In recent weeks I have been running a little experiment on my personal blog, Dire Critic. Several months ago I was enabled by a group of friends to invest in some classic Bioware CRPGs. I had only ever played the first Baldur’s Gate as an adolescent and it seemed I was long overdue to correct that. Partly inspired by Kirk Hamilton and Leigh Alexander’s FF7 Letters and suggestions from (recent Moving Pixels podcast guest) Eric Swain, the process quickly organized itself into a sort of interactive book club. Consciously patterned after the Vintage Game Club with the AV Club’s Rowan Kaiser as advisor and a smattering of Twitter followers playing along with us, our first game on the agenda was the critically lauded cult favorite Planescape: Torment.
I really had no idea what to expect. I try to keep as blank a slate as possible when going into media, be it a film or a game. I rarely even watch promotional trailers. So with no preconceived notions about Torment at all, apart from knowing it was “writerly” and built with Bioware’s Infinity engine, I downloaded my DRM-free copy from GoG.com, installed it, patched it to the high heaven, and ventured into the land of the dead.
Death is seldom morbid in games. In fact, games generally go to great lengths to take away the direness of player death. Yet even from the first moments of Torment, there is a particularly visceral quality to The Nameless One’s mortality or lack thereof that makes the player painfully aware of his own embodiment. Maybe it’s the description of the words carved into our protagonist’s back, something left to the imagination that we would these days see laid out plain in some cinematic, othered from us. It’s astonishingly tactile to imagine those carvings, as it is to imagine the scent of death filling the Mortuary as your character wakes up. It took little time at all to forget the details of character conversations, but the impressions of the senses are lasting ones, made moreso by how macabre they are.
Planescape: Torment is a game — I quickly learned — about a liminal state between life and death. Undeath, essentially. But the game is quick to discern between the partly dead, the really dead, and the stereotypical shambling undead. The Nameless One appears cursed with a sort of grotesque immortality, more Nosferatu than Edward Cullen, eldritch horror rather than bodice-ripping romantic ideal. Being routinely spat out by death is — it turns out — not pleasant at all, particularly as everyone among you worships the “true death” of utter oblivion.
It is this last point, the striking atheism of such an ideal, that I found most compelling. Most of our own world’s religions promote some idea of eternal life, individual or collective. The idea of nothingness as a final reward neatly drives home for the player the grimness of this game’s reality.
In a Cartesian way, it is technologically rather interesting. A game’s contents are completely immaterial, stored and reproduced as electronic signals. When those end or somehow become corrupted, the existence of that world and its logarithms is immediately wiped out. I execute, therefore I am.
I once wrote a story set in a computer game’s debug room. From the perspective of the game’s anthropomorphized bits of data, it was a kind of existential limbo. Unformed, fragmented and in many cases helplessly broken, the game sprites could do nothing except linger in a sort of stasis until system memory deleted them. This was their digital afterlife or at least their digital purgatory, the final reward for which was termination. In other words, it was all quite similar to the belief system set out in Torment. Without having ventured terribly far into this game’s world at all, I was already intrigued by the possible parables of technology that it was able to convey.
As early impressions go, I may in fact turn out to be completely wrong about Planescape: Torment. But being struck now by this idea, of Torment as a game both hyper-aware of its own immateriality and the visceral ways it relates (im)mortality to the player, already engenders a distinct play experience that I would not have expected. Death in games being the cheap mechanism that it is, a title in which your protagonist really cannot die puts a satisfyingly unsettling spin on things.
If you would like to join me in our group discussions on Planescape: Torment, go ahead and swing by our posts on Dire Critic. And if you have Twitter, you can keep up with the conversation with our hashtag #PlanescapePAC.
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