A dissenting voice makes Daniel Wilks sit down and re-examine his love for this classic.
By Daniel Wilks on February 26, 2013 at 9:36 am
In a discussion about game stories I was having a few weeks ago with some game-writer friends of mine, the subject turned, as it inevitably tends to do, to Planescape: Torment. We all agreed, as we inevitably do, that the game features one of the best, if not the best narratives in gaming — but an interesting comment was made that forced me to start replaying the game for the first time in a number of years, and re-examine my opinion.
We all agreed that the game features an amazing an engrossing story, but a single dissenting voice questioned whether that necessarily made Planescape: Torment a good game — or whether it made it an average game elevated to legendary status by an exceptional story.
Whilst I was the first to jump up and poo-poo this almost heretical question, it did give me reason for pause. In my mind, a truly great game is a combination of multiple factors. A great story can elevate something but it can’t be its only saving grace — the long-in-gestation Inquisitor is a perfect example of this. The story and the writing are fascinating and engrossing, but no matter how interesting the story it couldn’t make up for the fact that the moment-to-moment gameplay is intensely slow and unwieldy.
To test the theory I booted up my copy of Torment, to quickly discover that my friend had a point. Although the gameplay is far from average, being one of the best AD&D computer games ever produced, it does feel somewhat constrained by the rules. The Planescape: Torment story is grandiose, larger than life and deeply melancholy, as does the Planescape campaign setting upon which it is based, but the AD&D rules set that underlays all of The Nameless One’s actions does not feel particularly up to the task of living up to the premise.
I think the problem, to the extent to which it exists, may be that what the AD&D rules need to make them feel like a living system is a mind to judge when rolls are necessary, something that cannot be had in a game.
In a tabletop game of AD&D the rules act as a framework around which the GM can construct an adventure. The GM has the ability to know when to ignore the rules in favour of story and when to fudge them to advance the action. On a basic level the dice rolls work as a randomiser and catalyst for action and the other rules are there to offer a framework but not a prison, leaving the story and players the focus instead of the system.
The problem with some computer games, Planescape: Torment included, is that there has to be a certain consistency throughout the game. There isn’t a GM ready and willing to continue tailoring the game to both suit and cater to the actions of the players. Instead there are the rules, and… that’s it. This is good from the standpoint of knowing how the game will react at any given time, but it does dampen the overall feel of the game, sometimes leaving the rules and the story at odds with each other, with the former clearly showing through the latter.
This, of course, isn’t the case with all games. There are numerous RPGs with systems that work brilliantly with the story to create a overly satisfying whole. Gothic II and The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings spring immediately to mind. Both games feature dynamic combat systems that feel as though they empower the character rather than constrain them, and the systems of alchemy, character advancement and item creation feel like they are part of the world rather than a set system.
It could be argued that many of the problems I’ve had with the Planescape: Torment rules stems from the age of the game, and whilst that may be true, I don’t think it would be any more possible to create an AD&D game today in a setting as amazing and varied as Planescape without the system feeling like a hindrance. For this reason (amongst many), I’m very curious to see what happens with Torment: Tides of Numenera, the spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment. The game is being built around a rules set specifically created for the setting by a veteran of tabletop rules creation, and the man behind Planescape: Torment‘s original setting. If inXile can mesh the rules and story into a seamless whole they just might create a game that not only lives up to the legacy of Planescape: Torment but may, in fact, eclipse it.