The intellectual's rare delight, the gamer's pleasant surprise
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The science fiction and fantasy genres are unfortunate, because they tend to attract mostly second-, third- and lower rate artists who populate it with their mediocre work. There is, however, a great redeeming feature: these genres allow gifted creators to tell a story that simply could not be told outside of the genre realm. And such is the story of Torment.
A video game like no other, Torment (I will refer to it only as Torment, because that seems to be its real name; after all, we do not call it 'Forgotten Realms: Baldur's Gate', do we?) tells a tale of a man who can not die. Somewhere, somehow, he lost his mortality and with it, apparently, his memory and even his name. All he has is a vague feeling of emptiness and sorrow. His quest is obvious: try to find out what happened to him and, eventually, die.
All RPG heroes search their world trying to become someone. The Nameless One's journey goes exactly in the opposite direction – he desperately struggles to become no-one. This alone makes Torment unique. But there is more to the game than just an inventive storyline.
The setting of the game suits the story and its themes perfectly. Planescape is just what its name implies, a series of worlds, planes of existence, each with their own attributes, and most of the game takes place in the city of Sigil in the centre of all planes. It is a crossroads, a place of many doors and a cage, all at once. Everything eventually appears in Sigil. It is, also, a city that for the same reason serves as a net in which all the scum of the planes tends to catch. The game's world is dirty, the game's world is crude and brutal. There is no elegant sword-fighting to be seen in Torment, there are only maces, heavy axes and stilettos. Forget potions that restore health, be prepared to use a needle and thread to stitch your wounds and wrap yourself with bandages, dirtied with age and use. You start the game on a slab in a mortuary, surrounded by dead bodies in various stages of autopsy, zombies and a floating, talking skull, who will become your first party member.
Party members in Torment are one of the greatest things this game has to offer. There are relatively few of them (nowhere near Baldur's Gate standards), but they are easily the best written, most complex and most memorable characters I have ever seen in any video game. Each and every one of them has his or her own reason to follow you, a reason they may not necessarily share with you when you first meet. Each one of them is psychically broken in some way, each of them is a tormented soul. They have their own peculiarities, they react to your quest and to each other, their and your fates are intertwined. You can (and should!) talk to them and who knows, perhaps you can even help them solve their own problems while solving yours. They are a strange group of eternal losers, but the emotional attachment you build up for them during the game is unusually strong.
So many superlatives and yet I still have not mentioned the single best thing about Torment. The Final Fantasy series (especially FF VI, FF VII and my favourite FF VIII) has shown us that a video game may engage the player emotionally. Torment shows that it may engage the player intellectually as well. The game is well known for unprecedented amounts of written text, pages and pages and pages of interactive dialogues with innumerable branches. This is a game for people who like to read, and surprisingly enough, not only is there a lot to read, but the writing quality is exceptionally good. The writers have a taste for very short stories and tales, and you will come across many of such stories in Torment, told by people on the street and in bars. Some of them may be tangential to the plot, some of them crucial, some of them are crucial but at the time you read them, you won't realize it. Some of them are about your companions, some about the person you were. All of them are well written, some I would even call concise masterpieces. All the major characters also have a distinctive voice, their own peculiar use of language and methods of expression. I think that if you took a random line spoken by any of the major characters out of context, the speaker would still be clearly identifiable. And the greatness of Torment lies in the fact that under all this extraordinary writing, there is a soul and a real intellectual depth.
We have seen many amnesiacs and their quests for identity in video games, but in Torment, the amnesia is used in a radically different way than in, say, Sanitarium. In other such games, the goal is to find out who you are. In Torment, the question of who you are is irrelevant - who you are is defined by your actions. You are trying to find out who you were. This is not just playing with words; your past keeps catching up on you in the Planes, you always run into people, demons and spirits who had known you before, who had talked to you, who had loved you, who had wanted to kill you, who had been betrayed by you, who had died because of you. That is the Torment of the title: The Nameless One is crushed by the weight of his previous lives and by his ignorance of all their deeds, good or evil. The game repeatedly asks its famous question, 'what can change the nature of a man?', and I would like to stress that this is not just showing off, giving a fast food philosophy to the hungry masses (anyone remembers the Matrix film series?), the question, the most important question in the whole story, actually forces you to think. The game deals with highly abstract concepts on almost every step. You can even join various factions in the game, if your vision of the world harmonizes with their beliefs! Do you believe the meaning of life is experiencing the world as much as you can? Join the Sensates. Do you think you are in this existence only waiting for your True Death? Join the Dustmen. Do you believe that order and lawfulness restrict your freedom? Join the Anarchists, or, actually, don't, just kill a lot of people and annoy everyone you meet, because a faction of anarchists is something of an oxymoron, isn't it? The Nameless One has an AD&D alignment, but it is not chosen on the character generation screen - because that does not really make sense, does it? Your actions choose your alignment, not the other way around.
But wait - did I mention the game is actually a lot of fun to play? Did I mention that your party members every now and then lead hilarious conversations with each other (I admit the endless Annah-Morte bickering wears thin after a while, but Nordom's bewildered observations of the world around him are pure comedy gold)? Did I mention that this is not only a game where you can stumble upon a playful Franz Kafka reference, but also a game in which you can buy a harlot's services for your floating skull friend and spend some time wondering what exactly are you paying for? Did I mention there is a randomly generated dungeon in Torment that is actually a very gentle parody of randomly generated dungeons, for the hardcore gamers in the audience to enjoy? The game is not a dry intellectual debate, the game of course knows that its main purpose is to entertain, and it entertains. There are many levels on which you can enjoy the story of The Nameless One.
