Archive for June, 2012


And so it begins…

Here is the character creation screen. Things like name, race, and gender have already been decided for us. We’re a male human, age and name unknown. What we have free reign to decide over is what kind of class do we want: Fighter, Mage, of Thief. The Priest class is denied to us for story reasons that we’ll get to later. I’m going to be going with a build for the Mage because Planescape: Torment introduces quite a few awesome high level spells like one that summons a portal through which a huge giant laser gun fires through. Actually speaking of classes that’s also decided for us right away, we start out as a Fighter. But as you can notice my stats make for an awful Fighter. One of the ideas from Torment’s vision statement was that the entire game was meant to be the character creator. If we don’t like the class we have now we can find someone who will teach us a new on and we can switch. At the same time we don’t pick our alignment at character creation. We start out True Neutral and through roleplaying we’ll shift to one of the other 9 possible alignments. Alignment plays a huge role in the Planescape setting so I’ll come back to it in detail later. For the purpose of this game I’m going to try and play the good guy.

We wake up from a crippling case of death on an embalming table . The floating skull up there in the corner immediately comes down to flap his bone-box in our face like he knows us. Problem is, we don’t.

: “Hey, chief. You okay? You playing corpose or you putting the blinds on the Dusties? I thought you were a deader for sure.”

Immediately the game saturates us in Planescape’s unique vernacular. I wonder, The Nameless One can’t remember anything about himself, but he still knows how to talk and read and write. Does he still remember this particular chant or can he only talk like Brent Spiner now? Fucking amnesia, how does it work?

: “I… don’t know. I can’t remember.”

Hmmm… a contraction. Never mind.

: “You can’t remember your *name?* Heh. Well, NEXT time you spend a night in this berg, go easy on the bub. Name’s Morte. I’m trapped in here, too.”

: “Trapped?”

: “Yeah, since you haven’t had time to get your legs yet, here’s the chant: I’ve tried all the doors, and this room is locked tighter than a chastity belt.”

I’m curious as to how a disembodied skull figured that out.

: “We’re locked in… where? What is this place?”

: “It’s called the ‘Mortuary’… it’s a big black structure with all the architectural charm of a pregnant spider.”

There’s an image to follow you to your grave.

: “The Mortuary? What… am I dead?

: “Not from where I’m standing. You got scars-a-plenty, though… looks like some berk painted you with a knife. All the more reason to give this place the laugh before whoever carved you up comes back to finish the job.”

: “Scars? How bad are they?”

: “Well… the carvings on your chest aren’t TOO bad… but the ones on your back…” More pauses. “Say, looks like you got a whole tattoo gallery on your back, chief. Spells out something…”

Dialogue  in Torment feels is written more like a novel, a choose your own adventure novel at times. We’re going to see a lot of dialogue, but we’re also going to descriptions of places, characters, and the actions of those characters as though they were lifted right out of a fantasy paperback.  Also I promise our dialogue options are going to get better than just recycling everything someone says to us back to them as a question.

: “Tattoos on my back? What do they say?”

: “Heh! Looks like you come with directions…” Morte clears his throat. [Ed note: How does that work?!?] “Let’s see it starts with…

I know you feel like you’ve been drinking a few kegs of Styx wash, but I need you to CENTER yourself. Among your possessions is a JOURNAL that’ll shed some light on the dark of the matter. PHAROD can fill you in on the rest of the chant, if he’s not in the dead-book already.”

: “Pharod…? Does it say anything else?”

: “Yeah, there’s a bit more…” Morte pauses. “Let’s see… it goes on…”

‘Don’t lose the journal or we’ll be up the Styx again. And whatever you do, DO NOT tell anyone WHO you are or WHAT happens to you, or they’ll put you on a quick pilgrimage to the crematorium. Do what I tell you: READ the journal, then FIND Pharod.’

Actually I’ve been wondering, do the words in the TEXT that have been written in ALL-CAPS like THIS; is that just the way the game was written so that players could pick up on important, game relevant plot hooks, or did the cutter who penned this whole message on our back just have some very specific form of Tourette’s? Either way we’ve got our first quest, find this journal and some berk named Pharod.

: “No wonder my back hurts; there’s a damn novel written there. As for that journal I’m supposed to have with me… was there one with me while I was lying here?”

Oh sure, you know what a novel is but not who you are and how you got here. Fucking amnesia!

: “Nobody I know… then again, I don’t know many people. Still, SOME berk’s got to know where to find Pharod… uh, once we get out of here, that is.”

: “How *do* we get out of here?”

: “Well, all the doors are locked, so we’ll need the key. Chances are, one of the walking corpses in this room has it.”

: “Walking corpses?”

Ah the days before the zombie hysteria gripped nerd culture with an dead-vice grip. Now a day’s the first thing an amnesiac is going to ask is “Is this the zombie apocalypse.” Then turn all dejected and not know why when he’s told by the nurse that he just suffered massive head trauma.

Actually this right here is the first of many conventions Planescape: Torment subverts with an almost perverse glee. In every form of media since George Ramero’s Night of the Living Dead zombies have been portrayed as a ravenous, gestalt horde intent on consuming all human flesh. In this game, they just shamble around aimlessly and are perfectly harmless. Anyway we’re going to have to attack those poor harmless, defenseless, innocent zombies to get out of here. We can choose that first option, which is our very first “good-aligned” choice, but it also makes us sound like a gigantic pussy, so I go with option number two.

: “Well, before you do that, arm yourself first. I think there’s a scalpel on one of the shelves here.”

: “All right, I’ll look for one.”

: “One last thing: Those corpses are slow as molasses, but getting punched by one of them is like being kissed by  a battering ram. If they start getting an edge on you, remember you can RUN, and they can’t. Use it to keep some distance if you need to recover.”

