Monday, November 30, 2015

BotRT/Forgiveness - Planescape Torment

There are several paths one might take during Planescape Torment which would probably lead to my having quite a different experience with the game and what conclusions I would have drawn from it. I know that it's possible to be quite an asshole at times and still finish the game, yet how that might fit into the whole aspect of regret and such which is at the center of the game I do not know. Neither do I count my deaths as The Nameless One during my playthrough(s) as canonical and thus I don't need to remember or explain why the current incarnation of The Nameless One doesn't lose hir memories when dying. (perhaps because hir mind is finally completely *empty* from all the deaths, which just might be the reason why zie finally managed to complete hir journey at all?)

Additionally, there are several ways to deal with the final confrontation of The Nameless One's immortality, and I'm going to pretend like there is only one, namely the one colloquially known as the "merging ending" which requires a maxed out wisdom stat. I'm going to do this since the merging ending is considered the best ending (of the three), makes the best story/most thematic sense, and is the ending which the game seems to be nudging you toward if you pay both ludic and narrative attention. I would also like to point out that I am a transhumanist and that the existentialist themes underlying this piece concerning death and acceptance aren't easily translated to the world you and I live in. Although much of the text is written in good faith that we can apply its teachings not only in Planescape Torment but also our daily lives, I do not find it existentially wrong in trying to reach "for immortality". But in all reaching there is a price to be paid, and what those prices might be I'll let you consider in the larger framework of the themes of Planescape Torment.
I would claim that the question for immortality must be tempered with something, but with what exactly, I'll let you explore on your own.

Now, onwards!


Death drive does not reside in Wagner's heroes' longing to die, to find peace in death: it is, on the contrary, the very opposite of dying - a name for the "undead" eternal life itself, for the horrible fate of being caught in the endless repetitive cycle of wandering around in guilt and pain. The ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human life is never "just life", humans are not simply alive, they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life to excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things. This excess inscribes itself into the human body in the guise of a wound which makes the subject "undead", depriving him of the capacity to die. Only when this wound is healed can the hero die in peace.

- In Defense of Lost Causes/The Violence of Subtraction, Slavoj Zizek

Forgiveness. One gives it not because someone deserves it, but because they need it. One gives it not because one deserves the relief that comes from forgiving, but because that relief is essential. One receives forgiveness not as a payment, but as a gift. One asks for it not as an act of cowardice, but as an act of bravery. We all need to forgive. We all have things to atone for. We all crave absolution. But what about justice?

For The Nameless One, our Hero, there is more to reconsiliation than the act of forgiveness. In the Multiverse of the Planescape setting, it would seem that history doesn't absolve all sins, and Alfred Korzybskis adage that "God may forgive your sins, but your nervous system won't" has its metaphysical counterpart – the flesh knows it suffers even when the mind has forgotten. In Planescape, death and meaning are two separate things and spirit and matter are one and the same – but not for you. For you, karma accumulates through the wounds on both body and mind. For you, scars are guilt manifest, and so we wear the Symbol of Torment, always.


In Planescape Torment, we inhabit the body of The Nameless One, The One Of Many (names); The Broken One; The One Whom Life Holds Prisoner; Restless One; The Bringer Of Shadows; The Wounded One; One Who Dies Many Deaths; One Both Blessed And Cursed – a slave desiring slaves of hir own more than freedom itself. We sought to escape death itself, and in doing so we have not only become a ghost haunting the past – each incarnation awakening without memories of what the earlier incarnations have done1 – but also created ghosts of the past which now seek their vengeance upon us. What are these shadowy creatures which have been released upon the world and haunt us relentlessly? Old encounters, old companions (old lovers?) from lives long past. What they all share is that they've all died in our stead so that we might continue our escape from death and our recognition of past sins. It becomes this spiral which we witness the consequences of at every turn in the game, bear witness to and also perpetuate. The shadows that torment us cannot forgive or forgot2, and the shell that is us forgets every time we are further implicated in the vortex(t) that is our own doing and undoing. Yet the flesh continues to suffer, the unhealthy mind in our unhealthy body falling apart, and in knowing, the body is inscribed with further symbols of torments.


