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
Immortality is only a word.

This leads me to the real meat of this article (yes, I've taken my sweet time, but for a good reason, I hope), and that is, what would a game like Planescape have to do in order to remain relevant in today's world? Torment is, in many ways, rather timeless – its characters and story are capable of touching just about any gamer even today – but a big part of its appeal and legacy was its subtle critique and commentary on the CRPG as a genre and art form, and much of that could be lost on newer players.

For Torment to move forward, for there to be a sequel worthy of following up the legend, Obsidian, or any other developer, could not be content with being "just" a sequel, could not rest on their laurels and produce a game of the same quality, or even the same character. Superficially, the appeal of Planescape lies in its characters, its story, its unconventional and imaginative world, but this is all window dressing to what is really important about the game: a commentary on RPGs and on gaming as a whole. The question "what can change the nature of something?" is as much relevant to the philosopher as it is to the RPG fan. Torment, for as good as it is, is something that needs to be left alone as it is, a wonderful game, but a product of its time all the same. If a sequel were to go ahead and attempt the same angle, my feeling is it would have to be a very, very different game to be effective; its commentary, and mechanics, would have to be largely contemporary to have the same impact as the original's.

There are a lot of potential roadblocks in the way, as well. The first, and most obvious, is that Torment is the last game to demand a sequel. A few days ago I remember remarking about how I could not bring myself to play through Torment anymore, that the game "existed solely so that one could experience its ending." Torment was a game not just meant to be bought, but played, and concluded, and to re-open what feels like a closed chapter of my life just doesn't make sense to me. Building a sequel, or follow-up of any kind to Torment wouldn't just have to be done with care, it would have to be done with laser precision, and I don't know if Obsidian or any other developer is capable of that in this day and age. Anything that would try to expand on it, to "fill in the blanks", to "give the real story", etc. would feel like an intrusion, and would irreversibly take away from not just the sequel, but the original as well. Anyone who's seen the newer Indiana Jones or Star Wars films will understand exactly what I mean by this, I think.

The second is a matter of economics and the state of the games industry. The mid-budget CRPG is, largely, a thing of the past, and titles that do tend to fall into that territory, like Obsidian's Alpha Protocol, unfortunately tend to lack the technical polish to make big sales, as well as the deep RPG experience that fans of the genre have been largely deprived of for the better part of a decade. While I don't doubt that it'd be possible for someone to make a Planescape: Torment sequel that was a decent game in its own right, I highly doubt that it would be the same dialogue-driven, inventive, novel, choice-and-consequence-driven experience that the first game was. Obviously, nobody wants a retread of the same old thing, but in today's industry, it's almost a given that voice acting, 3D graphics, a close-up perspective (or even first person) would be at the foundation of the design, and that would mean a smaller game, confined to technical limitations of existing (console) hardware, and almost certainly more driven by action and combat. While it's definitely possible we'd see a more traditional project, if that were to happen, it'd likely be a budget release on handheld/mobile platforms or digital distribution platforms like Steam, and that carries with it a different set of market expectations and demands as well, potentially just as damaging (Team Fortress 2 hats and DLC, anyone?).

Third, and this is perhaps the most important of my points: what would a Planescape: Torment sequel be about? The first game, as I articulated, was largely a commentary and reflection of the many tropes that had come to define the CRPG genre in the late 90s, and in a broader sense a subversion of the usual expectations of the fantasy genre. Torment did a great job of toeing the line between being a typical CRPG and a subverting the genre, but would a sequel be able to pull it off? Would it hearken back to the glory days of the genre and attempt to recapture the same depth, complexity, world design, and philosophical commentary of the first game? Would it attempt to riff on the new standards of the genres, the integration of other genres' mechanics, and the gradual decline of game complexity in the face of accessibility and mass market demands? And if so, how far would it go in providing a legitimate discourse? Would it go for the low-hanging fruit of romance melodrama and make jokes about "awesome buttons", or would it attempt something more profound, something that people would truly remember as more than just "a sequel to that old game everyone loves?"

Feargus Urquhart mentions, quite aptly, that a lot of revisiting old franchises comes down to adapting them to fit contemporary industry trends, to look at them and understand what worked, what didn't, and how to improve on past mistakes. Most importantly, it'd come down to, as he phrases it, "doing it right", so that both new fans and old ones have enjoyable, if not necessarily equal or comparable, experiences. Were Planescape to return, I would implore one thing of Obsidian: that they spend a very, very long time thinking about the questions I've posed above, for the benefit of the game, the fans, the videogames industry, and the CRPG genre as a whole. Torment's legacy is a wonderful thing to have in its own right. There is no need to sully it, even with the best of intentions. Let it rest in peace.