3 - Portal to Another World
Alright, I am knee deep in Planescape, but I’ve been doing some mundane ‘gaming’ tasks to change my character into a mage that I won’t go into a lot of detail about. I generally try to avoid this kind of approach to games, but because the combat is a bit lacking and the spell effects are so cool, I figure it’s worth it. For this post, I will show a little bit about my character and what’s happened, explain what I like about the technical aspects of the game, and a little bit about the (ugg) ‘metagaming’ aspects I’ve been thinking about after playing a little.
Hello, My name is: ____________
[Here is my particular generic avatar]
You may see some strange stuff going on with my character here if you are familiar with your typical RPGs. These games usually begin with making characters that are super specialized to facilitate playing through a tough and balanced game based on combat. These characters include a brick fighter (Built like a brick shithouse and dumb as one too) and a super smart mage to maximize damage output. This is not one of those games as the motivations are a bit different. PST requires you to build your character for maximum story experience. A bold move then and something I could never imagine now.
I imagine my build is not ultimately Min-Maxed for it, but I don't want to get into powergaming. I have put points into skills not usually worried about in this kind of game. 18 in Intelligence is not too strange, especially as a mage. In Torment, intelligence not only determines spell effectiveness, but also dialogue choices that can reveal parts of the story that would otherwise go unmentioned. This is crucial as most progression, story, and experience rewards come from conversation. The 14 in the otherwise useless (in CRPGs) Charisma stat is also unusual. If people like you, they will be more open with their info so that you may learn a little more about them and yourself.
I didn’t even bother with other normally useful stats such as strength (responsible for hit points) and dexterity for avoiding hits because, guess what, you can’t die! So, don’t worry about it. (More on this in a later post.) The lack of brawling power is also remedied by the NPCs that fill out your party later. Many found near the beginning are quite competent in combat and can really take you through almost any situation.
This unusual build should give a good indication of how different this game is compared to others in terms of character creation.
So what have you been up to?
I mentioned last post that you wake up in a place called the Mortuary. A facility used to inter and cremate the dead is a very provocative place to begin a story based around a character that can’t die. It is run by a faction known as the ‘Dustmen’ who tend to hold a somewhat Platonic idea of reality being a farce. Only what is known as “true death”, a complete absence of sensory perception and sensation, is the escape. Oblivion. Needless to say, this group wouldn’t really care for somebody who can’t die as this goes against their entire philosophy and goal of the group. Your first action item is to escape this building filled with these crazies. The good news is options are already very numerous, showing the thought that went into this game.
To get out you have several choices. Many NPCs hint at the existence of portals that exist everywhere and are activated by ‘keys’. Keys can be anything from a scrap of paper, a physical action like snapping, or simply having a certain memory in your mind. This puts the potential number of portals somewhere around infinity. As Sigil is the ‘City of Doors’, this really brings loving attention to the unique gameworld and its rules. At least three NPCs in the Mortuary will talk about the existence of a secret portal on the first floor to get out of the building and how it is opened. Another potential route is just leaving through the front door, but this is more dangerous because it is locked and requires talking to the ‘Dusties’ face to face. You can always fight them and just take the door key out of their cold hands, but what fun is that?
On previous playthroughs I found the key to the portal (A finger bone) locked in a desk on the top floor by bashing it open. I was too weak and unable to force open the desk this run, but with my superior intelligence (The character’s I mean…) I was able to trick a Dustman into thinking I was lost after a funeral and got myself escorted out. The sheer number of ways to get out is pretty impressive itself, but the amount of content put in this area is as well.
The first NPC you meet in the game is Morte, the floating skull. He simply wants to escape the Mortuary and needs your help… because you have hands. He also reveals the first part of your quest which is actually a note, presumably from yourself, tattooed on your back! This reveals that you were in possession of a journal that will tell you a bit about yourself and your sordid past. The problem is that it was taken from you by a guy named Pharod. The first order of business is to find this book and hope that it gives you some more clues about your identity.
