With InXile having shipped Wasteland 2 at the end of 2014 and The Bard’s Tale IV still not even at the Kickstarter campaign stage they are now full speed ahead with Torment: Tides of Numenera, their spiritual successor to the classic Black Isle RPG Planescape: Torment. While we’ve only seen a few moments of gameplay footage, InXile have done many really cool Kickstarter updates that clearly show that the game is coming together well. We caught up with two key members of the team, writer and creative lead Colin McComb and associate producer Thomas Beekers, at the EGX Rezzed event to chat with them about how Torment is progressing.
GameWatcher: Okay, let’s start with the introductions!
Colin McComb: I’m Colin McComb and I’m the Creative Lead on Torment: Tides of Numenera, and with me is Thomas Beekers who’s our Associate Producer.
Thomas Beekers: Hi there!
GameWatcher: Okay, to start us off: how’s the game coming along?
Colin McComb: Very well! We’ve got a lot of really good stuff going and George [Ziets] is wrapping up the design of a new area and we are doing a new milestone tomorrow. We should have a fully complete playable area for this zone. It’ll be totally underpolished obviously, but it’ll be completely playable which we’re excited about because it’ll prove that our process works, and then we’ll have two more zones that’ll just explode with joy!
GameWatcher: Obviously InXile are finished with Wasteland 2 now… [I’m about to correct our choice of words then Thomas does it for us].
Thomas Beekers: We’re not quite finished with Wasteland 2. We’ve got a console port now to Xbox One and we’re upgrading the engine to Unity 5. We’re not a “release and forget” company, we’ll keep patching it and supporting it until we’re fine to go “right, now it’s really good!”.
Colin McComb: Brian [Fargo] already announced The Bard’s Tale IV and a part of the core Wasteland 2 team have moved over to start that, but all of the artists, programmers and developers who are not part of that core team have moved to support Torment now.
Thomas Beekers: This is the same logic we used when we Kickstarted Torment while Wasteland 2 was still in production. We like to work with kind of a one-and-a-half team system, so there’s a main team that works on the main game which is Torment right now, and other people who aren’t full time on that do support for previous InXile games and prep for the next game.
GameWatcher: Is Bard’s Tale IV going to be a Kickstarter then?
Thomas Beekers: Yes!
Colin McComb: I’m sure it will, Brian [Fargo] loves Kickstarter!
GameWatcher: Yeah, it’s worked out well for you guys.
Colin McComb: (understated) Yeah, it’s alright!
Thomas Beekers: It’s not just the money from it, that helps of course but we really like the process of involving our backers, getting feedback from them, getting the game in their hands and seeing if they like it. It’s really worked immensely with Wasteland 2 and no doubt will with Torment again.
Colin McComb: Wasteland 2 was in the top 20 of Steam games played last year, right?
Thomas Beekers: It was something like 12 million total hours played.
GameWatcher: Of course Torment has been very successful on Kickstarter, is it still the best funded one?
Colin McComb: As far as videogames go, yeah. Veronica Mars came along a week later and ruined our record…
GameWatcher: [laughs] Ignore them, they don’t count.
Colin McComb: Yeah! And Exploding Kittens has beaten us now as well. But for videogames, we’re still number one!
Thomas Beekers: And that’s just for Kickstarter of course, with crowdfunding in general no one can catch up to Star Citizen.
GameWatcher: Of course, yeah.
Colin McComb: I’m looking forward to playing that… someday.
GameWatcher: How involved are you personally in the day-to-day of Torment?
Colin McComb: Heavily! I’m generally putting in 10-12 hour days.
GameWatcher: Mostly on the writing side?
Colin McComb: Yeah, and implementation of the dialogue tool which was in one of our recent Kickstarter updates. I’m writing directly into that and doing some of our scripting and laying stuff out with that. As far as programming or placing things in Unity, I’m just the word guy!
GameWatcher: Remind me what other games you’ve worked on before this?
Colin McComb: I’ve been on Wasteland 2 of course, and before that I’ve worked on Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment.
GameWatcher: How well do you know Monte Cook, the creator of Numenera?
Colin McComb: I actually met Monte at [Dungeons & Dragons publisher] TSR in the early ’90s and he and I worked on the Planescape campaign setting pretty extensively there. I then went to Black Isle where I worked on a cancelled PlayStation Planescape game before moving over to the Torment team. Monte went to Wizards of the Coast where he did the 3rd Edition of D&D before leaving and starting his own company Malhavoc Press, and later Kickstarted the Numenera tabletop RPG.
GameWatcher: Numenera seems to have really kicked off; the game, tabletop RPG, books, there’s even a film being Kickstarted. Is InXile working with all these different guys?
Colin McComb: We’re pretty separate. We do our thing and we’ll just ask Monte a question and he’ll shout back the answer. A recent one was “is there chocolate in the 9th World?” and the answer was “ehh, not really”. The same way there’s not really rats or dogs or deer there. There can be animals that are close enough to say “that’s a dog” about without correctly saying “that’s an Arbellian Yefhound”!
