Of Planescape: Torment

It is hot in my apartment. It is sunny out and I can see the mountains in the distance, the pale blue hills trace the horizon of the sky. Trucks and bikes stop and start on the streets outside my second story flat. I think I like it here. Something feels uncomfortable, something out of socket, but I also like it here.

Fans don’t help with the heat, they just push hot air past like someone running a hand warmer down my skin. It’s the kind of heat that makes my brain feel swimmy, makes it burble and pop like an egg frying on too much butter. But, I don’t mind this reprieve from thinking straight.

I’ve mostly just been sitting here playing a computer game on my laptop, beads of sweat pulping from my skin, leaving wet streaks on the mousepad. I’m feeling a noncommittal urge to do or be something else, so this will have to be enough. I’ve played this game before, enough to remember bits, enough to feel pulled back, but even so I’ve never finished it. It is maybe my favorite and I’ve never finished it, like I don’t want to. I’m not sure why.

I feel like a daytime ghost in the heat of the summer bake. Like, all the memories I have are being microwaved into a vapor that haunts the place in my brain behind my forehead. They aren’t disappearing, the memories, just molting, made flat mushy, swimming together from the back to the front parts of my head in one big gumbo of being that simultaneously keeps me from being present and presents all things as if they exist now.

The game is an adventure RPG from an isometric perspective, a ¾ top down slice of the world that you click around to move your character. There is a brief, but charmingly crude CGI video of a gray, muscled, heavily scarred body (with all the textural detail of a 90’s linoleum floor), slid on a massive gurney by ragged clothed monks alongside other dead bodies and piles of viscera. The floor set rail the gurney travels on is one of many that dissect the rooms into Miro’ like shapes, like art deco gone gothic. The man who seemed dead on the slab opens his eyes and rises. Even his lips are scarred. He grunts with the bewildered waking of a sleep walker. Like so many storied beginnings, he does not remember. He rises and slides his bulk off the slab, stands in a battle ready riposte. We (the character and me) look around to see this place for what it is, a cross of mausoleum and museum. A great factory that moves the dead further along to death. There are hordes of dutiful zombies, falling apart and tending to their inert brothers and sisters. There are stations containing used scalpels and old ribs and a gorge of flesh forgotten by its owners. Little bits of pink and brown dabbed up in discarded gauze that’s all gone bad. The monks pace around with silent self-importance. And then, one skull, sitting on a shelf, opens its eyes and bobs forth through space and says to us, “Hey Chief.” He has the pinched voice of an east coast wise ass. Turns out this floating thing, calling itself a Mimir, is something of a chatter globe The skulls seems to know us. We don’t know if we know it.

Some big trucks on the road outside have the ability to rattle my brain. When my head is propped on one of my futon’s wooden arms, I can feel the rumble of the street as it tremors from the diesel engine through the tires to the asphalt and concrete and up the brick of the building. This low rumble is accompanied by a periodic ker-thunk of my pulse trying to work its way through the squeezed arteries of my scalp pressed to the arm bar. For whatever reason this rumble makes me wonder what my skull looks like without its flesh. I wonder if it’s shapely or deformed, or if the aesthetics of skulls have less to do with shape and more to do with a reminder that a face used to live in it. It’s one of those human things that remains hidden our entire life and yet gives shape to our every word. We even hear a special, private version of our own voice through the sound of our skull’s vibrations. It ends up feeling like my head is alien to me. Or, something in my head is alien to me. Or the very thing that gives my head shape is unknown to me, unseen. Without it I’d be a drooping tongue slobbering on my chest as I tried to delicately hold my brain as it sat in the cradle of its hairy, distended carrier. As much as I may *know* myself, there is still so much that remains unknown to me, or just not me. It boggles my well skulled brain that I get to feel close to anything at all while still containing so much that simply isn’t me.

The Skull’s name is Morte, a deadly little pun, but also a name Jewish enough to invoke a New York comic. And Morte’s brilliance as a character is the fact that he carries the hunched shoulder street smarts of any New York fella, except this time it’s not in regards to the 5 boroughs, but to the endless pockets that make up the city of Sigil. Sigil is the city of chains and doors, a bizarre fantasy realm that was left out to rot overnight. It is, more than anything, a city of difference. It defines itself by what it is not. It is not a realm of high fantasy, nothing close to the strict racial categories of Elf and Dwarf. Most people are grubby little humans trying to get by. Each building seems designed to make itself stick out from others. There are yurts and concrete domes covered in chicken wire, a siege tower that spans dimensions, a bar lit up by a man that was cursed to burn indefinitely after lighting one of the slums on fire.  There’s an infamous hidden witch named Ravel who masquerades as four different kindly spinsters, each mask forgetting her Ravel roots. There’s the mortuary, where we start, the home of the Dustmen cultists who want to lead all creatures to the One True Death. There’s the Brothel of Slating Intellectual Lusts, the Godsmen armory, the sunken neighborhood, the sentient alley that wishes to give birth to a new house, there’s leftover demon from the endless Blood War (where Heaven tricked Hell into doing battle with itself) there are so many perverse wonders, all of them sordid. Somehow Morte’s Seinfeld sassy fits in both the endless difference of Sigil just as it would in the sweetly cynical exchanges of us real humans.

