"Planescape: Torment": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable. 

 
 

Idea:


 
The hero is not trying to save the world, the city, the princess or any such thing. He is not trying to kill the evil overlord. He is not even trying to save himself. In fact it's the opposite. When you get right down to it, our hero, who really isn't a hero at all, is trying to die. Dying, being a rare feat he's unable to accomplish. And this is the potent general idea behind " Planescape: Torment". Everything is upside down. From the first moment to the last, the main goal here is challenging and destroying expectations. A hero who's trying to die. A city which is everywhere yet nowhere. A brothel of intellectual pleasures. And a whole lot of abstract ideas given physical form. It's the physical manifestation of one man's inner struggle and while such a topic is a bit outside the general tastes of the usual video game audience, " Planescape: Torment" uses this basic idea and carefully turns it into an RPG without ever losing sight of the goal. Even without the Planescape license, it's still a great idea, powerful enough to stand on its own in any medium.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Setting:



During the second half of the 90's, Dungeons & Dragons, the original RPG, was losing steam. Thanks partly to White Wolf Inc. the market was flooded with the so called "mature RPGs" designed for tweens rather than teens. These games down played the role of action and focused on character interactions. Consequently, TSR, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons, tried to release their own "mature RPG for tweens" in form of Planescape. It was supposed to be a D&D campaign setting for the "grown-ups". Saying that they overshot their goal would be the understatement of that decade.

The problem was the over-maturity. By taking the silly and simple concepts of D&D and treating them as meaningful metaphors of a cosmology which actually is trying to say something and/or forces the player to ask fundamental questions such as "what is the meaning of life, what exists and what doesn't" they have basically required that the players should be part time philosophers. As a role playing setting it is barely functional. As a setting for fantasy fiction it's one of the best.

" Planescape: Torment", uses this setting as settings are intended to be used. Writer Chris Avellone obviously has something to say and instead of using a setting as simply a cool backdrop, he leverages the full potential of Planescape to tell his story more impressively.

The story mostly take place in Sigil. A surreal city which is in the middle of an infinite multiverse. You immediately ask yourself: "How can something be in the middle of infinity?" You're right to ask this questions and many more. " Planescape: Torment", carefully replicates the alien visual style of Sigil as it is mostly envisioned by Tony Di Terlizzi. And as a setting Sigil is a fantasy fiction writer's wet dream. It's a piece of solid ground between possibilities, a place where you can get physically attacked by a concept, a gateway and an inn between solid and the abstract. This is a land where if you can convince someone into believing that he does not exist, he actually ceases to exist.

In " Planescape: Torment" particularly, you will feel that the setting itself is a character, judging the protagonist's actions. This is more justified in this story than any other, especially considering the fact that the city is ruled by an omnipresent being called Lady of Pain a name more than fit for someone who rules a place which serves as purgatory for our protagonist.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Characters:



Research shows that more than 90% of stories on any medium today are in fact of the dramatic type. (or shakespearean stories. depending on the terminology you prefer) It is no secret that such a story is built on characters and the conflicts between those. Therefore any story arguably is as good as its characters. Exactly this is probably the area " Planescape: Torment" excels in.

That being said, it has to be mentioned that there is a distinct lack of a real antagonist. Of course this is closely connected to the fact that the protagonist, Nameless One, is actually the antagonist of himself. He is practically fighting against his own crimes and sins. By uncovering the secret to his own identity, he also uncovers the physical and emotional destruction he caused in the past, shattering not only lives but also entire civilizations in his selfish pursuit of power. It is a cycle which he cannot break. Regardless of how many times he dies, he's resurrected for an unknown reason, each time with a different personality, yet each time he wreaks even more havoc. The player can play him as an evil man or a golden hearted angel, but that is largely irrelevant. What's done is done, and now it's the consequences coming back to haunt him even beyond death.

