Taking Death Seriously in 'Torment: Tides of Numenera'
Not many games give death the treatment that the Torment series does.
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Note: Talking about the endings of video games is very fun, and in this piece I talk about one of the (many) endings for Torment: Tides of Numenera! Consider this your fair warning.
Planescape: Torment is one of the first games to take death seriously in games. The vast majority of games before it understood death in simple terms: It was a fail state, something that happens when things go wrong. Life was a resource, and the arcade lineage of games demanded designs of attrition that could only understand death as part of a slow drain on your ability to continue playing a game. Creating difficult encounters with a finite number of lives was a way for the video game to ingest quarters at a shocking rate, and the console and computer games that came after implicitly or explicitly understood that same calculation of time and money.
Even the games that weren't part of that arcade lineage saw death as a form of training.. From King's Quest to Dark Souls, death is used as a teaching tool. You learn the bounds of those worlds through your death; the limits of what you can do are neatly defined by your garden of former lives. "I need to make sure that I move appropriately on these stairs, otherwise I will die again the same way," you think. And you repeat that thought for all instances of all possible deaths forever.
Planescape defused death-as-money and death-as-training by removing the consequences. The Nameless One, the protagonist of the game, would always spring back to life in another location if the player died in combat or otherwise. Better yet, the world would remember that, and dying was sometimes the only way to get the world to move forward a little. For Planescape: Torment, death was no longer about defining the bounds of what you could do in a certain amount of time or in a certain space. It was about expanding the kinds of interactions you could have with the world.
17 years after the release of Planescape: Torment but a few weeks back from the time that I am writing this, a group of veteran developers released Torment: Tides of Numenera. It was a Kickstarter success, the fastest game to $1 million when it went up, and it sells itself as a spiritual successor to Planescape. It's a game without a license, and like many people, I questioned if it had the same spirit. It does, if you're wondering.
Most importantly, it keeps the same understanding of death that its inspiration had. In Torment, much like Planescape, your superpower is your resilience to death. You're a castoff, a used-up former body of The Changing God. This God is a monstrous being that jumps from body to body at will in order to perform arcane operations on the world, cheating death with every leap. When the God tires of a certain kind of existence, it turns that body loose, and that body gains its own thoughts and feelings.
The game opens with the player's own castoff body gaining sentience in the wake of the abandonment of The Changing God, and many other characters in the game are these castoff remainders. All of them are leftovers, and each of them retains a bit of immortality in the wake of the God's presence. This makes them profoundly resilient to death, and from a gameplay perspective it means that the player can always "wake up" after succumbing to an encounter that goes bad and ends in their death.
Torment: Tides of Numenera has generated a lot of innovation around how a player can die and be reborn. The game uses player death to such an extensive amount that one could say that it is the primary mechanic of the game, and more importantly, there are other castoffs in the world who do that as well. The Ninth World, the hodgepodge of mixed realities that make up the space of Torment, is chock full of castoffs who all have a wax and wane relationship with death. Some of them are engaged in an endless war between two armies, both of which lack any leaders. Others shatter their own minds in order to wander and be free of the pain of having to live forever. Some dominate other peoples, establishing dynasties and empires that are headed by figures that can never be struck down.
All told, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a more complicated treatise on the the idea of death. It wants to understand the social and political consequences of a world that lacks death for certain people, and that speculative thought fuels one of the greatest endings of a video game, period.
The end of Torment comes all at once. The Sorrow, the evil force that has plagued the player throughout the entire game, is revealed to be something akin to a security system for reality itself. The Changing God has broken things a little too much, and The Sorrow is out to fix them by wiping both the God and all of the castoffs out of reality. This is all patiently explained to the player in detail, and then they're given some options. Depending on what you have learned about this world and its people, there are several choices, and I won't get into them except to say that there are roughly half a dozen unique ending states for the game.
The critical one for me, and the one that says the most about the game's ruminations on death, is the choice to sever the castoffs from the tides (the Tides of Numenera as it were). The tides are quite literally the flows of reality, and severing the castoffs from the system functionally erases them from existence. As The Sorrow and several other characters argue in the game, the castoffs are an unnatural, violent, haphazard group who have very little concern for those around them. After all, no matter what, they will come back to life. A castoff has access to eternal life, which means eternal attempts at getting something right, and the player themself would have experienced this several times over the course of a playthrough of a game.
Making this choice in the game is the ultimate move toward death. It ends the loop of death as repetition, of infinite chances, and takes the purely negative route of death as the true end of existence. There can be nothing else for the player in this world, and making the choice of self-annihilation creates a void in the world where the player once was. The closed loop of constant player interaction is, finally, broken.
The game ends, appropriately, with the player's party members talking about the sudden lack in the world. Erritis, a man infected with demons that turned him into a sword-and-sorcery hero, says this: "I don't care for this ending at all. I don't feel like we've triumphed in any way I can comprehend."
The wonder of Torment is that it takes it that far. It is a meditation on death beyond comprehension, beyond whatever makes sense for the basic narrative building blocks through which games are traditionally constructed. And in that way, it is the true inheritor of the tradition begun by Planescape: Torment. If that game broke with the past by reinterpreting death-as-progress, then Torment has broken with Planescape by allowing us to interpret death-as-self-annihilation. It lets us look into a deep void. And then, unlike the games of the past, we can step into it.