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Death (and Planescape: Torment)

May 19, 2000
 
There's more to death than this.

Goth culture, it seems to me, is a little wide of the mark. Eyeshadow and Anne Rice novels are all very well, but if you're seriously interested in death, I suggest working a shift at a city morgue on a Saturday night when the gunshot victims are coming in. Then you can experience the sordid truth under proper lighting conditions: the bodies are often still warm and the families are in the first stage of shocked disbelief that precedes the long misery ahead. Violent death has nothing to do with cool black clothes and spiky jewelry; it's mostly about anger and squalor, brutality and bad judgment. Still, despite their romanticized notions I think the Goths are mostly harmless. A bit of play-acting; a bit of self-dramatization; it offends their parents (which is probably part of the point) but it's inherently no more sinister than dressing up in a Star Trek outfit. Cults of death have appeared many times in human history, from the mummies of ancient Egypt to the buried pottery soldiers in China. Wearing purple fingernail polish is a comparatively mild expression of a very ancient impulse.

A couple of years ago I suggested in a lecture at the Game Developers' Conference that it was time for games to explore a larger range of human experience, and that includes sorrow and death. Death has been the subject of a certain amount of debate in game design circles, but most of the time we're talking about death in a purely symbolic sense. "You have three chances" is a phrase that has preceded every fairground game back to the Middle Ages and probably beyond, and in a computer game where you're playing a character, it's natural enough to view those chances as "lives" to be lost - failure is a metaphorical "death."

But my lecture wasn't about death in the metaphorical sense; I meant death in the literal sense, and particularly in ways that affect us emotionally. We think of death chiefly as inspiring grief, but in fact the emotions surrounding it are quite complex. In unhappy families there's often anger, guilt, and resentment; and in happy ones our feelings are not always unalloyed sorrow. Not too long ago I attended the funeral of the father of a woman close to me. The man had been nearly 100 when he died, and his passing was both painless and expected, and not least by him; he had planned the funeral himself. At the service the woman started to cry. "I'm not sad," she said, and I believed her. She was feeling something else, or several somethings - love, nostalgia, gratitude? I didn't ask.

It's not immediately obvious how one should include death, real death, in a computer game. 'You-have-three-chances' is so consistently characterized as "death" that your first obstacle is making it clear to the player that that's not what you mean. Probably the best way is through the death not of the main character, the player's character, but of other characters who appear in the game.

There was a great shift in adventure gaming when game designers stopped treating the main character as a generic Everyman (which they had initially done because they knew the player could in fact be anybody), and began to create main characters who had a sex, a voice, an appearance, a background, and most importantly a personality of their own. The initial reluctance to do this was based on a concern about whether men would be willing to play female roles and vice versa. That question has been emphatically answered by Lara Croft, and it's no longer an issue. That's a good thing, because it's far easier to create a plot for a character to unravel if the character is a person with a history of her own.

However, despite the fact that we're now given someone with whom we're asked to identify - whether it's Sonic the Hedgehog or Duke Nuke'Em - I think we care about that individual in a way that's fundamentally different from the way we care about other characters in the game. The main character is an extension of ourselves, a sort of prosthetic limb reaching into the game world. If he "dies" before the end of the game, it's irritating, frustrating perhaps, but we know in our hearts that this was not the way things were Supposed to Be, and we restart the game and resurrect the character without any real sense of loss.

When another character dies, however - a non-player character, to use role-playing terminology - we can't be sure that it wasn't the action of a cruel fate; that that character might have been destined to die no matter what we do about it. It has partly to do with the sense of control. In real life we love others differently from the way we love ourselves, precisely because they are not ourselves. In games we mourn the deaths of others differently from the way we mourn the death of ourselves, again, because they are not ourselves and we are not the masters of their destiny. To make death meaningful in a computer game, it is not the player who must die, but the player's friends.

Planescape: Torment, where fantasy meets... death.

Planescape: Torment is a game primarily about death. It's not my business to review games, and in any case it's a bit late for that, since Torment came out several months ago, but the game does so many things right that I think it's worth taking a look at if you haven't already. I didn't discover it on my own; it was specifically recommended to me by readers of some of my previous columns, for which I'm profoundly grateful.

