The concept of “role playing game” has become so diluted in the modern era of video games that it’s difficult now to see how it all began with pen-and-paper games made by Gary Gygax, the kind featured in “Stranger Things,” where friends sat around a table and played roles.
For those of us who remember the “Player’s Handbook” and “Monster Manual,” and the text-heavy adventures of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, there’s a high water mark in gaming: the Infinity Engine games that began with Baldur’s Gate and continued through Neverwinter Nights and, perhaps most notably, Planescape: Torment.
As someone whose first year of college was dominated by late-night sessions of Baldur’s Gate (which I bought at a store on five CD-ROM discs), it was a bit dizzying to be led up to a private apartment in Seattle at PAX to talk to two luminaries of the Infinity Engine era: George Ziets, the creative lead for Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer and Colin McComb, whose credits reach back into the mists of TSR, where he helped create original Dungeons and Dragons storylines and lore.
I was there to talk with them about Torment: Tides of Numenera, a forthcoming roleplaying game from inXile Entertainment, the creators of Wasteland 2.
I sat down on the austere leather sofa, 30 stories above the din of PAX, and made my introductions. “A lot of us, I think, remember that Baldur’s Gate-slash-Infinity engine with a lot of fondness,” I offered, nervously.
“Well,” McComb said, “We do too.”
McComb and Ziets proceeded to tell me all about their forthcoming game, Torment: Tides of Numenera.
The game is set on earth, but “a billion years in the future,” McComb said, in the Numenera universe. This puts the game into an utterly unfamiliar landscape for most gamers – there won’t be elves or orcs or traditional spells, but every mysterious thing in the world can be justified in the universe by Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The demo I watched was a baffling but pleasing smash-up of the Infinity Engine games I loved playing in 1998 with Lovecraftian horror and a certain Douglas Adams-esque irreverence for genre conventions. But it’s all wrapped into a game that looks a lot like Baldur’s Gate while relying much more on text and dialogue than any of those classic games ever did.
“From the designer’s perspective, we can justify anything,” McComb said, listing off technologies that can bend time and space or rekindle suns.
“Because of how the world is, and how you can justify literally anything based on some technology in the past, we just let our imaginations run crazy,” said Ziets.
“We wanted to make this a game about your choices, and about the things you do,” McComb told me. “So to that end we wrote about a million words.”
As a point of reference, the average thriller novel is around 100,000 words. The reason there’s so much writing is because, McComb and Ziets say, every decision node produces more potential outcomes. If you’re making a game where decisions matter, and where, as they say, the world “flows around those decisions,” by definition your “end states” are going to vary more as you create more nodes. And each of those endings needs more writing. This focus on writing is clear in the game, where you routinely have seven or eight or more response options in each dialogue tree.
“We have quests with twelve different end states,” Zeits said. “And we consciously made the decision to embrace that on this game, because we wanted to make sure that we paid off on the choices and consequences we promised.”
Any individual element I might try to describe from Torment: Tides of Numenera will not make sense. Your party can midwife a giant robot giving birth (and use her offspring as bombs later on), you can feed friends or party members to a tentacle horror that protrudes into your dimension, and you have to work out whether you yourself are a god.
There’s an interesting in-game system to help make combat a more genuinely role-playing experience, too: Instead of rolling a D20, you can commit points from pools of three abilities. If you commit more “intellect” or “strength” points, you’ll have a higher chance of success, but fewer points to spend later.
I watched with joy as characters walked around the game’s fever-dream maps, like in the old Baldur’s Gate days, talking to characters who all had their own goals and ideas. But one thing bothered me: How does morality work in Torment this time around? McComb had an answer.
“We don’t want to measure your intent,” he said. “We want to measure the results of your actions. But we also don’t want to say, you must be good, or evil, or lawful, or chaotic. That’s a little too simplistic and binary and zero-sum.”
In place of that, the game has a “tide” system, where characters have affinities toward a five-pointed color-coded “tide” system. Red Tide measures passion and spontaneity and creativity, but also violence and impulsive behavior. The Indigo Tide is about community and the greater good. The Gold Tide is about altruism and self sacrifice. There’s a Silver Tide, which is about fame and power. The tides don’t pull against each other, McComb said, but your actions determine how your character is pulled toward each of them, and the world will react accordingly.
“We’re measuring what your dominant tides are, and people will respond to you differently based on what your dominant tides are,” he said.
The game doesn’t treat death as the end, either.
“We wanted to make failure interesting at all points,” McComb said.
“There are very few points where, for example if you die, most of the time you won’t actually end the game, you’ll just wind up somewhere else, or something else will happen.” Ziets added. “Failure is just a branch, just like making a choice is a branch. “
Torment: Tides of Numenera will release for PC, Mac OS, Linux, Xbox One, and Playstation 4 in the first quarter of 2017. An early access version is currently available on Steam.