: “All right. Thanks for the advice.”

That was the first tutorial of the game. Unlike in any other Infinity Engine game, you can actually run away from things here. There’s some annoying, almost unnecessary white text that I left out which follows explaining how you need to hold down the Shift key and left-click in order to run. I say it’s almost unnecessary, because figuring out the controls trial-and-error style on a keyboard is a pain in the ass, and because this game wasn’t written by Hideo Kojima so characters don’t break the fourth wall and tell us “Hey, press Shift to run.” Delivering in game instructions without breaking the narrative is hard and almost always clumsy, but considering the amnesia it makes sense to be told things like “Hey, run away if your getting your ass kicked!”

But I still find it mostly unnecessary just because of how good this whole Mortuary-dungeon is at teaching us how to play this game, through the game. In fact I’m going on record saying that the Mortuary is one of my favorite openings of any game ever. It follows Baldur’s Gate II’s approach, having us start in a safe, baby’s-first-dungeon that’s filled with easy, low level monsters and where all the hard corners have been rounded down, but it’s better then that. We only have one goal here, which is to get out. But there are about five different ways to go about it, and already the choices I’ve made in regards to my starting attributes have narrowed down that list of possibilities. The whole Mortuary teaches you that not only will there almost always be several ways to accomplish an objective, but that earlier choices you’ve made will impact those options before you are even presented with them.

But all of that takes a slight hair-line fracture because there’s only one way out of this particular room and it’s through murder.

There is no scalpel on the supply bench near the stone slab we woke up on. No, of course it wouldn’t be that simple.

Ah, here it is. After equipping the scalpel Morte will initiate another conversation.

: “All right, you found the scalpel! Now, go get those corpses… and don’t worry, I’ll stay back and provide valuable tactical advisory.”

: “Maybe you could *help* me, Morte.”

: “I WILL be helping you. Good advice is hard to come by.”

: “I mean help in attacking the *corpse.*

Here’s the first evil option, which is to threaten Morte into joining our attack. It doesn’t accomplish anything besides sliding us closer to an evil alignment. Despite his protests Morte actually does join in the fight. In fact with a Strength of 12 and a DEX and CON at 16 he’s a better fighter then we are. But then again it’s not hard to be an improvement over garbage.

: “Time to introduce these corpses to the second death, then…”

: “Let’s go.”

Planescape: Torment features an overhauled and much improved version of the Infinity Engine created by BioWare for Baldur’s Gate.  All of the interface is stuff is nestled neatly in the bottom of screen, giving the actual game content a larger resolution, hence why everything looks bigger. Most of the heavy lifting for combat is preformed with this mini-menu we see in the middle of screen. Right-clicking anywhere brings it up and from it we can access all the spells we’ve memorized, gain immediate access to quick-inventory items, and switch to combat mode by clicking on this highlighted axe icon. This improved interface is so much better and much more elegent, which is why it’s never used in any of the other Infinity Engine games. So anyway we select the axe and attack that zombie down at the bottom of the screen. Our Strength is so bad though that we can’t hit it at all and so Morte ends up doing all the heavy lifting.

Damn this one didn’t have it. Okay there’s another one down there. Maybe he has the key.

*Three dead zombies later…*

Found it! Okay let’s give this place the laugh. There was a door at the other side of this room we couldn’t open before. Let’s see if this will work.

Success! We now have free-reign over the doors to the preparation room. Seriously, that key only works on this door. We’re not a thief and our skills are dedicated towards book-learning so if we encounter anymore locked doors we’re screwed. Stepping outside the preparation room immediately triggers another conversation with Morte. Chatty cutter ain’t he?

That’s a good point. When we first woke up Morte mentioned something about “Dusties” but who the hell are these people really?

: “They call themselves the ‘Dustment.’ You can’t miss ’em: They have an obsession with black and rigor mortis of the face. They’re an addled bunch of ghoulish death-worshippers; they believe everybody should die… sooner better than later.”

You know, goths.

: “I’m confused… why do these Dustmen care if I escape?”

: “Weren’t you listening? I said the Dusties believe EVERYBODY’S got to die, sooner better than later. You think the corpses you’ve seen are happier in the dead book than out of it?”

The Dustmen are one of the main factions in the Planescape campaign setting. They’re all emo all the time because they believe this life has to be a fake life because it’s filled with things like pain and suffering and it doesn’t rain chocolate and gummy bears every second. They believe the only way to escape to the real, true life is to die. The only reason Dustmen all don’t up and kill all of themselves is because they feel they have a duty to ensure as many other people pass on to their True Life first. They also run this mortuary and probably aren’t to happy that one of their supposed dead is up and walking about. Anyway I think Morte said something about NOT killing zombies. How weird, doesn’t he know we’re in a fantasy RPG?

: “Before you said something about making sure I didn’t kill any *female* corpses. Why?”

: “Wh- are you *serious?* Look, chief, these dead chits are the last chance for a couple of hardy bashers like us. We need to be *chivalrous*… no hacking them up for keys, no lopping their arms off, things like that.”

: “Last chance? What are you *talking* about?”

Yeah. This is an Infinity Engine game. Romance options are mandatory.

: “Chief, THEY’RE dead, WE’RE dead… see where I’m going? Eh? Eh?”

: “You can’t be serious.”

: “Chief, we already got an opening line with these limping ladies. We’ve *all* died at least once: we’ll have something to talk about. They’ll appreciate men with our kind of death experience.”

: “Wait… didn’t you say before that I’m *not* dead?”

For an amnesiac The Nameless One has pretty good memory. His short term is great. Long term, not so much.

