As of this writing, two weeks have passed since I decided to play through Planescape: Torment, and much has changed in the interim. My outlook on gaming has changed. My appreciation of gaming's past and my expectations for its future have been bolstered. My zest for life has increased, my six terminal illnesses have miraculously been cured, and my libido has never been more active. All of this, thanks to one game!
Given that dramatic infomercial lead-in, you may have expected me to italicize the word "one" in the preceding sentence. Perhaps I surprised you by italicizing nothing at all, and perhaps not, but the truth of the matter is, I should have added emphasis to the last word: game. Know that I am not writing these words solely to convince you to go out and buy a sub-$10 copy of Planescape: Torment. Trust me when I say that there are more important things on the line here than your or my gamer's karma.
I'm writing these words because there is a specific sequence in Planescape: Torment that is, to my mind, the most important instance of narrative in any game ever made, and also because in the six years since the game's release, this sequence has not garnered the widespread recognition it so rightly deserves. As soon as I finished playing through this grand sequence, I made a cryptic post to this thread proclaiming it the best game experience I'd had in many years. I've had a bit of time to think about it, and I'm now ready to proclaim it THE BEST single-player game experience of my life. For reasons upon which I shall soon expound, I believe that this single moment is a milestone in the history of gaming, and a true exemplar of gaming narrative done right.
When I talk of "gaming narrative done right", I don't simply mean that it's done well. There exist a number of excellent games with gripping stories and interesting characters, but most of those games exhibit plots that could easily be made into movies, and characters that could have been pulled from a novel. Very few of them tell their narratives with a mind toward the unique advantages and opportunities that games can afford a story. Most of them, in spite of their enjoyable qualities, insist upon aping more traditional narrative forms.
Chris Avellone, the lead designer of Planescape: Torment, has obviously realized that games are of a medium that allows for stories that cannot be told through any other medium. Why "obviously"? Because he said so himself, in a recent Gamespot interview by Greg Kasavin entitled "Everything is Possible: Inside the Minds of Gaming's Master Storytellers". When asked, "What would you say to someone who told you that games have universally terrible stories?" Avellone responded in part:
I'd say game stories can be a little formulaic at times and a little unpolished, but then I would point up at the sky and say, "Holy s***, look at that!" And when they do, I would punch them in the gut, and while they were gasping for breath, I would lean down and go, "You are wrong. There are several games with compelling stories, stories that achieve greater strength because it's a story you can interact with. Thus, the experience is even more personal than reading a novel, where you are basically watching the characters go about their adventures without any participation from you except flicking your eyes across the page." At this point, the person would be about to get up, so I would kick them in the shins and then run.
Avellone, you beautiful, beautiful bastard. You stole the words right from my mouth, twisted them into something higher and nobler, and then uttered them as if they were your own. I commend you.
I'd like to offer a "for instance" to back up Avellone's claim. Unfortunately, in order to describe my favorite sequence in Planescape: Torment with anything approaching adequacy, I'll have little choice but to venture deep within that forbidden land known as SPOILER territory. If you've never played Torment before, and if you intend to play it sometime in the future, you'll want to skip the rest of this article.
I'll say it again: MAJOR SPOILERS LURK BELOW.
In Planescape: Torment, you play the role of The Nameless One, a seemingly immortal man who has lost all memory of himself and his past. Whenever killed, you awaken soon after upon a cold stone mortuary slab. You soon become obsessed with learning about your own past, and self-discovery is the goal around which your entire quest is oriented. Early in your quest you encounter the ghost of a lovely woman named Deionarra, who claims that you used to love her in one of the former incarnations that now lie outside of your memory's grasp.
Sigil is the name of the city you inhabit, and in one of its wards stands the headquarters of the Sensates, a faction committed to the notion that experience is the path to enlightenment. Within this building are sensoria, chambers containing numerous pedestal-borne rocks known as sensory stones. Each sensory stone contains a complete recording of a single person's experience of a certain event, and by touching the stone, the sensorium patron may live vicariously through the eyes, ears, body, and mind of the stone's subject. The experiences recorded on the stones are chosen for their interesting qualities; the stones are inscribed with such titles as "Unavoidable Pain", "Sheer Wonder", "Bitter Loathing", and so on.
Upon touching the stone labelled "Longing", you are shocked to realize that the memory imprinted upon the stone is that of the woman Deionarra. Even more shocking, the memory is of her conversation with your prior incarnation! Since you're experiencing this conversation through Deionarra's perspective, you are fully conscious of her feelings. You sense that she is in love with your former self, that her commitment is complete and undying. As you observe the conversation, your lost memories begin to return, and everything falls into context. You remember that you were preparing to set out on a dangerous journey, and that Deionarra wished to accompany you in spite of the peril. And then you realize: you wanted Deionarra to come with you, in order that she might die.
As the memories wash over you, the cruelty of your former self becomes apparent. You used to be a cold and calculating man, brutal and evil to the core, and your relationship with Deionarra was built upon lies in the hope of luring her into a trap to suit your own nefarious purposes.
Try to understand that at this point in the game, there are three emotional threads interwoven: the callous, hateful former You; the loving, courageous, and utterly devoted Deionarra; and the present You, who stands appalled at his own past and longs to warn Deionarra of the treachery that awaits, but cannot. The most remarkable thing about this scene is that all three personae are present and active in the player's mind simultaneously. The player identifies with the present Nameless One, by virtue of having assumed his role from the game's outset. The player identifies with the past Nameless One, by virtue of the mechanism of recovered memory. And the player identifies with Deionarra, owing to the nature of the sensory stone. All of these voices enter into the player's head simultaneously, and they're all known to the mind directly, without mediation. In mythological terms, if Deionarra can be equated with the ancient Greek Deianira -- a link I think we are meant to draw -- then this scene in Planescape: Torment forces the player to become Deianira, Heracles, and Nessus combined. This unsettling, tripartite identity is only made possible due to the underlying RPG gameplay mechanic of becoming The Nameless One.
It is not within my power to convey the full emotional impact of this incredibly complex scene. After playing through it, I was moved to tears; I had to hit pause, walk away from the computer and take a break. I can think of no other piece of art or literature that achieves quite this same effect, and indeed, I believe that other narrative media are wholly incapable of giving life to such a scene. Based on the earlier comment I quoted from Chris Avellone, it seems likely that he would agree with me.
I therefore believe that Planescape: Torment is the epitome of gaming qua narrative art; it is the best evidence to date that games are fully capable of playing with, and even besting, the big boys.