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Tales of Torment, Part 2

by Brother None, 2007-08-01

What can change the nature of a man? Often considered one of the greastest CRPGs ever made, Black Isle's magnum opus Planescape: Torment takes the familiarity of D&D and then turns things upside down with fantastical locations, bizarre characters and a dose of philosophy.

Our guest interviewer Brother None continues the retrospective trip with Lead Designer Chris Avellone and "second designer" Chris McComb in Part Two (Part One can be found here).

 

Chris Avellone: Note that there are a lot of spoilers below, and I tried to mark most of them. If you intend to play the game, I'd suggest sticking to the opening questions and leaving the rest for later. I also included an extracted sample of the dialogue evolution in Planescape with one of the major NPCs for anyone who wants to check it out.

 

Storyline

RPGWatch: MCA once noted PS:T was born of frustration with the uselesness of dying in cRPGs, how did the creative process go from there?

Chris Avellone: When I first came to interview at Interplay, the director of the TSR division at the time was Mark O’ Green. One of the questions he asked in the interview was “if I were to design a Planescape game, what would it be like?” I told him I’d start on the death screen, and what happened to the player character after that, waking up in the Mortuary, and trying to piece things out from there like a jigsaw puzzle. He hired me, either because or in spite of that, so I guess it worked out.

One of the directions for the theme of the game was to turn a lot of RPG cliches on their head, and a number of encounters, situations, and game mechanics revolved around that. For example:

- Rats became one of the most dangerous creatures to fight.
- Undead were often more human and sympathetic than their living counterparts (Pharod vs. Stale Mary, for example).
- Quest givers were usually people you had given quests to, but had forgotten you had (Pharod).
- Brothels indulged not physical lusts, but intellectual lusts. A LOT.
- The plane of chaos was incredibly orderly.
- Gaining information was often more important than increasing your stats.
- Death didn't end the game, and in places, helped progress it.
- You didn't get a name until the end of the game.
- You are frequently fighting against things and traps you set for yourself in previous lives.
- No swords - and there was an attempt to avoid conventional and expected spells and weapons.
- No dwarves, elves, halflings, etc.
- Options were provided for the player to easily raise dead companions so the game could keep going easily.
- The most prominent Succubi in the game was non-sexual.
- Devils were painfully honest, angels... well, weren't.

There were more, but a framework of those often helped guide the overall direction of the game.

I can’t say that these decisions helped mainstream sales or made customers want to pick up the game in favor of more tried-and-true fantasy titles, but those were ideas that seemed to be cool to try out.

Colin McComb: This is Chris’s baby.

RPGWatch: Could you clear up once and for all the exact relation between the Nameless One's deaths, his amnesia and the three incarnations?

Chris Avellone: Spoilers! Don't read any farther if you intend to play the game.

Every time the Nameless One dies before the start of the game, his personality is erased. This is the result of the magic that the night hag Ravel performed on him to make him immortal, since everything Ravel did always had a brutal drawback that unmakes all her altruistic efforts. She discovered that he lost his memory after she “tested” her work by killing the player - the player woke up and had forgotten her and the reason he had asked for immortality in the first place. Rinse and repeat for a few thousand incarnations or more.

As the start of the game, however, Ravel's "blessing" is breaking down, and the Nameless One is actually able to remember his previous deaths up until the start of the game. Ironically, this coincides with the fact that his mental degradation is also escalating, and the longer he is killed and reborn, he will eventually become nothing more than a mindless zombie that is impossible to kill. Once he loses his will, there will be no way for him to save himself - or at least discover what drove him to this state. The events of the game is his last chance in his lifetimes to put things right.

The three incarnations the player meets at the end game are (1) the practical incarnation who discovered that someone was purposely killing the player and did a great many unethical things to strike back (led the assault on the Fortress, assembled Deionarra, Dak'kon, Xachariah, and Morte, built the trapped tomb for the killer, left notes on the player's back, deceived (?) Dak'kon with the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon), (2) the insane incarnation who did all sorts of historical damage and tried to dismantle and ruin all that the practical one did (the two obviously hate each other at the end - the paranoid incarnation made the dodecahedron trapped journal, got mazed by the Lady of Pain, killed the linguist Fin and strangled a bunch of other people in Sigil), and (3) the seemingly well-meaning incarnation, who is actually the one who started this whole ball rolling by being a bastard, and then suddenly realizing that the karmic wheel was going to roll around for him and tried to change his ways.

