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The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon
by Radek Koncewicz on 04/03/11 03:57:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Videogames are filled with conversations. These range from simple barks to deep and varied dialogue trees, but they're fairly prevalent regardless of implementation.

And it makes sense, too. People like stories, and stories are built on characters.

Despite this fairly natural desire for dialogue, games used to be pretty devoid of conversations. This struck me as particularly odd in RPG's where groups of people set out on a quest to save the world. After all, one would assume the journey would foster some banter and comradery.

Cutscenes eventually filled the void, but it took a while for another mechanism to catch on: letting the player manually choose to speak to his followers.

Planescape: Torment was one of the first titles to do this, and its discussions on the Circle of Zerthimon remain one of my favourite examples of player-initiated dialogue.

Introduction

"No wonder my back hurts; there's a damn novel written there."

Planescape: Torment opens up with its scarred protagonist, The Nameless One (TNO), waking up in a morgue. A talking skull quickly floats by initiating a conversation.


The "cant" is a bit alienating at first, but it adds another layer of immersion to the setting.

We soon find out that Planescape: Torment is not afraid of being verbose. Dialogue is plentiful and it's buffeted by descriptions, creating entire paragraphs that read like a novel. The Planescape cant -- 19th Century British slang -- adds further colour to the text.

Morte, the talking skull, informs us that TNO is effectively immortal as he resurrects each time he dies. The caveat is that he risks losing his memories whenever this happens, which is exactly how the game begins.

A Meeting at the Smoldering Corpse Bar

"Here? This is the Smoldering Corpse, though the person smoldering ain't dead yet."

TNO's only clues to his past are rather vague; all he knows is that he's missing a journal and should seek out a man named Pharod.


A motley crew at the aptly-named Smoldering Corpse bar.

Sigil is a wondrous city, but in some ways it's not that much different from a typical fantasy hub. To get a few quick answers, the easiest solution is to visit the local tavern.

The gruesome Smoldering Corpse bar is filled with all sorts of interesting characters, one of whom is noted to be observing TNO. His name is Dak'kon, and he's a withered old githzerai who wields a shimmering glaive.

Talking to Dak'kon reveals that his weapon, a karach, is shaped and sharpened by his mind. The karach represents a zerth, a follower of Zerthimon, but Dak'kon's blade is somewhat degraded due to a spiritual crisis. The githzerai dwell in the ethereal world of Limbo, forging their surroundings from clear thought, so this is a fairly significant issue.

Unfortunately Dak'kon cannot answer TNO's immediate questions, but when the conversation ends, he offers to accompany us on our journey.

Getting to Know Dak'kon

"This is his gallery. He says that he *knows* you as his canvas. He shows respect to your strength with his admiration." Dak'kon is silent for a moment. "Then he insults you by giving you his pity."

The initial conversation options with Dak'kon are limited, but talking to other githzerai in his presence reveals more about him. We pick up on the fact that Dak'kon's sullen disposition is a result of what's seen as a terrible disgrace by his people.

What's more, Dak'kon is purposefully hiding things from us.

Fell's grotesque backstage gallery consists of TNO's moulted skin.

In the Weeping Stone Catacombs,  TNO comes across a severed arm that once belonged to his previous incarnation. The arm can be taken to Fell's parlour to ask the Dabus about the tattoos that adorn it. If Dak'kon is chosen to translate Fell's rebus dialogue, TNO can detect that the seemingly honourable gith is actually lying.

When confronted, Dak'kon states that he will not say any more in the parlour. The issue can be pursued later on, at which point we discover that Dak'kon has actually traveled with one of TNO's previous incarnations. This revelation leads to the rather unique Xachariah subquest that sheds more light on TNO's own past.

Learning the Circle

"*Know* that I am not a teacher in this, but *know* that I can serve as a guide."

When TNO asks Dak'kon about his magic -- the 'Art' -- the gith replies that he does not know how it manifests itself in humans. However, if TNO were able to use it, he could learn more of it from Dak'kon.

This is achieved by completing Mebbeth's sidequests and becoming a mage. While a mage, TNO can study under Dak'kon, and also switch classes by talking to him.

"To learn, you must *know* the People. To *know* the People, you must *know* the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon."

The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon is a device composed of a series of interlocking stone carvings. It's a clockwork bible of sorts that Dak'kon carries with him wherever he goes.

Examining the Circle as a mage opens up a dialog box. Each level of the Circle tells a different tale of the githzerai race, its genesis, mass enslavement, and eventual rebellion. It reveals the rise of Zerthimon and the eons of suffering him and his people endured. The Circle teaches how the zerth came to learn and master themselves, and how enslavement became their greatest anathema.

"Endure. In enduring, grow strong."

The full transcript of the Circle's teachings can be found here, although it doesn't contain Dak'kon's and TNO's commentaries.

Reading and learning the Circle comes across as a ritual; TNO must unlock each layer himself -- as shown by Dak'kon -- and talk to the gith after each session to discuss it. If TNO's wisdom statistic is high enough, the proper lesson can be gleaned. This rewards the party with some experience, and a unique spell disk for TNO that magically slides out of the artifact without diminishing its weight or content.

Discussing the Circle in front of the Tomb for the Planes, it's finally revealed what plagues Dak'kon with doubt: he fears that Zerthimon was just a puppet of his enemies.

This pattern goes on for six lessons until it's revealed that Dak'kon himself does not *know* the full Circle.

Teaching the Circle

"You performed a great service for me. In so doing, you enslaved me."

With with the sixth layer, both TNO and Dak'kon receive a new spell. To unlock the seventh and eighth layers, TNO's intelligence must be high enough to work the mechanism, and his wisdom high enough to understand the lessons themselves.

This is a nice transition of student-to-teacher, and ultimately rewards Dak'kon with some permanent stat increases. These in turn affect the karach blade, empowering it with each increment.

The lessons of the Circle also lead to the truth behind Dak'kon's and TNO's past.

The ruthless "practical" incarnation originally found Dak'kon close to death in the world of Limbo. He desired the karach blade, so he ensnared the gith in a devious trap. By constructing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon and speaking of its lessons, he showed Dak'kon a glimmer of hope to his spiritual ailment. In exchange, Dak'kon promised to follow TNO until his death, effectively becoming bound to the immortal for all time.

Although purely text-based, this was one of the most moving moments I had ever experienced in a videogame.

This enslavement constituted the greatest sacrilege for the zerth, yet it was the only salve for Dak'kon's moribund soul. By completing the Circle, we finally brought him the resolution he so desperately craved.

Conclusion

"*Know* that there is now nothing left that I may surrender except my life."

Although still bound to TNO, completing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon allowed us to strengthen Dak'kon's body, mind and spirit.

The process also facilitated character development and character progression. It was meaty, and deep, and unfolded gradually as the game progressed. It sparked numerous discussion that are still ongoing to this day, and it's held up as a prime example of what made Planescape: Torment such a compelling title.

And it was all for a completely optional character.


Radek Koncewicz is the CEO and creative lead of Incubator Games, and also runs the game design blog Significant-Bits.


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Comments


Eric Schwarz
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Spoiler warning? :P



One of my favourite parts of Planescape, by far, was interacting with the companion characters, because it never felt like I was being forced to become their friends... they all had fairly reasonable justifications for following me, but it's on the player's shoulders to actually speak with them and get to know them, so that they become not just followers, but friends. Perhaps differently than any other RPG, Planescape also allows the player to outright *fail* and lose his or her followers by repeatedly saying the wrong things... the first time Ignus attacked me for pushing him too far, I was honestly rather stunned that the game even allowed that to happen.



The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon was moving for me because it created, entirely within itself, a vivid world filled with history, characters, colour, politics, etc., all for the sake of what could be called a life code or philosophy... and then it utterly eradicates it, after the player has spent so much time and effort trying to understand it, by revealing the entire thing was literally a fabrication in the first place. The ultimate question it poses is a fundamental challenge to our deepest beliefs: even if what we believe is "right", do we do so because of the inherent truths of those beliefs, or because we have been told to do so? Would we change our minds if we found the source of those beliefs was incorrect, or intentionally deceptive? Many, many times, Planescape attempts to speak to us directly, as human beings, by calling every component part of us into question, and forcing us to challenge ourselves within an unfamiliar world, where all we *can* know is ourselves.

Radek Koncewicz
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Eh, I figured it's been long enough since the game's release to take a spoiler-ish look at one of its more memorable segments.



There were many more too, so I encourage anyone who hasn't tried it to give it a go.

John O'Leary
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Excellent post. I'm coincidentally re-playing PST for Xth time and am once again struck by how much effort was put into the text. How many other games can you play where you can have 20 different dialog options?

Eric Schwarz
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It's not even so much that there are lots of dialogue options (the mod I'm working on has characters with between 1000 and 5000 words of dialogue), it's that they all lead to meaningful and sometimes totally unique outcomes. A single line can mean the difference between an entire side-quest, character arc, or even game ending in Planescape, and each one is radically different from the last. The game literally has something like ten times the amount of content any player will see on a given play-through... text is cheap to produce, but that it is so consistently excellent and significant to the gameplay and story itself is a testament to what games are capable of when talented people are allowed to run wild.

Shreerang Sarpotdar
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Great article and now I want to brave the incompatibilities and the sometimes clunky combat to reinstall it and revel in the story.



I compare this to DA2 and get depressed. DA2 can be fun, as in a fantasy beat-em-up, but it's too streamlined to offer much depth. The decisions don't matter in the long run, and you don't get a feeling of how you grew during the interim. Did you get wiser? Smarter? Cunning? Attributes have no effect. The roleplaying beauty of low vs. high intelligence, lower vs. higher wisdom is abandoned( it was abandoned in DA:O to be fair) for purely combat-oriented attributes.



It's very challenging for games to have internal growth for your character - they tend to reflect your growth to you in terms of how you can kill bandits easier, about how much cash you have in-game. But that's being neglected in the modern day RPG; short on contemplation, long on combat.

Christopher Aaby
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I think one of the really interesting points to be gleaned from this (and other aspects of PS:T), is that the game demanded a lot of it's players, but gave back proportionally. This dialogue tree can be seen as a way to beef up characters, as a series of quests, as an interesting story, or even as a deep, philosophical discussion of truth and what we should really believe. It's actually a form of metascientific theory, which in itself seems rare in today's gaming environment.



PS:T is my favorite example to show that games are capable of very high standards of litterature - it's not the medium, it's the content which decides this.


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