Planescape: Torment is the worst best game I’ve ever played. Yes. You read that right.
Planescape: Torment is a great game! The writing is as deep as it got in video games of the time, and still holds up very well today. It does a great job of exploring the world and making you a true part of it. It has some of the most creative story beats you’ll see in video games, and they’ve got enough layers to them that they really drive things and make sense, rather than just being one-off good ideas like many stories will use. This game has some of the most interesting ‘just walk around and talk to people’ gameplay I’ve ever seen. So many people put it on their ‘best of’ lists all the time, and it definitely deserves its place there.
Planescape: Torment is a horrible game! Navigating the world is a pain that involves a lot of staring at the screen as your guys slowly walk around. The interface is crazy clumsy, the battle system is physically painful, the visuals often make it not so obvious what you’re looking at, and you’re really not given the tools to deal with what’s placed in front of you. The inventory system is horrendous, to boot. Lots of people put it all over their ‘best of’ lists. Have they ever played the game?
Both these things are true. I love Planescape’s writing, story, characterization, and dialogue. Those were very good. I hated having to actually play the game, however.
Usually with great games, you find that they’ve got great gameplay, and a middling story. Sometimes, you can find a game that’s great both to play and get absorbed in. Planescape: Torment seems to fall into a somewhat rarer category, that of a game with a fantastic story, but gameplay that’s not up to snuff.
I could go on for ages on both the qualities and flaws of Planescape: Torment. But let’s not. The former, you can find most anywhere on the internet. The latter won’t do much good for the discussion. They’re there. You can trust me on that. No need to talk about it.
Instead, let’s talk of the results of that.
In my experience, the game didn’t rise above the sum of its parts. And part of me hated myself for that. It’s an honestly great game! Why did I dread playing it so much?
In fact, the story, the plot beats, the handling of characterization, they’re the type of things that usually would have resonated with me very strongly. And they did. They hit the right notes with me. If this game had a different interface, I’d be singing it’s praises right there with everything else.
But playing the game was frustrating to me. And that tamped the whole experience down. Every plot bit I enjoyed, I had to keep in mind what it took to get there, that it was sandwiched between bits where I was just staring at the game in wonderment at how much of a pain it was to navigate through it. The bits where I was thinking through problems and fulfilling personal quests and dialoguing my way through challenges were all fantastic! That was exactly what I was hoping for in this game! But I always had to deal with random encounters and enemy filled dungeons and just general walking around a whole bunch of other things to get there. Those feelings mixed. The negative bits the gameplay left in me tore down the value of the great things the story did. I started losing impact of the story beats. I still recognized them as great, but they didn’t connect with me as much as they should. My hate of the gameplay dragged down my love of the plot, and my overall impressions of the game were a lot more negative than they were positive. I almost didn’t even finish it. Given the types of games I’ve been through in my quest, that’s really saying something. I even finished Fur Fighters! And Fur Fighters is dog scat! Why was I able to finish such crap, with no high points to speak of, yet I almost gave up on something as great as Planescape: Torment.
We often treat gameplay and story as if they’re two separate elements. Depending on the genre, the balance of importance between them can shift. The story can add a lot, can add so much to a game. It can elevate something with middling gameplay into something truly special. In recent years, the indie side of the industry has been exploring whether a good story can utilize a minimal amount of gameplay to enhance itself, and whatever your opinions on the environmental narrative scene, it has led to some interesting experiences at least. But it can’t make up for actively poor gameplay. If the gameplay drags the experience down, it will take the story with it. That interaction, however it takes place, is key to a game, and if it’s not working, neither is the experience.
Of course, that’s just my experience with Planescape.
Now, to be fair, it’s possible that it was better in its heyday, and just hasn’t aged well. I doubt that, but I wasn’t much of a PC gamer in the late 90’s so my metric may well be off.
Also, I just hate the Infinity Engine, which this game was built in. We’ve talked about this before. Lots of people love those games. Baldur’s Gate et al were rather popular. So my opinion may not be universal. And I don’t understand it. I can see why a lot of people like a lot of things I don’t, but this is one I just don’t see the value with. The Infinity Engine just doesn’t work for me. So yeah, there may be a bit of that there.
But my opinion is reality for me. It may not be shared, but it’s what I have to deal with. And what I have to deal with is that Planescape is really not as good as it should have been. Because it’s a pain to play.
Though Planescape: Torment ranks as one of my all-time favorites, which to be clear is coming from someone who did not play it back in 1999, I will not defend its actual gameplay. In many ways, it’s a step down from Baldur’s Gate, which itself was rather slow-paced and boring. Indeed, when I say it’s good, I’m talking about the story only. The gameplay leans more towards the bad end of the spectrum than the good end, but I found it easy enough to put up with (unlike Baldur’s Gate). I use it as an example of the kind of narrative one needs to craft if they are to put all of their eggs in one basket and forego polishing their gameplay.
Hey, if it worked for you, it worked for you. Worked for lots of other people, too. No taking that away. I know even with its flaws, you hold it in very high regard. And honestly, the flaws can make a game more interesting. I’ve got plenty of pain in the butt games I enjoy for weird reasons, so… I’m kind of rambling here. I’ve been given to wonder if I just have that huge aversion for the Infinity Engine. Not the worst thing, if so. It’s only used in a handful of games. But it’s a handful of really well regarded games, that I’ve been a little disappointed that I haven’t been able to enjoy as much as other people seem to.
I recently listened to a podcast that talked about this game. They commented that the writing is strong, although it sounds like it’s set in a weird world. Like you, the podcast mentioned that the combat isn’t fun and exploring the land is a pain because you don’t get access to Fast Travel until later in the the adventure.
You know, I’m really glad to here it’s not just me.