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Torment Devs On Progress, Death, Putting Story First

The Maddest Of Worlds

There is a new Torment game in development. In the year 2013. Isn't that mad? My heart does a kind of fluttery thing every time I think about it – like butterfly or a potentially fatal circulatory condition. But at the same time, it's a fact that's shockingly easy to forget about. Wasteland 2 is currently siphoning away most of inXile's attention, so mum's been the word out of Torment: Tides of Numenerararara's twisted dimension. Me being the FEARLESS journalist that I am, however, I bravely got invited to inXile and – throwing caution to the wind – asked questions during my scheduled interview with studio head Brian Fargo and Torment lead Kevin Saunders. They answered every last one, probably out of fear.

Find out about the most recent developments in Torment's story, writing, combat, very unique death mechanics, weirdness, and tons more after the break. We also end the interview by discussing the impending doom of reading and writing. It's cheery stuff!

RPS: You recently had a big, direction-deciding writer’s meeting for it, didn’t you?

Saunders: We did. Last Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

RPS: How’d it go? What'd you decide?

Saunders: It was great. We have a lot of writers involved in the project. As we’re developing our design for the game, we’re bringing them on in small groups to iterate forward. We don’t want everyone on at once. We want to keep improving our processes and our design plans. This was our first meeting with many of our writers. We also had Monte Cook come down. He talked with everyone about Numenera and gave us ideas about how to best represent aspects of the setting, how to leverage the setting for some of the things we’re doing from a story perspective.

RPS: At what point in the pre-production process is the game right now?

Saunders: We just hired a programmer, who joins us in a couple of weeks. We’ve had a little bit of art. Some of our artists are working on figuring out how we’ll develop our environments. Mostly it’s been about the design. It’s been about the story, about our conventions for dialogue and how we’ll implement reactivity. The character design, who the companions will be, how they’ll interact with the player and with each other.

RPS: With the meetings you’ve had so far, how many of them have involved people who worked on Planescape?

Saunders: The core design work has been Colin McComb, who was one of the designers on Planescape Torment, and Adam Heine, who was a scripter, and myself. We’ve been involved in all of the discussions. Then we have Chris Avellone. He’s been reviewing a lot of our story and design work and giving us feedback on that. Another voice that we’ve brought in so far is Tony Evans, who was a designer at Obsidian and BioWare.

RPS: Having that mix of voices and people who had some experience with Planescape before, how has that all been meshing? How has it come together?

Saunders: It can be difficult. A lot of the people involved are spread out, so there’s a lot of e-mail communication. Adam, Colin, and I have conference calls twice a week where we discuss things. What we’ve done is, we’ve had e-mail threads where all of these people will chime in… There’s this understanding that we can ignore their comments. If we were compelled to respond to every single idea and thought, it’s just too much. So we steal the best ideas and incorporate them into the next thing we send out. Then, “Hey, what do you think of this?” That’s worked pretty well. Also, I know Chris and Colin talk fairly regularly just about developing the story. Colin bounces ideas off of him pretty often.

RPS: Especially on the reactivity front, how much are you taking from what the Wasteland team has already accomplished? They’re obviously making a very reactive game. What kind of lessons are you taking from that?

Saunders: We’re striving for the same over the top level of reactivity, like we are for Wasteland 2. There’s a couple of big differences. One is that we’re not planning to let you fight anyone, anywhere. There’s a level of open-world reactivity that Wasteland 2 specializes in, and Torment is not heading that route, so we can put more energy into the story reactivity. Through Wasteland, we’ve developed reactivity into all different types of things. We’re adopting a lot of that for Torment too. We’re assessing all of that to see what makes sense for this flavor of game.

RPS: It’s a Torment game, but obviously the universe is very different. For you, what are the main pillars of the Torment flavor that you’re trying to capture? What makes it Torment, versus just a cool RPG?

Saunders: So there are four pillars that we defined as part of our Kickstarter pitch. One of them is that the setting is very unusual and exotic. So there’s a different setting that has a lot of characteristics that Planescape had too. It played with people’s expectations. It gives you the unexpected. Another is a deep personal storyline, something that makes you look inside and think. Not an epic save-the-world quest. Third was the characters. Both the unique characters and the depth of the interactions between them and the player. A lot of the story, we’re approaching from a character-centric perspective. We’re defining who the people are, and then they’re in these situations. We’re thinking about how the characters would respond to that.

