Planescape: Torment – The Best Game You’ll Never Play

Clark English, Social Media

Riding on the success of critically acclaimed games such as Fallout, Fallout 2, and Baldur’s Gate,  Black Isle Studios was reached out to by the Wizards of the Coast (Those guys who make Dungeons and Dragons). They were commissioned to create three games set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe of Planescape. Planescape is set in the Outerlands of the universe, where different factions represent varying philosophies regarding life and death. The factions coexist with one another mostly in thanks to the overruling deity, ‘The Lady of Pain’.

The game opens with a deceased body being pushed into a mortuary by an animated corpse. The animated corpse leaves the room and the ‘thought to be’ deceased man wakes up. His skin is grey, his body is covered in scars that could’ve killed many a man, he has tattoos that vary in how aged they are all over his body, and he smells like embalming fluid. He’s the main character, the game refers to the character as, “The Nameless One” (TNO).  Before the game gives you a chance catch your breath, a floating skull with a Brooklyn accent makes the incredible observation that you aren’t dead. He asks if you remember who you are, and you don’t. Luckily, your body came with instructions. The skull offers to read your back, which is where the instructions are. Paraphrased, it comes out as “I know you feel awful, this is normal. First, find your journal. Second, find Pharod, he can fill you in on the details, unless he’s already dead. Lastly, don’t lose the journal, and don’t tell anyone WHO you are, or WHAT happens to you.”. The problem is you can’t find your journal. You then spend the rest of your time trying to escape the Dustmen Mortuary, but more on that later. As you make your way to the bottom floor you walk past a random gravestone where a female ghost apperates, naturally, you talk to the ghost. You ask her who she is and immediately she seems disheartened. She reveals herself to be a past lover of yours and asks if you remembered anything at all. When you answer with a no she mourns for you. She tells you that you are an immortal, but every time you are met with a severely fatal end, you “die” and resurrect without your memories. Each new incarnation of TNO is a roll of the dice as to who they are. You give your lover from a past life a farewell and exit through the doors of The Mortuary and are met with the grand city of Sigil. You have three questions. Who is Pharod? Where is my Journal? And why am I immortal?

This is where the game really shines in its’ storytelling. There is no big bad evil guy to slay or some sort of greater good, your quest is entirely selfish. This gives the game the freedom to truly make the character your own. The game likes to act as a medium to challenge your beliefs on just about anything. When you first leave The Mortuary and turn your right there is a bar for the Dustmen. The Dustmen believe that life is a chain holding them back from achieving “True Death”, so they relinquish themselves of all emotion and material goods so there is nothing left for them when they die. When you enter the bar and sit down to talk to a Dustman and they reveal that they want to see what life has to offer, the game asks, “how do you handle this?”. Do you tell them it is merely a test of faith, or tell them that if they truly believed in their faith they wouldn’t have had doubts, to begin with? This isn’t anything special from any other RPG. Do you want the good option or the bad option? But then the game turns it around, and the Dustman will ask you what you what you want from life. This is where you make TNO your own character. Not through character customization or giving him your name, but by giving him your personality and thoughts.

That leads to the main theme of the story. You take on the mantle of possibly hundreds of previous lives in your immortal body. Throughout the game people will recognize you as your previous incarnations. If you enter a tavern in the bottom right hand corner of the map the barkeeper won’t serve you until you pay him back for the damages you caused all those years ago when you tore up his tavern in a rage. Some incarnations have left you as the beneficiary in their wills, giving you some supplies and coin. Other incarnations are straight mad, leaving breadcrumbs, and traps for you because they want ‘their’ body back. On the quest to find the cause of your immortality, you are asked outright, “What can change the nature of a man?”. For someone who has lived a hundred lives, how does each life end up differently, and what makes your playthrough as the TNO any special?

To say that Planescape: Torment is one of my favorite games of all time is entirely correct. I only barely scratched the surface on the Dustmen faction, and there are four other factions in the game to explore. The main storyline is incredibly rich and introspective, and while I can’t promise it’ll change your life, it will at least make you think. It is actually one of my favorite stories in any medium, including books and movies. The world is just dripping in originality thanks to the abandonment of the high fantasy, making room for something a little more realistic and grim. The city of sigil ranges from huts on the outside of town, to a bustling marketplace near the center. No castles, no elves, no dwarves. Just humans, a couple of fiends, and a city propped up in the Outlands. Your choices actually matter, and you can see the effects that they have throughout the story. The game was even universally acclaimed by critics at its’ release.

So, with all that said, do I recommend Planescape: Torment? Absolutely not. First things first, this game is old. They released an enhanced edition that fixed some things, like allowing for higher resolutions and a better user interface, but it still aged poorly. The game just doesn’t look good, the characters look like clay figures, and the cutscenes look almost campy because they’re so dated. The soundtrack is fifty minutes long in total, meanwhile, the game has a playtime of about thirty hours. It’s almost maddening how repetitive it gets. The combat is fundamentally poorly designed, it’s a real-time strategy game without the strategy part. Just click on a bad guy and watch them hit each other for a little bit. You’re immortal. You’ll win eventually. The game was a commercial failure, the critics loved it but no one actually bought the game. Wizards of the Coast responded to that by pulling the other two games they commissioned Black Isle to make because the game sold so poorly. It isn’t even a real game, it’s a book disguised as a game. You spend about eighty percent of the game reading and enjoying your time in conversation simulator. The other twenty percent of actual fighting, going from point A to point B, and even just looking at the characters and world just isn’t fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent book, and that eighty percent is why I hold it in such high regard, but it’s an awful game. Because of that, I can not, in good faith, recommend what is in my opinion, the greatest game of all time.