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In 1999, video game writing hit a high-water mark

Screenshot: Planescape: Torment: Enhanced Edition

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Planescape: Torment only does two things—talk and fight—and it’s a testament to how well it does the former that it’s widely considered one of the greatest games of all time, despite the fact that its approach to the latter can charitably be described as “mostly inoffensive,” and accurately described as “crap.” Torment is an existentially obsessed, winding, and frequently harrowing/hilarious trip across the strangest reaches of the already-pretty-strange Dungeons & Dragons universe, and it plays host to a strong contender for the best writing to ever grace a video game. Which is all well and good, except for one thing: It’s been 20 years. Where the hells has its competition to that lofty throne been all this time?

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Released in December of 1999 (almost exactly a year after its far more conventional D&D-adapting cousin, Baldur’s Gate), Planescape tells the story of an amnesiac immortal known as The Nameless One. TNO awakens on a mortuary slab in the cosmically improbable city of Sigil, accompanied by one of the best casts of NPC companions to ever grace an RPG’s bench, including a chaste succubus, a living embodiment of heartless justice, and a floating skull who sounds a lot like Pinky from Pinky And The Brain. TNO sets out to figure out why he can’t remember anything, why everyone he meets already seems to know (and, usually, hate) him, and, above all, why he can’t die. In the process he wrestles with the power of belief, helps an alley give birth, and attempts to answer the game’s running question: What can change the nature of a man?

It’s heady stuff, backed up by a script that runs to something like 800,000 words—much of it delightfully superfluous to the game’s actual plot. (Do we need repeated digressions from the aforementioned floating skull, Morte, elaborating his carnal appreciation for female zombies? Probably not, but Morte wouldn’t be Morte without them.) Sometimes you can feel the writers (most notably lead designer Chris Avellone, but also a whole team of Black Isle Studios’ finest) just go ahead and flex, as in a mid-game sequence where The Nameless One comes across a magical stone containing the memories of a woman he once romanced and betrayed—and then begins remembering the encounter from both perspectives simultaneously, living through his conquest’s doomed hopes and his own past incarnation’s carefully judged manipulations of same. It’s the sort of high-concept emotional scenario that you can really only encounter in really great genre writing, and it’s far from the only time that Torment provokes chills with the way it presents its words. (Anyone who’s made it to the end of the game and executed the convoluted set of steps necessary for TNO to recover his never-heard name, or issued The Pronouncement Of Two Deaths As One, can presumably co-sign this sentiment.) It’s a high-water mark in terms of the written word as applied to gaming. So what happened to that tide?

To be clear, there have been plenty of attempted successors, including some from people who worked on Torment itself. 2017’s Torment: Tides Of Numenera explicitly presented itself as a spiritual successor, for instance, while Obsidian Entertainment (founded by former Black Isle exiles) has tackled this sort of narratively driven approach from a variety of angles. But while inXile’s offering (co-written by Planescape’s Colin McComb) contained some great characters and memorable stories—as well as an intriguing spin on Planescape’s protagonist haunted by their own past selves—it never managed to match the original’s sense of cosmic scope, or the deeply resonant way the game’s entire universe seems laser-designed to reflect on his quest for self. Planescape’s Sigil is absolutely massive, a sprawling hive of chaos with new characters (and stories, and dialogue) hiding in every dark corner. No one—even the people who made it—has ever managed to match it.

Meanwhile, the wider gaming landscape seems to have looked at the literary ideal Torment aspired to, shrugged its shoulders, and moved on to bigger, flashier things. Instead of taking as their inspiration the fantasy novels of Moorcock or Zelazny, the creators of blockbuster games like BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series turned their focus to, well, blockbusters: cinematic experiences that eschewed Torment’s convoluted, screen-filling boxes of dialogue in favor of snappy, wheel-based decision trees that let players feel like they were controlling a big-budget sci-fi film. (Watching this evolution/mutation take over the Fallout games, Planescape’s old-school Interplay cousins, has been especially instructive in terms of modern priorities.)

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At the same time, the focus on spoken dialogue has more or less killed the ability to pump out eight novels’ worth of text for a game. As Avellone himself has noted when looking back at it, Torment’s script is gigantic to a sometimes-unwieldy degree, and while writing a line of dialogue is relatively cheap for a studio, hiring and directing someone to record it is an order of magnitude more expensive. (Not that Torment doesn’t have voice actors—indeed, between Tony Jay, Keith David, Jennifer Hale, Rob Paulsen, and, bizarrely, Sheena Easton, it has an absolutely fantastic cast. But their dialogue is used sparingly, to highlight specific lines and set a tone, rather than recreating every single written word.) The result has been writing that is snappier, shorter, and altogether less ambitious; Mass Effect has some charming companions (backed up by some great voicework), but none designed with the complexities or depths of Planescape’s religiously tormented warrior-priest Dak’kon.

Writing is not the end-all, be-all element of game design. (The careful use of architecture or lighting in a game like Gone Home, conveying mood or controlling player experience, is just as artistically significant as one of Torment’s extended soliloquies.) And the popularization of Japanese-style visual novels like the Danganronpa games Stateside is a firm reminder that there’s still a place for the introverted reader in the gaming world. And yet, Torment represents a peak of something only gaming can do, but chooses to no longer pursue: present an entire saga’s worth of warm, funny, inventive, intelligent writing, and then allow players to explore and chart their own course through it. Twenty years on, it contains passages that are good writing not only “for a game,” but for writing, period; the fact that we still need to make that kind of distinction is a reminder of how painful it can be when the nature of a medium shifts.

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