Saturday, March 28, 2015

Planescape: Torment's Theme of Belief and Will

It’s March 28th. March 28th, 2015. Do you know what that means?

No, of course you don’t, because you’re (probably) not fanatical Chris Avellone worshippers like I am. Well, for those of you who have not sculpted a golden calf in your mind and stuck a “C. Avellone” name tag on it, March 26th, 2 days ago, was the day on which Pillars of Eternity was released. PoE is a crowdfunded RPG developed by Obsidian Entertainment, the developers behind Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout: New Vegas (and the South Park RPG, apparently, which means I really do need to check that thing out at some point), and whose many excellent writing talents include the transcendently magnificent Chris Avellone. And if what I understand is true, he’s one of the most prominent minds behind Pillars of Eternity...and as a crowdfunded game, and a wildly successfully funded one at that, PoE has had the opportunity to be developed at its own, healthy pace and with no constraints on its creators’ vision. An RPG written by Chris Avellone and his talented peers in which no whimsical but tyrannical corporate suit, no bloodsucking marketing department parasite, and no sales-dictated deadline has had a chance to muck things up? My God. People, at this very moment that you are reading these words, I may be playing the RPG to finally topple Grandia 2 from my Greatest RPGs rant.

That, or I have set myself up for the biggest disappointment of all time. Then again, I did see the ending of Mass Effect 3, so...second biggest.

Anyway, this momentous occasion deserves some sort of celebration here. I did a whole year’s worth of Shin Megami Tensei rants when SMT4 came out, after all, and that wound up not really deserving that much hooplah anyway. The least I can do now is do a rant on an RPG Mr. Avellone has previously worked on. And of all of the RPGs that have been graced by Chris Avellone’s touch, there is one which stands out the most famously. So, without further ado, let’s (finally) have a rant on the legendary, the unparalleled, Planescape: Torment.

Oh yeah, uh, major plot and character spoilers in this rant. If you have not played Planescape: Torment, then for the love of Palutena, DO NOT READ THIS RANT. If you let this shining star of magnificence which you must someday play be lessened in any way, I will be pissed like you cannot believe. DON’T SPOIL PLANESCAPE: TORMENT FOR YOURSELF. JUST. DON’T.

For all the lip service I pay to Planescape: Torment, lip service which it has richly earned of course, I’ve never actually made a rant on it before. That’s not because there’s not much to talk about regarding the game. If anything, Planescape: Torment is the most demanding for discussion and contemplation of all RPGs in existence. It’s more that I actually don’t feel qualified to take the stance of authority in a rant here for anything about the game, the way I do for most any other RPG. It’s so deep, so intelligent, so artistic, and so wise a game that my own childish forays into contemplation don’t even remotely measure up.

Still, I think I’ve actually realized something fairly neat about Planescape: Torment which few others have, something neat and interesting to share with you all at long last. And that realization relates to one of the most significant and fascinating of the many, many subjects that PT touches on: the overwhelming power of belief and will.

It’s easy to recognize how important belief is to the events and setting of Planescape: Torment. It permeates every level of the game’s course. The power of belief comes up over and over again as you travel through the game, in ways both small and large. In Dungeons and Dragons, there is a certain idea that the gods of the D+D planes are born out of people’s belief alone, empowered by it, and that they fade to oblivion if all of their worshippers die or lose faith. At least, I think this is a concept true of the D+D universe in general, and not just invented by Planescape: Torment. The unexpectedly wonderful indie RPG, Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, has one of its most touching love sidequests making use of the idea that with enough time and belief, an ordinary mortal creature can transcend and become a goddess, and it’s quite clear that EoWC uses the Dungeons and Dragons universe as its setting inspiration. At any rate, it’s an interesting idea that of course correlates thoughtfully to belief’s role in our own world and what we can accomplish with it as our inspiration.

Planescape: Torment takes this idea that belief in the D+D planes has quantifiable power and influence, and runs with it as a major theme in all levels of itself. You have small but notable events involving the power of belief in the planes, such as the possibility that if you have The Nameless One give the false alias “Adahn” enough times in the game, you can actually find an NPC late in the game named Adahn who has come into existence simply from the power of will of The Nameless One’s deception and the belief of others that the “Adahn” they’re told of actually does exist. Even if their belief that The Nameless One is Adahn is incorrect, it has been enough for them to simply believe that there is an Adahn. Belief has produced reality.

Small NPC encounters aren’t the only place where the theme shows up, of course, it’s just interesting and important to note that this theme is so important that it does not restrict itself only to the major events and characters, but is instead infused into every level of the game. Of more important note, the theme of belief’s power shows up in major characters such as Dak’kon, a githzerai warrior whose loss of faith was enough to allow the enemies of his people to destroy the city he led, and for whom regaining his faith transforms his blade into one of the most powerful weapons in the cosmos. Belief in the power of justice is what makes Vhailor the Mercykiller an unstoppable force of kharmic might, so much that even just believing himself still alive keeps him animated--and if you convince him that there is no meaning in Law, and/or that his perspective on justice is flawed and that he himself is guilty, he will kill himself, for he cannot exist without his belief.

Really, though, if you want a proper accounting of just how powerful belief is in Planescape: Torment, there’s no better advocate than the source itself. As the protagonist himself says:

“If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear - whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can. I’ve seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil hag's heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me.”

Holy crap, I love the writing of this game. I’ve never wanted to make love to words before Planescape: Torment.