You mortals are like wasps. You build your lives/nests from the slimmest of branches, and when the wind shakes your home/life free, you seek to sting the wind to death. Instead of realizing your foolish mistakes, attempting to repair the damage you have caused yourselves, and learning from your experience, you bring harm to any who have the misfortune to blunder near you in your time of pain and distress. My advice to you – and to all mortals: Stop acting like an insect and start acting sentient.
- O3

"As one door closes, another one opens", a saying which fits the infinite multiverse and its paradoxical center Sigil, City of Doors, especially well. It is this principle of balance which holds the planes themselves together and ensure that the eternal Blood Wars between the fiends of the Lower Planes (the chaotic Tanar'ri, the Lawful Baatezu and the Neutral Yugoloth – the last of which act as an intermediator between the former two) will continue ad infinitum. It is this principle of magick balance which necessitates temporal beings with limited capabilities to make existential choices, to sacrifice one thing for another, as is witnessed by Night Hag Ravel Puzzlewell's4 insanity yet incomprehensible understanding of the machinations of the planes. Our tragic Hero made such sacrifices; in exchange for life, death; for namelessness – safety and oblivion. Being afraid of hir true place in the multiverse, The One Whom Life Holds Prisoner, with the help of the Night Hag's shadow magic, tried hir hand at being an omnipotent insect and thus took the alternative name of Sigil, The Cage5, to heart, and made it hir permanent home, where each opening of a door lead to further closed ones. Having realized that names have power and can be used as weapons by others, The One of Many failed to realize that the magick counterpart to naming is identity, will-to-power, integrity/authenticity and in the end, atonement.


"I know that you, like a fly, rise up from the wreckage of your old shell, buzz about for a time, and curl up and die at the window of truth. You bumble about the pane, seeking the light without any plan to your actions, and fall exhausted when you fail. You alight on others to feed from them for a time, and move on with no regard to them. I have watched you come here and listened to your wor-ds, and watched you move away no wiser. Will you learn from your mistakes, seeker?"
- O

Who are these old companions whom Restless One feeds off of, these poor souls who have had the misfortune to be caught in our grinding cosmic wheel of negative externalities? They are countless, and during Planescape Torment we get to see but the top of the iceberg in the sea that is our karmic burden, but there are some whom we get to know better, and in the end get to know us as well. There is the Armor-Without-A-Body, Vhailor, an undead former Mercykiller and self-proclaimed elemental of Justice whom a former incarnation trapped – "There is some link between him and justice itself, and that gives him power even over immortals such as us". There is the Flying Skull Morte who is all bone-box and jokes, all lithany of curses, all lies (lies which are partly responsible for the fate of The Bringer Of Shadows, but also the death of others, as the fact that zie was taken by The Nameless One from the Pillar of Skulls bears witness to). There is the pyromaniacal mage and Burning Man Ignus – " let all creation burn for I cannot die" – whom a former incarnation was a brutal teacher to, subjecting the young Ignus to many torments in order to teach hir the mastery of fire. There is a Githzerai of Limbo, Dak'kon, who bears the scars of one who has travelled the Planes, having had a crisis of faith which forestalled hir taking up a religion The Nameless One basically invented in order to control hir. And there is the ghost who haunts the mortuary where every incarnation is born anew, Deionarra zie whose name the thieves of the mind continue to steal from our memory and whose love for The Nameless One was used against. Having realized that Deionarra's devotion for hir would transcend even death itself, a former incarnation sacrificed Deinoarra in the Fortress of Regrets so that hir tormented soul could act as The Nameless One's scout in that place where no living thing could survive for long. Adding to our list of companions during the game are also three ones which have no prior relationship to us. There is Nordom, a backward Mordon, who before being exposed to the raw elemental chaos of Limbo, gaining individuality and joining The Nameless One's party and gaining a sense of beloninging, was a regular Mordon (a mechanical creature from the logical plane of Mechanus where law and order are predominant). There is the tiefling (part human, part fiend) Annah who has issues of dependency, having the constant need to point out that hir partnership with The Nameless One isn't a sign of weakness. And there is the chaste Succubus Fall-From-Grace, a tanar'ri that was sold to the Baatezu and had to suffer years of mental torture before winning hir freedom.

