Video games, in my experience, exist on a spectrum. The far left of this line will be labeled ‘Story Telling’ while the other may read ‘Pure gaming experience’. Now, that’s not to say that these are mutually exclusive, but every program is some type of amalgam along this line. When one wants to display a story, gameplay elements that are in the player’s control must be sacrificed. If the player is in complete control, on the other hand, the story must suffer. This is the conundrum that I always find myself in, is a hot-button in game discussion, and rears its ugly head in Planescape. I love the game as a role playing exercise where you can really write your own story, but am disappointed with the jarring disconnects lots of the more ‘gamey’ parts caused.
In a less gameplay focused post, I would also like to point attention to an interview Matt Barton, author of Dungeons & Desktops, did with the creator of Planescape: Torment. Chris Avellone discusses his writing of the game and other interesting stories. Check it out and be sure to look at his other interviews, they are very interesting and informative.
Video game technology is developing at a lightening pace. I remember playing the Nintendo I got for Christmas way back when and thinking “It can’t get any better than this.” Well, it did. Super Nintendo followed, N64, Playstation, Xbox, PS3 (I grew up a Nintendo kid). Each generation produced unfathomable advancement and the same sentiment of reaching the zenith of graphics and function. We are still there today. My ideas begin at the start of this cycle.
Games have always been played to test ones competitiveness, skill, or luck. Basketball, baseball, soccer, and golf are all examples of physical games we play. Mental games like chess, backgammon, and Monopoly also qualify. Video games continued this trend with limited technology and are seen in the early days with Pong, Space Invaders, Pac Man, Nethack, and Donkey Kong. All of these games have almost no story and exist purely as skill and pattern recognition machines. The player’s sole goal is to reach the highest score or the next level. It doesn’t matter if you are playing against yourself or others; you are still competing by using your skill to manipulate the programmed system.
Another line of games came out that pushed in a different direction: story. Programs like Zork, graphic adventures, and, reaching forward, the current subject of this blog (Planescape: Torment). These programs tell a story through descriptions using words, graphics, or a combination of both. The “player’s” goal is to complete this story while passing through various gateways required for progression. These tasks required thinking, reasoning, some measure of skill, but not purely based on manipulation of the system. I would say that these are the only parts that resemble a game. The rest is simply a choose your own adventure book in another medium.
I’m not trying to start an argument here. This is purely a mental exercise for me that is ludicrous, needlessly heady, and unimportant when I think about it. As technology exists, games are becoming more and more like a combination of their skill-based forefathers, movies, and novels rolled into one medium. Visual art is also a part of this, but it really depends on which game you are talking about. As we continue to progress, games will also keep bouncing around in this triangle. I doubt that it will ever find a settling point and also have a problem seeing it as a good device for pure storytelling as Planescape is attempting.
Pace is the Trick
The main barrier to effective storytelling is pacing. A master filmmaker, writer, or even musician must become a master at pacing and manipulating the feelings of the viewer or audience to make a successful piece. This is more difficult for writers as the reader is turning the pages, but there are ways to accomplish it such as sentence clustering, paragraph structure, and other techniques. These can make you feel as if you are reading faster during action scenes or dreading a page turn in a good scary story. As a game designer, pacing becomes even more difficult. I would even say almost impossible.
Time progresses linearly for people watching a film or listening to a piece of music making this aspect easy to measure. For books, people can turn the pages or even read at different speeds, but the aforementioned techniques can simulate these changes. In a game, all sense of pacing is completely stolen from the author/designer and placed in the hands of the player. The avatar in the program can move anywhere in the defined game space at any time. Any action can be taken, even if it is needless or tedious. This is the major disconnect that leads to all sorts of problems. In a skill based game, these pacing issues are ignored and put on the player to reach a high score. If you don’t play, you won’t get there. Restarting and replaying same scenes or solving problems is just expected for this situation.
When reading or watching a movie, you don’t need to go back and re-read or review parts to progress through the medium. Games can introduce death, roadblocks, or other similar situations. When a designer is trying to tell a heavy story in a video game, actions must be taken to overcome this lack of progress before frustrating the player to the point of quitting. Writers and filmmakers don’t want you to quit taking in the material, so why should these game designers? This leads to ‘cheating’ the medium to prevent this frustration. ‘Cheating’ is illustrated in Planescape through the mechanic of never dying permanently and allowing the infinite resurrection of your party members. This keeps the pacing going, but effectively eliminates the skill based portion of the game. Therefore, it ceases to be a game by definition. It just becomes a story with some interactive elements.
What’s this muddy, hastily written argument all about?
Planescape: Torment does an amazing job of telling a story as a video game. It is well written, heady, evocative, and, most importantly, interesting. The major flaws come in during the ‘gamey’ parts where the characters are forced to fight, even though most experience comes from conversation. These can be thrown out, in my opinion. It also comes through in its pacing of fetch quests and dungeons padded with combat. The point of the game is to tell you a story about this tragic man who can’t remember anything and is desperately seeking his forgotten past. Couldn’t these parts be streamlined a little? Most RPGs contain these to send you on a quest through dungeons where combat is the means of progressing. This is not that kind of game.
To end this muddled exercise in pontification, I guess I am saying I would rather read this story as a novel or a more streamlined experience falling on the side of ‘Story Telling’ in the spectrum. There is a novel included with your GOG.com purchase, but you miss out on beautiful artwork of the game. It was also not the intention to put it out in this medium. I love Planescape, but I think its biggest flaws shine when it attempts to be a computer game.
I look forward to comments... maybe?