250px-planescape-torment-box[Last week Beamdog released an enhanced edition of Planescape: Torment for modern desktops and tablets. In honor of this occasion (and hopefully to drive more people to play it) I decided to post a full-length review of the game, which I’ve somehow never done despite going on about my love for it all these years. Be warned: some spoilers ahead!]

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.

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Gameplay screenshot via Planescape.com

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.

You may have guessed I was building up to something bigger with all the poetry readings I’ve been posting lately.  I also thought I’d try doing a recording of my novella, The Start of the Majestic World.  Here is Chapter 1 of Part 1.  If people like it, I may do more:

Let me know what you think!  And, by the way, you can get the whole book on Kindle here.

I don’t have much time to read these days.  For this reason, I find audiobooks really convenient–I can listen to them while I’m doing something else.  It’s a real time-saver.

So it occurred to me that I’m probably not the only person who doesn’t have time to read much.  And that led me to realize maybe my readers would find it convenient to have audio versions of some of my really long posts.

While recording some of the poetry readings I’ve posted, I also recorded a reading of one of my recent posts on geopolitical and religious history. (The original post is here.)

And so now you can listen to me pontificating about various subjects while you are doing other things.  It’s like having a little Ruined Chapel RSS feed running in your mind, as if a dystopian government had placed a propaganda chip in your brain.

Uh… bad analogy.  Never mind.  Anyway, try it out if you like.

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From left: Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) in “Lawrence of Arabia”. Image via IMDb

I’ve referenced this movie many times on this blog–I’ve quoted lines from it, hailed its timeless themes, and in general sung its praises at every turn.  And yet, I’ve never done a proper post about it.  Well, I intend to rectify that now.

Of course, you might think it hardly seems necessary. The movie is practically legendary at this point. It’s been referenced in scores of other movies, its influence can be seen in the work of directors like Kubrick and Coppola, and of course, its subject matter remains relevant to the politics of the Middle East to this day.

And yet, for all that, critics don’t really get Lawrence of Arabia.  They still can’t understand what makes it great. Fortunately, I’m here now, and can tell them.

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I thought Oliver Stone’s JFK would be the weirdest movie I ever saw about the Kennedy assassination, but Jackie has surpassed it.  I went to see it again, thinking I must have been mistaken in my first impression.  The film can’t possibly be as bizarre as I remember, I thought. I must have just misunderstood it.

I didn’t.

I did get a few lines of dialogue slightly wrong in my original review, but as it turned out, the lines were even stranger than I remembered.  In Jackie’s frenzied query about the caliber of the bullet, she not only says she thinks it’s a heavier round “like soldiers use”, but also like those used for deer hunting.

Also, her aide doesn’t say “build a fortress in Boston and disappear.” He says “Disappear. Build a fortress in Boston.” Not appreciably better.

I talked to someone else about this movie, trying to work out what it was all about. She had an interesting interpretation: that the Journalist and the Priest who Jackie talks to aren’t meant as literal characters but as representatives of Journalism and Religion.

This would explain why these characters don’t have names; they are just “the Journalist” and “the Priest”. It also explains why their dialogues with Jackie seem so surreal. The Journalist, in particular, is way too rude to her–I don’t think a journalist would speak like that to any interview subject, especially not the President’s widow. But if he’s representing Journalism in general, Jackie’s perception would be that Journalists are incredibly rude.

Interpreted this way, the dialogues aren’t two characters talking; they are philosophical exercises meant to examine Jackie’s relationship to the institutions of the Press and the Church. And by extension, it makes sense to guess that most of the rest of the movie is her interaction with another institution: the Government.

If you watch the movie this way, you get the sense that Jackie is extremely disenchanted with all three of these.  That’s sort of what I meant when I wrote the movie was subversive–major institutions appear useless or untrustworthy.

All that said, I’m still not convinced that this is the way to interpret the movie.  Besides which, I’ve never been a big fan of allegories, and this one–if indeed that is what it is–is still ham-handed.  A piece of drama must work first as drama, and only then can it have allegorical or symbolic meaning.  The dialogues in Jackie are not smooth dialogues, no matter how much philosophical depth they may have or aspire to have.

But I don’t want to just give a short-attention span dismissal and say, “Oh, the script is rotten. Sad!” Because while it gets almost all the micro-level details of dialogue wrong, there is one very macro-level idea that it gets right, and that is the use of images and symbols (e.g. JFK’s funeral procession) to create legacies, and to shape the perception of history.

A few other observations:

  • The soundtrack didn’t seem as bad this time, although I still thought it came in too loud at inappropriate times when silence would have been better.
  • The scene where the Priest sums up his reflections on Life and Death is very strong, largely because it is the late John Hurt delivering the lines.  Great actor. R.I.P.
  • I said this before, but it’s worth repeating: all the acting was great, which was especially impressive given the problems I’ve mentioned with the dialogue.
  • Have I mentioned I have some issues with the script?

Lastly, I don’t get why people are calling this a “biopic”.  It isn’t one. A biopic should give you a sense of who a person is, and how they evolve over time.  Jackie takes place over a very short time frame, and it deals with a woman’s reaction to a tragic and shocking crime that had few historical parallels. That’s fascinating subject matter, but it’s not a biopic because it really doesn’t give you a larger sense of who Jackie was or what her life was like.

I’m not complaining about that.  I think this was a far more innovative thing to do.  I’m just saying they shouldn’t be calling it a “biopic”.  It’s more of a historical drama, on the order of Julius Caesar.

That’s all for now.  I might write more later.  This movie has limitless potential for discussion.