Gamer's log: Planescape Torment - Day 5
December 23, 2007
For information on this project, be sure to check my post, In search of narrative, character, and empathy.
You can easily spend five days navigating your way through Planescape: Torment's first two sections: the Mausoleum and the Hive. While it certainly didn't take me 5 days of non-stop play (I could do that when I was 19 with a handy supply of Pop-Tarts and Pepsi)--and I restarted the game once--PST contains enough rich content to supply completists like me with enough quests, conversations, exploration, and reflection to fill that much time. This is a game that richly rewards you for going slowly.
Lots of RPGs supply the standard activities of questing, interacting with NPCs, collecting items and skills...but the reflection aspect is what sets PST apart, in my view, and it's what elevates an excellent but structurally traditional RPG to a higher plane...so to speak.
Like A Mind Forever Voyaging, which I examined last week, PST distinguishes itself for very simple dramaturgical reasons, the most important being its thematic complexity and ambitiousness. The voyage you undertake as the Nameless One leads you in many directions, all of which present compelling and often competing philosophical questions about the very nature of existence. If that's not thematic ambition, I don't know what is.
The ubiquitous amnesiac hero is an RPG staple (some would say cliché), so I was initially disappointed that Black Isle Studios chose to center its story on such a worn-out character (though it was less threadbare in 1999 than it is today...hello The Witcher). I suppose the real question for designers going the tabula rasa route is this: if your character is a blank slate, what are you going to do with that blank slate? Or more importantly, what does that blank slate mean and how did it get that way? PST doesn't simply lean on the amnesiac hero for lack of a better idea or to provide customization options. It incorporates The Nameless One's search for identity into the the very core of its narrative.
From the earliest interactions with NPCs from factions like the Mercykillers and the Dustmen it becomes clear that PST will not function as a moralizing homily on good vs. evil. Groups exist and compete for your alignment based on the persuasiveness of their ideas and philosophies of life. In other words, your encounters in Plansescape, coupled presumably with your real-life experiences, will determine which of these competing views, if any, you choose to accept and align with.
Human nature--the real focus of PST's discourse--will sometimes choose good, sometimes evil actions. When Sev'Tai asks you to avenge the death of her three sisters, you can simply kill the three Starved Dogs Barking, or you can let them live and lie to Sev'Tai telling her they are dead. In this situation, tellingly, the game rewards you more for lying than for doing the job.
These choices are simply part of the journey, and as The Nameless One learns and grows in his awareness, he opens doors that awaken memories and clarify the nature of his existence. Sigil, the "City of Doors," serves as an apt metaphor for this process, and those doors require a lot of hard work to open...for both The Nameless One and the player for whom he functions as avatar.
Planescape also exhibits a ribald sense of humor and a self-reflexive awareness of RPG chestnuts. The cynical old woman outside the Smoldering Corpse Bar berates you for asking questions with the mocking inquiry, "Do ye know where the Holy Flamin' Frost-Brand, Gronk-slayin' Vorpal Hammer of Woundin' and Returnin' and Shootin'-Lightening-Out-Yer-Bum is?" Classic.
As narrative, all these interactions and sub-quests may occasionally overwhelm the main story arc. Doing everything makes you stronger and wiser, but it also may make you confused. Quests like finding Nestor's lost fork can seem rather pointless amidst all the other missions. PST also relies a bit too heavily on fetch and deliver quests in the early stages, but that may change as I get further along. Having a journal is helpful, but its clumsy interface isn't.
Planescape: Torment is a long journey, and I have many, many more doors to open. I'll report back soon with a view from beyond the Hive.