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Planescape: Torment and the Evolution of the RPG

Planescape: Torment is *the* game that got me into game design years ago. Here I take another look at this classic game to see what lessons it holds for modern RPG design.

[The following is a repost from Glen Cooney's personal game design blog Glenalysis. Originally posted January 21, 2012]

This Mirmir's got stories he's dying to tell
       Allow me to preface this post by saying Planescape: Torment is the game that got me interested in Game Design. Never before did I think games could touch on topics so mature and nuanced as it does and in a way that is both fun and compelling on so many levels. Playing it was the first time I realized the potential of the gaming medium as a legitimate storytelling platform. While not the perfect game, it is easily the most inspirational game I have ever played.

       In spite of all the praise I give it, I have only recently gotten around to beating the game, following a GameFaqs walkthrough so I wouldn't miss a thing. I am now in a position where I can truly reflect on the game in its entirety.

Now pike it, berk, while I give you the chant...
       Planescape: Torment is a classic of PC Roleplaying Games, and many consider it to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time. With a compelling plot, very unique game world, and a little bit of philosophy thrown into the mix, one could say its one of the most sophisticated games ever to grace the world of PC Gaming.

Still waiting on that Planescape: LittleBigPlanet mod...

       The player takes on the role of the Nameless One, an amnesiac man who wakes up on a slab in a mortuary. He soon discovers that he is immortal, and with a trail of clues left on tattoos on his back he embarks on a journey to discover the nature of his mortality and who he really is. His journey takes him to all corners of the Planes, from the clockwork labyrnth of the Modron Cube, to the upper levels of the Nine Hells and beyond. All the while he comes across a diverse cast of characters, from a talking skull, to a sentient suit of armor, and even a chaste, lawfully good succubus to name a few.

       Based on the original vision of the game*, the designers went out of the way to subvert the common tropes and cliches of the RPG genre. The result is that you will find no swords, healing potions, or generic spells to be found. In fact, every item and character you interact with in this game is made with such care as to be both memorable and reflect the unique style of the game. They truly went out of their way to make the look and feel of the game really reflect the bizarre and imaginative world of its source material and challenge the player's preconceptions at every turn.

       *I recommend playing the game before looking over the plot and villains sections, as they contain spoilers.

The Planes
       The game is based upon the Planescape campaign setting of the 2nd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and represents one of the most unique settings I have seen in a game. It is essentially a fantasy afterlife, where depending on how good, evil, lawful, or chaotic you are, you end up being reborn on one of the respective planes to that alignment. All of the planes rest upon a sort of funnel-shaped spire of infinite height, with the city of Sigil at its center.
       From Sigil, one is able to travel anywhere in the planes, they need only know the key and the door that leads to it. That key can be anything, from a physical key, to a thought, gesture, etc and the doors are just as diverse. Thus Sigil becomes a hub of all the strange and fantastical creatures you can come across in the Planes.

       Sigil is ruled over by the godlike Lady of Pain, who guards over Sigil and prevents anyone from controlling it, while insisting no one dares worship her under the penalty of being "Mazed," or being trapped in a pocket dimensional maze that is almost impossible to escape from.

       All of this only scratches the surface of what you would find in the game, but is intended to paint a picture for you of a world where anything is possible, and everything around you has a delightfully strange, mysterious, and haunting quality about it.

Delving into the Dark of It
       Planescape: Torment's characterization of its world, characters, and items go far beyond what we see in most RPGs today. This is due in part to the changing market demands on RPGs and the gradual evolution of the genre. To truly understand why we don't see more games follow Planescape's example, one must examine the history of the genre as a whole.

RPG Osmosis
       Throughout its history, the RPG genre has been a sub-genre of sorts among existing genres. It is the sum of many influences over the years, including a few mentioned here:

  • War Sim Influences

           The modern roleplaying game was born out of Dungeons and Dragons, and Dungeons and Dragons was born out of tabletop War Sim miniatures games. When looked at from this perspective you can see where a lot of the stats and other complexities of the genre came out of. When sophisticated video games became possible in the 80s you started to see the first RPGs that could do justice to the complex systems of games like D&D.

