what can change the nature of a game

If you’ve read my unapologetically specific nerdmance, Looking for Group, you might remember that there’s quite a big chunk in the middle where Drew and Kit play a game called Planescape Torment. Honestly, they’re actually the wrong generation to be playing it, but I subtly fudged this issue by having someone of approximately my generation insist they had to.

Basically this scene is in there for two reasons. Firstly, it’s there because, in my experience, a lot of relationships between nerds (both romantic and friendly) are based primarily around a shared passion for something most other people aren’t interested in (actually, that’s sort of pretty much a potted definition of nerd culture as a whole). And so I thought it was important for my nerdy couple of share a nerdy thing together.

The second reason is simpler: I just really love Planescape Torment. And I’m aware that’s not an especially original statement. Pretty much everyone who played PC roleplaying games in the late 90s loved Planescape Torment, which is why when a large chunk of the original team got together a few years ago and Kickstarted a “spiritual successor” it raised approximately ten bazillion dollars.

Like most Kickstarted projects it had its fair share of teething problems. It was supposed to drop in 2014 and didn’t actually get here until, well, now. And there were a bunch of things promised which didn’t materialise (although I understand they’re patching some of these in later). The last time I checked, the top reviews on Steam were pretty much all backers freaking out because they didn’t get the underwater city they’d been expecting or because they felt it was completely betraying the spirit of the original that the new game uses turn based combat instead of real time with pause.

Anyway, I downloaded my Kickstarted copy of Torment: Tides of Numenera (this being the somewhat unwieldy name of the spiritual sequel) and my partner and I sat down together and, to steal a phrase from the sadly defunct Some Other Podcast, poopsocked it. I should stress that, beautiful as that visual metaphor is, it is most definitely a metaphor. No socks were harmed during our play through of T:ToN.

My reaction to  Torment: Tides of Numenera can be summed up as roughly like this: oh this going to be shit isn’t it, crap this going to be shit, look at this intro, it’s going to be shit, oh that was shit, WOW LOOK AT THE AMAZING FANTASY CITY, OMG THIS IS JUST LIKE TORMENT, actually this is genuinely turning out to be quite good, hey check out these really well structured things, FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM, hey that’s a cool bit of world-building, oh my God that’s gross and awesome, ALL THE FEELS, we should really go to bed now but I’m pretty sure we’re nearly finished, OMG SO EXCITING, FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM, zomg, wow that was really cool, hang on I’m pretty sure half of that made no sense.

With reviews like that, I should work for PC Fucking Gamer.

I know it sounds like my experience with Torment: Tides of Numenera was bookended by rubbish but it really wasn’t. I was very, very timorous in the beginning but I thought the ending was actually really good (not flawless, but satisfying) and it’s only in retrospect that little details like what the villain’s motivation was, how the plot fit together, or whether the central premise of the game made any sense at all started to matter to me. And, to be honest, they still don’t really. My partner and I kicked off our relationship playing Torment together (in a very different context to one that occurs in Looking For Group) and here we, however many years later, still playing Torment together. And that’s genuinely special to me.

Although, I admit, not necessarily a reason to recommend a game to another person.

And, actually, this is pretty much the problem with reviewing (insofar this is a review) Torment: Tides of Numenera. It’s basically impossible for me to judge how it works as a game. I mean, I can try (FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM) but I have no way of disentangling my experience of playing this game now from my experience of playing its predecessor the best part of twenty years ago and my experience of playing it with again with H when we were first going out. Fuck, I’m getting old.

To put it another way, Torment: Tides of Numenera really had to do two jobs. Okay, maybe three jobs. Firstly, it had to be a good game in its own right. Secondly, it had to be good as a successor to Torment. And thirdly it had to remind people who played Torment in 1999 of playing Torment in 1999 without feeling too much like it’s just saying “hey, remember that other game you liked.” It mostly succeeds. I do think some of the game’s biggest weaknesses seem to be in the area where it is doing things Torment did just because Torment did them and not because they’re necessarily the right things for this game to be doing. This is generally fine, although I would point out that one of the things that the game seems to have done the way Torment did it because Torment did it that way is, well, quite a large part of the premise. And that makes some bits of the game feel a bit wobbly.

This is going to get detailed and spoilery. If you’ve read more than two of my blog posts that shouldn’t surprise you in the least.

oh this going to be shit isn’t it

I’m always very wary of Kickstarted nostalgia projects. I think they have a very strong tendency to focus entirely on giving the most hardcore fans what they think they want instead of just making the best product they can. There are so many things that can go wrong with a Kickstarted game, from intrusive backer rewards (see Pillars of Eternity) to writers and developers losing all self-discipline once free of editorial control (see Pillars of Eternity) to just not being very good (see Pillars of Eternity).

