On Games and Literature, Part I: Planescape: Torment
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:
Ravel am I, a maker and breaker of puzzles, a solver of what *cannot* be solved, a mind raveling and unraveling until the threads of thought are tied up like knots in a drunken man’s hair.
In solving the puzzle of the Nameless One’s mortality, she created countless more puzzles, which the player has to solve throughout the game. Ravel’s language itself twists and tangles repeatedly:
A puzzle of bones and skin were you, always, intriguing, and the most beloved of all who came to me, petitioning, requesting, pleading… pleasing? Pleading for help?
The confusion and ravelling of her mind, however, also has the potential of revealing meaning: After all, the Nameless One’s pleading was indeed pleasing to Ravel. Ravel Puzzlewell ‘puzzles well’, but she is also herself a ‘well of puzzles’; ‘maker and breaker’ at the same time. Twisted spaces, words and minds coincide in Torment, hiding and exposing mysteries.
There’s an overlapping and blurring of various ‘opposites’: the physical and metaphysical, the macrocosmic (the multiverse) and microcosmic (the mind), and the literal and metaphorical. The word sits at the centre of this overlap, connecting the disparate worlds as a mediator; it originates within an individual mind, is there in the physical world as shape or sound, and points away from itself to more abstract meanings.
Torment is very interested in the materiality of signs and words. There is, for example, the enormous tome of the dustman Dhall, the obelisk that carries the names of the dead, or the paranoid incarnation’s Dodecahedron journal, which has to be opened and deciphered before it can be read. But even more relevant is the inscription of skin and flesh. With all its philosophising and ‘metaphysicising’ that is so uncommon in video games, it is easy to forget how grotesquely physical and ‘corporeal’ the world of Torment is: The sprawling, grimy, pseudo-Victorian metropolis of Sigil. The rotting corpses employed as cheap labour. The pools of blood and body parts. Visuals as well as text highlight the texture and stench of flesh. But it also has a ‘voice’ and a language. Tattoos and scars on the Nameless One’s body form letters and symbols that function as witnesses of the past. A lost arm found in the catacombs can be brought to the tattoo artist Fell, who uses the Nameless One’s discarded skins as canvases for his art:
Fell examines it for a moment, tracing the patterns with his finger. He then looks up, and a series of rebuses form, hazy at first, then come sharply into focus. (The arm is yours. The tattoos are mine. One tattoo speaks of a time when your path was shared by four others.)
Like the game’s labyrinths, the patterns of the skin are as meaningful as they are hard to discern.
Words of Power
As worldly conduits to the realm of thought and belief, as well as conciliators of the base and high, words and signs are perhaps the most powerful force in the world of Torment. In many situations, knowing the right thing to say makes other actions redundant. Curses can be created and lifted with the right words. The midwife Mebeth teaches the Nameless One the meaning and writing of runes, which are necessary for performing magic. A certain word brings to life the decanter that can douse the burning mage Ignus. Nemelle ‘tells’ the Nameless One the right word:
The woman makes no move to touch or examine the decanter, but only speaks. ‘Nemelle took it from the stranger, turning it in her hands. Had she seen its like before, she thought? Perhaps… Yes, she remembered now. She returned the decanter, whispering into his ear as she did so…’ […] You realize you know the word now […] though you’re certain the woman never whispered to you, but merely said she did.
Merely ‘narrating’, as Nemelle does, can have an impact not only on minds, but also on reality itself.
We aren’t just told that words are powerful, and neither are we only shown. Better yet, the player can experience it first-hand, since it is baked right into the mechanics, choices and roleplaying opportunities of the game. One way this is done is simply by cranking the importance and prominence of dialogue/hypertext sections up to eleven compared to other RPGs: not only can many conflicts be solved with words instead of pummelling enemies to death, but many quests play out almost exclusively on a text-level. Navigating text proficiently leads to progress and rewards, such as powerful new abilities or knowledge that can be used to one’s advantage in another dialogue. At the end, an incarnation that scoured every text-maze is far stronger – in combat as well as outside of it – than one that preferred to hack’n’slash his way through as best he could.
Torment’s idiosyncratic alignment system is an important detail when talking about the power of words. Instead of choosing a moral alignment at the beginning and playing accordingly, it’s the words spoken during (role)play that shape the Nameless One’s character. Whether a statement is prefaced with “Truth:”, “Lie:” or “Vow:” makes a mechanical difference, influencing later textual interactions. In a way then, not only do people form words, but words also form people.
While interacting with words generally makes the Nameless One more powerful, Torment stresses that this power is also dangerous. Once spoken, words do not simply fade away. Neither are they a tool that can be discarded or stowed away after its use. Instead, they are given existence, and permanence. Choose your words carefully: they will change you. They will bind you.