This bit of belonging amongst difference is perhaps why Planescape: Torment seems to thump with life unto itself. I have, to varying degrees, always found most high fantasy to be dry. Reading later Tolkien can often feel like some tossed off Herodotus outline. Its sense of history is that history that is always ahistorical, the kind we learn in grade school: the past happened and is so far off that it has no bearing on now (which begs the question, why even look at it). I say ahistorical, because any phenomenologist might quickly tell you that the past structures the present moment as it lives in it. It is the guide line that brought us to the conditions we exist in now and therefore remains alive, and more frightening: remains malleable. Planescape’s conceit is keenly aware of this dynamic. At one point we find ourselves navigating a heavily booby-trapped crypt to retrieve the rest of our journal to help us uncover our mysterious past (part of which has been tattooed on our back). We reach the center of the tomb only to find that our last reincarnation, his psychic thrust one of paranoia, one that was afraid of everyone, including his future self (us) and he attempted to plan a way to stop everyone’s attempt to discover more about him… and us… It makes sense then that most denizens who’ve seen us before remain skittish, unsure of who they’re dealing with. I am immensely boring in my play style and can only seem to move forth with a sense of self-appointed duty and self-appointed kindness (this gets literally boring because if I accidently kill someone I’ll restart from my last save, it’s kind of a chore) and so I find myself navigating the social terrain of the past as I had left it… as I had left it. All of which is to say Planescape makes me confront history as I have left it, makes me see where I could have made different choices, and then reflects this onto the ever shifting city around us.

Maybe you do this too. Sometimes when I am sitting as I am now and I can feel that film of anxiety curling up at the edges like a sun shrunken shrink wrap, a memory just happens. And before I even register what it is or what it feels like my throat is moving and my mouth is making noise like, UGH, or FUCK, or in some cases a half uttered argument to the air around me “Why’d you have to do it-“ and I look up and feel embarrassed for my half burped up vocal tic. Shame creeps up and ekes out and I am hardly ever ready for it. But what is past shame if not the rotting bones of a thing partially processed, now grown all the pungent in my attempt to forget it. I am in the soda aisle buying a box of Dr. Perky and I think of the time, about ten years ago, I went into a bar on 420 as a college freshman stoned out of my mind and proceeded to unleash a fart so repugnant it cleared my corner of the place out and convinced me I’d (and this is technical term) sharted myself in public. And the weird uncomfortable warble of that moment as I saw myself lose face amongst a whole bunch of strangers I wanted to like me.  This happened and I relieve it every time that holiday pops up again. I don’t want it to fit with the rest of my life. I don’t want to feel any similarity with it. And rather than sit in that past me, something of me does not want to deal and so verbally shoves it out of the way. And this is a shame, but I’ve treaded time enough to chuckle at it, even we it into a story. There is another aspect of my shame, and perhaps yours that is unlocatable by story alone. Shame always arrives from the past, the present feeling of it burns too hot to be felt fully and so it wanders up from yesterdays.

I would not be surprised to wander Sigil only to happen upon a brutalist building, all concrete and rebar, seemingly overlooked by the other denizens, and to walk in down its austere, but half lit hall to find a single film playing on repeat. Or rather, a single scene from a single film playing on repeat, one that provides access to this strange psychic space we are about to enter. The theater is empty, as if the phosphorescent view wants to speak only to me, or no one at all. The film reel turns and clacks again and again, unmanned and undroned. And on the concrete screen we see, jowly old Doctor Isaac Borg let into a darkened building by a stern bespeckled man who’s face has forgotten how to smile. They walk down an empty hallway, lit on one side, Borg is unsure why he’s there. The man guides Borg. Borg is expected, as if he’s always been expected. The man unlocks a door and Borg enters to see stoic, vacant students staring into the middle distance seated at desks made of wood pallets in theater style seating. Sits in the front. “Did you bring his examination book?” The man asks. Yes, Borg pulls it from his coat and tentatively lays it on the desk. He’s asked to identify the bacterial specimen under the microscope there. Something is wrong. He cannot see. He must read the text on the chalkboard. He does not know what it means. He protests. “Don’t you know what that is? It’s a doctors first orders.” Borg trembles like a child, he cannot remember the doctor’s first orders. “A doctor’s first order is to ask for forgiveness” Borg remembers! He agrees like a child! The students are still stoic. Something is wrong. Something is still wrong and has been wrong and the man says, “You’ve been convicted of guilt” Borg frowns in disbelief, hurt like a child, shrinking under the accusation “I’ll make a note that you haven’t understood the charge.” Borg buys in “is it serious?” It is serious. “Do you want to stop the examination?” “No, no of course not.” Borg has been found, through examination and trial, that he is guilty of guilt. Ashamed of shame, doomed to feel the strictures of social rules by the very fact that he carries the faculties to feel them. Perhaps this is what is meant my original sin, the first drops of pain that are caused by nothing but being. If we are to go by the lacuna at the center of the Nameless One’s life, this guilt and shame having always been make the most sense as to why our scarred avatar is doomed to forget. There is no easy forgiveness for these floating sensations. This is most certainly a film that plays in the back halls of the churning realms of Sigil. These are also things that I know live inside me. It is somehow easier to remember a fart and feel shame than feel shame for nothing at all.

