Last week, Brian Fargo, CEO of inXile Entertainment, announced that they were officially working on a new Torment game. Though this announcement didn’t take the gaming world by storm, fans of Planescape: Torment were absolutely thrilled. With vets like Monte Cook, creator of both the Planescape campaign setting and the new pen and paper RPG Numenera, as well as Colin McComb, designer of both the campaign setting and the game. Sadly, Chris Avellone, the project lead and one of the writers (along with Colin) of the game, won’t be joining the sequel, though he gives his blessings.
Anyone who’s played Planescape: Torment will remember just how special a game it was. It took place in a very interesting setting, and though it was structured pretty atypically for an RPG, the personal quest you go on is very compelling. The cast may have been weird, but as they perfectly complemented the setting and themes, they struck many chords with us. The themes and metaphysics presented in Planescape: Torment are quite meaty, and would make Torment, dare I say, literary.
(There will be thematic Planescape: Torment spoilers, so be warned.)
Torment seems like the perfect game to be graced with a new entry. Fans would love to experienced what made Torment so good. Unfortunately, as Wizards of the Coast don’t seem to be willing to work with the Planescape setting anymore, a new setting was a must. This means that any of the characters in the first game won’t be able to show up. The reality we have with the sequel is thus: if it can actually be considered a sequel, it will be thematic only.
That raises some important questions. What would a thematic sequel consist of? I don’t believe we’ve seen a whole lot of thematic sequels in games, so I very much doubt we have a standard or rubric for the ideal thematic sequel. With a regular sequel, you can either stick as close to the first game as possible, change things up drastically, or strike a nice balance.
Unsurprisingly, there are enough sequels of any of those three types to validate them as suitable frameworks. Even if you didn’t like one framework, you could still that sort of sequel a sequel. We don’t have enough examples of thematic sequels of any of these three types. If these three sequel scenarios were to be analyzed in terms of themes, one would find some rather striking scenarios.
If a thematic sequel were to go with the first approach, then the sequel would wind up being too similar to the first. Unlike a regular sequel, which can be excused as a new adventure, there’s very little need for a sequel that would cover the same themes in the same or very similar ways. We don’t even know if themes can be applied this way without contradicting or otherwise not fitting the new setting.
With the second approach, the thematic sequel will still have to be very similar to the first game, otherwise there may not be any overlap. Obviously, the general themes have to be the same or very similar, but the sequel may be too far removed, even if it handles the same themes in different ways.
Moving into spoiler territory, let’s take Planescape: Torment’s ever famous question, “What can change the nature of a man?” While you’re given a variety of ways to answer it, by the end, it’s heavily implied that the answer is belief. This may seem like a pretty decent answer anywhere else, but it’s very fitting in the Planescape universe, where belief can give rise to concepts, objects, and even people. Belief is the perfect answer in Planescape, because it can literally do anything, including changing a man.
And now, let’s apply that question to Numenera. “What can change the nature of a man?” How will you respond? If Numenera: Torment were one of those strict sequels, perhaps they’ll throw in a variety of choices, such as love, regret, and betrayal. But what would the true answer be? In Planescape, it was belief, but what will it be in Numenera? I’m not sure if they can reuse belief for Numenera.
For starters, I don’t think Monte Cook designed Numenera with belief in mind, and it’s certainly not as if Numenera was designed to be the setting of the next Torment. While I’m certain the writers at inXile can pull off using belief if they wanted, the end result would be a thematically weaker product, one with several themes and ideas that don’t mesh particularly well with each other.
In the other scenario, that question may not even show up again. I believe this is a better choice, as I’d certainly like to see some fresh ideas in the sequel, and not just a retread. If they do this, however, they run the risk of straying too far from what made Planescape: Torment so special. If the ideas and themes are too distant from what people expect from a Torment game, the thematic connections to Planescape: Torment would be dubious, at best.
At that point, Numenera: Torment’s status as a thematic sequel would certainly be called into question. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t worry about this, but it’s possible that Numenera themes and Torment themes may not have much overlap, or may even clash. In such a scenario, Numenera: Torment would be weak and unfocused, at best, and self-defeating, at worst.
Thematic sequels, as you can see, don’t have the luxury regular sequels have. While regular sequels are easily identifiable through memorable events, characters, plots, and settings, themes are not so easily tied together. Too similar, and thematic sequels would be excused of being merely rehashes of earlier ideas. Too different, and their roles as sequels would come into question. With Numenera: Torment, I imagine the developers would have to strike a very careful balance, more than a regular sequel would ever necessitate. I’m just a bit worried, as a result. Fortunately, the guys on board are pretty capable, even without Chris Avellone, and if Numenera: Torment succeeds, it may just create a standard for which other thematic sequels can work with.