Guest Author - Lisa Shea
One of the best RPGs of all time was Planescape Torment, created by Chris Avellone. Learn more about what it's like to work in the gaming industry and to have been a part of this incredibly popular and well-rated project.
The interview is broken out into two parts. This first part has questions by Lisa, a 39 year old gamer who began with text adventures such as Adventure on a mainframe back in the 1970s. The second part has questions by James, a 19 year old gamer who began with graphic games.
Warning: Spoilers below. :)
Lisa: Planescape: Torment was an incredibly dense, multi-layered experience. Did you have any fear working on it that it would be too much for the average RPGer to handle?
Chris: At the end, yes, not at the beginning, strangely enough. 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. 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.
I did have concerns that using the Infinity Engine to create a game that didn't look as accessible as Baldur's Gate would be a chore for our marketing department, though.
Lisa: The voice talent you were able to enlist for the game is quite impressive, and it really adds to the gaming experience. Were there challenges in building that roster at a time when video games were often dismissed as childish?
Chris: Actually, the voice talent was one of the easiest parts of the game to assemble, and between Chris Borders and our voice director, Jamie Thomason, we got a pretty surprising cast (Jamie's ties with Disney helped a LOT). Also, the amount of voice acting that had to be done for the game was pretty light compared to some of other titles, so that helped as well - it let us focus on doing only a few, really well-acted characters, which was nice.
Lisa: Planescape: Torment has an estimated 800,000 word count. That's equal to reading the first six books of the Harry Potter series. Why do you think games do not get the same critical acclaim that books do, given how an RPG's storyline, characterizations and dialogue can be just as rich?
Chris: Probably for the same reason that comics are often diminished as childish - it's getting there, but it's not a media outlet that is generally considered mature. I disagree on both comic and game counts, obviously, but I have the industry bias.
Lisa: Similarly, people only watch a movie for 2 hours, but they immerse themselves in the Planescape: Torment world for weeks, if not months. The scenery, voices, movements and screenplay are far more intricate than, for example, an animated movie. With an animated movie they simply work on a start-to-finish thread that lasts a set period of time. With your game, you have to account for an almost infinite combination of user actions and decisions. Do you think someday computer games will get their own Oscar-style level of praise?
Chris: Absolutely, I think the more games end up approaching interactive movies, and the more bleeding you see between video games and the movie industry in general, I don't think that future's too far off.
Lisa: With so many people praising Planescape: Torment as the best game ever, have you considered releasing a fresh version of the game, optimized for modern machines, to introduce a new generation of gamers to this environment?
Chris: No, 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.
Lisa: If you were making Planescape: Torment right now, are there things you would do differently from the original release?
Chris: Probably start off with more combat - 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 the future opening levels of Black Isle games (notably IWD2, 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.
Lisa: What is your favorite part of Planescape: Torment?
Chris: It's a toss up between (1) Morte finally coming clean and showing some depth to his soul and (2) the endings for the characters when they each make their stand against the Transcendent One - these endings still make me sad, in a happy way, if that makes any sense. Ignus' final apology for failing the Nameless One, Annah and Fall-From-Grace realizing that they can't come with the player and why, and Dak'kon's soul clicking back into place after being fragmented so long ago and finally freeing himself from servitude.
Read on for the second part, the Planescape Torment Interview by James!
Note: You can play Planescape: Torment on Gametap if you get an account there! It plays fine on Vista, too :)