Friday, September 10, 2010

Antagonists: Planescape Torment

Planescape: Torment was a game that wanted to be a novel. The amount of words in this game is huge by any standard, and anyone who isn't keen on reading will never finish it. Created by Black Isle using BioWare's Infinity Engine, the game now looks very dated, but this doesn't actually detract from the game in a huge way. Perhaps this is because in no small part because there is so much that happens within the game that is described in text rather than shown, constantly reinforcing that it is the writing that makes this game special. It also features one magnificent antagonist... so heed the spoiler warning and tune out now if you ever want to play this game!  I'll give a quick disclaimer that this is one of the longest posts I've done, but there is a lot to discuss here.

The game starts off with you getting over a small illness: death. That's right, you're immortal, and in fact, the game hinges around this characteristic. You are "The Nameless One", waking up in a morgue, without any memory of how you got here, what you were doing, or anything about your former life. Your only assistance is in the form of a talking, floating skull named Morte. If this sounds a little bizarre, that's because it is. The Planescape D&D setting is perhaps one of the more confusing creations you might come across, for it is a place where your very thoughts and actions can cause things to come into being. As an example, throughout the game, you can tell people that your name is "Adahn". If you do so enough, then a person actually named Adahn magically pops into existence.

Starting off dead... Well, that's... different.

Searching for answers on how you came to be in the morgue, you find you were dumped there by a man named Pharod. Lacking any other leads, you decide to seek him out. After a series of events including an encounter with a collective entity of sentient rats, you discover Pharod, who gives you a few precious clues to follow. After leaving, the player is privy to a short cutscene where Pharod is beset and killed by creatures called Shadows. These soon begin to attack The Nameless One as well, seemingly acting as an agent for a more sinister enemy.

You eventually discover that your immortality may have been caused by a night hag named Ravel Puzzlewell, who is currently imprisoned in a magical maze by the ruler of the city, a mysterious being known as the Lady of Pain. After a series of trials, The Nameless One finds his way to Ravel, to find that she was indeed the one who made him immortal. It turns out that his mortality was separated from him so he could never die permanently (see, I told you Planescape was weird), but that with each death, he loses some of his memory. She send him to the fallen angel Trias to try and find his mortality.

A being introduced as "The Transcendent One" kills Ravel after the player leaves Ravel's maze, and appears to be the greater evil commanding the Shadows to kill The Nameless One. The player frees Trias who claims to not be able to not know the answer, but instead directs The Nameless One to other planes, where they eventually discover that their mortality is in a place called "The Fortress of Regrets". It is revealed that Trias lied and has betrayed The Nameless One in a past life as well as this one. After defeating Trias, The Nameless One discovers that the entrance to this Fortress is in The Mortuary, where the player began the game.

Shadows, the dangerous allies of your enemy

Once there, the player encounters three of his past incarnations: one practical, one good, and one paranoid. The "good" incarnation is the original, who made himself immortal after committing terrible deeds and wishing to avoid retribution after death and correct the evil he had wrought. These previous incarnations have left the clues that have allowed him to travel his current path and learn about his past and reach this place. However, upon reaching his mortality, the player finds that it is in fact the mysterious being known as The Transcedent One that has been trying to kill him all this time. His mortality has come to enjoy freedom and wishes to erase all of The Nameless One's memories to live in peace. The Nameless One can kill or convince his mortality to rejoin with him, finally allowing the him to "defeat" his enemy - ultimately dying and receiving the retribution he tried so hard to avoid.

Yes, that is honestly the condensed version of the story, and even that leaves out a lot of points.  There are around 800,000 words of text in the game, so trying to distill it down to key aspects is no simple task. Due to this massive amount of text (and a few other reasons) Torment is a unique proposition in that it doesn't obey lots of standard conventions. For one, it is extremely hard to die permanently - in most cases death will simply cause you to be reincarnated not far from where you died, with everything else pretty much as it was. This alone means the "challenge" of the game is unusual, forcing the game to rely on its narrative more than a game where your death means a reload. So how does this affect the game's antagonist?

