Hello my loves <3 I have become something resembling a normal human again (let me tell you, you have not lived until you’ve stayed up to 2 AM in an attempt to avoid eating a pear), and to celebrate, though I’d finally churn out this for the second time!
Also, this is neither here nor there, but my health insurance coverage has an option called “AD&D” and wow was I confused for a second.
Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate are two cRPGs from 1999 and 1998 respectively, both of which I very much enjoyed. Both are based on D&D lore, run on AD&D mechanics, and use Bioware’s Infinity Engine. And while individual posts may have been a bit fairer to the games, I also don’t think I would have had a lot to say about them other than “did like, plz discuss,” and I think it’s only in holding them up next to each other that you can really see the inner workings of each, because despite being built from the same core materials and groundwork, Black Isle and Bioware (respectively) managed to build incredibly different games with different tones, narrative goals, types of immersion, and messages. In the same way a wood frame doesn’t tell you what color a house will be, the unique perspective borne of the near-identical basis of these games is a stunning example of just how much can be done with basic story tropes when in the hands of competent storytellers.
Baldur’s Gate follows you, the self-insert protagonist, after your life is turned upside down when your hometown is attacked and your adoptive father murdered. You embark on a journey to find out what’s going on, and end up taking down a criminal syndicate and saving the world etc etc. The game’s name comes from the name of the largest city on the land mass, where the story culminates. One of the things I really enjoyed about BG was how clearly it foreshadowed Dragon Age. You could tell the team wanted to do all the things they eventually did but the technology just wasn’t there yet. Part of that was customization — I liked that they went out of their way in the character creation to make it clear that women and men in the society are seen as equally capable; it was kind of cute to see how far back the focus on those issues goes for Bioware’s fantasy team. Even things I hated in DA:O, like the stupid random encounters that interrupt fast-travelling, got their start here and felt kind of quaint and endearing because of it. This game very much wanted to be what you wanted it to be, whether that was in allowing you to upload a customized character portrait, choosing you party members, or just making decisions that would influence the course of the story. It’s a very Bioware kind of game.
On the other side, we have PS:T, a game that has a story it wants to tell and a way it wants to do it. You play as the Nameless One, who wakes up one day in a morgue with no memory, just a tattoo on his back with vague instructions. You embark on his journey through a grostesque, surreal world to seek an answer to the question: what can change the nature of a man?
PS:T is incredibly text heavy, a bridge between traditional pen-and-paper RPGs where the narrative had to be entirely crafted by the players and the modern video game that lives somewhere between paper and screen as an art form (if you want to be angry and self-righteous, you can look up reviews and find people whining about the indignity of having to read words in their video game). The writing is wordy but excellent, each peace of narrative meant to evoke something specific in the player. There are choices you can make as you go along, but Planescape is a game with a purpose, a point of view, and a philosophy. It has questions it wants to ask, emotions it wants to explore, and people it wants to introduce you to in specific ways. It’s a powerful story with amazing, fully-realized characters.
PS:T’s story-driven nature means it’s aged much better than Baldur has — it is still a unique experience worth pushing through despite the awful mechanics and controls, while BG doesn’t really offer much that, say, Dragon Age doesn’t do better. BG is an important game, historically, and worth playing on that merit, but if unlike me that alone isn’t enough to hold your interest it will probably feel as old as it is. Because trust me, both of these games are a mechanical nightmare (and if you do get BG, make sure you get the Enhanced Edition that was rereleased on Steam and GOG — the original is so buggy as to be unplayable, as I discovered… which isn’t to say that PS isn’t buggy, there’s just not an alternative with fixes as far as I’m aware). PS:T in particular struggled with interface; I found BG’s much more intuitive, and all of the extraneous items in PS:T were super annoying. I could never figure out what was necssary and what wasn’t, or when to use something, as there were no in-game hints for a lot of stuff and I missed important parts of the ending on my first go-around because of it.
The reason I thought it would be useful to talk about these two games together is that I talk a lot here about how tropes, as the building blocks of stories, are inherently value-neutral, and that identifying a trope as existing in a story isn’t a commentary on the story’s quality; on the flipside, you see people whine a lot about how doing things like having diverse characters will make all stories be the same because everyone will be doing the same thing. But this is a brilliant illustration of just how much that personal touch that comes from the individual and their intentions matters — BG and PS:T have the exact same backbone, and yet they are so wildly different because of the creator’s opposing intentions (tell a specific story vs. let the player make the story they want). Every story has been told before, sure, because at this point in human history the collective unconscious is just too far-reaching and no one is being brought up independent of any culture. But by the same token, every story is unique because it has not yet been told by the person telling is now, at this time, in this way, and it’s people who understand that second part, who aren’t afraid to use the tools given to them by their own experiences of fiction, who can do really great things. Good fiction is a wonderful marriage of the societal — the legacy of everyone who came before — and the individual — the truth that every person in any given moment in time is a unique filter.
The tl;dr of that, I guess, is: The pursuit of Originality is a false one; focus on telling a good story and it won’t matter that you weren’t the first one to do it.
That’s kind of the overall point I wanted to make, but I’d also like to gush about PS:T a little because I really loved it, though the awful nature of the actual gameplay might mean it lends itself better to an LP if you have a lower frustration threshold for that kind of thing than I do. The characters were really just so compelling; Ravel was a big standout, as was Fall-from-Grace. I also just got really swept up in the philosophy of it. It’s hard to be philosophical without sounding corny or cliche, but I thought the game did such a good job at really prodding you about what motivates you and drives you to become who you will be. I answered Ravel’s question with ‘regret,’ because, I think, to truly change requires an inner desire to not repeat the past, but I thought about it a lot at the time, and I’ve thought about it a lot since then, because that’s the kind of question it is, and that’s the kind of game it was.
That said, I was repeatedly surprised by now not-grimdark the game was, and I think the you!incarnation of the Nameless One’s response had a really hopeful beauty to it as well.
holy fuck i finally finished this pooooooost