Planescape: Torment

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 66: Planescape: Torment




It’s time for the big one, and I’m not quite sure where to start. Or continue. Or even end. Unlike every other release we’re covering for this series, most people who are reading this are probably familiar with Planescape: Torment. While the game remains only a cult classic, it still sold hundreds of thousands of copies and perennially remains at the top of all-time best RPG lists. It’s mentioned glowingly on game podcasts, and is if anything more influential today than ever before. Conversely, Planescape supplements and adventures sold in the tens of thousands, and by the end of the line perhaps not even that many. For most people, Torment is synonymous with Planescape, and essentially is the setting. Thankfully the game is in fact legitimately wonderful, and its translation of the pen-and-paper RPG to computers was startlingly accurate. However, it is still just one game, and its version of the planes isn’t quite a 1-to-1 match with what we’ve been reading from TSR. Accommodations needed to be made, but that’s both a good thing and only to be expected.

Let’s begin, I suppose, with the beginning, or in fact the pre-beginning.  At this point, I think it’s commonly known that Black Isle Entertainment was actually in pre-production for three different Planescape games. Essentially, the company had bought the rights to the IP (presumably it was quite cheap because the setting didn’t sell well?), and was ready to milk it for all it was worth, though perhaps they overestimated just how much that was. One of these titles was being led by David “Zeb” Cook, the very designer of the Planescape Campaign Setting itself, while another was assigned to one of the setting’s primary authors following Cook’s departure from TSR, Colin McComb. However, Cook’s version was folded into the disastrous Stonekeep 2 project, which by all accounts was micromanaged to death by executives before being abandoned altogether five years into development. McComb’s version, intended as a King’s Field-like (a first-person predecessor to Fromsoftware’s Souls series), was also scrapped, though fortunately this resulted in McComb simply being shifted onto the third Planescape project, which is the one that made it all the way through to release. This game was originally titled Last Rites, and was also the first outing as lead designer from a certain soon-to-be-famous (well, within the industry and its fans) young writer by the name of Chris Avellone. 

The skull-collecting wizard is just one of many additions to Sigil that feel like a perfect fit for the world.

By all accounts, the actual development process for Torment was difficult. Avellone, as with much of Black Isle, was pulled away from the project for long periods of time in order to assist with the design of Fallout 2. This, however, may have ended up being a key development in the title’s quality. Avellone has also long attributed his work on Fallout 2 as helping him learn his trade as a designer, and you can see a heavy imprint from the Fallout games on Torment in terms of how it resolves dialogue choices. While Torment uses Bioware’s Infinity Engine that was being developed for Baldur’s Gate, it really owes more to the Fallout games than it does its fellow IE titles, and its fans will probably appreciate those more than, say, an Icewind Dale game. Which isn’t to say that the IE wasn’t important for making the game what is was, as the engine’s wonderful painted environments are beautiful even today, but rather that Torment‘s focus on character, story, tone, and theme marks it as a very different type of game from its combat-filled brethren.


Before we get too deep into the game, let’s summarize its overall plot for the few readers of this essay who might be unfamiliar with what Torment is about. Following a rude awakening in Sigil’s Mortuary by a floating skull, The Nameless One learns that he’s immortal, and has had countless past lives he can’t remember. His quest to discover who he really is and remove this immortality, which is beginning to unravel and cause insanity, takes him across much of the Hive, a bit of the Clerk’s Ward and the Lower Ward, plus small portions of The Outlands (including the gatetown Curst), Carceri, Baator, Limbo, The Ethereal Plane (in the form of the Lady of Pain’s mazes), and finally the Negative Energy Plane. That’s right, once again we’re back at that theoretically most hostile of planes, though in fact every other adventure seems to make a stop there lately. Along the way The Nameless One befriends a kindly succubus cleric, rescues a rogue modron from an experiment gone awry, frees a githzerai from eternal servitude, witnesses the birth of a new street in Sigil, and answers the question as to what can change the nature of a man. 

