Friday, April 28, 2017

Torment: Tides of Numenera

"Like the diamond that cuts the light
The radiation from a single mind
We have outlived ourselves
For many a ruined year"

Faith and the Muse - Shattered in Aspect


Once upon a timeless inchoate void, there was a computer role-playing game called Planescape: Torment which received widespread, lasting (and well-deserved) praise for its quality writing and reliance on roleplaying to advance the plot instead of mowing down a linear progression of faceless baddies. Unlike most computer games, RPGs included, Torment's texts read like immersive fiction with smoothly flowing dialogue and evocative descriptions.

However, Torment wasn't a choose-your-own text adventure, and there was more to its appeal than meaningful dialogue options or shooting the breeze with NPCs. The "Planescape" portion of the game's title indicated its setting, a spin-off of the most memorable concept to come out of Dungeons and Dragons, the alignment wheel and the multiversal world built on said alignments. Much of the game discussed heavens and hells, purpose and freedom, and penned characters based on these ideas according to their appointed spokes on the great wheel. It maintained coherent themes grim enough to imbue your actions with repercussions. Its music, décor and character models sustained that

In contrast, Planescape: Torment's self-appointed successor features a happy shiny magic door through which orphans can go to find adoptive families. Almost two decades later, to whatever extent Torment: Tides of Numenera might represent its new Numenera setting it offers precious little torment. (As to its content of tides, it kind of goes up and down.) The two games' dissimilarity is not entirely a bad thing, and in fact Tides manages to bridge some very serious cRPG pitfalls from which its predecessor suffered.

For all its roleplaying immersion, Planescape: Torment's combat side was woefully lacking, tacked on in deference to DnD expectations but clumsy and vaguely extraneous. You greatly cleaved and magically missiled waves upon waves of trash mobs on your way to and from quest NPCs, mostly letting your party autoattack until you heard Dak'kon say "the karach sings true!" A bit of a chore. It was and has been the standard leveling grind expected of cRPGs, and T:ToN blessedly does away with it, granting character experience for completing tasks and not for racking up a head count.

As discussed vis-a-vis the issue of stealth, removing at least some of the incentive for indiscriminate killing serves more than a purely aesthetic purpose. It opens up new styles of gameplay.
Meet Tides' crisis mode:

Not, not combat mode. Tides has no combat mode. In the place of punchy-time you get crises, which most often include some punchiness or the option of pugnacity, but also punching time-cards or serving punch. While turn-based conflicts and usable items are not uncommon in RPGs, I've never seen one incorporate non-combat aspects of gameplay quite so seamlessly. Use your turns to attack, interact with the environment, complete objectives, attempt to negotiate with NPCs, show the enemy what you've got in your pocketses, whatever your gallbladder desires (and the monkey writing the script remembered to bang into the typewriter.) In the example above, the crisis mode is actually used to handle a conversation with several NPCs. Combat situations grow much more naturally out of advancing through your story than they do in most RPGs.

Combine this with an excellent character stat system using STR/DEX/INT stats as consumable resource pools as well as passive boosts, thereby reviving the laudable concept of resource management so lamentably shunned by the rest of the game industry these days. Pile onto all that goodness a gear system that doesn't just pile on redundant stat-boosting duplicate armor pieces and usable items which cannot simply be endlessly accumulated in your inventory and rotated into your quickslots as fix-all solutions. Tides solves most of the problems cRPGs have created for themselves over the past decades. It's also, overall, a meticulously, minutely and masterfully scripted journey free of bugs, exploits, loose ends or redundancies. It's probably the second game of this type I've played (besides VtM:Bloodlines) in which I didn't wind up with a gigantic pile of useless cash by the end. For some (like myself) the dampened stochasticity grates a bit as I prefer my RPGs to tend toward open-world sandboxes (see Mount&Blade) rather than toward linear adventure games nailed to a specific plot, but one can't deny how impressively tightly woven InXile's product is. In terms of game mechanics and player interaction, this is what third-person cRPGs should be from now on.
Hell, it's what they should've been years and years ago if the game industry didn't refuse to improve its products as a matter of principle.

...

However...

For all its well-deserved accolades, one title I cannot lavish on TToN is a spiritual successor to Planescape:Torment. When I first played Pillars of Eternity I had the distinct feeling its title was no accident, these people are in it for the long haul, that the game was a platform meant to kick off something big, the "RPG revival" as I half-jokingly labelled it. Tides, while using PoE's basic engine, avoids PoE's much edgier setting and writing in favor of selling its gameplay improvements to a wider audience. What this amounts to, unfortunately, is the old routine of abusing an existing niche audience for free publicity to bait and switch your product to appeal to a new, presumably wider audience. When Chris Avellone (who wrote for both games) said they were very different projects, he was likely understating matters a great deal, and it certainly doesn't feel like something geared toward fans of the first Torment.