Fargo: It’s a more fantastical world, too. It’s not straight fantasy in any way. It’s almost horror, in a way. Almost. Not quite, but it could be. It’s not a World of Warcraft type of fantasy, or a Baldur’s Gate.

RPS: That was one of the things I loved most about Planescape. It was all so grotesque and weird. It was uncomfortable, but in a very interesting way. You wanted to see more, because around every corner was something where you’d say, “Ugh!”

Fargo: Never for a minute did you think, “Oh, I’ve seen this a million times before.” Never for a minute. You’ll be happy with the new one [laughs].

Saunders: In just the Numenera core book, the sections on the setting, it’s like a relentless barrage of crazy ideas. Paragraph after paragraph is this completely new thing.

RPS: Conversely, because the setup is all these different dimensions, theoretically you could do anything. But what are the hard limits you put on that? Where do you say, “This doesn’t really fit this world, even though it’s theoretically possible”?

Saunders: There isn’t much. When there has been an idea that doesn’t fit, it’s been some detail of the idea, not the core idea itself. With the Ninth World, the Numenera setting, you don’t even need to go to other dimensions. There’s enough crazy stuff here. We do have some dimensional things, but we realized that a lot of the things we wanted to do elsewhere would be possible just in the main world.

RPS: How amorphous is the whole project at this point? How many things do you have set in place as, “We have to do this,” versus, “What if we did this?”

Saunders: We’re trying to get through decisions as quickly as we can. There are regions that are fairly amorphous. There are other ones where we’ve hammered out at least insofar as what we’ll try initially. In terms of dialogue, how we’ll structure our dialogues and reactivity, we’ve defined things such as the range of nodes we’ll present to the player. How many characters can be allowed in a response. How many NPC responses can happen before the player can make a choice. Things like that, we have our initial passes at. We’re working on implementing those so we can test it out and see how it feels and how much effort is involved in reaching the level of reactivity that we’re aiming for.

RPS: What sort of dialogue system are you aiming for? Wasteland is doing a thing that’s based on keywords. Are you using something similar, or is it more of a traditional style of dialogue system from old-school games?

Saunders: More traditional. We do plan to iteratively improve on the interface, and also the design of the conversations. We’ve learned a lot over the years. We don’t want to ignore that knowledge. But we’re not trying to make a modern RPG system. It will feel like Planescape Torment.

RPS: What about timing-based conversations and things like that?

Saunders: We’ve talked about that, maybe in certain specific cases, but so far, no, that’s not in our plans.

RPS: On that train of thought, one of my favorite things about more old-school RPGs is that there are a lot of dialogue choices. Some of them aren’t even necessarily of any real consequence. But I think that just helps you role-play better. More modern games, like Mass Effect, it’s very to the point. That keeps the cinematic flow of it going, but it doesn’t give you as much leeway to inhabit your character. “I’m going to be this version of the character, or that one. I’m not going to be mine.”

Fargo: He sounds like me now [laughs].

Saunders: We definitely want to have a lot of variety there. We’ve talked about a few different kinds of reactivity. We want what we call cosmetic reactivity, where the next set of player options will be the same, but the NPC’s response to what you said will be different. There might be some other side effects to what you said. Then also logical reactivity, which is where the entire conversation branches off. Obviously logical reactivity is more expensive. The conversations become more complicated.

We’ve defined how we’ll have some of the abilities work in conversation. There will be a class of skills that are lore skills. They will unlock responses you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Often, when games have done this, they’ll advertise the skill that unlocks it. Lore or Linguistics, that’s one of the examples we’re using. It’ll show you the option. But we think that encourages people to not really read it. They see the special one and they pick the special one, because they think it’s better. We don’t want to show you which one to pick that easily.

We also want to have [instances where] what you learn might not be a good thing to say. We want to be able to have those choices be what’s appropriate for the conversation. If we’re advertising, “Hey, your skill gave you this option,” then we have some sort of obligation to make it be a good option. What we’re planning to do there is to show that information on the other side of it. You’ll see an extra choice, and if you’re reading it, you might be able to infer why you have that option. But after you’ve chosen it, you will then see for sure that you had it thanks to your skill.

