KOTOR vs Planescape: Steel Cage Deathmatch

I enjoy interactive storytelling. From first ventures in playing D&D with my sisters and cousins as a kid, experiments in playing by post, MUDs/MUSHes, more roleplaying games as a student, Freeform LARPs, to computer RPGs, playing by email with IRC interludes, cooperative fanfic, party games like Pantheon and Baron Munchausen, letter-writing games on blogs, and eventually MMOs, it’s been a long strange trip and I’m sure that it isn’t over yet.

I’ve played a few computer games with good storylines (Gabriel Knight, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Diablo II Act II with Tal’Rasha etc comes to mind) but three of them really stand out when I look back. These are, in order:

  1. Planescape: Torment
  2. Final Fantasy X
  3. Knights of the Old Republic

Why Planescape?

With Planescape, Black Isle picked the most brilliant and iconic of all the 2nd Ed D&D settings and brought it to life. It is pure fantasy, but it isn’t the standard medieval elves and knights in shining armours. I don’t think there is even a single dragon.

Instead, there is the disturbingly weird magical city of Sigil, a hub between the planes where even gods dare not tread. Any doorway (a category that can include wells, cracks in the wall, etc) could hide a portal to one of the outer planes. Demons and strange elemental beings go to Sigil to rest from their eternal wars. It’s like a fantasy-steampunk London – anything is possible there.

Also, although there have always been fans of D&D artwork (and they have had some fantastic artists working with them), Planescape is the one setting which everyone in the fan community always associated with its brilliant lead artist, Tony DiTerlizzi. You can get a feel for the style here. So it was always a setting with a strong visual identity, and also a strong writing style. Characters had their own slang (it was intended to have a London Cockney feel to it, I think).

So that’s the setting, which is cool in itself. Add in a storyline about the mysterious and amnesiac Nameless One who appears to be immortal, gathers a bevy of fantastic and well-loved allies/ enemies, and explores the setting within the confines of a very tightly written story. And then if that wasn’t enough, explore some of the philosophical implications of what the Nameless One finds out about his past and give him the chance to make some big moral decisions.

What can change the nature of a man, indeed?

But what made the storyline for me was how much I was drawn to care for his allies. I never could bring myself to play through the game as an evil alignment because I just didn’t want to hurt them, and you were given some truly evil ways to torment your allies if you really wanted to do that.

I can’t really talk about Planescape without feeling betrayed by the game industry. After I played through that game, I hoped that just maybe it would be the harbinger of a new age of brilliant interactive storytelling RPGs. But it never happened. Maybe it didn’t sell well enough. Maybe there just wasn’t the demand. Maybe people just wanted WW2 shooters instead. I don’t know. Planescape was the end of an era, not the beginning.

But for all that, if you can get hold of a copy and put up with the 1999 era graphics, it’s one of the best storytelling experiences you’ll ever have with a game.

KOTOR

I’ve been meaning to play Knights of the Old Republic for ages and just never got round to it. (Playing MMOs will tend to do that to you – I see  a game, think ‘I must play that sometime’ then come back to it 3 years later). But I did recently play through it myself, and it was tons of fun.

I’m comparing it to Planescape because the stories have a few similarities. You wake up with no memory. You gather a team of friends around you. You go off on adventures. You find out more about your characters past, which turns out to be fairly important. You are able to play as good or evil or something in between and the moral choices you make will affect how the game plays and the outcome. There are some cool revelations, so no spoilers here. (Although honestly, when you meet someone right at the beginning who says specifically that jedi can erase people’s memories, I don’t see why people get too surprised if this turns out to be the case later.)

You also get to play with the Star Wars setting. Despite being set X thousand years before the films, it turns out that apart from the political setup, not a lot has changed. You’ll get to play with lightsabers, train as a jedi, fly jet-powered swoops, have your own pet droid, and wookie, turn to the dark side, or not, and go to a lot of the planets mentioned in the films.

Unfortunately it just isn’t as good. If Planescape is steak, KOTOR is burger (it’s good burger, mind). If Planescape is ‘Carter Beats the Devil’, KOTOR is ‘something really popular but not so smart or deep’ (I was going to say ‘The Da Vinci Code’ but then I remembered that I hated it and never got past the first page, which is a bit unfair because KOTOR was fun).

Unfortunately the NPCs are extremely bland, which is I suspect what really brings the game down. Planescape had amazing NPCs, and I really cared about them. KOTOR has mostly dull NPCs (apart from the killer robot) and I really didn’t. On the other hand, you as the player do get to be the big damn hero is a very big way.

So like a harlequin romance, KOTOR is pure ego bait. You are the hero. No one else is as interesting or important as you. They all exist merely to stroke your ego, entertain you, or throw themselves under your lightsaber. The romance plotlines are amusing but a bit creepy. I guess I just don’t like the notion that if one can only say the right thing to the NPC at the right time, they’ll fall madly in love with you. And I think it encourages you to relate poorly to the NPCs. You always think of them as puzzles which you can unlock rather than as characters in their own right.

