Hey. Hey. Remember being fourteen? Remember when Final Fantasy VII was fresh and polished and intense? Remember all the cool pop culture references in Fallout 2 that you mostly didn’t get but the gaming press assured you were cool? Remember Planescape: Torment?
Torment: Tides of Numenera needs you to remember that exact time, and absolutely nothing that happened afterwards, because nostalgia for sprawling Infinity Engine RPGs is its main selling point.
Let’s take a while here to remember the first Torment, because it was such a big deal for so many of us. I’ve played through the whole thing four times that I can recall; first with awe, then with a pleasant sense of familiarity, and eventually – when it was about ten years old, and I about twenty-four – with a fair bit of annoyance, as the sentiment diminished and its flaws became impossible to ignore. The combat is tedious, Morte is constantly horny, the expository monologues and loquacious descriptions go on forever, and the less said about how all the women are written, the better.
Actually, you know what, no, let’s talk about that too, because in many ways it’s such a nexus of nerdboy nostalgia for the good old days, before feminism was invented by Adorno and Horkheimer in 2010 to sap and impurify the bodily fluids of the Nordic male. In Planescape: Torment, there are four very important women NPCs, and all of them are either the main character’s exes, desperately in love with him, or both. The ones who join your party, Annah and Fall-From-Grace, are instantly jealous and hostile with each other, because I suppose that’s just how women are in the presence of a powerful alpha? Annah wears some kind of battle underwear, and the writers had the temerity to have her explain to you how it’s totally because of her body temperature. Her hair is color-coordinated with her (fiery, rawr) personality, in contrast to the demure and angelic blonde Fall-From-Grace (who is a succubus, by the way). Also there’s a lot of sex workers everywhere. They mostly don’t have names.
Are you cringing yet? I’m cringing as I write this.
Because PS:T is considered such a milestone in game storytelling, I consider it to be an origin point for a lot of regrettable trends in game writing, from the wink-nudge aren’t-we-uncomfortably-bawdy of Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny to the incredibly grim phenomenon of Bioware Romances, which probably deserves its own entire article. Little wonder that “gamers” these days are so fanatically devoted to reactionary gender politics when games like these – again, formative experiences for many of us – are still held up as timeless paragons of flawless craft.
That very last part is the entirety of the problem with Tides of Numenera. It takes as a given that Planescape is a classic worthy of imitation, rather than a canonical text in desperate need of critical reappraisal and recontextualization, and boy, does it ever imitate. Really, it’s shameless. Protagonist with amnesia? Check. Regeneration powers and some kind of infinite reincarnation? Check. Strange and confusing city full of fetch quests? Check. A bar where people expound at you about the setting for what feels like hours? Check. Oh, and remember that weird guy who gave you a point of wisdom in that bar? Yeah, he’s here too.
I expect to be accused of being against reading, or perhaps the concept of literacy itself, because of how much I bring up the interminable infodumps. My issue is not so much that there’s too many words, but that we already have a genre of games where there’s no such thing as too many words – interactive fiction. Especially with the interactive memory sections in Tides being little choose-your-own-adventures, it seems like it really wants to be IF, and that’s fine – but then why have graphics at all? Why shackle the whole thing to some iteration on the Infinity Engine, when going all-text would allow so much more creativity and freedom with the writing style, the narration, the descriptions, the characters’ voices?
Frankly, I suspect it’s because, stripped of the venerable isometric clicker engine, it would be clear that the writing just doesn’t stand on its own. PS:T did some very interesting stylistic things with stream-of-consciousness in the sensory stones, or with religious scripture in Dak’kon’s Unbroken Circle. Even Baldur’s Gate 2 had its moments with scripted engine sequences, paired with Irenicus’s disconcerting monologues, acting as a framing device. I struggle to recall a single bit of Tides writing that isn’t either NPC dialogue or second-person present-tense narration. It’s somehow actually a step back from the classics.
Most of the game is dialogue, so you’d expect it to be its main strength. The problem, one I believe Tides also inherits from its progenitor, is that it’s essentially monologue. You’re just exhausting conversation trees to wring more exposition out of the exposition dispensers that pretend to be characters; sometimes they’ll refuse to say something, so you roll a Persuasion or Deception check. Occassionally an NPC asks you something back in the form of a multiple-choice test that makes you pick which broad personal value, or “tide”, you relate to the most. You pick one and your alignment gets shifted towards it, which barely means anything in practical terms. You can spot exactly which lines are the ones that are supposed to represent people’s reactions to you based on your tides. I found somewhere between five and ten of them in the whole game.
I’m making it sound stilted, because it is. It was already stilted in PS:T, which itself sort of recognized this and joked about the scarred guy walking around town and asking everyone twenty million stupid questions. Even then, in many plot-critical moments, you had the opportunity to be more expressive and pick from a number of pre-written lines with some character behind them. That’s the spectre of “choice” in games rearing its head again: the dirty secret is that players must be constantly told that their Choices Matter, because for whatever reason that’s become the selling point for RPGs, but it’s infeasible on even an AAA budget to actually have the choices matter very much. There’s too much to account for, too much text to write that half the players may end up never seeing, too many animated scenes that might need two or more variants. Game studios already perpetually struggle with deadlines and budgets, they’re not going to devote a lot of resources to what’s essentially optional content. And when they do, like Bioware with its flagship franchises, they’re forced into all sorts of writing contortions to ensure that the entire plot still happens smoothly regardless of whether or not you killed that one guy two games ago – which only ends up exposing the fiction of choice.
