Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Planescape Papers: Drinking to Forget

Today's Discussion: Art in the Age of Magical Reproduction. Okay, it's really about thematic consistency and memory. But the first one sounds cooler. After the break.

I just went through the game’s “Art Store,” area, the last place I have to go before going through the Sensorium and advancing to the next stage of the game. It’s a bit of an odd name, since you can’t actually buy any art there; rather, it’s an area where you can pick up a few items, activate a missing memory, and propel the odd side quest. It’s also a subarea that fits the tone of the larger area it’s found in. You begin the game in Sigil’s slums, and you run into a lot of beggars and so forth. Later, you go to the Lower Wards, where there’s a large enclosed market, and a factory. And the Art Store is the Clerk’s Ward, where the upper class aristocrats hang up. So that’s a nice, simple thematic consistency. 
Behold, the wondrous miracle of art! My party of cat ladies, robots, and floating skulls are appropriately amazed at the strangeness.

But despite being a stopping point for the odd quest or two, the Art Shop mostly exists on its own. In all, there’s sixteen artifacts to interact with, and seventeen if you count the shop’s owner, Yves. Like most NPCs in the game, you can query her for information about the general area—but unlike most, her answers are all the same: she doesn’t really know anything about the rest of Sigil. She does, on the other hand, know a lot about the Planescape multiverse at large—or at least, anything relevant to her collection. And that of course reinforces the notion that the place exists somewhat separately from the rest of Clerk’s Ward. She’s also blind, which is a somewhat obvious attempt at reversing expectations: the art collector can’t see her art. But the catch is that she’s deliberately willing herself blind. She wants to forget what the art around her looks like, so she can see it from a fresh perspective. It’s not the first time this idea is presented in the game, either, as one of the quests that can be solved by venturing here is finding ice from the River Styx that grants its consumer oblivion, which you dutifully give to a wizard named Merriman who feels he needs to start over to find new experiences. (After you get the mug of frost from another wizard by getting him to forget his desire to drink so that you can carry the ice, that is—and after you give it over, Merriman gives you the keys to unlock the woman who gives you the information on another woman that lets you use the fiend’s tongue and the deva’s tear to restore that second woman's voice and hear her information. It’s a long side quest.)

One of the major groups of the area is the Sensates; I’ll get into them more at another time, but their basic ideology is that knowledge of the world is gained through sensory experience. Merriman and Yves both suggest that it’s possible to know too much, and to experience too much, that forgetting is not only necessary but to be desired. And that has further ramifications. Remember (heh), your PC is the Nameless One, a man who has forgotten his own past. The entire game is predicated on the PC slowly questing to regain those memories. But by the time you’ve reached the Art Shop, the game’s revealed that who you were was a rather terrible person (or many terrible people, depending on your view), and perhaps a lack of experience, a lack of knowledge, is to be preferred.

Next time: we get around to talking about the other 16 interactive artifacts. 

Later Days.

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