Torment: Tides of Numenera opens with your character falling from the sky to a slightly gravelly voice-over by either the guy from the Baldur’s Gate series or someone doing a reasonable impression of the guy from the Baldur’s Gate series. It’s, um, kind of quite over-written, long on similes, short on clarity (and I am aware that I am the last person who should be levelling that as a criticism against anyone else’s writing). I’m not sure if the quality of the writing actually improves over the course of the game or if I just settled into the patterns of it. The original Torment had a style that, honestly, would have got you chucked out of most creative writing classes but it worked for what it was. And, actually, thinking about it I suspect the introduction suffers a lot from being fully voiced. Harrison Ford famously once told George Lucas that “you can write this shit but you can’t say it” and I think the self-consciously flowery, Vance-meets-Dunsany-meets-Lovecraft-meets-Bulwer-Lytton prose works when you look at it. Not when some poor schmuck has to try and read it out loud in a portentous voice.

It doesn’t help that Torment: Tides of Numenera has quite an unusual setting and where the original Torment was perfectly content to let the player wander around for a couple of hours with no fricking clue what was going on (or maybe just to assume that everybody who played the game also played D&D) T:ToN tries to at least fill the player in on some of what they can expect from the game’s setting (somewhat confusingly called The Ninth World). Unfortunately this turns about the first twenty minutes of the game into an info-dump from two bickering characters, who you have no particular reason to care about and neither of whom are especially engagingly written.

The first major decision the game presents you with involves these two characters having a sudden and unexpected falling out (it’s suggested later on that this is a psychic consequence of your character’s awakening, but this doesn’t really help the situation) requiring you to decide which of them you’ll continue to travel with. Since you know nothing about either party and I’m profoundly allergic to arbitrary pseudo-meaningful choices, I promptly told them both that they could fuck off.

It is to the game’s credit that I never suffered for this. Although slightly to its detriment that I didn’t regret it either, given that these two characters represent fully one third of the recruitable NPCs in the game.

WOW LOOK AT THE AMAZING FANTASY CITY

Things pick up a lot when you get to the city of Sagus Cliffs which, let’s be clear, happens very early in the game. I should probably point out at this stage that Torment: Tides of Numenera is based on a tabletop roleplaying game called Monte Cook’s Numenera, which was written by a man named, well, Monte Cook (he was one of the big driving forces behind third edition D&D and is something of a legend in the industry).

I did actually pick up a copy of Monte Cook’s Numenera around the time that the Kickstarter for Torment: Tides of Numenera launched. And I never really got to grips with it. There was a lot about the game I wanted to like: it’s set in an impossibly far future (literally impossibly far future, owing to Monte’s shonky grasp of astrophysics the game is set on an Earth that should, technically, already have been swallowed by the sun’s evolution into a red giant) and is based around that overused Arthur C Clark quote about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from the industry-leading collectible card game. The world is full of invisible nano-machines and weird ancient technologies called Numenera. These things are basically magic and let people do magic.

Now I’m a big fan of things that mash up science fiction and fantasy and will occasionally ramble on about how the modern notion that they should be completely separate genres is pretty much a post-Tolkein invention. But, honestly, I had a lot of trouble getting into the setting of Monte Cook’s Numenera because, while the art was lovely, and there was really quite a lot of specific detail about locations and settings, I didn’t feel that the book gave me a really strong sense of what being in that world felt like.

Walking into Sagus Cliffs in Torment: Tides of Numenera gave me a really strong sense of what being in that world felt like.

Within two minutes of entering the city, you meet a merchant who is (quite contentedly) turning into an insect, two scholars who have captured super-intelligent, sentient squid that they fully intend to release and which they only captured in order to test a machine they later intend to use to trap a malevolent god that is plaguing their home city, and a guy who is being executed for treason by a method that involves his own words being wound out of his mouth and wrapped around his body, a process which is being overseen by a member of a quasi-legal death cult who are tolerated by the city on the grounds that their capacity to consume the memories of the dead is useful in the investigation of crimes and which is guarded by purple-armoured constructs called levies—which, you quickly learn, are created from the life force of the city’s citizens, each of whom give up a year of their lives to create a levy as a form of national service.

What’s really remarkable about all this is that (in contrast to a lot of what you get told at the start of the game) none of this feels like an info dump. You encounter something weird, a fundamental assumption of the setting is that weirdness is local and therefore people are used to explaining their local weirdness to outsiders, and the weird person or entity explains the weird thing in a matter-of-fact characterful way that (and I’m looking at you here, Pillars of Eternity) doesn’t require you to read three screens of text or segue into a discussion of events that happened three hundred years ago.

