Planescape: Torment Retrospective

Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Kieron Gillen has written a retrospective piece on Black Isle Studios' classic CRPG, Planescape: Torment.
Ignored by the gaming press upon release, only receiving warmish reviews that stopped well short of open adulation and the victim of one of the most ill-judged marketing campaigns ((A corpse with irresistible sexual charisma)) in history, Planescape Torment is the classic Underdog. Inevitably, it became the (relatively speaking) commercial runt of the Baldur's Gate litter. In the years since, the coin of its critical worth has accumulated to the point where aficionados regularly cite it as the greatest of the PC RPGs. In fact, it's rehabilitation has gone too far, with its name being a simple byword for narrative excellence without anyone really feeling the need to say why. There's more here than dogmatic romantic myth.

Understand, there's dozens of ways narrative can operate in videogames. Most modern examples take a cinematic bent. one which Planescape rejects. Its narrative is carried primarily on the back of pure words. While in terms of function stats, roaming around levels, weapons, hitting the monsters - it's got everything its sister Baldur's Gate game, it's heart is in its conversations. People talk. You, through the vast array of multiple options, reply. And it's magical. In fact, in many ways, Planescape is the reinvention of the text adventure into the modern age, leaving the visuals for everything they're good at, while leaning on the words to provide emotional resonance.

Don't underestimate text as a tool for creating emotion. It's brutally efficient. The effort to create a cutscene which shows a Demon destroying all reality is months of work. The effort to write it? Hey I've just done it. And while it doesn't have the immediate impact, the fact that Text allows you to throw dozens of these sensations at the player all adds up: every few minutes a line of text or a concept hits you like a nail gun through the heart. With 800,000 words of script, Planescape often feels like the world's biggest choose-your-own-adventure book.