The Let's Play Archive

Torment: Tides of Numenera

by TheGreatEvilKing

Part 51: Bonus Update #4: Damned From The Start

Bonus Update #4: Damned From The Start

So, fair warning, this is kinda longer than I intended, and not really relevant to the playthrough, but I'm gonna take out some anger on this game. LP is done otherwise, I won't be upset if you skip this. I feel like I've touched on most of these points in the LP, this is just a summation.

In the Part I Postmortem, I laid out my thesis that this game was damned as soon as the developers decided they wanted to tell a spiritual story of hubris in the Numenera setting, a setting characterized by having no room for gods and the only acts of worship coming from scientific ignorance. As we have seen, nearly every aspect of this game fails in some significant way, from the asinine combat to the the prose abortion to even the generic, uninspired music i didn't talk about because it was bad. The plot is confusing and idiotic. The game is unable to provide any commentary on its central issues - from the stated themes of legacy, abandonment, and mystery to the unintended themes such as the nature of gods and if one can truly transcend mortality. Part of it is that these writers just don't have the literary chops to actually comment meaningfully on any of this. Colin McComb and Patrick Rothfuss' most famous works are just male power fantasies about getting superhuman powers, laying sick burns on high school bullies and sticking your penis in attractive women. Asking these guys to tackle real questions wise philosophers have legitimately struggled with is going to be an exercise in futility and frustration, because these are hard questions that are not easily answered. Herman Melville was a great author. Melville didn't sit down and call Moby Dick forth from the deeps by an act of will and genius, but after studying the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton deeply to see what those authors had to offer and why what they wrote worked. Socrates talked to nearly everyone in Athens, and even then famously concludes he can't figure out what justice is or whether the just man is happy or unhappy. The "what does one life matter" question comes from Colin McComb's midlife crisis by his own admission, not from any deep philosophical studies. It's clear they've run out of actual answers by the first act of the game, when they just start endlessly rehashing the Trolley Problem. Is a life lived in virtue worth more than a life lived in sin? I don't know. This is something actual philosophers struggle with. Tides of Numenera doesn't know either, as it doesn't bother to examine this despite being all about what one life matters. Who defines the value of a life? God? You? Society? Posterity? I don't know. The game never bothers to explore this. In a setting like Numenera with nanomachine demons and aliens and robots, do their lives matter too? No clue! We're not going to answer this! The game never even bothers to construct a framework on which lives can be judged. How about beliefs? Belief was important in the original Torment. Are there any beliefs worth dying for? That would be pertinent to our question, but we're just not going to answer that either. The game refuses to expand on anything or probe deeply into why you would judge a life to matter or not matter.

Man vs What?

I'll start things off by quoting the Tides vision document, which is worth a read for how much never got translated through and how many of the ideas are bad. I want to open with their prologue.

This is really what they sent their backers for donations posted:

“How did you find me?” he gasped. He conjured a wall of energy between himself and the creature. “I hid myself from you!”

The shadow crept toward him like a slow-moving flood. “You drew me with your creations. You drew me with the suffering you create. As you draw me even now.” A curling tendril of smoke crept under
the defensive ward. The tendril flared into solidity and tore away the screen. “I have come to judge you, mortal.”

The man backed away down the high-ceilinged hall. “I am no mortal. I am a god now.” His voice, though shaky, rang with confidence. The man held up his hand again, marshaling powers against the inky blackness. Another wall of force blocked the advancing death, and a lambent blue light rose from the man’s skin. The light pulsed around him for a moment, his concentration slipping. With a visible effort he drew the light back inside.

“Age grants neither divinity nor wisdom,” the shadow hissed. “Your few years spent skittering across the face of life have taught you nothing but fear for your end.” The new screen fell, torn into wispy tatters. “And your end comes now.”

Tell me that's not a Man vs God story. Now, it's ineptly written. The Changing God seems to represent the light of human reason attempting to elevate itself to the level of God, while the Sorrow is the avenging angel sent to punish him for his hubris. Any good character conflict is going to be a clash of ideas, not just a clash of men, but this is written like it escaped from a Dungeons and Dragons game. "Wall of Force" is even a Dungeons and Dragons spell, for fuck's sake! I don't care about the high-ceilinged hall, clean up some of the adjectives. You're far too focused on the powers being used in battle rather than the actual ideas your game purports to explore. I digress.

The problem is that this collides with the materialist worldview and collapses. The Sorrow is portrayed as an implacable enemy hunting the Changing God for his transgressions against divine law in becoming immortal and raising the dead, powers traditionally reserved for God. The problem is no other sinner gets punished for this - Omahdon is free to raise as many anime women as he needs to get his dick wet. Sylph is allowed to be an immortal sex robot with no downsides. Callistege gets to ascend to godhood for five minutes before the game forgot about it (and if you don't kill the Sorrow, she stays that way). These are peanuts, however, compared to the problem presented by the Sorrow itself.