To put it another way, every one you encounter is a fascinating but, crucially, optional weird fantasy vignette. We basically talked to every single NPC who wasn’t just called “commoner” or “merchant” and okay this was partly from years of cRPG training but it was mostly because they were all genuinely interesting. And, obviously, there’s an extent to which it’s easier to make “lady who is turning into an insect” or “alien who studies the reproduction habits of earth species because his people reproduce by cutting off their limbs and he’s surprised that other people don’t” interesting than it is “relatively ordinary inhabitant of lowkey Medieval fantasy setting” interesting. But it meant that every single NPC we encountered made an impression.

There’s a bit in Looking For Group where Kit wakes up in the middle of the night, prods Drew awake, and says something like “why don’t we take the black-barbed seed to Mourns-For-Trees”. Again, that bit is in the book because when this type of game works that’s how it works. There’s side-quest quite early in the Sagus Cliffs where you encounter a woman called Loss-of-Self who, it seems, is slowly having her personality transformed into the personality of another woman. You later discover that this is happening to lots of other women throughout the city and are tasked by the ghostly manifestation of the woman all these other women are being turned into with tracking them down. And, one day last week, my partner and I were walking home and, out of nowhere, I found myself saying “I bet the girl with girl with the flute is one of them because she said that thing about seeing ghosts.”

You can’t buy that kind of experience. I mean, obviously you can. You can buy it for £34.99 on Steam. But metaphorically you can’t buy it.

Also: the art design is just lovely. Genuinely squicky in places (I honestly think I read the word sphincter more often in the third act of this game than I have in any other work of fiction I have encountered) but lovely.

OMG THIS IS JUST LIKE TORMENT

Games like this have to walk a very fine line between being their own thing and being a successor to the thing they’re supposed to be a successor to. The way I took to articulating this to myself while playing Torment: Tides of Numenera was that I felt the game was at its worst when it was trying to remind me of Torment and at its best when it was just good in the same way that Torment was good.

And, don’t get me wrong, I liked all of the little shout-outs. You learn quite quickly that the immortal being who once inhabited your body used the name Adahn, which is a random pseudonym the character in the original Torment can give people if they ask him for a name and if you do this enough the raw power of your assertion conjures this Adahn into being. There’s a weird entity in the pub of psychics called O who, it is strongly implied, is the same weird entity called O who appears in the inn in the original game. Early on you pick up a quality of life item that allows you to summon party members and it takes the form of a dull, bronze sphere which I’m pretty sure is a reference to the highly plot significant dull bronze sphere the original Torment made no attempt to stop you from selling to the nearest vendor for a few copper pieces.

Torment: Tides of Numenera, like the original Planescape Torment, is at its best when it is evoking something larger, stranger and more wondrous than the thing you are actually encountering. For example, Sagus Cliffs is ruled by powerful families known as the Slave Families for reasons that don’t particularly become apparent and aren’t particular relevant, but the fact that they have that unusual name stands out. The government is also based in something that is fairly explicitly a crashed space ship and there are obviously high-level political things going on in Sagus Cliffs that your character simply does not interact with. The entire third act of the game takes place in a settlement inside a gigantic malevolent, dimension-spanning organism that slowly devours the people inside it. And this is just sort of where you are. You get to interact briefly with the entity but you don’t particularly change anything or do anything about it. Well, okay, you do get the option to try and stop its heart but I didn’t take it because I was, frankly, far too scared.

Basically you never go more than five or ten minutes (unless you’re stuck in a long combat sequence or back-tracking to solve a question) without encountering something that is both weird and cool.

Where the similarity to Torment is less successful is where it’s more explicit. And it occurs to me that I’ve got nearly three thousand words into this review and haven’t really told you what the premise of the game is or, for that matter, what the premise of the original Torment was. And since I’m now going to talk about the similarity between these two things I should probably fill you in.

So long story short.

Original Planescape Torment: you are an immortal being called The Nameless One who wakes up in a mortuary with no idea who you are, why you’re immortal or why you are being pursued by scary tentactular beings of shadow. Over the course of the game you learn about things you have done, how you came to be the way you are and what controls the scary tentacular beings (spoilers for a twenty-year-old video game: in a very real sense it’s you).

In Torment: Tides of Numenera you are an immortal being called The Last Castoff (this is a terrible name. It’s like the world’s worst slang term for your penis) and you wake up atop the smashed remains of a crystal coffin where you’re confronted immediately two scholars who explain exactly who you are (you’re The Last Castoff) and why you’re immortal (you were created as a host body for a powerful techno-sorcerer called The Changing God who builds his bodies to be well-near indestructible but nevertheless periodically abandons them, causing them to be awakened to their own consciousness when he does so) but who can’t explain why scary tentactular shadowy things are chasing you. Over the course of the game, you find out more about things The Changing God has done and are able to access his memories. And you are also find out what’s sending the weird tentactly shadowy things although the answer seems to boil down: it’s the thing that controls the weird tentactly shadowy things.