Arguably even more interesting than the main character are the supporting cast of the story. You have a guy who comes from a land made of abstract chaos given by the structured thoughts of its inhabitants. He's an outcast... Why? Because he questions. And his questioning literally breaks the walls of the city, threatening the very existence of his people. There is a succubus who has fallen from the grace of Hell because she has forsaken the pleasures of flesh for more intellectual pursuits. There is a mage who is obsessed with fire so much that he turns into fire, a warrior whose dedication to a cause is so strong that he doesn't realize he's already dead, a cheerful skull who is very friendly but then turns out to be the very personification of betrayal, a half demon, half human girl with an actual tail for men to chase and a walking TV set from a dimension made entirely of order... yet he's a rebel. Each of these characters not only has intriguing connections to Nameless One but they are also each so interesting that it would have been possible to base an entire game on just one of them.

Even those characters who are actually not your party members are interesting. Besides major characters like Mebbeth the old woman and Trias the Deva you'll meet a guy who's a letter in the divine alphabet, an ultimate warrior who gets bullied by thieves, a girl with a mechanical heart who's searching for the key to her own heart, an street who's giving birth to an alley and many many more...

In short it's all brilliant from start to finish.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Plot Structure:



" Planescape: Torment" starts with a classic video game mystery. We have the amnesiac protagonist who's not really sure of what's going on. Amnesia is very popular in video games for a similar reason the "Mute Protagonist" is. It gives you a blank slate the player can fill. " Planescape: Torment" does something else entirely. Instead of trying to identify the player with the protagonist it actually uses amnesia as a plot device. It is elemental in the general structure and also provides the first motivation for our hero: Figuring out what the hell is going on.

The reason this is not a hero quest becomes apparent when we discover who Nameless One is. This is not a hero quest, this was a hero quest, a quest which ended as a tragedy. The villain has won, the hero has lost, " Planescape: Torment" is the aftermath.

It is safe to say that " Planescape: Torment" is probably the only video game which lets you play as a villain in a way which is not ridiculous or comical. Sure there is stuff like "Overlord", "Dungeon Keeper" or "Evil Genius" but these are all over the top in terms of story. " Planescape: Torment" on the other hand is quite serious about what really happens to a godlike villain in a fantasy setting.

That's not to say " Planescape: Torment" is devoid of any humour. But even its humour is subtle, clever and quite different than the usually slapstick style of other similar productions. There is a distinct lack of swords for instance and at one point you can enter a classic D&D dungeon complete with a boss in the middle. By itself this may not sound funny but that's the way " Planescape: Torment" critics the genre by presenting a classic dungeon as a stupid experiment conducted by creatures bound by nothing but laws and rules.

The real triumph of " Planescape: Torment" though, is the fact that it uses the video game mechanics as a storytelling device. Nameless One cannot die. That means each time you "fail" instead of getting a "game over" screen or loading a save file or starting over and accepting these things as necessary evils of the medium " Planescape: Torment" turns it all into an organic component of the story. You don't fail, you just start over. Every time you fail you just start with another tragic cycle. It doesn't matter if you're playing the game for the first or tenth time. You may not know anything about the story but don't worry. Nameless One forgets everything too. It's all part of the vicious cycle he is stuck in.

Much like most video game stories " Planescape: Torment" eventually confronts the audience with more than a few plot twists too. These twists too are expertly executed, in that they are all foreshadowed and plausible, which is no simple feat considering that the story takes place in a setting which makes practically everything possible.

From the first motivation of finding Nameless One's lost journals the last confrontation with what is essentially himself, this story about discovering one's nature and then finding out what can change that nature is up there with the best fantasy fiction and quite possibly without equal in its own medium.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Craftsmanship:



" Planescape: Torment" uses a modified version of the famous Infinity Engine which powered games like Baldur's Gate 2 and Icewind Dale. The interface obviously wasn't designed for storytelling purposes. Still Chris Avellone and his team does their best with it. Visually it's a feast as far as the technology allows. Tony Di Terlizzi's vision for Planescape is captured perfectly. Each and every location is crafted with care. The fact that the engine is not up to the standards of the story means you'll have to read a lot of text. Normally that's not a positive in a mostly visual medium. But the text that's present is written with so much care that it's impossible to badmouth " Planescape: Torment" for that deficiency.

Simply put the craftsmanship here is top notch. It's almost as if every single texture and every single word is placed in its position with care. Combined with the amazing soundtrack which somehow does manage to have a theme for every single character and still manages to be weird but consistent in this extremely out of this world setting, " Planescape: Torment" is turned into an experience you won't easily be able to forget.

