torment: tides of numenera

Tides of Numenera and Modern Old-School Narrative

Last night I stayed up too late finishing Torment: Tides of NumeneraThe ending is worth the lost sleep, but the narrative left me and my character in the same place: conflicted and wondering about what we had done.

In many ways, Tides of Numenera is a cutting-edge game. The characters are rich and diverse, with unique twists on classic storylines of haunting, revenge, and lost loves. Monte Cook‘s far-future Ninth World is a science fantasy that would make Gene Wolfe proud.

The game system is flexible. Talking and skill use is just as rewarding as combat, even in the middle of “Crisis” action scenes. The Effort system (adapted from the tabletop game) helps a lot on this front. You can invest resources to make nearly any skill roll a sure thing, which lets you focus on the consequences of success instead of worrying about what happens if the dice don’t like you.

That said, the storyline is more linear than the game. You can wander freely and there are all sorts of ways to crack a nut. But most of the time you’re going to this tree to find the nut and bring it to that squirrel. There’s an explosion of the choices at the end, and none of them are obviously right or wrong. I appreciated that, but it only made the lack of agency in earlier parts more obvious.

tides of numenera the bloom
For instance, it would have been nice to be able to kill the Bloom with fire.

Can You Tell Me About the Tides of Numenera Again?

I like dialogue, and Tides of Numenera has plenty of it. InXile Entertainment claims the script clocked in at 1.2 million words. They’re fresh, well-chosen words. But the dialogue tree is also where the game gets aggressively old school.

If you’ve played Baldur’s Gate or any of its siblings, you know the drill. Every named character has a dialogue tree, usually a list of questions that you work through one-by-one. The game even hangs a lantern on this, with a late-game character commenting, “Oh yes, you’re the one who likes to ask all the questions.”

It’s almost impossible to avoid meta-gaming with a dialogue tree. The words connected me to the characters, but marching through the questions constantly reminded me I was playing a game. Sometimes I even completed quests by accident, when an item I had acquired popped up in a conversation with a seemingly unrelated character.

Dialogue trees have benefits for both players and designers. Designers like them because they’re easy and flexible. (Also, you can hide jokes and easter eggs in them.) Players like being able to go back and check on anything they’ve forgotten. Even the many stock phrases like “tell me about the tribbles again” help the player stay oriented.

Dialogue trees are also cheap. Tides of Numenera takes full advantage of the imagination’s special effects budget, with key plot sequences that play out as text on on static (and very pretty) splash pages.  Words allows a lot of subtle effects and character moments that would be a nightmare to animate.

But no matter how many subtle goals and shifting agendas you weave into the dialogue tree, you can never quite hide the fact that the character is just giving a pre-planned response. You can fall in love with the characters — I adored Matkina, Tybir, and Rhin. I felt protective of them, and felt grief when I had to let go of them. But every time I interacted with them, the dialogue tree rubbed their artificiality in my face.

Can We Go Beyond the Dialogue Tree?

It’s not surprising that an old-school RPG is old school. What is surprising is that nearly twenty years after Baldur’s Gate, we haven’t come up with anything better. We can do intense linear action movies and walk through quiet, character-based stories.  Telltale Games’ adventures feature lovely storytelling in unexpected places. But everything still boils down to an elaborate choose-your-own adventure book.

There is promising research being done on giving characters their own agendas in games. (Hopefully it won’t break the first rule of AI development: don’t make Skynet!) But this work is rudimentary, and I’m skeptical about the connection between “living” characters and great storytelling. An goal-driven NPC may take a greater variety of actions, but that doesn’t necessarily loosen up the constraints on the player’s actions.

Maybe it’s enough to tell stories full of polish, imagination, and compelling characters. Torment: Tides of Numenera does a great job at this. But my favorite books make me forget I’m reading them. My favorite games make me forget I’m playing them. Dialogue trees offer a lot of flexibility and bang for the development buck, but I’m still looking for a new narrative tool that will knock down that barrier to flow.