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November 5, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»torment

Death Tax

For every form of media, there are certain works that are considered essential for cultural literacy: albums, books, or films that are so influential or important to the development of the art form, a well-rounded critic should at least have glanced at them. You don't have to like them, but they're part of the zeitgeist. The same is true for gaming, I think. Maybe it hasn't had its version of The Wire yet, but there's no arguing that there are certain canonical games that you're supposed to have played.

Is Planescape: Torment one of those titles? Many people would probably say yes. I'm not sure, but I do know that I feel guilty for quitting it. Not enough to keep struggling through it, unfortunately, but guilty nonetheless. Parts of Torment are still brilliant--they make it obvious why so many people speak of the game in such reverent tones. But those pieces are wrapped in a design that has aged poorly (and it wasn't much to write home about even then).

Let's get the positives out of the way first. More than anything else, Torment's writing is fantastic. It has to be decent, since the game's graphics are crude (evocative, but crude), and there are no cutscenes or close-up shots (everything takes place from a 3/4 perspective). But the writers turned that limitation into a legitimate strength: the world and characters they describe are bizarre, comical, tragic, and rich. Even in the first few hours, they toss out more ideas than most games contain in their entirety: an underground town of well-adjusted undead, sorcery made of blood and thorns, and a main character whose body is a gnarled mess of tattoos and scars. It's hard to imagine how someone could create the kind of imagery in polygons that they accomplish with a little prose, particularly given the technology of the day.

The other thing Torment does right is to completely ignore conventional wisdom on death and experience for an RPG of the time. The Nameless One cannot die by conventional means. This makes for some fun story moments--rummaging around inside your own body for items, waking up in the morgue, using your own severed arm as a club--and if he's killed in combat, he wakes up a few feet away. As someone who hates dying in an RPG and realizing that my last save was two hours ago, I think this is brilliant. I also think it's brilliant that making clever dialog and story choices earns an order of magnitude more experience than fighting. That's a clear declaration of what's important in Torment: story, not swordplay.

But if they were willing to undermine that much of the traditional RPG design, it is simply beyond me why they didn't jettison the rest. If you're going to remove the punishment of combat death, not to mention making it largely unrewarding to fight in the first place, why keep it around at all? Why make me struggle with inventory and healing? Obviously their heart wasn't in it, but they couldn't bring themselves to anger the nerds by dropping it completely.

It's clever to make dialog count for extra experience points as an incentive. It's hateful, on the other hand, to abuse that incentive by restricting dialog choices based on the character's attribute scores. At that point, you're punishing the player for thinking that their choices during the game are meaningful, when really it was the first decision they made--assigning points during character creation--that determines success. The result is profoundly, deeply frustrating: I met a riddling skeleton, for example, but I'm not even given a chance to solve his riddles, because my scores have already determined that I'm not smart enough.

That was pretty much the point where I closed the game and put the disc away for the forseeable future, incidentally.

If only this game had been made a few years later (when RPGs started to become a more fluid genre), or a few years earlier (when adventure games were still profitable). If only it weren't shackled to the Baldur's Gate-derived, AD&D-centric Infinity Engine, or maybe if it could have been made by an indie team willing to shoulder a few more risks. There's a fantastic SCUMM-style puzzler somewhere in Torment, but it's buried under mountains of system and cruft. As it is, I know why this game is important. I know why people like it. But I can't bring myself to start it up again.

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