Monday, February 22, 2010

Storytelling in Games - Planescape: Torment

Continuing my topic from last time on games that have had the best stories, it's time to discuss the oft-mentioned Planescape: Torment.

Let's get this out of the way at the start - Planescape: Torment is probably the best written video game ever made. It's flat out one of the best written stories I've ever had the pleasure of reading. It takes a very simple and overused video game cliche (resurrecting when you die), and turns it into an epic tale of personal discovery and deep philosophical questions. It has incredible character development, dialogue, plot twists, and fascinating revelation after revelation. It is a finely crafted story that grabs your attention from start to finish, and we need to shut up about it.

Allow me to reiterate that I love this game, it's one of my favorite of all time. However it exists within a very specific time-frame in video game history, and we can never duplicate the method of storytelling it used. It would not work in today's market. This was during what I like to call the 'isometric era' of PC gaming.

This era encompasses many genres and hundreds of games. For those of you who may have missed this period, isometric describes the style of graphical presentation or 'viewpoint' that these games used - a camera raised above the playing field that views the area at a 120 degree angle.

The 'isometric era' spanned from about 1997 with the release of Diablo and Fallout until around the year 200o with Diablo 2 and The Sims being the last truly successful isometric games. But this type of gaming was defined by more than just perspective. There was a subset of games that existed in both the world of isometric gaming and the world (and rules) of Dungeons and Dragons. Most of these games were created by Black Isle Studios, Interplay, and BioWare. The Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, and Icewind Dale, among others.

These are very distinctly D&D style games, whether we knew it at the time we were playing them. And I don't just mean that they're related to a campaign setting. Each of these games is written as if they were a D&D pen and paper game.

In storytelling terms, this means that all of these games are incredibly wordy. This is especially true of Planescape: Torment. The graphical representation of what is actually going on in P:T is very minimal. You usually only get the basic layout of the room in front of you, and a vague paper-doll shape of the characters on screen. Almost all of the settings, environments, characters, and details are described via written text. This is the same kind of storytelling that would take place in a pen and paper D&D campaign.

You see, the way that stories are told in video games has evolved. The D&D Campaign style worked in the isometric era, due to the technical limitations. Nobody minded reading all that wonderfully written text, because it made the game world rich and exciting.

But picture Planescape: Torment on today's systems. It wouldn't work. All of that lovely descriptive text would have to be removed and replaced with visuals. Imagine all that perfect dialogue painfully acted out by today's voice actors. It would make the game approximately 100 hours of just watching things happen. You see, it worked in written form because it takes us much less time to read and visualize things than it does to actually show them happening. This is why when books are made into movies they have to cut out a lot of the text. Remaking Planescape: Torment would be like making a movie version of Lord of the Rings. It might be good, sure, but the developer would have to butcher the original material in order to get it to work.

Does this mean I think we reached the peak of interactive storytelling with Planescape: Torment? Of course not! The isometric era was a trend with a focus on telling a story through text, and that trend died out. We now have to really work within the visual story-telling world, which is much closer to a movie than a book. Currently, the trend for storytelling in gaming is dominated by dialogue trees, choices, and BioWare.

But that's a story for another time. In fact, next I plan on discussing games of that nature and why we need not be shackled by 'choice-based' stories and choose-your-own-adventure games.

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Who The Hell Do I Think I Am?

Austin, Texas, United States
I've played games since my brother got an NES in the late 80s, and I'll play them until I'm a crusty old man. My opinions are based on those 20 years of experiences, and my own ambitions as a game artist and writer.