Return to the City of Doors – An interview with Colin McComb

It’s been years since our immortal hero first set out on the search for his lost identity. His unusual journey, spanning many planes and involving a number of unconventional characters, made it possible for us to take a glimpse at the wonders of the multiverse and engage in battles in which words were our only – but ever so powerful – weapon.

Today we’re going back to the City of Doors for a nostalgic conversation with Colin McComb – one of the creators of the Planescape setting, designer on Planescape: Torment and author of the Oathbreaker fantasy series.

GS: Colin, you’d worked on numerous books and adventures for the Planescape setting, you took part in the development of Torment’s storyline, and lately you’ve been involved in the designing of a post-nuclear world of tomorrow. Could you tell us in brief what were your responsibilities on the Torment team and what are you responsible for now as a writer on Wasteland 2?

Colin McComb: In 1996-99, my title was „game designer”. Now, that title would probably be adjusted to „narrative designer”; though I was responsible for some mechanical work and some scripting, I was primarily responsible for developing characters, quests, and some items.

My work for Wasteland 2 is very similar to that. Right now I’m working on fleshing out a very polite cannibal cult and making sure there’s plenty to do and experience in my particular area. I think there’s a good depth of reactivity here, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays when it’s implemented. One of the great things about the preproduction lead-time we have is that we’ll have time to make necessary changes and get everything working just right.

GS: You’ve written books, you’ve written games  –  which poses the bigger challenge? Do you prefer to create worlds that come to life solely in the reader’s imagination or interactive ones offering the support of graphics and sound?

Colin: They’re both challenging, but in different ways. Still, I think I’m going to have to give the edge to CRPGs, because in addition to developing compelling characters, an interesting plot, and narrative threads for other supporting actors, you need to develop a game that reacts to the player’s choices. Is the protagonist going to make certain choices? You’d better think about those choices, and about how far you’re going to allow the player to go down that path. This is one of the questions we had while developing Wasteland 2: how evil do we want to allow the player to be? At some point, the story starts to go sideways. An organization like the Rangers probably doesn’t look too kindly on a rampage killer, and we’ve discussed ways to implement what happens when the player reaches that point.

With fiction writing, you tend to have a lot more freedom. You’re not constrained by hardware limitations or difficulty of modeling or scripting specific sequences. You can change your setting in the blink of an eye, and you can explore as far as your imagination can take you without worrying about having to generate art assets to back up the vision in your head. You can plunge from the heights of heaven into the depths of hell and take a rest stop in a place of machines and circuits, or take the viewpoint of an electrical impulse – all in the same story, and you don’t have to worry about developing mechanics that support these shifting narrative styles.

On the other hand, fiction writing is a nearly solitary exercise. There’s a certain joy in it, but it’s also beautiful to work with a team and to see your joint vision come to life for a far greater audience than most writers get on their own. So I can’t really pick one. They’re two different animals.

GS: It is said that creation comes from inspiration. Could you list some of the things that inspire you and stir your creativity? Have any particular works  –  literary or otherwise  –  proved to be a lasting influence on your own style and imagination?

Colin: Roger Zelazny has been a favorite of mine throughout my life as a fantasy reader. I started reading his „Chronicles of Amber” when I was in 7th grade, and have been reading or re-reading his works ever since – that’s about 30 years of Zelazny reading, if you’re keeping track. His work covers fantasy, science fiction, and all the places in between – as a speculative fiction writer, he was daring, imaginative, and deeply thoughtful, not to mention possessed of an incredible style and verve.

But I do like to take inspiration from everything that I come across, whether it be painting, photography, music, sculpture, or simply living. I think that a creative person is obligated to look at the world in a different way and to seek out answers and ideas from every facet he or she encounters. Every shaped thing in our world has a story of its creation; every natural thing has a story of its growth. Dig deep enough and you can imagine something for all of it.

GS: Matter shaped by sheer willpower, despotic devils warring with chaotic demons, a city linked to every place in the multiverse, and finally the Lady of Pain, the silent ruler of that city… Planescape is a crazy setting and an oasis of radically good ideas, many of which haven’t yet been used to their full potential. Do you have any favorite themes or concepts that you deem especially worth cultivating?

Colin: I don’t think we really explored the notion of what it means to struggle to be good, actually. Writing goodness without being boring is *hard*, especially when you do it without the contrast of evil. That is, it’s easy to for Good to be exciting when you’re in Baator and surrounded by devils – it’s not so easy when you’re in Mount Celestia and everyone around you is encouraging you to be a better person.

I’d love to explore the madness of Pandemonium more, too, the endless tunnels of howling wind. Or the orbs of deeper Carceri, or the chaos of Limbo and the shifting cities of the githzerai,  or… well, I could go on for days.

I guess the answer is all of them. I’d love to develop all of them further. I really loved that setting.

With the new setting we’re looking at, we have a fresh set of concepts to examine. While we’re not looking at metaphysics made flesh, we’re looking at some ideas that are equally as cool, and we’re going to have the opportunity to dig deep into the idea of legacies and the individual choices that define our lives and provide meaning on a broader scale. Our new setting is just as Big-Idea, and I am really looking forward to expressing some of those concepts in a way that is emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

GS: Among all the factions, which one do you consider the most badass and which one would you avoid at all cost?