Rating: 2 out of 2
 
OVERALL:  10 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet"
NEXT WEEK: "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2"
16 Comments
17 Comments
Posted by dreamkin
WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable. 

 
 

Idea:


 
The hero is not trying to save the world, the city, the princess or any such thing. He is not trying to kill the evil overlord. He is not even trying to save himself. In fact it's the opposite. When you get right down to it, our hero, who really isn't a hero at all, is trying to die. Dying, being a rare feat he's unable to accomplish. And this is the potent general idea behind " Planescape: Torment". Everything is upside down. From the first moment to the last, the main goal here is challenging and destroying expectations. A hero who's trying to die. A city which is everywhere yet nowhere. A brothel of intellectual pleasures. And a whole lot of abstract ideas given physical form. It's the physical manifestation of one man's inner struggle and while such a topic is a bit outside the general tastes of the usual video game audience, " Planescape: Torment" uses this basic idea and carefully turns it into an RPG without ever losing sight of the goal. Even without the Planescape license, it's still a great idea, powerful enough to stand on its own in any medium.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Setting:



During the second half of the 90's, Dungeons & Dragons, the original RPG, was losing steam. Thanks partly to White Wolf Inc. the market was flooded with the so called "mature RPGs" designed for tweens rather than teens. These games down played the role of action and focused on character interactions. Consequently, TSR, the company behind Dungeons & Dragons, tried to release their own "mature RPG for tweens" in form of Planescape. It was supposed to be a D&D campaign setting for the "grown-ups". Saying that they overshot their goal would be the understatement of that decade.

The problem was the over-maturity. By taking the silly and simple concepts of D&D and treating them as meaningful metaphors of a cosmology which actually is trying to say something and/or forces the player to ask fundamental questions such as "what is the meaning of life, what exists and what doesn't" they have basically required that the players should be part time philosophers. As a role playing setting it is barely functional. As a setting for fantasy fiction it's one of the best.

" Planescape: Torment", uses this setting as settings are intended to be used. Writer Chris Avellone obviously has something to say and instead of using a setting as simply a cool backdrop, he leverages the full potential of Planescape to tell his story more impressively.

The story mostly take place in Sigil. A surreal city which is in the middle of an infinite multiverse. You immediately ask yourself: "How can something be in the middle of infinity?" You're right to ask this questions and many more. " Planescape: Torment", carefully replicates the alien visual style of Sigil as it is mostly envisioned by Tony Di Terlizzi. And as a setting Sigil is a fantasy fiction writer's wet dream. It's a piece of solid ground between possibilities, a place where you can get physically attacked by a concept, a gateway and an inn between solid and the abstract. This is a land where if you can convince someone into believing that he does not exist, he actually ceases to exist.

In " Planescape: Torment" particularly, you will feel that the setting itself is a character, judging the protagonist's actions. This is more justified in this story than any other, especially considering the fact that the city is ruled by an omnipresent being called Lady of Pain a name more than fit for someone who rules a place which serves as purgatory for our protagonist.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Characters:



Research shows that more than 90% of stories on any medium today are in fact of the dramatic type. (or shakespearean stories. depending on the terminology you prefer) It is no secret that such a story is built on characters and the conflicts between those. Therefore any story arguably is as good as its characters. Exactly this is probably the area " Planescape: Torment" excels in.

That being said, it has to be mentioned that there is a distinct lack of a real antagonist. Of course this is closely connected to the fact that the protagonist, Nameless One, is actually the antagonist of himself. He is practically fighting against his own crimes and sins. By uncovering the secret to his own identity, he also uncovers the physical and emotional destruction he caused in the past, shattering not only lives but also entire civilizations in his selfish pursuit of power. It is a cycle which he cannot break. Regardless of how many times he dies, he's resurrected for an unknown reason, each time with a different personality, yet each time he wreaks even more havoc. The player can play him as an evil man or a golden hearted angel, but that is largely irrelevant. What's done is done, and now it's the consequences coming back to haunt him even beyond death.