: “Look, chief. It’s obvious you’re still a little addled after your kiss with death, so I go two bits of advice for you: one, if you’ve got questions, *ask* me, all right?”

: “All right… if I have questions, I’ll ask you.”

The other addition to the Infinity Engine, that we never see again, is the ability to speak to our own party members. For example, at any point in the game we can stop and ask Morte for advice. He’ll always just give us a reminder on what it is we’re supposed to be doing.

: “Start a new one, then, chief. No loss. There’s plenty of parchment and ink around here to last you.”

: “Hmmm. All right. It couldn’t hurt… I’ll make a new one, then.”

*Updated my journal*

If you’re going to play this game, prepare to hear that a lot. The Nameless One has rekindled his love of obsessive note-taking. He’ll update his journal constantly, even in the middle of a conversation. Just bust out the notebook and write it down. And every time it happens you’ll hear “Updated my journal.” Certain very plot relevant conversations will have several updates in short succession. It just creates in my head a very amusing mental image and I wanted to share that with you, hopefully it will push out the pregnant spiders.

There is nothing of note in that room, just innocent zombies we promised Morte not to hurt. Up a head in the next week we can find some punching irons and 13 copper pieces. Another RPG convention subversion; copper, not gold, is the standard currency in Planescape: Torment. It’s not ground-breaking or anything, but it shows a little bit of thought, a realization that gold is always the currency in fantasy RPG’s.

This room also has this GIANT-ASS BOOK and an old guy sitting in a fantasy version of those carts the fatties ride around in at Wal-Mart. Let’s go talk to him.

Morte doesn’t want us to talk him. Well put on an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, Morte, because you’re not the boss of me now.

: “Look, rattling your bone-box with Dusties should be the LAST thing –”

Before Morte can finish his rant, the scribe begins coughing violently. After a moment or two, the coughing spell dies down, and the scribe’s breathing resumes its ragged wheeze.

: “And we * especially*  shouldn’t be swapping the chant with sick Dusties. C’mon, let’s leave. The quicker we give this place the laugh the bet –”

: “The weight of years hangs heavy upon me, Restless One.” He places down his quill. “…but I do not yet count deafness among my ailments.”

: “Restless One? Do you know me?”

: “Know you? I…” There is a trace of bitterness in the scribe’s voice as he speaks. “I have *never* known you, Restless One. No more than you have known yourself.” He is silent for a moment. “For you have forgotten, have you not?”

: “Who *are* you?”

This is Dhall, an incredibly old and decrepit githzerai who keeps this big book of records for all the deceased who have passed though here. The Nameless One is among them, several times in fact. But Dhall has been keeping this a secret from the rest of the Dusties, mostly out of a morbid sense of curiosity. We can ask him more about Dustmen beliefs, none of which are particularly interesting, but if you’re new to the planes and playing along with a copy you bought super cheap off Gog.com you should let him rattle on about True Death this and fake life that.

That’s… a lot of questions. You’ll see these massive walls of questions from time to time in this game, especially with plot-critical characters. The dialogue trees in the game can become pretty labyrinthine and it’s entirely possible to fall back across a line of dialogue you’ve already experience, creating these weird, disjointed conversations were both parties involved spend a lot of time repeating themselves.

: “Yes… your body was somewhere in the middle of the heap, sharing its fluids with the rest of the mountain of corpses.” Dhall breaks into another violent fit of coughing, finally catching his breath minuets later. “Your ‘seneschal’ Pharod was, as always, pleased to accept a few moldy coppers to dump the lot of you at the Mortuary gate.”

Hey, Pharod, that’s the guy we’re supposed to find. We should ask him about that.

: “Who is this Pharod?”

: “He is a… collector of the dead.” Dhall draws a ragged breath, then continues. “We have such people in our city that scavenge the bodies of those that have walked the path of True Death and bring them to us so that they may be interred properly.”

Basically there’s a whole economy of people who scavenge the city for people who have died and bring them here. Pharod’s one of the biggest names in the “collection” business.

: “Where can I find this Pharod?”

: “If events persist as they have, Restless One, you have a much greater chance of Pharod finding you and bringing you to us again before you find whatever ooze puddle he wallows in this time.”

: “Nevertheless, I must find him.”

In fact we’ve come by the Mortuary so often Dhall is actually getting pretty sick of it, no pun intended. Which is why Dhall hesitates to speak for a moment, and when he finally does he seems to do so reluctantly.

: “I do not know under which gutterstone Pharod lairs at the moment, but I imagine he can be found somewhere beyond the Mortuary gates, in the Hive. Perhaps someone there will know where you can find him.”

: “Doesn’t sound like you like Pharod much.”

That’s an understatement.

: “A knight of the post…” Dhall coughs. “…a thief. All Pharod brings to our walls comes stripped of a little less of their dignity than they possessed in life. Pharod takes whatever he may pry from their stiffening fingers.”

: “Did this Pharod take anything from *me?*”

Dhall pauses, considering.

: “Most likely. Are you missing anything… especially anything of value?” Voice dips as he frowns. “Not that Pharod would take exception to anything that wasn’t grafted to your body, and sometimes even that’s not enough to give his greedy mind pause.”

: “I am missing a journal.”

We can ask him where Pharod is in case you forgot (he doesn’t know) and create one of those dizzying conversation loops. Instead I’m going to ask Dhall how to get out of here.

Charisma is 14, I don’t know if that’s high enough. However Dhall does seem to have some idea our identity. Let’s see how much he knows.

: “Do you not know the woman’s corpse interred in the memorial hall below? I had thought that she had traveled with you in the past…” Dhall looks like is about to start coughing again, then catches his breath. “Am I mistaken?”

: “I know nothing about her.”