I initially had quite a lot of misgivings about this setup (see “this is going to be shit isn’t it” above). I felt quite strongly that the difference between a story where you find out about things your amnesiac character has done in the past and a story where you find out about things that somebody who is cooler and more powerful than you did in the past while inhabiting your body or other bodies now inhabited by other NPCs you may meet later was significant in a point-missy way. A massive occupational hazard of this kind of spiritual successor is that every fan has their own idea of what “the whole point” of the original was and any change between the original and the successor will outrage somebody (like that one person on Steam who seems to have felt that what made Torment was its real time with pause combat system).

And, thinking about it, I’m not sure why I mellowed on the premise because I do think that this distinction between, for want of a less glib way of putting it, a story about who you used to be and a story about someone who used to be you is important, and I do think the former is more interesting and more personal. But I suppose once I’d settled into the game I realised that you couldn’t really do that twice. And I think I came to the conclusion that Torment: Tides of Numenera had found a good way to tell a story in which immortality, memory and philosophical questions about the nature of being and the indelible shadows of the past were important without it having literally having all the same story beats.

And thinking about it more detail, I think what’s quite clever about the way in which the story of Torment: Tides of Numenera echoes and evokes the story of Planescape Torment is that The Last Castoff (from T:ToN) is almost nothing like The Nameless One (from P:T) but The Changing God (from T:ToN) is actually an awful lot like The Nameless One (from P:T). So you still have that ever-changing, slightly ambiguous immortal fucker as a central character. But you interact with that character in a very different way. Which is actually pretty cool.

hey check out these really well structured things

We’re straying deeper into spoiler territory here but there are lots of things about both the gameplay (not including the combat system, fuck the combat system) and narrative structure of Torment: Tides of Numenera that fit together really well. That, in fact, fit together much better than their equivalents in the original game (it’s almost like there’s been nearly two decades of progress in the games industry).

The level design is fabulous. The individual maps are small enough that you can’t get lost or bored on them, but they pack in a bewildering amount of stuff. Everywhere you go feels like a real place with real things going on and you never feel like you don’t know what to do next or like you’re pointlessly wasting your time looking for lost cats or abandoned vials of endless water. It does have, I’ll admit, a bit of what I’d call a nested quest problem whereby you find yourself doing a lot of going to x to get y for z so they’ll tell you about p who knows about q which you can use can to find r who can help you with f, which is the thing that you were supposed to be trying to do this whole time.

There were a couple of times when we were playing when H would be like “great, now we can be do this thing” and I’d be like “why do we want to do that thing” and H would be like “that thing is literally the whole reason we were here” and I’d be like “oh yeah, that thing.”

Mostly, however, I was incredibly impressed with the way that that the main plot, the side quests and the incidental details of the world interwove with one another. It’s a really minor detail but, apart from utility items like healing potions (sorry “spray flesh”) and money (sorry “shins”) pretty much every other item you find in the game is unique, even the vendor trash. Glossary note for none gamers: vendor trash is useless items you find in a video game that serve no purpose other than to be sold to in-game merchants for money. Which itself serves no purpose because, in most games, you find better stuff on the floor than anyone will ever sell you. It’s just so much nicer to be lining your pockets by selling on that magical singing fish you plucked out of the fountain or the weird parasitic worm that was too icky to be worth the combat bonuses than just to be flogging 23 wolf pelts. And, in fact, some of the vendor trash items were so well articulated that we kept them with us for the whole game, not because we thought they’d ever be useful because they were so cool or personal that we wanted to hang onto them.

Most tragically, we helped a mad ancient robot give birth at the cost of its own life (it wanted to do this, I should stress, I wasn’t just going around force-breeding automata) and one of the baby robots was stillborn. So I carried around a dead baby robot for the whole damn game. I just couldn’t bring myself to sell it.

The robot-death-reproduction side quest brings me neatly to another interesting structural point, which is the game’s big central question. This gets a bit a complex and was actually quite controversial during development so I’m going to need to do some explaining and you’re going to have to bear with me.

In the original Planescape Torment the reason your character was immortal is that, in order to escape the Blood War (the eternal conflict between demons and devils that at once devastates the D&D cosmos but also protects it by keeping the forces of evil fighting amongst themselves), your character went to a nighthag named Ravel Puzzlewell and asked her to make you immortal. Which she did. One of Ravel’s peculiar personality traits is that she liked to aske people “what can change the nature of a man?” This question, usually voiced in Ravel’s creepy witch voice, became something of a refrain throughout the game, cropping up at key moments and framing and contextualising the choices that your character makes. Also most of your NPC companions in Planescape Torment have had their natures changed in one ways or another, often by you. Oh, d’you see?

