An Ode to the Torment
I'm getting on for twenty years of hardcore gaming - MMORPG addictions, Nintendo fanboy-dom, sticking bits of card under ZX spectrum tapes to encourage them to load, the N64 emulation scene, a soft-mod Xbox turned into a living room centre-piece (I'd like to see that - Ed), a long term addiction to tinkering with PCs, and the rest... but there is one game over the years that has captured my heart unlike any other before and whose deep-seated reign in my mind has at times looked almost completely unchallenged.
It isn't the game which took up the most on-paper hours of my life (World of Warcraft), and neither is it the most addictive title I've ever played (Ultima Online); although having played through the game approximately ten times from start to finish, I can be pretty certain I still haven't read all 800,000 brilliant words penned into the game's script.
Additionally, it probably isn't necessarily the most challenging, compulsive, or even outright fun game I've ever played. But this is a title which truly inspired my emotions, and captured my imagination. The game which was noted by the New York Times for a level of detail and quality of written text that "prompted some players to cast about for literary peers."
Outstandingly unique, intelligently comedic, and incomparably atmospheric; the masterpiece I'm talking about is Black Isle Studio's Planescape: Torment. Feelings of love, of loss, and of determination and fascination are associated to the mere recollection of the game's name. This is a game which truly influenced my life, the game was released in 1999 and its philosophical themes and thought-provoking dialogue were partially my inspiration, after a life-time of studying pure science, for choosing a typically arts-related subject - Philosophy - as my university degree back in 2001.
The main story-line, the self-discovery of an immortal who only suffers the symptoms of amnesia where a normal man would encounter death, acts as a solid overcoat to the true beauty at the heart of the game - the engrossing artistic tangle of sub-plots, metaphors, expression, and imaginative themes. One such recurring story node is central to this, the brutally profound effect which the protagonist's many lives have had on the individuals who have come and gone in the PS:T universe.
For those who get sucked in PS:T is a game which will cause the thinker to challenge his very perception of the real world, and will shortly after lighten the mood with base-level tongue-in-cheek humour - not dissimilar to the dialogs in Fallout and Fallout 2 with which PS:T shared much of its development team. Much to the credit of lead developer (read: creative coordinator) Chris Avellone, the interweaving of the graphical design, musical score and novel-like finesse of the game produces something that is more emotionally immersive than anything else synthetic I've come across.
A towering juggernaut of a man with the complexion of a corpse, The Nameless One awakens on a mortuary slab with no memories, a splitting headache, and what appears to be a message from himself tattooed onto his back in paranoid verse. His quest then begins, to discover who he is, where he was, and why he is immortal. To begin with his only aid comes in the form of a floating skull named Morte, who seems to be happy to tag along for reasons unknown. But whilst being helpful, this comically-inclined disembodied head-case shies away from what seems to be the important questions with sarcastic humour, and personality flaws which he blatantly acts-up. As the story progresses it appears clear that his hidden identity is heavily intertwined with The Nameless One's past.
The original TSR designed setting of Planescape certainly played no small part in the uniqueness that the game offered. The setting is so all encompassing, so oblique, and so finely detailed that its difficult even to summarize. The planes are basically a whole load of universes - one such universe, which is scoffed at by those who dwell on the planes - is the prime material plane, which is where all your tedious AD&D adventures such as those encountered in Baldur's Gate take place.
The more interesting of the planes are outer planes, these are the places represented by the nine types of alignment modelled in the AD&D world - Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Good, all that jazz. True neutral is represented by the plane of the Outlands, and within the centre of the outlands is an infinitely tall spire, at the top of which is a surrounding doughnut-shaped object. On the inside walls of this impossible shape is the city of Sigil; called the city of doors because it is here in the centre of everything where all the weird and marvellous creatures and creations of the planes come together. This is where the game Planescape: Torment begins, on a stone slab, down in the lower-basement level of the mortuary, in one of the wards of said city.
Uniqueness and extremely well thought out personality depth define all seven of the player characters who can join The Nameless One's party, every one has a deep and rich history tangled within incarnations of The Nameless One's past. These stories are integrated throughout the game, but not least of all in that PS:T allowed you, unlike previous Black Isle games, to hold conversations with your party characters whenever you desire. These turned out to be very well conceived and often in-depth conversations which, if the right options were chosen throughout the conversation sequence, could massively affect your game - causing the character in question to experience stat gains, generate unique items, leave the party (permanently), or even attack the player.
The game is enriched by many imaginative and fascinating locations. One that jumps to mind are the halls of the Society of Sensation. A private membership faction who's pursuit of the aesthetic is such a powerful driving force in their life that members will go to great lengths to seek out new sensations. The Brothel of Intellectual Lust is likewise creatively designed - a place for men of high society to come and converse with a variety of female-ish creatures from across the planes, ran by a self-described "fallen" succubus who now abstains from stealing the souls of mortal men.
Aesthetically, PS:T would struggle to be more pleasing. Although the game is played in a frustratingly simplistic 2D isometric view, the graphical backgrounds and character models have been artistically crafted with care and with faith to the Planescape setting. The voice acting is absolutely top-notch, no line is too hammy. Instead the script is casually played out by actors with natural, localised accents - cockney being heavily featured. Furthermore, the game's music is close to perfect as well... unique, fitting, and very memorable. The mix of tribal and ambient tones make up the perfect accompaniment to a man's quest to find the nature of his existence.
If the game was still available for purchase, (it isn't) I'd recommend organ donation in order to acquire it. Planescape: Torment was quite simply a masterpiece. The culmination of several arts, the bringing together of a creative world; literary genius; inspired music; frequently black humour, and a sense of adventure like no other game before or after. Liberate yourself cutter.