The Nameless One (the ironic title for our hero, me, us) is forlorn. Those he meets who remember him were hurt. There’s Dionerra, his ghostly ex that warns him not to repeat the very same mistakes he’s made before. There’s Ravel, an ancient witched who loved some past incarnation and grew bored in her great power when the nameless one left to find himself. The burning man I mentioned above? We were his teacher, we drove him to his psychopathic joy. It seems that everyone we pass has a trace of us, and if they do not then they are better off. The first time I played this game I understood this depressive hero. Like Oedipus he would insist on striving forth to the truth no matter who was hurt as he saw his cause as noble, or at least his. Unlike Oedipus, it is not the revelation of truth that unmakes him. It is the encounter of the Dionysian void: There was no concrete self to discover. And so of course melancholy rushes in to fill the gap.

Many of our companions suffer this same break in self. A fractured ego.

Sigil feels simultaneously wise to our torment and rather apathetic. Most folks are dressed in a certain amount of blades that signal their appreciation of personal space. Cranium rats and skeletons and golems made of bric a brac dart in and out of dark corners. Sanitation is a laugh. All waste remains.

On days when it’s not so hot and my thoughts aren’t so wobbly I like to walk the neighborhoods around my apartment. They don’t seem to belong to each other. I found an abandoned public pool, a tree growing from the center of the empty kiddie area. A handsomeish couple in their late twenties was standing on the green grass at the rusty gate jiggling the chain that held it close. I stayed away from them. My building (stout and red and brick) is about half way up a hill and seems perched on a ridge. You go right out the door you go up, you go left you go down. Theirs a stone church with two massive, ornate spires. I never see anyone inside. I get the sense there’s a constant funeral there that nobody’s attending. There’s a cemetery up the hill with three consecutive stones that have the names of my maternal female ancestors: Pearl, Rose, and Iva. It’s hard for me not to feel like some joke that was set generations ago is being played when I walk past. I also wonder how many different graveyards have the same morbid key set up. Down the hill the garbage starts to pile up. Though, it’s not so much garbage as a part of the landscape. Old pieces of paper that have been through so many rainstorms they’re tattooed on the street, three full trash cans that sit and steam in the sun and never seem to get collected. The hill is steep enough that one of the roads seems constantly cast in shadow like one of the back alleys of London. The building on it holds like seven separate dwellings all with front doors adjacent to each other and pushed right out on the sidewalk. Like a good middle class guy, I force myself to humanize those that live there by imagining their capacity for joy and concern (a move that surely isn’t condescending and impotent). Usually I hear a child or two crying. Once one of the doors was open and a heavy set woman smoking in the door frame. She gave me a warm smile. I like this odd street. Even if everyone on it shares my same vacant wandering stare and cadence. Nothing like seeing a seven year old kid at picking out bits of plastic from a rough looking hillock of trash to make me feel out of time and space, wishing I knew how to feel connected. I think, sometimes, when I look deep in the alleys I can make out a camp far to the south that holds the lives of thousands of children, each different from the next, each alone and separate. I feel stupid for my inability to fathom the mechanisms that tore them from their families, but I cannot emancipate myself from the fact that this too belongs inside our landscape.

I wonder… perhaps strangeness is not born of difference, it is born of sameness. This is what Freud suggested with his idea of the Unheimlich (Uncanny) that which we seem to recognize, but doesn’t quite fit. It is only when things tread a little too close that a bizarre aura springs up.

