One of my all time favourite games is one that nobody bought, less played, yet for some reason everyone seems to love it. BGE Syndrome is what I call it, after the better known (yet equally neglected), Beyond Good & Evil. The game I love so dearly was released before that, in a wonderful pocket of time for PC gaming that saw a swell in RPGs: they were more accessible; better looking, with sweeping soundtracks; and didn't feature random encounters, oestrogen-riddled emotionally-inept characters with great hair, or long-winded dialogues about how random everything was, but that their hair was still great.
Planescape: Torment is just about the finest example of how story telling, character development, and player interaction should mix. Because the characters are
the story. What starts of as a simple (hah!) amnesiac story deepens into a philosophical and spiritual conflict. The main protagonist in this maze is the Nameless One, and that's the only thing he'll ever be called.
There are spoilers below, but I doubt you'll want to play a near-10 year old PC game, in a whopping 640x480 resolution. Though it really is worth it.
Images from MobyGames.
We first find the Nameless One laying on a mortuary slab. Shredded with scars, tattooed and appearing very much dead, he awakens with no memory and no possessions. He isn't the lump of clay to be shaped most characters are, just waiting for some event to convince them they're really a prince, a god incarnate, or that something forces him from his home, or he finds a magic sword. Nothing like that.
We've essentially stumbled in on this fellow half way through his normal day. In fact he's had a hell of a day, because he was actually dead. For some reason, he never stays that way, or so he's told by a floating skull he befriends. This is a man with already a lifetime (several of them, as a matter of fact) of achievements, conflicts and relationships. But because he's forgotten it all, we're invited to learn as he does. Its all very well in playing a pre-established character, but we'd have to go through all manner of forced exposition to learn why he is the way he is. Not so with the Nameless One. He is us, and we are him. Everything is as new to him, as it is us.
This makes him a very comfortable character to play. We can all relate to having situations we handled badly, people we didn't get along with, and wished we could go have another go at doing right. Well the Nameless One gives us that chance, in how we handle situations as he (re)visits people and locations. He's a character that melts into our own style regardless of how you play, and because of his past encounters, we never feel special or privileged to have all these adventures and events happening to us, because according to the game, they've been happening all along, and will continue to do so after we stop playing.
The game world is one of nuanced steam-punk and fantasy. It seems like a world that could have existed, and indeed the design of Sigil, City of Doors, was modelled on merry ol' London. Think From Hell, or Sweeney Todd without the singing. It's a crass, uncaring world, with it's own dialect of English, and it feels like home. This isn't a world where everyone is out to either help or hinder you. Whilst the game engine certainly couldn't provide day and night cycles or similar Artificial Intelligence, the rich interactions of the NPCs makes you feel wanted, or rejected. These NPCs could be off getting drunk, or having sex, or anything had you not bothered them. The point is that it makes you feel
The games goal is a selfish one, compared to other "save the world" RPGs, as we only want to know who we are. Whilst other events seem important (like the vanishing of a town from the current plane), its almost insignificant to the Nameless One and his companions. This negates the feeling of "why am I playing this game? What's the point?" that appear in other games. We're playing to understand who we are, what kind of gamer, and what kind of character.
The other characters help to immerse you inside this scarred man. There's banter yes, but also real dialogue. Dialogue that unravels who you are, and tragically loved. You are this man who's lived a thousand lives, slain a million beasts and men, loved hundreds of women. And in all this, your life, you discover has been circling itself. You chase your former selves in diaries, tombs, parchment scrawlings and in memory receptacles, never knowing which incarnation was insane, evil, twisted, or a saint. You know nothing of previous lives, save for what you want to find out. You want to know if the sassy Tiefling that accompanies has followed you before, is lying to you now, feels the same love for you, that you do for her.
I've never felt more involved in an adventure as much as I had with the Nameless One. But it's not just because he's a fascinating character, he isn't: He has no past, or future. It's the game world the brings it to life, the characters we fall in love with, or hate, and ultimately our submission in finding out what happened and who we are. The Nameless One is the most transparent character I've played, without baggage, and expectations.
I've been hateful, shocked, curious, fascinated, fallen in love, and terrified to loose it all. All through The Nameless One. "What can change the nature of a man?" Ravel, the witch, asks. Throughout the game l asked myself that same question, adapting to the kid of person I needed or wanted to be; whether or not I wanted to play out the same life as the last. It's not so much the Nameless One that is the character I adore, but the game world as a whole. It really is a powerful experience, as exciting as a great film, and a stirring as the best novel. Play it, and ask yourself, what would change your nature?