GameWatcher: So what’s the chocolate?
Colin McComb: They just say “chocolate” (we laugh). It’s “Xacolotl”, it’s a throwback Mayan thing.
GameWatcher: (I laugh again, even though in hindsight I have no idea if Colin’s joking or not) How much of Wasteland 2’s release have you learned from? Any lessons?
Thomas Beekers: There are a few, certainly. Wasteland 2 came at a point where InXile had to put a group together again and for a lot of people it was their first hardcore RPG, so it was a learning experience for a lot of folks involved. There have been a lot of lessons learned, such as UI design and how you balance combat encounters, from Wasteland 2.
Colin McComb: We’re a pretty distributed team as well. The Wasteland team was pretty much based in the offices in California, but as George [Ziets] pointed out to me the other day “the sun never sets on the Torment team”! (we laugh) We’ve got Thomas in the Netherlands, me in Detroit, InXile in California and our design lead’s in Thailand! We have to communicate a lot by email and video chat and it’s occasionally difficult to set up a time when we’re in the same brain space! But on the other hand we’ve all been working together so well for so long that getting in to that brain space is real easy.
Thomas Beekers: It helps to get a team that has worked together before as well. Adam [Heine] and Colin both worked on Planescape: Torment…
Colin McComb: And Kevin [Saunders] has been bringing a lot of people in who he worked with at Obsidian, like George and Jesse Farrell, one of our general designers, he’s been great. We’ve got a team that knows each other really well, and one of the great things about them is that nobody really has an ego. All of us are just there to make the project better.
GameWatcher: Now there was a bit of controversy regarding the choice of combat style…
Colin McComb: Yes…
GameWatcher: Turn-Based versus Real-Time With Pause, with the community vote split nearly half and half and InXile choosing Turn-Based similar to Wasteland 2. It definitely got a strong reaction from people.
Colin McComb: Yeah, I just hope everyone will give us a chance to prove that we can do it. They trusted us with their money to tell a thematically engaging story in this fantastically weird setting, and I don’t want anyone to get hung up on a single system. Trust us!
GameWatcher: This is a common question, but with the combat change some people wondered how this is still a spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment?
Colin McComb: Well it’s a “successor” rather than a sequel, because we don’t have the rights to use the Planescape setting and we don’t want the pants sued off us! But we want people to have the same sort of intellectually engaging game that helps explore questions in their own minds, which is what resonated for a lot of people with Planescape: Torment with its question of “what can change the nature of a man?” Hopefully we can do the same thing with “what does one life matter?”. I’ve been reading a lot of Bernard Cornwall’s Saxon Tales which are essentially books about the wars that made England, and just looking down on the English fields from the plane on the way over here from Detroit I thought “so many people have died for this”. How much does one life matter against all that?
GameWatcher: They certainly are deeper questions than people usually experience from videogames.
Thomas Beekers: That also hooks into the combat question. If you identify what people actually really loved about Planescape: Torment no one will say “combat”. It was chaotic and weird, and it had good elements but it was not a good system at its core. We really wanted to do that better. We could have done better Real-Time, but Turn-Based both won the community poll (although it was pretty tight) but it was our preference because it fit within our Crisis system, which is our expansion of combat where we add elements of dialogue, puzzles, and other challenges to make a broader encounter. You can more carefully plan and do that in Turn-Based combat.
Colin McComb: We get to build each one of those up individually with those super-cool elements.
Thomas Beekers: You can pick your fights but not with just anyone, unlike Wasteland 2.
Colin McComb: A lot of these things start with dialogue though, so if you insult somebody or crossed a line with them they might say “that’s it” and attack!
GameWatcher: What made you want to go with a more traditional 2D background rather than the 3D environments of Wasteland 2?
Colin McComb: Part of it was that we’ve been licensing a lot of the background technology from Obsidian with Pillars of Eternity, but we wanted to go along with them and be an Infinity Engine-style game with a very painterly art style.
GameWatcher: The thing with the Numenera world is that it’s Earth but billions of years in the future. Is it hard to put yourself in the head-space of a civilization so different from ours?
Colin McComb: No. Like I said, I live in Detroit so I can see civilization falling around me already!
Colin McComb: And coming from Wasteland 2 helped as well, watching civilization try to rebuild itself there. Civilizations accrete on top of other civilizations. It’s about repurposing everyday things, and when you look at the modern world you have to think about what someone from medieval times would think if they saw us? And if we all disappeared but left our computers running, what would the next species to find them think? Or a telephone and talking to someone a thousand miles away, that’d seem like witchcraft!
Thomas Beekers: I will say one thing about Numenera. I do some design work and the nice thing is that anything goes. You can have any wild idea, but you do have to make it work in the setting with technology so advanced that it’s like magic but the background is that it’s a technology rather than something mystical. That openness just allows us to do pretty much anything as far as your imagination takes you.
