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What can change the nature of a man?
August 25, 2012 6:02 AM   Subscribe

This is an hour long podcast about Planescape: Torment by creators Chris Avellone (lead designer), Colin McComb (second designer), Adam Heine (scripter), and Scott Warner (junior designer, lead designer of Halo 4). P:T was a groundbreaking, story-focused rpg with a loyal cult following. Previously. More previously.

Planescape: Torment was developed by Black Isle studios, a now defunct Interplay studio. Apparently Interplay is bringing back Black Isle but without any of the old people.
posted by ersatz (57 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, and KOTOR II (previously) has been made available on Steam.
posted by ersatz at 6:04 AM on August 25, 2012


Yessssss.

Planescape is an RPG that punishes people who try to hack and slash through it and is, at it's center, about RPGs and games in a way that hurts my head if I think about it too much. It is the Meta-ist.
posted by The Whelk at 6:08 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh. My undergraduate thesis (which I'm still revising months after graduation) is about a video game that I claim is the best story-driven RPG ever made, and a handful of people who've read drafts of it immediately respond with BUT HAVE YOU PLAYED PLANESCAPE?

Sadly I have not yet, because a challenging and long-ass RPG would be entirely too distracting and at some point I have to pretend to be productive. But it's on my list of video games I get to play when I'm finished writing, as a reward.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:14 AM on August 25, 2012


I'm just here to represent the Manual Of The Planes faction.
With the demons and the devils and whatnot.

Because we always turn up.
posted by Mezentian at 6:24 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Did you play the same Torment I did, Whelk?

From my perspective, it's a fantastic story set in a fantastic universe, but it doesn't really subvert any particular RPG tropes. It's a fairly standard D&D hack-and-slash most of the time, complete with lots of FedEx quests in the early going, and hardly any unforeseen consequences for your choices. You absolutely do need to just power your way through very large sections of the game, and if you didn't go for a fairly minmax build, you're going to have a lot of trouble.

What made that game sing was the incredible dialog, amazing characters, and intricate storyline, but I don't think of it as being 'meta' at all. The only subverted trope is that dying is no big deal, as long as it only happens to your character, not to any of the NPCs. And that subverted trope ends up being the linchpin of the entire story.... dying doesn't matter to you, except that sometimes you lose your memory and suffer from total amnesia. The whole game is figuring out why.

That's not meta, that's basic storytelling. You can violate one major rule in any tale, especially when the tale becomes about the violation.
posted by Malor at 6:26 AM on August 25, 2012


The nameless one is every RPG character ever and Ravel is every player ever.
posted by The Whelk at 6:28 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


That and not only having the dungeons be completely mechanical and artificial but having that be a plot point to explain why seemingly pointless dungeons filled with monsters exist.
posted by The Whelk at 6:29 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I forgot to mention: as far as I'm concerned, the person that really made Torment work was Tim Schafer. Avellone's okay, but he's not even in the same league. Kotor2, for instance, really sucked pretty bad compared to the first. That recent big fixpack? The combat is a lot of fun, maybe better than the first, and the tale is finally coherent. But it's just not very good.

And, from what we've seen of how ME2->ME3 went, had there been a Kotor3, I have no doubt that he would have found some way to spit in your face. I don't think Chris Avellone likes gamers. I think he really, really hates them.
posted by Malor at 6:30 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh and running through the same situation over and over in new ways but with foreknowledge of how things could turn out? Sounds like every person playing a computer RPG.
posted by The Whelk at 6:34 AM on August 25, 2012


That's not making any sense to me at all, Whelk, I'm sorry.

The player is a cipher because that's a convenient way to give you both a backstory and be able to develop how you wish -- the amnesia start is one of the oldest tropes of all, used over and over and over again. Ravel as 'every player ever' just doesn't parse as having any meaning. Ravel is actually quite straightforward in her motivations, by the time you finally understand them. She's complex and powerful, but her motivations are simple, and I see no way in which they can be construed as somehow 'being the player'.

And the dungeons thing ... there was only one mechanical/artificial dungeon, and it was a construct by the Modrons for some reason, although I forget the reason. There were many other dangerous areas to explore, with fairly standard monsters, and fairly standard buildings with fairly standard human baddies. There was the one meta dungeon, and it was rather amusing, but it was a joke, not some Signifier of Deep Meaning.
posted by Malor at 6:37 AM on August 25, 2012


Tim Schafer? He had nothing to do with PS:T, as far as I'm aware. He would've still been making Grim Fandango when it was in development.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 6:38 AM on August 25, 2012


but it doesn't really subvert any particular RPG tropes. It's a fairly standard D&D hack-and-slash most of the time, c[...] and hardly any unforeseen consequences for your choices. You absolutely do need to just power your way through very large sections of the game, and if you didn't go for a fairly minmax build, you're going to have a lot of trouble.