Now I didn’t pay that much attention to the backer-developer interaction during the early days of Torment: Tides of Numenera (I tend to stay out of that kind of thing, I tend to feel it’s developers’ job to make games, and my job to play them, and then go on about them at length on the internet) but my understanding is that the developers explicitly asked the backers if they felt that Torment: Tides of Numenera should have a central question that would be to T:ToN what “what can change the nature of a man” was to P:T. From what I’ve heard, people had quite strong opinions about in this in both directions. See my earlier comments about how everyone has a different idea of what’s fundamental to something. In one corner, you had people who felt that a strong central question was an axiomatic part of the Torment series and if Torment: Tides of Numenera did not have a clearly articulated central question it wouldn’t be a Torment game. In the other corner you had people who strongly felt that “what can change the nature of a man” was an aspect of Ravel’s character that had become an emergent property of the game. And that trying to build a question into Torment: Tides of Numenera would feel shit and forced and, of course, mean it could never call itself a Torment game.

In the end, they pro-question faction won and Torment: Tides of Numenera was shipped with the tagline “what does one life matter?” As a sort of uneasy compromise, it’s not literally on the splash screen but it is all over the promotional material. Having played the game, I kind of feel that both sides were right. That is, I feel designing the game around a clearly articulated central question really strengthened it but, whenever it is explicitly articulated, it feels really shit and forced.

In particular, an awful lot of the quests you do in Torment: Tides of Numenera (both the side quests and the main quest) very specifically address the question “what does one life matter” (and the more I say it, the more annoying and hackneyed it sounds, which is unfair because it actually serves the game pretty well) and they address it in a lot of different ways from a lot of different perspectives. Which makes the game thematically coherent on a level that a lot of RPGs aren’t. Most RPG side quests are a bit random, fetch a lost item here, assassinate a business rival there, defend a sculptor from brigands over there. The slightly forced central question of Torment: Tides of Numenera allows its quests to feel part of a larger whole. There’s a clear sense of connection between “do I allow this robot to sacrifice its life for its children” and “do I allow this slaver to sacrifice this child to protect her men” and “do I let my companion murder this guy in revenge for his lover” and “do I stop this man trying to resurrect his dead daughter at the cost of other people’s lives”. It even impacts on your choices of companion. Do I take this lost child with me on my dangerous journey? Having done so, and kitted her out so she’s actually quite effective, do I send her through a portal in the hope that she will find her parents? Do I look for a way to save my companion from the nano-demons who are tormenting him but also making him a fantastic warrior?

I do really wish they’d left it as a subtext. There’s a least one, possibly two situations, where an NPC randomly asks you “what does one life matter?” and it comes completely out of nowhere and makes no sense. And, worse, you have to pick between one of about seven options, none of which really reflect what you want your character to say. Asking seemingly meaningless questions to random people is something that a witch in a fairytale can do. It feels a lot of more jarring coming from the immortal administrator of a militarised sanctuary in a science fiction universe.

FUCK YOU COMBAT SYSTEM

I feel really ambivalent about this one, not least because I’m aware of That One Guy On Steam who was disproportionately upset that the combat system was turn based. And, actually, I quite like turn based combat if it’s implemented well.

This is not implemented well.

If I was feeling snide, I might suggest that having a shit combat system is, in fact, very much in-keeping with the Torment legacy. The original game had quite a lot of combat bits and they were just tedious because the designers were clearly in no way interested in designing interesting action sequences.

The combat in Torment: Tides of Numenera is three steps forward and about eight million steps back. To give the designers their due, they have way scaled back on the amount of combat in the game and most of it is actually avoidable. I think we had about five-to-ten fights (or “crises”) in the whole game. And, on the one hand, because they were all set pieces the designers had put a lot of effort into giving them stakes and alternative strategies and uses for a variety of skills. On the other hand, they base combat was so awful and clunky that all of the things that were included to make fights more interesting just wound up making them more frustrating.

I feel kind of bad about this, especially because part of the reason I was so frustrated by the fights I couldn’t avoid was that were so many I could.  Since I’d got about halfway through the game without ever having to swing a sword or shoot a slug thrower in anger, I really hadn’t optimised my party for combat which meant the moment a fight kicked off I was very close to being hosed. I eventually found a system that worked: get my small child to hide and lob grenades (come to think of it, I was a terrible influence on her), while I stand at the back buffing, and my two vaguely competent characters try to kill the enemy. But it was never anything resembling fun.

And, actually, there were quite a lot of combat abilities that you could spec into—by the time we were approaching end game we were so good at everything that we had actually started buying combat abilities because we didn’t need anything else. But they all seemed really hard to actually use in a fight. And because they were so few fights and they were all so high stakes you never really got much chance to experiment with them. Basically what would happen was, a fight would start and I’d think “ooh, let’s use that cool new power we got at our last level up” only to discover that it did 3 damage and had a 20% chance of succeeding. So I instead I’d just park in a corner and skip turn or pop off the odd shot with my rifle.