Nordom’s face is also his body. He looks like one of those 70’s TV sets with vinyl wood sidings and knobs that some bohemian artisan took heat to to give life by shaping the glass into a kind of cute Saturday morning smiling face with bulbous eyes. He has two spindly legs and four spindly arms. He talks like a command line come to life. He’s from the plane of Mechanus, the realm of perfect order (it’s dressed in lots of gears and pullies and motherboards). Everything there is directed by the Primus, the tip of a hive mind. We found Nordom by playing with a little Mechanus toy that opened a portal to yet another dimension housing a real life dungeon crawler. Nordom was tucked deep in one of its rooms, confused and alone. Nordom used to be a Modron (the bodies that make up the Mechanus hive mind) until a break occurred and he developed a self, a self that feels tiny and loud and lonely and overwhelmed. Nordom can’t stand existing, but refuses to give it up. So we help him, because who better to help a newly singular sentience to come to terms with itself than a sentience that can’t remember a damn thing. But we do help Nordom. The simple fact of showing genuine interest allows him to learn how to do the same, and this exchange, this reaching in and out, this soulful back and forth, let his circuits adapt from mere curiosity to care.

I don’t always like to remember everything I’ve been through, at least not stacked on top of each other. If memories come one by one I can deal with them, live or suffer through them piece by piece, but there are times when all things from the past are hung on hooks like tobacco leaves and I look through them all, no parallax view to provide perspective, just one rush of sight into thought. They stretch back, the memories. There are good ones. The girl I loved in third grade and how we played footsie at the classroom computer while playing Number Muncher, the first time I heard Thus Sprach Zarathustra on our home system as my dad showed me 2001, my basset, as a puppy snoring on my chest, those good first kisses that remain good now. There are other things too. Things of shame, or anger, of fear.  For some reason the good ones tend to feel fleeting, and the bad ones bring with them a tinge of the bottomless place from whence they’ve come. They sort in and out of each other and press upon me and I am forced to understand that all these things have happened I have done them, been a part of them, they are disjointed and do not make sense together and yet they exist, my own private multiverse of contradiction.  I do not dream these moments. They simply settle on me in the evening when I’ve found myself lost in a particular kind of aloneness. Until I look out the window and shirk the thoughts of much worse things that fail to make sense with my own lived experience. And those moments I was rejected or mocked sit alongside those moments where I inflicted the same feels which in turn sit along imagined moments of others living the same, but in a much more violent way. This is not some universal balance–there is none of that to be found–rather I leave humbled, the way an amateur boxer leaves a fight that was far out of his weight class, if I get to leave the weight of the moment at all. I am tiny among the things I have been a part of and could be a part of and will be a part of. I am smaller still amongst all that I will not be a part of. There is difference in all of this. But worse, there is something similar. All those dark moments seem to gang up together, a hive of scary scum. The bright moments shine with different peculiar colors. The camp of kids so far south sounds too much like what we’ve done before. And notice, it is not their difference that marks them out, it is their similarity, they wanted to reside here, with us. That was enough. That is always enough. It was enough of a reason for the police to heavily patrol the immigrant neighborhoods near my place. Everything looks like the night when the sun has fallen down.

In that way I am thankful to hold these disparate thoughts in mind. Imagine, for a moment, being held in by one memory with one flavor for the rest of your life. How raw your lips would end up forever living that same kiss. How dull that strange and terrifying dog would seem after the thousandth time it chased you down. It is the space between differences, the mystery of how they fit that I truly love.

We must love what we cannot know. And that love starts with others. This is first much harder, then must easier than it may seem.

I am different from myself. I am different from what I was before. I have died many times and at different times there were different emphasizes on different pieces of me. I was, before this, a terrified and paranoid man. I walked down streets past odd places seeing only the worst there was to offer in its shadows. Before that I was practical to the point of cold calculation. Everything could be lost if it meant I knew who I was. But first I was a man built on a secret shame whose name even I don’t know. And I would do anything to escape this shame even it meant losing myself. What are any of us to do, here, alone with our skulls shaped to house our thoughts, our thoughts shaped to house the world, the world shaped to house all of us in disjointed dangerous ways? Is there any comfort to be sought in this endless line of difference and similarity? Even more, is there something wiser than the obvious answer of despair in the face of this massive city of spires and pits? I do not believe so. I believe straightforward answers in a city of cages do nothing but line said prisons with off white wallpaper. This is not to say you or I or us, not to say we look away, but rather to understand that the very alienation we witness may seem to enter from the outside, but lives in our very bones. When I look out the window and see those alien to me suffer, I also suffer, not simply from sight, but because I belong to them as much as they belong to me.

I brought myself to finish Planescape in the time it took to write this piece. It ended better than I hoped it could. I can’t tell you how it finishes, mostly because I don’t want to, but also because the damn thing isn’t over. It now lives in me as much as I did in it. It lives in me as much as I did in it. Lives in me like me in it. Oh, yes, it’s in you now too.

I think I’ll be here in my apartment.

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