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

T.J. Hafer


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.

T hat 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]

PC Gamer: So, Colin, as someone who's been doing this for a while, what do you see as the area that has progressed the most in terms of game storytelling? At least as long as you've been doing it. And where would you liked to see it go from here?

"I think that game stories have, in some senses, become less involving."

McComb: I'm going to try to word this diplomatically, because I said something unfortunate in a different interview, and I realize that it sounded really jerky afterwards. I had to make some apologies. I think that game stories have, in some senses, become less involving. With the advent of full voice acting, it's really locked a lot of possibilities down, where people could extend things out. The growth of cinematics and movies is actually sort of a handicapping factor. I would like to see us return to an era where text is more important again. This might just be old-fogeyism happening here, but I really like the text-based games. I grew up on the Infocom games. I'm a huge fan of the original Wasteland. Fallout, Fallout 2, the original Baldur's Gates, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment… I guess I had to say that one. [laughs] I would like to see more reading in games and less, “Here's a grand vision.”

That's interesting to hear, because some people have kind of perceived the lack of full voice acting in some of these–not just with you guys, but with Obsidian too–as being a product of not having a big publisher budget. But it sounds like you're saying it might be more of a focused decision.

McComb: In some cases, that's actually very true. When you do voice acting… Yeah, it's a higher budget, but you also have to get that script in early, so you can get your actors early, and you can commit them into the studio. Then, if you discover something has happened with the development of the gameplay, you are shackled unless you can get that same actor back in to voice the parts in the same voice. You're basically stuck with the lines you've got, and you have to find a way to work around that.

Rothfuss: I haven't lived on the inside, but I've been living on the outside playing these games for the better part of 30 years. I think that in some ways, it's not so much the text. Although I do love the text. But when you read something, you have the freedom to read it in any way you want. You can read that voice in your head however you like. It's kind of the same way that, at a certain point, realism becomes counterproductive…

McComb: Let me interrupt here very quickly and let me say that you can see this, for instance, in Lord of the Rings. Gandalf is now Ian McKellen. Tyrion is now Peter Dinklage. We can't see him in any other way.

Rothfuss: Yeah. Similarly, if you think about a great, classic movie. Think about how they did movies back in the day. Some of these real classics, they didn't have a lot of special effects. How did they make a great movie? They had a great script and great actors. If you didn't have both of those, you had nothing. I watched Harvey the other day, and I thought, “All of this is carried on the weight of the words and the performance.” Nowadays they'd have $100 million and they'd put a big CGI rabbit in the end. It would lose so much of the story, because they wouldn't care about the quality of the actor anymore.

They wouldn't care nearly as much about the quality of the story and the words. Because they were focused so much on some of these other elements. So for me, every time I think about this game, I get excited. Because so much of the focus is on the narrative. As humans, we love stories. Every game that you remember, you remember because of the story. Five years later, you don't go, “Wow, do you remember that game that had that great explosion?” You remember narrative things. You remember character things. You remember times you were shocked or amazed or emotionally impacted.

McComb: In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I was totally blown away by the jacking-people-in-their-car mechanic. I had a lot of fun playing as this character with this emergent gameplay. You made up your own story with it as you went along, as opposed to, “Oh, also the flame effects were really great.”

"[Video games are] making the mistakes Hollywood made 30 years ago."

The flip side of that question, that I kind of alluded to: Where do you think game storytelling can go forward here? Where would you like to see it go?

Rothfuss: It's easy for me, because I haven't seen the sausage being made. I honestly don't understand some of the difficulties underneath it all. So I can talk about what I want and not worry too much about how practical it is. But the truth is, video games are such a new genre of storytelling. They're just teenagers at this point. It's so new, and they're making all their bold, brave newbie mistakes. They're making the mistakes Hollywood made 30 years ago. In the same way that comics have matured–because comics are much older than video games–comics are out of their adolescence now, and this brilliant storytelling that's happening with comics is taking advantage of what that medium can do that no other medium can.

Right now, video games are kind of trying to be movies. That's great, but a video game can never be as good a movie as a good movie. I think the real opportunity that's presented is immersion in a story and the interactive nature of that story. Those are the two things that video games can do… They have the opportunity to do so much more of it than movies can. The more they explore those and the better they get at that, the better the games will be. Otherwise they're just going to continue to be second-rate movies.

McComb: I think that we can get deeper into the reactivity. We can explore more mature themes. We don't have to be all about the big guns and the explosions and the "Gee whiz, wow!" effects. We can tell some really deep stories. We can focus on delivering a human experience that people will be interested in and enthralled by, because it will be something that is real. But we can also transport people to another world in which this stuff takes place. It'll help them examine their own lives through that prism. That's where I would like to see stories go in games.

Rothfuss: Yeah. So much of what can happen in a novel can happen in a video game. You have the opportunity for escapism. And don't knock escapism. It sounds a little dirty, but we all need to get away every once in a while. Video games also offer us the benefit of experience without the burden of experience. We can do things in a consequence-free environment. We can live lives other than our own without having to face the long-term consequences of these things. That's incredibly gratifying.

McComb: Although I would point out that I was reading a comment from somebody online today who was saying, “I really hope this is a similar experience to Planescape: Torment, because when I went through that game, some of those choices I made, I would lie in bed at night and think, 'What sort of a person have I become?'”

Rothfuss: I know people talk that way about the Walking Dead game… I still have to play that, but people are saying…

McComb: I love it. It is so good.

"It's a legitimate storytelling avenue. It's not a book. It's not a movie. It's a game."

Rothfuss: I think they have started to walk down that road of… It's that mirrored escapism. It's a different experience.

McComb: It's a legitimate storytelling avenue. It's not a book. It's not a movie. It's a game. I think that people are really starting to get that now, that it's an entirely different experience from either of those things. And it is, at the same time, a completely legitimate experience.

Rothfuss: I think we're fighting to prove that, when we really all agree about it. [laughs] We're trying to prove it, too, because anyone who has played at least a handful of games has had an experience and seen a sliver of how incredible this could be. But we're still figuring out how best to do it.

McComb: Sure. And Walking Dead did it great.

Before we wrap up, do you guys have anything else you wanted to talk about in relation to Torment, the Kickstarter, or game storytelling?

McComb: I would say regards to Kickstarter, I am incredibly grateful and entirely humbled by the support that people are showing to us in this project. We've got four days left at this point. I hope that more people can come aboard so we can expand the depth and the reactivity of the storyline, and really deliver something that's going to be worthy of the Torment name for them. We're going to do that anyway, but every additional bit helps.

We appreciate Colin and Patrick taking the time to talk to us. For more on Torment and the RPG Renaissance, check out our interviews with fellow Tormentors, inXile's Brian Fargo and Obsidian's Chris Avellone . The Torment Kickstarter ends in just about a day as of the writing of this, with some pretty significant stretch goals still on the board.

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