Call me an old romantic but I prefer to subscribe to the theory that if someone is into you, they’ll not mind if you don’t always say exactly the right thing. And vice versa.

But it certainly does stroke the player’s ego to feel that cool and important people from the setting are falling at your feet. BUT I expect that in the fanfic (I haven’t checked but there’s bound to be fanfic) most people prefer to write about the relationships that the developers did not allow. Forbidden fruit, etc.

Oddly, even though the dark/lightside nature of the jedi should lead to some philosophical musings (I mean, if one can switch from light to dark or back again so easily then how strong precisely are jedi in a moral sense?) it never does. The game never once asks ‘what can change the nature of a man’ even though it’s about that even more than Planescape is. It never really answers the question either.

And on another side, the actual game sides of the game are very hit and miss. Some of it is painfully easy. The puzzles aren’t difficult at all. Then some bits are arbitrarily hard (the later swoop races, shooting stuff down in the ebon falcon etc) and you’re given no chance to really practice in advance. I saved my game a lot while I was playing it.

So, good fun game. Recommended, especially if you like Star Wars and fanfic. Probably better storyline than the actual films. Prepare to have your ego stroked.

FFX

Final Fantasy is a rather different beast to the games I mentioned above. For a start, it’s a Final Fantasy game with conventions of its own. But what really marks it out as a storytelling game is the relationships you have with your companions.

Auron in particular is one of the coolest and most badass companions in any game ever. And even he has a cool revelation of his own before the game comes to its inevitable end.

And I defy anyone not to feel a pang of … well something … for the little summoner when you realise that she’s going willingly to what may be a fate worse than death.

I really cared about the NPCs in that game, which was what brought the storyline to life.

Picking a Favourite?

Well for me it’s clearly Planescape by a country mile. And I realise how much I appreciate a storyteller who can make me care that much about the setting and the other characters in the game while still making it all about me. I loved it so much that I picked up a lot of old boxed sets of the D&D setting, which are very much prized possessions for me even though I never got to play/run it as much as I would have liked.

And going by past history, I rather think I’m more intrigued by FFXIV than by SW:TOR as upcoming MMOs. I know which storytelling team have the track record for me.

If Cryptic stopped futzing around with Neverwinter Nights MMO rumours and just got the Planescape license, I’d drop everything to play it.

Do you have favourite stories in games?

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20 thoughts on “KOTOR vs Planescape: Steel Cage Deathmatch

  1. You should really try Mass Effect. I have playefd it through 3 times from start to finish and it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. As much as I LOVE Star Wars, I do prefer Mass Effect over KOTOR….

  2. Good summary. KOTOR is a lot of fun, but nothing has managed to touch the mind-boggling depth and complexity of Planescape’s story.

    However, I don’t think that Planescape offers nearly as much interactivity as KOTOR. It was closer to reading a book than playing a game. I would probably have enjoyed the game more without the combat.

    You might want to check out KOTOR2 at some point, since it was designed at Obsidian by the same guy as Planescape, Chris Avellone.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Avellone

    KOTOR2 has a few problems, mostly due to the fact that they were forced to ship too early and didn’t manage to finish it, but there is a lot more depth to the story and characters.

    Obsidian’s next game headed by Chris Avellone is a spy RPG called Alpha Protocol. It looks very cool and is likely to have a pretty meaty story.

    Oh, and Mass Effect is definitely worth checking out too! Great new IP and story. Just turn the difficulty down and the auto-aim up to full :)

  3. Your wikipedia Planescape link answers why you it won’t set any trend in games; despite overwhelming critical praise it sold very poorly.
    I didn’t find KOTOR npcs bland at all, but maybe that’s because i havent been spoiled by Planescape. Also romance was never solving a puzzle, you get romance unless you mock/shun them.
    KOTORs answer to changing the nature of man was power. Korriban and Bastila talked about breaking free of the subservient role jedi play to normal people and using the force to be something superior; that’s what the Sith academy and the dark side was all about.

    • That explains why the dark side is alluring. But what makes people switch back?

      Just for comparison, this is the Planescape quote on that subject:
      If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear – whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can. I’ve seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil hag’s heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me.

  4. I loved Planescape too. And honestly, the late 1990s really were a great time for story-driven games. Planescape, Baldur’s Gate II, Deus Ex, the Longest Journey, and Grim Fandango are just a few greats from that era.

    I’d second the recommendation of Mass Effect. If you liked KoTOR, it should be right up your alley. I also liked Deus Ex quite a bit, although admittedly it is a shooter.

