Game Pile: Sorcery!

I wrote once about the Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston ouvre of gamebooks while working on my own designs. When I did it, I was struck momentarily with the thought: I wonder how hard it’d be to convert one of these gamebooks to Twine. It’d be an interesting little project, wouldn’t it? I can even see now the kind of way that you can make the combat system work, Twine can store a handful of variables – it should be okay, right?

Anyway, turns out someone else took one of the best examples in this library of gamebooks and went absolutely hambones on it.

The Origin

If you play any Fighting Fantasy games you’ll see there’s a clear evolution of technology throughout the games in response to how they were played. In the earliest example of the franchise, Warlock of Firetop Mountain (stop giggling), there were a variety of instant death death traps and the end of the game could arrive while you were unprepared for it and … that was it. You were just screwed, staring at a lock forever. Heck, the game said that. Then as you played onwards, those nasty instant deaths, those you’re-screwed moments became rarer, and more concentrated towards the start of the book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the later books were better made.

The Sorcery series of game books were a unique experiment in the Fighting Fantasy style. Not entirely within the gamebook genre – because if you were into the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever, you’d recognise what it had going on. Sorcery was a set of gamebooks where the protagonist had continuity between the set, where items and experiences in one book could carry through to the others, which documented the epic story of a lone adventurer on a quest to recover the Crown of Empires.

This scope, the sheer size of the Sorcery series meant that you really felt as if you were part of an epic. This size also brought with it a nearly constant rise of small incidents in this space – as a book, the game could compress days of travel down into moments. The adventure is therefore made up entirely of things that interrupt that procession of the story, a series of little incidents in almost the perfect Gygaxian storytelling device. Behind this door, a plague-ridden village! Behind this, a small bag full of gold coins! Behind this, A Cloak Made Of Bees!

The Sorcery series was pretty good! It had a distinct art style –

– which let’s not kid ourselves wasn’t great, but it was a strong and clear visual aesthetic that held the story together. You’d get interruptions in your narrative with these off-set pictures and it was kinda cool! I loved the Lone Wolf games, and I really liked this.

But the continuity and scope wasn’t the only technology that the story was building with here; the game also included a spellbook, which was so potentially weird that it was optional. You had a literal actual book in the back of the book which you were meant to read once, then not read again, where every spell had a three-word letter, complete with lists of ingredients, and it was up to you, as a player to keep your spells memorised. You’d get a bunch of opportunities to use all sorts of spells but sometimes the game would let you try and cast spells that didn’t exist, oh and there was one spell if you cast it it would kill you and it had a name a bit like two other spells.

Really nice bit of game tech, if a little vicious.

The Interpretation

What Inkle have done here is take that game book series, as a franchise, and translate it to a videogame platform, specifically a platform that already wants you to be reading a lot and which thrives on a play format with minimal diverse inputs and no functional examples of responsive interface. That is to say, they kind of put it on the most perfect place it could be, on a phone. But they didn’t just start by taking this book series where at one point you have to put a pile of spiders on your head and talk to a rat, translate it 1:1 with an engine as basic as Twine and call it a day. In addition to a graphical interface (nice!) and some explanation of what’s going on (but not a lot), they decided to address the combat system in the original games, which was, really, just a really basic version of a bingo machine.

Rather than the original game’s design, where you rolled two dice, compared the higher, then reduced a health stat of the loser, the Sorcery game puts a bit more choice in your hands. Combat in this game becomes about defending against attacks to minimise heavy hits and recharge your energy, then using that energy to commit to heavy attacks. It makes combat a lot more interesting than it otherwise would be if it was automated – because boy, are computers faster at making random numbers than a human is.

There’s more to the additions to this game than that, though specific incidents aren’t really worth highlighting – they’ll do better as a surprise. Suffice to say if you played your way through the original books enough that you notice the new content I’ll be surprised. There’s extra stuff, and there’s a lot of places the route through the game forks, even if it meets up at the same point, sometimes drawing on concepts from the other Fighting Fantasy books to help build some feeling of commonality.

I haven’t finished Sorcery but what I also haven’t had happen to me yet is a totally random, unfair, bull-puckey death. There’s also a surprising amount of extra depth added to the game by making the spellbook referenceable, but the spells rely on particular stars. From what I can tell, the spells available to you will be influenced with the stars you can reach up to see – and that can mean taking the wrong time, or seeing the wrong spirit animal as available will mean you can’t cast some spells. It’s an interesting little system, and with the game’s feeling of constant movement towards a singular goal, I can’t help but wonder about how it feels to people who aren’t familiar with the genre of game book.

Verdict

You can get Sorcery on the Android store, on the Apple store, and from Inkle’s own website. Each installment is around six dollars.

Verdict

Get it if:

  • You want a phone game with a lot more narrative than the typical procedural fare
  • You want something with a bit of replay value

Avoid it if:

  • You want perfect solutions to problems
  • You don’t like memorising spellbook keys

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