It's important to say, however, that the well-meaning original incarnation genuinely felt remorse for what he had done, and he wanted to try to fix it - the only problem is, after the first death, he forgot his grand goal and doomed thousands of incarnations to immortality. I always felt that this was the proper way to handle this because I always felt that the “immortality fix” he tried to achieve was a quick fix, when in fact, he should have just owed up and paid the piper in the first place.

Colin McComb: This is, again, Chris’s baby.

RPGWatch: What's Morte's story exactly and where did the inspiration for the character come from?

Chris Avellone: Spoilers: Morte was yanked from the Pillar of Skulls by the player after swearing an oath to serve him. The player did this because he thought Morte would retain all the knowledge of the Pillar of Skulls once he was removed from it – he was wrong.

Morte is responsible for the deaths of more than one of the player's incarnations and is believed to be responsible for the death of the first incarnation as well, but there is no evidence for this other than Morte's suspicion.

Morte sticks with the player seemingly out of “Mimir” responsibility (he's not a Mimir), but in fact, it is Morte's guilt - the one noble emotion he has, although he refuses to confront it - is what drives him to try to help the player on his quest.

Incarnations in the past, however, have considered the floating skull to be deceptive and did not trust it, thus, the warnings in the player's tomb concerning Morte.

Colin McComb: Chris’s baby, dammit! Why must you torment me?

 

Setting

RPGWatch: Factions featured strongly in the background of PS:T. Any factions you would have wanted to expand or add?

Chris Avellone: We actually wanted to add all of them, but there just wasn't the resources to do it - the Chaosmen was something I realized could be thrown in quickly, so I went ahead and did it. Also, we did want a Doomguard faction just because of Vhailor's presence, but again, we ran out of resources there as well.

Colin McComb: I would have liked to expand the Godsmen. I don’t think I gave them nearly enough credit, nor do I feel I made them interesting enough or involving enough. I think the Harmonium were well represented by Ebb Creakknees. I would have loved to get the Doomguard involved, and the Athar, but the whole no-powers-rule in the game kind of obviated their involvement.

RPGWatch: Why the choice to center the game strongly around Sigil and keep other places very restricted when entered (such as only one canyon on the Lower Planes)?

Chris Avellone: We felt Sigil was the part of Planescape we really had to get right from the outset in case we made more games. It's the signature city, but you're right, we did sacrifice other planar locations so that we could do it.

Chris McComb: As I mentioned above, starting the player out in Sigil immerses the player in the planes immediately, without throwing in the whole “hey, check it out, you’re in the playground of the GODS now, berk!” that sort of comes with the territory of the Outer Planes. It’s a good introductory area. As for the reason behind keeping the other areas restricted, well, it was largely a question of just how big we wanted the game to be. Opening up additional planes meant opening an infinity of new options, and we kind of had to ship the game at some point.

RPGWatch: Any Planescape places you had wanted to add, but couldn't?

Chris Avellone: Limbo was considered (and made it in, in a different format, so I don't know if that counted), and we did kick around the idea of the Higher Planes, but those didn't strike as interesting enough compared to some of the other locations we could do.

Colin McComb: I wanted to do Mount Celestia and more of Baator, but again, we’re talking about a massive increase in design time, scripting time, and testing time, even if we didn’t add any new features or monsters. Chris added Limbo, technically. I wish we had seen some slaadi.

RPGWatch: To what extent did you allow yourselves to, and did you, deviate from the Planescape universe?

Chris Avellone: You may notice in the game you can't be a priest, and the idea of the Powers is downplayed in the game as well - we intentionally distanced ourselves from the gods of the D&D universe, since we were concerned it would detract from the plot. There was already more than enough that had to be explained and fleshed out, so throwing the Powers in felt like more baggage.

Colin McComb: We made a conscious effort not to deviate from the setting. The whole team had incredible respect for the license, and I thought we did a great job of keeping the game true to the setting. Now, we didn’t include everything in the campaign, and some absences may have been glaring, but I think we did a good job in distracting people from those absences.

I also think I dislocated my shoulder by patting myself on the back there.

RPGWatch: Any specific technical constraints that got in the way of translating the PS:T setting?

Chris Avellone: Nothing really springs to mind - obviously, you're trying to cram an infinity of infinities into a box, and there's only so much you can do. Again, the advantage of being able to use painted bitmaps as adventure maps really allowed us to pull off some of the locations that would be extremely difficult to do in a 3D engine.