That’s a very short synopsis of a quite lengthy game, which I apologize for, sort of. Ultimately, my advice is that you go ahead and play it yourself, probably in the Enhanced Edition version easily available right now, which requires no mods in order to make for a reasonably playable experience, unlike the original version. It’s good! If you enjoy Planescape, you’ll almost certainly enjoy it, too. Then come back here once you’re done and we can talk about the game some more. 

Ignus’s story doesn’t quite make sense for Planescape, given that it requires someone other than the Lady of Pain to turn him into a portal… but whatever. Allowances needed to be made.

By now, you, as a person who has played the game, have certainly noticed that the worst thing about Torment is that it’s an AD&D game, more or less. This isn’t surprising, since it’s adapted from the tabletop game, but that doesn’t make the actual combat, spell, and thievery mechanics of this implementation of the rules any less clunky and tedious. No one plays Torment for the battles, and it’s to the game’s credit how few are truly necessary to finish it, though making it through without them still requires a lot of tedious mucking around with game systems. In reality, what Torment largely plays like is an isometric adventure game with occasional battles you need to slog through. This is particularly true given that aside from three particular instances, you can’t lose the game by dying, so ultimately if you struggle through for long enough you can get through any fight. In this way, Torment draws from the Lucasarts adventure games of the early 90s, wherein the designers realized that instant death isn’t a fun setback and only results in save scumming. 


None of those glowing reviews I mentioned earlier focus on the battles because it’s both a weak part of the title, and also doesn’t quite fit well with the rest of what you’re up to. The Nameless One likely murders an Uncharted-number of enemies in the streets, and this goes largely unremarked by the game itself. Yet it’s also a huge part of Torment‘s gameplay because combat is such a huge part of AD&D, and as much as the designers really put loving care into the story and characters, it also felt like they were just as bored with this part of things as I was. Ultimately, you can’t make an AD&D video game without a lot of combat (well, you theoretically could, but it hasn’t ever been attempted), but at the same time that’s not what makes Planescape interesting or memorable. Most Planescape books contain minimal-to-no actual game mechanics because those are less important to the series than roleplaying, and fortunately roleplaying is what Torment excels at. 

I said earlier that Torment is quite a long game, and I stand by that, despite its reputation as comparatively short for an Infinity Engine title, or any sort of CRPG for that matter. One of the other things that’s frequently mentioned about Torment is that it has a script somewhere in the neighborhood of 800,000 words, though I’ve seen it sometimes estimated to be as many as 1.2 million (I’m yet to see a truly convincing case for either number). And while much of this is due to how the engine’s scripting works, such that it’s not in fact hundreds of thousands of unique words, this is still one of the most verbose video games ever made. You can play through it quickly if you don’t read everything, but if you are going to, say, speak to characters and read the surprisingly good weapon and spell descriptions, then it is going to take significantly more than 30 hours to finish. It takes 5-6 hours for an average person to read 100,000 words, so setting aside things like combat and travel we’re talking about dozens of hours spent simply reading text. Based upon the word counts above, this is like reading a pair of long fantasy tomes by someone like George R. R. Martin. Or perhaps the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, which comes in at less than 600,000 words. In any case, as with the Planescape supplements, your enjoyment is going to depend in large part on how much you enjoy reading. 

Oh yes, another huge number of words come from clicking on objects in the surroundings. Get used to reading.

Now despite my praise for this lengthy story, for the most part length and quality are on the opposite axes when it comes to prose. However, the writing in Torment is consistently very, very good. And I don’t just mean between party characters, or for major questlines, as is common for RPGS, which often read worse the further you stray from the main story. In Torment, dozens and dozens of NPCs have their own particular dialects and way of speaking. This is especially impressive because very little of the game is actually voiced, so in order to get this across Avellone, McComb, and the other writers and designers needed to be good at giving each of these characters personality through only how they’re written. No, they’re not perfect at this, and there are both numerous typos and occasional misfires as far as dialogue goes, but that does nothing to lessen the accomplishment, or the overall effect. This version of Planescape and Sigil feels fully inhabited, and very few DMs would be up to the challenge of making so many unique and interesting characters, even over dozens of sessions. While you can certainly play Torment without caring about its writing, I don’t think it’s possible to actually enjoy the game without caring about it. 


