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True Axiom avatar 1:01 PM on 02.21.2011  (server time)
Groundhog's Day: Dead and Dead Again

The true goal of the Western RPG is choice: the choice to do things differently, to be able to make your choices, not the characters, and experience a different world. That choice becomes replay value, which becomes playing a game obsessively, over and over again, until you've done everything in every way.

But why make different choices? There are some games where I feel like I've made all the proper choices the first time, defined the character how I want him to be, and therefore I feel no space, no room to do things different. And yet I still play them over and over again.

Planescape: Torment is one such game. In at least ten playthroughs, I have always gone the exact same path: a practitioner of the magical arts, as instructed by the midwife Mebbeth, the stoic, goodly, yet joking hero, who cannot quite believe his predicament: that he must die, and die again. And live the same life, over and over, until his memories are snuffed away.

Torment is fascinating for being a video game version of groundhog's day, where you attack a puzzle, die, and then do it differently until you succeed. There is no game over, there is no loading, just victory or a quick death on the road back to victory. A recursive progression into a mad, incredible fantasy world.

My love of Torment (which sounds so very, very wrong) came from a repressed love of Dungeons and Dragons and an appreciation for its sibling, Baldur's Gate, which featured almost exactly the same gameplay and a very similar setting. Planescape, for those unaware, was a setting of 2.5 Edition D&D, the system behind the Infinity Engine games. They were brothers and, while Baldur's Gate was harsh and impenetrable, Torment featured a reiterative design—you can't die—that served to make the game a lot more playable. Dangerously playable, some would say.

Really, there are two moments that draw me back into the game, over and over. The first is the unbroken circle of Zerthimon quest, one of the first and most involved party member quests in video games. Effectively, you are taught about the religion of the githzerai by Dak'kon, a party member, only to discover that you, in fact, taught Dak'kon the religion, in a different incarnation. The other moment is much simpler, and is a puzzle, found beneath the city, where you have to repeatedly kill yourself to advance. At the end, you find out that you, yourself, built the puzzle, because you were the only man who could die a half-dozen times to get through it. It's the simple moments, like those, that make the game sing.

But why do I always play it the same way? It's pretty simple, actually. The main character, despite having a history and backstory that is intricately woven through the present events (really, it's a monument to good games writing, even if it falls short in a couple areas), is a complete blank slate upon start up: he remembers nothing, and is just someone you create. When your character is such a blank slate and put into such an immediately shocking situation as waking up on a slab in a mortuary, well, it's hard not to react how you, yourself would react. Other open ended RPGs let you create your character and slowly dip yourself into the adventure, which allows you to really create a fictional presence, but in Planescape that is thrown out the window. You have no back story you remember. There's nothing that would motivate you towards evil besides a personal tendency, something I tend to lack, so I cannot see the point in not being good.

So every visit to this marvelously open ended game ends up going the same: a generally good character who likes making fun of Morte the floating skull for having sexual attraction to the undead, a character who uses magic because, frankly, there's no other good mage in the party and because magic is just so much cooler than punching people in the face with fist irons. It is always the same, and yet every time it's different. There's new layers I uncover. I find quests I've missed before. There's happenings I flat out forgot about.

And in that way, this is a story that is always novel in its brilliance.

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