For those who haven't seen it, Planescape: Torment is a fantasy role-playing game from Black Isle Studios, a division of Interplay. It uses a revised version of BioWare's Infinity game engine found in Baldur's Gate, and is based on the Planescape universe from TSR. Unfortunately this means that it's also lumbered with TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons role-playing system. AD&D was designed for pencil-and-paper gaming, and although it's adequate for that purpose, it's needlessly numbers-bound for the computer player (see "Let's Put the Magic Back in Magic" for my rant on that particular subject). Still, I find the system less intrusive than in Baldur's Gate, where I was constantly checking to see who had what statistics, and who had what capabilities and spells memorized. Although all these mechanisms are implemented in Planescape: Torment, the nature of the game seems to demand less tedious bookkeeping on the part of the player.

But what's most interesting about Planescape: Torment, and what most deserves our attention as designers, is its setting, its characters and its plot. The phrase "fantasy role-playing game," of course, immediately conjures up images of a group of Tolkienesque characters marching through the forest in search of dragons. Planescape is blessedly free of these stereotypes - I've played for several hours now and there's not an elf or dwarf in sight, nor, for that matter, a forest. The designers of the Planescape universe have at long last abandoned Northern European mythology and devised something perhaps richer, definitely darker, and altogether fresher. If Baldur's Gate is a lager, Planescape is a homemade stout.

The story centers around a nameless, immortal character who is searching for his forgotten past. It uses the hackneyed "amnesia" device to explain why he doesn't seem to know anything about the world he lives in, but I have to say that it's handled at least as well in Planescape: Torment as in any book or game I've seen it in. Our hero is seeking the information that will explain, and then end, his immortality and allow him at last to die permanently. At least that's what I think he's looking for; motives and morals in Planescape are nothing if not ambiguous.

It's not only the main character who is concerned with death. The game starts in a mortuary, complete with undertakers' tools and embalming fluid. From there it moves through a grotesque city filled with zombies, ghouls, skeletons and other, less-familiar "death workers": Collectors and Dustmen, to name but two types. But this is not merely schlock horror; in fact it's seldom horrific at all, since it doesn't employ shock tactics. Despite the many dismembered and decaying bodies that appear early in the game, the dead are often portrayed sympathetically as pitiable victims with a certain dignity of their own.

Another reason I like the game is that it doesn't use a mock-medieval vocabulary. Instead it draws its language from a different well: 19th century English working-class slang. A number of the words are still in common British usage (e.g. "berk" [fool] and "barmy" [crazy]), but it may be rather difficult for Americans to follow. Still, there are several glossaries on the Web, and at least it's different, interesting, and creates a distinct sense of being in an alien culture.

The Planescape universe is far from new - according to a fan site I found, TSR first developed it in 1994, so it won't need any introduction to dedicated role-playing fans. So far as I know, though, Planescape: Torment is the first attempt to computerize it. It's a hugely rich world, definitely intended for adults, and filled with philosophical dilemmas. There's a great deal of writing in the game, some of it quite good. That doesn't mean it's boring by any means, and the game can be played in a mindless hack-and-slash fashion if you must, but it will give you plenty to think about if thinking is something you enjoy.

One note about the artwork: I don't have enough superlatives to describe it. I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of Baldur's Gate's forests and canyons, but I am completely staggered by the imagination shown in Planescape's City of Doors. It is so hugely varied that it is literally indescribable (although conduits and tubing seem to be a recurring theme) - as you might expect in a city that connects every place in the universe to every other place. You will simply have to see it for yourself.

If I have any complaint about the artwork it is that the women are rather underdressed and they seem to appear in fewer varieties than the men. I assume that this attributable to the usual hormone problems on the animation team. However, in my opinion the spectacular backgrounds more than make up for it. Get the game and play it. If you're not into role-playing games, get one of the walkthroughs available on the Web so you don't have to fool around with puzzle-solving, and just read the text and look at the pictures.

If you want to see game design done well, Planescape: Torment is a game to learn from. Since it uses the AD&D model there's little that's new about the underlying mechanics, but as a world to explore I think it contains the most intense concentration of creativity I have seen in any computer game, past or present.


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