GameWatcher: What sort of research have you done, or what has inspired Torment’s world?
Colin McComb: As far as inspiration goes we’ve looked at Gene Wolfe’s Books of the Long Sun, Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium especially. Even if you look at the Man of Steel movie and Krypton with all the cool technology they’ve got going there, we got some great ideas out of that. As far as research goes we get to be geeks!
GameWatcher: Have you done any real-life research about how civilizations have risen and fallen?
Colin McComb: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been reading a lot about the Roman Empire falling and what came in their place. Civilization up until now is essentially blood and sperm. People come in, spread their seed everywhere and cut down anyone who disagrees with them.
Thomas Beekers: One tricky thing with Numenera though is while we can look at these processes and base our work on them, one key thing is that we cannot have anything recognisable from our time. You can’t have an old Volvo there, it’s a billion years in the future, it would have evaporated into dust.
Colin McComb: For perspective, a billion years ago in our past was when multicellular life first appeared on Earth. Head out a billion years in the future with all the stuff in between, and humans have only returned to Earth in the last 900 years and nobody knows where they came from and why. It’s never going to be explained.
GameWatcher: What’s the general story setup? We’ve heard a lot about the world and setting but not much about the story.
Colin McComb: We’ve been trying to keep it a secret. Essentially the setup is that there was a Nano, a powerful wizard-scientist, who wanted to escape death. After much experimentation he found a way to create new bodies and cast his consciousness entirely into those bodies, and he would jump between those bodies then go off and live his new life. Because he could do this people called him the Changing God. What he didn’t know was that every time he did this a new consciousness would appear in that body, with powers and abilities of its own. He also didn’t know that his experiments awoke a creature called The Sorrow, a spectre of death that’s been pursuing him across the centuries. At the beginning of Torment the Sorrow has finally caught up to him in his own biological moon floating over the Earth. He flees in an escape pod but the Sorrow attacks so his consciousness leaves its body, and you are born inside this body, plummeting to Earth in a disintegrating pod. The first bit of the game is making your player choices as the planet rushes up to greet you. From there the game is about finding answers, finding your sire, and stopping the Sorrow before it wipes you out too.
GameWatcher: How big a part will companions be in the game?
Colin McComb: You can have three companions with you at a time. We’re discussing the pacing of these guys so that if a new companion comes in after you’ve got a full party that new companion better be awesome.
GameWatcher: What sort of skills will they have? Are there still stereotypical classes like Rogue, Wizard etc?
Colin McComb: Numenera has essentially three character classes, which are Nano (wizard), Jack (jack of all trades) and Glaive (warrior). The way you build a character is with sentences. For example Thomas here would be “a cunning line producer who dodges questions and argues intensively”.
Thomas Beekers: That’s fair enough!
Colin McComb: The “cunning” part is his descriptor, which provides him bonuses to certain skills and bumps up bits of his stat pool. “Line producer” is his character class, which in the game is out of the three main classes. The final bit is Focus, which is the “massive power” that you get like “rides the lightning” or “bears a halo of fire”.
Thomas Beekers: And that’s where the really interesting stuff comes in. Numenera is built on a system where when it comes to skills or building weapons anyone can try to do anything. The Focus is what really defines you.
Colin McComb: Yeah, if you bear a halo of fire maybe you can set your sword on fire or cast fire “spells” (or “manipulating the ever-present nanites in the air” more accurately). The companions will also have really neat powers too.
GameWatcher: It does all sound very fun to work with!
Colin McComb: It’s been a dream job! I love the team, I love working on the story, even when they shoot my ideas down I love them still! It’s pretty much just laughing all day long!
GameWatcher: Go on, give us a example of an idea that’s been shot down.
Colin McComb: Oh Jesus, we’ve gone through about four iterations of the story already. People can say “right, this is cool, but it’s broken”, I’ll say “fine, can we do this instead” and they reply “but then it’ll break this other thing”. So I fix all that up, come back to InXile a couple of months later and present them with the new story and they go “that’s great but what about this?” and I go “goddammit, leave me alone!” (we laugh) But everyone is focused on making the best possible game and it’s really exciting and refreshing to be on a team where everyone is doing that as opposed to “this is my game and I am the lead”. It’s a team of really smart, passionate people who want to make Torment the best game we can.
GameWatcher: Excellent, that seems a perfect place to end things. Thank you for your time guys!
I want to thank Colin McComb and Thomas Beekers for taking the time to talk to me (especially as this was immediately after they arrived in London and so they were severely jetlagged!) and to the EGX Rezzed team for putting on a cool, relaxed show this year. InXile are targeting late 2015 for Torment: Tides of Numenera, although Colin reminded me to emphasize the word “targeting”, adding “you know how development works”. So with that in mind, Torment: Tides of Numenera will be coming to PC in 2016. Thanks for reading!