Anyway, there you have it. Belief does all of those monumentally incredible things that The Nameless One mentions, and he gives this speech at the end of the game, to the manifestation of his mortality, as a way of seguing into what I believe is the only true conclusion of Planescape: Torment: the Nameless One defeating the Transcendent One through just the threat of willing it and himself out of existence. Hell, even the very infamous question of Planescape: Torment, the one that is immortalized as its greatest question, “What can change the nature of a man?”, is answered with belief. Belief is that powerfully awesome and important to Planescape: Torment, to Dungeons and Dragons, to us as human beings.

But of course, all of that is well known in regards to Planescape: Torment. The game outright tells you most of it, and most players will already be well aware of all that I have mentioned so far. So what is my own addition to this? What have I come to realize that I have not seen others mention, in regards to this theme of belief in Planescape: Torment?

My own revelation is that there is another layer of meaning in making belief and will such an integral part of everything within Planescape: Torment: it makes this game the most true and worthy representation of Dungeons and Dragons out there. Because Dungeons and Dragons is nothing but belief.

Think about it. What is, at its core, Dungeons and Dragons? It’s a game of make believe. As is the case for essentially all tabletop RPGs, D+D exists as an exercise of imagination. The players imagine themselves to be others, imagine their surroundings, their enemies, their actions, their interactions, everything. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Dungeons and Dragons can be even more an example of belief than regular make believe! A child pretending to be a knight may do so because he has found a stick to swing as his sword, a child pretending to be a police officer may do so with a toy gun at her side, a child pretending to own a restaurant may set about making mud pies as representative of their culinary creations. The children have the stick, the toy, the mud pies to represent what they are imagining; what does the D+D player have? Dice and a character sheet. Words and numbers, themselves less corporeal than the stick, toy, and mud.*

In being a game wherein the power of will is explored as a power that can have tangible results, wherein belief is perhaps the most significant core concept of absolutely every wisdom and idea presented to the player, Planescape: Torment is the most truly symbolic game of Dungeons and Dragons of all. True, games like Neverwinter Nights 1, Baldur’s Gate 1, and the Icewind Dales much more closely emulate the actual playing experience of D+D.** But ultimately, those games are based on and never get beyond the fictions that have grown from the original truth of D+D, not the game’s core principles. Planescape: Torment of course hugely utilizes the lore that has been built around the Dungeons and Dragons planes, but while doing so, its core theme of belief and will make it a tribute to the heart of Dungeons and Dragons in a way that no other game based on the franchise which I have played accomplishes.

So yeah. Probably somebody somewhere has come up with this connection before I have, but as far as I can tell from a cursory glance online and from my small experience with online forums on which PT was discussed, this layer of meaning is at least not widely known. It’s pretty neat, though, and just one more of many, many examples of the nuanced excellence of Planescape: Torment’s writing.

* Yes, there are plenty of accessories for D+D you can acquire beyond that. Maps, figurines, and so on do add at least as much tangible representation as the children’s tools I mentioned. But at its core, Dungeons and Dragons does not need nor use such things, and that’s my point.

** To their detriment, if you ask me. The closer a game is to the actual D+D playing experience, I find, the less focus it has on a strong and meaningful story carried through by characters of depth and interest. That’s why the best parts of Neverwinter Nights 1 are found in some of its add-ons, which become more focused on telling a story the way the writers want to than just giving the player carte blanche to wander around aimlessly, and why Baldur’s Gate 2, in becoming a game with a great focus on a more linear and structured story and defined characters, so surpasses BG1 in quality.


  1. You will be pleased to know I know nothing of Planescape: Torment. Not one bit of data. It's one of the first holy lands I plan to plunder when I move into PC gaming.

    Topple Grandia 2? That's some heavy speculation. I hope you're not wrong, for your sake.

    1. I'll not be pleased until you know everything of Planescape: Torment, sir.

      So far, Pillars of Eternity doesn't look likely to topple Grandia 2, or even place on the list, but I'm still very early in the game (stupid employment and classes), and the best games that Avellone has been a major part of tend to take some time to really take off (even Planescape: Torment is only a normal amount of awesome for a little while), so we shall see.

  2. Avellone's got a huge work load (he was working on Wasteland 2 and its novella, Pillars and its novella and Tides of Numera, all of which will have been released this year and the last's). It wouldn't be surprising if the quality of his work was compronised because of that.

    All I can remember from Grandia 2 is that its themes seemed like they were for the edgy teenager/athiest (no offence to any athiests!) audience that's kind of common these days. I probably dismissed it too early if it's the best RPG you played.

    1. Well...I suppose in several significant ways, your read on Grandia 2 is correct in that regard. But at the same time, it's almost as much for the other side of that coin, too. And as I'm fond of mentioning on this blog, Grandia 2 is a terrific example of the fact that just because the subject matter is commonplace, that doesn't mean a good creative team can't work it into something wonderful all the same. Grandia 2's filled with things that are common, as you say, but it works with them so well that they feel new and alive. If you get the opportunity again in the future, give it a second chance.


    1. Please imagine, for a moment, a newly birthed piglet which has inhaled helium, and just found out that it has won the lottery (and cares about a lottery in a way that is decidedly more human than pig-like). The sound this piglet is about to make? It is the exact same tone and pitch as the fanboyish squeal my heart just made.

      You have brought the wise and benevolent gaze of Chris Avellone upon me, and he has deemed me worthy, and worthy in a way that it seems even he had not expected. Thank you most graciously, Humza sir. May I purchase an RPG for you in paltry gratitude to you for this?

  4. I didn't read most of it but I've been meaning to try pt for the longest time now.