Dak’kon vowed to a previous incarnation to follow the Nameless One until the death of either one, not realising that in doing so, he was binding himself to an immortal. If the player vows to find a way to release him, Dak’kon replies:
Dak’kon’s voice becomes ragged, as if he had suddenly become sick. ‘*Know* you have added other words to my words.’ His expression is pained, and his gaze meets yours. ‘Now you have chained us both.’
Intentions behind the words, however good, do not matter as much as the words themselves. It doesn’t matter that you meant well, that you weren’t aware of all the implications, or that all parties involved would readily take it all back. In Torment, words have a metaphysical weight that can crush you.
Words are pivotal not only to the inner workings of this world and the game in general, but also to the Nameless One’s past(s). The Practical Incarnation, arguably the most prominent of the whole lot, was a masterful liar and manipulator and perfectly understood the power of words. False promises of love sent Deionarra to her early death, the exploitation of a religious text enslaved Dak’kon. The dialogue option “Echo:” compels you to re-utter or re-perform what has already been said. Time and again, the Nameless One is confronted with his past lies and their repercussions and is forced to (re-)define himself against them: does he – do you – embrace his old lies as part of his new identity, deceive so his misdeeds will remain hidden, or show regret and come clean, that is as clean as is possible under the circumstances?
The roots of the Nameless One’s identity and memory troubles can be traced back to a few words that echo throughout the game, a question, a riddle, and an obsession for both of the original Nameless One and Ravel: What can change the nature of a man? Stripping him of his mortality and letting his clueless, soul-sucking shell loose in the multiverse might just do the trick. Of course, the plan backfires, and the first incarnation got far more change than he bargained for, essentially losing his identity and amassing further sins and atrocities instead of finding redemption.
The tragedy of losing one’s identity is illustrated through another word: the proper name. The lack of a name is also a further interesting deviation from classic RPG tropes: Naming your alter ego in an RPG is probably the most important act of appropriation, facilitating frictionless and comfortable identification. Through denying you this privilege, the Nameless One remains his own entity, still mysterious and separate from the player. At the same time, however, the fact that he is only known by vague epithets such as ‘Nameless One’ and has no predefined character traits stresses his function as an avatar; an empty, malleable vessel. Having this nameless protagonist brings together the best aspects of predefined and player created characters. In that sense, Torment has its cake, eats it, then watches it being reborn on a mortuary slab and eats it again.
Like language in general, names can be both powerful and dangerous. Having no name makes him a foreign object to both the world and himself, and his personality – even his body parts – are arbitrary and interchangeable. Without his name, his only meaning lies in death. At the very end, it is possible for the Nameless One to learn his real name (even if we are never told). The knowledge makes him even more powerful:
You suddenly remember your name. … and it is such a *simple* thing, not at all what you thought it might be, and you feel yourself suddenly comforted. In knowing your name, your true name, you know that you have gained back perhaps the most important part of yourself. In knowing your name, you know yourself, and you know now, there is very little you cannot do.
At the same time, names may prove dangerous and can be used against you. The cursed, stinking man Reekwind is – understandably – obsessed with the danger of names: Names are like smells… things can track you with them. […] If someone knows a true name, it gives them power. There is a certain risky corporeality to names: The name ‘Reekwind’ does not only point towards the man’s curse-induced smell, but functions like one itself.
And the Nameless One is indeed hunted and haunted, not only metaphorically by the Echoes of his past lives and actions, but also in a very real sense by the shadows of those who died in his stead due to his curse of immortality.
Alpha and Omega
I have called Torment unwieldy, and its obsession with labyrinthine structures, long paragraphs of text and the echoing of past actions – as opposed to what is happening right now on the screen – all seem to confirm this. Far from being a weakness, however, it is an immense strength. All of these elements create very deliberate and meaningful pauses that encourage the player to stop and think, interpret, and question. The game’s quests propel the player forward, creating momentum, but pausing and looking back is as important as progressing through the game. And since progress slowly peels back the layers of the past, going forward is really the same as going backward. The search for death is also the search for the beginning of life.
Words, we have seen, are a powerful and complex force in the world of Planescape: Torment. They are linked to the metaphysical and the invisible patterns that reveal themselves in every aspect of the world. They do not only reflect the world, but also affect it. They fuse together the realms of the material and immaterial.
If we equate the physical with game mechanics, and the metaphysical with fiction, the same is true: Torment’s powerful words bring together gameplay and fiction meaningfully and seamlessly, disqualifying the purist’s argument that these things just don’t mix. Torment shows that not only can they mix, but that this mix can be a very intoxicating, delicious concoction.