I think part of the issues here come from the fact that the game is based on a tabletop RPG with a very streamlined combat system. And that’s fine in a tabletop game where players can improvise around the framework of the system but it’s just dull in a game where you have to click to move and attack with each character separately, then wait and watch while up to a dozen enemies and perhaps allies laboriously act one after the other.

The very bare bones combat system also makes a lot of the potentially interesting combat options much less interesting. At least one “crisis” I encountered actually wound up not being a fight at all. The deal was that the people I was talking to would start fighting after a few rounds but I got the option to say some things to them first, which I had to say in actual combat time. Which meant I had to say them in initiative order. Which was really annoying because, obviously, my fastest moving characters were not my characters who were best at talking. And while I understand that the realities of a fast paced combat situation don’t always line up in a way that is convenient for the combatants turn based action is a purely game mechanical construct. There is no reason at all that my guy-who-is-good-at-smashing-things has to sit on his arse this turn just because the smashing has to happen after the mystical lore stuff and he has happens to have a higher initiative score  than my character-who-is-good-at-mystical-shit.

While I’m talking about the game mechanics, I should add that the non-combat skill system is a bit burned on the outside, raw in the middle. Again, it’s based on tabletop Numenera in which your character has a pool of points for each of Might, Speed and Intellect, and may spend points from this pool as Effort to make tasks easier. As you level up you gain “edge” in these pools which reduces the number of points you have to spend to get any given bonus and you also increase your static skills that increase the bonuses you get on common tasks. What this all means is that at the start of the game you will tend to have a 20% chance of success at something and have to spend half your pool to up that chance to 50% or greater. Later in the game, you will get a 100% chance of success at most things you’re specialised in (and with the party system it’s easy to have at least one character who is specialised in everything) for free. Neither of these situations are interesting, although there is at least a pleasing sense of power in having 100% chance to mind control a transdimensional alien.

The early high-cost, high-failure stage of the game, however, is just awful for so many reasons.  Firstly, it seems deeply counter-productive to have a system whereby you spend points from a finite pool to increase you chance of success on a task that you could simply re-try by saving and re-loading the game. We did this for quite a lot of the early game because our pools were so small and we would otherwise have blown through them so quickly.  Secondly, you quite often have no idea what you’ll actually get from a roll until you succeed at it. Particularly early in the game, this means that you can end up spending points from a pool in order to succeed at a roll that gives you a reward that is less valuable than the points you spend. This is nonsense.

I can see the value of a system like this in tabletop because you have a human GM and so the player spending points on a roll isn’t just about improving their chance of success, it’s about signalling to the GM that this is something they (the player) care about. And the GM can react accordingly. Any halfway decent Numenera GM will make damn certain that if you spend Effort on a roll, you get something worth having if you succeed. Also in a tabletop game, if you’re low on points and it’s getting dull, you can pretty much always rest to replenish your pools. Whereas finding rest locations in Torment: Tides of Numenera is fiddly and expensive. And, obviously, there’s an extent to which that was a deliberate extent to balance the Effort system (otherwise you could just put maximum Effort into everything and rest every three minutes) but it never felt like a meaningful decision.

ALL THE FEELS

In the third act of Torment: Tides of Numenera I was genuinely blindsided by how much I’d come to care for my NPCs. Like, an “I actually cried” level of blindsided. Everything I’ve read about the game suggested that the recruitable characters were a little bit half-baked, possibly because they’re nowhere near as outlandish as the ones you pick up in the original Torment. None of them are flying burning corpses or animated suits of armour or celibate succubi. What they are, however, is lightly but compassionately drawn people who are embedded in the world and feel real insofar as videogame characters can.

When I sent my small child home, I sincerely missed her. When I learned why the apparently comedic paladin-esque character behaved the way he did I was heartbroken for him. When my dashing rogue discovered (spoiler) that he was directly responsible (and in a really, petty, shitty, cowardly way) for the death of the only man he’d ever loved I had to stop and have cuddles.

I think part of the reason I reacted more strongly to the characters in Torment: Tides of Numenera than the characters in the original Torment is that the NPCs in the original game revolved around the player character to an almost embarrassing extent. You’ve got the guy you turned into an embodiment of flame, the guy whose religion you invented, the two women who are randomly in love with you in one way or another, the skull you pulled out of hell … pretty much the only NPC you didn’t actively create in Planescape Torrment is the comedy robot voiced by Homer Simpson. There’s this slightly awkward bit at the end of P:T that explains that you are like the embodiment of torment or something and you draw tormented souls to you. But, actually, these tormented souls are just people you’ve personally dicked over.

By comparison, the NPCs in Torment: Tides of Numenera are all ultimately responsible for their own misfortune (as, arguably, is The Changing God). Ironically, in T:ToN game you’re pretty much the only person who is genuinely innocent (since you were literally born yesterday). This makes the characters much more sympathetic because while, yes, I can feel bad for the evil wizard who’s only evil because my past self kept holding his hands in fire until he went mad that’s sufficiently outlandish that it’s hard to identify with. By comparison, the child who lost her parents but blames herself because she ran away over a silly argument or the shepherd who let his curiosity get the better of him or the man who ruined his relationship out of selfishness and fear … well … I can relate to all of those.

