How the fuck do you even begin to talk about Planescape Torment?
The game has, these days, such an outsized reputation. It is THE FINEST RPG EVER MADE. It is THE FINEST STORY EVER TOLD IN A VIDEOGAME. It is CHRIS AVELLONE’S MAGNUM OPUS. It is A MASTERPIECE OF PHILOSOPHICAL FANTASY. And it is all these things and more. It is a legitimately amazing game, a surprising and thrilling and daunting work. It is not perfect, and it is the weirdest use of the Infinity Engine, but I am, of course, damn glad that it exists. PT was the first game I bought on GoG back when it was called Good Old Games, and I picked up the Enhanced Edition when it wasn’t even on sale. That’s how worth it it is.
Contemporary reviews hailed the game as an instant classic–everybody loved it–but apparently nobody played it. Its initial run sold about 75,000 copies, which is a number I would kill for, but compare that to Baldur’s gate which sold 175,000 in its first two weeks, or even Icewind Dale’s first-year sales of 145,000. Planescape: Torment is an odd duck, one that was difficult to sell in its time–and given that its spiritual sequel Tides of Numenera has faced similar challenges, it’s kind of easy to see why.
I think it’s pretty instructive to read the “vision statement” for PT, particularly if you’re familiar with the game, written when the game still had its working title of Last Rites–it’s particularly hilarious if you’ve played PT, because the tone could not be any different. The vision statement is about as late-90s badass edgy as you can get–it swearily promises violence and sex and all of that mom-offending stuff that PC gamers apparently wanted. “This game will have lots of babes that make the player go “wow,'” it promises. “There will be fiendish babes, human babes, angelic babes, asian babes, and even undead babes. These babes will be present without nipple-age and will all regrettably behave within the TSR Code of Ethics.” This, to pitch a final product which includes “The Brothel of Intellectual Lusts,” which oh man, do I have a lot to say about.
For all of that, though, it’s just a tough, posturing skin on a document which describes a game that’s extremely close to the thoughtful, ponderous game that we actually got–difficult moral choices, a complex story, a reactive world, unusual characters and locations–and so I wonder if this had anything to do with Interplay’s difficulty selling the game. Were they trying to capture that sweet, sweet late ’90s meathead gamer dollar? Was it the fault of Fallout, Were they trying to have it both ways–come for the sex and violence, stay for the philosophical musings?
Today, in 2017, with Planescape Torment having that BEST RPG OF ALL TIME reputation, it’s almost an irrelevant question. The meatheads are going to go to the big explosion games–to, uh, Fallout–and Planescape Torment is only going to be played by people looking for something else–but I think about how Tides of Numenera had a poor reception and low sales, and I remember reading the criticism of the game from the meatheads in the Steam boards. And most of the complaints surrounded the perceived lack of combat in the game.
I’ve begun to DM my own games of Dungeons and Dragons, and one of the theories surrounding combat that I’m interested in is that combat isn’t a separate type of encounter: Combat is merely a method for solving an encounter. Periodically, in Numenera, you get into a situation called a Crisis, where everybody’s tensions are high, people are about to start killing each other, and the interface changes slightly. And you can stab your way out of the crises, or if you can, you can figure out other ways to defuse it. You can talk your way out. You can use the environment to stop the fight. It’s a fascinating system, and one that many people who played the game disliked, preferring to have trash mobs running around that they could kill.
The idea of solving problems by methods besides combat is one that comes up in videogames from time to time, and the late ’90s was one of those times. Fallout was a big influence on that–coming out of some of Interplay’s other experiments with the concept, such as Wasteland and Dragon Wars, Fallout famously let you logic your way out of the final boss if your intelligence was high enough–convincing him that his plan was wrong and letting him stop it himself. Planescape Torment is a successor to that. It’s not as sophisticated as Tides of Numenera’s take on it–game design has progressed in the past twenty years, of course–and in practice, there’s a dialogue tree that you can fuck up, encouraging the person to attack you.
See, part of PT’s reputation is saying “there’s no combat”–that’s how it was described to me when I first played it. But I’m not sure if even the more cerebral-minded members of its contemporary audience would have been open to a pure adventure take on Dungeons and Dragons, and honestly, “there’s no combat” is a bit disingenuous. As you wander the streets at night, thugs break off and attack. There’s mobs of rats–interesting rats, cranium rats, which work through a hive mind and so a group of cranium rats is smart enough to cast spells at you–which can’t be reasoned with. Early on, you can gain access to a dungeon where a bunch of animated skeletons, set out by a wannabe lich, are wandering about. You can certainly avoid a lot of these areas–although “ignore major areas and there won’t be any combat” is pretty shitty advice to my mind for playing an RPG–but there are trash mobs running around. Now, the combat isn’t particularly challenging. Most of the thugs will run away after you whap them a couple times and they realize you’re not an easy target. Compared to Icewind Dale and even Baldur’s Gate, the focus is much more heavily on the dialogue. I’d say it’s about 80/20. But it is there. The remaining 80%, though? It’s enough to stake a reputation on.
How the fuck do you begin to talk about Planescape Torment? I guess you just dive in.