The Sorrow is presented as a powerful divine being, who has the divine authority to wield the Tides - the Law - to punish transgressors against God's will. This game is able to sustain this illusion for a fairly long time via vignettes like the Sorrow hunting Inifere for his sins or the sculptor describing the Sorrow as beautiful. This collapses as soon as the developers actually have to justify an angel in a world where, per the Numenera setting books, there is no religious and spiritual significance, and it begins as soon as the Sorrow opens its mouth. The Sorrow tells us by existing we have increased the amount of suffering in the world, but the endgame omniscient narration tells us we were remembered for our selflessness and wisdom and healers everywhere held us up as a role model. It then tells us that we are the first to hear it speak for millennia - but it spoke to Zaofi the sculptor at the beginning of the game. The Sorrow is immediately described as wearing the souls of its tortured victims like a cloak - but then it tries to get Oom to kill itself, claiming that this would be merciful oblivion and not punishment while torturing its victims for eternity.

2 Corinthians 11:13-15 posted:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise that his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.

It's like no one proofread this ending. The Sorrow appears. She claims to be a wise guardian with the authority to pronounce judgement from on high, and then immediately starts lying her ass off about basic, easily verifiable things. I can't blame players for not remembering any of this stuff, because this game has a lot of words and really needed an editor, but if for some reason you got really invested in the story you can start putting the pieces together.

Then the Sorrow takes off the mantle of divine authority and tramples it faster than Patrick Rothfuss' pizza man praising his board game. I don't know how the writers expected the players to react to the revelation that this was just a murder robot built by rich assholes to stop sins like...constructing buildings?

Given that there were soldiers fighting for their lives against the Sorrow it's reasonable to assume that the Sorrow didn't euthanize a willing population, but committed genocide at the behest of these "masters".

Really. That's all we get for their sins. They used the Tides to build buildings, and for that their masters unleashed an evil murder robot to kill all their people. It's like they didn't understand the story they were trying to write at all - at best, the Sorrow is a false idol keeping humanity down. Hell, if you have high red and blue tide, that can be your answer you use to kill the thing! It's completely incoherent! I legitimately do not think the writers of this game read anything that's not inbred nerd literature, or they would have some inkling of the symbolism they are invoking here. I can tell from Rothfuss' writings that he doesn't know what he's talking about, and I suspect from Colin McComb expressing great admiration for Rothfuss' genius works that McComb hasn't either.

The Vision Document, again posted:

Torment will be irreverent and entertaining, turning classic RPG tropes on their heads when possible.

Oh. Tvtropes logic. That...explains a lot.

For the record, the other endings are all some variant of kneeling before the false idol and letting it kill your family and/or yourself. Really.

The thing is, this could have worked wonderfully well as some kind of Kurt Vonnegut style joke, where the entire buildup is that none of this supposedly deep and personal quest actually matters and that the Changing God wasn't some great sinner, but a guy who fucked up and couldn't get his name in the sudoers file. The moral would be that none of this is about you, and that sometimes things just go wrong and that's the nature of the world, and you could play it seriously or for laughs like Vonnegut would. I would have a lot more respect for the writers if they had done that, but that would require them to actually be self aware about what they wrote, but they are convinced they created a story with "deep personal themes"

Deep Personal Themes

This phrase is all over the marketing materials and Colin's videos, and is announced with the pride of a three year old who shit in the toilet instead of on the floor. It's fair to say that the writing as a whole is desperately trying to ape what the developers think of as "good" writing, with incoherent metaphors that seem deep and serve to trick the reader by substituting a satisfying comparison with baffled incomprehension. It's about the appearance of depth, not actually conveying any kind of deep philosophical information but I digress. The authors are insistent that they've addressed the themes of Legacy, Abandonment, and Mystery and had something deep to say about them. Now, I can't dispute that they haven't included instances of these themes - you leave a legacy behind, the Changing God abandoned you and maybe Miika, and their are unimportant mysteries everywhere like "how did this man become a technolich" and "what happened to inXile's editing staff?"

The problem is that none of these themes are ever addressed in a consistent or satisfying way. Much is made of handling the legacy of the past, but we don't seem to gain anything or learn any lessons by it. The Sorrow is a legacy handled down by some genocidal assholes, but there's no way to learn from the mistakes of the past and transcend the Dalad masters' bullshit.

