Planescape: Torment turns 20 years old today - here's why it's a classic
Nameless rights or nameless fights
Gather close, adventurers, and prepare to ceremonially Tweet "I feel old!" en masse. 20 years ago today, the influential and undeniable RPG Planescape: Torment was released. What a strange and wonderful achievement that game was! What impact it has had, even now, literally decades later! You can see PST waving at you from yer big epics like Divinity: Original Sin 2, and yer indie weirdnesses like Disco Elysium.
We felt we couldn't let Planescape's birthday go unremarked upon. But we've made a lot of remarks about it over the years, so we weren't sure if we had anything new to add. So, as a compromise, we've decided to round up just a few of the articles RPS has spaffed out about PST, so you can read them with us, and we can all feel old together. Spoilers: a lot of the spaffing was done by Alec (RPS in peace), but you probably knew that already.
We'll start with one of those: a chapter in Alec's Raised By Screens series. The 17th instalment was about Planescape: Torment, as well as Alec's own existential angst, as mirrored in an amnesiac protagonist.
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.
PST is, quite predictably, on Alec's list of sacred cows-- I mean important games. It's also on our list of best PC games of all time, which wasn't written solely by Alec.
But why is it so good, though? Years ago (but not as many years as PST is old) we republished a Planescape: Torment retrospective originally written by Keiron Gillen, who left RPS to spend the last several years sitting on a throne made of comic books. If you've never played it, this will, perhaps, give you a good primer on why people love it so much.
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.
For an amuse-bouche, Alec also wrote a short post on replaying PST with a mod that tweaked the resolution. Planescape: Torment is known for being text heavy - the text is, in fact, basically the whole game - but with this mod Alec was struck by how beautiful the art actually is, and got "the sense this is Planescape as it was intended to look." You can learn more about how words were used in this feature, originally published in Edge, where Kieron talked to Chris Avellone (amongst others) about the role text plays in games.
Of course, Planescape: Torment was eventually rereleased with an Enhanced Edition just a couple of years ago and Alec, of course, reviewed it:
You probably won’t feel as though you’re playing a 2017 videogame either, but the important thing is that we get an RPG masterpiece made more or less modern without sacrificing anything important in the process. I’d love to see a more thorough reworking, of course I would – more specifically, new sprites and more VO, not that the latter is realistic – but I rather suspect that the core game is, in the main, so well-realised that that there’s little extra to be won anyway.
Alec also reviewed Torment: Tides Of Numenera, the spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, as an actual text adventure. Well played. Tides Of Numenera was Kickstarted on the back of people's love for the original, and Nathan Grayson did a very in-depth interview with the developers. This isn't directly about Planescape, but you'll glean some fascinating titbits and insights into game design.
When we do break from what PST did, we have to ask ourselves why PST did it that way, what they were trying to accomplish, and is our proposed solution better than that? For example, early on I had assumed that combat would be allowed anywhere – because that’s how PST did it, and because I, being a relatively old-school gamer, had never played a game where you couldn’t do that. Others had assumed the opposite.
The ensuing discussion forced us to ask important questions. Did PST allow combat anywhere because it was the right thing to do or because that’s how the Infinity Engine worked by default? Was it a critical part of PST? This is a tricky question, because for any given aspect, there will always be some people who believe that it was. Did it work and was it a good decision for PST?
Peruse part one and part two at your leisure.
This isn't strictly about PST either, except it is, and it feels fitting to bookend this collection with Alec's article about his mid-life crisis as mirrored by Disco Elysium, as also mirrored by playing Planescape: Torment.
There could be no more apposite a book-end to Planescape: Torment than Disco Elysium, the literate tale of an amnesiac man solving a mystery in a broken world, piecing together his regret-strewn past, confronting the wreckage he had left in his wake, and deciding who he would henceforth be. It has not been a song of hope for me, but I think it might yet become one. It is forcing me to confront the wreckage I’ve left in my wake, not of others but of myself.
Also, here is someone speedrunning Planescape: Torment in a hour. Happy Birthday!