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Torment and Character Agency

Posted by Chris Avellone , 20 January 2012 · 4334 views

Some Planescape: Torment questions from Joe Hogle, an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, posting the reasons for some design choices.

(BTW, if you guys ever have questions you want to answer for research papers or just because you want to know, feel free to email me at CAvellone@obsidian.net, let me know when you need them by, and if it's okay to blog the answers.)

In many RPGs, including the Fallout games you’ve worked on and the tabletop games that are Planescape: Torment’s genesis, the design seems oriented towards giving the player a “blank slate” to play as. But PS: T has the player inhabit a fairly developed character. Why did the team choose The Nameless One as the main character?

So it was a juggling act - how do you give a player as much freedom to create a character while knowing you don't have the art resources to create a lot of customization for that character? We purposely chose a single template and then used the narrative of amnesia and the curse to explain the role-playing range the character could have (each time you wake up, your personality has a chance to shape itself in new directions based on the player's experience) and also changed the "armor/costume accumulation" in most RPGs to gathering tattoos and other items that wouldn't drastically change the character model. Note that many of the companions had similar limitations, accounting for their largely static appearance throughout the game.

Note that if I'd had the resources, we would have had a much larger range of character customization options. It wasn't our desire to limit it to a single character look, and while it did work, at the same time, it didn't give you as much freedom as we would have liked.

In Planescape: Torment’s dialogue, the player often reads things like “You feel cold…” or “You have no idea how he accomplished the facial expression…” What prompted the decision to have dialogue—and the narrative cues that go along with it— take place in the 2nd person?

It felt more personal and immersive to use the 2nd person. While there's a certain role-playing line you're crossing when doing that, I felt it gave more immediacy to the character.

Did the team ever work to balance the player’s presence in the game with the integrity of The Nameless One’s character? If so, how?

It didn't feel like much of a balance - we just kept to the simple rules that (1) the player was a blank slate as soon as he woke up, regardless of past, and thus, his options should have a certain alignment range, and (2) we did our best to honor the alignment choices the player gravitated to in the game, both with reactions and even items geared toward certain alignments. Note that if the player "violated" the integrity of the Nameless One's character, the fact that the NO could be any of a thousand upon thousand variations insured that even that made sense with his character's curse (the previous incarnations even exemplified this extreme range of behaviors).

My research is focused on addressing the relations between players and the characters they “control”. What sort of relation (or relationship) did you want to see in Planescape: Torment between the player and The Nameless One?

The Nameless One is an avatar that allows you to view Planescape through "ignorant eyes." It was the first exposure most game players had to the universe, and we wanted the Nameless One to be a brand-new vessel that would explore that world with the player. While amnesia is a tired cliché, we felt it was a great mechanic here to reinforce the wonder of the universe. In addition, pragmatically, there's simply too much of Planescape to assume a player has knowledge of it all - giving them a blank slate was the best option, in my opinion.

Lastly, we wanted the player to feel the weight of their own history, and feel a desire to know what these previous incarnations had done, and realize that much of the world they found themselves in had been shaped by actions they'd done in the past by someone who'd been a different personality in their shell. The entire game is very selfish and egocentric, and I felt strongly that's one of the best things to provide for a player.

  • daniel.robert.campbell likes this

Feb 12 2012 08:59 AM
Mr. Avellone, you are a gentleman and a scholar.

I'm always impressed that one of the most talented (if not THE most) writers in the game industry is so open about talking with the fans. Bravo sir. Bravo.

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