[I think this is the first game I've where the main quest is given from myself.]
After meeting Morte, I met a Dustman known as Dhall who catalogues all bodies brought into the building. He obviously knew more about me than myself and dropped hints about how my past is quite checkered. It is important to note that this conversation took almost five minutes to get through. Not because of voice acting, but because of the sheer amount of text I was reading! And I'm a fairly quick reader.
I also met an anarchist dressed as a zombie spying on the Dustmen who can be convinced to disguise you as a zombie for a sneakier approach. I met an embalmer who sparked memories indicating that in a previous life MY character had been a dustman raising the dead. A ghost, who apparently was my lover, appears at a grave to berate me for abandoning her. (She also taught me to raise the dead!) A dustman who turns out to be a wererat if you break his neck shows up. (He doesn’t die, just transforms) There is an incredible amount of stuff going on just in the first hour!
At this point I broke off the story train to do the gamey stuff I mentioned before and will pick up after my conversion to the Mage class with some details about it.
Huge devil in all these details.
One thing I had forgotten about Torment what that it is one of the most detailed games I have ever played.
The Infinity Engine is commonly praised for its detailed, hand-drawn backgrounds and effects for the time. This game takes it to the next level with novel length descriptions for actions, characters, and set pieces that are not easily expressed through sprites or other graphical means. An example: In the mortuary where you wake up at the beginning of the game are dozens of undead servants conducting simple mundane tasks for the Dustmen. When moused over, these have the description of “Zombie Worker” or “Skeleton Worker”. In any other game I wouldn’t even bother to interact with them because I’m sure the feedback would be something like “The zombie stares silently at you.” Nothing more to do here. Planescape has other ideas, though, with a different detailed description of literally every zombie and skeleton in the building. Here’s an example:
[Such a loving description for a useless NPC.]
This continues throughout the game with detailed descriptions of individual citizens, monsters, and objects that otherwise look the same on screen. This was essential for building a world when the game was made because graphical capabilities were not what they are today. I would even argue that modern graphics are a bit overrated and count for too much these days. The reality is that the mind’s eye will always be more powerful than any processor or video card. Unfortunately, it is also a reality that extended reading may be declining and these kinds of artful descriptions will be forever abandoned in favor of shorthand graphical improvements.
I don’t want to get too in depth here because too much has been said about this, but, having played through several generations of video games, I’ve developed a bit of an opinion about this graphical progression. It seems to follow a sort of diminishing returns model where graphics that really boosted your imagination are now hindering it. Up to a point, they were essential for functionality of a game. Look at graphics comparing Atari to Nintendo, or even NES to SNES. These jumps showed an immense change in the detail of sprites and graphics that just make it easier to identify objects as they appear on screen. Pixelated masses turned into cartoon sprites that were at least recognizable at a glance. Now systems are moving into ‘realistic’ graphics that take a whole other step out of imagination. I used to translate sprites from Super Mario Brothers, or Pitfall, or other games into a more realistic form of reality in my mind. Now there is no need. It is simply there on the screen.
Planescape: Torment really appeals to me in that I can see a small representation of what something is supposed to be but still have the ability to imagine it as it would appear in reality. This makes a huge difference to me. I don’t want the graphics to BE the reality, I want it to be a window into the world where I can take it the rest of the way because, let’s face it, my imagination is better than any graphics card.
I hate to get postmodern but when I am looking at something super real, like Skyrim, I am aware of me using a controller or keyboard to play the game on a screen. When I am doing most of the heavy lifting with my mind, I really feel engaged in the game instead of watching a monitor. I honestly feel more immersed in Zork than many modern games that have come out. This translates into voice acting vs. text, as well, so don’t get me started.
So, that’s it for this first part. I hope to have completed more of the game for the next one, but I just haven’t had much time. Work and life have a lot to demand and that’s the way it is. I hope this posting schedule is ok for the few readers there.
If you have any feedback, feel free to leave comments and also recommend this blog to other people if you like it! It will really help me out by giving me motivation to get through this task and push my writing as well.