RPS: That's a good approach, I think. Modern dialogue systems have evolved to show you very deliberate cause and effect, and if not what the exact outcome of something will be, then the general one. Mass Effect highlighting the answers in red and blue, basically. And then also, a thing that faded out was skills having direct effects on your dialogue choices and what you can do with it. It transitioned into, “Okay, you have a persuade ability. That will add on to what you can say.” But beyond that, not really a lot. Whereas if you look at something like old-school Fallout, you have idiot dialogue options if your intelligence is really low. Are you trying to go back to that way of having your character interface with dialogue?

Saunders: Yes, definitely. I think the first part you mentioned is very mass-market friendly. That’s been great in bringing more people to RPGs, so there’s definite value to that approach. But that’s not what Torment is about. We are starting with the assumption that our players want to read and think - both about their choices and to see the appropriate reactions to them.

Fargo: We gave an example in the update yesterday. I don’t know if that’s relevant to what you guys are talking about.

Saunders: I’ve alluded to that. Another thing that we plan to have, which Planescape Torment also had, which is that some of your options would be prefaced with “Truth” or “Lie,” to show your intent. We don’t want to interpret the player’s intent, but this is a way for the player to tell the game what they intend to do. We can have reactivity based on that. With the tides, the five tides, which are our version of a morality system… Those we have focused on the effect of what you do, not your motivations. We can then more definitively say what the result is, as opposed to with a good/evil system, where to some extent you’re inferring what the player’s intent is.

RPS: I find it interesting that you’re starting with writers. Like you were saying, you assume that your players want to read. But a lot of games, writers don’t even really come in until everything else is laid out, and then that’s over the top of it. Actually, Susan O’Connor, who worked on BioShock and some other really great stuff, recently did an interview where she said she wasn't sure if she wanted to stay in games writing.

Saunders: What aspect was she frustrated with?

RPS: As a writer, the impotence she has on the team. The fact that she’s just kind of glazed over. Her role is not really that valued. Also, the inability of games to tell the sorts of stories she wants to tell.

Fargo: Well, that’s not here.

RPS: Yeah. But on a project like Hunted: Demon’s Forge, I imagine writing wasn’t as valued.

Fargo: Well, lots of things were undervalued on that one. [laughter] That’s not a good example, because I didn’t have control of the process.

RPS: Yeah. But I think that’s more indicative of how the process works on many modern triple-A games.

Fargo: Perhaps. I was only equating to how it’s working for us here. We're hanging our hat on the writing, is what we’re doing. We’re going back to an age where people [value this stuff]. If we’re going to have writing, we’re going to make it really good. We’re going to have really expert writers.

RPS: How much does that change the flow of your process? When you start with the writing on the ground level, how is that different from saying, “Here’s this set of mechanics we want to emphasize? Write around them.”

Fargo: They really work in tandem. With Wasteland, Chris is wholly focused on the tactics and the systems. Whereas Matt is wholly focused on the story. We work in tandem with each other. It shouldn’t be an exclusive, one or the other situation.

Saunders: I think one thing that is more unique here is, the story aspects drive more of the mechanics than might otherwise be the case.

Fargo: Right. For me, I loved XCOM, but I want to go into the world more, as opposed to getting another mission. With Wasteland, I’ve got all the fun parts of those kinds of games, but I get to go inside the house and find out what’s up there, what’s on the roof. I can dive in deeper. I guess that’s our jobs, to figure out a way to make those two elements come together perfectly.

RPS: With preliminary work underway on Torment, what are you finding on that front? What are the best areas to close that gap and bring story and mechanics as close as they can possibly be?

Saunders: From the mechanics side, we’re being driven by a lot of the requests from the story and from the setting also. Numenera has… The Numenera, in the setting, are these objects from past civilizations that are essentially… Think of them as magic items, or science fiction items. Tech items. Finding these and figuring out what they do and using them is a big part of the game. Crafting had a big role to play in Torment, that discovery aspect, finding things and figuring out how to use them. That’s one specific example of how the mechanics are following from the game, from the story.

RPS: Planescape did a lot of things where story and mechanics were very tightly knit. You character was immortal. That changed combat quite a bit. Do you have anything like that, where it’s a core system, but because of the way that your characters are, the way that they exist?

Saunders: We have a couple of them. One that’s similar to Planescape Torment in a way, the Castoff’s Labyrinth is where you go when you die. We’ll have death mechanics where in most cases, death is not the end. Depending on the details of your death, there’s another gameplay element that takes place there.

