactful games can be. And much like you, just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.

    • PsychoWedge says:

      There were two moments in PST that quite literally changed my perception of life and myself.

      The first one is with Dak’kon, when you finally unravel his whole story and realize two things. The fucking extend of the deceit a previous incarnation managed to pull off and how a person, in good faith, can build their entire life around a lie and probably never know it. That hit me hard.

      The second one is much more personal. It’s at the end in the Fortress of Regrets when we open the golden orb from Pharod and meet the First Incarnation. The TNO gains all his memories and the First steps up and whispers the TNO’s real name into his ear. We’re never told the name but the description of wonderment and his feelings of finally knowing who he is, of finding himself, of becoming whole again really moved me. There is one sentence in there which is something to the effect of how the TNO feels this invisible hand resting on his shoulder and giving him strength and calm.
      I suffer from social anxiety which can, at times, get so bad that I basically shut down my body and mind. I’m talking about actually shitting myself the tube once because I had such a panic attack. But this concept in my mind of a part of myself standing behind me, putting a hand on my own shoulder, has been such a strong one and helped me innumerable times. This is what PST gave me and how it changed my life.

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      Martell says:

      That was the first time a video game made me cry, that scene.

      And then you’re counseled on grief, acceptance, and torment by a succubus.

    • Hidden Thousand says:

      @Zekiel: yes, this is the scene where I get all the goosebumps, and sinking feelings, and those weird sensations at the back of my head, and then, of course, heart-wrenching sadness. It’s amazing how good the words on the screen, given out in appropriate tempo and combined with some sounds and pictures, can make you feel.

      On my list of “things I wish I could forget entirely and discover anew” this game is number 1.

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    cpt_freakout says:

    To me, PT was all about the wilderness of its imagination. I loved the main stories, and I still remember well some of them, but what engaged me the most were the relatively small details of incidental stories like that siege tower and its war on reality, the machines for dreaming, Dak’kon’s weapon-memory puzzle… all of those things pushed my imagination in ways I found great at the time. It’s a grand thing, Planescape, and I truly hope that the ‘spiritual successor’ does something proper to the ‘me’ of today. In any case, thanks for sharing!

  9. Retrofrank says:

    The ending was one of the most adult endings in games for me.
    It was about accepting the consequences for what you had done and no more running away.
    I was intrigued, about how the game didn´t really reveal who you where, but rather revealed, what kind of person you where and gave you the chance, to face the consequences.
    Pure magic.

  10. poliovaccine says:

    Um, would the obvious quote be obvious to me if I had played this game more attentively or something? For whatever the wariness against stating something obvious, that was just unclear to me instead…

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