November 25, 2006

Some interesting moments from Planescape Torment

Sorcerer's Palace has up a few screenshots of the dialogue in this crpg. Titled Funny NPC Dialogue by Frog. These things aren't really spoilers, because they don't have anything to do with the main plot line.

While replaying this game, I had come to realize that its ability to create a rich atmosphere was so complete and well envisioned that I even had sympathy for the undead. One of the storylines of the game plotline. In most rpgs or the Baldur's Gate series, undead are there for you to kill and there to get in your way. They aren't people. This is a more serious topic than the very funny dialogue shown in the screen shots here about Annah's dress and here about Candy Love.

However, it just adds to the richness of the atmosphere. Humans tend to have this mechanism by which we demonize and dehumanize certain groups of people as objects and sub-human, therefore we don't feel empathy or compassion if they should die. How the Arabs inculcate this in their children, concerning Jews, is a good example. But video game violence is similar in principle, if not effect. When you are just slaughtering a bunch of pixels, that is all they are to you, some game characters. If you start seeing the characters on screen as people, then your societal conditioning and human instincts kick in. In life, this is done by face to face meetings, to put a face on the occupation or friends killed on 9/11. In games, that doesn't work too well even with precise graphics. In games, words and storylines, the character development used in novels, must be used in order to convey this idea of humanity to the reader and player. When you read words about a person, you are thinking of him as a person, even though he is a fictional character in a fictional world. The game world is the same way, yet so many games try to convey human emotions through graphics. Which is the wrong way to go I believe. The right way is how Planescape Torment did it. Check out the screenshots in the title link, for examples.

PS

I found this review talking about Planescape Torment, with spoiler warnings. It also had a comment section right after it, which did have spoilers. Mostly, though, they were talking about the Sensate portion of the game, not covered in the screenshots.

I thought it was pretty nostalgic. But I wouldn't recommend people who have not played Planescape Torment to read this. One of the commenters made the point that Planescape Torment like a novel, grabbed you emotionally so that at the end, you didn't want it to end, or you wanted the story to go on. I felt the same. But alas, to all things there is an end, all that live must die. In an ironic sort of way, playing the game and learning to love the characters and moments in it, prepared for me the shock at the end. Both emotionally and intellectually.

I don't recommend reading the Torment review if you have not finished the Torment game. So I'll just write some more concerning why Torment is excellent bar none.

The Sensorium experience is pretty good. I had forgotten it until now. But it was quite emotional, both for the game character and for me who was playing as the game character. Phileosophos used to play, or maybe still plays, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. And he mentioned that Crpgs lacked something that AD and D paper, dice, and face to face gaming had. I didn't quite get what he was talking about, but I think with Torment I do. In computer rpgs like Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale, the story is about the game mechanics and the spells and the fighting action. In Torment, it is about individual creativity, choices, expression, and character development. So it is indeed more like a novel than a game. For example. When you play Baldur's Gate II, your sister's story is weaker than your protagonist's story. And your protagonist's story is only told through dreams, not character dialogue. Little Give and take, conversations, discussions. When reading blogs, one of the best things about it is the discussions, the learning. When reading novels, the best thing about it is learning about the characters and seeing them develop and become wiser. In a game like BGII, I found that the best thing was leveling my characters up so they could beat every monster in the game. Or using arcane spell contingencies for my mage, in order to destroy my enemies using creative spell strategies. But it was not about the character interactions between the main character who was a Bhaal Spawn. The dialogue continued to mention that he was the Bhaal Spawn, but there was no surprise about this. What did it mean, how did it affect your soul? None of this was discussed in BGII. So unlike Torment. In fact, one of the best mods for BGII is the Imoen Romance mod. Which adds in quite a lot of backstory and character to Imoen, the sister of the protagonist.

At the end, Chris Avellone made a point that I came to recognize after I had played his game and never even read any interview with the guy.

Read this interview.