Before I judge InXile too harshly here, I will admit it's been eighteen freakin' years since everyone learned what can change the nature of a man, so maybe they couldn't entirely count on repeat business from an audience of nameless ones. Unfortunately, adapting to a new market now means marketing to millennials (or as I've called them, Generation Facebook) a sniveling crop of overemotional intellectual cripples who'll duck and cover for their safe spaces at the drop of a head. Planescape:Torment was largely a tale of rebelling against one's own nature. Millennials are an entire generation incapable of producing a counterculture movement, so addicted to constant social reinforcement they couldn't even be bothered to rebel against their parents, much less themselves. So, perhaps inevitably, there's very little torment to be found in the tides of numenera.

Terrible things happen in the game, sure. Y'know, technically. You hear of people getting maimed and killed and eaten alive and occasionally wipe your boots in some innocent's entrails, yet somehow the depictions of death and despair lack that visceral immediacy which brought Torment's torments to unlife. The depictions of poverty lack the due nihilism of a society's punching bags found in Sigil's slums. None of your NPC companions possess the looming menace of Vhailor or the vicious abandon of Ignus. The music never booms the full depth of those pits of despair known as the human condition. Even the Dendra O'Hur seem unnecessarily sanitized. Though Tides sets up ample opportunity for darker plot twists throughout its run, these are constantly muted, truncated, restrained.

It's not like the team lacked talent. Look at this:
Numenera's defined mainly by being a far-future science fantasy setting. The influence of the past would by then litter the entire planet: new ruins atop old ones, houses upon houses, Troys atop Troys. From the perspective of a billion years in the future it really is turtles all the way down, and the graphic artist who designed the background here managed to convey at least a hint of that feeling by sculpting the building's two levels in two different styles. Minor impressions like that grace many of the game's backgrounds, descriptions and items but are constantly held back by the overall design decision to keep things light and airy, sunny and optimistic.

Nothing so delineates this divergence as the utterly different natures of The Nameless One and the Last Castoff. As the Nameless One the dark deeds you unveiled were inescapably your own, regardless of your memory loss. Pillars of Eternity toyed with this idea as well through its soul permanence and awakenings. TToN on the other hand makes it clear that the castoffs are new beings born in the instant the Changing God leaves a body, and you are therefore an innocent ignorant, exculpated a priori of any misdeeds your body perpetrated before your Haibaneish fall from grace. How convenient. You are denied even the dignity of owning your faults.

This postmodernist absolutist moral relativism manifests in the replacement of alignments with tides as well. While the old good/evil dichotomy is certainly simplistic, it at least acknowledged the discernment of right and wrong. The tides on the other hand shy from calling anything evil while labeling you instead in terms of psychological traits like impulsiveness or egocentrism, which would be all well and good if the game's various events didn't then consistently link silver and red to negative outcomes and gold and purple to do-gooding along the predictable old perceptions and delineations of good and evil, except lacking the added nuance of order and chaos. If we're to take such a system seriously, then we'd need a lot more examples of gold-star altruism being used against the perpetrator (parasitism, confidence artists, etc.) or prosaically purple communism beating down the will of individuals, of red-blooded fights against oppression and silver-lined brows reaching for the lofty heights above the hoi-polloi.

What's more, the blue tide being linked to information-gathering probably ensures that every player will wind up defined as blue, especially on a first playthrough. Trust me, there isn't nearly that much intellectualism to be found in human nature. When asking questions opens up so many dialogue options, it becomes meaningless to reward the player for self-servingly advancing the conversation, and it's one of the two noticeable ways in which Tides manages to trip over its own means of interaction. The other is the rather claustrophobic feel of the game's various zones. Though packed with content, they're inescapably cramped by today's standards, making the whole setting feel a bit like a goofy little Whoville rather than the expansive vista of mechanomagical wonders promised by far-future Clarkian fantascience. Once again, this is a departure from the first Torment, which actually allowed for a great deal of exploration through Sigil's nooks and crannies.

Ah, well, I could go on.
(And I probably will, but another day.)

For now, a simple conclusion:
Play it! Tell your loosely-defined Facebook "friends" about it! Spread the (mostly) good word!
Torment: Tides of Numenera is one of the best cRPGs around, and its flaws are for the most part representative of the audience it addresses, which means you won't get much better themes in games until another generation goes by. Hopefully its rather bland artistic side will succeed in selling Tides' gameplay mechanics to a whole new up-and-coming crop of gamers which will then grow up taking them for granted as cRPG staples instead of the current "kill ten rats" industry standard. One can only dream.

No comments:

Post a Comment