Torment Need Not Be Eternal

15 May 2011

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Interplay Entertainment
Developer:Black Isle Studios
Release Date:1999-11-30
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Party like it's on sale for $19.99.

To understand the legacy of Planescape, one has to go back a couple of years before its release. In the late 90s, CRPGs were in what many consider to be a golden age (though perhaps not "the" golden age depending on who you ask). More cerebral franchises that tested players' intellectual sides, such as Fallout and Baldur's Gate, were at the forefront of gaming, along with more combat-oriented dungeon-crawlers, like Diablo and Icewind Dale; less talked-about but no less important franchises, like Vampire: The Masquerade and Might & Magic were also leaving their marks and had devoted followings. Despite their largely dated visuals during the rise of the 3D accelerator, RPGs were one of the primary genres that made up the PC gaming trifecta of the late 90s, the other two being shooters and strategy games. I remember quite clearly, browsing through the magazines and store shelves that then dominated the industry, hardcore RPGs being just as frequent a sight as any other game. It was an isolated gamer indeed who hadn't heard of any of the popular CRPG franchises of the time.

Although traditionally, many CRPGs on the PC had been content with emulating tabletop gaming's rules, or adapting them for the digital medium and the constraints of a dungeon master-less environment, the late 90s also marked a shift in narrative, with games making increasing use of non-linear storytelling, faction conflicts, more intimate relationships and even romances with their characters, and a certain level of accessibility that didn't require players to know the tabletop campaign or read the manual to understand what was going on. Many of the trends in modern RPGs largely owe their existence to the development of those core ideas during the 90s golden age, as do many of the formulas that define (for both better and worse) what newer RPGs are capable of.

Planescape: Torment was a quiet little game released during the tail end of that golden age, and one of the final titles before CRPGs descended largely into the realms of hack-and-slash, 3D graphics, and other, arguably destructive trends. Unlike many of the titles released at the same time, it didn't focus on ancient evils, elves and dwarves, there were nary dungeons nor dragons in sight (save the game's license and rule set). Indeed, one of its most defining features was its near-total inversion and subversion of all the trends that had come to define what a CRPG was over those last few years; it took the established Infinity Engine technology, and used it to make a game intent on challenging players not through its difficult combat encounters, but through questioning gamers' beliefs and understanding of what an RPG could be. It was as much a crowning jewel of a game as it was a harsh backhand to the jaw.

It was this dismissal of everything gamers had come to expect from an RPG that made the game so insightful, but it also made it horrendously difficult for many players to get into, and indeed, it's clear from its mixed reception from both critics and users, that some simply didn't understand the game – though again, I don't wish to exonerate it from all critique, because it is most certainly not perfect in all respects. Although it was not a major commercial success, Planescape was a hit with both magazines (remember when they were called them that?) and fans, though going back to read the comments made at the time of its release, I'm not sure all of the people who praised the game had a full understanding of just what made it great. It would take years of study for the game's following to develop into the veritable cult it is today.

Where do we find ourselves today?

Planescape: Torment, then, was significant not just because it was excellent at what it set out to do, but because it served as a near-complete upheaval of all gamers had grown to know about RPGs over the course of years, all set within the same familiar framework they had felt they understood. But what of the present?

Writing this piece over a decade after the release of Torment, the video game industry, and community, is a very different place than what it once was. We're in an age where the market is largely divided into three or four different segments – AAA console/multi-platform games, mid-budget PC games, mobile gaming, and indie games. This is a simplification, of course, but I think it's a fairly accurate one. The PC does not hold the sway over the games industry and is largely viewed as a minority platform, even secondary to fast-growing markets like iOS/Android. Most games don't occupy a middle-ground as far as budget and marketing go – it's largely all or nothing, with colossally expensive mainstream titles, and cheaply-produced bite-sized mobile and indie games occupying the other end of the spectrum. The CRPG, along with other PC mainstays, has largely disappeared, or been folded into those other market segments, in the form of big-budget lite-RPGs, like BioWare's Dragon Age II and Bethesda's Fallout 3, much smaller projects like Spiderweb's Avadon, and handheld dungeon crawlers and tactics RPGs hearkening back to Ultima Underworld and X-COM on the DS and PSP. Those games aren't gone, no, but they've largely been relegated to niche development scenes and fan communities.