I'd say game stories can be a little formulaic at times and a little unpolished, but then I would point up at the sky and say, "Holy s***, look at that!" And when they do, I would punch them in the gut, and while they were gasping for breath, I would lean down and go, "You are wrong. There are several games with compelling stories, stories that achieve greater strength because it's a story you can interact with. Thus, the experience is even more personal than reading a novel, where you are basically watching the characters go about their adventures without any participation from you except flicking your eyes across the page." At this point, the person would be about to get up, so I would kick them in the shins and then run.

Interesting. And the same point I made. Which was, the computer experience allowed you to get a more interactive experience, higher than a novel's. A novel can grip you with emotional ties to the characters, so that you NEED to read the sequel. Well, a game can do the same, except better. Because you are the main character, are you not in this Role Playing Game? It brings the term role playing, to its logical and designed conclusion.

The interview link, is not just with Chris. It has other very very nice video game designers and CEOs. Like KOTOR II with Chris Avellone, like Dreamfall and the Longest Journey. Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear series. Strongly recommended for game afficionados.

Some highlights to whet the thirst.

Q:What specifically about games makes them interesting to you as a storytelling medium? That is, why are you writing stories for games instead of for movies or books?

Chris Avellone: Because video game developers will actually give you a chance. The ability to get your foot in the door as far as story in video games is a lot higher than movies or games, since it's actually harder to find a decent writer who wants to work in video games--a lot harder than finding programmers and artists, in my opinion, since being a writer seems to require an odd aesthetic sense that doesn't always translate well into developing games. It requires heavy attention to details, math, logic trees, and a whole mess of other elements.

I find writing for games interesting because I think games are the next untapped ground for storytelling. It's an interactive entertainment experience, so instead of passively watching a movie or reading a novel, you are actually interacting with the story, which I think is the next stage of entertainment evolution. There's been a trend of games becoming more like movies and delivering a cinematic experience and drama, and I think that trend will continue. When working on Knights of the Old Republic II, I felt as if we were scripting a movie more than a game at points, and the sheer amount of cinematic direction we (and LucasArts) had for our cutscenes, blocking out character movements and scenery, and then directing the voice actors was staggering.


As I read Chris's responses, the designer and writer of the Planescape Torment story and game, I tend to realize that his forte and strength is his writing ability. The other designers do not come up to his level in sheer expression and creativity. You have writers that write with a similar level of drama, S.M. Stirling, Eric Flint, or David Weber. But they are not programmers and video game designers at the same time, either. It seems the more skills you bundle up into a person, the more creative that person gets if given a chance.

Ragnar Tørnquist: Technology needn't get in the way of storytelling unless we focus too much on showing off our cool new shaders and particle effects and not enough on establishing an emotional connection with the player. Technology can definitely facilitate for better storytelling. The best visual stories are just that--visual. There's that whole "show, don't tell" rule which has often fallen by the wayside because of technology; The Longest Journey, which I wrote, was definitely an example of that. Mostly everything had to be communicated through dialogues. The more we can show, and thus allow players to figure out for themselves, the better. And nowhere is that more apparent than with human characters. Things like facial expressions and body language enable us to communicate the story in a massively different fashion, making it much more immediate and personal than what's been possible before.

It needs to be more than a gimmick, however. We need technology that fuels the narrative and the gameplay, and not the other way around. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it. We're still at a gee-whiz stage where every new technological innovation is tossed in there, because gamers will love it. And they do! Hell, I love big explosions as much as the next guy. But we have to look at the technology as a tool, as a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Bookworm said...

Aagh! The candy one is funny/disgusting. I see a lot of creative energy being poured into those games.

27 November, 2006 11:04  
Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The Modron Cube was pretty fun to play with. Because in game, you could portal into it and have a little dungeon crawl, to find a special spell, a boss, and an NPC follower in that Cube maze.

modron fighter

29 November, 2006 22:05  

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