It is evident that both our loyal subjects and newfound friends all have their own burdens to carry – why else would they be so willing to carry ours? Our past incarnations did not only create and thrive in suffering, but attracted torment and people who suffered in one way or another. Our torment attracted people who wished to forget their past sins or sins committed unto them and tried to shoulder their pain in whatever way possible; by distrusting – by trusting blindly; by forgetting pain – by thriving in it; by lashing out at others – by inflicting pain unto themselves. Some – or all – might have even longed to be forgiven, or to forgive and move on.

"When a mind does not know itself, it is flawed. When a mind is flawed, the man is flawed. When a man is flawed, that which he touches is flawed. It is said that what a flawed man sees, his hands make broken."
- Dak'kon

So why did the final reunion with our mortality come to pass? Why this time around did we decide to change our fate, our nature, as it were? It was through knowing and accepting the past – to tell others the truth that is ours to claim and share, and to demand the truth about ourselves and those close to us from others, thus becoming closer yet to them in the process – that our wound could be healed. By learning the origins of our immortality and its consequences, we got to know regret, and through knowing regret, we gained the courage to challenge our Ultimate Shadow, The Transcendent One, our mortality in corporeal form which resided at the Fortress of Regrets. By conquering our shadows neither by force nor by escape, we came to know ourselves as beings-toward-death and realized that life is never ours and therefore cannot be taken away from us by unjust means. As beings-toward-death, we realized that no matter the outcome of a life, every life is both singular and universal – one soul, one life, and that's what we get to work with, that's the finitude under eternity which we can act upon and know.

But before we arrive at the The Transcendent One's lair (whom we have a showdown of words with at the very very end) we have to find the Fortress of Regrets, have a heart-to-heart with our companions, merge with our past incarnations, reunite with a former lover, and remember our mortal life and name.


Going back to the mortuary where our current incarnation awoke for the first time, we peel a piece of our skin and inscribe a regret into it, turning the flesh into the door and key to entering the prison built of regrets and sorrow where the shadows themselves have gone mad. There, just as Deionarra predicted, we meet enemies three – shades of evil, of good, and of neutrality given life and twisted by the laws of the planes. The shades are past incarnations, whom we speak to and come to understand. Having brought with us the Bronze Sphere, a sensory stone and repository of our mortal memories and last experience of the first of us, and merging with the incarnations – both good and bad – we see the Bronze Sphere which we did not have access to and indeed believed was a useless trinket we sought to fool a blind man6 with, in a new light:

“I know what you are thinking — but it is not the case. You think that knowing the mind of the first of us will somehow help you here, in this place. It will not.” As
I held the sphere up this time and examined it, I felt the memories of the first of my incarnations stirring within me, but it was not an insistent or driving force — it was calm, like the thoughts of a man walking across a great distance to speak to a friend he hadn’t seen in ages. As I felt his presence in my mind, I saw the sphere in a different light — not as ugly, or hideous, but as something precious, like a newborn child — the sphere was the repository of my last moments, before I met Ravel on the Gray Waste and asked the impossible of her. I knew why I asked her. And I knew that all I needed to do was touch the surface of the sphere with both hands and feel regret, and the stone would open itself to me.

And suddenly, through the torrent of regrets, I felt the first incarnation again. His hand, invisible and weightless, was upon my shoulder, steadying me. He didn’t speak, but with his touch, I suddenly remembered my name. …and it was such a simple thing, not at all what I thought it might be, and I felt myself suddenly comforted. In knowing my name, my true name, I knew that I had gained back perhaps the most important part of myself. In knowing my name, I knew myself, and I knew, now, there was very little I could not do. The first incarnation’s hand was gone from my shoulder, and he was watching me with a slight smile.

Having learned our name, the symbol of Torment seems brittle somehow, as if it was only barely holding itself to our skin. Unconsciously, we, "The Nameless One" reach out and peel it from our arm. It gives way with a slight resistance, like pulling off a scab, and as we hold the symbol, we know we can harness its power.
After this sequence with the bronze sphere, we meet Deionarra one final time. Telling hir that we regret what we did to hir and that hir suffering has become ours leads to the largest experience bonus in the game. We have our farewell and ending the conversation, zie says "I forgive what you have done. I shall wait for you in death’s halls, My Love.

