Planscape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate

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

31 Comments

  1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

    Welcome back! <3

    And yeah, those are about my thoughts on BG and PT.

    BG is a very codifying game. You can see a lot of modern RPG tropes starting there. That makes it really important historically, but also not that fun to play unless You Were There since you’ve seen half of the game already if you’re at all into wRPGs, and a lot of them did better gameplay-wise. There is something about the combination of AD&D and Infinity Engine that just makes the gameplay unfun.

    I would still suggest playing BG2 if you didn’t already simply because it’s a huge evolution on the concept and was actually more influential on RPG genre than the first incarnation.

    PT, on the other hand, is perfect in everything but gameplay (and a few unfortunate skimpy outfits that are there for reasons that escape me. It’s not like you can even see them clearly with graphics being what they are). If you didn’t play it, go play it. If you played it, go replay it, it’s worth it.

    Also, what are your thoughts on Practical Incarnation?

    Also also, fun fact: Flemeth is another thorn of Ravel.

    And now that you’ve played PT, you may be interested in playing either Torment: Tides of Numenera that I just reviewed since it’s a direct spiritual successor, or Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer (the original campaign is kinda helpful in understanding what’s going on in the add-on, but not strictly necessary, and it’s pretty meh). It was probably the first attempt by Obsidian (former Black Isle) to create a spiritual successor to PT. Would be interesting to read your thoughts on that one.

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  2. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

    Yeah, I couldn’t finish Baldur’s Gate. I knew what it was trying to do, and I tried to appreciate it for that, but I ultimately got too bored. It’s a dent in my wRPG nerd cred. I think the last time I tried I fired up DA:O and replayed that instead.

    Planescape:Torment on the other hand remains one of my favorite games of all time, but if I tried to replay it right now I still wouldn’t get through it. Though how I managed 50 hours of Tales of Symphonia instead is a mystery, I guess.

    PS:T was just such an insanely personal story, and it’s really easy to forget that given how epic everything was. The only time you do what might be considered “saving the world”, it’s tangential to your own story, and the actual best part of saving the world was setting a fallen angel back on the path to redemption. The game is really firm in saying that no matter how bad you fuck up, it’s not too late to turn around and try to be better. That’s a positive message that is kinda hard to carry. Though having to spend eternity in capital-H Hell is still a thing that happens, so it’s not like it’s all saccharine.

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    1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

      Hell is just a hole in the ground regular plane like the rest, though, you can walk out well enough if you know how, and it won’t even count as cheating death since you’re dead already. The danger it represents is less about eternal torture and what have you and more about getting sucked into the Blood War, losing yourself and forgetting there is anything else, a better world out there.

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      1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

        Well, yeah, TNO is last seen wading into the Blood War. To solo it, probably, since he’s at angry-god-level of power. Also the incarnation of justice itself will hound him if he ever leaves.

        This is one of those times, I think, where you’re just supposed to ignore all the loopholes in D&D that let you get out of things like eternal torments. 

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        1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

          Wait, what incarnation of justice? The empty armor guy? He’s dead, Jim.

          And if we’re going by AD&D rules for PS specifically, dead people are supposed to lose their memory over a year, become one with the plane of their incarnation and then emerge as one of the lesser beings inhabiting that plane. So, like, a lemur or an imp in this case.

          Granted, the rules also state that the plane of your death depends solely on your alignment and fuck your actions (unless demons steal your soul on the way there, anyway), so we’re clearly departing from them.

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          1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

            No, Vhailor survives the events of PS:T if you also had Ignus and were not evil. He promises to hunt you down if you ever try to cheat your punishment. 

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            1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

              I’ve convinced him he doesn’t exist, so he doesn’t. It actually felt like a pretty neat end for his arc.

              Ignus, meanwhile, survives until the Fortress of Regrets even if you kill him.

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            2. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

              Vhailor has always been interesting to me, as a companion that is always a hair’s breadth from turning on you, and someone you have to walk on eggshells around. It just feels very organic as a companion, since so many companions these days are basically just extensions of your will no matter how much you piss them off. 

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            3. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

              I’d say he’s potentially interesting, but you meet him way too late in the game for my tastes. By that point you know and love the rest of your companions, so letting him join you feels like an inferior option narratively.