There is only a handful of games that have made me cry. Torment is one of them. The game is highly original, extraordinarily clever and utterly fantastic in many, many ways. The whole dramatic finale, with its wonderfully simple and soothing music and unbearably beautiful sadness, is one of the most memorable and powerful scenes in gaming history.
Torment is a rare gem, a piece of true art in a field overgrown with weeds.
First I would like to say that no matter how long this section is, I still consider Torment one of the greatest games ever created. What I would like to do in this section is to point out that this greatness completely overshadows a rather large mistake made by its creators - an unfortunate choice of game engine.
From one perspective, the choice makes perfect sense: the Planescape setting is a licensed AD&D setting and the game is played by AD&D rules. What the makers did, therefore, was reach out for the engine that powered the successful Baldur's Gate, another AD&D license. Just a few tweaks were needed and the engine was ready - allowing, probably, more time to spend on art and writing. The problem is that the gameplay of Baldur's Gate and of Torment is vastly different.
Let's face it: Baldur's Gate was about combat. You kill some things, level up, find a clue, move on. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy Baldur's Gate (I did), but it is clear the game focuses on fighting. Torment, on the other hand, focuses on dialogue. There are fights in Torment, and they are fun, too, but they are of secondary importance - as they have to be, obviously, when your main character can't die. What is the point in fighting an immortal? What is the point of fighting if you are an immortal? Yes, these are precisely the kinds of questions Torment likes to ask, but it still means the choice of game engine is very peculiar. Killing beasts to level up in Torment is a complete waste of time. I haven't counted, but I think that throughout the whole game, you get much more experience by talking to everyone you meet and choosing wisely in dialogues than by slaying everything you see. And, to be perfectly honest, experience and levels are actually quite unimportant in the game. You level up - so what. You're not there to kill an evil wizard and save the world. You're there to kill yourself. There are some very cool high level spells with special animations and FMV and all that, but by the time you are at a high enough level to use them, there is no one to use them against, so why bother, really?
Also, as an RPG game, it has serious balance issues. The game is pretty much designed to be played with a mage character who is good to people. Mages get the best items and the best dialogue options; Dak'kon, the mysterious and silent warrior, becomes a really interesting companion only if you are a mage. And they are much more powerful than fighters. There is the option of playing as a thief as well, but I honestly don't think anyone really does that, unless they have played the game already five times and are getting bored. With alignment, the situation is very similar - while it certainly is possible to play the game as an evil character, it won't be much fun and, in fact, largely goes against the whole storyline.
What annoys me about all this is that for us, gamers who have played Baldur's Gate and lots and lots of other RPGs, this doesn't mean anything. We can adapt quickly. But for newcomers to gaming, Torment has to be confusing at first, which is a terrible shame, because it really is a perfect showcase of what games as an art form can do. The first thing you see when you start a new game in Torment is one of those character creation screens, but what no one tells you in it is that the only important stats in Torment are wisdom, intelligence and charisma, in this order. The rest of them you can safely ignore. And then - sweet! I have found an item that raises my THAC0! But what the hell is THAC0, anyway? Is it better to have it higher or lower? This information may very well be somewhere in the manual (my used copy didn't come with one, so I don't know), but my point is that for the Torment game experience, the information is still completely irrelevant. There are stats and numbers everywhere, but, as I said, the game all boils down to three. You don't need a Swiss army knife to cut an apple in half.
And just one more thing - my favourite party member, Nordom, is extremely well hidden. You can (and I did, the first time) finish the whole game and have no idea he even exists - to reach him, you have to buy an optional, fairly expensive and seemingly useless object, activate it somehow and go through at least two optional dungeons that are so maze-like you can easily miss him even there. A tad too complicated, don't you think? In Torment, you see, there are four companions who form the core of your party, and I guess everyone plays with them, at least the first time. You have three choices for the fifth companion (you can't have more than five), two of whom are certifiably insane and not particularly pleasant characters to spend time with, let alone have in your party, and one who is lovable and funny. Guess who is the hidden one?
The Bottom Line
Unless you're uncomfortable with reading lots and lots of text, Torment is a gaming experience you definitely shouldn't miss. This is, without any doubt, one of the greatest games ever created.
As a postscript, some practical advice: there are both official and fan made patches widely available on the internet that repair lots of bugs and typos left in Torment (as many other ambitious games, it was rushed to the market by the company before it was really finished) that you shouldn't play without; there are also ways to decrease the interval between party members' banter, which is set far too high by default and unless you decrease it, you will miss lots of great conversations. There is also a very nice resolution patch, because 640x480 doesn't look very good on a modern monitor and the playing area really is too small. It also solves a problem that already plagued Baldur's Gate - what is the point in creating pretty prerendered backgrounds full of impressive architecture if you can only see them one tiny screen at a time? As a side effect, with this patch, you sometimes see things in cutscenes you were not supposed to - actors preloaded in memory safely hidden off-screen suddenly become visible. So beware if you're uncomfortable with that.
What more should I say? See you on the Planes.