The Strange Greatness and Missing Legacy of 'Planescape'
It's a widely hailed as a classic, one of the richest and smartest RPGs ever made. So why didn't it inspire imitation?
'Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition' screenshots courtesy of Beamdog
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Spoilers for Planescape: Torment follow.
There are very few games that are locked into the games canon, those must-play games on the level of The Godfather or Ulysses, that a fan of the medium must experience to see what video games can do as an art form. There's nothing approaching some kind of "official" canon in games: You’re not going to get something like the American Film Institute’s list, but you will find some agreement about “big” games. Games that weren't just popular, but influential in that they highlighted a changing medium. Super Mario Bros., Space War!, and Myst are all going to make those lists.
Then there is Planescape: Torment. It's a classic RPG that tends end up on these laundry lists of important games, and among RPG critics and fans it is often placed at or near the pinnacle of the genre. People love it because of its tone and its story, and I think that they, maybe secretly, enjoy it because it floats some questions that it isn’t interested in answering.
What created Planescape’s position as a game that people need to play? The late 1990s produced all kinds of interesting and weird games that, for whatever reason, people don’t claim as the the greatest games of all time. Ehrgeiz is suitably strange, but doesn’t cast a long shadow; Septerra Core is beautifully bizarre and goes unremarked upon. As I discussed in the most recent episode of Mages & Murderdads , I think that the power of Planescape might come from the fact that so much of it lives within the mind of the player. It is a game that puts a lot of trust into a player to pay attention to fundamentally unsolvable questions.
PS:T’s plot revolves around the player character The Nameless One and his journey through the multiverse. That journey is motivated by his desire to figure out why he cannot die, and the unity of that narrative idea and the mechanics that it affords remains unrivaled in games; short of a few special circumstances, every death ends in a respawn. There are often narrative or gameplay consequences for that, like enemies despawning or NPCs reacting with surprise. It really is glorious and unique in how it is handled.
But the game is also interested in broader, more philosophical issues. The Nameless One cannot die, so what does the future look like for him? What does the long timeline of undeath do to someone? The game puts it simply: “What can change the nature of a man?”
This questioning refrain marks PS:T as different from other games. It has been matched only by the phrase “would you kindly?” in the realm of phrases that have serious gameplay impacts. What makes PS:T different, and I’d argue more special, is that it refuses to answer its question. It even refuses to clarify what the question is, exactly. Instead of bludgeoning you over the head with the the truth that was hidden behind the curtain the entire time, “what can change the nature of a man?” sits with you and forces you to contemplate what the hell it is even asking.
This lack of an easy answer, plugged into a fantasy game that really goes all out with wizards, Blood Wars, and portals flittering across time and space, makes PS:T something that is both hard to shake and hard to replicate. If there’s a thing that justifies the legacy of Planescape: Torment, it is the process of trying to figure out what exactly is happening inside that wacky universe. It is trying to figure out what means what. This, I think, is also why so many people have such a strong reaction to the game.
“What can change the nature of a man?” morphs from a question that you find into a question you are asked and then into a question your character poses to himself. It comes up, over and over again, without ever clarifying itself. And I mean that seriously, because the game never really makes it clear what loaded terms like “change” and “nature” mean in the context of the sentence? Is it the shifting of essence? Is it the fundamental roil of humans moving along in time?
I came to these thoughts about PS:T from another source. I’ve been listening to Unspooled, a new-ish podcast hosted by Amy Nicholson and Paul Scheer, and they’ve been talking a lot about canonicity on there. The concept is simple: they’re watching the AFI’s list of the greatest American films and then talking about all of them. In the process of doing that, the evaluate the film both personally and in the context of film as a whole. Is it fun to watch? Does it push the medium forward? Is the world fundamentally different after the film than it was before?
Planescape sits in a weird spot when it comes to that. Because, yes, other than the travesty that is its combat system, it is generally fun to play. It did push the medium forward by attempting to take player choice seriously and then pay off some broad narrative strokes with those choices. But the world of video games is not fundamentally different, and I would argue that it didn’t even have wide-ranging effects on other video games in its wake. Fans and developers alike talk about this game as something special and to be emulated, and yet that impact has rarely been felt or seen over the past 20 years.
And that’s bizarre, right? Cover shooter mechanics and first-person controls get standardized and deployed across the medium, but a storytelling ethic that drives home its meaning through repetition and asking open, complicated questions just didn’t find purchase. The heart of the game, which is asking a hard question and then pursuing it as it morphs across a story, just hasn’t been replicated either inside RPG games or outside the genre. Planescape has remained singular and largely uncopied.
The other big splashy canonical games that I mentioned above created whole genres. We swim in an ocean of their making. But strangely enough, Planescape has become a cultural icon precisely because it has not been copied and turned into a genre. Its particular way of crafting a world, asking a question of the player, and then demanding that the player consider that question did not find purchase in the medium.
Maybe we would have been better off if so. The method fundamentally trusts that a player will pay attention and consider the elements a designer puts in front of them. It is a generous mode of design that demands contemplation instead of thrills. I love thrills, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hard to come away from Planescape and not want more of what it does well. Sadly, despite a spiritual successor, it remains a singular object. Torment: Tides of Numenera fell short of the mark and refused to ask a lingering question. It mistook the draw of Torment for a mystery, and there were no big philosophical conundrums.
PS:T’s canonicity in the pantheon of video games comes from its strong commitment to the conundrum, the shifting question, and we should be living in a world where those games are produced more often. I’d love if Planescape became less unique, even if it lost a little of its specialness. In any case, we’d have more games to think about.