Yes, the game has a lot of dialogue

For one, defining the game's antagonist is a curious prospect, because in reality, the main character is the protagonist and the antagonists. Yes, I said antagonists, because it's not just the Transcendent One that stands in the player's way. The previous incarnations of The Nameless One both assist and hinder the player, feeding misinformation and outright lies as well as truths; setting traps as well as laying the trail of breadcrumbs for them to follow. The clues left behind are mysterious and reveal the truth of the situation in disjointed fragments, constantly leaving the player trying to find out more. The player quickly deduces that The Nameless One left some clues for himself in a Momento style scenario, but just as in the movie, it's unclear as to exactly how accurate those clues are.

From the moment the player sees Pharod murdered by Shadows, the game takes a darker turn. There is very obviously something or someone trying to kill The Nameless One, but the player isn't exactly sure why. There is a sense of constant malice, and there is still an essence of danger despite the Nameless One being immortal. Oddly enough, it is the lack of information about your antagonist that makes him such a great "villain". The game is more a journey of discovery where the pieces of a puzzle eventually fall into place than a traditional adventure with a villain you are striving to defeat. After all, the eventual aim of the protagonist is to find a means to die, an aim that requires some fairly serious motivation on the part of the player.

Closing the book on the game and The Nameless One's life

It is this nature of the game's narrative that makes The Transcendent One an effective villain. The story revolves around the fact that you're trying to find out what happened to you, to discover who did the terrible thing of giving you immortality that causes you to lose your memory and to harm the lives of those people whose fates have become inextricably (or in one case, quite intentionally and deviously) linked to your own. The villain initially appears to be attempting to kill you for its own inscrutable means rather than directly opposing you, and all your instincts and the advice you receive indicate that you should run rather than attempting to attack what appears to be an incredibly powerful being. The plot twist that eventually reveals that you must instead face that opponent, and that opponent is in fact part of you makes it all the more powerful a reveal.

The fact that the player is pushed towards avoiding confrontation makes the antagonist an interesting proposition. The player is somewhat fearful of The Transcendent One despite being immortal, and doesn't have any direct reason to hate it except for basic self-preservation. But given The Transcendent One seems content to not act directly against The Nameless One, it almost raises the tension further, raising the question "Why?" Why is The Transcendent One, who is shown to be extremely powerful, not attempting to kill the player, when it seemingly possesses the power to do so? The actions, or rather, the lack thereof, of the antagonist serve to provoke the player's curiosity rather than ire. In an excellent example of writing helping shape the design of a game, this means that they wish to find out about their enemy rather than simply kill them, which is exactly the tone of the entire game and precisely what the plot requires.

Planescape: Torment features an unusual antagonist befitting an unusual game. It revolves around the main character and the reconciliation of their past, which due to the fantastical nature of the setting provides an exposition of what would otherwise be an internal struggle. The desire of the protagonist to avoid responsibility for past actions is what placed the player in their initial predicament, giving them the sombre task of facing up to the required judgment for the countless lives that have been destroyed as a result of the both selfish and noble goal of trying to cheat death and correct those mistakes. All of these aspects combine to make Planescape: Torment interesting and thought provoking, not to mention a great game.


  1. Planescape: Torment is one of my favourite games.
    And I think that is the best game where the storyline is implemented in the game.
    Gameplay issues, like choosing class, choosing the alignment, enchantments, death and companions are all tied with the story.
    The first time I played I tried a warrior, but I think the best choice was to add charisma and wisdom because these two requisites open so much new dialogue and story threads.
    Another nice thing is the multiverse of Planescape, actually they are a thousand settings in only one.

    I remember only very little flaws: some too long dialogues of explaination of the planes not useful, nor for the gamplay, nor for the story. (It was one NPC in the Smoldering Corpse Bar who has much to say, but he can be avoided.)
    And another thing, I remember that if Morte dies and you don't resurrect him the story can't continue.

  2. Not much to add here. Torment was just one of those games that went under the radar during development due to it being a bit lower-budget, and so not much interference from the "higher-ups" as it were. So you have a truly unique game that really stretches the borders of design.

    The gameplay is more akin to an adventure game a lot of the time. But I still think the best thing about the game is the fact that you do get a choice on how to do things and that the exploration is up to the player. Even though it's a very, very story-heavy game, it doesn't feel like the game is leading you by the nose through it.

    It also features on of my favorite endings ever. It's not a particularly lengthy cutscene, it doesn't look all that amazing visually and it's not a happy ending. But somehow, having helped The Nameless One to fulfill his role in the Blood War was one of the most satisfying things ever. TNO grabbing his weapon, and the words "What can change the nature of a man?" echoing was just masterful.