January 5, 2008

Tell Me Something Special

Welcome back. I can't believe I'm still doing this. Why am I still doing this? "For myself," of course, should really be the only reason, as Mike Nowak recently pointed out. And I have been doing it for myself, ever since that first look at Google Analytics and learning there's no-one else to do it for. That still doesn't fully answer the question: why am I doing this? There has to be a purpose here. Even I don't value my opinion highly enough to record it indiscriminately. Okay, ostensibly it's all about video game writing. And to my credit, I may have the market cornered there. Still, I'm getting less interested in going back through my collection and more interested in writing about things like game journalism, which I know no-one is tired of yet. We'll see how it goes. I'm shifting the goalposts: I used to say that I'd shut this thing down the second I lost interest in order to spare everyone another slow, sad death of a gaming enthusiast website. Now I'm thinking that when I wonder what the purpose of this blog is, and can't answer -- then it's time to pack it in.

Over the last few weeks, Michael Abbott wrote a series of posts in which he revisited Planescape: Torment. I mention this because it does look like I'm about to rip him off bad. I promise that's not the case; I honestly did conceive of this post a month ago.

It's a blog about game writing, so I had to get around to Torment eventually. I'm not going to talk about specifics, however. Maybe another time. Right now I'd like you to consider Torment in the context of its then-competition: the Fallouts and the first Baldur's Gate, and why I think Torment is better than all of those.

It's a writing blog, again, so you might think that preference is simply a result of the writing; that I'm not taking into account the full experience. The first Fallout, after all, is a gaming milestone. Baldur's Gate, to be fair, isn't as well-regarded as its sequel, but fuck it, Torment's better than that one too. The conventional wisdom (in so far as there is a conventional wisdom) is that while Torment may have the better writing, Fallout and Baldur's Gate 2 are the better "games." I don't deny the power of Fallout 1. I love that game. And BG2 is probably the ultimate expression of this particular type of game. Why is it Torment, then? If you isolate the gameplay, then no, it can't compete at all.

Torment says something. I don't mean that it says something to me specifically. I mean it says something. Baldur's Gate is fully devoid of personality. Fallout has themes, but not much of a story, and I don't consider it to be about anything. Both these games are wide-open, non-linear, gameplay-focussed experiences and there's much to admire in that. They are exemplary representations of a gameplay style, but they don't leave me much to think about other than their historical significance. Torment is best appreciated after playing these other games because it shows you what can be done with that format. Torment delivers an astonishing profound, poignant and focussed experience that leaves me thinking about the emotional qualities endemic to that game. Sure, Torment was built on the backs of Fallout and Baldur's Gate, no question. But that's the way it happens. The technical details aren't important because now they don't have to be. The rest of the game, the creative qualities, become transcendent.

It's not my intention to paint Fallout and Baldur's Gate as tech demos. Let's look at them, though. Baldur's Gate is rather immature. Everything is black-and-white and the whole experience is completely straight-forward, lacking any nuance, character or emotion. It's a generic D&D game in video game form and maybe some people are content with that. The sequel's a little bit better, yes, but remains markedly juvenile and cloying. Aerie? Minsc? Terrible. Yeah, Minsc sucks. Deal with it.

Fallout has character. It has personality, it has atmosphere, it has subtlety. But it doesn't exactly wear its heart on its sleeve. For all the choices you get to make in the first game, what you see is basically what you get. It's a chessboard and you can move the pieces. There's no depth to the story or the characters and there's no larger narrative of any real significance. Intentionally, of course, this isn't a failing. But it's all about preference. And the entire second game is filtered through a detached, ironic cool that saves it from ever having to be serious. If that works for Fallout 2, great. Didn't work for me. Torment, on the other hand, is willing to say something. It's about can be about something. Put it this way: Torment has a purpose.

So, okay. I'll admit it; it is all about writing. But not as a subjective, individual metric, rather as a transformative tool. Writing turned Baldur's Gate 1 into Torment. It became something haunting and wonderful. I don't believe in the conventional wisdom, at least not in this case. Writing did not simply "elevate" this game from its standard gameplay to something special. Writing is not separate from this game experience. It is the game. It is the experience. It's what imbued Torment with purpose, something way beyond a cool concept for a game. It's why Torment will be the one I really remember, the one that holds up as fiction, the one I actually love.

Did I just say love? Oh, ick.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Duncan, you DID say love! ;-) Hey, it's okay, I'm with you. Having spent all that time the last couple of weeks inside the game (wow, that's vaguely sexual, isn't it?), I can unabashedly admit that I love Planescape: Torment thoroughly.

I wonder how much of PST's superiority is due to its particular D&D Planescape campaign roots? Is the otherworldly, more ethereal world of this universe inherently more compelling than the one presented in Baldur's Gate, for example, which is based in the Forgotten Realms? I don't know the answer, but I think it's worth considering.

Duncan said...

I've never been a D&Der so I can't comment too specifically on the campaigns but there might be something to Planescape's more esoteric setting. I think the licenses really reflected the respective design philosophies. Baldur's Gate is a really straight-ahead generic experience whereas Planescape subverts a lot of RPG staples. Even so I'm sure it's possible to write a Planescape-quality story within the Baldur's Gate universe, especially if it's character-based.