Dhall makes no response to this. He simply stares at you in silence.

: “Where can I find her?”

: “The northwest memorial hall on the floor below us. Check the biers there… her name should be on the memorial plagues. Maybe that will revive your memory.”

At this point I clicked on the wrong thing and broke the conversation chain, and we ended up repeating half of this conversation again for no reason.  Instead we just tell Dhall farewell.

The northern most room, which is the one that follows the one we were in with Dhall, doesn’t contain anything but a single zombie that’s just standing here.

Apparently he’s holding books, I mean duh obviously right. Choosing to examine the books we come across a page that was torn out featuring a list of corpses brought in, most of them by Pharod. All it does it confirm for us what Dhall said about Pharod’s grave robbing tendencies. There are however some strange discrepancies. For one thing one of the corpses bares a resemblance to a Mortuary zombie, and another used to belong to Pharod’s gang. It seems that Pharod is up to more then just robbing from the dead he brings in.

In the next room over we find this strange women doing dissection duties.

She doesn’t respond.

: “Eh… she’s a *tiefling*, chief. They got fiend blood in their veins, usually ’cause of some ancestor of theirs shared knickers with one demon or another. Makes some of ’em addled in the head… and addled-looking too.”

Before 4th Edition when they became a unified race with shared features, tieflings were a catch-all for any person who had distant relations to fiends. They have random demonic features and no two are alike, some might have horns and tails, others would have forked tongues, and some look like normal people with just a faint sense of wrongness about them. There actually used to be a chart you could roll on to randomly generate tiefling features and they varied from cosmetic differences to daily spell-like abilities. Anyway she’s ignoring us so we’re going to have to resort to physical contact to get her attention.

This tiefling is deaf and horribly near sighted, along with having taloned hands. She thinks we’re a zombie, a mistake which can be forgiven.

: “You -” She clacks her taloned fingers together, then makes a strange motion with her hands. “Find THREAD and EM-balming juice, bring HERE, to Ei-Vene. Go – Go- Go.”

So now we’ve received our first quest. *Updated my journal*. We need to find this woman some embalming fluid and some thread and needle. Well actually we don’t have to help her out at all, but there’s some experience and a permanent increase to out hit points in it for us so it’s kind of worth it.

: “I think the dustie chit might be a bit short of hearing, chief. Let’s lay off, shall we?”

In the next room there’s this zombie. We can talk to him and quickly discover… he’s actually not a zombie at all.

: “Eh? Wut?”

: “You’re not a zombie! Who are you?”

The ‘zombie’ is trying to respond behind stitched lips; he has a peculiar half-frightened, half-angry expression.

: “Hoo YU? Wut yu wunt?”

: “I’m looking for a way out of here. Can you help me?”

A guy is disguised as a zombie for whatever reason, and this completely unfazes us. As it should, because trust me when I say we’ll see weirder shit.

: “Why shud I hulp yu?”

: “Maybe we could help each other out. What do you want in return?”

: “Uh need t’git a *key* fur me. Wunt iron key tuh embulmuh’s rum.”

: “All right. Where is this key?”

Hey I know this woman. Crazy old bat. I don’t even need a disguise to fool her.

Have to tap her to get her attention. By the way, watching and studying the movement of her hands is also a good idea. It stirs up some memory within the Nameless One, granting us a free XP bonus. This is the game teaching us about the game again. Now we know to explore all the dialogue trees thoroughly for little bonuses like this, instead of just plowing through them.  After watching her hands we can now get her attention.

*Gained Experience: 250*

*Gained Item: Key*

Tee-hee, the trusting fool. We go back to the not-zombie with the key to the embalming room.

: “Here’s that embalming room key you wanted.”

*Gained Experience: 250*

: “Now… how do I get out of here?”

: “Yu kin escape through portalz.” He waves his hands. “Phoof.”

: “Portals? What portals?”

: “Portalz…” The zombie waves around the area. “Portalz evereewheer.”

: “Can you show men one of these portals?”

Like I said, in Planescape: Torment there are many ways to accomplish one goal, and often the best solution is the one the least obvious one. Getting out of the Mortuary is our goal, and here is the least obvious solution. The not-zombie has given us directions on the location of a portal inside the Mortuary. Portals play a big role in the Planescape setting. Each plane is technically infinite in size, so the best way to get from one to another is to use the network of portals that honeycomb and connect all of the planes. However each portal needs a specific key to activate, which could be anything. The key to this portal is a bone charm we find on the third floor. As I said this is the least obvious solution, you don’t have to randomly decide to talk to this one zombie, you can find the portal on your own as well, but he makes it more clear. The most obvious way is just to fight everything, but doing so makes it possible to miss out on something very, very, important.

We can also ask the not-zombie to disguise us like him. It requires a jar of embalming fluid and some thread-and-needle. Turning us into a zombie makes us undetectable to the other Dustmen, but means we have to slug about at a snails pace. I choose not to for another reason.

In the next room (the one at the bottom of the map) we can find some embalming fluid, two in fact. Enough to give to the not-zombie and Ei-Vene for some sweet, sweet experience. There however isn’t enough thread-and-needle for the both of them. That means heading upstairs, to the Crematorium.

The Crematorium is the part where the Mortuary dungeon really comes alive. First up, let’s talk to this skeleton that’s just standing here for some fun times.

The skeleton makes no response. *Duh*. But when he finish talking to him all of a sudden Morte wants to talk to us.

: ” Hmmmm. Wonder if this graybeard would mind if *I* borrowed his body…?”

: “Graybeard?”

: “Graybeard… you know, geezer, old feller, yellow dog… old.”

: “Well, I don’t think he’s in any position to object. Why not take his body?”

Morte studies the skeleton for a moment, then shakes his head.

: “Nah… I’d need a fresher one than this. And something with a little more dignity… this one’s all creaky and fractured.”

: “And you’re not?”

We can actually end this conversation at any time. But egging Morte on is far too amusing.

: “Oh, you’re a sackfull of laughs.” Morte glares at you. “Besides, YOU’RE one to talk to, berk. Mirrors beg for mercy when you’re around.”

: “Oh yeah? At least *I* have all my parts.”

Morte is a master at cutting barbs and insults. So much so that it’s a special ability he uses to pull aggro. The Nameless One, not so much. If you’re ever in a battle of wits and have to resort to starting a sentence with “Oh yeah?’ you’ve already lost.

: “I’ll have you know that helping you escape the preparation room has now been to my growing list of regrets.” Morte snorts again. “I should have let you rot… some more, that is.”

: “Glad you feel that way. Let’s go.”

I like this little conversation. It’s why I showed it. I like this moments of the characters shooting the shit back and forth, and I like being able to be snarky with them without feeling like a meany later. Many other RPG’s with alignment mechanics give you evil or bad points for being mean and snarky with your companions. But here we’re allowed to have some fun with them at their own expense and still be a good guy. Ragnar Tørnquist, Drew Karpyshyn? Forget those guys. Chris Avelone is the true master at writing for games.

But there’s one more thing we can do with this skeleton.

If our strength is high enough, I believe over a 14, we can pull this skeleton, and any other skeleton apart. This, is genius. We can use our strength to defeat enemies in ways beyond the combat mechanics. Once again, the game uses the game to teach us about the game. Now we’ve learned that our ability scores aren’t just an abstract numerical representation of our combat abilities. They are actual representation of our incarnation’s strengths and weakness, and they give us real-world consequences for our build. I want to show you guys something.

Source: Altered Gamer

This is a character screen from Final Fantasy VIII. I’ll assume you’ve heard of it. Look at those fucking numbers. Squall’s HP is nearly 5,000, his strength is 103. What does that mean? What do those numbers represent? Outside of combat, where having bigger numbers means we do more damage to the enemy’s big health bars, how does any of this represent what Squall can do in the real world? Can he flip over a semi-truck? Or can he barely open a jar of mayonnaise? This is problem of gameplay/story segregation is compounded by Final Fantasy VII’s Junction system, a mechanic where you junction spells to abilities, something that is required to do so you can have the numerical superiority to beat the game’s bosses. But how does that work, how does Junctioning a Tornado spell to Squall even work, and why does that raise his strength? Meanwhile in Planescape: Torment  our strength is 9 and we can’t unscrew bolts by hand. Planescape: Torment gets some flack for falling too far on the story side of the story/gameplay dichotomy, but it actually does a better job of integrating its game mechanics into its story then any other game I’ve seen, to date. Meanwhile in Final Fantasy the stats are weird, metaphysical abstractions that only matter because they let us make bigger numbers fly out of an enemy when we hit them. Also note that no character in FF8 has an intelligence score. That explains a lot.

Anyway back to the game I actually like. We got spotted by a Dustmen because we weren’t crawling around at a snail’s pace pretending to be in Thriller.

Let’s be honest and see where that gets us.

: “I will summon a guard to direct you out. Hold on a moment.”

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. We can try to quickly grab him and snap his neck before he calls out, but our Dexterity is too low and we fail. Now we have to fight everyone in the Mortuary with a character not cut for physical violence. Ummmm…

*Reload*

: “If you’re not lost, what is your business here?”

: “I’m here to see someone.”

: “Who are you here to see?”

: “I’m here to see Dhall.”

Man these Dustmen are stupid. We’ve convinced this one to leave us alone but there are plenty of others who will approach us to momentthey see us. Using this exact same dialogue path we can get by without them raising the alarm.

We find the Needle-and-Thread we need to give to Ei-Vene or the not-zombie. This item can also be placed in the quick inventory of the Nameless One or Morte for some minor healing.

Over where we find some “junk”. This junk is massively important and we will hold on to it. Well we’ve got the thread and fluid. Let’s pay Ei-Vene a visit. But first.

This is the key to the lower level of the Mortuary. We need it to get to the portal out of here. I sent Morte to grab because I got tired of talking to the Dustmen and for some reason they see a floating skull ransacking their inventory and act like it’s another day at work.

*Gained Experience: 250*

Without missing a beat, Ei-Vene snaps the fluid from your hands and hooks it around one of her talons, the begins sewing up the corpse’s shut. She then takes the embalming fluid, and begins to apply a layer to the coprse.

: Wait.

Within minutes, she is finished. She clicks her talons, then turns to face you. To your surprise, she extends her hand and drags her talons along your arms and chest.

: “Looks like you have a new friend, chief. You two need some time together, or…?”

Her talons suddenly hook into the thread you brought her, and lighting-like, she jabs another talon into the skin near one of your scars. It feels barely more than a pin-prick, but it looks like she’s about to start stitching you up.

: “This may be the second time in my life I’m thankful I don’t have a nose.”

Don’t tell us what that first time was. Ei-Vene quickly finishes. As you can see from the picture above she has granted us a whopping total of “1” to our total HP. This isn’t a temporary hit point either, it’s for life. By the way, another hint. There are other side-quests like this that will grant us permanent statistical benefits.

Anyway we head back to the preparation room and using the key Morte found, head down stairs. There, I remembered that we needed to bone charm to activate the portal and send Morte back up two flights of stairs to find it.

*Up and down four stairs later*

We have the charm and can now activate the portal. Following the not-zombie’s instructions we head northwest along the bottom floor and come across this altar.

Usually when a “?” appears next to the cursor, clicking displays some flavor text on the green describing in greater detail the terrain object. Standard Infinity Engine stuff. But clicking on the altar causes the Nameless One to approach it instead. An apparition of a woman in a fine dress appears.

: “You! What is it that brings *you* here? Have you come to see first-hand the misery you have wrought? Perhaps in death I still hold some shred of use for you…?” Her voice drops to a hiss. “… my Love?”

: “My Love? Do I know you?”

Wrong words man. Wrong, wrong, words.

: “Oh, at last the fates show mercy! Even death cannot chase me from your mind, my Love! Do you not see? Your memories shall return! Tell me how can I help you, and I shall!”

Hook and sinker. Deionarra is basically the kind of woman who falls in love with serial killers, and we can toy with her emotions to get the information we want. Wait, didn’t I say I was going to be a nice guy in this playthrough?

: “Do you know who I am?”

: “You are one both blessed and cursed, my Love. And you are one is who never far from my thoughts and heart.”

: “Blessed and cursed? What do you mean?”

 

 

Earlier I said that people who just run through the Mortuary killing everything are likely to miss something important, this is it. Deionarra is a massive plot dump and we learn a tiny inkling into the nature of our unusual protagonist. We can also get a pretty useful special ability from all this. The back door route takes us close to Deionarra’s memorial altar, and this was no accident in the design. Being smart and slowing down to pay attention in this game brings us great rewards.

: “I know you once claimed you loved me and that you would love me until death claimed us both. I believed that, never knowing the truth of who you were, what you were.”

: “And what am I?”

: “You… I… cannot.” She suddenly freezes, and she speaks slowly, carefully, as if her voice frightens her. “The truth is this; you are one who dies many deaths. These deaths have given the knowing of all things mortal, and in your hands lies the spark of life… and death. Those that die near you carry a trace of themselves that you can bring forth…”

And you know Deionarra is *right*. You suddenly remember how to coax the dimmest spark of life from a body, and bring it forth… the thought both horrifies you and intrigues you.

This is the payoff. Now, for three times a day, we can snatch any of our companions out of the dead book after they drop to 0 hit points. This is old school D&D, need I remind you. None of this unconscious at 0 until your negative hit points equals your Con score crap. You hit zero and you’re dead. This ability allows us to somewhat negate the brutal and unforgiving nature of the Infinity Engine. Players of Baldur’s Gate would have killed for this.

We can still grill Deionarra for more info though. It all turns into learning how to escape, in which she gives us the same info as the not-zombie, so I’m not going to show it. This kind of over-writing is necessary in a game like this. That zombie was completely unassuming, we had no reason at all to talk to him like we did. This is for the benefit of players who didn’t speak to him. And if you’ve already grabbed the bone charm, because it’s a useful item in its own right, then good for you, you just saved yourself more hassle. When we say goodbye to Deionarra, this happens.

: “Time itself relaxes its hold as the chill of oblivion slowly claims us, my Love. Glimpses of things yet to come swarm my vision. I see you, my Love. I see you as you are now, and…” Deionarra grows quiet.

: “What is it? What do you see?”

: “I see what lies ahead for you. It ripples through the planes, stemming outward from this point. Shall I speak of what I see?”

: “Tell me.”

 

 

I am not a “No Spoilers” type person. Bring me the future.

: “First, I require a promise. Promise you will return. That you will find some means to save me or join me.”

Oh you clingy bitch.

Make Vow: “I swear I will find some means to save you or join you.”

: “This is what my eyes see, my Love, unfettered by the shackles of time…” “You shall meet enemies, three, but none more dangerous than yourself in your full glory. They are shades of evil, of good, and of neutrality, given life and twisted by the laws of the planes. You shall come to a prison built of regrets and sorrow, where the shadows themselves have gone made. There you will be asked to make a terrible sacrifice, my Love. For the matter to be laid to rest, you must destroy that which keeps you alive and be immortal no longer.”

Write all this down. It will be on the test later.

: “Destroy what keeps me alive?”

: “I know that you must die… while you still can. The circle *must* come to a close, my Love. You were not meant for this life. You must find that which was taken from you and travel beyond, into the lands of the dead.”

: “Die while I still can?”

: “I do not truly know. Except that it has gone on long enough.”

: “Farewell, Deionarra.”

: “I shall wait for you in death’s halls, my Love. She smiles, but there is only sadness in it. She closes her eyes, and with an ethereal whisper, she fades.

 

Well that was a load of cryptic nonsense. And you can bet that every single word of it is going to happen. After all that Morte feels left out.

: “You back with me, chief? You kind of drifted out on me there.”

: “No, I’m fine. Do you know who that spirit was?”

: “Eh? Spirit?”

: “That specter I was talking to. The woman.”

 

 

Along with bringing people back to life, the Nameless One can also see dead people.

What a tweest.

” You were rattling your bone-box with some woman? Where?” Morte looks around, excited. “What did she look like?”

: “She was right on top of the bier. Didn’t you see her?”

: “Eh… no, you just kind of drifted out for a bit there, just stood there, statue-like. I was a little worried you’d gone addled on me again.”

: “No, I’m fine… I think. Let’s move on.”

And here is the portal. We have beaten the tutorial dungeon. I hopped you found this first chapter enjoyable. Because it only gets better from here.

And it gets no easier, either.

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In my spare time, which I have oddles of seeing that college only prepares you for a career, not unemployment, I have been writing a campaign for D&D. This is something I’ve actually never done before, which is odd in retrospect. The reason I like video games is because they are an exciting way to deliver an interactive narrative, but that’s not really true. In fact if we really want to have a truly interactive narrative then video games, by their very nature, are pretty limited.  This is something a lot of both game fans and game designers underestimate. I’m sure going into Mass Effect 3 BioWare envisioned a grandiose, sprawling narrative that would branch into hundreds of uniquely tailored endings, only to realize that there’s basically no way they can code, render, animate, model, texture, write, and voice act all that. Meanwhile marketing doesn’t get the memo and continue doing their job, lying about the product so people will buy it. But on pen-and-paper, where the only limit is the collective imagination of a group (plus the game rules) we really can do a story that’s completely and wholly interactive. Where players can make any kind of character they want, not having to decide between a nice guy or a bad guy.

So yes I’ve been having a lot of fun writing my campaign, and it’s given me a chance to reflect on the nature of writing an interactive story. There’s a quote I like from The Art and Making of Star Wars: The Old Republic about writing in games versus other media that goes something like this: Writing for theater is expressionism, writing for movies is realism, and writing for games is cubism. You have to be able to take it apart and look at it from all the angles. I’ve discovered that that’s very true, writing an interactive narrartive is a lot trickier because you can’t just ask yourself “What would my character do” you have to consider what other people would do. This forces you to write three or five different scenarios, and for a tabeltop RPG, while giving yourself enough wiggle room to improvise once your players do something completely unexpected, which they will. That for me hasn’t been a problem, I’m good at improvising and I understand that as a DM I’m not telling a story, I’m facilitating the story of someone else. What I did learn about writing this was how to use themes to tie all the different modules and adventures together, so they feel like a cohesive story and not a bunch of stuff that happens.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its HBO adaptation Game of Thrones. I’m sure you’re also familiar with how it has a million plots going on at once, and yet it somehow manages to still read like a story. What makes it A Song of Ice and Fire and not A Song of a Bunch of Stuff That Happens. Well there’s two tricks, the first is that most of the plots do tie in and influence one another, but the other is way Martin uses a solid core of a few select themes to tie all these scenes and plots together. The most obvious one is power, and in every scene in the TV show you can see how power is used, who has it, who doesn’t have it. Who gains power, usurps it, wields it, and how our expectations of who should and should not have power get subverted. Or even look at The Hunger Games. There’s a reason why it’s called that, and it has something to do with the fact that there are at least five references to food on nearly every page of that book. Part of the reason those books are so good is because of how well crafted they are, how deliberate their writing is.

I’ve applied that same deliberance to my own campaign. I decided very early on, before I started writing modules, that there were going to be at the very least three themes that should be explored in each adventure, to ensure that there is a constant tone that glues these different scenes into a cohesive narrative, one that can survive players making their own decisions and driving the narrative forward. This is hard, but it’s not impossible. Like I said, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Hunger Games were deliberately written, I just have to be even more deliberate.

This is where I want to steer the topic to the matter of why so many games have bad writing. I’ve even argued with someone who was convinced that the interactive nature of games made trying to use them to tell a story impossible, it just couldn’t be done. I was not convinced but that at all, I’ve already written on here previously why I think Mask of the Betrayer has the best story in a video game. It’s because that game had three, very deliberate themes that were explored in very single scene and module. Hell they actually hired a guy whose job it was to go through and make sure that everything included in the game matched those themes, if they didn’t, they were reworked or removed. This is also the reason why I’m LP’ing Planescape: Torment (the first real update will be out later this week), because nearly everything included in that game deals with the theme of torment in some way. What can change the nature of a man isn’t just a way to beat the very definite final boss, it’s what the whole things is about and every scene explores a possible answer to that question. Even if you don’t realize the game is doing that, you have to admit that there is still something at work keeping the story cohesive, how the writers are able to make a linear story out of a non-linear experience.

Games whose stories fall flat simply don’t do this. There are many reasons why but usually it’s because game designers don’t take college level creative writing classes (like I did) while getting their game design or computer science degrees. For example the desingers behind the Uncharted series have admitted that they first decide what set pieces they want their game to explore, and then go back and write a narrative tying them together after the fact. This is not a good way to write a story and while it explains why all of the Uncharted games have flat, uncompelling narratives and characters, it doesn’t explain the strangely specific ways they repeat themselves. Like their habit of introducing a side-kick who gets tons of depth and character development only to wholly disappear from the story half-way through. Or the way each game introduces a potential love interest for Nathan Drake only for him to always wind up with the same blonde chick at the end. I think we can just chalk those up to laziness.

Ah there’s the crux of the matter, laziness is what kills more game stories than anything else. It’s not that games make it impossible to write good stories, it’s that people who write for games are interested in putting in the effort to make the stories good. Sometimes, like in Skyrim they don’t even realize they’re using themes that sabotage their own narrative. Remember how some people got mad that they couldn’t kill kids in Skyrim and Bethesda defended their decision to disallow the murder of children because they wanted to make sure their game had a cohesive tone the whole time. After all in Skyrim you’re a hero, you save the world from an evil black dragon. Except, if I’m supposed to be a hero, why does so much of the game’s side content deal with me killing people for obviously evil forces for no other reason then because they tell me to? In Skyrim there is a side-quest for every one of the Daedric Princes, and about 95% of them are evil. Openly, unquestioningly evil. And they make you preform acts of evil for the promise of material reward. This is not heroic behavior people. Hell even the main quest is dubious at best, since even an evil person can recognize that stopping the dragons from destroying the world is basic self-preservation. Honestly at this point not being able to kill children creates more of a tonal dissonance than killing them.

By the way Bioshock explores this is exact same thing, only Bioshock was aware of the fact it was a game about killing people for no other reason then because someone told you to.

I’ve always wanted to do an LP. And I always wanted to host it on this blog, if for no other reason then to give me a reason to actual update this thing on a regular basis and not my current “whenever I feel like/remember it’s here” approach I have right now. But I’ve been stuck for a long time on deciding all the possible elements of style I want to do. Do I want to do a video or text based one? Do I want to do a comic relief idiot LP or an informative one? Do I want to play a game I hate or a game I love? Should I play a game I’ve never heard of or played before, or a game I know so well I can play it in my sleep (and occasionally wake up to discover that’s what I’ve been doing.) I gave it a lot of thought and decided that I’m actually really over the whole caustic critic and angry, rage-filled nerd thing. That inside me  I’m more passionate and excited about something I love over something I hate. On top that while it’s possible to enjoy a bad movie, there are actually very few games that posses an “it’s so bad it’s good” quality to them. The fact that games are interactive means you can’t just sit back and laugh at the terribleness, you have to be engaged and that means putting up with sluggish controls, broken gameplay, and frustratingly brainless AI. I’m neither a sadist nor a glutton for punishment, so if I’m going to subject hours of my life playing a game, recording footage of screenshots of it, and delivering my experience in an enjoyable fashion, it damn skippy be something I actual like. And unless you have some kind of rare mental condition that creates an intense inability to read blog titles, you already know the game I decided on so without further ado I give you my favorite game of all time; Planescape: Torment.

You may have heard of Planescape: Torment. You may have heard of the small but passionate cult following it attracted it declaring it to be the pinnacle of story-telling in an interactive format. You may even be one of those people. If you’re not one of those people, then this is for you. Planescape: Torment is set in the unfathomably awesome Planescape setting, the last official published campaign setting by TSR for old school AD&D back in the dawn of time (circa 1993). It’s an awesome and outlandish setting brought to life by increadible art work by Tony DiTerlizzi (click his name for his website) and intelligent, philisophical and through-provoking themes and ideas that created a capital “M” mature world for a game that is usually about slaying unquestioningly evil necromancers.

Any PC gamer worth his salt better know this one. Black Isle was a big name back in the 90’s and was responsible for a little title I’m sure you’ve heard of called Fallout. They worked closely with the cRPG titan BioWare to create several D&D games using the Infinity Engine. They were also a subsidiary of Interplay, another oldschool publishing giant that sputtered and died out in 2003, with Black Isle being one of those unfortunate enough to get caught up in Interplay’s death spasms. You can find many of it’s key figures today working at Obsidian, another cRPG company that tends to get looked over by BioWare and Bethesda.

It may have been out of print for two decades now, but this is still the system that many a veteran at the table top swears by to this day. AD&D is the longest running iteration of D&D, having a wealth of awesome support by the now long defunct TSR, and the second edition alone had half a dozen awesome campaign settings, including Planescape and Dark Sun. Because of it’s long run AD&D supports a lot of rules and mechanics that are horribly out of date, such as randomly generated character statistics, critical fails, and a lack of any kind of unified game mechanic. Planescape: Torment uses AD&D’s second edition as a basis for its rules, and while the computer will handle most of the work for us behind a digital DM’s screen, to those new to the hobby and uninitiated in the old ways we will see a couple of things that don’t make any sense like negative Armor Class being a good thing and something called THAC0.

You’ve said a lot here, but you haven’t said a damn about what this game is about.

Oh right, sorry about that. We’re going to be playing as a horribly scarred, dreadlocked, cave-man looking amnesiac who also happens to be immortal. The entire game revolves around this mystery and we’ll be piecing together the life of our nameless protagonist to discover the truth of his curse. There is no evil bad guy to beat, instead it is an introspective journey of one very unusual man. Imagine if Memento were a video game, only we have the power to eventually will people out of existence.

That sounds cool, but what makes this game so special?

Planescape: Torment follows the tradition of it’s setting by tracking down every single tired, cliched, convention about fantasy RPG’s and buries them 50 feet in the Arizona desert. There are no elves, dwarfs, wizards, or dragons. Our protagonist is an ugly-looking brute instead of a mopey, pretty-boy, there are no swords or conventional fantasy weapons of any sort, we use magic tattoos instead of armor, and the most important stat is the one that has no mechanical combat benefit what so ever. Speaking of combat there’s hardly any, our nature as an immortal means we can never actual die, and it has mountains of dialogue that pose more of a threat than any fight will ever be.

This all makes Planescape: Torment a very divisive game, if you ask someone who loves Torment to make a list of all the things they love about this game, and ask another person who hates it to make a list of all the reasons why they hate it, you’ll find yourself with two copies of the same list. Torment never sold all that well when it came out, because it went against the dungeon-crawling celebration of clicking known as Diablo II.

This is still an Infinity Engine game, so will there be companions/romances?

Hell yes there are companions and they are all awesome.

– Morte: A floating, wise-cracking skull is our first companion. Somehow manages to be the most normal of the bunch.

– Dak’kon: This githzerai zerth is a long way from home and can’t go back. We can play storytime with him to get new spells.

– Annah-of-the-Shadows: Our first romanceable companion is a fiery tiefling gutter-rat with a horrible attitude and OH GOD THAT ACCENT.

– Ignus: This wizard bit off more than he could chew and is now condemned to being a living conduit to the elemental plane of fire. Naturally only casts fire spells.

– Fall-From-Grace: The second romanceable companion is a chaste Lawful Neutral succubus. Is the only priest in the whole game.

– Nordom: A bat-shit insane robot/tv monitor. We’ll already have one Fighter/Thief by the time we get to him but we’ll keep him around because he’s voiced by Dan Castellaneta.

– Vhailor: This guy is so dedicated to justice that he doesn’t’ let a little thing like death keep him down. The beefiest fighter in the whole game is a pain to get to and oddly enough makes the ending harder.