Monday, 7 August 2017

Planescape: Torment - an old RPG lives again!

I struggled with bronchitis for the first time in my life in June and July, and let me tell you, it's awful! Co-workers treat you like a pariah no matter how many times you sputter "The doctor said I'm not contagious!” Embarrassment creeps in as you run to the washroom frequently from stress incontinence or to noisily dispatch a ball of mucous. A brisk walk becomes impossible. Small tasks take forever. Fortunately it's over now, but I can definitely think of better ways to spend two months of my life.

So it was very timely when I noticed that one of my favourite games from the past popped up on Google Play. Beamdog has been porting classic Black Isle games like Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale for mobile play over the past few years and I couldn't be happier! I never get to sit down at my desk anymore. Their latest release is Planescape: Torment, a cult classic RPG. Despite critical acclaim, Planescape did not have great sales when first released. I found my PC copy while rummaging around in a department store bargain bin :-D. It's not hard to see why - the box art isn't exactly attractive. The dude on the box is the immortal main character, The Nameless One, who wakes up in a mortuary and has to piece together his past lives through a lot of detective work. Every time he died he lost his memories, until this point, where he retains them.

It's also a difficult game to play for many reasons. Not only does one has to let go of the idea of a role-playing game as combat based, but there are smaller reasons like a shortage of recruitable companions, an abundance of challenging baddies and few places to rest. On my first play through years ago, a guide mentioned that the game stressed intelligence and wisdom, so all my points went into to those attributes, leaving my Nameless One weak in strength and dexterity. True, he is immortal, but his companions are not. It’s exhausting to constantly resurrect your party or hope you can make it to a resting spot without being taken down by a rat. The other learning curve comes from trying to figure out the Planescape multiverse which wouldn't be familiar to casual sword and sorcery fans - no dragons, elves or trolls here.

Two other things made Planescape unique - your Nameless One’s alignment is set to True Neutral but shaped by dialogue and choices made within the game. Then there is the sheer amount of text and dialogue in the game as you hunt down past connections, which is why intelligence is so important. If your Nameless One is too dumb, he won’t be able to unlock a lot of dialogue options, memories or clues. Playing the game was like reading a really good book. If hacking and slashing is your bag, you probably won't be a fan of this game.

I honestly thought I would never get to play Planescape again. I have no idea where the FIVE discs it came on went. This second time around, I found a better online guide and it was surprising by how much I missed during my first play through. It’s possible to miss a lot of the nuance in this detailed world and there were lots of little things that didn't occur to me. For example, once you gain the Stories Bones Tell Ability, you can revisit the Mortuary and talk to the zombies for more clues.

There's no shortage of complaints about the effect of video games on young people, but I played Planescape when I was a young adult and it had a positive effect on me. During this time, an older relative of mine wasn’t doing very well and went into hospice. I don’t know why the grungy, bleak landscape of Sigil was a place I wanted to be night after night. Something in the thoughtful narrative and the concept of having multiple lives made me less afraid of my relative dying - it was immensely comforting. My relative passed away the day after I finished the game and my grief was assuaged by the game's storytelling. Maybe it’s a very 21st century thing to say that a video game helped you with grief and loss?