Planescape: Torment (1999)

“What can change the nature of a man?” It’s a question that one would expect to hear in the middle of a philosophical discussion or perhaps in the middle of an artsy play or foreign film. Instead, it’s a line often repeated and pondered in “Planescape: Torment,” a PC video game that came out in 1999 and is regarded by many as one of the greatest games of all time.

And what elevates Planescape: Torment to that level is the unmatched storytelling. The player takes the roll of The Nameless One, a rough and beaten blue skinned man. He wakes up in a morgue and discovers that this hasn’t been his first visit there. He’s immortal, but cannot remember his past or how he came to be immortal. In order to find out the truth he must venture through the planes, various dimensions connected by portals, and explore the fantastical world for the truth.

Amnesia is a clichéd and overused story element, but Chris Avellon, who wrote and designed most of the game, uses it as a springboard for deep and meaty philosophical discussions. Questions of identity, morality and, of course, nature arise from The Nameless One’s predicament. Few, if any other, games come close to reaching this level of intellectual examination as its something on the level of a classical novel or art-house film.

But the game isn’t all esoteric conversations. The game has its share of heavy combat, based on the Dungeons & Dragons 2.0 build. Those unfamiliar with D&D will find the combat infuriating. Statistics and spells will remain mystifying without a bit of research. In this day and age it’s almost unheard of to look to outside the game to understand a game’s system, but for those who do they will find a robust system.

Even then, the combat can prove a bit on the infuriating side, especially in the last five hours of the game. Unless the players is straining just about every possible tool they can, using the pause feature to micromanage every attack and utilizing spells at the correct moments and positioning everyone correctly, the battles will almost always seem insurmountable. But for players who persist and take the time to learn the systems, the breakthrough is almost always worth it, the satisfaction of perfectly strategizing that one moment that makes all the difference making up for all the building frustration.

However, Planescape: Torment is one of the few unique RPGs that actually encourages a more intelligent driven character. Developing The Nameless One more in the attributes of wisdom, intelligence and charisma opens up a lot more conversations and allows him to complete numerous quests that can’t be solved through violence. To get the maximum out of the story as well as the maximum about of experience required, a more intellectual Nameless One is needed. It would have been interesting if the developers had found a way to allow The Nameless One to solve sections without resorting to violence via wisdom, but so much of the game is already oriented that way it isn’t a major flaw.

Eleven years later, and no game has come even close to placing such heavy emphasis on philosophically heavy and thoughtful questions that permeate Planescape: Torment. If video games want to be taken seriously as an art form, more developers and gamers need to play this game and understand how the interactive medium of video games can be taped into when trying to explore the deep questions of life that often underlie creative, artistic endeavors.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing