Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition (2017)

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Planescape: Torment (just P:T moving forward) was a "bucket list" videogame for me.  A former friend of mine introduced me to P:T back in 2003, a couple years after I got into other CRPG titles like Fallout and Baldur's Gate.  He handed the discs over with the promise that P:T was the greatest role-playing game of all time which, considering my love for the genre, placed some mighty expectations on it.

Playing P:T was, no joke, total agony.  The overwhelming grey, brown, and dingy oranges of the starting areas made it difficult to figure out where my characters were - a predicament not helped by primary PC The Nameless One's grey skin and first companion Morte being a tiny floating skull.  My mom used to warn me playing videogames for too long would give me a headache and that came to fruition squinting my way through P:T's awful aesthetic.  I tried playing P:T three more times before the Enhanced Edition came out, the second time with my then-friend guiding me to try and highlight the appeal, a third time after that, and a fourth several years later when P:T appeared on Good Old Games.Credit earned, the P:T Enhanced Edition finally makes the bloody thing playable, but also highlights the initial dearth of imagination given the fantastic setting.  The Enhanced Edition smooths out the character models to make them easier to distinguish from the environments but does nothing for the terrible pacing.  It was a solid fifteen plus hours before I got to a location that didn't resemble an overgrown slum and the meager insights into The Nameless One's condition kept most of the intriguing pieces dangling at a distance.  Even the promise of complex characters felt overblown with the few folks I managed to attract fitting established CRPG archetypes - the silly fighter (Morte), the stoic warrior mage (Dak'kon), and the rebellious thief (Annah).

I was considering giving up until I got to the Clerk's Ward, a mid-game government district, where the aesthetic finally showed a bit more color variety and contains the first brilliant sequence and character of P:T.  The Brothel for Slaking Intellectual Lusts, and its proprietor Fall-from-Grace, almost single-handedly shifted my enjoyment of P:T from solid Dislike to full Like.  For all its acclaim as a dialogue-driven game, there wasn't a single interesting conversation and dozens of boring combat sequences from the beginning to the Brothel (I must have looked at someone the wrong way because thugs plagued my successful playthrough with battles almost as soon as I stepped out of the mortuary).In the Brothel, everything shifted for the better.  The quests didn't transition entirely from stock "fetch thing and talk to this person" but incorporated tantalizing aspects of P:T's setting earlier sequences hinted at while doing little with.  It became about fascination of the mind, not the body, and Fall-from-Grace encouraged The Nameless One and his companions to share their experiences.  So conversations were no longer about, "get this thing, here's the bit to know" and instead dangled around possibility.  I was planting suggestions in a disaffected lover to bring a spark back to a dying relationship, trying to recapture the ineffable sense of someone feeling right by scent and taste, and - most amusingly - bringing a mute worker back from silence with a combination Tourette syndrome demon tongue and the fantasy equivalent of washing someone's mouth out with soap.  None of the quests in the Brothel are about immediate satisfaction and instead are about creating a framework for the workers to better role-play for their clients.

P:T hits its peak here, interrogating the possibilities of mental and emotional connection in a world where sensations can be shared with stones.  Fall-from-Grace slowly drew my companions out from their shells whether they wanted to or not by sparking inter-party conversations I missed from Baldur's Gate 2.  The minor shift in aesthetics and, most importantly, introducing a character that creates curiosity about the world drew me in where the earlier sections had me going through the motions.  Then it all came crashing down with a plot defining conversation with Ravel, the night hag who severed The Nameless One from his mortality at his request, with the intriguing possibilities of role-playing devolving into a boring cavalcade of combat.

Therein lay the problem with P:T's use of Dungeons and Dragons.  No matter how smooth or successful I was in conversation with Ravel the encounter could only end in combat.  No matter how successful I was in solving the Curst citizen's problems in the subsequent section I would still be looking forward to more combat.  It's the latter portions that are arguably the worst of P:T, with every fresh revelation about The Nameless One matched with a solid wall of bodies to plow through.  The inarguable worst, from my perspective, is when Curst gets sucked into a demonic realm and to balance the alignment I had to run around killing things or telling people to knock it off.  There was no dialogue, only commands and killing, and did a disservice to the interesting possibility of the landscape shifting with actions by taking such a rote path.Combat in Dungeons and Dragons can be just as fun as the role-playing but P:T's approach is the most mundane "click and wait for death" use of the system.  There's none of the tactics, weapon switching, spell arranging, or tension of other Infinity Engine titles like Icewind Dale or Baldur's GateP:T has a setting and story my former dungeon master self salivates at the thought of using, but P:T doles out the intrigue sporadically and terrible combat frequently.  Ultimately, P:T has patches of phenomenal writing wrapped with an often agonizing videogame experience and an aesthetic that fails to take advantage of the limitless possibilities of its setting.

At its worst, P:T caters to a kind of consumption that makes figuring out what's going on more interesting than sitting down to actually experience the art.  When P:T is at its best, it gently encourages our collective hunger for connection and hope that our individual messy worlds of symbols can communicate our loneliness.  That makes P:T a singular achievement in writing - not gaming.  I deeply respect the story P:T brought into our world but, as I figured out and wrestled against fifteen years ago, rubbish gaming is rubbish gaming.

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Posted by Andrew

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