And even if you do have a positive effect on their life and do what you feel is best for them it still feels very much like their stories are about them, not about you. You can’t bring the rogue’s dead lover back, you can’t offer the shepherd a middle ground between nothingness and self-destructive vainglory, and while you can get the lost child home you can only take her so far and she has to find the rest of the way herself.

The NPCs are really good is what I’m saying.

hang on I’m pretty sure half of that made no sense.

Okay, so this is the awkward bit. I genuinely loved 90% of Torment: Tides of Numenera. It’s just that the 10% I didn’t love includes most of the bits with the main plot.  And I should stress that isn’t because the main plot is bad, or at least it’s not bad while you’re playing the game. It’s just a bit … nothingy.

So you are The Last Castoff. The Castoffs are immortal beings created when the Changing God abandons his old body for a new body. They are caught in an eternal battle called The Eternal Battle (and I really, really feel that this only here because of the Blood War) between those who are loyal The Changing God (despite the fact he is obviously a fucker) and those who are loyal to the First Castoff (despite the fact that she is obviously a fucker, and has supposedly been dead for centuries). Castoffs are sustained by and draw power these things called the Tides. Were I feeling cynical, I might suggest that the Tides as an in-setting concept were invented after Tides of Numenera was suggested as a subtitle. Because, honestly, they don’t entirely make sense or fit with the rest of the game’s themes.

The reason that the First Castoff and The Changing God are locked in their eternal conflict is that The Changing God wants to sacrifice all of the Castoffs in order to stop a being called The Sorrow. This is the tentacly, shadowy thing that is hunting you at the start of the game. And, which again, feels a bit like it’s only in the game as a callback to the tentacly shadowy things that were after you in the original Planescape: Torment.

Now, in Planescape: Torment it turns out that the reason there are shadows chasing you is that when Ravel made you immortal a condition of your immortality is that every time her magic saves you from death, somebody else dies in your place and their spirit becomes a shadow that hunts you down and tries to kill you. As you’ve spend the whole game cheerfully throwing yourself onto spikes, down pits and through razorblades, knowing that death doesn’t harm you, this is a genuine gutpunch. The sudden realisation of the sheer number of deaths your characters has caused is nasty as fuck, marred only slightly by the fact that, since it’s a 1990s cRPG, your character has probably also killed hundreds of largely innocent humans in hand-to-hand combat just because they happened to want to stop you getting somewhere you wanted to go. It is further revealed that the strange, malevolent entity controlling the shadows from a fortress built of regrets in the negative material plane is, in fact, your own mortality separated from you by Ravel when you first came to her. This is awesome and spooky and ties everything together really nicely.

In Torment: Tides of Numenera it is revealed that The Sorrow is … um … just a thing that exists in the world and is called The Sorrow for … um … no particular reason. And it’s killing Castoffs because they fuck with the Tides (even the ones who don’t ever do anything with the Tides) and it was created specifically to protect the Tides and prevent them from being abused. Which … um … falls quite flat. Not least because the Tides themselves are never especially well articulated.

It doesn’t help that one of the main pieces of evidence that The Sorrow cites in the final confrontation (when it suddenly starts talking to you like a reasonable person, having been an unstoppable and implacable killing machine for the rest of the game) is the tremendous suffering caused by the Eternal Battle. Except, of course, the Eternal Battle only exists in the first place because The Changing God and the First Castoff are fighting over the best way to deal with The Sorrow. So essentially it’s trying to wipe everybody out in order to deal with a problem of which it is itself the primary cause.

It also goes on to outline all the ways in which your character has brought harm upon other people throughout the course of the game, presumably for an “aaah d’you see” moment. But, unfortunately, if you do the standard lawful good play through (which I always do because I’m a goody goody and it’s how these games are always set up anyway) then it hasn’t really got much to confront you with. The only thing it had on us during our play through was that we’d persuaded a drunken, washed up mercenary captain to do something that was probably a bit dangerous but that, for all we knew, wouldn’t especially hurt him (we’d done the same thing and been fine, as had loads of other people) and he’d got killed. I mean, okay we could have taken care of him better but it wasn’t exactly a “be sure, your sins will find you out” moment.

And all of this would have been fine if you were allowed to call The Sorrow out on how irrational it was being—ideally causing it to explode in a puff of logic—but the game seemed to expect you to take everything it said at face value.