           Ultima was an early example of this trend*. Featuring stats, levels, spells, etc it was among the first games to try to bring the magic of D&D into our computers. To add to the realism of the experience, many games in the series required players to carefully manage food, drink, and sleep for their characters to be effective. These kinds of systems were put into the game for the sake of greater immersion, to make the player feel like they were a real adventurer. For die-hard fans of those games, it did just that, but many more people found such systems to be annoyances and barriers to having fun.

*Note: I have never played any of the Ultima games, so this information is primarily drawn from other sources.

  • Adventure Game Influences
           As the 90s came rolling in, some of the more obtuse systems used for "realism" of early RPGs were phased out, but the adventuring aspects remained the same. Exploring the world, seeking out hidden treasures and questing remained alive and well. In many ways they resembled a more complicated version of Adventure games of the time, which challenged players to figure things out on their own as they explored the game world.

    So sayeth the wise Alaundo...

           In contrast to today, however, many games did not hold the player's hand when it came to telling them where to go for their next quest. Indeed, even as late as 1999 Baldur's Gate did not even have a quest log, instead burying quests alongside other comments on events that have transpired on your journey. Further, there were no map markers to tell you where to go or even the name of different places on the world map.

           Going back to Planescape, which came out later the same year, even that game had huge amounts of game content that was not easy for a player to stumble upon. Players really had to search every nook and cranny and talk to all the interesting NPCs to really get the most of the experience. And even then the wrong dialog choice or character build could shut you out of some brilliant exposition or backstory.

           This was all done to reward exploration, lateral thinking, and the player's ability to navigate through the game world.

  • Action Game Influences
           Over the last several years, we have seen a surge in the number of action-RPGs, epitomized by a game like Mass Effect. In contrast to older games, they have adopted the modern conventions of easy to identify quest NPCs, detailed navigational hints to reach quests and objectives, simplified spell and ability systems, and a greater focus on skill-based gameplay.

           This is certainly appealing for many gamers, as action games and shooters in particular enjoy the largest player base. Likewise because action games are all about momentum, minimizing frustrations for players makes a lot of sense. Of course, this is where making an action-RPG can sacrifice some of the best qualities of an RPG.

           As mentioned before, one of the best qualities of a game like Planescape is the richness of its game world. The archetecture of buildings, the characters, and even the strange items like talking books or magical tattoos add a lot of character to the game. When you move toward streamlining the experience, it can sometimes take a lot of these elements out. In Mass Effect, for instance, most of the items of interest are weapons and health packs, with a few different choices of armor. While this makes it easier for a player to pick out and find what they need quickly, and keep the pace of the game, it goes against the more slow-paced immersion of RPGs of the past.

           EDIT: A better example is the fact that Mass Effect is a game that shows you directly where to go to complete a quest, in contrast to earlier RPGs. For a player primed to go from point A to point B as quickly as possible as most action games encourage, this can work against a slower-paced exploration and inspection of the game world. Indeed, this even effects the design of locations the player can visit. In Mass Effect one can clearly see there are very few NPCs to interact with, and every town has clearly marked stores to buy items and equipment, in contrast to the more organic cities of Planescape.

    As a side note, what other RPG has a triumphant theme song about how much of a legendary badass you are?*

           Not all is lost, though. Skyrim has done an excellent job of blending the thrill of exploring and discovering secrets with modern interface and usability updates. It's first person perspective combined with strong incentives to explore and wander around the game world goes a long way toward creating the kind of world immersion that older RPGs strove for. It's not just about stepping into the game world, but embracing its culture and feel like you are stepping into a living, breathing world.

Changing the nature of a man

       No RPG since Planescape has been able to capture such a distinct and intricate world as effectively as it had. Every location, character, item, spell, and ability oozed originality and depth on a level no game could match. The challenge of Planescape is not in slaying monsters or solving puzzles, but in wrapping your head around this bizarre world, and its alien rules, culture, and laws of reality.

       It is a game that challenges the player to think deeply, both about its world and their own, and spark the player to look at the world differently than they ever did before. I sincerely hope that RPG developers out there will think long and hard on the lessons of Planescape.

* * *
       *It just occured to me that if this song is written in the Dragon tongue, then the only in-game explanation of who sings it is either:

  1. The ancient oppressed people's that lived under Alduin's rule thousands of years ago

  2. The Greybeards that are supposedly the few people that understand the dragon tongue in its entirety, or

  3. A chorus of dragons who think Alduin is an asshole and are rooting for you to kick his ass.

Personally, I'm cool with any one of those possibilities. ;)

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