Planescape: Torment and Interactive Narratives
Planescape: Torment is the best story ever told in the medium of video games.
Tall order statement, I know.
However, I firmly believe that this belief is not the result of rosy-coloured associations with Planescape itself, which I am a massive fan of as an example of great world building. Rather, PS:T represents an incredibly successful experiment in the management of interactive narratives: it pushes the boundaries of interactivity, and the value of player input, in a way very unlike Dark Souls or Spec Ops: The Line.
With Dark Souls, the plot is a series of basic actions, as to not overwhelm player explorations with directives. Surrounding these basic actions, is history and lore verging on the fantastic with its ambiguity: items conflict, ever-so-slightly, in their description; sentence structures allows unclear readings; visual clues create associations between objects that may not be associated. Through this strategy of weaving fuzzy webs, Dark Souls allows the player to actively make meaning as they play. This is a great strategy for immersing the player in the world, for they make meaning of the world the way their bewildered character might. It, however, does not work for an artist who has a story in mind: telling a story, either dramatic or not, requires at least some clarity, to contrast with the ambiguous. Even in the fantastic, there are always things we know are there.
Spec Ops: The Line offers an example of using a game’s formal elements to reflect the thematic content. The level design, in its constant downward sloping nature, the formal doubling of “doing what you’re told” as a player with the character “doing as they’re told” within their world, and many other elements use formal aspects of video games as a narrative genre to support the themes the developer is interested in. Here, we have a very opposite strategy as Dark Souls, where plot and clarity of meaning are emphasized and manipulated using video game elements. Exploration and play, however, are minimized as a result.
Borrowing from Erik Kain’s clever Forbes article on Dark Souls, I like to call Dark Soul‘s narrative structure “interactive archaeology;” borrowing from the film theory meaning of the phrase, I like to call Spec Ops: The Line’s narrative structure “formalism in games.” The first is a great way to give players control over a world and how it functions, a sort of collaborative world-building miasma where atmosphere reigns supreme. The latter is the process of using the elements of the medium to support traditional narrative structure with a specific interesting in creating message.
For an article about Planescape: Torment, I haven’t mentioned it a whole lot.
PS:T, as my next few Sunday posts will hope to prove, threads together the interactive archaeology of Dark Souls, the formalist meaning-experience of Spec Ops: The Line and adds a third, substantially different tactic to the mix: a truly reactive and reflexive plot. All stories are a two-way process: the writer encodes meaning, and the reader decodes and then reconstructs. PS:T subtly allows the player unprecedented control in his reconstruction, and then emphasizes this power of reconstruction in its plot, its themes and its principle philosophy. Even though it could’ve easily simply been an exploration of the rich Planescape license, PS:T uses the world of Planescape to question: the boundaries of interactivity, the meaning of plot, character and action in an interactive narrative and the meaning of lore and story. While it does this, it also uses the formal elements of computer RPGs, pen and paper RPGs, and games more broadly, to formally reflect its thematic concerns. And this is why it will be my topic of dissection for the next month+, accompanied by my first “Let’s Play!”
Part 1: How Planescape Introduces its Audience
In it’s age, we will forgive PS:T for doing what is entirely unforgiveable by modern interactive design standards: relying on its manual! It does suck, but it was a need of the medium at the time. You just gotta roll with it.
To make heads or tails (or eyes or ears or…) of PS:T in the beginning, you must read the manual before you play the game the first time. Otherwise, you will be so very lost. PS:T is a game that abuses its own system – Dungeons and Dragons – and uses those abuses as an extended metaphor for the metaphysical abuses the principle antagonists reap on their universe. I will get into the complexities of this relationship during my Let’s Play in late April, but for now I want to look at the character generation process and how it diverges from traditional expectations.
It’s 1999. You’ve just finished Baldur’s Gate and there’s a new D&D role-playing game on the horizon. You fire it up and… Oh, I can’t choose my clothing colours? I can’t pick a class? Or starting spells? This seems like a step backwards…
The game tells you to read the manual before playing… and you find that the rules have been twisted to fit a very different type of narrative than the one Baldur’s Gate gave you. Your class, you’re told, changes with your play-style. And you gain an attribute every single level up! Surely, you’ll be overpowered… but how long until I can become a wizard? Will choosing a high intelligence early hurt me? Oh… Intelligence also decides what dialogue options I can see… And Wisdom decides how easily I learn lessons and what memories I can recover successfully… and Charisma controls how long I can talk to someone before they tire of me? What?
The game tells you, right away, that:
In Torment, you take on the role of a scarred, amnesiac immortal in search of his identity…. Your character will develop in power as he learns more about himself… Death is the least of your worries.
Your expectations, as someone familiar with the genre, are flipped by reading the first page of the manual. Suddenly, power is linked to Wisdom (as you learn about yourself) even though you’re classless (starting off as something akin to a fighter). Death is meaningless, and as such survivability is secondary. Intelligence decides how well you connect the dots, and how many dialogue options you chose from. Charisma seems to dictate how many times you can talk to someone before they’re sick of you. And the goal isn’t to kill or destroy or conquer, but rather to discover who you are.
So how should I build myself?
Before the game proper has begun, PS:T challenges the player to rethink their concept of an adventurer. Wisdom becomes of chief importance, even though the traditionally “wise” classes are unavailable (cleric, druid). Death has no long term punishments.
Beyond that, your character will grow stronger at an alarming rate, but by recovering memories instead of by murdering kobolds. Power gamers only interested in power see, for the first time, a game that is going to give them power by pursuing the scholarly attributes instead of the brutish ones. Power, success and memory get tied into wisdom and intelligence. PS:T is also asking this of the player: continuously emphasizing that the character and world will transform to fit their playstyle. The player’s choices shape the nature of the world, and the right player for this game is one who is willing to be wise and intelligent. This is a wonderful early way to emphasize, using the very rules of its world, the “implied player” of the game: one who is willing to adventure with their spirit and mind, instead of adventuring for their thirst for blood.