Perhaps you remember Planescape: Torment, a wonderful role-playing game that set a new bar for video game narrative when it was released back in the late 90s. Even today, very few games weave stories as intricate and fascinating as Black Isle's masterpiece.
So when I read designer Chris Avellone say he was "very tempted" to Kickstart a spiritual successor to the revered RPG, I knew I'd have to harass him until he told us more. Turns out I didn't even have to ask twice: Avellone was kind enough to immediately sit down and write us a detailed outline of what he'd like to see in a hypothetical spiritual successor to the Nameless One's story.
Here's what a spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment could look like:
Chris Avellone: [Game development studio] Obsidian has talked about Kickstarter for some time. Not to put myself or Planescape down, but the range of ideas we've had internally for a KS are, IMO, better than doing a spiritual successor to Torment, and it involves more of the powerhouses in the studio rather than turning me into the Nameless One.
So even though this wouldn't be an Obsidian Kickstarter, here are my thoughts on a Torment spiritual successor:
- It'd be best not to use [the Dungeons & Dragons] mechanics or the Planescape license. One reason is doing so would undermine some of the joys of the Kickstarter (not having to answer to anyone but the players – if we take a license, we have to answer to the franchise holder), I'm not sure Wizards/Hasbro/whoever knows where to take the license, and looking back on Planescape: Torment, it's been clear to me that we had to bend a lot of rules to get some of the mechanics and narrative feel we wanted. Could we have done that easier outside of a Planescape universe? Sure.
- Utilize similar writing style elements (slang, dialogue screen format similar to Planescape), depth (lots of choices per node, lots of reactivity), presentation (action descriptions interwoven in the text) and density (the Wasteland 2 backers have repeatedly asked for more text in Wasteland rather than spending resources on something else like [voiceovers], thankfully enough).
- Similar narrative mechanics. As a classic example, there's some form of morality/personality bar that's affected by your actions, although I'd want to research some other mechanic tied to the narrative.
- Similar, but not exact, campaign mechanics in the following respects:
1) A plane-jumping universe with diversity in environments, cultures, religions, and people.
2) Tactical combat – it doesn't need to be turn-based, but pausing and choosing your actions is important.
3) A diversity of creatures, perhaps not to the same extent as in the Planescape original title (would depend on budget, but just like the main cast, I'd prefer to have fewer, higher-quality creatures that allow for a spectrum of behaviors rather than a grab-bag of a thousand random monsters).
4) A small group of extremely detailed companions.
5) A mechanic similar to "remembrance" in the original game – this metaphysical interpretation of your immortality and amnesia is something that can be explored in a number of ways depending on the game premise.
- At first glance, the painterly world and the HUD would be as distinctive as something you'd see in Planescape: Torment. We'd need to nail down a new art style, but there's elements related to Planescape that transcend that universe (dimension-bending landscapes, Escher-layouts, etc.). We wouldn't do anything approaching traditional fantasy in the look/layout of the world. Why? Because I'm exhausted with that. And if that's not compelling for people, then they won't back it on Kickstarter, my question of how appealing that is would be laid to rest, and I'll never have to wonder about it again.
- A camera and click-movement presentation similar to the Infinity engine isometric games. Even if the mechanics are different, at first glance, the game should share the view that Planescape did.
- Having a character basis and an advancement scheme with spells, traits, and abilities that are suited to the campaign setting and the system and narrative mechanics. As an example, Dak'kon's Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon and the spells he gained from that had a strong narrative bent, and I enjoy balancing out skill and spell trees that reinforce the philosophy of the world.
- Items with stories. One of my favorite parts of Torment and the Icewind Dale series was giving them names and writing short stories for each inventory item... and sometimes very long stories (The Fanged Mirror of Yehcir-Eya). The best moment I had for Icewind Dale 2 was creating an inventory item name that used the token in the title and having a developer come into the room and accuse me of ripping off his character for the sake of a magic item. When he was done ranting, I explained to him that it was actually a scripted reference that was personal to each character playing the game. At least that's the story I stuck to.
- You would play a single character and gather a handful of companions over the course of the game. I'd rather have a smaller cast of more reactive companions (and enemies) than a ton of shallow ones.
- Lastly, this is also something that set Torment apart – we had a good chunk of the story, dialogues and the flow of the narrative laid out before production began. This was key. If I had the power and funding to sit down for a year and script a spiritual successor out, then we built from there, I would do that, but that process is something no publisher would agree to – you're constantly under the gun, either as an internal or external developer (Josh Sawyer had to write the Icewind Dale 2 storyline over the course of a weekend, for example – he did a great job, but that's not an ideal way to write a story). Generally, you have 2-4 weeks.
- I also think a lot of the strength of Van Buren (Interplay's Fallout 3) was the same process we had with Torment – I was able to sit down for 3 years and plot out the flow and locations of the game before production began, and even playtest it in pen-and-paper roleplaying games with the future developers on the title.
So maybe I should do 2 Kickstarters – one that does the worldbook and characters for the game, and the second one would be for the production of the title itself if enough people like the idea? Hmmmm.
Anyway, that's just a few thoughts. It's not all of them, but I wanted to share my mental process on this.