Not really. You can gain more experience from dialogue than from battle and I think it's one of the few if only rpgs that does that. Dialogue is more important in the game. Having good Wisdom and Charisma will give you way more EXP if you work your way through sometimes-obscure dialogue choices. Only if you play it straight (STR/CON), would you need min-maxing. I think I loaded the game once in a whole playthrough.

I don't think Chris Avellone likes gamers. I think he really, really hates them.


Considering his involvement in the community, releasing documents about his games etc. I'd doubt it.
posted by ersatz at 6:44 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Planescape: Torment was the best game ever because it had the Brothel of Slating Intellectual Lusts. Full stop.

"Oh, Montague. I just wish he were more dramatic!" cried Juliette
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 6:44 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's my understanding that Schafer was the one writing almost all the dialog for Torment. That's how I remember it, and I see a bunch of comments linking him to Torment when I do a quick Google search.
posted by Malor at 6:45 AM on August 25, 2012


Can you link any of them? When I google him and Torment together I just get a lot of articles about Kickstarter, and he definitely isn't in the credits.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 6:47 AM on August 25, 2012


Only if you play it straight (STR/CON), would you need min-maxing. I think I loaded the game once in a whole playthrough.

What about the gem prison? What about the big fights on Carceri? What about the Abyss?

There are some very, very difficult fights that you can't avoid by talking your way out of it. It does, as you say, often reward you more for finding their clever solution instead of just whacking things over the head, but not always. There are large chunks of the game where your party just needs raw combat strength.
posted by Malor at 6:50 AM on August 25, 2012


Well Deeper Meaning for values of Deeper Meaning but there is a common thread I see in Planescape about it being about games. Things that would be handwaved as just being what you need to have in a computer RPG are specifically called out and given plot points.

Example: The Experience Orbs. In a world where experience is a real thing, why wouldn't there be a trade in experience itself? And your character's former memory loss is a literal loss of experience, that you can remember what happened before is the only thing that prevents this experience from being lost. Your character can't die but now can remember what happened before and try new things, he's a character who has become aware of his world's save points.

Ravel's involvement with your character is the same way a dungeon master might play with characters and when you offend the Lady, she boxes you up a maze. I can't see that as being anything but playing with the concept of games and puzzles. On one level you are playing the nameless one but everyone else is also gaming him and his different versions. To me, it means a game about games and the expectations players bring to computerized western RPGs. We can totally agree to disagree however.
posted by The Whelk at 6:54 AM on August 25, 2012


and it's more just the build up of these little jokes, the tweaks to the formula that become bigger than any one of them. Like you can't enter your character's name like you would in any other game like that cause he doesn't have one except he has a name that means he doesn't have a name. The little jabs like that that all follow the same theme "I know you know how a game should go I'm not going to do that."
posted by The Whelk at 6:58 AM on August 25, 2012


but it doesn't really subvert any particular RPG tropes

There is one sword your character can use in the entire game. There is no armor your character can use in the entire game. You have to die at some points to win the game. The "best" ending of the game is being condemned to fight in the Blood Wars.

The big subversion is that you're not fighting an evil lord, you're not overthrowing an oppressive empire, you're not rescuing your true love. The story is to find out who you are. The amnesia plot doesn't resolve in to another plot - once you find out who you are (and that's in-character only: OOCly, you never learn the Nameless One's name), that's the end of the game.

You absolutely do need to just power your way through very large sections of the game, and if you didn't go for a fairly minmax build, you're going to have a lot of trouble.

You have to fight exactly five things in the game, regardless of class - the rest you can run away from, or talk away. If you pick wisdom as your primary stat, you will gain more than enough experience from talking to things, and experience from combat will be almost unneccessary.
posted by kithrater at 7:03 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


The very first time you're in the city* you get asked for help by a damsel in distress is a very RPG-like way, the kind of thing that happens in SKyrim on a regular basis, only to have it instantly turn out to be a trap for big dumb adventurers like you.


