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