Torment: Tides of Numenera — a journey into the strange
The universe of Torment: Tides of Numenera is a strange one. Set one billion years into Earth’s future, all recognisable traces of our world have become compacted beneath layers of ruins, left by dead civilisations over an incomprehensibly vast period of time.
It’s a world of fantasy, but one that’s bracingly separate from the tropes we’ve become accustomed to in popular culture. There’s no Starfleet, no elves, no thinly veiled metaphors for racial tensions or class warfare – or at least none that are easy to get a hold of. In the handful of hours I spent with the game, for example, I found myself in a place called The Bloom: a vast organism that sprawls across a canyon. Inside, it is populated by cultish worshipers and slave markets, with a micro-economy based around the orifices this organism opens into other dimensions. It is a very strange place.
When I spoke to the Tides of Numenera’s creative lead Colin McComb, he explained that the game’s outlandishness is very much intentional. The bizarreness of a place like The Bloom isn’t only escapism, but is also a way to jolt players out of comfortable assumptions.
“The weirder we can get with it, the more we can take people out of their comfort zone, then the more we can introduce new concepts and it be a core part of their experience,” he said. “Because [the player’s] not seeing, say, an Apple laptop in the game and saying: ‘I understand how this works so I don’t need to question it.’”
“We wanted to do something where people have to look at things with fresh eyes”
Interestingly, McComb suggests that Tolkien-esque settings have become too familiar to make players and audiences rethink the world around them. While a book such as Lord of the Rings may have held up a mirror to contemporary readers, who were themselves recoiling from global war and the seductiveness of grand ideologies, by the 21st century the tropes of elves and bearded knights have become staid – weighed down by their own mythology.
“As soon as you see an elf in a game you’re like: where’s Legolas? Or as soon as you see a dwarf you think: oh, this guy’s going to speak in a Scottish brogue. With fantasy games, everyone knows about elves and dwarves and kings and princes etc. Screw that. We wanted to do something more interesting. We wanted to do something where people have to look at things with fresh eyes.”
Tides of Numenera is pitched a spiritual successor to 1999’s Planescape: Torment, and like that game it puts a great deal of emphasis on storytelling – particularly the breed of storytelling that’s light on realism and heavy on nebulous unreality. Having been dropped into the narrative somewhere beyond of the first few hours, I was unsure whether I was supposed to know exactly what a Glaive is, or a Changing God, or The Sorrow, or a Stichus, or… you get the gist. No doubt much of this is explained if you follow the story from the beginning, but there’s a certain gleefulness to the procession of strange names that suggests the dizziness is deliberate. As McComb said, the game wants to take players out of their comfort zone.
The world of Numenera is nevertheless grounded – if that’s the right word – in the tabletop RPG of the same name. I was advised by another journalist that if I wanted to decipher the world of Tides of Numenera, this was the best place to start. No doubt some will relish the chance to pore over every obscure noun, but it strikes me that doing so would rob the game of its delicious strangeness. Instead, I asked McComb what other cultural sources he was pulling on.
“Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, the whole ‘dying earth’ genre – Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance,” he noted. “I’ve always been a fan of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. We harken back to a lot of the early to mid-70s pulp fiction. Really fantastical milieus. If you ever saw any of the art of Moebius, for instance. That had a huge influence on the structure of this game.”
(Above: A panel from Moebius’ Voyage d’Hermes)
French comic artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, has had an influence on everyone from Italian auteur Federico Fellini to Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki. McComb notes the particular influence of the artist’s work with American science-fiction comic, Heavy Metal, on the aesthetic of Tides of Numenera. Like the strange, intricate scenes of Moebius’ work, the game hints at mysteries that are never explained. Co-writer Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie told me that you might poke a fleshy tentacle and never really know what its back story is – whether it’s an enormous creature or the heart of an ancient starship.
If the weirdness of its setting is supposed to encourage the player to question everything they encounter, its makers want to put that inquisitiveness to good use. Like Planescape: Torment, Tides of Numenera is unashamedly focused on ideas of ontology and ethics.
While many RPGs have a morality system – with decisions chalked up to a mixture of “good”, “bad”, “chaotic” or “lawful” categories – Tides of Numenera has a system of ideologies, called Tides. Almost every action will affect one of five (helpfully colour-coded) schools of thought. The Gold Tide, for example, centres on ideas of altruism and empathy, whereas the Silver Tide is linked to power, fame and the pursuit of marking a mark on history. Importantly, none of these Tides are taken as inherently good or bad.
“We didn’t want to say: this is objectively good, or this is objectively bad, or this is objectively lawful, or this is objectively chaotic,” said McComb. “We wanted to say these are all valid approaches to how you address your life.”
(Above: Colin McComb)
Jurgens-Fyhrie added that the consequences of actions in the game are also about intent. “We wanted to make sure that even something like the Gold Tide, which represents selflessness and charity, could be an evil route, depending on what your intent is, and on what the outcome is.”
This open approach to ideology extends to the Tides of Numenera’s narrative structure. McComb explained that, while quests will have different results depending on the choices you make, his team was careful not to create any dead ends in the story.
“One of our design mantras was failure had to be interesting,” he told me. “We wanted to make it so the game would be a complete and continuous experience, so people wouldn’t feeling like they needed to reload. Every failure, just as in life, opens up different options for you. We wanted people to feel like they could be invested enough, and trust us enough to tell them a reasonable story with that failure.”
A few hours is not enough to get a grip on Torment: Tides of Numenera. This isn’t a game that lends itself to a brief hands-on session – especially one where you are plonked mid-way through the story – but what I did see felt alien enough, strange enough, to draw me in. The world of The Bloom and Changing God and The Sorrow is hard to get a handle on, and that may ultimately be its greatest strength.
“If you’re addressing these questions from a place where you’re safe and familiar, then you’re not really addressing the questions”
“We’ve designed this game specifically with a philosophical bent in mind,” said McComb. “And you don’t get good philosophical answers by being in a place where you’re comfortable. If you’re addressing these questions from a place where you’re safe and familiar, then you’re not really addressing the questions. You have to move into a place where you need to question everything again and again and again.”
Torment: Tides of Numenera will be available on 28 February, for PC, Mac, PS4 and Xbox One.