Torment: Tides of Numenera interview with Colin McComb and Patrick Rothfuss

T.J. Hafer at

Torment: Tides of Numenera is about 24 hours from being Kickstarted. To round out our previous chats with inXile's Brian Fargo and Obsidian's Chris Avellone about their roles on the project, we snagged a tag-team interview with two of the principle writers. Colin McComb is the creative lead on the project, having helped develop Planescape: Torment, and the Planescape campaign setting itself. Patrick Rothfuss is a New York Times best-selling author, known for the Kingkiller Chronicle novels (The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear), making his game writing debut with Torment.

PC Gamer: The first question I had is for you, Colin. When I was talking to Brian Fargo at GDC, he said you were kind of the guy behind the whole “What does one life matter?” question that’s going to be central to the game's story. What's the story behind that?

Colin McComb: Part of it is just that I’m not the same person I was 15 years ago when I was working on Planescape: Torment. Now I’m in my 40s. I've got kids. This is the sort of thing I think about as my own impending mortality looks me in the face. Hopefully it’s going to be many years off, but I’m sitting there looking at it and thinking, “What have I accomplished with my life? What am I doing? What will my kids think of me? What will people in the future think of me?” It sort of spun out from there.

Is that something you see as applying, as a question, to all demographics? Say, people who are younger and might be picking up their first big, deep RPG like this?

"What’s the point of being a movie star? What’s the point of being rich?"

McComb: Yeah, I think I do. This is a question that I think occupies a lot of people’s minds. It informs their activities, whether or not they acknowledge it to themselves. When people say, “Oh, I want to get on television because I’ll be famous,” well, what’s the point of being famous? Well, okay, I want to become a rich and famous movie star. What’s the point of being a movie star? What’s the point of being rich? What’s the point of accumulating power? Why do any of us do the things that we do, if it is not, in fact, to leave a legacy? Some people willingly fade into the shadows. Some people work for their community without taking any fame onto themselves. But they die secure in the knowledge that they have contributed. Everybody wants to leave their own little mark on the tree of history, I think.

Regarding Numenera, specifically, and the Ninth World setting… Brian said you were also the one responsible for that. Did you work with Monte on the Numenera pen and paper RPG prior to Torment?

McComb: I worked on Planescape with Monte prior to this project, actually. Numenera, Monte has created that as his own IP. He did his Kickstarter last year. He approached me and my wife with our mobile games company, 3lb Games, to ask us to design the app for that. We said, “Oh, sweet, that’s super cool. Thank you so much.” Then Brian and Adam Heine and I were kicking around the idea for a new Torment and trying to figure out what our setting was. It became obvious fairly quickly that this was the setting we were looking for. It wasn't a quid pro quo thing. It was, “Holy crap, Monte has the perfect solution.”

Okay. So you guys went to him about that.

McComb: Yeah, absolutely. I worked with Monte for years, collaborating with him on Planescape. After we both left TSR, I worked with him on a supplement called Beyond Countless Doorways for Malhavoc Press, his company. It was sort of a Planescape reunion. So I know the depth and power of his imagination.

Patrick, how did you originally get involved in the project?

Patrcik Rothfuss: [laughs] Well, I ran into Colin at GenCon last year. It was Sunday, and everything was winding down. I was talking with somebody else, and he wandered by and said, “Hey, are you Patrick Rothfuss?” I get that a fair amount because I kind of look a hobo. It’s really distinctive. I said, “Yeah, I am, who are you?” He says, “I design games.” I say, “Oh, what have you done?” He said, “Oh, this and that, and Planescape.” I’d just been talking about Planescape for my whole life, you know. For the last 13 years, I've been gushing about Planescape whenever I talk about video games. I wouldn't shut up about it to him. I completely hijacked the conversation and gushed all over him.

"I’d just been talking about Planescape for my whole life, you know."

And then I was really curious about the mechanism, I've always been fascinated about the potential of narrative in these games. The branched nature of it. The ability of the reader to choose and direct the story is something you don’t really get in any other medium, with the exception of, like, a Choose Your Own Adventure book. He was really cool about it. He said, “I can show you how that dialogue gets written.” We talked about it and we stayed in touch via e-mail. Then, when this started to get up off the ground, he e-mailed me and I was just giddy at the thought of being involved in any way.

It sounds like you've been a gamer for quite a while, then.

Rothfuss: Not to overstate it, but I've probably been a gamer for as long as there have been computer games. Since back before the old Infocom games.

What do you see as being the biggest differences between writing novels and writing for a game like this? I guess I should ask first, is this the first time you've written for a game?

