Welcome back to the blog and today we have quite the interesting article, written by my Brother from Another Mother & DM Saevrick, this time discussing Planescape Torment, but from a narrative perspective rather then a traditional game review. Its quite the interesting read in my opinion and I am happy to share it with the world! You can find Saevrick on Twitter, and on Twitch where he runs our BiWeekly Planescape game “Maelstrom of Blades” on Saturdays at 530pm EST.
Scholars have a definitive idea of what they deem the “best” or most well written novel is, one that evokes emotion or is a telling of the truths of man or world issues. The same can be said about movie, television or game critics.
When we discuss the best RPG’s of all time, the top portion of the list is usually very close as well. At the top of those lists usually sits a little game called Planescape:Torment. The question “why” is a loaded one, and it takes a deep look into the intricacies of the game to fully understand.
Speaking of a game that arrived nearly twenty years ago, we’ll assume it wasn’t the game play. Indeed, Torment was based on Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition rules, and for the most part, was slightly wonky to play. The ruleset is confusing for most, and didn’t leave much for the player to devour. Even after a re-mastering of the game, which spawned a successor in Tides of Numenera, do we still see this game as a “masterpiece”?
A lot of people would argue that the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is far superior in all aspects. While its own gameplay could be wonky as well at times, the richness of the story and the scenery propelled it to perhaps the status of greatest RPG ever created. I do not argue this point. I do, however, argue that it is the best story told in the format, and the following is the account of why I find Torment to be the richest story ever told in the gaming industry.
Planescape was a campaign setting released for Dungeons and Dragons, and by most accounts, their most ambitious project to date. Sitting in the center of the cosmos rose the Great Spire, and at its pinnacle sat the sprawling city of Sigil. The City of Doors (due to its numerous portals) or the Cage (for the hidden nature of these doors), as it was could be called, was the extreme of all possibilities and a melting pot for all the worlds, and watched over by the Lady of Pain, a watcher of the Cage of insurmountable power. Sprawling below this city was the Great Wheel, encompassing all the pleasures and pains that existence could imagine.
These planes not only held a moral compass, they embody it. The nine point alignment system, which most would argue is meaningless in present-day RPGs, had a definitive and real implication. From the Lawful good Seven Heavens of Mount Celestia, the Lawful Evil Nine Hells of Baator, the infinite Chaotic Evil layers of the Abyss, and the Chaotic Good Olympian Glades of Arborea, these realms inhabitants exuded what was most idealized in their respective homelands. At the center of it all, was The Outlands–a plane of True Neutrality, and the divider and connector to all outer planar existence. It is here where the dead of the Prime Material worlds go to die, and continue their existence in glory or despair.
The thing about the planes is that anything that can be believed can exist. Cities could be built on an ideal, pocket dimensions could explode from a deep and all encompassing sorrow or joy, and the very fabric of existence could tear apart from thoughts. That is what made Planescape so unique–that is what made Planescape a setting for a story that could truly drive at the heart of the player, and was, and rightfully so, the backdrop for this story.
At the center of the story is the Nameless One–a man who has been cursed with immortality, who awakes from every death having no recollection of the life he lived the day before. It all really started with a man who had fled his past, damned to fight in the eternal Blood Wars. He approached an old crone by the name of Ravel Puzzlewell, and wooed her. He made the hag love him, and he asked only that she make him immortal in return. She separated his mortality, and the two lingered in their own existences from that point forward.
The tale of Torment is not one of saving the world. Unlike most traditional RPGs, the characters are already created for the player, which leads to a more focused story not bound by generic archetypes to base responses off of. Indeed, the game is a narrative more than a game most times–a rich narrative, that peeks into the soul of the player. It is a tale of man who has lived many past lives, and depending on his choices, has lead to either lives of heroism, paranoia, purest evil, and all spectrums in between.
The title itself is a reflection of not only the background of the story, but also the characters involved in it. Each character the Nameless One finds along his path is broken, drawn to the Nameless One in one way or another to satisfy their own torments. They all have a role to play in the story, along with their own back stories, which make a player really question their lives.
Really, any of the characters can exemplify a feeling that a person could fit their own lives into. They are intense, and they are relatable. Perhaps no soul is more tormented than that of Deionarra. The tale of her suffering at the hands of the Nameless one is truly strong enough to rip at the heartstrings–a tale of false love and broken promises, of being used for a specific end. In most cases, the other characters have already traveled with the Nameless One in one of his past lives, and for their own reasons, choose to omit it.
