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Kickstarting Torment: Bringing the Immortal Back to Life in Torment: Tides of Numenera

December 30, 2013  |  8:30am
Kickstarting Torment: Bringing the Immortal Back to Life in <i>Torment: Tides of Numenera</i>

When it came out in 1999, Planescape: Torment was a radically dark take on the Dungeons and Dragons-inspired computer role-playing game (RPG), a genre dominated by hack-and-slash titles filled with Tolkienesque dwarves and elves. Set in Sigil, a city set at the hub of a multiplanar universe and populated by creatures ranging from succubi to robot-like geometric modrons, the dialogue- and story-driven Torment placed the player in the role of the Nameless One, a scarred immortal who has lost both his memories and his ability to die, and has to search the corners of the multiverse to get them back.

For Colin McComb, a 29-year-old writer who spent two years working on Torment and had helped write for the original pen-and-paper Planescape setting around which it was based, the game’s archetypal characters offered a broad field to explore conflicts more nuanced than the good versus evil quests of traditional fantasy—not to mention a good way to put a college degree in philosophy to good use.

“The various factions of Sigil were essentially real-world philosophies given flesh. And the outer planes actually made belief real, solid, tangible stuff,” McComb recalls. “Short of going into a postgrad program, I can’t imagine any better way to spend my time.”

But years pass, and priorities change. Fourteen years later, McComb finds himself looking at the world from a different perspective. Now 43 and a father, he’s less preoccupied with the great, abstract ideological struggles of the world, and is instead captivated by a personal question: What legacy will he leave behind for his children when his work is over?

Fortunately for fans of Planescape: Torment, the answer is coming in a form they can benefit from: a sequel to the original game. Slated to reach audiences in 2015, Torment: Tides of Numenera falls broadly into a new wave of Kickstarter-funded sequels and reboots of classic cult games that have used crowdsourcing to connect directly with a fanbase that would be too small to attract a traditional publisher’s attention.

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Bringing the new game to market is Inxile, the 11-year-old company founded by Interplay vets Brian Fargo and Matthew Findley. Most famous for its 2004 tongue-in-cheek RPG A Bard’s Tale, Inxile had already used Kickstarter to revive a classic game, 1988’s Wasteland, when they and project lead Kevin Saunders began planning a campaign for Torment. But they had no idea at the time just how successful their new project would be.

Torment smashed all expectations, becoming what was then the fastest Kickstarter ever to reach $1 million, raising the amount in just over seven hours. By the time the crowdfunding campaign was over, that amount had grown to $4.1 million—450% of their original $900,000 goal. Altogether, 74,505 people backed the project on Kickstarter, including nine who each pledged $10,000 or more. Along with personal matches totaling $200,000 from Fargo and “super fan” Steve Dengler and an unspecified amount of PayPal donations, the team went into production with over $4.5 million in the bank.

Beyond being a convenient vehicle for getting the seed money to start production, McComb and Saunders say that Kickstarter was an essential part of getting the game off the ground, giving them an avenue to go into production with a guaranteed, invested audience, rather than trying to convince a large publisher to bet on a game as ambitious and risky as Torment.

“The great thing about Kickstarter is that we can ask people what they think about the project, about what we’re proposing, and people will tell us right away,” says McComb. “It’s exactly how the market is supposed to work, as opposed to taking it to an executive who’s like, ‘You know, I’ve been reading all the latest metrics on our focus groups, and they’re telling us that this won’t happen.’” Ultimately, the runaway success of the Kickstarter let the team vastly increase the length of their game and bring six additional writers into the fold.

But that windfall meant additional obstacles too. To accommodate the longer game, Inxile pushed the game’s projected release date back, from December 2014 to the first half of 2015. It also left Saunders managing a much larger, more geographically scattered team of contracted writers than had been part of the original plan, some of whom had no prior experience working on games.

Still, Saunders says that the staff’s professional familiarity with one another has made managing the project easier than it might have been. Much of the team now creating the new game was involved in shaping the original—besides McComb, Planescape: Torment lead designer and Obsidian founder Chris Avellone returned for the second game, as did composer Mark Morgan and Monte Cook, who wrote for TSR’s original pen-and-paper Planescape RPG and created the Numenera setting upon which the sequel is based—and one gets the distinct impression that Torment has matured along with them over the past 14 years. Where the first game was based around a quest of self-discovery, Tides of Numenera firmly focuses on the question of legacy: What do the departed leave behind, and how does it affect the lives of the people who come after them?