              If he were with you for more of a journey, it could have been fun (you know he’d JUDGE you every single time you do something remotely approaching questionabke from his point).

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            4. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

              Having him around the whole time would have been too difficult to design around, in my opinion. Companion interactivity was even harder back then. I just like him as a brief exploration of a companion that is also a potentially fatal challenge. I also like his backstory, that Practical trapped him instead of killing him because he was an existential threat, like Dak’kon, and he then justified that consideration by surviving his own death.

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    2. Profile gravatar of Mini-Farla Mini-Farla says:

      The only time you do what might be considered “saving the world”, it’s tangential to your own story, and the actual best part of saving the world was setting a fallen angel back on the path to redemption.

      The Undertale fan in me is darkly amused that they added a way to kill him and get the infinity+1 sword while still technically keeping your hands clean, though.

      I should replay this sometime, I played it when I was younger and don’t think I properly appreciated it. Was too busy being nervous I’d miss something like always happens to me in wRPGs.

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      1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

        Act actually missed one of the biggest moments of the game, when TNO learns his true name. It’s understandable because you need to carry that damn bronze sphere from the second dungeon all the way to the end, then talk to Practical and Good Incarnations, pick the right options for both, and find out that the Good Incarnation is the first. 

        I was simultaneously amused and frustrated.

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      2. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

        You probably did miss some cool stuff as it’s insanely easy to do in PT unless you’re an obsessive completist who talks with everyone including nameless NPCs, checks every objecct and hoards everything ever.

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  3. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

    Oh, and also:

    which isn’t to say that PS isn’t buggy, there’s just not an alternative with fixes as far as I’m aware

    There actually was a huge fan-driven restoration project that adds a lot of originally underdeveloped stuff and fixes quite a few bugs.

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  4. Profile gravatar of Septentrion Septentrion says:

    I finished BG1 once, and I only remember two of my party members clearly: the misanthropic druid, and the illusionist/cleric. I think I was a mage, but I only remember the two broken items I had. I’m quite disappointed at some of the follow up to some of the characters in BG2.

    BG1 is quite a slog with low level characters. I know my mom handled most of the encounters with slings and arrows. Your party casts a few spell, your tank(s) runs low on health, and then everyone’s an archer.

    I’ve beaten BG2 three times and remember a lot more of it.

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  5. informash says:
    The real question here: Which of these games has the worst novelisation?

     

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    1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

      From what I understand, PT novelization is just boring and doesn’t live up to its potential, while BG one is actively vile.

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  6. Something weird going on with posting. I think I broke it with my massive bighueg text. Let’s see if third time will be the charm, thanks to magic of ctrlv:

    Yaayy, you’re back! And with BG-PT post too, things I actually know of and can comment intelligibly on. Let’s do my huge quoty posting once 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)

    I’d have thought going to sleep would avoid eating a pear (or anything else).

    Also, this is neither here nor there, but my health insurance coverage has an option called “AD&D”

    ADnD is a nasty disease, I can attest.

    and I think it’s only in holding them up next to each other that you can really see the inner workings of each

    The only leg of the IE tripod this post is missing is Icewind Dale, the purified hack&slash experience with some basic worldsavity going on in the back opposed to the visual novel named PS:T that had, for some inexplicable reason, extremely terrible gameplay bits bolted on. IWD is probably not necessary for anyone to play at this point in time due to the glory of ADnD combat but would’ve made a much better counterweight to Torment.

    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.

    Hometown is attacked looong after adoptive father is murdered. It’s such groundbreaking originality, how could you possibly miss that. 0/10 review[/nitpick]

    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.

    While that’s not Bioware’s doing and they deserve no particular praise for sticking to TSR canon, they certainly ran with it in the following decades.

    OTOH, DnD canon is always mutable and the original/oldschool Faerun lore goes to some deep and dark rabbit holes with that stuff on account of being made up by ultranerds of 80s.

    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.

    They were obnoxious back then too and I hated them then as much as I hate them now. Quickload 4eva. Strange thing to be forgiving about, especially for someone without actual nostalgia for BG.