Arguably even more interesting than the main character are the supporting cast of the story. You have a guy who comes from a land made of abstract chaos given by the structured thoughts of its inhabitants. He's an outcast... Why? Because he questions. And his questioning literally breaks the walls of the city, threatening the very existence of his people. There is a succubus who has fallen from the grace of Hell because she has forsaken the pleasures of flesh for more intellectual pursuits. There is a mage who is obsessed with fire so much that he turns into fire, a warrior whose dedication to a cause is so strong that he doesn't realize he's already dead, a cheerful skull who is very friendly but then turns out to be the very personification of betrayal, a half demon, half human girl with an actual tail for men to chase and a walking TV set from a dimension made entirely of order... yet he's a rebel. Each of these characters not only has intriguing connections to Nameless One but they are also each so interesting that it would have been possible to base an entire game on just one of them.

Even those characters who are actually not your party members are interesting. Besides major characters like Mebbeth the old woman and Trias the Deva you'll meet a guy who's a letter in the divine alphabet, an ultimate warrior who gets bullied by thieves, a girl with a mechanical heart who's searching for the key to her own heart, an street who's giving birth to an alley and many many more...

In short it's all brilliant from start to finish.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Plot Structure:



" Planescape: Torment" starts with a classic video game mystery. We have the amnesiac protagonist who's not really sure of what's going on. Amnesia is very popular in video games for a similar reason the "Mute Protagonist" is. It gives you a blank slate the player can fill. " Planescape: Torment" does something else entirely. Instead of trying to identify the player with the protagonist it actually uses amnesia as a plot device. It is elemental in the general structure and also provides the first motivation for our hero: Figuring out what the hell is going on.

The reason this is not a hero quest becomes apparent when we discover who Nameless One is. This is not a hero quest, this was a hero quest, a quest which ended as a tragedy. The villain has won, the hero has lost, " Planescape: Torment" is the aftermath.

It is safe to say that " Planescape: Torment" is probably the only video game which lets you play as a villain in a way which is not ridiculous or comical. Sure there is stuff like "Overlord", "Dungeon Keeper" or "Evil Genius" but these are all over the top in terms of story. " Planescape: Torment" on the other hand is quite serious about what really happens to a godlike villain in a fantasy setting.

That's not to say " Planescape: Torment" is devoid of any humour. But even its humour is subtle, clever and quite different than the usually slapstick style of other similar productions. There is a distinct lack of swords for instance and at one point you can enter a classic D&D dungeon complete with a boss in the middle. By itself this may not sound funny but that's the way " Planescape: Torment" critics the genre by presenting a classic dungeon as a stupid experiment conducted by creatures bound by nothing but laws and rules.

The real triumph of " Planescape: Torment" though, is the fact that it uses the video game mechanics as a storytelling device. Nameless One cannot die. That means each time you "fail" instead of getting a "game over" screen or loading a save file or starting over and accepting these things as necessary evils of the medium " Planescape: Torment" turns it all into an organic component of the story. You don't fail, you just start over. Every time you fail you just start with another tragic cycle. It doesn't matter if you're playing the game for the first or tenth time. You may not know anything about the story but don't worry. Nameless One forgets everything too. It's all part of the vicious cycle he is stuck in.

Much like most video game stories " Planescape: Torment" eventually confronts the audience with more than a few plot twists too. These twists too are expertly executed, in that they are all foreshadowed and plausible, which is no simple feat considering that the story takes place in a setting which makes practically everything possible.

From the first motivation of finding Nameless One's lost journals the last confrontation with what is essentially himself, this story about discovering one's nature and then finding out what can change that nature is up there with the best fantasy fiction and quite possibly without equal in its own medium.

Rating: 2 out of 2



Craftsmanship:



" Planescape: Torment" uses a modified version of the famous Infinity Engine which powered games like Baldur's Gate 2 and Icewind Dale. The interface obviously wasn't designed for storytelling purposes. Still Chris Avellone and his team does their best with it. Visually it's a feast as far as the technology allows. Tony Di Terlizzi's vision for Planescape is captured perfectly. Each and every location is crafted with care. The fact that the engine is not up to the standards of the story means you'll have to read a lot of text. Normally that's not a positive in a mostly visual medium. But the text that's present is written with so much care that it's impossible to badmouth " Planescape: Torment" for that deficiency.

