With less than a month to go until it launches, RPG fans are already rolling for initiative to slither into the murky, tentacled depths of Torment: Tides of Numenera and become the Changing God. Launched on Kickstarter back in 2013, the game is a sort of spiritual successor to Black Isle’s 1999 cult-popular, freak show special Planescape: Torment – a daunting prospect for developer inXile Entertainment, who banked over $1 million in seven hours to fund the project.
We summoned a talking skull to discuss the game with creative lead Colin McComb, area design lead George Ziets, and senior writer Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie, and find out what exactly does one game matter, anyway.
It’s been almost four years since the Torment: Tides of Numenera Kickstarter campaign closed on a record-breaking $4 million in funding – more than $3 million over target. How much has the scope of the game and the development process changed in comparison with the original vision since then?[George] A lot. In the original writers’ meeting back in 2013, we laid out a very ambitious vision that was unrealistically huge (this isn’t uncommon in the games industry – we’re pretty passionate about the work we do). We had to dial back our scope a few times, and the story also evolved as we went along. We went through several major rewrites, but each time, the game got tighter and better.
And how important were fan input and – sometimes unrealistic, perhaps – expectations in the design of the game?[Colin] Extraordinarily important. They told us that they wanted a game like Planescape: Torment, and they gave us over $4 million to make it. I’ve said for years that we didn’t want to surpass Planescape: Torment – frankly, given its status in the popular culture, that would be impossible anyway – but to create a worthy companion piece. Our backers contributed items, NPCs, and the germs of stories, and we wove those into our designs. How well we’ve succeeded in meeting fan expectations is something that we’ll be hearing about in the near future, I suppose, but in the meantime, it was their support that let us even try.
As a “spiritual successor”, Torment: Tides of Numenera is obviously enormously inspired by Planescape: Torment. But how have you updated and improved on a game that launched almost 20 years ago, and people might remember more with nostalgia than critical objectivity? The combat in the original game was actually kind of tedious, for example.[Colin] Ha! Improving combat was one of the primary goals of the game. That, combined with defining our core question, was one of the largest questions we tackled early in development. We’ve had some time to take in new design concepts, updated the base system mechanics, and have generally learned more about how to develop pace and mood for player experience – something that we were doing on instinct in the ‘90s.
… And which aspects have you preserved?[Colin] Many of them, I’d hope! We established four pillars for our Torment, based on what we thought helped define the first game: A world unlike any other; reactivity, choice, and consequence; personal (not epic) story; and a deep, thematic narrative. The combination of these four pillars in various permutations have given us deep (and prosaic) conversations, hand-painted backgrounds, and the evocative feel of a place that is tremendously strange but somehow home.
Living up to such a legacy must be exceedingly intimidating.[Colin] That’s one way of putting it. I’ve mentioned before that when Brian asked me to join him on Torment: Tides of Numenera, I almost turned him down. I mean, how do you live up to something like that? But then my brother-in-law told me not to be an idiot, because I’d never live up to that legacy if I didn’t even try. There was a lot of wisdom in that. Importantly, we set ourselves a goal to recreate the feeling of Planescape: Torment. That was one of our primary design philosophies, and it’s one that was shared by everyone on the development team. We know what the Torment name means to players. We want to respect that.
In the game’s recent interactive trailer, the player is presented with a number of possible decisions in a scenario, each one with very different consequences. This is only one of, we assume, hundreds of similar scenarios throughout the game. From a design perspective, how is such a complex narrative coherently resolved without the designers going completely mad?[Gavin] George Ziets writes amazing design documents, for one. They map out the structures for this complexity in ways that makes it easy for the writing team to build on. We then add more complexity on top of that, basically by thinking about what the player would want to say in each situation, and how the NPCs and companions would respond. From there, we then committed a ton of time to feedback, iteration, and polish. That was a good chunk of our work on the game last year, actually.
It seems a lot of emphasis is placed on player conversations and negotiation with other characters in the world. Can the player finish the game without ever getting into a fight?[Gavin] Well, no. Some characters want to kill you. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t talk your way out of fights. It is possible to finish the game without killing people, but it’s hard.
How does the game support the inevitably very diverse character builds that players will choose, and are some interactions and sub-plots limited to certain builds only?[George] In the Numenera ruleset (upon which our game is based), any character can try any task. Based on the skills you decide to train, your character might have a better chance of success at certain things, but you can also spend stat points and use cyphers (magical items, essentially) to improve your odds. So nothing is truly impossible for anyone, no matter what build you’ve chosen.
Ultimately, it’s more about choice – is this interaction important enough to you to spend your points and items to ensure success? If not, you’ll have to deal with the consequences. Failure is almost never a dead end, though. Usually it just leads down an alternative path. We tried hard to make failure states interesting so that player would want to follow along and see where they lead.
The player can choose their character’s gender. Does this have any meaningful impact on the game, or is it simply an aesthetic thing?[Gavin] Definitely not just an aesthetic, no. No spoilers, but some content is only for a specific gender, and this can potentially have a dramatic effect on other quests in the same zone.
Torment: Tides of Numenera replaces traditional moral and ethical alignments with its own “Tides” system. How exactly does this work?[Gavin] As you probably know, Torment: Tides of Numenera asks the question “What does one life matter?” The Tides are your character’s potential answers to this question, and part of the way you determine your legacy. Each of the five tides represents a different philosophical answer to the challenges facing you, and none of them are inherently good or evil.
By making the choices that appeal to your character, the game will adapt. Like-minded characters will know you as one of their own, and make things easier for you, but be warned that other characters who can sense the Tides will adapt their arguments to manipulate you.
Adam Heine wrote an excellent piece on the Tides on Update 24 as well.
The player cannot die in the game, apparently, and must instead live with their choices, good or bad. How do you make failure a viable and even compelling outcome, so players don’t just reload a previous save? Predictable “what does one mistake matter” joke here.[Gavin] It was important for us that failure never felt like a dead end. Instead, we focused on mutually exclusive rewards and interesting story paths. For example (interactive trailer spoiler!), you can’t get the Cult of the Changing God to believe YOU are the god they worship AND makes friends with the nychthemeron (that giant tentacle thing in Circus Minor.) We think that once players realise that failure makes these cool options possible, they’ll be more willing to trust us and avoid a reload.
Going up to launch, what are you most confident about? And most apprehensive?[Gavin] I think we’ve succeeded in putting together a game that rewards replays. I guess my big concern would be that people wouldn’t try to go through it again. They’d miss out on so many cool and twisted things. [George] We had a goal to create content that was just as joyfully weird as Planescape Torment, and I know we’ve succeeded at that. Of course, we’re standing in the shadow of one of the greatest RPGs of all time… that’s enough to make anyone a little nervous. [Colin] My concern is whether the experience holds up throughout the game. I think we’ve made something mind-bending, interesting, and worthwhile… my worry is that we’re so close to the project that we’ve been blinded to its flaws. Conversely, I might be too focused on what I perceive as its flaws – for instance, until people outside the studio started playing the game, I wasn’t entirely sure if our vision had translated into fun. I should probably have been reassured by the fact that I’m still not tired of playing the game.
Torment: Tides of Numenera is out on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on 28 February.