Another is this suffering mechanic. You, as the last Castoff… Any Castoff, they project suffering onto those around them. This will have combat and gameplay ramifications as far as choosing to go with that and deflect your suffering to your companions, say, or preventing that from occurring. That will also affect your relationship with your party.

RPS: So the more you do it, maybe, the more your relationship with them deteriorates?

Saunders: It depends on the individual. Different people have different reasons for being with you. They’re complicated. Think of people in an abusive relationship. There will be a companion where that’s part of the dynamic.

RPS: What is being in an RPG party if not an abusive relationship?

Fargo: You asked earlier about the interpersonal communications of the NPCs in your party. This tends to take that a pretty good step forward.

RPS: Do you think the gaming industry as a whole should place a higher value on writing? I mean, people like people, characters, personality. Are we scaring them away without the common human touchstone of, er, humanity?

Saunders: I think it’s a different approach, a different kind of experience. One of the things we’re doing in Torment is, in the dialogue, it won’t just be the NPCs lines that they say. We’ll also have scripted text. We might describe what they do. We’re letting our writers be free in terms of that. They can write what would happen. Not all of it is anything we’ll be able to show. With a triple-A game, you need to show everything that you want to have happen. You can’t describe a scene. It’s not a novel. The production expense of showing some things could be prohibitive, or showing everything. But we can take an approach where we can let the writers run free and not have to worry about then executing every crazy and great idea they have.

RPS: I really like that idea, but then, I'm a writer. However, I think a lot of things are moving away from being text-oriented and focused on reading or writing. Society is moving toward video. We have social media apps right now that are dedicated solely to video, things like Vine. Google Glass is about to happen. Who knows what that will do, but it’s all about images and watching and less about reading and writing. Is that worrisome to you, that people aren't as keen to read now?

Saunders: As a person or as a game-maker?

RPS: Both. It’s a concern I constantly have. I love writing and I’m afraid that everything that I do and care about is about to disappear.

Fargo: It’s like everybody’s attention span is being whacked…

Saunders: I’m worried a little about it. I’m not too worried. I have a four-year-old son. He will at times prefer physical books and reading books to playing something on the iPad. There seems to be something inherent in us that still likes the written aspects.

RPS: I think that’s true, but the issue is, as one side becomes more prevalent, fewer people will get to have that experience, of learning to love reading. They’ll just have the iPad - not the books.

Saunders: That’s true. I bet people said the same thing with television. Who knows what that’s done to us compared to previous generations? I can’t say. I don’t know how much affects…

Fargo: Think about the average age of the audience that’s probably going to be playing these games, though. It’s going to be older than the norm. Plus, I’ve got all this technology to communicate, but all I want to do is text message and email.

We’ve shortened everything down. Those ads on YouTube that are 20 seconds long, they feel like forever. You hate it when you can’t skip it. I just find we’re getting more and more impatient, which I think is part of what you’re talking about. People can’t even focus for that long. Pretty soon movies will be… They’ve been getting longer, but pretty soon movies will be 30 minutes. [laughs] That’s all anybody will sit in a movie theater for.

RPS: A lot of YouTube episodic YouTube shows are five minutes. Our replacement for television is shorter than television.

Saunders: I wonder if it could reach some sort of tipping point where people say, “Hey, enough” and back off.

RPS: Yeah. The other thing is, it’s nice to have a change of pace. It’s nice to have another option. I love playing games. I write about them. I play them all the time. But there are a lot of days where… Like, if it’s the weekend, I’m more likely to go sit on a couch and read a book. It’s different.

Fargo: I used to read more, just as a function of time. I had fewer distractions. I had some books that are like 1,000 pages long, and people would say, “How do you ever read that?” But I find that if I love a book, I wish it was 2,000 pages. I wish it would never end. The Lord of The Rings movies. Three hours? Make it five! If I’m having a good time, I don’t mind. But 1,000 pages of a book I don’t want to read, then that’s a different story.

Saunders: I think the distractions are a key part of it. We can get all this information so quickly.

RPS: Yeah, definitely. I’ll find myself, even during loading screens on a game or something, pulling out my phone.

Fargo: Right. Stoplight, bang, I’m looking at Twitter or something.

RPS: I think a lot more when I simply can't use or look at anything. In the shower. Moments like that.

Fargo: Yeah. We should just take walks more. Have everything turned off. The shower, for me, same thing. I’m locked in there for 15 minutes or whatever. I’m not doing anything else during that time.

RPS: That was a fun digression! Thank you for your time.

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