Simply put the craftsmanship here is top notch. It's almost as if every single texture and every single word is placed in its position with care. Combined with the amazing soundtrack which somehow does manage to have a theme for every single character and still manages to be weird but consistent in this extremely out of this world setting, " Planescape: Torment" is turned into an experience you won't easily be able to forget.

Rating: 2 out of 2
 
OVERALL:  10 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet"
NEXT WEEK: "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2"
Posted by ryanwho

Proving there's a right way to do the tired amnesia plot.

Posted by Meowayne

*cries*
 
Don't remind me how much it sucks that the game won't run on this machine.

Posted by dreamkin
Posted by ArbitraryWater

I never have actually played Planescape (because it's super rare and I don't want to pay $50 for a 12 year old PC game), but everything I have heard goes a little something like this: The story is great. The gameplay less so. Your review confirms at least the first part.

Posted by dreamkin
@ArbitraryWater:  
 
Your opinion on gameplay will depend on your opinion on the gameplay of earlier Bioware titles like Baldur's Gate. Torment plays much like them. So if you played and like Baldur's Gate, chances are you'll play and like Torment too. It even removes some stupid stuff like waypoints and adds running.  
 
That being said... Compared to Baldur's Gate series there are fewer quests and fewer items to collect. There is a LOT of text to read. And even though the close up camera helps with the story it doesn't help with ranged combat. Not that you'll find any ranged weapons in this game... (except Nordom's weapon), which adds another problem.  
 
I'd say the gameplay is dated and had problems even at the date it was released.  
 
 If Steam would release this as a $ 5-10 budget title I'd buy it though.
Posted by Nolan7689

Excellent review good sir.

Posted by Azrail

the combat part of gameplay is so so 
but the items, speech and other parts of gameplay are great 
 
arguably the best RPG ever

Posted by Rockdalf
@Azrail said:
" arguably the best RPG ever "
Posted by Red12b

Wow, I really want to play this game, the story sounds incredible. 

Posted by StrikeALight

Brilliant game, horrendous cover art.  
 
+1
Posted by Nomin

They actually had one of the developers made up for the cover shot.

Posted by ChernobylCow

Nice review.  Planescape definitely has a story unlike any other game ever released on the market.  It's very post-modern in the way the story and setting critiques normal fantasy rpg conventions such as no swords, you battle psionic rats that are controlled from a hive mind, and all the bits you described about the protagonist's inability to die.  I'm not really sure that I agree that the game's outset is for "the character to die", but then again I don't think PS:T spells that out too clearly.
 
One of the things you forgot to mention about the dialogue is the special slang that the characters talk especially in Sigil right out of the Mausoleum.  I believe they called it the "cant"?  Cannot remember at the moment.
 
Overall I think you did an excellent job reviewing a story as complex and deep as PS:T.  Kudos.  Baldur's Gate II next maybe?  
 
(Also do you think you could remove your poorly spaced quotation marks around the game's name and just italicize PS:T?  Sorry for nitpicking.)

Posted by dreamkin
@ChernobylCow: Italicizing is actually a good idea. I will do that from now on. 
 
That slang was called Planar Cant. It is more of a Planescape thing than a Planescape: Torment thing. But you're right, it is important. 
 
My next review after Uncharted 2 will be Brütal Legend. There are a couple of new games I want to review. Every now and then I feel like writing a retro review like Planescape: Torment. Who knows maybe one day I'll review Baldur's Gate II...  
 
Thanks for your kind words...
Posted by endaround

Well he really isn't trying to die, he's alive and trying to avoid the penalty of his dying. 
 
The big thing with Torment is that unlike say KoToR which has the  whole, "You used to be EVIL, but you forgot but let's not dwell too much on it" Torment forces you to confront all the ways you are a bastard constantly and how you being a bastard and how you trying to Kobayashi Maru your way out of your deal keeps adding to the suffering of those around you.

Online
Posted by Cwaff

I almost completed Planescape Torment then got to a point where there were enemies I couldn't hurt...

Posted by Azrail

fail 
epic ending