THE NA­TURE OF A MAN

PC GAMER (UK) - - Feature -

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.

al­dur’s Gate

Planescape: Tor­ment

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