Being unceremoniously dropped into the world of Torment: Tides of Numenera is difficult. It’s a game that demands you pay attention to what’s happening and what’s being said, and so picking up the tale roughly two thirds of the way through is always going to be tough. I have weird and wonderful party members I don’t know, existing relationships that I haven’t fostered, and I’m in the unusual position – for a video game – where my character knows more about the world than I do. It’s not ideal…
Waking up inside the Bloom, a living creature city that seems to be 90% made out of sphincters that make psychic chittering noises in my mind. I’m the Last Castoff, a new mind in a body that was once occupied by the Changing God, and for that simple fact, I’m being hunted by the Sorrow, which seeks to destroy everything attached to the Changing God. Of course, you’re not going to go quietly into the night, travelling through different planes and searching for a way to fight back and defeat the Sorrow.
Following in the footsteps of Planescape: Torment, its spiritual successor, Torment: Tides of Numenera is a game that asks, “What does one life matter?” Taking that to heart in a world where life can come and go in moments, many of the decisions you have to make throughout the game can be difficult.
Similarly, what do you do when confronted by someone that has been accused of poisoning and murder, and can be drawn into admitting this and their abject racism? How do you feel about euthenasia for a person whose mind has been completely wiped so that they can be a translatory vessel? In the spur of the moment, how do you feel when you discover that forcing someone to stay in a room they desperately wanted to leave out of sheer terror leads to their grizzly death? Many decisions feed into your Tides, five coloured attributes that avoid the traditional polarised morality system, blending together concepts like justice, compromise, passion and action.
Combat is an interesting proposition in Torment because of what precedes it. Entering into an area of the Bloom that’s inhabited by mutants, I happen upon a confrontation between the mutants and the guards of the Memovira. Naturally, I can see this, pick a side and start fighting, but it’s perhaps better and more interesting to try and diffuse the situation through discourse. At the very least, it will help me to decide who is in the right and who is in the wrong.
The Crisis system lets me take my characters and one at a time start talking to the other parties, trying to gain an understanding of the situation. However, from the handful of dialogue options, I can use each of my party’s strengths to try to apply logic and reasoning, try to intimidate someone, and plenty more, beyond simply asking questions. Each of these draws from the character’s pool of specific action points already, but you can spend more to increase the odds of your success.
“Our primary question in the game is ‘What does one life matter?'” Colin McComb, Creative Lead emphasised, “and it was important for us to run that through all its permutations and emphasis. If you’re asking that question, then taking a life? That means something – I’ve managed to go my whole life without killing anybody… So we wanted to make it possible to get through the game without killing anybody.”
“We also recognised that people didn’t just want to read a book for 25 hours, or however long, so we had to have some action, and we made it so our Crisis system was more a series of puzzles. It’s essentially finding a way to unlock this situation. Not killing anybody is a possibility in this game, but you have to work for it. It’s a hard thing in a world where life is cheap.”
“It’s also a hard thing to go through this game playing what is the traditional good guy,” Colin added, “because a lot of the seemingly good choices have horrible consequences.”
It’s satisfying to be able to reason with the mutants and sway the collective thinking away from the immediate pleasure they’d get from pummelling the Memovira guards, while those same guards express some relief as they get to hurriedly leave the area. However, not succeeding to avoid conflict? The developers have worked to try and make it so you don’t always want to reload a save if that doesn’t quite pan out for you. “One of our design pillars was to make failure interesting,” Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie, Writer, said. “We wanted to make sure that if the player fails, they wouldn’t be like, ‘Well, ****, reload.”
The breadth of choices open to you seems to be particularly broad – and with the very wordy presentation, relates exactly what you say. Keeping so many different styles of play and player mentalities in mind is bound to be a hugely challenging task.
“We have a very good team!” Colin said. “We set out to make a game that was complex and rewarding to all sorts of different branches. So we’re thinking from the outset that we want this to happen and that to happen, and we think what the player wants and we make sure those options all feel like what the player would want to say. And then when we miss things…” Gavin finished Colin’s thought, “One of the other guys jumps in and says, ‘What about this?’ or is testing the conversation and goes, ‘Why can’t I ask this?'”
Managing those possibilities and how they affect the game world, but without letting it spiral out of control is an artform in itself. Through all of that, there’s more than a few twists of dark humour to the world. One of your companions is, to put it lightly, a simpleton. He’s forgetful, easily misled and confused, and so there’s some amusement to be had from taking him down unusual and bizarre conversational paths. Heck, you can even get things hilariously wrong right from the first moment.
“There’s even a choice to open your eyes.” Gavin explained of the start of the game, before revealing that, “You can also prematurely end the game very quickly if you make some wrong choices.” Colin added, “Yeah, you can die two or three choices into the game!” It’s a cruel twist of humour, that reminded me of the joke ending in Far Cry 4.
“There’s certainly some absurdist humour that we were throwing in there,” Gavin said. “We want you to have an overall mood of this being dark and scary and dangerous, but at the same time, we want you to think that this is pretty fun!”
Though the computer RPG has made a revival in recent years, it’s interesting that these games are now also coming to console with more regularity – Gavin and Colin interestingly say that bringing the game to console wasn’t all that challenging. The heights of the genre in the late 90s were very much focussed on PC, with only a handful of spin offs making their way to console, but it faded in the face of the more immediate appeal and bigger successes of the FPS and action adventure games.
Gavin said, “What made [the cRPG] fall was, I think, the increasing AAA budgets and the fact they weren’t bringing enough money in. The rise of the shooters and multiplayer, people were more interested in playing with eachother and building the sport aspect of the games industry. That led on to Call of Duty and Halo which are, you know, fun in their own right, but not exactly philosophically provoking!”
“I do think it’s important to get these games onto console,” he added, “because a lot of console gamers don’t know how much fun a cRPG can be. […] People are accustomed to having the dialogue wheel, or whatever, and they think it’s not a game that allows for a lot of choice, and therefore a console game has to be dumbed down. I’m hopeful that Torment will say it doesn’t have to be dumbed down.”
As I reach a natural conclusion point from my play time, opening a Maw into a room filled with treasure that also features a giant axe that I can choose to try and retrieve or leave alone, I’m rather impressed by Torment: Tides of Numenera. While I started off completely lost, purely by dint of having missed so much of the story, what intitially appeared to me to be an impenetrable game is already starting to sink its hooks in.
Having played Torment: Tides of Numenera for a couple hours, I’m slowly but surely starting to get into its deep and narrative-led world. With so much reading and concentrating to do as you play it’s bound to be an acquired taste, even compared to picking up Skyrim of Fallout 4, but I’m certain that it’s going to receive praise for that exact same reason.