The game likes to talk about how we are forging our legacy with the Dominant Tides system, but the Dominant Tides come up so rarely it's not worth tracking. The big decision of the Tides is...what one-liner you spout off to the Sorrow, which determines whether or not you are able to kill it or you get cutscene killed. If you choose the endings where you submit to the Sorrow's "might makes right" philosophy this crap doesn't come up at all aside from the Sorrow whining that your choice doesn't match your previous actions. The game wants you to consider the value of a life, and the legitimate answer - that we picked - is that every life matters, but the ending choices are all variations on which version of mass murder you are going to commit. Resisting gets you more mass murder, and even the option where you decide to just not make a choice and leave things as they are gets all the castoffs killed. The game is trying to tell a story all about the legacy you chose to leave, but that legacy is foisted on you not by God or fate, but by some asshole's murder robot that's stronger than you are.

A Eurogamer Interview with the developers posted:

Oh and talking of the Sorrow, did you know she is non-organic? "She - sorry, it - is a biomechanical creation that is essentially a generated energy field," explains McComb. A kind of extremely advanced security program to protect the Tides, which are the currents of human emotion Castoffs are destroying.

Really. We don't even have any kind of indication that our efforts are doomed like the prophecy in Oedipus Rex, the first thing we learn from the Specter is that we can actually fight the Sorrow if we fix the resonance chamber, and the game portrays defeating the Sorrow as the end goal of our quest rather than a Norse mythology style heroic but futile stand against our doom. The game has nothing coherent to say about legacy.

Abandonment is another one of Colin's beloved themes, but the game has virtually nothing to say about that. As the Last Castoff, you were supposedly abandoned by the Changing God - but later we learn the Changing God was trying to download into us before he was killed. Rhin ran away from her parents, she wasn't abandoned. Oom was abandoned not because no one liked him, but because his civilization was wiped out by the Sorrow. The word abandonment implies that the responsible party deliberately left the abandoned one, and that is just not really the case. It's not even clear that the Changing God abandoned his castoffs until they rose against him in rebellion. The only conclusion I can draw is that the remote writers decided not to actually touch this theme and just kinda drew extra trolley illustrations that someone angrily threw in the trash for not trusting in this game's writing. I won't spend any more time on this, the writers clearly haven't.

The last theme is mystery, and reflecting back on this game (and reading an RPG Codex thread, to be fair) Numenera has very little mystery to it. There are a ton of incidental mysteries that this game wants you to think are significant, mostly involving flavors of extradimensional bullshit. The main plot isn't mysterious in the slightest. Who are we? The last child of the Changing God. Who is the Changing God? A man who studied ancient science until he mastered eternal life by body hunting. Why is the Sorrow after the two of you? The Sorrow disapproves of the science the Changing God is using. Boom, we learn all that in the first ten minutes of the game. The rest of the plot unfolds similarly. What are we trying to do? Repair the resonance chamber. Why do we want to do that? The Resonance Chamber can stop the Sorrow. Who do we ask about that? One of our first party members we meet after the intro knows a cult who knows a girl who knows the scientist who can fix it - and does! The game tries to pretend its mysterious with things like the baker and the levy, but when stripped down to its bare essentials the Last Castoff spends the entire plot following the Specter's injunction from the beginning of the game. The only real mystery is whether The Last Castoff is the Changing God, and quite frankly that is not so much a mystery as left to the reader's interpretation, something the developers do not believe the player of this game capable of doing.

We can discuss the other themes that emerge from the work, such as whether a man can transcend mortality, but what's the point? The Changing God rose from becoming a simple man to an immortal being who constructed an afterlife for those he found worthy and who could literally edit reality to suit his whim.

The Iliad, on Zeus posted:

Come, try me, immortals, so all of you can learn.
Hang a great golden cable down from the heavens,
lay hold of it, all you gods, all goddesses too:
you can never drag me down from sky to earth,
not Zeus, the highest, mightiest king of kings,
not even if you worked yourselves to death.
But whenever I'd set my mind to drag you up,
in deadly earnest, I'd hoist you all with ease,
you and the earth, you and the sea, all together,
then loop that golden cable round a horn of Olympus,
bind it fast and leave the whole world dangling in mid-air—
that is how far I tower over the gods, I tower over men."

The game doesn't want to engage with this. The Changing God is described as someone who put himself through time loops and black holes and whatnot because he could, who has been man, woman, robot, and alien (I know, it's sci-fi, but still), who has perceived more than any human alive, offers salvation to his followers, and is described by Aardiriis as someone who could single-handedly bring Numenera out of the dark ages if he weren't pursued by the Sorrow. What keeps him human? Numenera's answer is to shrug slightly and move on to the next sidequest about trolleys.

Anyway, on that note, I am finally done with this game.


Macbeth posted:

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.