What’s really odd about the whole ending is that there’s a completely different and much more interesting story going on at the same time. Towards the end of the game, it becomes very clear that the random side quest you did right at the start with Loss-of-Self and the women who are slowly having their personalities replaced is, in fact, the origin story of The Changing God. He first started working with the Tides and Consciousness Transfer in an effort to save his dying daughter, who, in another slightly confusing, quirk of storytelling died of some incurable disease at roundabout the same time as an implacable army of merciless conquerors was sweeping across The Changing God’s homeland. And maybe the idea was for there to be a central irony in this—“I could destroy the invaders and save my people, but I could not save the one person I cared about”—but that’s never really articulated. So it just looks like The Changing God gets two personal tragedies for the price of one.

Basically, I spent most of the game expecting The Sorrow to be in some way connected to The Changing God’s reasons for doing what he did, rather than the mechanics of how he achieved it. I assumed that it was going to be the remains of his original self or an embodiment of his daughter’s anguish at having been non-consensually kept in stasis and then forcibly and imperfectly resurrected again and again over the course of centuries. Or, possibly even, in some way connected to his relationship with the First Castoff, who, again, I expected to have more nuance to her. In the end her relationship to The Changing God is very poorly explored, although to be fair we may have missed something. For it to turn out that The Sorrow is, essentially, an automated defence system grossly undercuts the thematic resonance of that whole story arc.

The history of The Changing God represents one complex and somewhat twisted answer to the game’s central question. Confronted with the death of his daughter, The Changing God asks himself—wait for it—what is one life worth and over the centuries demonstrated that, to him, it was worth both everything and nothing. Everything because he wrought wonders and horrors in pursuit of his daughter’s resurrection. Nothing because his actions were ultimately vain and self-serving and he clearly had no regard for his daughter’s wishes, individuality or, indeed, life.

The giant squoogly space monster doesn’t really bring anything to this narrative. Although, unfortunately, without it the player character has far less motivation to do, well, anything.

And, um, those are my thoughts on Torment: Tides of Numenera. If you’ve got this far, well done. I’ve kind of spoiled the game completely but if you are interested in playing it, I have a spare Steam key which I would be delighted to give to anyone still alive at this point. Just leave me a comment and tell me why you’d like it and it’s yours. If more than one person asks for it, I’ll stick them in a hat or something. I’ll also throw in a hard copy of LFG as well if that’s the sort of thing that appeals to you. Although, obviously, you can just have the game without the random book.

indulgence, musing

10 Responses to what can change the nature of a game

  1. the revival are the best says:

    You are my favourite.

  2. Beverley Jansen says:

    As I read this post for the words and lost you totally sometime around the fourth para, I am not worthy of the ‘key’

    However, I would adore a hard copy of LFG.
    Having finished How to Bang…

    I remain your unworthy friend

    Beej x

  3. Kelly says:

    Actually, with reviews like this, you should be writing for PC Fucking Gamer. 😉

  4. Eli says:

    Still alive. 😉 I’m with Kelly- you probably should be reviewing for PC Fucking Gamer, writing like this. It was a really nice start to the day. Coffee and a very intriguing game review. 😀

  5. cmc says:

    I have decided that the increase in swears is my influence. 😉 This game sounds fucking delightful.

  6. Lennan Adams says:

    I adore your reviews omg. Seriously they are so good. You really should review for someone.
    “Oh, d’you see”–Aahhh I love this so much. My fave *heart eyes* 🙂
    The dead baby robot, awww… “I carried around a dead baby robot for the whole damn game. I just couldn’t bring myself to sell it.” You are so sweet. That sounds so sad.
    I’d love the key if no one else wants it, but if someone else does, please don’t put my name in the hat. I have eleventy-billion games to play already and really should get through some of them before I acquire any more. This does sound like I would love it, though.
    Such an enjoyable review, thanks Alexis!!! <3

    • Lennan Adams says:

      P.S. I really feel you on the whole nostalgia thing. My first long-time boyfriend and I played The Legend of Zelda obsessively and I’ve had a major soft spot for the game ever since. I’ve played a lot of the sequels and am dying for a Switch so I can play Breath of the Wild. Aside from nostalgia, it sounds so great (we don’t have a Wii U either.)
      Also Looking For Group is just the best book. I love it so much. I know you know that but it really just has this heart to it–I reflect on the themes in that book a lot. It’s really special.
      Ok, enough from me.

  7. Pam/Peejakers says:

    Aww, the part where you’re walking home with H & just start talking about the game <3 I love stuff like that. Happens with me & E, only not about games – more like, picking up in the middle of some conversation we had 2 weeks ago or whatever, & then we both laugh because we don’t even miss a beat 🙂 You were right the first time though, you can’t buy the *experience*, just the *game* 🙂

    Oh god, the robot and babies, though 🙁 🙁 🙁

    Also, awww, your feelz <3 *hugs*

    I will refrain (this time) from quoting you back at yourself multiple times & squeeing, like I usually do 😛 But I did find my finger itching to highlight things multiple times <3 You really need some kind of widget for that on here 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *