Torment: Tides of Numenera (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
30Nov/170

Torment: Tides of Numenera (2017)

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In recent months, I've come to find that videogames may be the most potent medium to experience empathy for another human being.  This is a driving force behind Torment: Tides of Numenera (simply Tides of Numenera moving forward), where science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke's maxim, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" takes an empathetic turn.  The memories of entire civilizations can be crammed into rocks, nanomachines capable of driving innocent farmers to self-destructive heroics burn with a righteous and malevolent fury, and God's discarded vessel can find a way to strike back via research instead of stumbling upon a holy force.  As far as Tides of Numenera's ambition is concerned, developers inXile Entertainment are dedicated to presenting a society where everyone is an open nerve seeking peace.

This has the makings for a chaotic experience since my player character, The Last Castoff, can tap into the thoughts of these shattered people and manipulate their emotions.  inXile, understandably and disappointingly, makes the safe choice by making emotions fall into simple categories.  It's not as easy as red equaling rage or silver equaling nobility, but each color of the emotional force called The Tides tidily places player character actions into one - and sometimes two - emotional statistics.  Rather than ride out the unpredictable nature of human interaction, The Last Castoff's emotional responses are just another power stat to keep track of, and it wasn't until the third act that my dominant tide (gold, for empathy and self-sacrifice) made me an easy target for people looking to unload their burdens.I enjoyed this as an example of Tides of Numenera's mature writing since emotional vultures seek out codependent people for validation or support.  As a game mechanic, it kept reminding me that I was a digital echo of concepts too complicated to fit into a dialogue tree.  Since Tides of Numenera moves forward primarily through dialogue instead of fight sequences, each decision grew increasingly hollow as The Last Castoff needed some bucket to track what emotional currency was given or spent.  Truly selfless humans exist, and they don't track their emotional currency using digital readouts or score charts.

While the systems of Tides of Numenera kept me at arm's length from the emotional chaos hinted at by the writing, the presentation solidified that emotions are a quantifiable source rather than part of the human mystery.  The Last Castoff frequently has opportunities to delve into the past to listen for echoes of what came before, either in action or in emotion.  More often than not, this translates into a desaturated filter being placed on the existing environment The Last Castoff is standing in.  This put me at a further distance from the ambitious writing as peaceful memories are presented with the same wavy monochrome as memories of villages being slaughtered.  It's not a nihilistic suggestion that all stories are subject to the same perception as time moves on, as a running theme of Tides of Numenera is that the echoes of the past can teach us lessons for use in the present, but the flattened affect of the presentation further highlights how emotions are more for categorization than expression.On that note, combat carries with it some odd implications as it seems to suggest emotions can be weaponized.  This is true in a sense, all we need to do is flip on a television and see propaganda of all shades weave an emotional spell.  Less convinced am I that the same energy I can utilize to appeal to someone's charity can be harnessed into a concussive blast capable of destroying enemies in one hit.  Tides of Numenera suggests that by building my character for diplomacy or subterfuge, as I did, simultaneously makes them a walking magical beacon of destruction.  This is part of the hazard inXile had to navigate making Tides of Numenera a role-playing game in the classic Baldur's Gate sense, and since role-playing games demand systems to make sense of their world my empathy cannon is something I resisted accepting even when my attempts at diplomacy failed.

Not that it mattered much if I failed.  I was frequently reminded in loading screens that failure might sometimes lead to a more interesting outcome than success.  In practice, this didn't end up being the case.  Failing thieving checks or trying to grab items often yielded the role-playing game standard of either getting the owner of the item angry at the Last Castoff or losing the item.  With character interaction, it just meant one skill check got replaced by another.  Rarely was I locked out of speaking to a character or forced to find a different avenue for success.  Generally this was boring to play as I clicked from one check to the other. Specifically it resulted in cases where my diplomacy failed so I just went down to the next button which involved choking the target to death.  Much like the weaponization of empathy, too often failed diplomatic paths reach the same result as the outright violent choice.For all my reservations about its execution, there is one act of Tides of Numenera that perfectly communicates how role-playing systems, storytelling empathy, and presentation can combine to a memorable whole.  The Last Castoff unwillingly enters the Bloom, which is a titanic organism capable of hosting entire villages.  The Bloom itself is described as predatory, but the reality is more complex.  It serves as both treasure box and garbage bin, hiding portals to wealth as equally as dangerous spaces to eject the debris.  The Bloom is the living embodiment of Tides of Numenera's themes, a being that feels everything at once and is capable of communication only through whispers and emotional demands. It exists beyond good or evil but its ability to feel puts it at the mercy of beings seeking to take advantage of it, including The Last Castoff.  I didn't feel guilt at choking a character to death because it was just another option.  The Bloom reacts sensitively to each action, collecting its tendrils in fear, creating another mouth to feed on guilt, or lashing back defensively.  This section lacks many of the memory flashbacks of earlier hubs, keeping me entirely in the moment, weighing the cost of one action over the other as this thing that once seemed malevolent grew lonely and sad as my actions reminded me I was not the first creature to take advantage of it.

The Bloom is so effective because it's beyond any single system or skill check - standing as the messy whole of human emotion.  Individuals in Tides of Numenera can be treated with a simple risk/reward approach when the reality should be more complex.  inXile's writing exceeds its gameplay, creating an untenable distance between my actions and the characters populating the world.  The concepts of Tides of Numenera need a system more radical in execution, and the old role-playing game feel isn't enough to fill in the gaps.

Posted by Andrew

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