The githzerai Dak’kon is bound to the Nameless one, having made a life debt in exchange for knowledge. Having lingered on Limbo, where thought makes reality ebb and flow, Dakkon searched for deeper meaning–in search of knowing himself. He found it in the Nameless One. Unfortunately for Dak’kon, his oath was to be seen out eternally, as is the lifespan of the Nameless One.
Fall-From-Grace, a succubus who has turned from the path of the yugoloths and sought her own course in life lives in constant reminder of her own past. Every day she must choose to live this new course, and not succumb to her primal tendencies. Each morning she lives in the torment of living a dual identity, struggling in the space between, her very existence a constant reminder of what monstrosity she truly is, yet tries so desperately to leave behind.
Morte, a floating skull with sentience, is by all reality of the definition a coward and liar. He was plucked from the very Pillar of Skulls, and struggles to find his own place in this “life”. While his very existence is that of a liar, a cheat, and the embodiment of deceit, he struggles to just find acceptance.
Nordom, a modron severed from the world of Mechanus, searches for his own identity. Little makes sense in a world where everything can only be seen as 1’s and 0’s, and the construct constantly searches for meaning in all things around him. It would seem the true thing Nordom needs is a name, a definitive identity outside of the touch of Primus (the overseer of all modron),and to realize his own existence as an individual.
Ravel is almost an antithesis of what the planes are all about. Being a night hag, she should only embody the purest of evil, chaotic and all of her ambitions should be for her own ends. She tears apart the moral compass of the alignments altogether, seeing only that all things should known freedom–even if it’s the Lady of Pain. Indeed, Ravel has fled from Sigil in an attempt to open all the doors at once, which would lead to the cities destruction, but also the Lady’s freedom of it. Ravel believes the Lady is as much a prisoner in Sigil as anyone else, perhaps more so.
When confronting her, she asks, “What can change the nature of a man?”. The player is given several options, all viable, and none are incorrect. You would think this makes the scenario empty and pointless, but really, it is very compelling.
Why is that, however?
The reason is–this isn’t the first time she’s asked the Nameless One this question. Over several life times, she’s asked this question, and the importance of the answer is focused on the current day. The depth of such a simple question is given new meaning, and really is a reflection of the entirety of the story–how the events one chooses in life affect the individual.
The story stops becoming a quest for redemption for the past, but a quest to accept the Nameless One’s fate. His fate being–that he has done evil, and he must accept the punishment and that doom is the only means to this end. A quest to finally die, move on and take the first real steps he’s taken in countless lifetimes. To storm the Fortress of Regrets, built out of his own actions of lives he’s ruined and out of people who’ve died in his cause, or who have passed on by his will. To face his mortality, to understand the fruitlessness of redemption, and to embrace and learn to die.
At the end of the game, there is the chance to learn the name of the Nameless One. Upon learning it, the player is not privy to the information. It is for the character alone. It matters to that character as the entire time it was his journey, not the player’s. It is only important to the character as to divide the line between immortality and mortality, to resolve the self, and to end the cycle.
In the end, it is belief that can change the nature of a man and a belief that the separation of mortality, in knowing he name, is what is needed to dissolve the divide, to accept the fate the Nameless One earned, and to suffer that regret alone.
I cannot, to this day, remember of any game that has ever made me feel as much as Planescape:Torment did. I could have been any of these characters with a different choice. I could feel the pain of Deionarra, feel the pain of the Nameless One as he watched his past self destroy the woman’s life. Everyday, I struggle like Nordom, lost in a sea of faces, looking for my own identity.
I’ve never had a game make me feel that acceptance is the end of pain and the path to healing. That you must live with the means of your choices, not the ends of it. All these factors, webbed together, make for an enticing story, that really bleeds sorrow and the beauty of a wonderfully written narrative story. It is a book that unfurls before you, and makes you examine yourself and the world around you. It is truly one of the deepest stories you’ll find in all of gaming, and I hope that one day you choose to partake in it yourself.
Terminally Nerdy’s Note: If you wish to try this game out for yourself, you can purchase the “Enhanced Edition” which has been fixed for modern PCs on either GoG or Steam for $20. Be aware that the gameplay is still built off AD&D rules which are NOTHING like current Fifth Edition so be ready to learn something new.