A lot could have been salvaged if the main plot of Tides was compelling. Take the themes of identity and responsibility from the first Torment and rephrase them in a completely new way – have it be about the ideology of nationhood, maybe, or about reinterpreting your personal history – and I’d be all over it. Instead it’s just the exact same story as PS:T, but this time the First Incarnation, instead of having committed some unspeakably enormous sin, is a sad dad who couldn’t accept his daughter’s death.
I don’t think that’s an inappropriate subject matter – Nier and Geralt are sad dads, and I love both of them deeply. I think the idea of emotions like grief or fear taking on cosmic proportions and spiralling out of control to ravage the world for centuries has a lot of potential. The problem is it’s the same story again, with the attempted immortality and the dreadful consequences and the countless incarnations. I’ve played that game already; I know that story. “What if The Nameless One was a dad” is not enough to make it interesting if practically everything else remains the same.
I suppose that’s not entirely a fair characterization. Crucially, the plot alters its main narrative hook by moving from “I did these things” to “the Changing God did these things”, as the sad dad keeps hopping from body to body and discarding them afterwards, leaving them to fend for themselves. As the main character, you’re not looking for who you are; you’re looking for your dad, about whom you only know that he’s not a very responsible person.
I’m familiar with the literary weight of that trope – dad here is interchangeable with God, some kind of existential and moral centre of the universe that has to be discovered and confronted, lent special importance by the institution of patrilineal descent.
I think it’s a shit trope. I already know that guy’s an asshole.
I consider it a bit of a tragedy that Tides turned out the way it did. I was very excited for it when I first heard about it, not necessarily because I needed more Torment in my life, but because the setting sounded so appealing: like the Zone from Roadside Picnic, except instead of being caused by one inexplicable incident, it had been built up over millenia from the detritus of countless fabulously advanced civilizations. What kind of society would form around a garbage dump of scientifically inexplicable and mostly lethal technology? What kind of people would live in it? How would they use what they scavenged? What would be their relationship with this towering scrap-heap of history? How would they change these artifacts and oddities, and how would they be changed?
The game is, to a shocking degree, uninterested in these questions. The world (the ninth one, we are told) is full of technomagical and biotechnological junk, but it’s just sort of… there. It doesn’t cohere. There’s some kind of aristocracy, and some kind of state, and other settlements and political groups somewhere else in the world, but none of it seems desperately important to anyone’s life. The only time these things are permitted to have any meaning is when they bear some direct relation to the Changing God or his castoff children, because that’s the personal stake for you, the main character. Everything else is an assortment of strange and implausible fragments. If that is the game’s deliberate ideological position – and I suspect it might be – then it’s a profoundly unsatisfying idea of “postmodernity” as atomization, disconnection, free-floating signifiers that adhere to nothing. Here’s a gewgaw from a thousand years ago that opens a wormhole into the heart of the nearest star; and here’s a feudal spectacle of public execution; and here’s slavery, except it’s more like indentured servitude, and just for criminals, and they choose it themselves, and doesn’t that make you think? All of these things are just sights to see. Everything can mean whatever you want it to.
The game’s insistence on the validity of your interpretation, whatever it might be, rings desperate. It cedes to the player the entire responsibility for making sense of itself, and every time after it prompts you for an answer, it’s far too quick to reassure you afterwards that of course what you said is true, from a certain perspective. The cowardice is epistemological and ontological – neither the world nor its meaning dare assert themselves in any way that might disrupt your experience of Play. Even the ultimate arbiter of reality, “the Sorrow”, who’s been hunting down the Changing God and his castoffs since time immemorial, will just roll over and accept any outcome for the entire universe that you deign to choose – including its own destruction. I suppose it spares us an awkward boss fight in the clunky combat system.
(Is it even worth mentioning at this point that there is a combat system, and that it’s not great? I definitely don’t consider it the biggest strike against the game, and the stat pool system they went with is actually kind of fun. Sadly, it was not a design priority to make sure that clicking on an enemy that’s obscured behind another character model is remotely possible. The real problem is that most of the time, combat is a punishment for failing to pass skill checks in dialogue, and easy enough to avoid, but then the main story eventually lands you in a few mandatory battles with a poor understanding of how your battle skills work. Really, though, in a game that fulfilled its promise of exceptional writing, I would have been happy to disregard that entirely.)
Planescape: Torment ends with The Nameless One confronting the spiteful, petty, malevolent fragment of himself that’s been keeping him alive and suffering. He knows, at that point, that nothing will get better until they reintegrate with each other, and pass on as they should have long ago, from living death and into history.
It’s high time we let them go.