Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die. It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.
When I was a lad, I used the family video camera to make all sorts of crazy movies. I wanted to be the next George Lucas or Steven Spielberg.
Naturally, being a young boy, my preferred genre was action/adventure. My main stylistic influences were Star Wars, The Terminator, and the James Bond movies. (Yes, I know I had no business seeing those so young, but there it is.)
I had several long-running series that I added to whenever I could get the camera and a new tape. (For readers under the age of 25: tapes were something that we used back then to record data.)
There was the “James Monkey” series–a collaboration between me and a friend which starred us as members of an elite secret agent team led by a toy monkey, whom we dubbed “James” for the parallel with James Bond.
Then there was the “Secret Agent Boy” series, which starred just me as an elite secret agent who operated alone, against enemies who were either invisible or strongly resembled plastic Halloween skeletons. (I was an only child.)
But my most elaborate series was a convoluted stop-motion epic I made using pretty much all of my action figures and other toys. It was a franchise crossover-laden multiverse, involving figures from Star Wars, The Terminator, Metal Gear Solid, Pokémon and many other random figures I had, led by the unlikely duo of Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm, from the Richard ScarryBusytown series.
(Some background: Huckle and Lowly were my favorite characters as a little kid. Naturally, I read all the books and then asked my Dad to make up new stories involving them. Dad’s stories were typically a darker take on the Richard Scarry canon–for example, one involved Huckle and Lowly running away to join the French Foreign Legion.)
The point here is, if you were wondering at what point in my life I first started creating weird fiction, the answer is “pretty early”. In fact, looking back, I realize nothing I’ve written as an adult is half as weird as some of the stuff I dreamed up when I was 10 years old.
Anyway, the reason I bring all of this up is that the other day I happened to find an old box with DVDs of my movies. Most of them are too long and too incoherent to post in full, but I found a few sections that I thought I’d share for your amusement.
The first is a car chase scene. If you can’t tell–and I’ll be very surprised if you can–what’s supposed to be going on is that a bad guy shoots out the tires on our heroes’ car, causing it to flip over and skid off a ramp–but not before it crashes into said bad guy.
I was so proud of those special effects when I was a kid. Hours of work for a few seconds of absurdly incomprehensible screen time.
The second clip is the opening title sequence to the same movie. (I’ve blurred the credits to avoid embarrassing any family members.) It’s called “Dr. Maybe”, because all my movie titles were parodies of Bond film titles. Also, to explain the first title card: the Buhwumbabumbas were another invention of my Dad’s–a warlike species of aliens who would frequently invade Earth to steal our supplies of their most prized commodity: baked beans.
Once again, this is probably totally mystifying to anyone who isn’t me. It’s supposed to depict the Buhwumbabumba ship landing on Earth. How I ever thought it actually conveyed that is beyond me.
One thing I am still proud of is that musical score. Composed by me–a person with no musical talent or training whatsoever–using my electronic keyboard. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it holds up pretty well.
What always strikes me first about Planescape: Torment every time I start a new game is how weird it is. Your character –called “the Nameless One”–wakes up in a mortuary, apparently as an amnesiac zombie, and is greeted by a floating skull who proceeds to read a message written on the Nameless One’s back.
And that’s just the opening few minutes of what’s at least a 20- to 30-hour game. It doesn’t get less weird after that. You meet a whole host of bizarre characters: a chaste succubus, a living suit of armor, a man who is eternally on fire, a living cube with crossbows… the list goes on. And that doesn’t even address the weird setting–an indescribable world of twisting labyrinths and cities that shift both in physical space and across different planes of reality.
All in all, it’s a strange and disturbing universe that the Nameless One must traverse in order to complete his quest.
And yet, for all the outré creatures and situations you encounter, it always remains possible to relate, even if it’s only in some twisted way, to the humanity of the characters. That is the first piece of genius that points to the heart of Torment’s brilliance: though it is surreal, it is also real on an emotional level–more real, in fact, than many other games that strive for super-realistic graphics and gameplay.
There is a heart to Torment‘s characters, and a logic to its locales and events, because they are all connected by a unifying theme: their relationship to the Nameless One, and how his actions impact all of this is the thread that weaves all these fantastical elements together into a coherent whole.