Rothfuss: It is. It’s going to be the first time. It’s exciting and it’s a little spooky. For me, the exciting part is that it’s new. I get to work with these people who have been doing this for a long time. They know the medium. I’m new to the medium, so I get to learn some stuff. But what I get to bring is, I know story. I've been working on story for a long time, and story is pretty universal stuff. Character and scene and tension. What’s exciting for me is doing some of the things we can do in a video game that you just can’t do in a novel. Exploring all the options of what somebody’s interaction could be in a situation, or what their reaction to a situation could be. It’s just a different type of narrative experience that I've always wanted to turn my hand to.

Is there anything you've found particularly surprising or challenging about writing for a game?

Rothfuss: Well, we haven’t gotten into it very much. The big challenge for me is going to be learning how to work with a team of creative people. Because I’m very used to putting in the hours on writing, but writing a novel is, inherently, a very solitary process, unless you’re co-writing something. If I spend 16 hours alone in my room writing my novel, that’s a productive day. But working with these people, that’s going to be really challenging for me, because I’m used to having all of the control. To be completely honest, I’m worried that I’m going to be the asshole. [laughs] I’m use to being in control of the story. Whatever I say goes. I’m so not in charge of this. I’m the rookie member of the team. I worry that my tendency to always get my way before is going to make me come off as a real ass in this team setting.

"You can’t write a story, a truly compelling narrative, by committee."

McComb: But, fortunately, we do have safeguards against that, because our primary rule is, we’re not jerks. When one of us says something in an e-mail or comes off in a way that seems overbearing or jerky, the rest of us to say, “Okay, did they actually intend to be a jerk?” And if the answer is, “Possibly yes,” then we have to go to a resolution mechanism. Otherwise, it fails the test. [laughs] The actual message that’s being put across here: “Oh, wait, I get it. He’s concerned about the direction of this.”

Rothfuss: I've already talked to Colin and I told him just today… I expressed this concern. I’m very free with my opinion, and I love talking about stories. But I’m really looking for him to tell me. To say things like, “Wow, that is a really interesting idea. Thank you. But we are not doing that.” I’m more than willing to admit that he is the boss. You have to have the captain of the ship. Somebody has to be in charge. You can’t write a story, a truly compelling narrative, by committee. It can’t be a democracy. I can’t see that working.

That actually flows well into my next question. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, but I’m curious what your specific contributions will be, in terms of the story, on the project.

McComb: I’ll start this one. Essentially, what I am doing is providing the main backbone of the story. I’m providing the overall outline, the major story quests, and the major story beats. It’s the spine and the theme that will run throughout the game. What the other writers will be doing is adding the ribs and the musculature and fleshing stuff out. What Pat is going to be doing… I guess I’ll let you describe that.

Rothfuss: You could probably articulate this a little better than me. Obviously, when I agreed to do it, I said, “Yes. I would like to do it. Use me however you think would be best.” That’s what we started with. I knew that I would maybe do a sub-quest or a piece of the story, or maybe create an area and what would happen there. But the more I thought about it… Honestly, it’s when I saw Chris Avellone went up in the Kickstarter [as a stretch goal]. I saw that he was going to do a companion. I thought, “Oh, yeah, the companions.” I remembered all of what happened in so many of these games. So much of the interaction that’s really interesting is between the main character and these companion characters, or between the companion characters themselves. That rolled around in my head for a couple of days before I called Colin and said, “You know, if you wanted me to write a companion, I would be okay with that.” Which is the Midwestern way of saying, "I really, really want to." [laughs]

Yeah, yeah. I lived in the Midwest for 12 years, so I know how that is.

McComb: If you wanted to write up this interview as if we’re coming across as super articulate and smart, that’d be great. [laughs]

Rothfuss: We talked about companions today. I’m really excited to do that. One of the things I’m best with is character. I’m coming to realize that. The ability to have control of this character from beginning to end and tell that character’s story—not the main character, not the main story. But I’m really excited about that. Even more so than my initial participation in the creation of the areas and some of these subplots or story arcs.

I might be getting you in trouble with Colin a little bit here, but would you be willing to tease anything about the area or the companion that you’re writing?

McComb: Sorry, I gotta put the veto on that.

Rothfuss: Kevin [Saunders, Project Director] would write me a very polite e-mail, and when Kevin writes polite e-mails you know that he’s just holding himself back from saying, “You are ruining everything.”

So there's nothing you can share yet, safely?

"It would be my preference to write a female character."

Rothfuss: How about this? Could I express… It would be my preference to write a female character. Would that be a safe thing to say?

McComb: Sure, you can say that. You can tease out a little bit more, but… We don’t want to design on the fly, I guess, is what I’m saying.

Rothfuss: No, absolutely. That, I will say, is what’s really interesting to me. It's the thought of writing a woman. I've been doing more of that in my own, personal writing. Writing maybe a different sort of character than the typical companion that you see sometimes in RPGs. Which I think is going to be perfect, because this RPG is not going to be your typical RPG. It’s going to be really different.

McComb: I do need to say that the character Pat has proposed is very different from anything that we tend to see in RPGs.

Rothfuss: [laughs]