    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.

    A great description. Do you know just how much modding (also fanfiction) is available for BG series? I do and it’s insane. Pretty certain Elder Scrolls modding scene also owes its scope to IE games.

    You embark on his journey through a grostesque, surreal worldmultiverse

    It’s the best setting they ever made for FRPGs. It’s also the worst, so kinda evens out.

    (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)

    They’re right. PST is an incredibly shitty crpg that desperately wants to be an awesomest visual novel but can’t on account of all the DnD (and 90s western gaming industry) baggage. And being served a burger when you ordered pizza is unhappying, doubly so if it’s a terrible burger. (also one reason why I despised the only Metal Gear thing I “played” cos it was a damn movie with more cutscenes than gameplay)

    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…

    I’ve never had any particularly bad bugs with originals as recent as a couple years ago. Might have something to do with still using WinXP but they didn’t cause any hiccups even with a billion mods installed. EE is only worthy of paying for convenience cos everything it has was freely available on mods.

    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.

    This is what used to happen before writing was invented. Then people started to write things down to make them “official”, to preserve stuff without any distortion and canon appeared. It was also happening before literacy became a common thing and wandering minstrels/bards/actors/storytellers did their thing for the entertainment of the masses. Then recorders and cameras came about and nonwritten stuff could get “written down” too. It’s not at all surprising the same thing happens to vidyagames. History really does go round and round in circles.

    The characters were really just so compelling; Ravel was a big standout, as was Fall-from-Grace.

    As cool as those are, Dak’kon is by far the best thing to come out of PST. He singlehandedly took one of the trillions of generic random humanoid DnD races/species and gave them an identity so hard, every single githzerai since then has been Dak’kon. It’s like Drizzt all over again, except these aren’t merely mysterious and misunderstood asskickers who kick ass.

    Also Ravel is like every woman character Avellone has ever written. She’s great but the guy keeps writing the same thing over and over.

    I answered Ravel’s question with ‘regret,’ because…

    Considering what the final level is, that’s probably the intended answer of this particular story.

    That said, I was repeatedly surprised by how 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.

    Yes, there’s hope for Nameless One at the end. Ending on that was a good idea to keep the game from drowning in bleakness (the music helps a lot with it).

    Tho all the companions are still tormented beings doomed to suffer indefinitely, bound or not, and Lower Planes are a fundamental part of existence. Grimdark is eternal and infinite in the planes. But wallowing in that wouldn’t bring a better ending.

    Lastly, there’s Mask of the Betrayer xpac for Neverwinter Nights 2. It’s another thing you should give a go someday for best DnD storytelling, read/watch an LP if playing an even worse IE game doesn’t appeal. It also deals with identity (kinda). All the rest of NWN stuff is chaff and can be safely ignored.

    It’s neat that you’re back and hopefully you’ll keep being back.

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  7. Xander77 says:
    PST has an upcoming enhanced edition:

    http://store.steampowered.com/app/466300/

    I’m really not sure how much the review above would mean to people who never played either game. Beyond “PS:T has a lot of well written text”, I’m not sure it captures what makes both so beloved.

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  8. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

    So are we all just going to ignore the fact that the post title is misspelled? I mean, Planscape? (jk I just noticed myself)

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      1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

        I think maybe at this point I’m just late to the party and everyone else is too polite to say anything. 

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        1. Profile gravatar of Act Act says:

          I haven’t had a chance to proofread this so god knows what it looks like. I figure everyone’s just used to it at this point.

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          1. Profile gravatar of Mini-Farla Mini-Farla says:

            I’m always up for proofreading, fyi. I have no life.

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            1. Profile gravatar of Act Act says:

              I certainly won’t stop you — even when I do it, I’m just an awful self-proofreader and a ton of stuff slips through. The real problem is my need for instant gratification.

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    1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

      Everything’s scaping according to plan.

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      1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

        I have had it with these motherfucking scapes on this motherfucking plan!

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        1. Profile gravatar of Act Act says:

          Well now I can’t change it.

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          1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

            What can change the nature of an act?

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            1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

              Ah, but are you asking in hopes of finding the true answer or because you only want to hear Act’s answer?

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