*Sigil is like one of my favorite video game settings. It's the slightly more evil Ankh Morepork.
posted by The Whelk at 7:08 AM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish: Can you link any of them? When I google him and Torment together I just get a lot of articles about Kickstarter, and he definitely isn't in the credits.

I can't find anything I consider authoritative either way, so I did the next best thing, and emailed the info address at Double Fine. Hopefully, they'll be able to just ask him.
posted by Malor at 7:14 AM on August 25, 2012


If Chris Avellone decides to kickstart that PS:T spiritual sequel he's been hinting at all over the internet, it'll be really hard not to throw ALL MY MONEY at it.
posted by sonmi at 7:25 AM on August 25, 2012


Malor: What about the gem prison? What about the big fights on Carceri? What about the Abyss?

1) You can talk your past selves into merging with you. There doesn't have to be any fighting.
2) Run past the monsters till you get to each quest. The angel is the only tough battle (in the entire game), and your first AOE will probably take out all of his backup.
3) I'm assuming you mean the final battle (the Nameless one never goes to the Abyss). There are about 5 ways to win, and only 2 of them involve fighting. Most just require quest items or high wisdom.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 7:53 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sigil itself is an abstraction of the standard DnD worldscape; a nexus of pure order, where the planes converge, a diplomatic hub ruled by an obscure semi-mythical goddess, where everyone is an outsider and the true currency is tall tales and plots and schemes. Where games are played and worlds are described. Each road out of Sigil leads to another possible universe. Sigil is where the DMs live, and at its heart, the Maze - that most fundamental of all Games.
posted by jet_manifesto at 7:56 AM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Best game I've ever played.
posted by oddman at 7:58 AM on August 25, 2012


I remember Torment as having the best conversation system I've yet played in a game. Not because it was technologically advanced or had AI or anything like that, but rather because instead of the "Good Response, Bad Response, Stupid/Psychotic Response," we've seen in other RPGS for the last 20 years, Torment responses often had enough nuance so that I could respond exactly as I would if I was really there, really talking to these characters. And it was so deep. You could spend hours just talking to members of your own party.

I remember going through the City of the Dead in the first playthrough, just sorta cruising through it to solve the quests. On the second playthrough, I took the time to talk to all the undead NPCs, and it got me involved in a whole different series of quests and subquests that I missed the first time. And that was Torment: it felt that if you pulled back any layer in the game, there would be another layer to explore. Obviously, some of that was illusion and artistry, but it worked in the same way that Deus Ex suggested an open world with choices when the design of DE was actually quite linear.

I doubt we'll ever get another PS:T for the simple reason that all dialogue has to be spoken in modern games. Only a indie developer could get away with stuffing the amount of text in a game that PS:T had. And now, with D&D as an expensive, unobtainable license, a designer would have to come up with a new RPG system, relatively modern graphics, etc. It sounds like a rather tall order to get this all together for an independent game.
posted by Palquito at 8:05 AM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Example: The Experience Orbs. In a world where experience is a real thing, why wouldn't there be a trade in experience itself?

That's not meta, because they're not trading in numbers. It's a D&D equivalent of the holodeck. They're not aware of or selling experience POINTS, they're selling experienCES, much like a porn peddler might in our world if we ever worked out VR to that degree. The fact that your character gets some experience points from some of the advanced visions is because they're about you, and you're thus reminded of skills you lost. Nobody but you would get experience points or level up from the orbs.

Your character can't die but now can remember what happened before and try new things, he's a character who has become aware of his world's save points.

Well, the fact that sometimes you have amnesia, but usually you don't, is a key, critical plot point. But your character does not seem aware that you always restart in the same place on a level, and the explanation is always that someone dragged you back there, to a safe place. (IIRC, should you die in the starting area, Morte complains about how hard it is to drag someone with just teeth.) And if it's not an NPC, it's one of the Dustmen. That's what they do.

Ravel's involvement with your character is the same way a dungeon master might play with characters and when you offend the Lady, she boxes you up a maze.

But that's a defined power of the Lady of Pain, which predates the game by a long while. That's actually in the hardcover books, that worshiping the Lady of Pain results in terrible consequences for the worshiper.

The 8th level mage spell Maze is powerful, and a Maze from a godlike creature is extremely powerful. So maze spells cast by both the Lady of Pain and Ravel are extremely intricate and hard to escape, far more potent than what a human could generate. But this is all defined by the underlying game system. In regular D&D, they don't describe what the maze looks like; the target just disappears from this plane for a time, heavily influenced by its Intelligence score. But just making you disappear for a long time wouldn't be much fun. Showing you the actual maze IS fun, so that's what they did.

