Reviews

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Episode 1

I’m not going to claim that Sorcery! has reemerged from the mists of time to deliver us. But then again, maybe it has.


Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Episode 1

Publisher: Inkle
Players: 1
Price: $4.99
Platform: iOS
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: Inkle
Release Date: 2013-05-10
URL

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.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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