Planescape: Torment is a marvel of a game. One of the best stories in the medium, it packs a ton of emotional punch. Two moments, with smart design at their core, illustrate why it remains great to this day. We breaks it down in this critical video.
For those of you who can't watch the video, here's a transcript:
I consider Planescape: Torment to be the best game ever made. It's a deeply personal tale of magic and morality, packed with amazing companions and some of the best writing to be put into games. Planescape is a D&D setting where belief is the most important force. If you believe in something strongly enough, it can happen. Plants grow, NPCs narrate your actions before they happen, and entire planes of existence are forged out of lost regrets and emotions. With the recent release of the Enhanced Edition, I was eager to play through this genuine masterpiece.
In Planescape Torment, you play at the Nameless One, an amnesiac immortal searching for his past. You wake up in a morgue, make friends with a talking skull, and set off on a journey that is much more concerned with the knowledge you gain rather than the enemies you slay. While the majority of the game is dialog, the ways that Planescape Torment rewards the player or wrests control from them at profound and effective. This game says just as much with systems as it does with the countless text boxes. To explore this, I want to look at two of the most powerful moments in the game.
Early in the game, you meet a ghost named Deionarra. She was one of your past incarnation's companions. Specifically, she was companion to one of your most ruthless selves, the Practical Incarnation. Eager to fight off a dangerous foe, he recruited her and a few others to head on an expedition to a distant plane. Preparing for the possibility of failure, the Practical Incarnation decided that he needed a spy in that realm. Deionarra was his unwitting choice. He seduced her, causing her to fall into a deep and everlasting love. As the final battle came, he profess his love even though he intended to abandon her in the other realm. The true goal was to send her to her death and use her love to keep her soul anchored to this level of existence as a spirit that could serve him eternally.
Later in the game, you can join the Sensates, a faction of hedonists and intellectuals who believe the goal of living is to feel and see all things. They maintain a library of sensory stones that contain vivid memories that you can relive. One of these is the moment that the Practical Incarnation tricked Deionarra into pledging herself to him. The experience is harrowing. You are Deionarra, you are the Practical Incarnation. You are participant and observer, feeling everything the moment it happens while also watching from a distance. It is overwhelming.
Alignment is a major focus for Dungeons and Dragons. It helps establish just exactly what type of character you are. Throughout Torment, you are able to shift between good and evil and neutral based upon actions. Your morality is a wide spectrum and you can pledge allegiance to different gods or laws. Evil takes a very specific depth in Torment. You can engage in basic murder and theft but you can also perform depraved and twisted deeds from feeding your companions to a column of sentient skulls to taking advantage of a magically compelled demon's unbreakable vow to help you no matter what. And yet, no matter how evil you are, the same thing happens when you relive Deionarra's memories. You cry.
This decision to force the player character to emotionally break regardless of alignment or past deeds is bold. Torment's main vector for player expression is dialog choices and moral decisions. It comes from how players apply their knowledge of the world, what they decide is worth supporting, and the lengths they will go to achieve their goals. To seize control of their character is not just rhetorically powerful but an important break away from the game's initial emphasis on player expression. In this case, less is infinitely more. You will cry at your misdeeds, that is how powerful and horrible they were.
Torment also uses experience points and statistics to form a coherent value systems. Certain actions yield more experience. It's one thing to clear some cranial rats out of the sewers but another thing altogether to spend hours learning about your companion's religion. Which you might have helped create in a past life. Knowledge and wisdom are incredibly important in Planescape Torment and you often gain more experience for learning a new fact than completing a fetch quest.
In theory, this has a downside. If players know the options that get the best results, won't they feel compelled to choose those options above all else? This is a problem that plagues more games that use experience points. Likewise, won't you just build a character with a high Wisdom score, as it gives the most useful options in dialog? To play the game optimally, you have to adhere to a certain character build and values. But without those values, the game couldn't have our next moment.
This is near the end of the game. You've travelled to a distant realm to face a being called the Transcendent One. They are the literal manifestation of the mortality that was ripped from you. Here, you must face three aspects of yourself. You will dealt with the Practical Incarnation, the Good Incarnation, and a chaotic Paranoid Incarnation. Talking with them and convincing them to merge with you grants a ton of experience and knowledge. With that knowledge, you can open a plain bronze sphere that held your memories and learn your real name. This is what happens:
The sphere wrinkles in your hands, the skin of the sphere peeling away into tears and turning into a rain of bronze that encircles you. Each droplet, each fragment that enters you, you feel a new memory stirring, a lost love, a forgotten pain, an ache of loss - and with it, comes the great pressure of regret, regret of careless actions, the regret of suffering, regret of war, regret of death, and you feel your mind begin buckling from the pressure - so MUCH, all at once, so much damage done to others... so much so an entire FORTRESS may be built from such pain. And suddenly, through the torrent of regrets, you feel the first incarnation again. His hand, invisible and weightless, is upon your shoulder, steadying you. He doesn't speak, but with his touch, you suddenly remember your name. ...and it is such a simple thing, not at all what you thought it might be, and you feel yourself suddenly comforted. In knowing your name, your true name, you know that you have gained back perhaps the most important part of yourself. In knowing your name, you know yourself, and you know, now, there is very little you cannot do.
After this, the game grants you two million experience points. It is the single largest experience gain in the game. The sheer scale communicates a lot about what the game thinks is important. It is not just knowledge that matters but self knowledge above all else. Assigning such an extreme experience score turns something as small as your name into the most sought after thing in the entire game.
Planescape: Torment is packed full of amazing moments. A brothel made for satisfying intellectual curiosity, a flashback where you convince someone they don't exist, a run in with a member of the Alphabet. It is an imaginative and compelling game. These two moments are the best, taking game systems and turning them sideways for dramatic effect. A fitting case study for the greatest game of all time.