The fundamental feature of all video games is interactivity. What differentiates games from other art forms is that the intended audience is meant to actively engage with the game. It is not merely a passive experience, but one in which the audience is meant to take some action which in turn advances them towards a goal.
In games with narrative–what we might call “dramatic games”–the player’s actions are supposed to advance the story. By performing an action, the player sees what happens next. In more sophisticated games, the player has some choice of what actions to perform, and these affect the course of the larger story.
The full potential of this storytelling style is seldom realized in most dramatic games. Generally, most stick with the tried-and-true formula of the player advancing a straightforward narrative by performing a set of actions. But in Torment, the concept of interactivity is wedded to the story of the game itself.
One of the central themes in Torment is the idea of “consensus reality”–the idea that by agreeing to believe in something, it becomes effectively “real”. This is also tied to the game’s famous recurring line: “What can change the Nature of a Man?” (In some endings, the Nameless One can argue that “whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can.”)
With its relativistic approach to “reality” (that is, the reality of the game world) Torment acknowledges a little-noted but integral truth of gaming: that the game-reality is subject to the manipulations of the player. In other words, since the player is interacting with the rest of a pre-programmed world, it is ultimately their “reality”, to shape as they see fit.
This is technically true of any game. When you play anything, from Pong to Minecraft to Fallout 4, you are interacting with a virtual world and manipulating it according to your desires. The difference is that Torment is implicitly aware of this, and it makes the player character’s relationship to the world mimic that of the player themselves.
It is this subtle, critical point that makes Torment an all-time classic that’s still being played nearly 20 years since its release.
Nearly everything that happens in the story, and every character who appears in the game, either has previously been or currently is affected by the Nameless One’s actions. The entire game-world is (or can become) a reflection of the Nameless One’s character, either in his current life or in previous ones.
The architect Louis Sullivan famously wrote that “form ever follows function.” He meant this not merely as an architectural philosophy, but as a wide-ranging principle of design.
I’d argue that good design in narrative isn’t so much a matter of form “following” function, but simply form and function being in harmony. In drama, you might decide the “form” (the medium/genre in which you will tell your story) before the “function” (the content/theme of your story), but they had better work well together. That’s why it’s tough to write an action movie that glorifies pacifism, for example.
In Torment, form and function complement one another perfectly: the gameplay involves the player making decisions that alter the world, and the story is about how the Nameless One’s decisions alter the world.
Of course, Torment’s story and dialogue are brilliant on their own merits, and even in another form (it was adapted into a book, after all), the writing hits all the right notes: witty, moving, disturbing, clever and deeply philosophical.
But what makes the lines so powerful, and the intensely introspective storyline so memorable, is the fact that the player is able to make the game their own through their choices. The player and the player character effectively merge, in a way that transcends (I used that word deliberately) the usual emotional distance between player and avatar.
It’s a difficult in any game to get players to really connect with the characters or the setting. They intellectually know it’s all just pixels drawn by a bunch of zeroes and ones. And besides, how much can in-game choices “matter”, if you can just reload and try again if it doesn’t work out?
What’s truly amazing is that Torment should theoretically be less accessible than the average game. The strange setting and characters, forbiddingly odd even by fantasy standards, adds another barrier to the player’s ability to relate to it.
And then there’s the fact that the player character’s “death” means even less than in typical games. He’s immortal; so it doesn’t matter if he gets killed in a fight; he just wakes up again afterwards. In theory, this should make every conflict less emotionally-charged than it otherwise would be.
The designers stacked the deck against themselves, and then overcame the odds to deliver one of the most emotionally compelling games of all time. And so Torment‘s weirdness is not a flaw, but a strength–it adds to its unique flavor.
Throughout this review, I’ve said relatively little about the specifics of the game itself. That’s because the game defies description–and I think that’s because it’s like a mosaic: I can’t explain why it’s beautiful by showing just one tile–you have to see the interconnected nature of the whole thing to understand it. The best I can do is describe the sense I got from looking at it.
If you like dramatic, narrative-driven video games and you like to think, give Planescape: Torment a try. You’ll never forget it.
“Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.” [He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.]—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Aphorism 146
On June 6, 2014, I was struck with the inspiration for a novella. It came to me in a flash as I was riding in the car. I had just begun work on what would become The Start of the Majestic Worlda few weeks earlier, but the idea for this other book came to me so close to fully-formed that I felt compelled to write it down. I finished the first draft in August of 2014, and then spent the next year editing it.
What was remarkable about the experience was how easily it all came to me. Normally (for me, anyway) writing a story is a difficult and tedious process. I have a general idea what I want to do, but filling in all the details is a long, painful ordeal.
Not on this one. 90% of it came to me in the space of a day. Everything from a detailed plot structure to the characters to minor bits of description and lines of dialogue appeared ready-made. It was almost as though the book wrote itself. Not only that, but I very quickly became convinced it was the best story I had ever written.
So why, given that, haven’t I already published it, since I wrapped it up over a year ago?
Well, the thing is, it’s really, really dark.
Most of my stories are horror, or at least have horror elements. I’ve written stories involving human sacrifice, murder, torture, demonic possession, and all sorts of other disturbing things. So it’s not like I’m a stranger to grim subject matter.
But this was different. It was creepier than even some of the stuff that Colonel Preston did in Majestic World that I ultimately cut for being too disturbing. And the ease with which it all came to me only made it more troubling.
I did a lot of soul-searching after writing this book. That sounds dramatic, but I really did start to wonder about what kind of mind would come up with this kind of story.
A lot of things have changed in my life since I first got the idea to write it, and for whatever reason, I haven’t felt the same desire to write horror since I finished it.
I was thinking about this recently, ever since the calendar turned to October. I still love this month, and Halloween, and spooky stories–but I think I want to return to writing less intense stories; more on the order of The Revival,that stresses atmosphere and mood. And maybe I’ll dabble in other genres as well.
With all that said, I am thinking of publishing this book soon. I spent the time to write it, so I think it is worth putting out into the world.
Longtime readers know I love alternate interpretations of fiction. I never could make it through Majora’s Mask. Too weird, even for me, and I hate timed games. I loved Ocarina of Time though. In any event, this clever analysis by The Game Theorists does make me a bit more appreciative of the game’s merits:
It’s only fitting that I should begin an article about one of the worst video game ever with a quote from the best: I am reminded of Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic II and her line “Much is buried here… and there is much that should remain buried here.”
A few months ago, for the first time, I got cable television. Seeing the college football bowl games was nice, but apart from that, I have not found a lot worth watching. The only things I watch much that aren’t over the air are C-SPAN and the History Channel.
It was on the latter that I saw a program called “Ancient Aliens”. (On the former, one may only see modern imbeciles.) It is about the “ancient astronauts” hypothesis, which supposes that aliens visited humanity some time in the past. The episode I saw was about the idea that the Norse Gods were in fact alien beings who visited the vikings.
It’s both an amusing and an annoying show. Annoying because it couches everything in the following way (Not a quote, just a paraphrase):
Could it possibly be that Thor was actually real, and the stories of his fantastical hammer are true?
I kept waiting for someone to say, “well, you can’t actually disprove it, but it’s extremely unlikely.” But no one ever did. All they did was keep saying non sequiturs, like “well, we modern humans certainly can build things as powerful as the legends say Thor’s Hammer was.” They seem to be implying that this suggests Thor’s Hammer was a thing, when Occam’s Razor suggests it means that modern humans can make stuff the vikings could only imagine.
(Interestingly, I saw another program on the History channel about the Nazis and their interest in the occult and mythology. It claimed that SS leader Heinrich Himmler believed in similar ideas of the reality of such artifacts from Norse mythology. That program treated this as evidence of just how completely insane Himmler was.)
As I said, the show was kind of amusing, and it’s a cool idea for science fiction writers to play with, even if it’s a bit of a cliche at this point. But it was presented as a very plausible idea, not as a wild theory based on largely on “wouldn’t it be cool if…?”
It reminded me of the radio show Coast-to-Coast AM, and lo and behold, I see from Wikipedia that George Noory, host of that program, was in a few episodes. Both programs are rather entertaining in their way, and yet there is always the lingering fear that some people, somewhere may take them as established fact.