Colin McComb: Belief being power. There’s no stat for belief. Some of those things had to be fudged, but since there’s no actual stat for belief in tabletop AD&D, I think we did all right with what we had.

 

General

RPGWatch: Do you feel it would be a good idea to make a sequel to PS:T? If so, how do you envision it? If not, how about another game in the Planescape setting?

Chris Avellone: A long time ago, I did kick around the idea of two sequels. One was "Lost Souls," an adventure that allowed the player to experience the events surrounding Torment (both past and future) but the Nameless One wouldn't be in it - it would, however, feature Deionarra, some of the members of the player's first party (Xachariah), Fall-From-Grace, Ravel, Trias, and other major characters and see the Planescape universe from a different perspective. This didn't go much beyond a one-page vision statement, though, and I never submitted it for serious consideration.

One I felt less strongly about (but still liked) was "Planescape: Pariah", which allowed the player to take on the role of Dak'kon and try to unify the githzerai and githyanki, but again, that never went past the vision doc stage.

The reason I never submitted either one was because a direct sequel somehow feels wrong (I feel the game stands on its own, and I don't want to drag a rake through the first game).

I'd be up for another game in the Planescape setting, though. Some of the Planescape mods I've seen for Neverwinter Nights 2 would probably put any ideas I had to shame, though - they're pretty amazing. I know there’s a few guys at work who would also like to do a Planescape game.

Colin McComb: I have mixed feelings about it. I thought Chris did an excellent job in ensuring the loose ends were tied off neatly, but at the same time, he didn't kill off all the NPCs. They were so richly imagined and so involved in great events that it's hard to imagine them just saying, "Well, that's enough excitement for THIS life," and then going and settling down by a nice little fire made up of the souls of damned petitioners. I would especially like to see more done with Dak'kon, and I'd like to see more of Morte, and I'd like to see more of Annah, if only so I could go to the recording studio when Sheena Easton came in again, because she was hilarious.
So a direct sequel? Not so much. Another game in the Planescape setting, one that references Torment and ties a few characters in without making them the centerpieces of the game, absolutely.

RPGWatch: Would you like to work on said game? Do you think it's likely such a game could be made in the industry as it is now?

Chris Avellone: Yes, and yes... but the last answer would come with the caveat "with difficulty." And the caveat: "And only if it were self-financed." And: "And if it were distributed for free." And finally: "Of course, it would probably need to be done with an existing editor."

Colin McComb: I would love to work on this, especially if we could bring back most of the team from the original. We were driven, motivated, and I am extremely proud of the result of our hard work. Do I think it could be made now? I do, provided we had the backing of an understanding set of investors who didn't mind a good long slip from the original deadline. And hell, look at Blizzard and Valve... when was the last time they made an original deadline? And when was the last time they put out a bad game? So yes, given a nearly impossible confluence of factors, I believe it could happen.

 

Additional Questions

RPGWatch: Dialogue is the most-discussed element of Torment's design.
a) Did you feel D&D system was the best way to bring the kind of dialogue options Torment had to the forefront, or do you feel GURPS-likes could be an improvement on it?
b) PS:T is even referred to as a "dialogue-based" RPG, as its own genre. Was this dominance of dialogue over other gameplay elements in the game intentional from the start?

Chris Avellone: I don't know if either D&D or GURPS always nails dialogue interaction, but D&D 3rd Edition does a good job of providing more options for players to get more "game" out of dialogue.

While doing design for Neverwinter Nights 2 and NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer, I usually found there was always a dialogue skill (Taunt, Appraise, Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate, etc.) that could be called into play for any particular conversation. In Torment, we kept most of those options statistic-dependent (Strength, Wisdom, etc.), but a more skill-based system to go along with the stats is my preference.

I do think dialogue in Torment would have suffered had I not done design work on Fallout 2 and saw all the stat-based and skill-based options the game presented in conversations. That really opened my eyes to what could be done in dialogues.

Yes, it was a personal preference. I don't feel it was the right call in the end (game mechanics should come first, and Torment's game mechanics were very clunky), but that was the main focus for design of the project.

Colin McComb: a) A mixture of the two would probably be ideal. We had to invent a lot of variables and base a lot of decisions on the player’s stats, and that’s not necessarily the best route to capturing fully the experience of a thousand-lived immortal.

b) Yes, it was. Chris made a choice early on to make the game more than a hack-n-slash adventure, and I think it paid off in the depth of loyalty and fondness of feeling the audience still has for the game. There may have been a little TOO much dialogue, but hell, I loved it all.

