Planescape: Torment was doomed to be a cult classic. Combine the unique and often disturbing setting, the cabal of antiheroes that follow you through the game, the fan favorite voice talent – like Dan “Homer Simpson” Castellaneta – and a story that some gamers called “intellectual” and others dismissed as “brainy” and “dull,” and you’ve got a product that was sure to ward off casual players, yet convert others into lifelong devotees. Planescape‘s ideas on character development and storytelling are still bold and exciting – and today’s mainstream hack-and-slash adventures could still take lessons from it.
The strangest, and one of the least successful RPGs from Black Isle (the company that brought you the Icewind Dale series), Planescape: Torment, which was released in 1999, took a risk by using the alternate Dungeons and Dragons campaign of Planescape, a not-really-fantasy, not-really-futuristic world that’s mostly defined as unstable and bizarre. Strange and unruly dimensions intersect at the city of Sigil, where most of the game takes place, and your character, portentously called The Nameless One, wakes up in a mortuary with amnesia, a battered shell of a body that cannot die, and just one friend: a flying, talking skull. And the game gets stranger from there.
People remember Planescape most fondly for its characters. The NPCs that join your party – including a reformed succubus, a psychopath engulfed in flames and a girl with a Scottish accent and a rat’s tail (who was voiced by pop star Sheena Easton and was, well, wicked hot) – are not only exotic, but their motives and back stories make them feel three-dimensional. But the most complicated character is the one that you control. Planescape neatly balances a rich protagonist with an emergent narrative: Although you wake up as a blank slate and you can roleplay any way you choose, you’re just the latest in a series of personalities that have controlled this beaten-up body. The Nameless One has also been wild and savage, cold and calculating, and an obnoxious do-gooder – and you have to deal with the fallout. (It’s true that LucasArts’ Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic pulled a similar trick, but the reveal was far more straightforward.)
Most RPGs don’t respond to your behavior in any serious way, except maybe to give you either a “good” or “evil” ending after you beat the game; while the Dungeons and Dragons rules use an alignment grid that extends from good to evil, and from lawful to chaotic, most dungeon crawls just tack it on as another attribute. But in Planescape, alignment informs every part of the world you’re in. Instead of your usual fighters’ or thieves’ guilds, the factions include the Anarchists, the Godsmen, and a pack of people who roam like wild dogs. Everything, from your gnarled body to the changing city streets to all of the planes around you, shifts and disrupts based on nothing but principles; one city physically drops from its original plane to a more nightmarish one after its people become chaotic. The same conflicts that rack the Nameless One also torment the people you meet, the neighborhoods you walk through, and the world around you all the way up to the endless “Blood War” between law and chaos that rages at the edge of the game’s world. Ideas become real, and the conflicts in your head are reflected on gigantic battlefields; like your character, the entirety of the world is in turmoil.
You could go so far as to call Planescape a work of art; it’s a truly interactive story that would only work in this medium, and with this setting. You spend more time exploring ideas than game maps, and you experience a character, making his actions and suffering your own. And crucially, Planescape never settles for simple answers or gives up its secrets. Fans are still arguing over the themes and the ending, like movie buffs arguing over, say, Donnie Darko. And even the players who “beat” it keep coming back to the question at the heart of the game: “What can change the nature of a man?”
Chris Dahlen is a freelance writer for Pitchforkmedia.com, the Boston Phoenix, Signal to Noise, Paste, and The Wire (New Hampshire). His website is Save The Robot.