Colin: Some people would say the Harmonium or the Mercykillers, but personally I’d go with the Doomguard as the most badass. Not only do they not care about your problems or some grand vision of order and justice, they’re actively trying to tear that vision down and undermine your schemes. Throw a little craziness into that batch and you’ve got the Joker. Throw some military prowess in and you’ve got an utterly amoral mercenary squad whose only mission is to see it all in ashes. It’s definitely the Doomguard who would frighten me the most.

But close behind them? The Fated. Man, what a bunch of jerks.

GS: Suppose you were unfortunate enough to step through the wrong portal and you ended up in the midst of a Blood War battle. Who would you side with? Or, more realistically, would you prefer to die at the hands of the baatezu or the tanar’ri?

Colin: If I were about to be captured by one side or the other, I would kill myself rather than be captured. But I guess the tanar’ri way would be generally faster and with fewer mind games on the way out – with the baatezu, they’d probably nurture hope of rescue and escape, even allowing me to escape a few times before reeling me back in.

GS: According to many, Planescape: Torment is a game not to be played but to be read. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to claim that some of the game’s individual storylines offered more „story” than many of today’s cRPG productions in their entirety. What has happened to the narrative aspects of games in the recent years? In an era of fully animated dialogue sequences, can the narrative still prove a vital element of gameplay?

Colin: Part of the problem, I think, is that players have come to expect voice acting and animated cut-scenes and a host of other expensive goodies that must be planned, developed, and implemented well in advance of the game’s completion. While planning is an important element of any development process, the incredible lead time and cost of modern dialogue takes a real toll on improvisation and inspiration during the development process.

That said, I also believe that narrative does continue to play a vital role in gameplay, and developers like Obsidian and InXile prove that people are hungry to see narrative in gameplay. We might be a niche market, but we’ve also got incredibly devoted fans who make these projects worthwhile – and this might sound like I’m pandering, but it’s the truth: without the people who buy, play, and demand these games, we’d have no market, and so the people who want more stories in their games need to prove to other, bigger developers that story games *sell*.

Story spoilers below.

GS: The Nameless One is an unusual protagonist. We meet him at the Mortuary, with no knowledge of his sins. As we slowly swim through the ashes of his past, we begin to understand the terrible truth  –  he is a murderer and a traitor. Before Torment was met with such warm reception, weren’t you afraid that you might have created an unlikable antihero with whom the player  –  sent to reap the harvest of his crimes  –  wouldn’t be able to sympathize?

Colin: Not at all. You’re a blank slate at the beginning of the game, and it’s your reactions to what you once were that define who you will be in the game. You can embrace that cold-hearted pragmatist and choose to continue his legacy, or you can work against your past to become a person truly worthy of the loyalty your companions display. Either way, as the player you come to embrace your choices and by making those choices your own, you begin to fully inhabit the character.

GS: Upon several occasions, you’ve mentioned the cancelled PlayStation Planescape game you’d worked on before you joined the Torment team. Could you tell us a bit more about it? Which elements of the original campaign were to be the main focus of the project? Which planes would the player get to visit?

Colin: Sure! The game would have been similar to the game King’s Field, a first-person style game of puzzles, exploration, and real-time combat. You were to have taken the part of a Mercykiller, pursuing the source of a riot in the Hive. Your investigations would lead you to a thieves’ guild in the Lower Ward, an arms dealer in Ribcage, and then into the depths of Baator as you sought to deliver justice to the people responsible for so much suffering.

Now that I think about it, it would have been a really cool tie-in to have your character be named Vhailor.

GS: At the end of Planescape: Torment, the Transcendent One addresses the Nameless One with the words: „Know that my hatred for you will unmake the planes.” As a Planescape veteran, do you think anyone, even as powerful as the protagonist, could shatter the multiverse? Could TNO eventually destroy the planes?

Colin: No, but it was a great line. The planes are infinite and eternal, and for all his experience and all his knowledge and power, the Nameless One’s strength is like that of a mayfly against the windshield of a truck when compared to even the strength of a lesser god, who in turn trembles and quails against the strength of more powerful gods, who in their turn can master only small pieces of individually infinite planes.

So, no, I don’t think the planes were in any serious danger from the struggle between the Nameless One and the Transcendent One. It turns out the only thing that can really take down the planes is intellectual property ownership.

GS: The coming year looks promising for you. The release of Wasteland 2 is planned for October, and there’s another great project ahead. The news of your decision to create a spiritual successor of Torment made cRPG players across the world bate their breath in excitement and was surely a wish come true for many diehard fans. What is your own biggest wish for 2013?

Colin: That I’ll have the opportunity, time, focus, and talent to present something worthy of the Torment name, and that together we can tell a story that will leave us satisfied, thoughtful, and better for the experience.

GS: …and that is exactly what we wish for you. Thank you for agreeing to talk with us!

We strongly encourage you to follow Colin McComb on twitter and visit his personal website for more.

Grimuar Sferowca (Grimoire of the Planar) is a Polish vortal dedicated to Planescape, Planescape: Torment and Project Eternity. The questions for this interview were compiled by Ania „Corpselight” and Mateusz „Darnath”.