Writing in videogames: Planescape: Torment vs. Lost Odyssey

I spent my spring break stuffed into my room playing Planescape: Torment. I had somehow missed this game the first time around (it was released in 1999), and I was quickly drawn in. But eventually I got stuck and my roommate returned from his break with a borrowed copy of Lost Odyssey, the new Mistwalker RPG for the Xbox 360. Eager to see Hironobu Sakaguchi’s homage to his own work in the mid-nineties, I dropped Planescape and picked up LO.

Both games rely on their narratives to do the heavy lifting; these are story games. Planescape, famously, contains over 800,000 written words of dialogue and description—that’s half again as many words as Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Lost Odyssey isn’t that hefty, but still contains many hours of cutscenes and spoken dialogue, as well as a number of short stories within the game. Most importantly, and this is why I wanted to write this in the first place, both Planescape: Torment and Lost Odyssey feature main characters who are amnesiac immortals, and whose immortality drives the narrative.

In Planescape: Torment the player controls The Nameless One, a guy who wakes up on a mortuary slab with scars all over his body and no memory of how he got there. The Nameless One travels through the city of Sigil to attempt to regain his memories. Unlike other games (including Lost Odyssey) where combat is the main impediment to progress, P:T confronts the player with hundreds of characters and a seemingly infinite number of dialogue choices. Conversation with NPCs allows The Nameless One to remember bits and pieces of his past lives, and to move forward in his quest.

Lost Odyssey follows Kaim, an immortal who can’t recall anything after a disastrous meteor strike on a battlefield where he was kicking ass and taking names. Since he’s a mercenary, his employers don’t seem to care much about his lack of memory, and they send him on an errand with another immortal, Seth. It turns out that there’s a handful of immortals, all who have had their memories wiped by yet another immortal for nefarious purposes. Sometimes, when running around or talking to NPCs, Kaim will be reminded of something and a memory will unlock. The memories are little short stories that can be accessed and read at any time.

Playing Lost Odyssey the day after I put down Planescape: Torment, I couldn’t help but compare the two, and P:T came out on top in almost every way. It takes quite awhile for Lost Odyssey’s story to pick up and get engaging, mostly due to the misuse of the main character. Mistwalker emulates old JRPGs perfectly, right down to the ludicrously-coifed emo hero, Kaim. Kaim establishes himself early on as a mercenary, a guy who doesn’t really have a moral compass telling him which way to go. He loses his memory, he goes back to his lord who sends him on a new mission, Kaim goes that way without any complaints. Lost Odyssey falls victim to the same problems Final Fantasy XII did—when the plot is being driven by politics, by powerful forces who control the main characters, the main characters aren’t that much fun to play. Instead of feeling a connection with them, wanting them to reach their goal, the player becomes the bored puppetmaster who walks them from location to location.

But it gets worse. Lost Odyssey has a great plot hook: Kaim is an immortal who’s lost his memories. Who was he? How did he lose his memories? How does he feel about it? What brought him here? I think these are good questions, the kind of questions that keep the player engaged with the story. We battle through all those random encounters because we want to know what happened. But Kaim doesn’t. He doesn’t much seem to care about who he was, and he passively accepts his orders and his lack of memory with little comment.

Planescape: Torment, on the other hand, introduces its main character very well, and he drives the narrative much better than Lost Odyssey’s Kaim. Just enough is revealed about The Nameless One to pull the player into the story, and the release of information about his past is timed well. Because The Nameless One is dying to know about his past, about how he got where he is, so is the player. His curiosity is a motivator.

Unlike Planescape: Torment, which maintains a high level of quality writing throughout the game, Lost Odyssey is pretty uneven. I’m not sure how much of this is the translation’s fault. The game is prone to melodramatic scenes (children crying, deathbed promises, the reveal of devastating family secrets) that the story just doesn’t earn. The first disc and half feel like a soap opera’s greatest moments DVD. I don’t want to generalize, but Japanese entertainment (movies, anime and videogames I’m familiar with) seems to treat emotion differently than American entertainment. My reaction to Lost Odyssey’s “tear-jerking” moments probably has more to do with my cultural background than any fault in the game.

The short stories scattered throughout Lost Odyssey—memories for Kaim to unlock and read—are written well, but seem to have a limited number of themes. Most of them explore the anxiety of being a mercenary, the mutability of human life, existential questions of immortality, or some combination of the three. Eventually I stopped reading them because they shared so much common ground. There’s also the occasionally scene that just doesn’t make a lot of sense. “He stole our memories,” Kaim says at one point. “Anyone willing to do something so evil must be trying to take over the world.” That’s his chain of logic. That’s how the heroes figure out the villain’s plan. Kaim’s reasoning reminds me of the 1966 Batman:

Commissioner Gordon: It could be any one of them… But which one? Which ones?
Batman: Pretty *fishy* what happened to me on that ladder…
Commissioner Gordon: You mean where there’s a fish there could be a penguin?
Robin: But wait! It happened at sea… Sea. C for Catwoman!
Batman: Yet, an exploding shark *was* pulling my leg…
Commissioner Gordon: The Joker!
Chief O’Hara: All adds up to a sinister riddle… Riddle-R. Riddler!
Commissioner Gordon: A thought strikes me… So dreadful I scarcely dare give it utterance…
Batman: The four of them… Their forces combined…
Robin: Holy nightmare!

This isn’t to say that Lost Odyssey is a bad game. It accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and it’s a fitting homage to Japanese RPGs of the mid-nineties; but it just magnifies all the flaws of those games. If you find the set-up of Lost Odyssey intriguing, look up Planescape: Torment instead.

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~ by Ian D. on April 27, 2008.

2 Responses to “Writing in videogames: Planescape: Torment vs. Lost Odyssey”

  1. I think that amnesia, in general, is a weak way to launch someone into a story. It’s the “easiest” way to deal with the knowledge gap between the player and the character. Though there are cases where it’s done well, I find games so much more engaging when you’re launched right into an existing character.

  2. The Batman dialogue cracked me up. Believe it or not, I still watch that movie every now and then in celebration of its sublime badness. :-)

    You touch on this in your essay, but the primary factor that separates PS:T from LO, for me, is the depth of the narrative. It’s complex, not because it’s enmeshed in a web of political intrigue, but because it addresses issues of identity and the meaning (or lack of meaning) of our existence in the world. It explores these things in significant, thoughtful ways, without wrapping it all up in a tidy bow at the end. Much of PS:T’s meaning is purely derived from the player’s engagement with it…unlike LO which is pretty much a linear slow reveal that’s the same for every player.

    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking read.

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