This is the first article in the series Games & Literature, which examines the relationship between these two media. Read the introduction here. This series is inspired by and based on my master's thesis "Ludo-Textual Entanglements: (Cyber)Texts and the Production of Meaning in Video Games".
What can change the nature of a man? Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment may not have changed my nature, but it certainly has radically changed my perspective on what games can do, and on the potential of writing in games. When I first played it in the wake of my all-consuming obsession with Baldur’s Gate II, it seemed out-dated, strange and unwieldy. When I gave it a second chance quite a few years later, it became the perhaps most fascinating game I’ve played to this day.
There was some kind of magic in the way text and game worked in unison. Each time I’m about to replay it, I suspect that it cannot possibly live up to my memories of it; but each time it does. While many games are diminished through replaying, revealing their artfully concealed shallowness, Torment unveils further, unsuspected depths. In some parallel world of our own multiverse, Torment may have instigated a creative shift that led to a burgeoning of games that seamlessly bring together games and literature. In our world, meanwhile, Torment remained a lonely misfit for many years.
Planescape: Torment is often considered to be one of the most well-written, most literary games in existence, both in the sense that text is perhaps its most central element, and that its writing is unabashedly high-brow. Most discussions of the game, however, focus on the quality of its overall story; they might discuss its themes, its characters, its tone. While these topics are also valuable, what interests me here are the dynamics between structures, mechanics and text that underlie the game’s fiction and the meanings they give rise to in the first place. Before diving into the nitty-gritty and exploring its twists and turns, however, a short excursion into the game’s roots is in order.
Art and derivation are usually seen as polar opposites. One, we are told, is all about subverting expectations, the other about cementing them; one is about originality, the other about trite repetition. Yet Torment is perhaps just as artful as it is derivative. After all, its rule set, engine and even setting have not specifically been created for Torment. The Infinity Engine was created for the first Baldur’s Gate, the Dungeons & Dragons rule set had been around for decades and its unconventional world, or multiverse, was directly adopted from the D&D Planescape campaign setting.
Since its mechanical fundaments, i.e. engine and rule set, are more or less identical to games such as Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale, it could be expected that Torment is basically the same thing but with a different coat of paint; its many words, its philosophical aspirations, its weirdness merely window-dressing for another CRPG. As BG and ID show, the D&D system and the Infinity Engine are perfectly suited for “simulating” fantasies of high adventuring. In fact, they were specifically designed this way: characters get stronger, amass wealth, treasures, experience and fame. So if Torment adopts these same fundaments and throws in lots of brainy words and high philosophical concepts, shouldn’t there be some sort of friction or dissonance between the two?
I’m going to argue that – even though they might not always be a perfect fit – Torment brilliantly succeeds in the impressive challenge of using the same technology to a very different effect through subtle reinterpretation. Since its brilliance often lies in the subversion or appropriation of RPG tropes, it might be argued that its derivative nature is not a compromise, but a necessity for its artfulness.
There’s no classical RPG without dungeons, labyrinths and mazes, and Torment is no exception. But the way it deals with and frames this standard trope is unique and tells us a lot about why it is such a meaningful game. Now, while we are busy exploring the paths of various labyrinthine spaces, Torment makes sure to remind us of their importance; they are not only spaces, but also a theme. The night hag Ravel, and with her the key to the Nameless One’s past, is hidden at the centre of a maze of brambles, designed by the Lady of Pain herself. Long before we ever set foot in it, we hear stories about it from many people. Other mazes are equally personal to the protagonist: the Nameless One’s tomb is designed to keep the Nameless One’s new incarnation out, the maze designed by the Lady of Pain to lock him away forever. On a lighter note, the Modron Maze is a spoof of generic RPG mazes. It is a shallow, meaningless tourist attraction, a coldly calculated amusement park ride, and therefore a sharp contrast to Torment’s other spaces.
Mazes, however, are not just navigated, shown or talked about. The abstract logic of the maze pervades the whole game(world). Labyrinthine environments are not an end in themselves; they point towards something greater than themselves, to a more abstract ‘idea’ of the labyrinth, to a pattern that draws itself through every aspect of the game and its universe. This maze pattern can be seen, for example, in the unpredictable way actions and consequences unfold, but it is at its most distinctive in the game’s text itself, or rather the way it is conveyed through its hypertext dialogue system.
CRPGs may be one of the most verbose game genres, but the purpose of their dialogue and its systems is usually pretty simple and limited: it provides necessary information to the player, for example about objectives; it gives fictional context to a player’s ludic actions in the form of characters, story, ‘lore’ etc.; and it accommodates a player’s sense of immersion and agency by allowing to make choices that may seem more significant and consequential than whether to obliterate a goblin with a fireball or a magical missile.
A lot of dialogue in Torment, on the other hand, has a certain feel of artful artifice, an intricate puzzle-box quality. These texts aren’t there to be consumed as a diversion in between heroic quests, but to be carefully navigated and diligently explored. A good indicator that this is valid assumption is the pure quantity of text on display. And a significant part of this text can be easily missed, and most of it not because you picked one of two slightly diverging paths – as in a modern RPG –, but because you didn’t pay enough attention, didn’t read with enough care or curiosity.
It’s all about understanding the various pathways through a text, and sensing when a dead end may really be a door that leads deeper into the labyrinth if only you are resourceful enough to find – or use – the ‘key’ that opens it. These keys may be found in different places: in that same text, resulting in a more or less self-enclosed puzzle-box; in the protagonist’s attributes or moral alignment; in his past actions and decisions; or in the items in his inventory. In this way, the complex spatial and textual mazes intertwine and overlap, resulting in obscure folds that may remain hidden even after several diligent playthroughs. It’s important to find these secrets, and not just because you’d be a fool to miss out on the game’s brilliant writing and the mysteries it presents, but because so many of the game’s rewards – experience, attribute bonuses, abilities – can be found there.
An ill-fated attempt at creating a map for one of the game's first textual labyrinths, a dialogue with the dustman Dhall
Since Planescape: Torment is so obviously interested in the nature of its world – both its material and spiritual aspects – it is easy to make a cosmological/metaphysical claim concerning the pattern of the maze: namely that the labyrinth with its puzzles and secrets is not only a theme, but also the fundamental and universal blueprint of the game’s world. It is no coincidence that the Nameless One’s secrets are often found in mazes; that the dialogue trees so easily fit the maze-metaphor; or that the game’s main setting – and centre of the entire multiverse – is Sigil, the City of Doors, where invisible, shifting portals may lead who-knows-where. And it is fitting that the Dustmen’s beliefs – the first ideology the player comes across – seem to have echoes of Plato’s allegory of the cave. In this instance, it is the shadow of a labyrinth that is cast against the cave’s walls and covers it entirely.
At some point, this ‘labyrinth’ becomes more of a metaphor than an actual space or pattern; a metaphor for all things that twist into themselves, that are hard to untangle, that hide secrets within themselves, such as lies, puzzles and questions, the inner workings of minds and memories, or even the forms of writing, signs and language themselves. Ravel Puzzlewell introduces herself with this goose bump-inducing sentence: