If you’re anything like me, the Early Access release of Torment: Tides of Numenera got your blood boiling, and the game’s full release can’t come quickly enough. Seeing as we’re nearly two decades out from the release of the original Torment, widely considered among the best RPGs of all time–if not the best–the time seems right to journey back to Sigil to live out another brutal immortality. And so that’s precisely what I did.
I’m firmly in the pro-Torment camp. I played it first in middle school, and years later it was my first purchase from GOG after my glorious return from the console wastes to the lush jungles of PC gaming. I can’t think of a more literary RPG, a game that so elegantly weaves the cosmic and the personal into a dense, philosophical yarn. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the game turned BioWare’s robust Infinity Engine into a machine for living literature.
My younger self could perhaps not fully appreciate the depth of the game on my first playthrough. I experienced the game viscerally, absorbing the rich world and falling in love with the characters. In later years as I studied and honed my craft as a writer, I recalled the game’s simple yet pathos-filled premise: an immortal living many lives in an attempt to dodge his inevitable punishment for a crime so awful that the multiverse itself is decaying as a result. In epic fashion, this cosmic flight from retribution leads to reconciliation, redemption, and acceptance. The philosophical implications are resonant, and many columns could be devoted to unwrapping the themes.
Upon my revisitation, I was struck most profoundly with a realization about the current artistic status of games. Conventional wisdom discusses the artistic development of games in the same terms as graphics, as something which is progressing and developing, and whose adolescence is bound up with a question of the medium’s ability to function as literature. Games like Torment, and its siblings Baldur’s Gate and Fallout, were demonstrating in the mid-90s a depth of story that remains essentially unsurpassed today. That their lineage can be traced, through their D&D-nerd creators, to tabletop gaming’s formalization of make-believe proves that the question of storytelling through gaming predates computer intervention.
It’s not that games are developing as literature, but rather that literature is vying for primacy in gaming.
Functionally, games are eternal. Play is fundamental to our sentient existence, and there will always be frivolities to satisfy our playful nature. But to move from merely eternal to truly immortal, games must claim their rightful place as an art form. Our history as a species is made up of stories, and the advent of gaming simply marks a greater trajectory through all of art: to transcend representation. Games, like film before, strive to break down the wall keeping you from the depicted world. A game can place you in a situation. A question.
Planescape: Torment’s question is “What can change the nature of a man?”
The game offers a number of explicit answers to these questions. However, it does more than just that. It uses its story to present a reflective space, a space for the player to consider the complex implications of the central question, and thus complicates it.
For a long time I thought that Ravel’s answer, “regret,” was the right one. Now, revisiting the game with more experience, I’m not so sure. I’m not even sure The Nameless One’s nature does change. After all, at the end he must still face punishment for what happened at the very beginning. Perhaps his nature always was the sum total of his many lives, with all their contradictions.
The raw materials of games, the engines and graphics cards to support them, will continue to advance towards the obliteration of mediation between player and game. Virtual reality is advancing, along with photorealism, and it no longer seems too far off that machines will be feeding us fantasy directly to the brain, Dreamfall-style. But, like in Dreamfall, this serves as nothing more than simple diversion, at best an oblivious escapism, at worst a pacifying nihilism, unless games strive to artistic immortality. It starts with a question.
Torment: Tides of Numenera’s question is “What does one life matter?”