I can't see that as being anything but playing with the concept of games and puzzles.

Naw, it's just a visual expression of a D&D concept that was, geeze, twenty years older, maybe? Sure, they were playing a little, because nobody really knew what the inside of a Maze spell actually looked like. They didn't have to make them up as mini-adventures. But that was much more interesting than the alternative, sitting there for 30 minutes or an hour with no character. That would not, I think, have been a popular design choice. And remember, their solution had to be in the Infinity Engine. It's not like they could throw you into a first-person shooter engine to escape the maze, so they really only had two options -- an actual, honest-to-goodness maze, or a mini-adventure, and a mini-adventure was more interesting.

On one level you are playing the nameless one but everyone else is also gaming him and his different versions.

Well, yes, but that's not meta either, that's just people taking advantage of your amnesia. They're doing exactly what smart and manipulative people would do in that situation, especially knowing how powerful the Nameless One can become, and how wildly mercurial he can be. Other characters understanding the situation better than you do, and not cluing you in, is another of the most time-honored story tropes.

To me, it means a game about games and the expectations players bring to computerized western RPGs. We can totally agree to disagree however.

I don't see it. We do agree that the game is wonderful, but the things you're pointing to as meta just, well, aren't. The orbs are holodecks, and the DM-like toying that Ravel and the Lady of Pain do are interpretations of a very, very old D&D spell, forced into a particular pattern by the confines of the game engine they were working with.

In my opinion, Torment really only plays with one genre convention, that death is the end of the game. And everything flows from that single reversal. That's good storytelling -- make a few changes, and explore the implications.

And, pishposh to agree to disagree! You must change your mind immediately, swayed by the sheer power of my argumentation. Infidel. :-)
posted by Malor at 8:06 AM on August 25, 2012


I really liked the Sigil parts of the game, but after the point where you leave Ravel's maze, the game gets really tedious and much less well-written, except for a couple of scenes like the Pillar of skulls. The difference in quality between the different parts of the game are to me striking enough that I'm slightly surprised that they aren't brought up more often.
posted by Anything at 8:51 AM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I never got Planescape to run. Bought it, probably still have it somewhere...would've been nice if it ran on my computer, from the sound of it.
posted by Chuffy at 9:04 AM on August 25, 2012


And to elaborate, the biggest gripe I have is how they went out of their way to shoehorn every character into the same model of [deceives everyone all the time]. They clearly didn't come up with enough ways to make that believable on the level of each individual character, so they had to cut corners, and on the greater scale, I'm sure there are better ways to go with a theme of 'collective deception' than having each individual just be inexplicably pathologically deceptive by nature, if that's the theme you want to go with.
posted by Anything at 9:13 AM on August 25, 2012


And by the above, I forgot to say, I'm referring to what goes on in Curst.
posted by Anything at 9:15 AM on August 25, 2012


That said, the I completely agree with most of the things that people praise about the game, e.g. the main premise of the story and how it's implemented, the interaction with the past incarnations etc.
posted by Anything at 9:48 AM on August 25, 2012


Try running the GoG version. It's tuned up so that it runs well on modern computers.
posted by CrystalDave at 10:55 AM on August 25, 2012


I usually like the cut of Malor's jib but this thread has made me realize he goes on the enemies list.

If Avellone does a kickstarter I will be eating cardboard and ketchip for a year because he will own all my moneyz.
posted by Justinian at 11:41 AM on August 25, 2012


LOL, Justinian, are you in the 'meta' camp?
posted by Malor at 11:47 AM on August 25, 2012


Nope, but I also think you're quite wrong about it being standard D&D hack and slash. It's extremely non-standard, non hack and slash. You can play it as hack and slash if you wish but you don't have to, and I think playing it as a hack and slash is a lesser experience.

I always max out Int and Wis. Although apparently playing with as little Int as possible is also fun, for values of fun where you can only reply to people with monosyllabic grunts.
posted by Justinian at 11:52 AM on August 25, 2012


Just having conversation options like:

1. "Yes." (truthful)
2. "Yes." (lie)
3. "No." (truthful)
4. "No." (lie)
5. "I don't know." (truthful)
6. "I don't know." (lie)

is still miles more nuanced than some games today.
posted by tyllwin at 11:53 AM on August 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


For comparison, a very well done D&D hack and slash game would be Icewind Dale. Torment and ID do not play the same.
posted by Justinian at 11:55 AM on August 25, 2012


If Avellone does a kickstarter I will be eating cardboard and ketchip for a year because he will own all my moneyz.

Good thing for you that the the Wasteland 2 kickstarter has already ended, then. They already have some of my moneyz.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:54 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I always max out Int and Wis.

But that's unfair, you got natural Charisma. A Charisma of 15 is a good investment for the rest of us. Some of the triggers and choices for getting EXP out of conversations can be well hidden and, in general, looking at a walkthrough after a first playthrough to see the available choices can be pretty enlightening.
posted by ersatz at 1:00 PM on August 25, 2012


The Wasteland 2 Kickstarter does, indeed, have some of my money. More than it probably should. But not as much as an Avellone Kickstarter would have.
posted by Justinian at 1:10 PM on August 25, 2012


Malor: I'm in the meta camp. Here's why: the central question of the game is "what can change the nature of a man?" And the answer to that is the player can. (by picking different dialogue paths etc.)

Nameless has all this time (all these incarnations) prior to the player seizing control to try to come to grips with his mortality, but it's only when you start making decisions for him that he has a chance of succeeding.
posted by juv3nal at 1:35 PM on August 25, 2012


Pshaw, the answer was regret.
posted by Justinian at 1:58 PM on August 25, 2012


What can change the nature of a man?

A plate of beans.

A plate of beans can change the nature of a man.
posted by Anything at 2:02 PM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Side note: I almost posted that in the Neil Armstrong thread by accident.
posted by Anything at 2:03 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not to be a jerk, Malor, but Tim Schafer was not involved in Planescape: Torment, nor any Black Isle title, nor any D&D-based property, nor even any fantasy RPG title at all, ever. His career has consisted entirely of all the best adventure games up until Psychonauts, which was also great (but not an adventure game).

Chris Avellone, on the other hand is quite simply the best fantasy CRPG writer of all time. Even if you took Planescape Torment off his credits list this would still be true.
posted by Ryvar at 3:27 PM on August 25, 2012


Yeah, Schafer had nothing to do with Torment... nor with this book you can download and read for free.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:35 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


And the meta thing feels like a real stretch. It seems to depend entirely on vague abstract ideas about the entire game (that it's all a metacommentary on games in general) - examples of which are then a couple of isolated and marginal things (experience orbs, you can't enter your name, etc.). The game is long, and there are endless stretches of it with nary a meta in sight, but is rather straightforward excellent storytelling - or then again the meta is so general that everything in this came and half the other ones too seem to fit the bill.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:44 PM on August 25, 2012


Both System Shocks deal with being controlled as if by another player. Bioshock adds another twist to this metacommentary about player control. Are these games also good because of this meta? You also can't name your player character in them. Nor can you in Doom, and the namelessness shtick was already done by Odysseus and Captain Nemo.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:51 PM on August 25, 2012


...after which comments I should perhaps also profess my undying love for this perhaps the greatest RPG ever made. My brother even has this tattoo on his chest.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:56 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


@pyrogenesis

Buddy Dacote
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:12 PM on August 25, 2012


And, pishposh to agree to disagree! You must change your mind immediately, swayed by the sheer power of my argumentation.

The thing is, you and The Whelk can agree with each other without changing your minds at all. What you, Malor, are describing about the game world is the reason that the things that The Whelk is describing about the game from the player's perspective aren't forced and artificial. The elements that make the game interpretable in a meta way are also integrated into the game itself, rather than being shoehorned in. Works both ways!
posted by kenko at 4:40 PM on August 25, 2012


I'm pretty sure Tim Shafer had nothing to do with PS:T.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:24 PM on August 25, 2012


Well fine I'll go make my own game-about-games then! *huffs, opens up RPGMAKER2K*
posted by The Whelk at 8:34 PM on August 25, 2012


this book you can download and read for free.

Someone really needs to turn that into a quality epub.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:35 PM on August 25, 2012


My undergraduate thesis (which I'm still revising months after graduation) is about a video game that I claim is the best story-driven RPG ever made

Ahh, another thesis about Final Fantasy VII, huh.
posted by graventy at 9:16 PM on August 25, 2012


Looks like Justinian might be giving away his money.

Project Eternity Kickstarter. A new fantasy IP from Obsidian Entertainment with a team who have worked on a number of great games. So far it's raised $1,050,000 in just over a day, from 25,000 backers. They certainly had my money right away!

Forbes has a story about it.
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:40 AM on September 15, 2012


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