When replaying the game for this review, I was consistently struck by how closely Torment adheres to Planescape’s canon. I believe all 15 factions at least get mentioned in the game, and while some of their headquarters that appear don’t exactly stick to what’s in The Factol’s Manifesto, the gist and essential feeling of those tabletop supplements is always included. There are shortcuts taken due to time and budget constraints, of course, and for instance you’ll see the same abishai models over and over again rather than an assortment of devils, but the effect works just fine. Considering that this was a low-budget project, how much of Sigil and the planes gets shown is impressive. Avellone and company’s version of the Planescape setting may not be exactly what you had in your head, but it’s unmistakably Planescape, and this is particularly true for its Sigil sections. 

Once players do leave for the planes, Torment isn’t quite as exciting, but this feels like less a design issue than one of scope, which more than anything was limited by the budget. Really, it’s impressive we see as much as we do, considering the constraints. Baator in particular feels a bit lacking, as it’s composed of just a pair of map screens. However, limiting these infinite planes in this way is actually quite similar to what DMs need to do when running tabletop games. Some highlights of the early Planescape products (notably McComb’s Well of Worlds) are featured, including a fight to move a gatetown to the outer planes and the appearance of the Pillar of Skulls. The modron dungeon within Limbo is a particular favorite of mine, as it’s a wonderful parody of dungeon crawl RPGs, even though it’s not that interesting to actually play through. This dungeon feels like a concept that should’ve been in the Planescape supplements themselves (and is a reminder that Planes of Chaos is a bit lacking…), and like many of the game’s other ideas is something that DMs should absolutely feel good about including in their own Planescape campaigns. For that matter, there’s no reason anything in Torment couldn’t be easily moved to the tabletop and fit right at home with any Planescape campaign, which really shows how well the designers did in recreating this world. 

So much detail in every random building of this game. I miss the Infinity Engine, not so much for the gameplay but for the art.

Perhaps even more noteworthy is the game’s conception of its companions. There are no “normal” fantasy characters and tropes here, no elegant elves or stalwart dwarves or hobbitish halflings. And while Annah’s tiefling heritage would later become part of mainstream D&D, as of 1999 she was still a strange outlier. This gave a wonderful, cosmopolitan feeling to the game and its fantasy. While I like to also include typical fantasy races in my Planescape games as well as the Planescape ones, the very idea that you could have a succubus cleric in your party was noteworthy. The game’s idea of who counts as “people” within a campaign is something I really love, and it feels contemporary in its ideas that demons and devils don’t need to be evil, angels don’t need to be good, and your conception of reality is just as important a part of the game as anything else. How Torment treats morality and choices is often better than what’s shown in the AD&D supplements, and this is much of what makes the game feel so much more adult than other D&D video games.


As far as worldbuilding goes, the only parts of Torment I didn’t really care for were its version of the Lady of Pain’s mazes, which here are incredibly easy to escape, much more so than, say, an average dungeon. I understand why they work this way, as this is still a computer game meant to be fun, but ultimately these parts of the adventure made the Lady seem kind of incompetent and weak to me. The one in Well of Worlds is a much better fit if you need to run an adventure that visits the mazes.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I find myself struggling with what to say about Torment. You can find much longer, far more in-depth coverage of the title elsewhere, and I’m by no means an expert on the game. For instance, I’ve still never played an evil version of The Nameless One, because the game’s writing just makes me feel too bad about it, and as such there are likely huge parts of the game’s prose I’ve never seen. Even some of Torment‘s most noteworthy traits, such as its desire to directly contradict the clichés of role playing games both in structure and characters, have been covered plenty before by many other outlets. I hoped to somehow write my way into having more to say about the title, but find myself once again reiterating that it’s still good, it’s Planescape through and through, and anyone who remotely enjoys computer games should give it a try. 

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