[25 June 2013]
I didn’t know that Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! was based on an adventure gamebook series from the early 1980s. Frankly, it was hard to tell because it seems so at home on mobile. I bring this up because for being such an old property the game feels so fresh and so modern.
We often have ideas in our heads about how games can work around the design challenge of telling a dynamic story, leaving the player to control both the journey and its outcome. We always think that if this, this, and this, then maybe we can achieve that holy grail of video game storytelling. I’m not going to claim that Sorcery! has reemerged from the mists of time to deliver us. It does, however, utilize a number of simple ideas to reinterpreted RPG conventions and to deliver a different kind of narrative experience.
The premise is dead simple. The Crown of Kings has been lost and you are on a quest to retrieve it. Your journey has taken you to the border of the kingdom and you must cross into the wilderness of the Shamutani Hills. The land is dangerous and filled with adventure. You have to cross the land and make your way north to reach the next leg of your journey.
In all honesty, the quest exists just to keep you on track and moving in a general direction towards the end. The actual purpose of the game is to experience the encounters peppered along the way. These encounters are small vignettes that may or may not have ramifications later on down the line, but nearly all of them are interesting in and of themselves, giving the land a sense of mystery and wonder. This is what the world must have looked like to the superstitious people of Middle Ages Europe. Monsters in every forest and danger over every hill in a land filled with unseen magic.
The whole game feels like a one-on-one roleplaying adventure with just you and the DM. The DM is speaking just to you, describing the world and your actions in it. The words make it feel personal because in this game the text is everything. Sorcery! is like the fables told around a campfire, and you’re the unlucky bastard that seems to be the protagonist in all of those tales. It take its cue from that legacy in storytelling in which magic wasn’t an arcane science but derived from knowing exactly what to say, one in which words themselves possess power.
Encounters are presented entirely through text and the occasional black and white illustration. To cast spells, you have to spell them out between the stars in the sky. Even the combat consists of dynamic text describing how well or badly the fight is going in a gussied up play-by-play style of presentation. And while the combat is tense, represented through this abstraction of a sword duel, it isn’t common enough to be burdensome to the rest of the game. In fact, it makes each battle something that feels meaningful to the narrative.
Still though, by far the more interesting possibilities lie in the story’s choices. The game moves forward only a small passage at a time until you reach a choice. Some of these choices lead to variety of responses to conversations, to physical challenges, and to the investigation of mysteries. Some of them mean death, but in those cases, the game lets you rewind to any previous encounter point and allows you to play on from there.
Death may not have meaning in the game, even rigorous combats can be fought again and again until you win, but that does not mean that there isn’t a challenge to playing. The challenge is to find a way for the adventure to continue from his present circumstances. Sometimes that means beating a foe, sometimes it means solving a puzzle, and sometimes it simply means getting through a conversation that is completely baffling because you have missed something important in it. One encounter in a certain village had me turning and running back the way that I came within seconds, mostly due to sheer confusion more than anything else. I still hold that that was the correct response.
There is so much on the map and so many forks in the road, but still all these encounters converge in a path to the final dungeon – and I couldn’t help but wonder at all the content I missed by going the other way. There are many “Road Not Taken” moments, and while I could rewind to each encounter that offers such a split and find out what happens there, I can’t help but feel that that would be a betrayal of the choices I made the first time. I’m not entirely sure I could recreate my journey as I originally played it, and that is the one I want to continue with in the next chapter. Warts, plague ridden body, and all.
I could track down the old books and see how the game continues, but the smoothness of the adaptation for iOS is too good to give up. I feel like it preserves some branch of gaming that didn’t develop as strongly or as long as many others. As a result, this resurrection is a great opportunity to experience a great game and to also see what possibilities may lie over the next hill.