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Numenera’s story has the player take on the role of the Last Castoff, an individual created when a body-hopping, seemingly immortal being abandoned one of its hosts. The player must go in search of the truth behind his or her creation, wandering through a far future fantasy world littered with the ruins of technologically advanced civilizations while being pursued by a mysterious force that has been seeking out and destroying his or her fellow castoffs.

To enable the members of the design team to work independently, the game’s creators are dividing Torment’s gameplay into “zones,” collections of areas that occupy a chunk of the story, and farming them out to individual writers to fill out within the constraints of McComb’s roadmap. The zones essentially function as modules with a limited degree of independence, enabling writers to tweak their zone’s story without setting off a chain of consequences through the rest of the plot.

“[McComb] is defining the box, and the writer will create the design for the zone within that box,” says Saunders. “There’s a lot of flexibility as to what they do in the end. Some areas are more tightly connected to the story, others are more open. This way not each of these people have to be fully versed on every detail of the story at all times.”

While the Inxile team has added some technological and stylistic updates to the isometric RPGs of the 90s and early aughts, including lush background art and the cross-platform Unity engine, McComb says the game’s real offering to players will be choice. Rather than placing players into the RPG equivalent of a rail shooter (or, at the other extreme, a sprawling, non-linear sandbox of a game where their decisions make little difference) the team is striving to make Tides of Numenera an immersive experience where freedom of choice has real consequences.

Rather than players’ decisions affecting the plot only in a one-to-one, I-forgot-to-tell-the-barkeep-that-his-mother-said-hello-so-the-mayor-won’t-give-me-the-jeweled-sword manner, the game’s creators are aiming to build a world in which players’ decisions affect them on a holistic level. To that extent, they revived an old concept, alignment, with a new twist. Instead of defining characters along evil-good or chaotic-lawful axes, the game will build on the theme of legacy by categorizing players in “Tides” according to the traits that great people are remembered for: passion, reason, empathy and zeal. The Last Castoff’s standing in relation to the world’s Tides affects how others react to him or her more than any single decision will.

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McComb, Monte Cook and several other members of the design team are taking the unconventional step of writing short novellas and comics that tie in to the plot and outline what each of the Tides stands for. While the team is tight-lipped about the specifics, the novellas, which the backers will receive for free ahead of the game’s release, will be more than extraneous tie-ins. Saunders says that the stories will not only establish part of the world’s canon, but that the writing process itself is serving as a tool to help the writers attune themselves to Numenera before they begin delving into the nitty-gritty.

Without the resource pool of a major developer, Inxile is using largely the same production team that is working on Wasteland 2 to create Torment, along with the help of one additional programmer, Steve Dobos, and design lead Adam Heine. They have some other tricks in their arsenal when it comes to doing a lot with a small crew: For Wasteland 2, the Inxile team crowdsourced bits of the game from the Unity Asset Store, in which freelance designers build assets—trees, mountains, pieces of machinery—and offer them for sale to game creators, allowing them to create a world that looks “more lived-in, more immersive,” as Saunders puts it. Inxile plans to use some add-ons from the store to help bring Numenera to life as well, though not to the extent that they did for their previous game.

In July, McComb, Saunders and 10 of Torment’s far-flung writers, including Avellone and Cook, met in a conference room at Inxile’s headquarters in Newport Beach, California, to begin the next phase of development: fleshing out the specifics of the game’s sprawling story within the skeletal plot already sketched out by McComb. “We sat around and talked for three days,” says McComb. “It was so cool.” The team discussed the story, dialogue conventions and supporting characters, and began to lay out a roadmap for how they would proceed to create the game’s internal clockwork.

Despite its record-shattering success on Kickstarter, the development of Torment: Tides of Numenera is still taking place firmly in the indie realm. Its crowd-sourced payday of $4.5 million is less than two percent of the development budget for one of the year’s biggest blockbusters, Grand Theft Auto V, which cost an estimated $265 million to make.

Yet, in some ways, Torment’s legacy is already secure, a year and a half before the game is scheduled to be released. You can see it in the tens of thousands of backers who unhesitatingly threw their money behind Tides of Numenera out of loyalty to a 14-year-old PC game. You can see it in those backers’ comments as they watch inXile work, waiting for the day that Torment returns to their screens.

“Amazing to think that once upon a time we all stumbled into Sigil, blinking and confused…” backer Paul Bailey wrote on the project’s page after the Kickstarter wrapped up. “Then we left Sigil. We got jobs, got married, got dogs and cats and found ourselves helplessly absorbed into life. Now we are grown, and together we are moving mountains.”

Adam Roy is the web editor for Denver Westword and a former editor for Outside Magazine.

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