We are ready.


- The Transcendent One

Oh how our imagined immortality struggles to convince us of hir superiority – mind over matter all the way to damnation. But however far apart we might have been, we are entangled in the same mesh and are of one and the same, albeit one relives nothing but the immanent present and the other oversees everything but engages with nothing. As we lost spirit, The Transcendent One lost substance, and we were both worse off for it, even if both were willing to deny it for a long time, and the part of us which had been separated from our being-toward denies it still. It still believes itself to be omnipotent and threats us with all kinds of things, like those gremlins nagging us on about how worthless we are and how we'll never amount to anything because of all kinds of reasons; our pathetic actions are crushed beneath the waves of eternity; our agency is an illusion; nothing can change our nature – and so on. It never dares to realize our powers or the potential of knowing oneself "A NAME IS A CLOAK OF LETTERS THROWN UPON A MAN. IT MEANS NOTHING".

But we know different.

We know that the lack of names is a cloak thrown upon oneself when afraid of showing ones true self, as in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. There, the protagonist loses a bargain over hir secret name which is discovered when zie lets hirself enjoy dancing and singing unguarded from prying spies. Perhaps if the name wasn't a secret to begin with there would be no need to protect it, and our imp would be free to dance and sing outside the confines of hir home. In knowing our original name (or face7), we have the strength not to give in to the demands of the Transcendent One, threats which consist of returning to amnesia and continuing to feed hir tormented souls, stuck in the wheel of suffering.

Through the final conversation it becomes clear that the Transcendent One is very much like Rumpelstiltskin in that zie too is a prisoner to hir home, the Fortress, and due to our shared bond The Nameless one suffers a death of the mind while the Transcendent One suffers a death of the body/flesh. It would seem that The Transcendent One is doomed to a slow oblivion and that The Fortress of Regrets will eventually be hir silent tomb. And thus, The Nameless One makes a decision: "
If we become one, we shall suffer. We shall be damned. It is better that we shall go on to further torments than the multiverse suffering because of us." Through our capacity to harbor suffering without reflecting it back onto the world8, we merge with our lost immortality. By suspending our judgment of death and our fate and thus forgiving and accepting forgiveness from the universe, we become one. But what about justice? Vhailor saw that we had not only the mark of torment but also the mark of justice upon us, and claimed that although we had been punished already, it would not save us from future punishment. When is enough, enough, then? This is a question hard to answer because Planscape Torment ends when our final judgment begins. But what we do know is that there is a place reserved for ones such as us on the lower planes – the Blood Wars – and that the crimes we have commited are stronger than any cage we might build. It is mercy then that there are other things which no cage can separate, no cage can take away from us, and some cages might even enable. Love is such a thing, as Fall-From-Grace says to us in hir final farewell. Freedom is, paradoxically, another9.

It is with a distinct feeling of certainty (a nod, even, as we hear Deionarra's voice and grab an axe) that this is where we're supposed to be that we set out to join the Blood Wars. This would seem like a very bleak thing looking at it from a surface level. And perhaps this best of endings isn't good in the conventional sense, but there is a silver lining to it. Trias, a fallen angel whom we convinced of going back to the Upper Planes in order to be properly forgiven and judged (thus undoing hir banishment) told us that "
A Man's mortality is a compass that points his way in life", implying that we had been without a functioning compass this whole time, only glimmers of it left. And yet we managed to assemble the scattered pieces of our compass – how? With the help of our peers and companions, our place in the world at large where we can orient and mirror ourselves. And though all our companions suffered and perhaps hadn't their compasses or authenticity intact, we helped each-other out as best as we could, and honestly, what other realistic option is there? In a sense we are all wounded heroes, ghosts bound to people who precipitated our haunting them (even if it is ourselves we hurt), undead wandering the places where wrongdoings occured. It is this suffering which unites us if we are willing to share the burden and live in each-other's haunting grounds.


