The Tides of Numenera are Beautiful and Deep

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

It has been a while since a game surprised me as much as Torment: Tides of Numenera. With as many games as I play these days, I thought I knew the difference between great writing and decent writing. After just a few hours with Tides of Numenera, I have had to completely readjust my spectrum, or at least include a new level within it. The writing in this game is truly exceptional. It takes me back to the days of Baldur's Gate and Planescape; games that came with huge manuals loaded with the lore of the game's world and characters. It has been so long since I have played a game like it that I forgot how much a game's writing can convey without having to explicitly show it.

I have to admit. I have been spoiled by today's games. As much as I may go on and on about graphics being less important that gameplay and story, I am just as much a slave to the shinier bits of games. In fact, it was the distinct lack of exceptional graphics that first turned me away from Torment: Tides of Numenera. I saw plenty of screenshots and watched the gameplay trailer. I was interested, but not so much that I felt I needed to pick the game up right away. I had a number of other games on my list that looked more impressive, so I set it on the back burner, buried somewhere in my steam wish list

Had I found the story trailer back then, I don't think I would have hesitated to buy the game. Instead, it was Ssalarn that finally got me playing it, and I can't thank him enough for his gift. Had he not shown me the game for itself, I may not have ever experienced it for myself. As I said above, the writing of the game reminds me of Baldur's Gate and other similar old-school RPGs from the olden days.

The game centers around your character, the last castoff of a being known as The Changing God. The Changing God was once a man who discovered a way to transfer his consciousness to another living vessel. As he took on new forms he found that the previous vessel was given life in his absence, with a complete intelligence and consciousness independent of his own. He named these beings Castoffs and eventually grew indifferent to them. You awake as the last castoff. The latest in the line of succession, abandoned by the changing god in mid air, falling towards the ground.

I won't go any further into the story than that. What I will say is that I have not encountered a game whose writing was so evocative in a very very long time. Playing Tides of Numenera, I found myself wondering why I couldn't think of any recent games that were written this well or conveyed so much simply through text. Then I had a realization, and it boils down to what we can create with today's tech.

Games these days are capable of creating highly detailed worlds and characters. We can model the smallest, most subtle expressions on the characters our player's interact with. And we can do it so well, the the players can draw accurate conclusions about a character's opinions and motivations from them. It's really incredible how much detail can go into a simple conversation these days. For the most part, writers need only be concerned with whether the dialogue sounds natural coming from the characters or that the tone is right for the scene.

Because we are so good at showing players exactly what is happening in the environment or on a character's face these days, we have expected our game's writing to explain and describe less. As such, a great deal of flair has been lost and many games have come to rely far more on graphical means for showing the player what is happening in the story. Torment: Tides of Numenera, eschews this modern convention and instead uses excellent, evocative and descriptive prose to help the player feel what is happening in the world around them.

Playing Tides of Numenera makes me feel like a kid again. I have experienced no less than a dozen moments that made me audibly gasp or mutter "whoa." It is an incredible game that reminds us that we shouldn't expect a game to be less immersive just because it doesn't look as detailed or amazing as many other games on the market.