Chris Avellone Talks Planescape: Torment

Chris Avellone Talks Planescape: Torment

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Planescape: Torment is inarguably one of the greatest RPGs ever created, and even though nearly ten years have passed since its release, people are still talking about it - including lead designer Chris Avellone, who recently spoke about the game with BellaOnline.

Few games have inspired tireless conversation like Planescape: Torment, a groundbreaking 1999 RPG built on BioWare's Infinity Engine. That remarkable durability extends even to the game's creators, who still find themselves talking about it nearly a decade down the road. In a new interview with BellaOnline, lead designer Chris Avellone admitted to a certain level of trepidation prior to the release of the game because of how radically different it was from previous RPG products.

"Once it hit Quality Assurance the reaction we got was, 'Man, this sure is different than the other RPGs that have come through here,' and that wasn't necessarily a positive reaction," he said. "I think the biggest concern was just the amount of text we were throwing at the character, not the actual content, if that makes sense."

He also stated that he would make a few changes to the game's design if it was being developed now, most of which related to the game's combat. Saying he'd throw more combat into the beginning of the game, Avellone explained, "The beginning is very slow and exposition-heavy, and I don't think that helps get the player into the mystery of his character. This is something I tried to correct in future opening levels of Black Isle games (notably Icewind Dale 2, where you're in trouble the moment you step off the boat in Targos). Also, I would work more extensively in creating more dungeon and exploration areas, and do another pass on the combat mechanics in the game - the story and quest structure in the game ended up becoming the primary focus of design, and I think the game suffered as a whole when it came to combat."

Not that such a do-over is likely: Avellone said he's never considered remaking the game for modern systems. "Securing the rights to Planescape is kind of convoluted (if it still exists as a brand at all), and I'd much rather see new stories and adventures in the Planescape universe, like the NWN2 mod community is doing with Purgatorio."

I would certainly never presume to argue with Avellone, particularly over one of his own RPGs, but his comments about the addition of more combat to the opening of the game are disappointing. I've always believed the game's focus on "story and quest structure" instead of combat, while admittedly unusual, was one of the things that made Planescape: Torment great. In fact, the game's climax, which Avellone said "still makes [him] sad, in a happy way," is noteworthy in large part because it can be handled completely without combat, but still packs a devastating emotional punch. While Avellone may be talking about what he believes would be necessary to make the game a commercial hit, rather than just an enduring benchmark in RPG excellence, I don't know of too many Planescape fans who think the game was just a few more random battles away from genuine brilliance.

As Avellone suggested, the Planescape setting for Dungeons & Dragons is sadly no longer supported, but gamers interested in learning more about walking the Planes can do so at Planewalker.com. BellaOnline's full interview with Chris Avellone can be read here.

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Yeah, having no combat at the beginning just set the whole tone of the game as being more cerebral. Having lots of combat at the beginning may encourage players to take that course more often throughout the rest of the game, even when the other choices are so much more rewarding.

I think the beginning worked perfectly it was slow and fumbling, exactly in character. I'm not sure how hitting people would allow you to identify with a character better.

Funnily enough, after hearing the game talked up a storm I gave up an few hours in because... there was all this text, and no game at all. All those descriptions in that tower, and no explanation of what was going on at all. I put it aside to come back to it but, guess what? Without any gameplay to come back to, there was no compelling reason to.

A friend later told me how the plot went and it sounded really nice. The story has received many plaudits but I think that Avellone's comments stand: the "game" would have been stronger if there was some immediacy. This is why so many RPGs start "in media res" - because it's always more motivating for the player to have an immediate goal, rather than to wander around in a state of enforced confusion.

While Avellone's comments may sound a little awkward and alienating to fans, I think his intentions are right. The combat is the only part of the game that could have used a lot more work. It just comes off sounding like "dumb it down for the Action-RPG fans."
Anyway, PS:T has always been a game for semi-elitist readers of books (shocking!), or so I choose to believe. Most people who like video games would never accept so much (forced) text in a game.

Yeah, he could've done that... then again, if NWN2 is in any way a hint of how they would've "improved" that game I'll give those changes a pass ^^

I've been trying to finish this game ever since it came out to rave reviews nearly 10 years ago, and it sounds like Avellone understands why. I like the idea of the story, and I'd probably enjoy a book written about the experience, but playing a game is not reading a book, and there were times I actually caught myself falling asleep reading the volumes of text that came pouring out of the NPC's mouths.

As a game for "grown ups", it failed to understand the constraints that grown-ups face when playing games - we have a limited amount of time, and often have to squeeze our game-playing in during the wee hours, after the wife & kids have gone to sleep. Add to that the muted color palette, and the almost complete lack of any sound effects, other than the continual background hum of the ambient noise, and you have a recipe for a sleeping pill.

It's not that I don't appreciate the craftsmanship or effort that went into this game. The creators are true to their vision, and it's an impressive achievement. But it's definitely not for mainstream consumption, and anyone who bemoans how gaming companies fail to make games as visionary as P:T fails to understand how non-hardcore gamers need to consume games.

But if Avellone had thrown in more "game," as you describe the combat, would we have ended up with Icewind Dale in Sigil? Baldur's Gate was genius, Icewind Dale was pretty solid, but the one that everyone keeps coming back to as a true benchmark in gaming is Planescape: Torment. I fail to see how making it more like Icewind Dale - which is to say, less like Planescape: Torment - could lead to a "better" game.

I think he just means that the game has pacing problems, which it does. There is lots of hack-n-slash later on in the game, maybe he just wanted to balance it out a bit more.

I played the game and loved it, so I encouraged a friend to go and buy it. He had a harder time getting into it until he got to the Cleric's ward. In the end, we were different types of gamers. He wanted more action, I was glued to the story and wanted to know how it ended.

Torment is a benchmark because it placed such emphasis on the NPC characters and their stories, something that few RPGs (even the original Baldur's Gate) had thought of doing. It made you make your party decission not on "who helps me kick the most arse", but rather "who do I like more". While it was not a success by sales, you can see how it influenced it's makers in later titles. KOTORs 1&2, Mass Effect, and even Baldur's Gate 2 all built upon the party interaction pioneered in PS:T.

I enjoyed the couple hours I put into it via Gametap. Unfortunately Gametap got extremely buggy with my laptop and I ended up leaving the service. I may pick up a copy off eBay and install one of the high-res mods I hear about.

Sound about right...

Torment is my favorite video game.

The combat mechanics, though? Absolute crud. There's really no way to fix that without de-coupling the fighting from D&D combat.

I also think that the game would be better if the early exposition was restructured. As it is, very little of it makes sense initially unless you're already familiar with the setting.

-- Alex

 

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