RPGWatch: The farther you get into the game, the more rushed it feels, especially on the prison plane. How much rush was there behind the project and how did you pick what you wanted to cut or leave unfinished?

Chris Avellone: There was urgency toward the end of the product, and the version of Curst you played through was actually the second revision of that plane (the original felt like it needed the iteration, so Adam Heine, Colin, and Scott Warner all tackled it).

I also wanted a lot more going on in the Fortress of Regrets (I don’t like the opening map’s challenge to this day), but I'm actually impressed with the amount of companion scripted sequences that took place at the end. Hendee, Jake DeVore, and Spitzley did a lot of work to make that ending happen, and I am thankful to this day.

Of all the things that were cut, however, I feel the most sad about a quest that was supposed to occur in the Modron Cube – this quest was one where either Fall-From-Grace or Annah would get kidnapped by the evil wizard in the maze once you entered it. The cool part that amused me was aside from mocking the save-the-princess cliche, we recorded some funny dialogue for Fall-From-Grace where she's delighted and excited by the whole thing, since this is her first time being kidnapped, ever.

Annah has a slightly less-than-pleased reaction, but the Fall-From-Grace one still makes me smile.

Colin McComb: The rush in Carceri was fully intentional, if you mean in the sense of “wow, there sure is a lot happening!” If you mean, “Things sure are broken!”, well, we realized that there were certain capabilities of the scripting editor that we hadn’t tried out originally, and we wanted to see just how cool we could make things in the time we had remaining.

Funny story about the final crunch… Torment was actually responsible for me meeting my wife. See, we were supposed to go gold before Thanksgiving, but there was a database crash and we lost a few weeks’ worth of work, and Feargus asked me to cancel my Thanksgiving plans to help with getting my stuff back in. I was invited to an Orphans’ Thanksgiving, and I met this incredibly cool woman there, and… oh, we’re talking about Torment? Sorry.

Anyway, yeah, there was some rush at the end. We’d been working incredibly long hours – like, hundred-hour weeks – and we came to realize that unfinished work like dialogues, subplots, and extra coolness had to be shelved if we wanted to get the game out in time for Christmas. The day they put the freeze on new design was both chilling and liberating – but we still had over a month to go. At that point, anything that was not crucial to advancing the main story of the game was evaluated and ruthlessly slashed, unless it had a completely miniscule amount of work left. There was no “picking” involved – there was just carnage.

The harm to our hearts caused by this carnage was slightly alleviated by the Jack-and-Cokes that I poured for the team on the day we went gold.

RPGWatch: What can change the nature of a man?

Chris Avellone: The high Wisdom answer available at the end of the game is, whatever you believe can make you change can do so - it all varies on the individual. Belief is what drives the Planescape setting, and belief allows one to change the shape of people and the Planes – and over the course of the game, it may even create real people from figments of the player’s imagination (Adahn).

The Transcendent One believes the question is meaningless, but characters with high Wisdom can give the "correct" answer in the final confrontation (or at least the answer I agree with) which is:

NAMELESS ONE: “If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear – whatever you *believe* can change the nature of a man, can.”

THE TRANSCENDENT ONE: "THEN YOU LEARNED A FALSE LESSON, BROKEN ONE."

NAMELESS ONE: “Have I? I’ve seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil’s hag heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me.”

And that's it in a nutshell.

Colin McComb: Wisdom. Time. Belief. Desire. Remorse. A good meal. A tapeworm. Anything that can reach your soul, touch your heart, or broaden your mind. When you open yourself to understanding this, your answers are infinite. Your only impediment is will.

Chris Avellone: In any event, that’s it. Thanks for the opportunity, Thomas, this was fun.

Colin McComb: Huh. No more questions? Well, all right. Thanks so much for this – I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to answer some questions and tell some stories and praise my Torment teammates. And thanks to all you fans who helped keep us going during the tough slogs. We couldn’t have done it without you.
No, seriously. Totally sincere. Honest.

It probably doesn’t help that I’m saying that, huh? Well, it’s true.

 

As a final treat, Chis sent over the original Vision statement used to pitch Torment to management for development back in 1997 (.pdf).

We'd like to thank Chris and Colin for their time and generous answers and Brother None for taking a break from NMA to put together this feature.

Links:

Box Art

Information about

Planescape: Torment

Developer: Black Isle

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: RPG
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced

Regions & platforms
North America
· Platform: PC
· Released at 1999-12-10
· Publisher: Interplay

More information


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