Absence of Name = Absence of Identity = Absence of Purpose = Absence of Place in Multiverse = Null State = Loss. Nordom existed in State, Null, until Subject (Unidentified, Nameless) attached identity to Nordom. Null Identity, Null Purpose, Null Place equates to ‘Loss.’ ”
- Nordom

The idea of justice as not only something which upholds societal laws and makes possible civil discourse but also something which respects the citizens of that society by acknowledging their "compasses" is not without precedent. In Crime and Punishment,
illness untangles Raskolnikov because the crime zie commits isolates hir from specific humans and community but also from humanity as a category and a way of recognizing hirself as a human being with a moral compass. As a result of this isolation, Raskolnikov feels that zie hirself is nothing, and if so, others are also nothing (to hir), thus zie can kill with impunity – and so the circle can in principle continue forever. It is only when at last Raskolnikov is punished that zie can find peace, and the first fresh air in a very long time that Raskolnikov breathes is in prison, the “square yard of space” which zie feared the whole time yet in a very literal meaning lead to hir salvation. Raskolnikov too found that there are things which no cage can separate, and that there are cages of the body as well as of the mind.

In Planescape Torment, a life without laws which bind us lead to torment and bad karma. As the Pillar of Skulls puts it: meaning and death is what we seek, and for normal men they are separate things (because they have their mortality and thus compass of meaning intact), but for us – one and the same. In order to reconnect with humanity and the planes themselves, no matter how much we forgive and are forgiven, we must also stand accountable for our transgressions – forgiveness isn't just something given or received, but nurtured and grown through responsible actions. Having merged with The Transcendent One, we now have the ability to command over life and death itself, but what makes us truly powerful is the way in which we say our goodbyes and accept our long-awaited judgment.
And accepting judgment is not really about being punished but about being held accountable. It's not about good or bad but about karma, where punishment is incidental, accountability is a must, and suffering is optional. Accountability is about naming wrong-doings and taking the necessary steps to ensure that they won't be repeated, rather than blaming someone for the wrong-doings. In a wider sense, karma isn't even about atonement per se, but about understanding, about knowing. We part ways knowing that as of now we are at balance with the universe itself, and the air we breathe is the air of someone who is once again part of the circle of life which binds all of us mortal, and moral, creatures.

I know of justice, Vhailor. I temper it with experience and wisdom, and when justice is tempered with those two truths, it becomes stronger. I know of mercy and forgiveness as well, for without them, the Planes would be a much crueler place.”
- The Nameless One

We might think that the universe is unfair in its way it decides what is just and not. Could not mercy have been shown toward The Nameless One? Well, just as the Gods aren't always necessarily in the right just because they are Gods, the multiverse itself isn't the only scale which can be used to judge right and wrong. Whatever punishment the planes decide to administer, we finite creatures who live on a much smaller scale can temper with mercy and forgiveness. The Nameless One finds Vhailor's fate tragic, and in the end traps hir once again, this time by freeing hir. Zie does this by reaching the aporia of Vhailor's brickwork by means of showing Vhailor hir circular reasoning, which Vhailor cannot accept because hir whole claims of justice and law were based upon objective standards and not axiomatic, existential choices. The Nameless One's words were in one way a greater betrayal than what hir previous incarnation had done because they had little of justice in it. But they had much of mercy, which is just as important.

The Nameless One extends mercy to several people during the course of hir journey. Zie extends it toward Morte by forgiving hir for the crimes zie commited against hir. Zie extends it toward Trias by not killing hir and and telling hir to admit error and beg forgiveness among hir peers. And zie extends it toward hirself by letting Deionarra (perhaps the person who had the least reason to do so) forgive hir. And I believe that the last of those mercies just might be the hardest one to extend, that the hardest place to reach just might be within. Because when you can't forgive yourself for your mistakes, then it becomes imperative not to ever be wrong, which is impossible, and so one either denies the wrongdoing and cast shadows unto others, or rationalizes the wrongdoing as being ones true nature; one starts believing oneself
being wrong instead of doing wrong, which only leads to further self-hate and wrongdoings. And even in this position there will be people willing to extend mercy and perhaps even love you, but despising oneself one thinks that those people must be in the wrong, and being in the wrong they just might deserve some punishment themselves! Forgiving someone else in that case might be a way toward forgiving oneself because it opens up the possibilitity for belonging and mercy. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic (named), mortal selves, and thus our belonging is contingent upon self-acceptance, but it's not a question of simple case-and-effect, but of spirals and swirls for which there are no ready-made answers or cut-and-dried schematics.

