Torment: Tides of Numenera is an exceptional game, not because of how it plays or because of the story it tells, but because of the way you play its story.
Let me explain. Telling stories in interactive mediums is a difficult task. You have to balance the desire to build an interesting narrative against things like player freedom, communicating/explaining game systems, developing gameplay that’s mechanically interesting. Fitting a story in amongst all these moving parts becomes increasingly difficult, and since most players come to games to play them, first, and are only interested in being told a story as a secondary or tertiary concern (see, for instance, the alarming number of gamers who still regularly skip cutscenes and button through dialogue), stories themselves tend to take a back seat.
It’s remarkable, then, that some designers are able to craft their games around story as a primary concern, and build experiences that are primarily entertaining in the way more passive media tend to be, the way books and films and television are able to focus purely on telling their story. Adventure games and “walking simulators” have found success through spotlighting an interesting story and making gameplay a secondary concern, purely a means through which players engage with the narrative.
Choose your own adventure
But both of these approaches, one that favors gameplay inevitably at the expense of story and its reverse, that favors story but that simplifies and deprioritizes gameplay, fall short of the potential of this medium. Games are capable of being both deeply interactive in a way that’s satisfying, complex and entertaining and telling powerful, moving stories that stay with us long after we’ve navigated our way through them. If anything, game stories should be more memorable exactly because they’re interactive, because they’re happening to an avatar of yourself rather than some fictional character embodied by an actor or being puppeteered by an author. We live games personally more than we do any other medium, and that gives them the capacity to be uniquely powerful, but capturing that power is an incredibly difficult task. So when a game like Torment shows us a way to grab some of that magic, and to unify the twin drivers of video games, gameplay and narrative, it’s an incredible feat, and one that deserves recognition.
The key in Torment (and other games that have managed a similar alchemy) is marrying mechanics to the story. Instead of the thinking that gameplay is at odds with storytelling, that they need to be sectioned off into discrete parts of an experience (the kind of thinking that gave us pre-rendered cutscenes that happen only at a safe remove from gameplay, in its own container, and the thinking that means players almost never have agency during key moments of exposition), Torment uses its mechanics to propel the story. It leaves pieces of exposition in its environment for players to discover (or ignore) on their own, it allows players to decide how deeply they want to explore almost every dialogue tree, and by doing so it lets players decide how much story they want to pull out of its environments and characters.
Show, don't tell
This sort of trust also extends to the mechanical systems that define the player characters. Instead of exposing absolutely every nut and bolt of a character’s statistics, they’re defined in ways that make sense inside Torment’s settings. Even the character classes, instead of being generic categories that aren’t referred to inside the fiction, follow a naming convention (glaives, jacks, nanos) unique to Torment’s bizarre, slightly surreal setting, and serve it in a way calling them “tanks” or “DPS” couldn’t.
There’s also a huge focus on using a character’s abilities, gameplay systems that are very purely mechanical, in specific ways to advance and expand the story. Characters are built with unique insights into, for instance, arcane lore or machinery construction that allow them access to unique dialogue options, and can spend effort to improve their chances of success in dialogue or combat. But the game is clear that even when these mechanical systems result in failure some interesting outcomes may result, meaning that instead of the hard pass/fail systems of most games, Torment has the flexibility to insert interesting wrinkles into its story when other games would drop a Game Over screen. All of these systems interlock in ways that seem thoughtfully designed to build a world and tell a story rather than just purely make for entertaining gameplay; but, incredibly, that same gameplay actually is genuinely entertaining.