Torment: Tides of Numenera launched a few years ago to a somewhat mixed response from the public - great ambition and inventive ideas for plot and setting but somewhat poor execution. Nevertheless, some of Torment’s game play and story concepts definitely deserve a better look. Today’s pathology in fiction will focus on arguably the game’s most significant contribution to the “fiction of cognition” genre - mental palaces or visualized memories, information or experiences in one individual’s mind.
While this exciting spatial memory technique has been a staple of many works on neurology and psychology, today we’ll see just what Torment: Tides of Numenera brings new to the table. And it’s nothing short of a stroke of genius.
But before that, let’s start our talk today with some background on the way mental palaces are depicted in-game and we’ll later see what kind of real world equivalents there are.
Waking up in a Strange Mind
After a short and slightly confusing introduction sequence, the protagonist wakes up in a strange otherworldly place with nothing else but the primal urge of escape pushing him or her forward. “How did we get here? I thought we just fell from orbit a second ago.” is probably the first question players ask themselves. We later find out that this is “The Labyrinth” - a mental structure containing the memories and consciousness of many other individuals apart from yourself.
“The Labyrinth” as you might have guessed by now, is the equivalent of a mental palace or method of loci as we’ll find out towards the end of our talk. However, torment does something new and quite ingenious with the concept. It asks the question “What if one individual owned memories, information and experiences that weren’t his or hers?”.
This is one of torments first pillars when it comes to a deep and philosophical story. And it’s by far one of the most intriguing aspects since it modulates the way the player approaches the world. We’re often prompted to not just gather information from external sources but also unlock solutions that we already possessed through observation and meditation.
Let’s take a look next at these various facets of the labyrinth - more exactly fathoms and reflections. A fair warning though, we are going into some light spoilers in the next few sections. However if you found the game interesting so far and would like to play it a bit before reading on, we recommend checking it out on Humble Bundle. You'll be able to donate a portion of the price to a charity of your choosing so it's a win-win! Also please note that the link is an affiliate one, so if you decide to purchase while being referred by us, you'll be able to donate a portion of the sum to our project at no extra cost. Win-win-win!
For now though let's put the game under a microscope and see what details we can extract from it!
The Fathoms - Memory caches of yesterday.
As the game’s codex puts it, fathoms “hide secrets and powers that your body once knew how to harness. Further exploration seems warranted…“ (1). During the planning phase of the game, fathoms were supposed to be quite a bit more complex than what ended up in the final version. But even so they represent an interesting philosophical dilemma.
Let’s say, for example, that tomorrow morning you would wake up having perfect knowledge on using a 3D rendering software even though you never even gave a thought about it before. You’d later find out that this information is not something that you personally worked hard to understand, memorize and apply but something that belonged to another person. How would this make you feel?
This is torment’s ingenious undertone on memory palaces and more specifically fathoms:
Information that is yours to use but not yours to own.
Unfortunately, the game presents only a few fathoms for the protagonist to explore, for example during the main quest when the player chooses his or her focus (a secondary set of abilities), during the Infestation side quest or in the Dark Fathom where the game starts and also concludes. This is one occasion where the game falls short. The potential for a gripping philosophical dilemma was there and was acted upon initially but the culmination was never there.
The Reflections - Craft is never learned, only stolen.
If fathoms represent memory caches that already exist in the characters mind, reflections are quite the opposite. They are, as the game puts it “strong enough impressions” that another individual has made on your character in order to recreate a reflection in their mind. The codex also mentions that “these are often distorted echoes of their true selves, but they might still hold secrets… or untapped power.” (2)
In game play terms, after certain quests and depending on your choices, you will be able to inherit a new ability from certain individuals. This is usually achieved through the “merging” of your consciousness with that of your
victim willing volunteer.
As opposed to fathoms, reflection are quite a bit more fleshed out. You will find numerous extraordinary individuals on your journey - from the raving cultist whose mind has been swallowed by an extra-dimensional god to a group of dead tourists whose consciousness had been preserved by an AI. And these are just two of the reflections. There are quite a few more and some require careful observation and thought on the player’s part to unlock. Reflections feel truly like rewards for the most observant players.
Some local knowledge.
When writing this part of the article, a certain local proverb springs to mind, which loosely translates as “craft is not learned, only stolen from others”. Living in a country with a strong oral tradition, it is no wonder that craftsmen and other individuals that desire to better their craft and themselves often resort to “stealing” techniques from their more experienced peers. And while in real life theft doesn’t actually occur, the original person that possess the knowledge doesn’t lose it, in torment the original “masters” aren’t always better off.
Mental Palaces in Real Life
In reality, a memory palace or a method of loci is memorization technique in which the subject:
- pictures a location that has a layout he or she is intimate with (either real or imagined);
- assigns unstructured information to smaller portions of said location in order to reduce the difficulty of memorizing (3).
For example, one person could imagine the houses they pass by on their daily commute to work and for every house they would assign a certain number that required to be memorised.
If this sounds familiar (which it more than likely does), then you’ve probably already seen one of the many TV shows that have romanticized this technique to the point that it has become a staple trope of the industry. However, mental palaces have been around for quite a while. Spatial memory theories appear often in various works on rhetoric, logic and philosophy in the first half of the nineteenth century (with some even earlier than that) from authors such as Kant, Newton, Leibniz, and Berkeley. (3)
How is this useful?
As far as practical applications are concerned, a recent study has shown a strong correlation between the method of loci (and similar mnemonic training) and changes in the way various zones of the cortex communicate with each other. (4) Increased activity between various structures in the brain, which wasn’t there beforehand, is usually a sign of LTP (long term potentiation) in action. We’ve already talked quite a bit more on the topic of neuroplasticity in a previous article and we highly suggest you check that one as well after you finish up here; it might help clear up some details.
But let’s dive back to Torment: Tides of Numenera for a second. And let’s go back to the idea we proposed when it came to fathomes - “Information that is yours to use but not yours to own.” While we’re quite a bit away from being able to insert new knowledge into our minds that we just wake up one day to discover, our understanding of the way the brain works is rapidly advancing. And we might just yet reach a point where “3D modeling know-how” will be sold at the nearest convenience store next to you.
Would that necessarily be a bad thing? The game arguably, but somewhat inadvertently offers us an answer - “no”. Thirst for knowledge is the driving catalyst of torment’s story. And the protagonist’s powers of observation and meditation are the means to an end. The means of integrating the knowledge we never worked for, but which we ultimately use as our won.
On a personal note I would argue that our way of perceiving knowledge might change in the near future. “Learning” in the classical sense by absorbing information from an external source and then applying it might well be replaced with something else. It might be replaced with an effortless first encounter with the knowledge but a much more lengthy process of integrating our new found skills with our old ones. In a not too different way torment’s protagonist has to deal with the various fathomes and reflection he meets throughout the game.
As per usual, thank you for taking your time to read through our work. We'd also like to give credit to the artwork at the top of the page to the very talented concept artist over at inXile. We hope you found it intriguing and that it spurred you on to read more about the incredible world of neuroplasticty. Hey, if you’d like to learn more, we have a first principle approach to the topic over here:
And as per usual, if you enjoyed our content do have a look at how you can help us out! Thanks again and see you soon!
- Ingame Codex - The Labyrinth;
- Ingame Codex - Reflections;
- J. O’Keefe, L. Nadel, “The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map”, Oxford University Press;
- M.Dresler, W. Shirer, “Mnemonic Training Reshapes Brain Networks to Support Superior Memory”, Neuron, volume 93, issue 5, p 1227-1235.
- 06.08.2018 - Initial publication.