THE NATURE OF A MAN
Finally, there was Planescape: Torment. No introduction should be necessary. Despite what is often claimed, it wasn’t a flop. It wasn’t a hit either, though, which, along with the desire of the current owners of AD&D to move away from the Planescape setting as a whole, was enough to guarantee we’d never see a sequel. At least, not an official one. Thanks to Kickstarter some of the original team is working on a spiritual follow-up called
Torment: Tides of Numenera that’s due out in 2017. Torment is the story of The Nameless One, an amnesiac immortal who has lived innumerable lives – some good, some bad, and one judged so terrible that even eternity is insufficient time to atone for his crimes. Along with a team of equally broken damned souls, including sarcastic skull Morte, a suit of armour animated by the spirit of justice, a chaste succubus who runs a brothel devoted to intellectual lust, and a man who is literally a doorway to a plane of fire, he has to find out the secret of his immortality before an unseen enemy finally destroys all the clues leading to the truth.
Torment is easily one of the best written games ever made, and a personal favourite. It’s dark, it’s funny, it’s philosophical, and every line is as smooth as a master barber’s razor. Not only is The Nameless One’s story far more fascinating than any plot with the word ‘amnesia’ in it has any right to be, but the world of Planescape is unlike anything games had ever tried. It’s a place where belief has power, with a central city, Sigil, full of doors to every conceivable world. If you’re lucky, you find the one you want. If you’re unlucky, you can simply cross a threshold and end up in Hell. Or worse.
One section in particular stands out as an absolute masterpiece of RPG design. The Nameless One begins the game as a fighter, but as he’s been the pinnacle of literally every class in existence at some point over his tortured life, it’s not hard to swap to another class if you can find a trainer to jog his memories. For mage, that’s the village witch, Mebbeth. Before Mebbeth will teach him anything, she has a few odd-jobs down at the village. One is to fetch a herb which nobody has seen before, forcing him to will the seed into growth. Another is to get some rags, starched so often as to be useless. A third trip, at this point ignoring his and the player’s irritation, requires him to go get some ink. All fairly standard fetch-quest stuff, with a little Planescape weirdness seemingly thrown in for flavour.
In this case, though, it’s not. As the quest ends, Mebbeth essentially sits back and asks “So, what have you learned so far?” And if The Nameless One is smart enough, he realises – that in those quests he’s been shown how belief works in the Planes and how to shape it to his will, the futility of ritual without reason, and finally that no matter how much a person knows, there is always something to learn. Magic has never been taught with such a practical focus; your first step not being to decide what kind of magic missile you want, but how to better see the universe.
The whole game is written with this level of love and detail. The Nameless One can be a force of great good to the Planes, or true evil. You can heal your friends’ broken souls, or sell them into slavery. You can use and abuse your immortality as you see fit, to get through a lethal tomb, or to manipulate a preacher into killing himself by offering to go first, respawning, and declaring “Your turn.” The journey goes from the filthy streets of Sigil down to the abyssal planes, where the only half-friendly life is a pillar of the skulls of wise men whose advice sent others to their doom. Throughout it all, it’s not a big villain that truly defines the story, but a simple question: “What can change the nature of a man?” It’s a question Torment poses, but you have to answer.
The main complaints about Planescape: Torment at the time look amusingly trivial in retrospect. The combat isn’t great, and there’s never any tension because you can almost always respawn, wade back into battle, and win through sheer force of attrition. There aren’t many companions compared to other Infinity Engine games – just seven, with two of those being secrets. It’s not a difficult game either, happily exchanging raw challenge for rewarding exploration and telling its story. If that sounds familiar, it should. It would become the model for most of the next generation of games, even after the Infinity Engine became just a fondly remembered bit of gaming history.