essay, video games

Planescape Torment: Initial thoughts

[I haven’t used this area in some time but I thought I would make a note here and now: I’m going to be posting less often. Due to my unusually high class load right now, I will have less time to write than I have had in recent months. However, I will try to post several times a week, when I can.]

After finishing Final Fantasy X-2, I went looking for another RPG experience. Having spent several weeks and forty-plus hours in X-2, I thought it might be worth it to jump into another large world. My first plan was to try Final Fantasy XII next. I had placed it in the tray of the PlayStation 2 and had done some preliminary research on what to expect. But then I visited Gog.com yesterday (during their sale of Apogee Games) and saw Planescape: Torment and knew I had to play that instead.

So, I did.

I’m just over a hour into the game and I am impressed for several reasons.

  1. The amount of writing this game has is astounding. I’ve written some long works — couple of screenplays and a novel — and I know what it takes to put out this amount of text, tens of thousands of hours of work. Everything I have run into from simple enemies to common items have detailed text about what they are, where they came from and what they are doing. All dialogue options have multiple paths with large paragraphs of explanation. This world is large and, having only seen the surface, I am amazed at the sheer amount of text just so far.
  2. The world is different. I have built up a passing knowledge of how Dungeons and Dragons works (4e, anyway) and like that despite this world being based in that, it manages to be based in its own logic and consistency. I’ve played in fantasy worlds and science fiction worlds. This Gothic, twisted world is both different enough and seeming familiar that I think I will come to enjoy a break from the norms of lasers or elves that fill too many genre games of today.
  3. Death is not the end. I have come to find death as a mechanic that ends a session to be tiring. I’m sick of it, really. I want games that justify their mechanics within the in-world narratives. This game does that. If you die, you start over again at, as I understand it, some type of spawn point. In fact, as part of the story of the protagonist, death has happened to him several times before and this game’s story, as the plot is revealed, is just the latest of a string of lives this, The Nameless One, has had.
  4. It’s funny. This is important for the sheer fact that I rarely laugh at dialogue in games. By the time that it has been written, spoken and made into a computer generated frame, it’s lost something of the magic it originally had. Very few games have me laugh on text only and this game has managed to do it several times so far in just this one session of playing through the tutorial area. The side-character of Morte (a floating skull) is particularly amusing.
  5. I’ve had to take notes. This is something that I mostly missed as I bypassed the computer games of the nineties — Planescape: Torment came out in 1999 — while I playing console games on and off. There was very little need to write down anything when I first started playing games and I have had little reason to do so, for gameplay reasons, until my recent interest in older games. While this game does, in fact, note down in a journal your quests and goals, I’ve enjoyed knowing exactly what I am supposed to say to a certain person instead of just guessing at it from among several choices.

In classic review styling, I thought I would coda this with some things I am less impressed with.

  1. The protagonist has amnesia. While I love that this is grounded in the game’s narrative (if he dies, he loses his memory), I am less than a fan of it as a framework for telling a story. Take this as a minor niggle in the storytelling method here, but I am not a fan of the “re-teaching the character is teaching the player” model. I’m letting it slide here, for the most part, because it wasn’t as overused then as I perceive it to be now, a decade later.
  2. The perspective of play, isomorphic, annoys me. This is a personal quirk, having not played many games with this view. I’m used to three-dimensional models and the first-person perspective. I can’t seem to be able to see enough with this perspective and have worried, more than once, if I am missing something hidden by the walls or by way a structure stands.
  3. I’m not good at point-and-click adventures. I struggled my way through Beneath a Steel Sky needing ultimately to get a guide to finally get through it. This game demands, as I’ve found out, that you be familiar with this paradigm of design and interaction and be prepared to investigate everything in the pursuit of finding the items, keys or tools needed to get through doors and battles.  I spent several minutes early on struggling to figure out if I actually needed an additional key I did not yet have or if I was not actually using a key I had picked up minutes previously.
  4. There is no tutorial purely for gameplay. You must learn fairly quickly how to control the character(s), how battles work and what is needed for quests. The game is not going to pause battles to teach you these things. Nor is going to tell you to press certain buttons to take certain actions. It is expected that you will immediately look at the keyboard mappings (as I did) or have already done so. I was split on if this was a negative or positive, given the context and time of the game’s release, but ultimately decided it was closer to a bad thing than a good thing. It might have done a better job at giving me access to the information that I needed while also maintaining its expectations of the players.