    If you like adventure games, you ought to try Grim Fandango, which is outstanding. The Longest Journey and Dreamfall are pretty good too, although more linear.

    • I’d second the recommendations for The Longest Journey and Grim Fandango.

      TLJ is available on Steam for buttons, though Dreamfall is harder to recommend. Great story, pretty rubbish game. Play TLJ first, then decide.

      Getting Grim to work on Vista or above might be messy, though XP should be fine with a bit of trickery. I’m hoping LucasArt’s new found interest in their back catalogue will see a re-release of Grim at some point!

      Baldur’s Gate 2 and Deus Ex also had great stories, through not sure how well the gameplay holds up these days.

      Oh, and the same golden period in PC gaming also saw the release of System Shock 2 and the Thief games!

  5. While I’m at it, I should also mention Neverwinter Nights 2. The original campaign was just okay, but the expansion pack, Mask of the Betrayer, is quite good. The cast of characters is brilliant, and the moral choices are reminiscent of those in Planescape. You should give it a try if you haven’t already.

  6. I’ve got a copy of Planescape at home. Every time I play through it, I find *tons* more stuff then the previous. It’s truly the best story out there.

  7. Oh man… you bring me back to the good old days, Spinks. I adored Planescape, it was such a good game. FFX was excellent as well, but then I expect solid story telling from the Final Fantasy games…. even the sprite-based SNES games had compelling characters and wondrous settings.

    KOTOR I’m trying to borrow from a friend, if only he’d remember to bring the games to work :P

    Some other really top notch story-driven RPG games are:

    Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (PC)
    Final Fantasy VII (PS2/PC)

  8. Have you played Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines? If not, you should really give that a go; I think it’s fairly cheaply available on Steam nowadays. Fully voiced, a lot of good – and non-archetypal – characters and actually quite a good plot when you get past all the twists.

    I’m seconding all the recommendations made by the above commenters, having played most of them now. NWN2:MOTB in particular has characters of quite some depth (particularly Kaelyn, whose voice actress needs to be found and enticed to work on a lot more games, I might add), which is something most of the NWN series has lacked up until that point (and they didn’t continue in Storm of Zehir sadly).

  9. It’s fun seeing other people mention some of my favorite games here, seeing as how many of them are often overlooked. I loved Planescape, and I’m amazed at how it never got as much press or gained as much popularity as Baldur’s Gate or NWN.

    The Witcher is one of my favorite story-driven games, mainly because there’s no clear cut sense of right or wrong. It’s all about trying to choose the lesser evil. Seemingly minor choices can have far-reaching, unforeseen consequences.

    Fwiw, I tend to suck at shooters, and did just fine with Mass Effect, except for driving the Mako. But I played it on the 360, and I’ve heard the controls are better on the PC.

    • OK, I’ve seen a few people mention Mass Effect so I’ll add it to ‘the list’ (and if I really do suck too much, I’ll draft in my husband to do the hard bits :) ).

      I have heard good things about The Witcher too, now that you mention it…

  10. I started Planescape, and got weirded out by the setting and gave up on it. I still hold it in high regard… it’s just not my flavor. FFX and KOTOR were indeed brilliant. I’m also a fan of Kingdom Hearts and KH2, as well as Valkyrie Profile and VP2. My favorite gaming experiences are with great stories, and to this day, the FF series and Kingdom Hearts are still my favorites.

    Now, that said, I still don’t think that sort of strong storytelling is possible or even appropriate in MMOs. The venue just isn’t right, as MMOs are ostensibly about players interacting and telling their own stories. Everyone can’t be the Great Hero, and “when everyone is super, no one is”.

  11. Some of the recent games I really loved were Mass Effect, BioShock and Dead Space. I suppose maybe more for the setting and atmosphere than anything else but their story and environment were also excellent.

    I’m also looking forward to SW:TOR and FFIV for the story and sense of environment and immersion they could provide. The developers have excellent reputations so we can only hope that they live up to them!

  12. For a very idiosyncratic and wonderful take on another great storyteller here is WindUpAtheist’s exploration of the dark side of Baldur’s Gate:

    http://forums.f13.net/index.php?topic=17135.0

    Personally I’m wanting to see storytelling come to MMOs. AoC’s Tortage is still the best MMO experience I’ve had for storytelling, I’d love to see more like that.

  13. Pingback: /AFK – June 21 « Bio Break

  14. KotOR is one of if not the best RPGs of all time. From unique characters to moving music, to the setting, the romance, and plot twist, one hell of a game! Nothing ever quite moved me the way KotOR did.

    For me KotOR is the complete RPG. It did everything right, and everything just fell into place at the right time. It felt like one long epic adventure after it was all said and done. It truly was an experience to be had.

  15. Pingback: A holiday, a holiday, the first one of the year! Best of 2009. « Welcome to Spinksville!

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