essay, video games

Planescape Torment: Death is not the end

[I’ve been playing Planescape: Torment and blogging my way through it. So far, all I’ve had is Initial Thoughts and talked about The People Problem.]

One of my original notes about this game was the following:

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.

In many other games, when you die the game ends. The session ends. The death of the character serves as a learning experience in order to teach the player not to take certain actions. Death serves as a form of a negative feedback cycle to push the player into starting some section again in order to make a different choice to avoid the loop. The scene that follows the final death, the end of all ‘lives’, is that of the Game Over and is the bane of all players. No one wants the game to end, their character to die, so they fight against the game to have their own character, the extension of self, to survive. When we link the character’s life in the game to our own, we tap into our own survival instincts and battle with the game for our ‘life’. Through the reinforcement of this idea in nearly every game, players have come to view the death of their characters to be the worst of all possible outcomes. That is why the scene like that in Call of Duty 4 works so well. We do not expect our characters to die.

But what if games did something different?

Planescape: Torment has a take on character death that I have only seen in one other game — The Darkness — that is both simple and profound: the protagonist cannot die. While The Darkness skirts the issue of death through the use of the in-world narrative to explain away the respawn of the character at an earlier point, basically just a reload of the world state, Planescape: Torment takes it a better and even higher level. One of the main pillars of the narrative of Planescape: Torment is that The Nameless One, the protagonist, is unable to die. He can be killed, has been countless times, but does not actually die. He only loses his memories and starts a new life in the same body using the notes (the character has a tattoo on his back that one of his previous incarnations placed there to help(?) him), people and experiences around him. Death is not his end, only the beginning of another adventure. And while this may just be a novel approach to the issue of death in a game, one single scene pointed out how interesting the full extent of this pillar of their narrative could be.

During the plot of the game, The Nameless One comes to be within a mausoleum that is under the city. While the quest that takes him and his companions ends right before the exploration of the final little area of the mausoleum, the player can choose to direct the party to explore the very edge of the map. This is something that I highly recommend as it will allow access to an unmarked tomb that The Nameless One will enter by himself.

Then he will be killed. Be prepared for that.

I was highly surprised that upon entering the tomb, the character was hit by some type of magic and then killed. Then killed again. Then killed again. Every time I tried to move the character around to explore the area and to read the various writings on the walls, The Nameless One would be killed by the same magic. Inevitably, he would die. I could put it off by using healing items but he would always be attacked by the magic and killed. Each time, he would respawn at the entrance to the tomb and I would check the door. It would be locked. I would move around and try to read the walls, gleam some knowledge before the death happened and I would start the cycle all over again. In this simple microcosm of the entire game, I was experiencing what it was like to be this person in this world. I could learn some small bits of information, might make better choices over time but the end of each session was death. Over and over. For as frustrating as it was to me, for this character it must be torment.

Luckily, death is not the end.

The point of the whole exercise is the very knowledge I took away from it. This person has been dying over and over again for a very long time. No exact length of time is mentioned but a long list of names is provided on one wall. On another wall is some history of a previous incarnation. As I was making the character on screen take more and more steps each time, so was the character in the story. We were both learning the history of his past at the same rate and were both experiencing the annoyances of having to die over and over to get this knowledge. Eventually, we figured out the purpose of the tomb together — one of his past incarnations had created the tomb to trap himself should he ever return — and found a way to leave, as previous incarnations had as well.

I can think of no other game I have ever played that would purposely kill off the protagonist over and over again just to demonstrate the power of their narrative. Having the knowledge that The Nameless One cannot die is one thing, something exposition can and did deliver to me. Showing me how this works, walking me as the player through the frustrations that this man must face as he continues to be killed over and over was great, fantastic. I have never been so close to the emotions of a character’s life than through the use of one simple mechanic here in this one scene.

Planescape: Torment managed to sell on me on why so many games get death so very wrong. It is not enough that the character is dead and play is over for the session. Tell the reason why. Make the death of a character meaningful. Make the death of the protagonist mean more to me than just that I need to reload a save point or restart the game. Developers have a chance to make death mean something, anything really, and most waste it. Planescape: Torment takes the standard death mechanic and stands it on its head by showing you just how worthless a protagonist’s death has become by making it mean nothing. It is by that inversion that death comes to meaning something extraordinary, a new life full of new choices and a new adventure in the same old world as before.