We Need Another Boundary-Breaker Like 'Planescape: Torment'

On the eve of E3, we're looking at a game that threw out conventions.
June 9, 2017, 9:00pm
All images courtesy of Beamdog

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

We're on the rim of yet another E3 conference, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, and we're looking down into that gulf wondering about what is going to appear. It's a strange feeling, really, here at the beginning of summer. When I was a kid, it was a time for wasting time (before I was old enough to work, I guess). Summer was a time for reading books and marathoning JRPGs over a weekend. Now, in my adult life, it's the season of monitoring, talking about, and being a little bit critical of hype.

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It's also a time when I start thinking about those games of the past, and in between my memories of what was and my interest in what's coming, I often find myself wondering about why one game from my youth seems so singular.

I recently asked Chris Avellone, a man who has credits across lots of different games and genres, about the recent Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition. For myself and many others, PST is a unique thing. It is an RPG, but unlike its contemporary Baldur's Gate, Planescape isn't a traditional fantasy game. Built around the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting of the same name, PST was more Sandman than it was Conan, more The Cure than Judas Priest, more Kafka than, well, a fantasy tie-in novel. As I've written about in another Postscript column, Planescape: Torment was a game that seemed to have things to say to the player; it wasn't just a cool world to carve a bloody trail of vengeance through.

Avellone is credited as the lead designer on PST, and so I asked him about this maturity question. "I think it was that the setting encouraged a philosophical/thoughtful approach to questing and exploration," he told me over email, "so that in itself may have given it an innate sense of maturity than simply hacking orcs with swords." The game is thoughtful, pensive, and it doesn't really require that much combat out of the player. Like the Fallout games of the late 1990s, immersive sims like Deus Ex, and the early Thief games, Planescape: Torment seemed to be reaching out for other ways of dealing with, and being in, a game world.

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In this week leading up to E3, it almost seems impossible for a major game release to have such an ambivalent stance toward its own genre. The games of our contemporary moment that "swerve" into new territory do it in a calculated, thoroughly vetted way. Far Cry 5 is a game that is transplanting the exoticizing hyperviolence of that series from various "over theres" to the United States, a move that has made many people confused, angry, joyous, and unhappy (sometimes all at once). I feel very safe in saying that while much about the presentation and content will change in that transportation, the fundamental feel of what makes that game a Far Cry game won't change. Even more, what makes it a game that you can compare against other AAA shooters won't change; Far Cry 5 needs you to be able to have an argument about why its "gun feel" is better or worse than the newest Call of Duty or Battlefield game.

Yet Planescape: Torment was an existential crisis, the direct opposite of the power fantasies that had fueled American RPGs for the past decade. "We had no idea how well it would be received when it came out, and it felt like a huge risk," Avellone explains. "Not just to Interplay but, uh, a risk to my job and any hopes of a future career, too. To have it come back with new life with the Enhanced Edition was more than I hoped for."



In the age of hype and Jason Derulo, I wonder about the next Planescape: Torment. I don't mean spiritual successors or Kickstarter-funded jaunts down the memory lane of isomorphic RPGs. I'm talking about the next game that wants to have an ambivalent stance toward the genre it's a part of. Spec Ops: The Line, no matter what you thought about it in the end, at least presented some self-criticism aimed at the the shooting games of the early twenty teens. Other examples, though, are rare to find in the well-funded, blockbuster game space.

We know that the game industry is incredibly risk-averse these days. Infinite Warfare was deemed a flop by its publisher on an almost-ideological level, and now we're going back to the grounded and gritty world of World War 2 again. Mass Effect Andromeda seems to have sealed the fate of that entire franchise after its wavering release and weird facial animations.

When Chris Avellone told me about the influences on Planescape: Torment, he eventually spoke about rebellion against other games. It was a game designed for something, but it was also designed against things. It balked at certain sacred traditions of Dungeons & Dragons design: you could freely switch between three classes, and your alignment was what you made of it, not what you decided on character creation. It knew the kind of game that it was, and then it warped itself around the expectations the audience had for it. It was a decision that makes PST unique to this day. As Avellone has it: "My big hope is if people play Planescape: Torment, they enjoy it and find there's enough role-playing within to make a player ask what kind of player they are."

Over the next week, we're going to see many new and old games that give us ways of playing. I don't think many of them will have the reflective desires to ask us what kind of players we are. I'm hoping for the next game that contains that spark of what PST tried to do, of the ideas it tried to put forward. It's summer, and it's hot, and my expectations are low. I might end up replaying a classic.

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