Planescape: Torment… Actually, no, that’s wrong. “Planescape” is the setting, the meta-setting that draws together everything Dungeons & Dragons (from Baldur’s Gate to… all that other stuff nobody cares about).
No, this game is called simply Torment.
I spent about two hours just mouldering around the Mortuary. That is, the Nameless One, whom the player embodies, hauls himself off the slab and the game begins with no fanfare. A floating skull comes up to him and starts talking… and off you go.
It’s interesting because there’s nothing big about it. There’s no armoured villain attacking your family as you flee into the night, there’s no grand betrayal or momentous speeches. You just… wake up. “Who am I?”
I think it takes a lot of courage to have a low-key game start. First impressions are everything and if you were to, say, make a demo of the first level of the game a lot of people might shy away from this. Then again, Torment is not a game of high action so it’s perfectly indicative of what you’re going to be playing through for the next forty-odd hours. (As a working man who commutes to Edinbvrgh these days, I fully expect to be chewing on Torment for at least three weeks.)
I would say that perseverance is critical, but unlike Morrowind it doesn’t start out as a difficult game. The low-key start is pretty safe and, well, there’s that whole inability-to-die thing going on even if you do manage to get in a combat fankle. You just have to have a tolerance for a slow pace and a willingness to meander.
It’s confident, that’s what the start says to me. It’s comfortable in its own skin, not trying to squeeze anything out. It doesn’t feel forced, and that’s important because there’s too much focus-group try-hard grimdark in the world today. Torment might be dark on the same objective scale, but it never rubs your face in it… and it’s got a wicked sense of humour. Layers.
The depth of the lore in Torment is instantly and utterly beguiling. It’s not hidden away like some dirty secret as in Mass Effect‘s codex — it’s all around you, in item histories, spell recipes, the character dialogue, the buildings, it’s in everything. Then again, in some sense it is everything, because this game’s story is wrapped up so tightly in its lore and that’s perhaps the most perfect expression of all.
Things are not stacked up by a generic narrator, they’re delivered in context and in character by the people of the universe itself. Asking questions of Sigil’s myriad inhabitants can cause lengthy, in-depth explanations to unfold about the cosmology of the universe, each one bursting with flavour and often spreading out in even more directions. For lore-fiends such as myself, it is glorious.
Thinking about it now, I am reminded a bit of Morrowind, for the strange culture of the Dunmer and the very environment of Vvardenfell was wrapped around the central plot in a similar way. Maybe that’s why Oblivion and Skyrim kind of suck in comparison — because their stories have little bearing on or relevance to the underlying nature of their settings. It’s a subtle thing, but it seems obvious now.
(And while we’re on the subject, the history and the very fabric of my own Wreckageverse has a similar bearing on the central plot of its trilogy. Maybe this is the key, or at least a part of the key beyond merely having an “unconvential” fantasy setting?)
Of course the use of an amnesiac protagonist is a stroke of genius in terms of lore. What better — and perfectly in-context — way exists to unload all the narrative than have the player character be a “stranger” too?
It is a special game, there’s no doubt about it. I can imagine it being tremendously off-putting to some people, but on the other hand… they’re wrong. It is special, special like Morrowind and Deus Ex — perhaps imperfect in many ways, but those ways are washed away in the tide of everything that works.
Peculiar, bizarre, and utterly compelling.