But what about justice?! I'd say it's intertwined with the notion of mercy, as forgiveness comes with the ability to allow oneself to make mistakes
and presenting oneself accountable for them. As a child who is on the verge of becoming a moral human being, we might test the limits of our parents unconditional love, trying to pinpoint where our actions turn into a social contract. Through the process of maturity (and trial-and-error, to be honest), we build our compass and learn that when our parents are really angry at us, they not only yell at us using our given name, but also adding our family name to give weight to their complaint (at least in Sweden they might do!). It is generally through our place in a community and genealogical roots as moral beings which we can invoke moral frameworks and remind people of their place in it.

If we return to the imp Rumpelstilzchen, we find that hir secret name
in German literally means "little rattle stilt", which could be understood as a little, shaky post or pole which provides support for a structure, namely identity. Absence of Identity = Absence of Purpose = Absence of Place in Multiverse = Null State = Loss. There are many examples of the power of names in magical discourses, one being that in some cultures mothers will bestow a secret name on their children which only they shall know, so that the child will be shielded against being enspelled – from everyone except the mother, that is. The secret of that name makes it so that one can be a poltergeist and strike from a distance. But with being a poltergeist comes the price of being undead/demonic, and ones name becomes impossible for humans to pronounce and hold accountable. Names, just as our genealogical roots, bind both ways. We might forget our names and the names of others, but let us at least not forget how to utter those few words which both hurt and heal so much – "forgive me", and "you are forgiven".


I've done my share and I've come to regret it. Now... If I could give you a free piece of advice it would be: Whatever you do in life, make sure you can forgive yourself.”
- Harlot


"I have spoken with you before, and always you forget. Your endless quest to discover yourself ends always in your amnesia. You draw close to the truth and recoil. Let us hope that you have the strength to endure your existence.

Our past lives trap us not only because of the tormentors we ourselvs have tormented, but because of earlier incarnations which set out to lure in future incarnations who might seek to atone for their sins into dead ends.

"I am a letter in the divine alphabet. Understanding me leads to understanding existence. I am writ in the true names of half of everything. My being encompasses truth. I am mathematic, organic, metaphysic."

"She was a maker of toys and puzzles, a solver of problems that didn’t need solving. She decided that Sigil, the Cage, was the largest puzzlebox of all, and set herself to undo it — to let in the armies of fiends at her disposal, no doubt, to upset the balance of the city and turn the entire burg into a charnel house."
- Lothar

The tale of Ravel Puzzlewell, frightener of children, begins and ends with a question: "
What can change the nature of a man?” It is said that zie put the question to the Lady of Pain; not directly, but shouted it to Sigil itself, daring for the Lady to answer. When no reply was forthcoming, zie sought to unravel the City of Doors itself through means of "freeing" The Lady of Pain from hir cage as protector of the City of Doors and Locks. Ravel received no answer other than banishment. Thought to have been fallen beneath the Lady of Pain's shadow and penned in the dead-book, in reality zie was mazed, lost in a pocket between dimensions for The Nameless One to eventually find.

As Dak'kon says: "The city [Sigil] exists in opposition to itself. It has set itself apart from the planes, yet it seeks to be everywhere at once. Its walls are doors, yet it keeps these doors locked. Such an existence tells of a thing that does not know itself. In not knowing itself, it is flawed."

"Of course it was useless to him
[Pharrod]. One cannot dodge fate so easily.” He looked at me, irritated. “However, nothing motivates a man faster than telling him what he seeks will save his soul from eternal damnation."
- Practical Incarnation


Those who cannot feel their feelings are damned to act them out.

Evey (from V for Vendetta) could tell you all about that!

Blogs of the Round Table: November 2015: ‘Forgiveness’

BotRT Theme:
How do gameshandle FORGIVENESS? What characters have sought forgiveness and through what narrative or ludic means? Is forgiveness something games struggle to communicate and how might they go about it differently? Has a game helped you forgive someone? Have you ever empathized with characters in need of or offering forgiveness? In games where it’s an option, do you seek forgiveness for your player characters?

No comments:

Post a Comment