GMotW: Planescape: Torment and unique immersion.

Planescape: Torment. Great game, or the greatest game?

A loaded question to be sure, but darn if it isn’t an interesting bit of game, full of things to talk about. It has any number of interesting things to say about life, death, memory, and trust, and of course, the main character is immortal. So, that’s neat. It also does something fancy with a concept I’m reluctant to talk about sincerely, because, well, “immersion” in games is a sticky wicket. What does it mean, does it make sense, is it a valued commodity, so on and so forth, it’s a discussion worthy of a massive essay in it own right, which I’m not writing right now, because I’m focusing on one little thing:

“In most role-playing games,getting killed means that you need to go back to your last saved game and try again. Torment is different, you’re a different sort of hero, and you’re immortal. You’ll find that this is a handy trait.”

Okay, this isn’t QUITE a mechanic, not the way its worded here in the manual on page 26, so let me rephrase: when the Nameless One loses his last hit point he will die, after which he will wake up some time later in a safe location (often the nearby mortuary) with all his goods intact.

To put it another way, you can die, but that never ends the game for you (notwithstanding the few limited occasions for which it does, which are pretty unique situations). Interesting. Interesting not because of the discussion on immortality and how that affect’s the Nameless One’s worldview (and indeed, he’s a fellow who’s willing to break his own neck just to prove a point) but because it’s making a part of the universe something that would be a part of the game anyway: the need to continue after the death of the main character.

Games need some sort of challenge or they aren’t games… they don’t need to be punishingly hard, but there must be some obstacle between the player and the goal, even if it’s as simple as pressing the walk button until the scene plays out. Often that challenge is expressed as combat, and for that combat to be entertaining to most players there must be a chance of failure, of dying to being beaten. When that happens, the game generally ends, as the player character is Dead or a Failure. THE END.

… except no, it isn’t! Players keep playing the game, because they want to win the game. They try again, or re-load from the last save, or (more recently) start again from the last checkpoint, continuing the game with the benefit of experience, the knowledge of where the bad guys are, how they’re going to act and what strategy isn’t going to work. If you suck enough, the game might even opt to make the baddies less of a challenge for you.

Torment opts to just put this into the game itself. When you die, you wake up at a nearby safe area, none the worse for wear. Everything else about the Nameless One’s nature, his powers, much of his personality (that which isn’t determined by the player’s actions at any rate) stems from this: his immortality is the immortality of the player of almost any game.

What does this do for the player? It makes the game strange without changing its ebb and flow. It reduces the temptation to save scum, because it save scums for you. It justifies… well, so much. It justifies heroism that borders on idiocy, and the tendancy to do things just to see what happens, and the fact that he’s basically godlike in terms of his power and potential, and all of little facts about the Nameless One which are true of all video game protagonists because, whatever, he can just reload. It allows a strange level of immersion, where there is no mental disconnect based on the player’s accessing information unavailable to the character: to a level which was at the time quite unique, the viewpoint of the protagonist and the player were one and the same. And of course, the Nameless One is an amnesiac as well, learning about the world at the exact same time as the player, something which is not unique, but does mesh really quite well with this particular narrative style.

It opens a number of unique narrative doors, reduces the reliance on pointless repetition, and fosters a sort of immersion. That’s pretty keen.


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