"Don't trust the skull" - Final thoughts on Planescape: Torment
December 31, 2007
For information on this project, be sure to check my post, In search of narrative, character, and empathy.
Parts 1 and 2 of my Planescape: Torment analysis can be found here and here. Caution: minor spoilers below.
Planescape: Torment is a text-based RPG. True, it manages to squeeze every bit of isometric splendor out of Bioware's Infinity Engine. And yes, the game occasionally treats you to a pre-rendered cutscene. But these are merely window dressing. Planescape: Torment places all its narrative eggs in one giant 800,000 word basket.
If you experience the totality of PST--completing all the side quests, talking to all the NPCs, and generally adventuring your way to the end (there are eight different ways to complete the game, with three distinct endings), you could say you played the game...or you could just as accurately say you "read" it. Designer Chris Avellone's reliance on the written word is so intensive in PST that all the most pivotal moments in the game occur as conversations conveyed via text.
As a meditation on violence and its long karmic aftermath, PST is, surprisingly, a game that's mostly about talking to people, negotiating with them, or trying to understand their philosophies of life. Amidst all the gore, dangling limbs, and festering sores, this game wants to think hard about the meaning of existence and the emergence of hope through embracing our mortality.
We don't often think about "reading" games (aside from interactive fiction), but all my memorable experiences inside the world of PST are connected to what I can only describe as literary moments of resonance, surprise, humor, and recognition. The lateral, deconstructed narrative of PST encourages an approach to playing/reading that allowed me to piece together its fragments in my own way, returning to places of interest, skipping others, recovering the Nameless One's elusive identities, and generally constructing meaning in ways few video games have done.
Such a moment occurs in the Empty Tomb. Several strands of PST's narrative come together here as the Nameless One finally discovers the journal he's been seeking with all the notes to himself (the film "Memento" comes to mind here) in the form of stone tablets. In order to access them, however, he must die and be reborn several times. Each death takes him a step closer to his destination.
Finally, he discovers a startling warning written on a tablet (conveniently ignored by his sidekick Morte in the opening scene of the game). It reads: "Don't trust the skull." What to do with this information? What does it mean, and why did I write it? Can Morte still be trusted? Should I confront him with it, or just keep my eye on him? The game does not provide an answer, not does it insist on any course of action. Instead, the player must decide. Much later in the game, all of this will matter a great deal, and our understanding of Morte and his past will grow considerably.
The genius of Avellone's narrative construction is the way he ensures an advancing plot while offering complexity and resonance to the player who is willing to explore beyond the main quest and ruminate on how all this fits together. Other games have done this--subplots and side-quests are nothing new--but these rarely matter very much. Such activities often extend the game, giving the player more to do, but adding little real thematic substance. PST unfailingly utilizes such optional activities to add color, nuance, and complexity to the story and characters. Ultimately, the Nameless One will come to know himself--the central quest of the narrative--only by coming to know others. Getting acquainted with sharp-tongued Annah, for example, isn't necessary at all. But oh what you will miss if you don't!
I began this series looking for narrative, character, and empathy. None of those are possible in a game without ideas, and PST is full of big ideas. Essentially, the world of PST is in bloody tormented conflict between groups who see the world in very different ways. It's a war of ideas, and your navigation through this world will immerse you in these warring ideologies, all tugging at you to align with them. I found an especially poignant and relevant allegory in the collision between the Mercykillers, who fanatically insist on justice with no mercy and the Chaosmen who believe truth can be found only in a state of lawlessness and anti-authoritarianism. Both are wrong, of course, but they have arrived at their conclusions looking at the same set of realities.
Ironically, I found PST more compelling as a story than as a game. Time has not been kind to the Infinity Engine, and despite a certain old-school charm, it's a cumbersome interface to live in for a long game. Clicking to move from place to place quickly becomes tiresome, and if it weren't for the widescreen mod suggested by a couple of my readers, I would have probably torn my hair out in 640x480 chunks. Dragging my mouse cursor inch by inch across the screen searching for that one particular set of pixels to locate a door that doesn't appear on screen also frustrated me to no end. Funny how these things never bothered me way back in 1999. Guess I've gotten soft.
Imagine a game with the narrative and thematic richness of PST...inside a Mass Effect or Oblivion engine...well, I can dream, can't I? Fallout 3? Hoping beyond hope.
I've truly enjoyed this little trip down memory lane. Playing A Mind Forever Voyaging and Planescape: Torment has reminded me that video games possess the power to access those primitive places in our imaginations that treasure a tale well told with vivid characters and ideas worth pondering. The interactive dimension of video games--far more than their graphical prowess or user-interface--provides a level of immersiveness and player/character symbiosis that is unique to this medium. We already know these things, of course...but, perhaps, sometimes we forget.
A Mind Forever Voyaging and Planescape: Torment are precious reminders.
Image courtesy of Mr-Nick at DeviantArt.